Archive for November 2009
Smoke wouldn’t exist today if Malcolm Hopkins, who was in charge of periodicals at Borders’ Oxford Street store when we began, hadn’t thought the magazine – and dozens like it – worth supporting. Whenever a new issue came out, we’d take him 350 copies on the 159 bus, and he’d position them subversively among the Grazias and Worlds of Dogs. But, when we breezed in with issue #10, we found no Hopkins, just a surly goth skulking in Esoterica. “He’s gone,” she said. “Gone?” we said. “Why?” “Dunno. Probably didn’t like the uniform.” Half of issue #10 came back as returns. Or the covers did.
Borders wasn’t perfect – in fact, some of its US former parent firm’s employment practices were downright evil. But, without any tradition of independent non-second hand book retailing in this part of south-east London (the nearest independent that I know of is Sydenham’s Kirkdale Bookshop), it’s been the chains or nothing.
So Books Etc in Canary Wharf snagged me very early on, when the Wharf’s shopping centre was a ghost town at weekends, by giving me their poster for the film version of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for nothing when I asked if they had any for sale. So I stuck with them.
And while Books Etc and Borders were stocking small-scale magazines like Smoke, giving them a leg up and valuable shelf-space. I personally discovered that Waterstones couldn’t care less when I strolled into their Trafalgar Square branch one evening and asked if they stocked it. “We don’t sell magazines,” murmured a surly bloke behind the counter, oblivious to the pile of Time Outs under his nose. I gave Waterstones a swerve for years after, and still try to avoid it.
But the writing was on the wall when Waterstones took over the two Canary Wharf branches of Books Etc a year or so ago, not so long after it’d taken over Ottakar’s in Greenwich, meaning I’ve no choice in local bookshops any more. The closure of the flagship Oxford Street Borders this summer indicated that the game was up. At least a resurgent Foyles is keeping some kind of quirky bookselling going in London. Despite the sins of its US parent, Borders was one American import to London that actually will be missed.
I went to Brockley at the weekend to sample something pretty rare… the opening of a new pub. Well, it wasn’t really new – The Talbot, just off where Lewisham Way meets Loampit Vale, was left crumbling and derelict before new owners stepped in, did it up, and flung open the doors on Friday night so the discerning drinkers of SE4 and around could see their new local for themselves. They’ve done a lovely job of revamping somewhere that looked just a few months ago to be a dead cert for the wreckers’ ball. I popped along to say hello to Brockley Central’s Nick, but the place was so jam-packed I couldn’t spy him at all – presumably he was being mobbed by grateful BC readers. So I took in the atmosphere and the slight whiff of fresh paint, downed my Heineken, and decided it was a sign to return home, and attempt the Talbot another day.
Half-an-hour later I was back in Greenwich, back in my own local, where a mate’s band was playing. All was good in the world. Strolling back later, I saw scaffolding up outside one of the area’s oldest pubs. The Old Friends was never a favourite of most people – grim inside, and its later owners had a charmless slogan chalked into a blackboard outside for one St George’s Day: “ENGLAND – LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT.” Next to it was some more information – “WE SELL FOSTERS.” Few people mourned when it closed a couple of years back. Squatted for a few weeks a year ago, it’s been dark ever since.
Now, though, according to the signs on the boards, the demolition gangs are in. Whatever’s happening to it is a mystery – there’s no record of an application to do anything with the site on Greenwich Council’s planning database, apart from the erection of a new sign in 2000. But while the old pub was a blot on the landscape, it’d be a tragedy if it came down with nobody having the chance to start afresh, to allow the pub to be reborn in the same way that Brockley’s Talbot has been.
Of course, it may all be in vain – it’s not a promising location, especially with nothing happening at the former hospital site opposite, and it’s a tiny site. But it’s a shame to see another bit of Greenwich’s heritage destroyed, with east Greenwich alone having lost the Lord Napier (noodle bar), The Victoria and The British Sailor (both flattened and redeveloped) in the past decade or so. Times change, of course – cheap supermarket booze, increased taxation, the smoking ban, and the astonishingly incompetent greed of the pub industry have combined to turn the pub trade into survival of the fittest.
But it’d be wonderful to see someone – anyone – open a new pub in Greenwich. Especially in the centre. It’s always been a strange place to go drinking – Greenwich town centre has been bereft of decent boozers for many years now, with many locals objecting to the domination of the area by the Inc Group, which owns four out of the five bars in the market block, one being the former Cricketers, a much-loved traditional pub turned into an unsuccessful gay venue, then a suburban bar, then, most surreally, into the “Tiki Lounge” before becoming, sadly, empty. Instead, Greenwich’s best-loved pubs lie either side of the park, with the Royal Hill trio of the Greenwich Union, the Richard I and the Prince Albert on one side; and the Plume of Feathers, Hardys Freehouse and Star & Garter on the other, the latter two being nowhere near as fearsome as they may look from the outside.
Indeed, from the real ales in the Ashburnham Arms to the bands at the Pelton Arms, the real innovation’s taking place far from Greenwich town centre, whose pubs desperately need a bit of character. The best of an odd bunch is probably the Gypsy Moth, but it’s so over-decorated inside it’s fallen foul of that typical south-east London syndrome of trying too hard. (I should make an exception for the Lord Hood, 200 yards up Creek Road, a locals’ haven which proves what can be done with a bit of love. And jazz nights, which aren’t my bag, but bring in the punters.)
On the whole, though, if you’re looking for decent drinks, maybe some decent food, and somewhere quiet to chat… you’re best off heading east or west of the town centre. I’d love for someone to come in and restore the Cricketers to its former glory, put some warmth into the King’s Arms, or a bit of life into the Spanish Galleon Tavern. It gives me a reason to keep on buying Euromillions tickets, at least. It’d be a sure-fire winner for anyone with some money to invest. But will they ever get the chance? Greenwich town centre needs a new, vibrant, independent pub… but with all but one of its pubs part of chains it’s hard to see anyone getting a chance soon.
Am I being harsh on Greenwich town centre’s pubs? Should I give them a second look? Or does it really need something new? I’d love to know what you think. (Partly because I’ve been moaning about Greenwich’s pubs for as long as I’ve been legally able to drink…)
UPDATE – 2 JANUARY 2010: Have you come here from greenwich.co.uk or Andrew Gilligan’s Telegraph blog? If you do, you might want to take a look at this piece I’ve done on his criticisms, and the other things I’ve done on Oyster.
So, it’s finally happening. Six-and-a-half long years after it was first introduced on the Tube and buses, Oyster pay-as-you-go will be introduced on London’s National Rail routes from 2 January, it was confirmed on Monday. Two cheers – as mayor Boris Johnson quite rightly said, “After what feels like eons of negotiation and much gnashing of Londoners’ teeth we can finally announce the Oysterisation of all London’s rail services. We’ve finally ended the crackers situation of Londoners not being able to use Oyster on every mile of London’s track.”
Actually, he hasn’t – Heathrow rail services are exempted, and so are the fast trains from St Pancras to Stratford International, which begin next month. No East End plebs on those, ta. Our mayor has never been known for being a details man, you see.
I’ve done a summary for greenwich.co.uk which details the effects this will have on SE10’s three National Rail stations – on the whole, you can adapt most of that to any of the zones 2 and 3 stations in this part of south-east London. The full set of fares were covered on this blog earlier this month, and you can see what happened last week when I found one of the readers working at Blackheath.
And there’s even a colourful new map of all the new Oyster routes…
However, the price London’s privately-run National Rail companies have extracted from London’s commuters shows just who’s really in charge. Not the Conservative mayor, not the Labour government, but these private interests and their shareholders. The new fares system is fiendlishly complicated – more complex than any expert or anorak ever anticipated.
Not only does it punish occasional customers – a trick we’ve seen on London’s transport in recent years, it also completely screws some of their best customers – a prime feature of unaccountable, private monopolies.
Firstly, though, the companies are using the Oyster change to quietly slip through a stealth fare rise. Off-peak returns using paper tickets are being scrapped, in favour of a standard rate closer to what rush-hour passengers pay. To be fair, we’ve been here before. Soon after Oyster was introduced on the Tube and buses, TfL – then with Ken Livingstone behind the counter – jacked up its cash fares to a stonking £4 on the Tube in Zone 1, and £2 on the buses. That was explicitly designed to persuade passengers to switch to Oyster. It took a while for many to accept the change – but the vast majority did, thanks to the huge publicity surrounding each fare change. (And Evening Standard-based outrage, of course; some years before it introduced its own Eros pre-pay system for buying papers at a cheaper rate.)
However, unlike the Tube, boring old mainline trains don’t really make headlines unless they crash, and it’s not in the train companies’ interests to tell people they could save money by switching to a system they didn’t want to have to introduce in the first place, and that isn’t run by them. So while there was a big TfL publicity campaign to get Tube users to use Oyster cards, don’t expect one for mainline trains. It’s not even as if their ticket machines are compatible with them.
And even if you do switch to Oyster, if you travel during the day, you face paying a peak fare if you travel during the morning or, for the first time in decades, the evening rush hour. Peeking at the new timetables, it’ll be 60p cheaper to go home to Charlton on the 1901 from London Bridge than it will be on the 1855. To a Zone 6 station like Crayford, the gap opens up to a yawning £1.70. Not what the suburbs voted Boris in for. That may be a crafty ruse to free up more space for homeward bound commuters, but it’s no good for families taking their kids for a simple trip into town during the school holidays.
A higher farescale for people using both the Tube and mainline rail services in zone 1 is also another sly money-raiser. Don’t fancy the awkward interchange at London Bridge to reach Charing Cross, so want to use the Tube from Cannon Street instead? Delays at Charing Cross, and it’s simpler to use an alternative station? Tough – it’ll cost you.
Secondly, comes the oddest part, the punishing of the railway’s best customers – Travelcard holders. The very best of them, annual ticket holders, hand over more than £1,000 a year to London’s transport organisations, but have as much influence over their train services as someone who prefers to get stuck in a traffic jam each morning. However, for over 20 years, annual Travelcard holders have benefited from a third off mainline travel in the south-east of England. I have a Gold Card (for a couple more weeks, at least) and it’s brilliant. It makes a massive difference if you’re heading out for the day – or even longer – to somewhere like Canterbury, Oxford or Reading, the kind of journey where you might want to plan ahead.
But if you’re heading just a little way out of your zones, even if you have an Oyster card, you still have to go through the same hoops as you would for a night by the sea in Brighton for a quick drink with a pal in the suburbs. Ticket machines won’t sell the extension tickets required, so you need to queue at a ticket office, and ask someone for “return from the boundary of zone 3 to Bromley North, please, with a Gold Card”. All this for a ticket costing about £1.50, which probably won’t get checked at the other end. It is, quite frankly, easier to skip the fare on many journeys in London. Oyster pay-as-you-go should resolve this nonsense – but it won’t. Even though the Oyster smartcard knows it has an annual ticket on it, the train companies refuse to allow Gold Card holders to take advantage of their discounts without forcing them to queue up at understaffed ticket desks. Is this the way to treat your best customers?
And, of course, for all Travelcard holders, there’s the nonsense of the Oyster Extension Permit, not mentioned at all in publicity issued by TfL and the train companies on Monday, but it is happening. If I want to use my Oyster card for that quick drink at Bromley North, I’ll need to find a ticket machine, ticket office or Oyster newsagent, or ask them to load on a pemit, or I risk getting fined by a ticket inspector. The theory is that the rail companies want to protect against fare-dodgers because their stations don’t have ticket gates, but the Docklands Light Railway works very well without ticket gates, and without putting a presumption of guilt on Travelcard holders travelling outside their zones. Diamond Geezer studies just what Transport for London needs to tell its Travelcard holders.
Despite what Boris says, the situation’s still crackers. The fare scale is fiddly for anyone who isn’t a geek like me, people get punished for daring to use two different modes of transport, and people who put thousands of pounds into the railways get treated like children. But who’s going to stick up for rail passengers? London’s media either glossed over or ignored the downsides of the Oyster changes, with the Standard declaring it a “revolution” in a headline probably dictated from City Hall.
In politics, Labour is fatally compromised by the fact that it has created this situation by privatising every single one of London’s rail franchises, bar one – the London Overground service taken back by Ken Livingstone. The Conservatives are similarly silenced by the fact that they invented this insane system in the first place – even though Boris Johnson has said a couple of times how frustrated he is by his lack of control over London’s rail firms. Interesting how both mayors see things differently from their parties.
The Lib Dems have an effective transport advocate in Caroline Pidgeon, but once again, her credibility is undermined by the fact that her party also backs rail privatisation. Which leaves the Greens, my own party, who back renationalising the railways, but are unfortunately very quiet on the issue at a London level, which is something I find perplexing because it’s such a clear point of difference, and a if better-known would be a hugely popular policy.
So London’s voiceless commuters get screwed again, but there’s nobody who’ll really stand up for them. The politician or party who’s brave enough to take these issues on, and keep on bashing away at them, is pushing at an open door. But has anyone got the guts to take up the challenge?
- Journalist Jude Rogers has done many good things, like helping to found Smoke magazine. Her latest baby is a corker, though. 50 Songs, 10 Years is an exploration of the 50 songs from the past decade which mean the most to her. Including No Danger by the Delgados as her first choice endeared this to me straight away. It’s fascinating, touching, and will bring back memories for you if you have any taste. Sadly, it’s got one of those Blogger templates which prevent me from commenting, so you’re spared my own tales of woe or drunkenness. For now.
- I went up to Severndroog Castle on Friday, still looking lonely and beaten-up. (The castle, that is, not me.) But walking through the woods, out to the cafe on Oxleas Meadow, was a reminder how lucky we are in this corner of south-east London to have the Shooters Hill landmark on our doorstep. The Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust is trying to raise cash to open the building to the public once again – after Greenwich Council tried to lease it to a developer in 2002 – and is now offering bricks for sponsorship at £5 each. You even get a certificate for it. A great Christmas present idea, eh?
- A new local blog, Subterranean Greenwich, which does what it says on the tin, and a bit more besides.
- The South London Press – which owns the Mercury freesheet delivered in Greenwich and Lewisham – has lost £500,000 since local paper magnate Ray Tindle bought it two years ago. Tindle blames Lambeth Council’s propaganda newspaper Lambeth Life for contributing to the loss (because of the loss of council advertising), even though the SLP also covers Wandsworth, Southwark and Lewisham, and is also on sale in Greenwich and elsewhere. Lambeth leader Steve Reed told ITV’s London Tonight the SLP is losing sales because it’s too full of crime stories. The truth, I suspect, is somewhere in the middle – Tindle needs to make sure his paper properly reflects the area, Lambeth Council should butt out of newspapers. Simple. Mind you, Lambeth residents should count themselves lucky – they still have a proper paid-for local newspaper. Greenwich hasn’t for decades, and we have to put up with a weekly from our council…
- Anton Vowl on some Mail muck-raking: “Is this what Twitter has become – a dredging ground for crap journalists to harvest boring gossip about people you’ve hardly even heard about, who aren’t being exposed as hypocrites or liars but just people who have relatively normal lives? Who gives a crap about all this? And what’s the point of this tragic little bit of bathos?”
According to uber-transport geek blog London Reconnections, Oyster pay-as-you-go won’t be introduced to south-east London’s mainline trains until 2 January. Indeed, Southeastern has confirmed this on its website. But at the moment, if you use Blackheath station, and you’re travelling towards central London, you might be able to get an illicit sneak preview.
On the London-bound platform at Blackheath station, two Oyster card readers have had their black covers removed. One still has a NOT IN USE sticker on it, together with a warning about usage of carnet tickets, abolished in Tube zone 1 a couple of years back. Good to see old machines recycled, I guess. The other has its NOT IN USE sticker half-ripped off, and of 8.15pm last night, was working. I know, because I gave it a try. I’ve still got a zones 1-3 Travelcard on my Oyster (for the next couple of weeks, anyway) so my ticket was valid anyway. It responded with the usual BEEP! and an “ENTER” message on the screen.
I jumped on the 2019 to Charing Cross, and hopped off at Lewisham. Down to the Docklands Light Railway platforms, where I knew there was an Oyster top-up machine. I checked my balance. It’d registered me at Blackheath.
I didn’t touch in at Lewisham DLR but took the next train, and touched out after a ride to Cutty Sark station. There, the top-up machine confirmed it… Oyster is alive and well at Blackheath station.
Of course, I should point out that anyone trying to do this with a pay-as-you-go Oyster instead of having a paper ticket is liable to be fined, as Oyster is still not valid on most of Southeastern.
This is probably on test, it may well be that all stations have to go through this, and it’ll be a common sight between now and the new year. There’s probably a small army of people doing nothing but travelling around London, checking how the system works. But it’s an encouraging sign of progress after so many years waiting. Let’s hope it works properly when it does come in.
A new organisation, London’s Screen Archives, has started putting some wonderful old footage of the capital on YouTube. LSA is trying to bring together the various different film archives in London in one collection. Among them is this amazing 1927 colour travelogue, The Open Road, which includes some footage of the (then) Royal Observatory:
It also includes a couple of Greater London Council films with some local interest – including this from 1968 on the new Woolwich Ferry terminals…
There’s also a 1975 film about the construction of the Thames Barrier. The full collection is available here. After having seen some of the gems made on behalf of London Transport in the 1950s and 1960s at a London Film Festival even in Trafalgar Square a few weeks back, I hope this collection will grow as the months and years go on.
Today’s closure of London Lite, while terrible news for its staff and distributors, hasn’t exactly been greeted with much sadness from the capital’s newspaper readers. For despite its chirpy name, it was actually one of the most sour, spiteful reads around; a freesheet that promoted a culture of envy and entitlement, which looked like a dog’s dinner and left a similar aftertaste. It’s no surprise that today’s final edition suggests readers switch to the Daily Mail’s website, best known for promoting homophobe Jan Moir.
But it brings to an end a three-year chapter in London’s media history which saw competition for newspaper readers that hasn’t been seen for over 20 years. When Rupert Murdoch announced his plan to take on London with The London Paper, the capital’s media looked ripe for a shake-up. The lumbering, complacent Evening Standard was already seen as out of touch, a paper which hated London. The London Paper would love London. The Standard’s response was to launch a spoiler against a spoiler – to convert its free afternoon Standard Lite into London Lite. After all, Associated Newspapers had cracked the morning market with Metro, now 10 years old, so what could go wrong?
Everything. London Lite was panned by critics, but lost money. The London Paper was praised by critics, but still lost money. And the Standard’s fortunes went into freefall.
Eventually Associated raised the white flag… and sold a weakened Standard. A change in priorities at News International sounded the death knell for The London Paper, and without its rival, there was no point to London Lite. And in between, the Standard’s new management raised its own white flag, and started handing out the Standard for free, removing it from newsagents across Greater London and concentrating on central London distribution.
So what are we left with?
In 2006, London had a fairly strong evening newspaper, wildly out of touch with the city it claimed to serve, but widely available, with its billboards wielding great influence across the capital.
In 2009, London has a severely weakened evening newspaper, still wildly out of touch with the city it claims to serve, and neither it nor its billboards are often seen outside the centre of the capital.
Did anyone think the battle of London’s evening papers would lead to this? What should have happened is that the Standard should have raised its game – maybe switched to a part free/part paid-for model – and started covering London properly and not obsessing over the concerns of a moneyed minority. Instead, it’s stayed aloof from the concerns of most Londoners, and now even doesn’t even appear in the areas where most of them live. Effectively, much of London doesn’t have an evening newspaper. After all, there’s no point in the Standard writing about Deptford if the paper’s not available in Deptford.
You can say many things about Rupert Murdoch, but he has a reputation as a newspaper man and I really don’t think his intention when launching The London Paper was to completely kill off London’s newspapers. This week’s Private Eye claims the Standard is due to make a £10m loss this year, will lose £15m in cover revenue from going free, and losing the £5m London Lite paid it to use its stories will punch a bigger hole in its funding – together with paying an army of distributors (the old Standard vendors were self-employed). The Eye claims Associated Newspapers is waiting for the Standard to fold before launching an afternoon edition of Metro in London.
“The Standard is the one paper devoured daily by all London’s decision makers and opinion formers, by its influentials,” writes Standard editor Geordie Greig in the introduction to its annual Influentials survey, its attempt to butter up those with cash and influence by giving them even more coverage. “Indeed, it is now read by more than a million Londoners, from cabbies to cabinet ministers, builders to bankers: an influential paper for the most influential city.
The problem is, though, if your paper’s not seen across London, then it becomes about as influential as the Paddington & Westminster Times. That title reports what goes on in central London, and is widely seen in central London. But beyond there… zilch. And rightly so. The Standard should be bigger and better than that, but at the moment, it isn’t. If Geordie Greig’s pals are so “influential”, could one of them do London a favour and tell him to sort his act out before it’s too late?