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24 September 2012
Having spent the best part of half-a-decade criticising spending £9.3 billion - and rising - on the London 2012 Olympics, and bemoaning the fact that London's Black Cabs would seem to have been excluded from the transport infrastructure, when I got the opportunity to see for myself the penultimate day of track and field of the Paralympics I thought the least I should do is see for myself how my money had been spent.
First arriving at Stratford Station we were greeted by dozens of uniformed volunteers, and considering they had probably been asked the same damn fool questions every day for the past month, they were unnervingly cheerful.
A steady walk into the Olympic Park, with, I was pleased to observe, pushchairs and wheelchairs separated from pedestrians by a barrier, brought us in view of the largest stadium I've seen outside of America, it just dwarfed Arsenal's Emirates.
First we had our photo taken in front of the Stadium courtesy of BP, one of the world's largest petrochemical companies, and trying hard to prove its eco credentials.
On what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year I decided to walk around all the Olympic Park. Having once worked in a factory on this very spot the transformation was astounding. The canal devoid of shopping trolleys looked clean enough to swim in; vast banks of wildflowers (sadly past their best) lined the paths; the River Lea now with bullrushes lining its banks; a waterfall as a backdrop to a small concert arena that was tucked into a dell; and what I guessed was the electricity sub-station providing power to the site encased in a beautiful living wall of grasses and flowers. The landscaping was simply breathtaking.
When you go to these outdoor events it's just a mêlée of pushing and shoving, what I wasn't prepared for was the behaviour of all the visitors. The best part of quarter of a million were in the Park, no running (outside the Arena), no pushing or anti-social behaviour, it was as if Londoners had taken the day off from their usual impatience.
But the most remarkable transformation in the human psyche was the absence of graffiti and not one piece of litter. Hundreds of spectators sat and watched the swimming on a vast outdoor screen, courtesy if British Airways, many eating their lunch and not one had left anything behind. The Olympic Park must have been the only place in London not blighted by litter that day.
Once we entered the Arena it was filled to capacity, except I was sad to see the VIP seating devoid of spectators. Everyone cheered the athletes regardless of their nationality. It really did make you proud of being British and our tradition of fair play.
When the day was over the crowd control was remarkable, 80,000 people walked towards the station, no pushing, crushing and again pushchairs given a safe corridor.
Altogether a great day out, one which London should congratulate LOCOG in their organisation - but for £20,000,000,000 let's just wait and see if it was worth all the effort.
17 September 2012
This sad boarded up building in Aberdeen Place just off St. John's Wood Road, on the market now for £4.25 million and put in the top ten endangered list by the Victorian Society in 2007 is testament to one man's optimism.
It was built in true Victorian style as the palatial Crown Hotel in 1898 by Frank Crocker who had heard that a new rail terminal was to be built here, but it was not to be.
He spared no expense; every wall, window and ceiling is decorated in sumptuous style, with elaborate stucco featuring frolicking cherubs, with fine pillars and nice Victorian wood panelling. It had a grand saloon with marble bar-top and pilasters, marble stringing, marble archways, even a great marble fireplace; with a magnificent Jacobean-style coffered ceiling of the most intricate plasterwork; and acres of gleaming woodwork.
Probably the craziest was perhaps the bust of Caracalla a sly demonstration that the pub's designers were quite conscious of the excess to which their client was pushing them: Caracalla was a Roman emperor known for his architectural excesses and his complete insanity.
Alas for Crocker!
The truth is that while London as a whole may have welcomed the influence of the railway, most of the historic landlords and the well-heeled residents of this part of St John's Wood did not.
Their opposition forced the railway builders to tunnel under Lord's Cricket ground and then the line turned left a few degrees at St John's Wood, to terminate not at his doorway, but about a mile away, where Marylebone Station now stands.
So expensive was this tunnel that the train operators were forced to economise on their own stations, that is why Marylebone Station is modest compared to say, St Pancras.
The Crown Hotel was a palace in the middle of nowhere; the grandest folly in London so tragic that London has been laughing about it for over a century. Crocker, naturally, went bust and then killed himself by jumping out of an upstairs window.
If you want to see what it look like back in the 1960s the pub was used in a scene from the film Georgy Girl.
12 September 2012
Using my ATM has of late been a hazardous experience, not from any street crime, but a far more dangerous assailant coming from the sky. Our local bank has erected a rather splendid sign above its frontage which has proved a perfect perch for pigeons, dozens of them. While ex-mayor Ken Livingstone most positive contribution to London was to reduce the pigeons of Trafalgar Square from 4,000 to a mere 120, they have unfortunately like other vagrants just moved elsewhere.
He first banned the sale of pigeon feed in 2001 resulting in a family business that had traded for decades having to shut shop. Next at a cost of £60,000 a year he introduced a pair of Harris hawks, with their handler, the expense has almost certainly been covered by the reduction in the cost of cleaning up pigeon droppings from the surrounding areas. Unfortunately the rest of London is still plagued by these feral creatures that carry (sorry about this!) histoplasmosis, cryptococosis and psittacosis, so it would seem the pigeons above my ATM could previously have been a tourist "attraction" from Trafalgar Square.
On my garden on the bird table are regularly two ring necked doves, slim beautiful creatures, even if they are a little stupid and the contrast between our doves and London feral pigeons could be not starker.
Now with our fast-food litter lout culture it has given us pigeons so fat that they can hardly fly out of the way of my cab, with many of them having trouble taking off as they are missing a toe or foot after standing in the piles of their own corrosive droppings. These urban birds are even more stupid than their rural cousins, after centuries of evolution, not one of them have realised that by placing their foot even if it is now a stub, on a piece of bread, they wouldn't have to throw it over their heads, tearing a piece off in the process.
The numbers of our wild friends, along with foxed and rats needs to be reduced, reports recently have included, dive bombing seagulls, foxes biting children in their beds and if it is to be believed rats 30 inches long.
Sparrow hawks regularly kill pigeons in my garden while the other birds are clever enough to get out of the hawks way it's only the pigeons that get caught, they could be used to keep the numbers in London down, feeding them something to reduce their sex drive might deprive Londoner's the opportunity of the amusing spectacle of the males courting rituals, but could have the desired effect.
Writing in the Evening Standard Sebastian Shakespeare suggests a course of action which might prove rather startling to tourists, as the bird's fall of their perch (or their hands) and I quote:
A more pragmatic way might be to hand out poisoned bird feed to tourists and actively encourage them to feed the pigeons. This would kill two birds with one stone, so to speak: the tourists would still get their photo opportunities and it would be a very cost-effective way of keeping the pigeon population down.
If you still have the need for more about pigeons, I would direct you to Pigeon Blog. Probably the largest site you find on everything that's amusing about our fat flying friends.
10 September 2012
We cabbies seem to spend most of our time staring at the road ahead (with the occasional glance for street hails), but in London looking up at the rooftops can sometimes provide a rewarding experience with some very quirky sights.
18th Century Information Superhighway
Carrying important despatches from the Admiralty in Whitehall to the naval base at Portsmouth would take by horse up to four and a half hours of heavy riding, so a more efficient means of communication was needed. In 1795 the Royal Navy devised a means of telegraph optical shutters linking London with the naval base. Known as the Portsmouth Shutter Telegraph Line it eventually needed 32 stations just to relay a message, but could only work during daylight. On 6th July 1814 one of its more famous signals was sent down the line when Napoleon was banished to Elba and the Telegraph was stood down. When Napoleon landed in France the following year it seems a rather good idea to continue that means of communication. Later superseded by the electric telegraph none of the stations survive in their original form. In London all we have to show is the one on the roof at Horse guards.
Is there an R in the month?
The Oyster House Lighthouse: On the junction of Pentonville Road and Gray's Inn Road it is worth a glance skywards if you dare. Apparently owned by the splendidly named - The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (or just P&O) it has been left to rot in this area of huge regeneration.
There are many explanations for this strange building, which was erected in 1875, but no one seems to be absolutely sure. It has been semi-derelict for many years and always seems to be on the point of being regenerated, or falling down, but never quite getting there.
Used as the location for Harry Palmer's office in the 1967 film "Billion Dollar Brain", some say it was a Victorian helter skelter, another explanation, discounted by others is that when oysters used to be the cheap and popular fast food of the day, Netten's oyster house was marked with a lighthouse - a kind of the McDonalds "golden arches" of their day.
All beefed up
In the early 20th century London considered advertising, well rather vulgar, in part because its Victorian shopkeepers had put up signs outside their shops becoming so large the narrow streets would be dark all day.
The first buses were also covered in advertisements, which then began to creep up the sides of buildings. As buildings became taller the authorities called a halt to adverts on their sides horrified at the thought they would look like today's streets.
On the South Bank stands one architect's genius plan to overcome that ban, for on a tower above what is now a fashionable restaurant is the name of the beef cube once manufactured there. Oxo has ingeniously incorporated the letters into the structure by placing three windows on each side of the tower filled with red glass. Known these days as the "OXO Tower."
When Christopher Columbus reached America in his ship the Santa Maria, little did he realise that a replica of his ship would end up on a roof in London. Number Two Temple Place is one of the most extraordinarily luxurious offices in London. Built in 1895 for William Waldorf Astor, no expense was spared using the finest of materials and the best craftsmen money could buy. The cost was astronomical, tens of millions at today's prices. Astor even had a gilded copper model of the Santa Maria fixed to a weathervane on the roof, and in the courtyard are two cherubs each holding a telephone receiver to its ear, but maybe that's for another post.
5 September 2012
It's becoming a bit of an obsession with me, the fact that London seems to host the annual world jaywalking championship, for when seeing my cab approaching pedestrians are filled with the overwhelming desire to cross the road irrespective of whether or not they're standing on a pedestrian crossing.
I think my jaywalking tormentors have discovered the secret of the cosmetic button, for how many times you have stood at a pedestrian crossing jabbing at the button with seemingly no effect on the lights?
Could it be that the button simply doesn't affect anything at all and those jaywalkers have discovered the secret?
In New York, more than 2,500 of the city's 3,250 crossings were moved over to a computer-controlled system by the late 1980s, except that the buttons were never removed and most (but not all) walk buttons in New York City have been deactivated yet people push them anyhow, either in ignorance, out of habit, in the off chance the buttons do work, or so New Yorkers can still think they have the power to stop traffic.
London's pedestrian crossing buttons could be one of a growing number of "Placebo buttons" which are there purely to give us the illusion of control. In some office buildings the thermostat is actually a dummy for the temperature is centrally controlled. And don't think you have any control over the "door close" buttons in many lifts for they are useless, as most lifts that look as if they are less than 50 years old now have sensor technology to decide when their doors open or close.
Have you ever used a toilet in a motorway service station, doesn't that button asking you to vote on the cleanliness of the facility annoy you? So you press with a degree of anger (after all you've been driving all day) that the toilets don't meet your expectations, knowing that your vote is meaningless.
Since you can't be sure whether the buttons actually have a purpose, I suggest rapidly hammering the button with your fist while jumping up and down impatiently, which is probably what you were doing all along anyway.
So why do we keep pushing these pointless buttons? According to psychologists, it's because we've been conditioned to expect a certain response every time we touch a button. We can't get our heads around there being no outcome to the action - hence why you see people hammering on lift buttons, and then looking amazed when the doors finally close.
Plus, of course, we're an arrogant species who like to feel we can walk on proverbial water - or at least across the road - at will in front of my cab. We all like to imagine we are masters of our universe.
Oh! And that little button with the red light indicating that the intercom in a cab is turned on and the driver is being attentive . . .
3 September 2012
Standing in the shadow of the East London Mosque, in a modest Grade II listed premises on Whitechapel Road is Britain's oldest manufacturer. As the mosque calls out for worshippers to attend their daily prayers this small factory continues to produce the bells used to call Christians to their place of worship, just as it has done since 1583.
The Church Bell Foundry to give it its formal name was established even earlier in 1570, although a firm link predates this to 1420 when a Richard Chamberlain was known as a "bell-founder of Aldgate".
When most heavy industry has left London this remarkable factory is still a family-owned and run company. Having produced some of the world's great bells including Big Ben, America's Liberty Bell and bells for what was at the time Russia's new capital St. Petersburg and even today over 80 per cent of its production is making church bells and associated accessories.
The premises date from 1670, just four years after the Great Fire of London, although this eastern end of the City was untouched by the conflagration.
The Church Bell Foundry is built on the site of an inn called the "Artichoke" whose cellars survive and are still used by the foundry today.
The building's entrance is through a replica bell frame of the company most famous bell, needing 10.5 tons of molten copper mixed with 3 tons of tin "Big Ben" is still the largest bell ever made in London.
Originally the order for the 16-ton bell was given to another bell foundry; Warners of Cripplegate at their Norton factory near Stockton-on-Tees who had cast the new bell in August 1856. It was transported by rail and sea to London and on arrival at the Port of London, it was placed on a carriage and pulled across Westminster Bridge by 16 white horses.
The bell was hung in New Palace Yard and was tested each day until 17th October 1857 when a 4 foot crack appeared, but no-one would accept the blame.
Theories included the composition of the bell's metal or its dimensions. Warners blamed Edmund Denison, an abrasive lawyer who had designed the clock's mechanism for insisting on increasing the hammer's weight from 355kg to 660kg.
Warners asked too high a price to break up and recast the bell, so George Mears at the Whitechapel Foundry was appointed.
The bell was melted down and recast successfully by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry on 10th April 1858, and when finished it took 16 horses the best part of a day to haul the gigantic bell from Whitechapel to Parliament Square.
There are two theories about the origins of the name "Big Ben": Around the time the clock was due to be completed, the prize fighter and publican Ben Caunt went 60 rounds with the best bare-knuckle boxer in the country, Nat Langham.
The bout was declared a draw but it made both men national heroes. Ben Caunt was a huge man and one story has it that the great bell was named after him. The other story attributes the name to Benjamin Hall, the chief commissioner of works, who was addressing the House on the subject of a name for the new bell tower when, to great laughter, someone shouted "Call it Big Ben!" However no record is to be found in Hansard of this remark.
When the time came to install the bell, although this recast bell was 2.5 tonnes lighter than the first, its dimensions meant it was too large to fit up the Clock Tower's shaft vertically so Big Ben was turned on its side and winched up. It took 30 hours to winch the bell to the belfry in October 1858. The four quarter bells, which chime on the quarter hour, were already in place.
Big Ben rang out on 11 July 1859 but its success was short-lived. In September 1859, the new bell also cracked and Big Ben was silent for four years. During this time, the hour was struck on the fourth quarter bell.
In 1863, a solution was found to Big Ben's silence by Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal. Big Ben was turned by a quarter turn so that the hammer struck a different spot; the hammer was replaced by a lighter version; and a small square was cut into the bell to prevent the crack from spreading
The total cost of making the clock and bells and installing them in the Clock Tower reached £22,000.
29 August 2012
Nowadays in an age when we have many competing demands on how we can spend our leisure time, it is hard for use to imagine a world were entertainment could be had in just watching a man get dressed.
But in early nineteenth century London the rich with time on their hands - the poor of course were working every hour God sent them - would take themselves off to the Mayfair home of George "Beau" Brummell.
Not rich, talented or blessed with brains, George had style and knew how to carry it off. He just dressed better than anyone ever had before or since; not dressed more colourfully or extravagantly as many suppose, but simply with infinitely more care, in fact his apparel was confined almost entirely to three plain colours: white, buff and blue-black.
He was born in 1778 in Downing Street, his father being an adviser to the Prime Minister of the day, Lord North. After an education at Eton and Oxford he took up a position in the Prince of Wales' regiment, the 10th Hussars. Never tested in battle his function essentially was to look good in uniform alongside the Prince at formal gatherings.
One of London's more improbably rituals resulted from Beau's friendship and patronage of the Prince, where a procession of grown men of great eminence would arrive at his home each afternoon to watch him - well dress.
The Prince of Wales, three dukes, a marquis, two earls and the playwright Richard Sheridan would sit in respectful silence and amazement as he had a daily bath in hot water - almost unheard of act the time - and from time to time milk was added to the water, setting a new fashion for London.
When the miserly and withered Marquess of Queensbury started taking milk baths, sales of milk plummeted as it was rumoured he returned the milk for resale after immersing his decrepit body into this mixture.
Beau would spend hours getting his apparel just right. A visitor, arriving at his home to find the floor strewn with cravats asked Robinson, his long-suffering valet, what was going on. "Those," Robinson sighed "are our failures". It was quite normal during the day to get through three shirts, two pairs of trousers, four or five cravats, two waistcoats, several pairs of stockings and a number of handkerchiefs.
Alas he was not as studious with his comments as with his apparel. After a falling out with the Prince of Wales who later snubbed him at a social occasion (the Prince by now was obese and referred to as the Prince of Whales a behind his back), Beau made what must be one of the most famously ill-advised remarks in social history, "Who's your fat friend"? he asked of the Prince's companion.
Ostracised by London's elite he fled to France to escape his debtors and lived in poverty for 25 years but always looking restrained and immaculate for a pauper.
27 August 2012
I had been on the Knowledge for 2 years and was starting to gain confidence in my ability to navigate around the City of London, when on an appearance (the regular tests taken to check a student's progress) my examiner handed me a pamphlet. "You're to learn these for when you come back in 28 days". Well, if I hadn't already been sitting you could have knocked me down with a feather, everything to do with traversing the City, that my brain seemed to refuse to remember was now obsolete.
There was now only 19 ways to enter or leave the City with two-thirds of all streets that lead into the City closed to traffic. Described at the time as the "ring of plastic" on account of the plastic bollards used, it made for instance Southwark Bridge redundant overnight, with only bikes able to enter the City from the south via Queen Anne Street. Born out of fear after the Bishopsgate bomb when the IRA was attacking the mainland these 19 entry points were manned by armed police and all very visible.
Enclosing London with a defensive parameter is not new; the Romans built a two mile long wall in the late 2nd century, 18ft high, its outer face was protected by a 6ft deep V-cut ditch approximately 10ft wide. Entry points denoted by familiar places in the modern City; Bishopsgate, Newgate, Ludgate, and as the ditch was noted for its bad odour from being used as a dump for rubbish and dead dogs, you would be well advised only to enter the City via these gates.
The curve in Gresham Street follows the line of the Roman fort that was incorporated into the wall and modern day London Wall approximately its northern extremity.
It was not until the mid-16th century that the City began to spread substantially beyond these walls, presumably after clearing the rubbish tip that the parameter had become.
Our ring of plastic has now been replaced with more harmonious landscaping, chicanes with manned police kiosks, two CCTV cameras at each entry point, our blocked roads are now adorned with water features and plants pots strong enough to prevent car-bomb attacks and many places that were once streets are now private property staffed by security guards.
The 6.5 mile parameter has now been documented by photographer Henrietta Williams and cartographer George Gingell, their study entitled Panopticon: A Study of the Ring of Steel has come to some surprising conclusions.
Traffic entering the City can be controlled by just 80 policemen; photography is discouraged; and as new buildings are designed for the parameter they tend to be large block size to complete this unbroken wall.
Not since the Tudors has the City been defended with such rigor, it will not of course deter pedestrian terrorists, but revival of some dead dogs might just keep them away.
22 August 2012
Back when I was learning "The Knowledge of London" so as to become a cabby, some days remain etched in my memory forever. One such day for me was when I went to find a 'point' - London Stone - note it is not a definite article, even though it patently is. I searched Cannon Street looking to find a clue to the elusive stone, up the sides of buildings, perched high up on a roof, inside the station, until I tracked down my quarry.
There behind a hideous grill attached to a scruffy 1960's office was one of London's oldest landmarks, known to have been in the City since 1198.
It is an unprepossessing piece of "Clipston Limestone" or "Oolite." With its round-shouldered top and twin grooves, measuring about 18 inches across, if found in a field, one would ignore it. Legend says that this small stone is linked to the destiny of our capital city, hence its Grade II listing.
Minerva the company who are developing the site now wish to move this rare artefact. The name of the company is taken from the Roman goddess of wisdom, but in this instance concerning a rare Roman piece of history not a lot of wisdom is being demonstrated, it's just convenient for Minerva as they want to move the artefact a few doors down the street to the Walbrook Building.
The Walbrook Building, one of the City's newer office blocks designed by Foster and Partners, looks like a metal Armadillo, a very modern building but with few heritage nods at ground level. Two of the metal struts planted firmly into Cannon Street incorporate small black plaques that once marked former ward boundaries. They look a bit incongruous, to be frank, but at least they're still on site rather than scrapped and dumped elsewhere.
The plan is to relocate London Stone to the front elevation of the Walbrook Building and a special display case will be built to contain this legendary piece of history. One of the existing grey panels will be replaced by a laminated glass wall and the stone placed inside on an etched mild steel plinth. And the grille will come too, given a less prominent position beneath, plus the metal plaque that currently sits on top of them all.
The Stone has had a chequered history. It was referenced in Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 2, but by the 18th Century it was known more as a traffic hazard. The Stone was moved back and forth across Cannon Street, and eventually ended up in St. Swithin's Church, until the building was bombed in World War II. Since the early 1960s, the Stone has been housed at street level in an office building, opposite Cannon Street Station, so it certainly has led a life of travel.
Old enough to remember the original Olympics in Rome, should this piece of stone be now relocated behind glass, as if it was a museum exhibit, in one of the most modern buildings of London, divorced from the everyday fabric of the city?
20 August 2012
Driving a London cab gives you a panoramic view both of the road and into other drivers' vehicles as they stop beside you and it was with that advantage a couple of years ago I noticed that some prestige cars not only had a built-in Sat-Nav but that the same screen could show a video.
I found that surprising, as my understanding of traffic law was that any monitor must not be visible to the driver; somehow the car manufacturers had managed to circumvent the regulations by ensuring that the device turned off the image when the car moved forward. So that was alright then! Watch TV while sitting at the lights, rather than watching any jaywalking pedestrians, and once your top-of-the-range limousine reaches 5mph you can concentrated on your driving.
This was followed by putting monitors on the back headrests in the manner of an aircraft, anyone who has children must have felt that that was a Godsend, who hasn't tried to drive with the kids in the back bored and nagging? Every parent knows the stupefying effect that television has on the young - and not so young - so moving image just inches from their noses would keep them quiet all day.
But now not content with a myriad of distractions: Radio (DAB, FM, MW LW); CD players; i-pod compatible; Sat-Navs; even staring at the 2-inch screen of an i-phone, more and more I see drivers watching TV as they drive for unlike their expensive counterparts, the cars they seek to emulate, its image doesn't turn off while the vehicle is on the move. So with one eye on the road they can watch the latest music video or shoot-em-up flick.
If a driver was foolish to talk on his mobile phone whilst driving he could expect three points on his license and a £60 fine, but I've yet to read of anyone prosecuted for watching the latest Lady Gaga album whilst driving through London's congested streets.
The wider question must be is that how can anyone watch a television programme or movie with the distractions of driving? How can they watch anything in bite-sized chunks? Do they only have an the attention span of the time it takes the light to return back to green or is it that they are so addicted to the moving image it doesn't really matter what is showing as long as something appears on that little screen.
There have been numerous studies on our television habits. In May last year the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board found that viewers were watching more television than ever before, concluding that the average number of hours each person spends in front of the television each week has risen by more than 8 per cent. to 30 hours 4 minutes. Thinkbox, the British marketing body for commercial broadcasters, defended this rise by stating that the greater choice offered by digital television, new technologies such as digital recorders, on-demand services and yes, it's been blamed again, the recession is encouraging people to spend more time at home. The watching of television whilst driving apparently did not enter their radar.