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

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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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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