Tuesday, 22 December 2009

A Yule Blog

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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens - image (c) Penguin Classics
Copyright: Penguin Classics

It has become customary to brand those who either cannot or will not enter into the spirit of Christmas as a Scrooge, after Charles Dickens’s most celebrated ne’er do well. Christmas, according to Dickens, is all about upholding tradition, and one of the rituals that I have undertaken the past four years, and which I intend to continue for the rest of my days, is reading A Christmas Carol every December. This year, for the first time I began to see the good in Ebenezer – not in the changed character that we are presented with at the end of the book, the man suddenly able to embrace the festive season and all the values good-natured people have, but the mean-spirited, cantankerous fellow we are first presented with.

Ebenezer Scrooge is indeed one of the most misanthropic characters ever created, but he does have some good qualities which wouldn’t go amiss in most people today.

For starters, he may be extreme in his distaste for charity and goodwill to all men, but he also sees through the false way that people go about their business at Christmas. He simply cannot abide the way people see fit to descend upon those they have taken no interest in at any other point in the year, bestowing pleasantries and forgiveness that will be quickly forgotten once the festivities are over and done with. Fair weather friends have no place in Ebenezer’s world.

Secondly, Scrooge’s tightfistedness and frugality are values which would do well to find their way into many households this Christmas. The gods of capitalism and Government-sponsored borrowing excess seem to have replaced the son of the deity Christmas is meant to celebrate. The sums of money households have expended for one day are often frightening, and one can only hope that these straitened times give rise to a restoration of traditional values at Christmas going forward.

Indeed, if we surmise that Scrooge’s name ‘being good upon ‘Change for anything’ and his residing in the City of London connects Ebenezer to the financial heartland of the United Kingdom, we should celebrate Scrooge’s miserly ways and extreme prudence in his professional ethics at the very least. For those of us presently employed in financial services, facing either an unhappy unemployed Christmas or an uncertain 2009, a bit more of those traditional principles wouldn’t have gone amiss these past few years. Gordon Gecko’s mantra of ‘greed is good’ isn’t that dissimilar to Scrooge’s belief in absolute parsimony. Except, where Gecko would flashily spend his millions on art and other signs of wealth, Scrooge is happy to live the most austere of existences, using barely any fuel to heat his modest home and eschewing elaborate food in favour of simple gruel. Although I can’t abide his wanton grouchiness, I can’t help but feel that Scrooge would have the right strategy for dealing with today’s downturn. Certainly the impact of rising fuel and food prices over the past eighteen months would have barely bothered our Scrooge.


I only recently remembered the letters we used to write to Father Christmas each year and the letters my sister and I would get back, written in a hand curiously similar to my father’s. I remember the tinsel on the family tree, the silver and purple baubles that looked like disco balls, the advent calendar depicting a sweetshop administered by cute elves that would be retrieved each and every year; the brass candle holder where the heat from the candles pushed an angel blowing a trumpet around in perpetuity, each circuit accompanied by a chiming sound from the bells positioned underneath her; I recall the family meals with my maternal grandmother, now several years gone, and the way she’d always greet the arrival of the food with ‘I’m never going to eat all this,’ but would nevertheless manage it anyway, and the way my father and I would drive her home in the evening with two carrier bags on the floor of the back car seats, one containing a pair of slippers and the other containing the carcass of the turkey wrapped in foil for whatever macabre purpose she required it for; I remember the excitement of opening a box of liquorice Allsorts, the increasing complexity of my list throughout my teenage years and the increasing sense of confoundedness that my selections were greeted with by my mother.

I recall the intense joy of looking over the presents I’d received in their little pile in my parents’ lounge and the way I’d want to keep them so piled for as many days as possible to stave off the inevitable putting away and the rapid onset of a new school year that followed; I recall my sister and I sitting impatiently on the top step for my mother to come back up to offer confirmation that Father Christmas had indeed been, and the increasing frustration at how long my father was taking in the bathroom since, without him, we weren’t allowed to head downstairs to tear into our presents; I recall the disappointment at having grapefruit and mandarin as a starter before roast turkey and the joy at the times we had prawn cocktail instead; I even have a pleasant feeling recalling the pain in my nose from trying to clip on those nasty little plastic moustaches you’d find in your cracker; I recall, back when I ate meat, loving the salty taste of turkey sandwiches that would be prepared in the early evening of Christmas Day and the feeling of intense gluttony that I went to bed with; later I recall sadder times, absent family members and the onset of illnesses, adult arguments and relationship breakdowns. The clarity of these memories in totality is greater than many other recollections from years gone by.

Christmas evokes in you so many memories of yesteryear. Few other times bring forth the recollections of your earlier years so readily. I only hope that our children sit here in thirty-odd years with the same vividness of memorable festivities, with so many pleasant recollections of Christmases past and the anticipation of Christmases yet to come.

An extended version of this piece originally appeared on The First Days Of My Thirties blog in 2008. A Happy Christmas to all My Other Blog subscribers.

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Monday, 30 November 2009

A Wet London Monday

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Dead Umbrella by Rory (Flickr)
Source: Rory (Flickr)

Like most places in the South East of England this morning, the square outside Euston Station was lashed by wind and rain; it's usually a ersatz wind tunnel but today you could feel the gusts and swirls inside the station building well before you stepped outside.

Out along Euston Road I passed the upturned skeletons of about five dead black umbrellas. It was like the place where umbrellas go to die; an umbrella graveyard if you will.

Watching the Met Line train pull onto the platform at Euston Square, it was so steamed up with condensation that it was impossible to tell how busy it was until the doors opened, while on the train itself the floor was so wet you couldn't put your bag down.

Just by the Dashwood building there was a stripped skeleton of an umbrella that looked like it'd been ravaged by a wild beast rather than what they're calling, in typically understated fashion, 'inclement' weather. Inclement weather simply sounds mildly irritating, not like the type of weather to wash Cumbrian towns slightly closer to the south.

At the queues for the lifts there was a young woman in a skirt that was shorter than her jacket (which wasn't exactly long in the first place). There was me soaked to the skin and wrapped up for a blizzard whereas she was dressed for a night out in Newcastle.

In the café on the floor of our building the barista moaned that the weather meant he was going to be rushed off his feet because people who would usually go out for coffee would go to him instead. Someone else in the queue pointed out that it's still possible to hold an umbrella in one hand and a coffee in the other, but the barista – looking increasingly deflated as the queue got longer – just shrugged dejectedly.

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Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Woughton Centre, Milton Keynes – Accident / Incident Frequency Report

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Source: MJA Smith

M and I took our eldest daughter to her first dancing exam on Saturday at the Woughton Centre in Milton Keynes. I’ve taken S here for one of her lessons, and several years ago went to a gig here at the Pitz (Client supporting Mick Jones and Tony James's Carbon / Silcon; click here for my review of Client). It’s not a terribly auspicious place, but the dancing school is good and S enjoys it, and that’s the main thing.

Whilst waiting to go in for the exam, as S was busily putting on her jazz shoes, I noticed this printed piece of paper, which I found a bit strange. It basically seems that the Centre – either by law or entirely voluntarily – needs to list the number of accidents that have occurred during the last half of the year.

I can’t possibly think why this might be. Is it supposed to enable some sort of Which?-style comparison between leisure centres for safety records? Surely not. However, as with all statistics, it’s all relative and unless you’re able to make a meaningful comparison there is often little value in simply showing absolute numbers. On this measure, what a terrible month May was – at seven, the highest number of individual incidents of the past half year. A grave month indeed, for both staff and customers it seems. I blame the onset of Summer.

The best of these incidents, or worst depending on your viewpoint, must surely be ‘violence’, which is defined beneath as ‘fights and violence towards staff’. Why on earth would you even think about advertising this to customers unless you absolutely had to? And in only seeming to selectively show violent incidents toward staff, what about violence among customers? Doesn’t that matter? And what do they classify as violence anyway? Murder? Bringing a machete into the changing rooms? Biting thy thumb at thee for beseeching thy Nike‘s? What?

I also especially like the fact that there are three incidents described as ‘bumps incurred through moshing’ during Pitz events. When I think of moshing, not that I’ve ever been known to throw myself willingly into a moshpit, I hardly think of ‘bumping’ – kicks to the shins and punches in the face perhaps, but never ‘bumping’, which to my mind sounds awfully polite and rather pleasant if you ask me.

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Saturday, 7 November 2009

A London Saturday

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Radisson Edwardian New Providence Wharf

This post comes to you from the Radisson Edwardian New Providence Wharf Hotel after a long day spent trekking the mad streets of our capital with my wife and two daughters, all three of whom, incidentally, are fast asleep. M has just fallen face-first into today’s Times but I’ve whisked it out from her just in time to prevent newsprint transferring amusingly verbatim to her skin.

The occasion is that M and my eldest daughter are off to see Disney Princesses On Ice at the O2 tomorrow, and we thought we’d make a weekend of it. We’ve stayed at the Radisson Edwardian before, and its location is ideal for the O2 (you can see that squat arachnid-esque form just across the water) and Docklands generally. Plus it’s good value: we’re staying in a suite for no other reason than it gives the girls their own room, and it will set us back a reasonable £199, with breakfast included. Not bad.

My TomTom didn’t think so on the way down. Many a time will I rue being too miserly to upgrade the map software, for the postcode to the couple-of-years old Radisson isn’t in the version I have, and I only found this out to my detriment on the way down. Consequently the journey here involved travelling down both sides of the Blackwall Tunnel and me getting extremely stressed every time the landmark building next door to the hotel receded further into the distance.

We had no sooner dropped our bags in our room than we set off for Canary Wharf whereupon we enjoyed a simple, fussless meal in Café Rouge. Nothing special, but always good for the kids. I had quiche champignons, which was a touch too rich, while M and the girls all had fishcakes which were thirst-inducingly salty.

It’s been a clear, fresh day in the capital today with not a cloud in sight, which made for perfect conditions for inching slowly around the West End along with everyone else. We took the Jubilee Line as far as we could thanks to engineering works, alighted as the train terminated at Waterloo, then took the Golden Jubilee Bridge to Charing Cross, past the skateboard graveyard occupying one of the concrete bridge supports and on to Trafalgar Square, Haymarket and Piccadilly Circus. All major tourist haunts of course, but the girls loved it, and I found the buggy pretty useful for carving my way through the hordes of slow-moving tourists. If anyone reading this was on Regent Street at about 4.00 PM and is nursing a sore ankle from someone ramming their pushchair into your legs, that was my fault, but I’ll stop short of apologising.

Skateboard graveyard
Source: Diggers Abroad / Flickr

Just off Regent Street is a small, serene little arcade of individual shops called Quadrant Alley, where right now – and until February – you will find a funky little pop-up shop for all things Marmite. Though we didn’t venture upstairs, it sounds like there is some sort of ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ type exhibition thing going on up there. As we were buying our Warhol-esque Marmite plates, fridge magnets and postcards (such suckers for needless ephemera we are), the cashier asked me if I loved Marmite or hated it. Saying that I liked it, for I do, earned me a big ink stamp on the brown paper bag showing the world my Marmite-loving credentials. She asked the same question of S, my fussy three-year old eldest daughter, and was greeted with the wrinkled nose and sour expression of distaste that toddlers are so often to be found proffering.

Marmite pop-up shop, Regent Street
Source: http://www.marmite.co.uk/

From there we edged our way to Hamley’s, which we’d built up into a massive thing for the girls, and which – on a busy Saturday on the approach to Christmas – was a waste of time. I waited fifteen minutes for a lift, only to emerge out onto the third floor (girls toys) where I couldn’t actually move. I spent longer trying to get to the floor than I spent looking at toys, and besides, S was too bewildered by the sheer volume of people to actually enjoy it anyway. Far better it seems to eschew the touristy crush of Hamley’s in favour of your local Toys R Us, where you can actually breathe, and where everything is at least 10% cheaper.

Seeking to escape the madness of Regent Street, we ducked into Fouberts Place and thence to Carnaby Street, the two interconnecting homes of the sixties Mod menswear revolution whose mad, hippyish Christmas lights put the staid minimalist grandeur of those on Regent Street to shame. A pavement table at a Starbucks on Great Marlborough Street offered solace, hot chocolate, a chance to rest four pairs of weary feet and a great view of Centre Point and a mural on the side of one of the buildings.

Carnaby Street Christmas decorations
Source: MJA Smith

Taxis often offer the best views of London, and so it was with the cab we caught from Soho to Canary Wharf, whose route treated us to views of some familiar London sights – St. Paul’s, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London – and some of my personal favourite buildings along High Holborn, including the Waterhouse masterpiece Holborn Bars, built as the headquarters of the Prudential.

Holborn Bars
Source: EZTD / Flickr

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Friday, 6 November 2009

08:50 - Pot Noodle Time

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Source: www.team-infused.com

As I’ve become older, I’ve become less able to accurately discern the age of other people, particularly teenagers. That was my first thought as the three teenage girls got on the train at Swindon and enquired if they could sit in the three empty seats around the table where I was working, all of which were clearly labelled as pre-booked, a fact they would have gleaned if they’d bothered to look. For the record, and because it may help to illustrate this story better, I’d say they were fourteen.

My second thought was ‘Please let them only be travelling to Chippenham’ as I had a few pieces of work I needed to get done during that morning’s journey. They stayed on past Bristol where I alighted from the train, and so I was thus stuck with them for about forty-five painful minutes.

I don’t expect to ever fully understand the minds and motivations of teenage girls, though all I will say is that in a decade’s time I truly hope neither of my two female daughters turn out like these three makeup-caked and sewer-mouthed girls. It takes a lot to shock me, but not much to disappoint me, and so it was that after a mere ten minutes of them being sat around me I was less than inured to their open discussion of sex, smoking and underage drinking. Don’t get me wrong, I know that some of this is standard rite-of-passage baggage that comes with being a teenager; it’s just that they seemed, well, so young to be talking about it. And certainly far too openly for 8.30 on a Wednesday morning. We’ll leave aside why it was that they were going on holiday together without a parent at that age, or indeed why they weren’t at school, but I’d imagine there may well be a whole sociological melting pot of questionable morality going on there.

One of the girls, in her best West Country accent, muttered the words ‘I’m well hungry,’ to which the other two nodded solemnly in acknowledgement that they too were, ahem, ‘well hungry’. From beneath the table, and with what looked like rehearsed synchronicity, each girl produced a Pot Noodle.

Mistakenly believing that Pot Noodles were truly only purchased and consumed by impoverished students in dingy digs with no money left over after the requisite excessive alcohol consumption (or was that just me?), I was surprised that three young girls – none of whom were what could be described as overweight or unhealthy-looking (yet simultaneously not exactly in close proximity to radiance) – would elect to eat such things, if for no other reason than making a Pot Noodle actually requires some effort; I mean, it’s practically like cooking compared to buying junk food from the hot plate. I briefly wondered how they were going to actually get some boiling water to make the things, but these three enterprising young things took themselves off to the buffet car whereupon they were given the single necessary ingredient to transform the snack from arid powder and dehydrated lumps to the worst imitation of ‘food’ imaginable.

They then briefly panicked that they didn’t have any spoons to eat the snacks with, until one girl pointed out that, duh, you couldn’t eat a Pot Noodle with a spoon, and produced a set of forks she’d appropriated from her home before leaving that morning.

As each of them set out the ministrations of stirring, breaking up the noodles and generally impatiently waiting the few requisite minutes it takes for a Pot Noodle to become ready to eat (if indeed it ever could be described thusly), and finally when they were ready they collectively bent lower over the table to minimise splashing – considerate I thought given that I didn’t really want either my laptop or freshly-pressed suit to get covered in gelatinous gloop – and settled quietly into a adolescent girlish version of the earnest, high brow dinner table conversations that Woody Allen is so fond of throwing into his films. A certain peace and decorum descended upon our area of the carriage, albeit only briefly.

‘What’s this?’ asked one of the girls, lifting something pale out of the pot.

‘That’s chicken,’ responded another, mid-mouthful.

‘No it’s not,’ replied the third girl. ‘There’s no chicken in these.’ An astute observation, I thought to myself, for indeed there is no chicken in a chicken Pot Noodle.

‘Then what is it?’ asked the first girl, slurping a noodle through her teeth.

‘It’s a noodle,’ came the response.

A noodle? A noodle? Are teenagers unable to discern a lumpy piece of textured vegetable protein from a flour-based noodle? I briefly considered wading in at this point and educating the girls on what they were actually eating, but I changed my mind. You never know with teenagers these days. One of them may have been carrying a Big Mac.

‘I’m thirsty,’ said one of the girls.

‘Didn’t you bring a drink?’

‘No, my mum didn’t give me any money for one.’

‘Do you want some of mine?’ replied her friend, charitably, producing a bottle of Coke from under the table. Coke and Pot Noodles at 8.50 AM? Really? Had they just finished the night shift?

‘I don’t like peas.’

‘Do you like the sweetcorn? I do,’ said another, prompting emphatic affirmative nods from the other two. As anyone who’s ever eaten a Pot Noodle will testify, the sweetcorn in these white plastic pots has the texture and taste of cardboard, except that a piece of cardboard wouldn’t taste like it had been entirely denuded of any nutritional significance.

‘Burp,’ burped one.

‘That’s disgusting,’ replied the other two in unison, shattering the seriousness and quiet with one single bodily emission. True enough, it was a foul thing to do, but surely eating a Pot Noodle at this ungodly hour was many, many more times deplorable? ‘That’s gross, babe,’ one of the girls added. ‘You’re not sharing any of my fags now.’

‘I don’t want your stupid fags, babe. I’ll get some off my auntie. I’m still hungry,’ said the burping girl, simultaneously producing a bag of crisps from the Mary Poppins bag of provisions beneath the table, snaffling the fried sliced potatoes in mere seconds, washing the whole load down with the rest of her Coke.

The train pulled into Bath and one of the girls asked me whether they would still be allowed to sit in their seats. I nodded, though really I would have much preferred it if the passengers who had actually did book those seats valiantly reclaimed them. In fact, at Bath an elderly lady paused by the seats, scanning the seat numbers and looking down at her ticket, saw the thousand-yard stares of the girls and moved down the carriage. She’d shouldn’t have had to do this as the girls should have been more respectful, but there’s teenagers for you.

Ten minutes later I got off the train at Bristol Temple Meads, still feeling slightly disorientated by the intrusion of these teenage girls into my working day with their attendant abysmal diet and conversations about promiscuity and getting ‘well hammered later, babes‘; I was also slightly concerned that I probably reeked of the noodle sauce, thus prompting curious glances from the clients I was due to meet later that morning.

We all go through phases of waywardness and rebellion as we grow up, and I was certainly no different; it was just something about the way these girls were talking implied that these things – smoking, sex, but mostly snacks at unusual times of the day – were not acts of rebellion, but the norm. I’m not saying that they are typical of all teenagers, as I know that can’t possibly be true, but in its own way it felt like a mini indictment of societal decay.

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Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Station Square, Milton Keynes

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Elder House
Source: propertymall.com

Only the most imaginative mind could possibly conceive of Station Square in Milton Keynes as a thing of beauty. The Square is a large and uninteresting grey plaza bordered on three sides by sheer squat glass office buildings – Phoenix House, Elder House and MK Central – containing retail units, restaurants and the concourse and entrance to Milton Keynes Central railway station.

In that last fact, Station Square is at least half correctly named. On the downside, as far as I can see the area isn’t square at all, but rectangular, but these of course are mere semantics.

Station Square represents to a large extent the personality and character of Milton Keynes – the ‘city in the countryside’ as clever marketing types have dubbed it – distilled into a single concept. The Square includes two large open and well-maintained raised grass areas, an abundance of space, modernist architecture in the reflective glass offices that are repeated elsewhere in the city, and that thing that Milton Keynes loves so much: concrete. Thus, the greenery that is in much abundance in this city clashes with the necessary grey ingredient that Milton Keynes has celebrated and paid homage to throughout its boulevards, bridges and walkways.

That concrete is represented here in the form of thousands and thousands of paving slabs, most of which have seen better days. They are of a mottled grey texture which reminds me of cheap pork pie meat when you get those slightly dubious dark spots in the meat.

I believe that plans exist somewhere for a wholesale redevelopment of the entire Square, but I’m not aware of what that entails. I do know that many residents of the city and fellow commuters have expressed concern at the notion; personally, I think any sort of redevelopment would be a very good thing. The Square completely lacks character and seems to have forgotten its purpose. There are flagpoles without flags, sporadic tree plantings laid out in a strict and very Milton Keynes formation and the whole thing seems like a waste of space. In this it does remain a perfect counterpoint to the now very dated modernist-style office buildings, but if someone pulled the lot down tomorrow and started again I wouldn’t be terribly disappointed. The most interesting feature is the round modernist clock atop a pole (reminiscent of those outside the Reuters Building in Canary Wharf), behind which you get a view of the majestic Pinnacle Building, the most adventurous design to have been realised in Milton Keynes for many years.

Station Square clock
Source: The Mark, Flickr

A couple of years ago the ground floor reception areas of the office buildings were redeveloped to allow retail units to move in, presumably to capitalise on those finding that their train has been cancelled because London Midland failed to organise any staff for Sunday services, as well as those commuters who want to grab a quick ready meal after another gruelling day in the Smoke. And so we now have a Costa, a M&S Simply Food and a Subway. We also have a mortgage broker and betting shop to complement the cosmetic dentist, Indian restaurant, newsagent and Richer Sounds that have been here for much longer.

The fact that a few of the retail units have remained unlet – both before, during and as we emerge from the recession – is perhaps indicative of how businesses feel about moving to this relative outpost in the city. A swanky bar (Blueprint) opened up recently, offering decent food and cocktails, its windows draped with stylish voile panels and its chairs and tables significantly more adventurous in style than anything else in the Square. For a while, I wondered if anyone actually went there, then noticed the tell-tale notice stuck to the door that suggests that the bar has gone under. I had always intended to go there as well. Bugger.

Occasionally the Square gets used for events and happenings. In late September, as a conclusion to the Celebr8 diversity march, the square hosted a gay, lesbian and transgender pop-up disco here, and we’ve had things like a man-made beach and mini concerts before, but none of this was ever done with gusto or major promotion. The central area of the Square was used a couple of years back as part of an art installation from MK:G, the city’s principal art gallery. In this installation, artist Wolfgang Weileder and a team of building students built, dismantled and rebuilt a scale model of different sections of the gallery, the theme purportedly linking the impermanence of existence with the more defined permanence of architecture.

A permanent piece of art on a raised grass plinth can be found in the Square. The sculpture, which again looks like it was hewn from a lump of concrete, is called ‘O, Wert Thou In The Cauld Blast’ by Ronald Rae. As part of the FingeMK city-wide arts festival, the sculpture was converted into a temporary art installation by someone calling themselves ‘Mrs Smith’, in which the two lumpen depictions of people were given a cosy blanket and some mad fluorescent pompoms for eyes.

Mrs Smith vs Ronald Rae 'O, Wert Thou In The Cauld Blast'

Ronald Rae 'O, Wert Thou In The Cauld Blast' detail

Source: MJA Smith

The Square does seem to have begun a faltering transformation, or at least a few preparatory steps toward some sort of change. Sleek new bike racks were installed, and a model of the 1009 Wolverton locomotive that was displayed here – and which provided a logical thematic connection to the station itself – was removed a few years back. For trainspotters, the geograph.org.uk website had this to say: ‘It is a replica of a LNWR Bloomer class locomotive, designed by McConnell in the early 1850's. She was one of a later series built in 1862 at Wolverton works, just a short journey down the line from Milton Keynes.’

1009 Wolverton locomotive replica
Source: Martin Addison, geograph.org.uk; usage requested

However, just when it felt that the Square was being geared up for a radical redevelopment, in the past few weeks the council have installed new tourist signage to help the dazed people emerging into the sunlight from the station concourse understand which direction they need to point themselves in. Whilst the colourful pillar sign immediately opposite the station entrance is welcome, it’s an indication that the town planners are more keen to tinker with the original brutalist expanse than undertake anything more challenging. And that is perhaps the biggest disappointment of this tired and depressing expanse.

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Friday, 18 September 2009

A Long Piece About a Short Walk: Stephenson Way, London NW1

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Stephenson Way, NW1
Source: MJA Smith

The 6.55 train from Milton Keynes Central arrives into Euston around 7.30 and, in the vast majority of instances, will pull into platform 17. Platform 17 is on the westernmost edge of the station, and it’s one of the platforms without ticket barriers. It also has a neat short-cut exit out from the station onto Melton Street, meaning you can get out of the station without needing to bother yourself with the morning crush of the main concourse and its fairly typical mix of sleepy tourists and business people heading north.

Melton Street, at least the part that I walk along, is nothing much really. One side is taken up with the station’s perimeter wall while the other has a mix of offices, small and very run-down houses and an Ibis Hotel on the corner of Drummond Street, the only interesting aspect of which is the large electronic display detailing the best rate available for that night. This has been as low as £90 on days I’ve walked past, and has gone as high as £125. What determines the rate I’ll never know. I’ve been inside here once, joining a crowd of similarly slack-jawed commuters watching the bombings of 7 July 2005 being confirmed on televisions in the bar.

There are two buildings on Melton Street which are of interest. One is what looks like an abandoned Tube station entrance on the opposite side of the junction with Drummond Street, once upon a time providing access to the Euston Underground Northern Line station, before this was merged with the Piccadilly line station in a single subterranean home beneath the sprawling 1960s Euston redevelopment. It’s well preserved, the brown tiles still retaining some of their original ceramic lustre, but it’s depressingly inaccessible. The other building is a modern, sleek unit appearing to be the showroom for a trendy, and no doubt expensive office furniture firm, Senator. Maybe it’s the time of day, or maybe its an indication of recent economic malaise, but whether it’s morning or evening I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in there.

Disused Tube station, Melton Street
Source: MJA Smith

I only really touch Melton Street to cross the road onto Euston Street. On the corner of these two roads is the offices shared between TSSA (a transport workers’ union) and Age Concern, a derivative and bland concrete block devoid of anything remotely attractive. It was in the doorway of this building that I sheltered while making frantic calls of reassurance to my family as terrorist activity spread across London‘s transport network in North London. Later that morning I walked the length of Melton Street into Camden, and from there to Kentish Town where I caught one of the few trains actually still running that day.

I’m also only on Euston Street for the briefest amount of time before turning onto Stephenson Way. Before I turn, I invariably glance at the Bree Louise, and think of a story my friend Paul once told me. From the outside it looks reasonably inviting, and if you‘re into real ales it recently won an award from CAMRA. Paul said that he once took a client in there on the way back to Euston, and when he walked in it became a caricature of that scene in Straw Dogs where all the locals turn menacingly toward Dustin Hoffman as he walks in; in short, it‘s a locals’ pub.

I’ll also look up at the high-rise off-centre cruciform structure of the Euston Tower – now part of the sleek Regent‘s Place development – an impressive if lonely skyscraper on the outer edges of the West End that clearly owes a clear debt to Mies van der Rohe‘s or Fazlur Khan’s modernist style. At thirty-six storeys it might be up there among the UK’s tallest structures, but compared to something like Khan’s 100-storey John Hancock Center in Chicago (which was also completed in 1970) it’s diminutive and lacking in attractive adornments to say the least.

Euston Tower - (c) skyscrapernews.com Euston Tower - (c) skyscrapernews.com
Source : skyscrapernews.com - thanks to James for permission

On the corner of Euston Street and Stephenson Way there’s a small hotel, the Cottage Hotel. To call itself a hotel might be a touch aspirational, as it looks from the outside to be a B&B or hostel. I don’t know who the clientele of this place would be, but suffice to say that it gives a whole new dimension to the word shabby, and the signage proclaiming that it‘s open twenty-four hours lends a certain seediness to the premises. As I pass by the half-glass wooden door I can see a grand old lamp like one my maternal grandmother used to have in the lounge of her flat. Today there was an old man looking out menacingly from behind the glass; if it was uninviting before, it was positively threatening today.

Euston Street
Source: MJA Smith

I’m no historian, but I presume that Stephenson Way, given its proximity to the station, is named after Robert Stephenson. If so, you could argue that a more ill-fitting honour could not be bestowed upon the engineering pioneer. Stephenson Way consists of a short section that runs parallel to Melton Street, followed by a 90-degree turn to run along the back of Euston Road. It is a nondescript nothing of a London street, its principal architecture being the backsides of the buildings that line Melton Street and Euston Road, the various service exits and delivery entrances necessary for the smooth operation of daily office life. However, it also happens to be one of my favourite streets in London.

For one, it’s cobbled, which seems so incongruous compared to the dual carriageway clamour of Euston Road less than a hundred metres away. Secondly, its quiet, almost to the point of eeriness. Again, compared to the frantic traffic along its neighbouring streets, Stephenson Way represents something of an oasis of calm in NW1. There are parked cars along the left hand side of the street, but whenever I walk along here at 7.30 in the morning the only vehicle in motion I see is a Camden recycling wagon which collects waste from the back of the old Wellcome Building on Euston Road, and occasionally a fold-up bicycle. Similarly, it’s invariably the same pedestrians walking along Stephenson Way at that time in the morning, all of us seeking a short cut to Euston Square Underground without having to join the crowds traversing the wide and uneven pavements of Euston Road.

So quiet and free of cars is Stephenson Way that I almost always walk along the middle of the road until I get to the junction with North Gower Street. In London this feels rebellious, dangerous even, but it is done – strange though this might sound – out of a desire for security. Sometimes sleeping homeless men can be found in the rear doorways and alcoves of the offices that face out on to Euston Road, and the very quietude of Stephenson Way that attracts them there can quickly feel threatening, especially on winter mornings where daylight is slow to bathe the cobbles.

The threat is of course, utterly remote. It comes from a piece of fiction I wrote at a school on the subject of fear. For that story I imagined a pair of school friends who take a trip into London one Saturday from the suburbs. The lads fall out, and one storms off, leaving the other – the narrator – to find his way back to the station without the aid of his London-savvy friend. He finds himself walking down a darkened street, not dissimilar in my mind’s eye to a more dangerous version of Stephenson Way. In that story, unseen things seem to be moving from under garbage bags and a booze-addled drunk began harassing the boy for change, hence the fear aspect of the story.

If the left hand side of the street is entirely utilitarian and free of ornamentation bar a crest or two next to doorways, the right hand side is more obviously commercial. The ominous Wolfson House, a UCL building, straddles the right angle turn, a nasty 60s or 70s edifice of dirty glass, concrete and brick with a pleasant ‘Hazchem‘ notice affixed to a wall. As you turn the corner the four-storey buildings on the right become more elegant, though anything would appear elegant against Wolfson House or the backs of the buildings opposite.

One of these is the smooth-fronted façade of The Magic Circle, the magic club founded in 1905 by a group of earnest magicians. The only clue to what this building is are the characters arranged in a circular pattern on a bass plaque to the right of the door and the flag between the first and second storeys; that flag, because of a complete absence of breeze along the street, remains bunched and unfurled against the smooth façade. I used to think of this building as mysterious, mystical and vaguely sinister, the lack of obvious identity lending the place a secretive, Masonic quality. That was until I Googled the society and discovered that you can hire the venue for conferences and parties. From their website, the interior looks pretty much the same as any other corporate venue, and I can’t look at the building in the same affectionate – and slightly fearful – way now.

The Magic Circle plaque
Source: flickr

Next to the Magic Circle is the offices of the Royal Asiatic Society, whose large logo with its inchoate elephant adorns the facia of the ground floor. The Society was founded in 1823 and received its Royal Charter from King George IV the same year 'for the investigation of subjects connected with and for the encouragement of science, literature and the arts in relation to Asia'. Engendering a degree of competition with their magical neighbours, apparently you can hire the facilities here too for corporate events. The Society also shares the building with the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, a foundation for ‘knowledge-generating‘ researchers with global offices in much more glamorous locales than Stephenson Way.

Royal Asiatic Society logo JSPS logo
Sources: Society websites

The Directory of Social Change has its bookshop and office on Stephenson Way. The Directory provides information and training to voluntary and community sectors worldwide. With the exception of the Directory, the rest of the right side of Stephenson Way is taken up with small office buildings let to various tenants, include an arthritis charity and relationship counsellors.

The buildings become less interesting on the right as you get close to the junction with North Gower Street, while on the left an ancient and peeling hoarding and a black steel frame interlaced with buddleia indicates a construction site that never got close to completion. At the junction you meet fellow commuters who’ve taken another shortcut. Turning the corner toward the direction of Euston Square Underground you catch a glimpse of the BT Tower rising above the vast clinical modernity of University College Hospital. You then pass the Euston Square Hotel and a small café with its nauseating smell of grease and the cigarettes of the hungry punters at the seats spilling onto the pavement, before descending the steps to the Tube.

In all, the journey from Euston to Euston Square takes no more than a couple of minutes, a significantly shorter amount of time than I expect it’s taken you to read this. There’s just something about the walk along Stephenson Way that completely captivates my attention, confirming for me that even the most apparently insignificant little back road in the capital throws up all sorts of compelling sights. My day would certainly be less interesting without this tiny stretch of cobbled street.

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Friday, 11 September 2009

9/11 Recollections

Source : WTCOutline.com

As another anniversary of September 11 2001 swings into focus, thoughts inevitably turn to the events of that incredibly tragic day. Documentary accounts of the day fill the TV schedules and the familiar topography of New York City catches your attention all over again; both majestically bold and strident before the Towers collapsed and naked and weakened after, never has the image of a city been so etched into the minds of so many people. Thoughts turn, too, to whatever you were doing on that day.

On September 11 2001 my wife and I were enjoying the second week of a holiday in Florida. I say holiday and I say wife, but in fact we'd gone to the States to get married, at DisneyWorld, where we were also staying; we'd been married for precisely six days. On that particular day, we were headed to Busch Gardens in Tampa with my new in-laws for another theme park excursion.

We heard the news coming in on the radio station we were listening to in the car as we traversed the interstates to get to the park. My in-laws had been to New York before, had been inside the World Trade Center. It wasn't until later that day, long after the Towers had collapsed and while we watched the news, that I even realised that the buildings that had been targeted were the Towers so familiar in the background of any number of movies set in New York. The word 'terrorism' was bandied around, a word whose resonances we'd forgotten in the UK after a period of IRA dormancy.

The second plane hit while we were in the queue to get into the park. An elderly American couple in front of us, both wearing headphones, turned to one another as they simultaneously heard the news from the radio station they were listening to and exclaimed 'We're being attacked!' and fled the queue. I'm ashamed to say that we looked at one another and thought they were exaggerating.

Inside the park, we wandered around, none of us wishing to admit that something just didn't feel completely right about being at a place so obviously about fun when things that no-one really wanted to believe were playing out on the south-western tip of Manhattan.

The second tower fell while we were looking at some monkeys in a shady area of the already-baking park. We heard the news coming from a radio in a staff area nearby. At the precise moment in time a bird decided to deposit the contents of its bowels on my new Paul Smith t-shirt. It's strange what you elect to remember.

We were evacuated from the park within a couple of hours. My overriding memory of this, logically, was one of fear, tinged with a sense of the exaggeration we'd felt toward the old couple in the queue. At the exit of the park, British tourists were to be found hammering on the ticket booth windows demanding refunds for not being able to enjoy the rest of the day in the park. Fear turned to shame as we picked up the rumours and stories floating from people pressed against us trying to exit the park as quickly as possible. Shame turned to shock in the car back to a similarly-emptied DisneyWorld as the estimates of deaths and the word terrorism became ever more prevalent in the news reports.

I called my mother from a payphone at a Pizza Hut just outside Disney. She immediately asked me if I was okay. From the way she was talking, way back home in England, I could sense that she was on edge. I tried to reassure her, to which she simply said 'You need to turn the TV on.' Something in the way she said this made the events of the day coalesce in my mind and we duly headed back to our room in the Contemporary Resort where we all sat, glued, to CNN, no-one saying a word at the horrors being displayed there.

Later, my wife and I took a walk to get away from the TV. The Disney resort was eerily empty and there was no-one around at all. We retreated quickly back to our room, whereupon once again - as we would many times over the next few days - we sat silently watching the TV.

Everyone's lives changed that day. We were all affected in some lasting way by those events, even for those of us many hundreds or thousands of miles from the area that became known as Ground Zero. My lasting response has been to develop an incredible deep love for Manhattan and all its many facets. It is the only positive thing I can find in that entire experience.

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