Archive for August 2009
Half past seven on Sunday morning, and my North American jaunt had taken another weird turn. I was at Boston’s bus terminal, picking up a Greyhound service to Montreal, but finding myself delayed by a row between the driver and a youth who’d taken his elderly grandmother to the terminal. The old lady had almost certainly seen some real injustices in her long life, but as she tottered onto the coach, her grandson – young, twitchy and black – was exploding at some imagined slight from the Greyhound staff. The driver wasn’t having any of it. The comeback from the baggy-tracksuited one?
“Get a college education!”
“You should use your college education!”, the driver wearily muttered. And he was right, for no angry youth was going to be a match for the King of the Road.
I promised myself last year I’d return to the US east coast- lots of people and places I wanted to see – but having weaned myself off flying around Europe, I wasn’t pleased at the thought of spewing a load of pollution into the sky in my haste to cross the Atlantic.
The not-entirely satisfactory solution I came up with was to book a long trip, and go touring by road and rail and see as much as I could to get as much value as I could out of my travels. I got greedy, crammed in a couple of Canadian destinations, and so Sunday was Greyhound day, because it’s the only way to get from Boston to Montreal.
I’d heard the scare stories about travelling by long-distance bus – and my decision to break my 7-hour journey in Burlington, Vermont, cost me because Greyhound’s antiquated ticket system can’t cope with non-US citizens booking in advance from most stops.
(Strangely, though, Greyhound is now owned by the UK’s FirstGroup, which is bringing the name over here.)
So it was up early on Sunday morning, cursing my decision to wallow in Boston’s great bars only a few hours before. But the scenery soon put thoughts of a hangover out of my mind – the interstate highways were quickly surrounded by thick forest, and the thick forest was quickly surrounded by low cloud. On Sunday I’d been drenched by the remnants of Tropical Storm Danny and the last of it was still hanging around.
I was surprised to find that the Greyhound was a terrific way to travel – not exactly fast, but my seat was comfortable (fitting snugly into a seat designed for American backsides) with the kind of soft headrest which seems to have been outlawed in the UK several decades ago. With the driver’s easy-going drawl on the PA, this was a relaxing ride.
Spotting different states’ registration plates was also fun – New Hampshire’s carry the slogan “live free or die”. Well, now you suggest it…
Some of the interstate highways weren’t exactly smooth going – imagine travelling down a Bexley borough side street with its concrete surface at 50mph and you’ll understand what I mean. But it was cosy enough for me to doze off until just inside Vermont, where we stopped at White River Junction – the kind of place that’s a reminder that where much of Britain was built around the railways, the Americans built their nation around their highways.
A change of coach and we were off again – blue skies appearing, signs warning of bears and moose. It was easy to imagine the pioneers blasting their way through the forest to build these roads.
Four and a half hours later, I stopped off in the lakeside town of Burlington to call in on a pal and take in the views over Lake Champlain. The sun was now shining, the water was a deep, glistening blue. It looked idyllic.
Back on the Greyhound a couple of hours later – my early coach had been quiet, this was full of backpackers’ chatter, while next to me a middle-aged Frenchwoman told me how she’d been touring Canada and the US by water and road.
The border choreography was fairly simple – everything and everyone off the bus, speak to the guards, wait around, everything and everyone back on the bus, wait around some more. The young Australian behind me who fretted about not knowing what to do at the border was singled out for a lengthier quizzing. “And all I can show is this stamp,” she complained. Once she was done, we were off again.
Within half an hour, the forests of Vermont felt like a distant memory as we ploughed along sedate single-carriageway roads surrounded by cornfields, with vineyards close by. The cheery “Bonjour!” welcoming us to Quebec was a gentle introduction to the fresh culture shock of being in Francophone territory.
Finally, after traffic jams and another splash of rain, we arrived in Montreal. I’m staying 11 floors above the city, and I’ve a day and a half to explore. I’d best get out and do it…
Boston, Massachusetts: The last thing I expected when I decided to head to America to see pals and sights was that I’d be thrown into a city in mourning. The death of US political icon Senator Edward Kennedy on Wednesday hadn’t meant a great deal to me, not knowing much about US politics.
Across the road from where I’m writing, the flags on the Boston Public Library are at half-mast. The first thing I saw when I turned on my hotel TV last night was Katie Couric live from Boston. The second thing was an hour of live programming from where Senator Kennedy was lying-in-state, at the JFK Library a few miles from here.
It was a genuinely moving broadcast – he was Massachusetts’ senator, and a father figure for the liberal politics that many here hold close to their hearts. A report from Washington told how he helped out at a children’s reading group. The presenters recounted tales of his work in the state, as huge queues formed outside the library.
This morning, I went to see it for myself. On the way there, a sign at a building site read “CARPENTERS UNION SALUTES SENATOR KENNEDY”. Free buses are took mourners from the transit stop to the library, where already hundreds of people were waiting in warm sunshine.
There were no tears, though – people were glad to be there, to pay their respects to a man who the people of Massachusetts were deeply proud of. “The line! You gotta come together! The cameraderie!,” joked one person. They were remembering their senator with smiles.
I got chatting with Molly and Michael, whose parents had campaigned for John F Kennedy in the 1960 election. They’d returned the favour by campaigning for Obama last year, and Michael runs a non-profit group, Generation Progress. We chatted about healthcare reform and the difference between US and UK politics. All around us people chipped into the conversation. My NHS organ donor card suddenly became a item of personal pride.
People handed out bottles of water to the queue, while union members handed out stickers recalling JFK’s campaign and “THANK YOU TEDDY” posters.
Then there was ripple of excited whispers from the queue- members of the Kennedy family were walking down the line, pausing and chatting with people. They were genuinely touched by the turnout, and the people whose hands they shook were not starstruck – this was citizen thanking citizen. It’s often said that the Kennedy family are America’s royalty. But they struck me as anything but.
Inside the JFK Library, the line shuffled past the senator’s closed casket. An honour guard stood upright around his flag-draped coffin. As we approached, so did a new guard of soldiers – it was precisely 11am- an we got to see the changing of the guard, with the coffin saluted and bayonets raised. I’ll remember this the next time an American praises us Brits for our pagentary – it was a stirring sight.
Outside, Massachusetts state politicians filed in to pay their respects in a ceremonial procession. Outside broadcast vans and reporters milled around, a dramatically-haired woman from Fox looking out of place. Scores queued to sign books of condolence.
On the bus back, the atmosphere was easygoing, and the driver joked with passengers getting off early. Tomorrow will see Barack Obama in town for a memorial Mass. But for now, people in Boston are happy to remember Edward Kennedy with smiles – which seems to me to be the best tribute anyone can have.
By the time you read this, I’ll be heading somewhere else to do and see new things (and catch up with a couple of people as well). It’s going to be a big and daunting journey for me, something I’ve only done once before in my life, but I’m really excited about it too. And while I’m gone, I’m going to miss a load of things – Climate Camp and the Greenwich Comedy Festival for a start. I’m not going to regret being away for Thames Water digging up my road, though.
But there’s one thing I’m not going to be able to do any more. Earlier this summer, Boris Johnson started his plan to cock up London’s buses by getting rid of the bendies on… one of the routes which needed them the most, the 507. I can see an argument for bendies not working very well in the twisty streets of Stoke Newington, sure. But the Red Arrow pair of 507 and 521 became giants of the road with a bend in, helping people get to work and back again quickly, even if it was in a bit of an ungainly manner.
From Tuesday, the 521 will also become a shrunken memory of what it once was. And so, if you’re in London today, or on Friday, it’ll be your last chance to enjoy London’s best and cheapest fairground ride. Riding through the Strand Underpass on a bendy bus.
I think Ken cocked it up by not having conductors on board the buses, myself – it might have dented some of the painful snobbery shown against the bendies, and stopped them from being such a paradise for fare-dodgers.
But instead, because the Evening Standard and its dwindling band of readers threw their dummies out of their gold-edged prams, London’s commuters are going to suffer. If you’re a 521 passenger, good luck next week as you try to squeeze on board a normal-sized bus…
Blimey. I’m really taken aback by news of Greenwich Council suddenly developing a backbone and rejecting the plans to redevelop Greenwich Market…
The rejection comes despite Greenwich Council planning officers recommending acceptance of the plans.
The council leader, Cllr Chris Roberts, a member of the planning board, said at the meeting: “I simply don’t believe the design is good enough for the World Heritage Site. I am not convinced it would create a place I would want to spend time in.”
The council’s cabinet member for regeneration, Cllr Peter Brooks, also a board member, said he had “grave concerns” about the quality of the design and said: “I’ve not been convinced by anything I’ve heard” from the developers and landowners, Greenwich Hospital.
Tory councillor Dermot Poston said the scheme could be anywhere: “Those shops might be in Brazil, or Canada, or Manchester – not Greenwich.”
Election coming soon, do you reckon? I’d expected the council to roll over for the developers, as they’ve done in countless circumstances in recent years – and the planning officers seemed to think it was business as usual too, recommending a flawed scheme get the green light. I remember when Greenwich Hospital, the charity which runs the market, first unveiled its plans, and its representatives seemed completely oblivious to the fact that anyone might think they were wrong. I wonder if the recent spate of roadworks which have blighted the centre of SE10 with traffic queues helped concentrate the councillors’ minds – central Greenwich is arguably becoming overdeveloped, and has definitely lost some of its character in the past years.
Finally, finally, action has been taken to halt this. The world of the local amenity societies has always been a mystery to me, but it’s staggering that Greenwich Council can now paint itself as a more doughty defender of the town centre’s heritage than the Greenwich Society, which backed the scheme. As for local MP Nick Raynsford, who allowed his face to appear in Greenwich Hospital’s leaflets plugging the proposals, it’s a serious blow to his credibility, with time running out ahead of the general election.
With planning proposals for the Olympics in Greenwich Park waiting to be submitted, many people will hope the council applies its new-found level of scrutiny to those proposals – already, too much of the Olympics “consultation” has taken place behind closed doors. As for the market… it’s anyone’s guess what happens next, but the shadow of redevelopment has been seen off for now, and for that, Greenwich Council deserves our thanks.
Blimey – climate camp on the heath, Greenwich Council doing the right thing… strange day!
The day before I go away on a very long trip, the Climate Camp only goes and pitches up on my doorstep, doesn’t it? Blackheath’s going to have two attractions this bank holiday weekend – but did nobody tell the campers that whenever the fair comes to town, heavy rain is sure to follow?
I took a peek at what was going on late this afternoon, as about 300 campers gathered around to hear speeches reminding them why they’re on the heath – because it’s got a prime place in the history of English popular protest, starting with Wat Tyler’s Peasants Revolt of 1381. They were keenly watched by about 70 media types and a circling police meat wagon (not to forget the helicopter hovering “discreetly” over Kidbrooke).
I hope it all goes well – I really wish I was going to be around to check in on them. Curious? Go up and say hello, they’re a friendly crowd. I also hope the police don’t indulge in the oafish tactics their Kent counterparts used last year against last year’s camp (never mind the uniformed thuggery seen at the G20 protests). I have a feeling it will be alright – nobody can get away with acting like an idiot on Blackheath, because it’s one of the most public places in London.
Er… right, Steve. Have you thought about going up to the camp and saying hello to the protesters? You might even find they’re normal people, just like yourself! Or maybe it’s easier to sit on your backside and judge them straight away? Perhaps he should be disassociating Lewisham Council from Millwall Football Club on the same principle. In a recent speech, he said young people were the future and must not be failed – but only when they do as his generation says, I suppose. Considering his own Labour party was founded off the back of popular protest, it’s a staggeringly idiotic thing for a politician to to say. Still, it’s more votes for the Greens in that borough, I suppose.
On this side, Greenwich Council has issued a statement to “confirm that the main focus of the event is taking place on the Lewisham side of the heath”. Well, thanks for that. (Greenwich Greens have welcomed the camp.)
It’ll be an interesting week ahead. I hope the campers aren’t expecting to get too much sleep – they’ve managed to pick the noisest bit of Blackheath, although it is near the tea hut, the pub, and Lewisham and Greenwich are just a skip down each hill. I hope, though, that they prove to be good neighbours. And that the police and media don’t get on everybody’s nerves. And hey – as the ice cream van above shows, climate camp can be good for your business…
Funny how this comes out via someone on Lewisham Council, but hey – that’s democracy in Greenwich for you. File under “campaigns you won’t read about in Greenwich Time” – from Lee Green councillor Brian Robson’s blog…
1,500-2,000 cyclists use the Greenwich foot tunnel every day to cross the River Thames, and I know some of them are commuters from Lee Green who do the ride across Blackheath and down through Greenwich Park each day. The tunnel is due for refurbishment, and part of this will involve replacement of the lifts and then closure of the tunnel completely for a period. Obviously this is going to cause some problems for regular users, particularly cyclists.
My Lib Dem colleague Caroline Pidgeon AM has arranged a meeting with representatives of Lewisham and Greenwich cyclists tomorrow night. Caroline will be at the Greenwich end of the tunnel from 6pm until 7pm tomorrow night (Tues 25th August) and will be joined by Cllr Chris Maines (Leader of the Lib Dem Group on Lewisham Council) and Greenwich Councillor Paul Webbewood (from our neighbouring ward of Middle Park & Sutcliffe).
Caroline wants to discuss cyclists concerns about the closure and possible alternatives measures Greenwich Council should take during the closure. Caroline’s the Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee, so is well-placed to stand up for cyclists on this issue. Please do feel free to pop along if you’d like to discuss this issue with Caroline.
The cynic in me would just like to add that the Lib Dems aren’t totally doing this out of the goodness of their own heart – they’ll be targeting the Greenwich West ward where the south side of the foot tunnel is at next May’s council election.
But fair play to them for taking the issue seriously, and Caroline Pidgeon’s got a good track record of highlighting transport issues in London, so it’s good to see at least some local politicians taking an interest in the foot tunnel, and recognising it’s an issue that isn’t just restricted to a small area of Greenwich.