Friday, 17 December 2010

Josh & Laura

Christmas is, in many ways, all about tradition. There are traditions the majority of us observe, and still others that we choose – at a family level, or on a personal level – to follow.

I wrote last year about one of mine, which is always reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in the run-up to Christmas; that book never fails to evoke warm, positively affirming feelings in me and stops me from developing a colder heart. This year we bought a heavily abridged children's' version for our two daughters - who knows, them reading A Christmas Carol might become a tradition for them too. Other traditions in our house may prove to be temporary until the girls grow up. One is watching the Sesame Street film Elmo's Christmas Countdown (with Ben Stiller as a hapless elf) with my daughters; I try not to think of a time when they will no longer be enthusiastic about these films, try not to think that I will find it difficult to indulge my love of all things Muppet when they've grown up and moved onto boy bands, boyfriends and the like.

A tradition I started last year is to write an annual Christmas short story. Last year's – Christmas, etc – will have passed you by, mainly because I didn't tell anyone, beyond a handful of followers on Twitter, about it. You can read it here.

This year's describes a night of optimism and promise shared between two students at an end of term Christmas party, set mostly on the streets of London that I love so much. You can read Josh & Laura here. I guess you could call it a Christmas love story.

Thanks to everyone who has either voluntarily chosen to follow (or who I have coerced into following) my sporadic thoughts and musings over the past year. Have an excellent Christmas and New Year, and expect more of the same in 2011.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Žižkov Television Tower

Talk of the festive season, Christmas markets and the sharp drop in temperatures always makes me think of Prague. In our relatively carefree, childless days, Mrs S and our friends Tina and Steve took a trip to Prague just before Christmas in 2003 and it was everything that I hoped it would be, and more; that city has subsequently become indivisible from my thoughts of the Christmas season.

I soaked up the festive atmosphere, the Gothic architecture and the quintessentially Eastern European modernist design of the subway platforms with unbridled enthusiasm. So what if we also had to spend a night in the airport when heavy snowfall – initially beautifully and silently draped across the city – later brought everything unexpectedly to a standstill, including all fights; so what if the tensions of queuing all night for replacement flights meant I got into a spat with a similarly-disgruntled Latvian in the early hours of the morning; so what if it was the holiday where I may or may not have drunkenly pissed in a dustbin in the hotel toilets (after taking the opportunity to gorge on the free drinks in the executive lounge all the details thereafter became a little sketchy, though I still maintain it was someone else).

The point is that whenever I think of Christmas, I think of the wintry chill and icy splendour of Prague. Whenever I visit an ersatz Christmas market in this country I think of the infinitely more authentic market we visited in Staré Město; whenever the biting cold in late December makes me crave hot chocolate, I think of the small café we four huddled in on the other side of the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) at the base of the steps leading up to the majestic Hradčany palace complex. I understand that Prague is beautiful in the summer, but that wouldn't be the Prague I would want to remember.

Much as I loved the impressive antediluvian squares, bridges, spires and buildings, my favourite structure in Prague lies some way out from the main tourist centre. Taking the subway out to Žižkov, a mostly residential area not frequented by mainstream tourist footfall and certainly not gentrified like other areas of the city; well at least it wasn't in 2003. The central reason for visiting this relatively unassuming urban area, apart from seeing rusty old Ladas and run-down apartment buildings is the Žižkov Television Tower.

The Žižkov Television Tower has a simplistic design that evokes classic Communist post-War attempts at some sort of futuristic modernity; all told, with its double layer of curved-edge rectangular pods in the top third of the main tower, and its trio of cylindrical legs (one containing the tiny lift that takes visitors to the top), it looks like something that Hanna-Barbera would have conceived for The Jetsons. Of course it looks dated now, like it no doubt did at the time of its construction between 1985 and 1992, and it certainly wasn't at all popular with Prague purists when it opened, given its imposing, high position above the city and the fact that they built the tower on an old Jewish cemetery. I like to think of it as being a bit like our dear old BT Tower, just a whole lot funkier.

The views from certain angles in the viewing galleries afford, in many senses, the best views of Prague. Tourists may well elect to view the city at close quarters from, say, the Malá Strana bridge tower or Old Town Hall in Staré Město, but for me the Žižkov Television Tower gives a greater context and long-range perspective on this city.

If you recall the Saturday evening British TV sci-fi series The Tripods, you'd be forgiven for getting a slightly fearful sensation at the sight of the external profile of the building, a feeling which is altogether heightened by David Černý's permanent Miminka art installation from 2001 – ascending upward on the legs of the tower are several statues of crawling babies. It's quirky and not altogether right, but once you transcend the oddness (and recollections of a certain withdrawal scene from Trainspotting) it's fun.

As I've said here before, tall buildings are divisive, much more so in a city where the only other tall buildings are sacred and centuries-old religious structures, but whichever way you look at it, the Žižkov Television Tower is delightfully contrarian and wonderfully strange; a perverse thing of otherworldly elegance in a city with abundant charm already.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

A Snowy London Thursday

Source: MJA Smith

I've never liked snow. I hated it as a kid, though I'm sure I must occasionally have had some fun at some point. Chiefly I associate snow with having to wear wellington boots, which I detested; detested so much that during the bleak snow-filled winters we seemed to have every year in England in the early to mid-Eighties I'd occasionally find myself choosing to be one of the kids who didn't have wellies with them, thus being forced to spend breaktime and lunchtime in the classroom with the kids who had colds or ear infections, or who were being punished, rather than pelting my school friends with snowballs. That and the memory of the trek up the road to my school with my mother, past gutters from which foot-long stalactites of icicles would dangle; a sort of weird Narnia in the heart of the Midlands, past the old man's house with a different Meccano model in the window every day like some sort of out of place Lapland toymaker.

It's snowing in London today. I'm passing through Barbican Underground and there is something peaceful about the undisturbed snow on the disused platform; however everywhere else the snow is already becoming dirty as progressive commuters tramp their cold way to work. That I'm even on a Tube seems mildly amusing – checking the TFL website on the way to Euston, the Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines that I rely on to get me to the office are all suffering with severe delays, though I somehow managed to catch a half empty Met Line service no had than I stepped on to the platform at Euston Square.

I spoke to a native New Yorker this week who couldn't believe how poorly Britain copes with extremes of weather, and it is true. A colleague who lives near Horsham hasn't been able to get in to London the past two days as train services into London Bridge have all been cancelled. He and I were both supposed to be in Edinburgh from Tuesday to Thursday, but Edinburgh Airport has been closed most of the week. The New York guy said that in Manhattan life just goes on as it did before. The Lithuanian guy who works in our building's Starbucks concession also said that back home snow just doesn't bother them, their tyres having chains to prevent slippage. Here, it's complete chaos. News reports tell you how much a day of snow costs the economy, yet nothing changes. Roads go ungritted. Electricity supplies get cut. Intake of hot chocolate increases. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose as they say.

Somehow I managed to get to the office and home both days I've been into London this week, travelling from one of those serendipitously placed corridors north of London where business has carried on reasonably as usual. That said, I could have done with not looking like a complete tit wearing a beanie hat I picked up at some outward bound course somewhere in darkest Surrey a few years back.

Still, there's always the excitement etched on the faces of my two little girls to warm my cantankerous attitude towards the snow. We had the barest dusting of snow at the weekend – literally a millimetre at a stretch – and they were bouncing off the walls with joy, asking to make snowmen and have snowball fights, lying on the carpets and making snow angels. They don't mind wearing wellies either, so no chance of them being the grumpy kid choosing to sit with the naughty and sick kids in the classroom at lunchtime.

As I was trudging across the brown slushy mess that adorned the pavement, I began to wonder why I was even bothering going into the office, given that I only had a bunch of conference calls that I could very well have done from home; then I got to my floor in our office building and took a look outside, and when I saw the City spreading out in front of me covered in a delicate blanket of white snow, I realised that's why I bothered.