diamond geezer

 Monday, December 18, 2017

The Eighth Jedi

Star Wars episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
I watched my first Star Wars film at the perfect age of 12. Some schoolmates and I were invited to the Odeon cinema in darkest Watford as part of my best friend's special birthday treat. We dutifully trooped along one Saturday afternoon, little realising that we were about to experience one of the 20th century's great cultural classics. We didn't realise afterwards either, we just trooped back to his place afterwards for chicken and chips. But the two-word review in my diary that evening read "v good", and you can't argue with that even now. The Jedi universe soon subsumed itself into our playground culture, with fake lightsabre battles and the occasional bout of heavy breathing from deep inside our snorkel anorak hoods. You couldn't just rush out and buy the DVD in those days so I did the next best thing and bought the paperback, which I still own. I wish I'd nipped out and bought a cupboard full of action figures instead, all boxed and ready for eBay four decades later.

Star Wars episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
I watched my second Star Wars film at the troubled age of 15. My schoolmates and I were eager to reacquaint ourselves with Master Luke and Princess Leia so we rushed back to the Odeon for trilogy part 2. Again this was a best friend's birthday outing, again the screening was topped off by a special chicken meal, but this time my diary review stretched as far as "very good". There was a sense of an epic dynasty of well-rounded characters developing, a galactic soap opera in full flow, but never quite (in my case at least) total Jedi addiction.

Star Wars episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
I watched my third Star Wars film at the belated age of 24. I'd completely missed the film at the cinema when it was first released, I suspect because I was sitting my A levels at the time. That screening opportunity lost I had to wait patiently until the ITV Boxing Day Movie Premiere some six years later. Even then the schedulers broadcast the film at 2.30pm, hardly prime time, and I had to videotape it because I was busy entertaining three elderly ladies who'd come round for a festive afternoon of card games and Dingbats instead. Grainy VHS quality was a big comedown from the big screen, and maybe that's why I've never taken this particular episode to heart. Or maybe it was the Ewoks.

Star Wars episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
I watched my fourth Star Wars film at the advanced age of 34. I was down in Plymouth with the ex at the time, a couple of days before the great Cornish total eclipse. Both the film and the eclipse were much-hyped phenomena of astronomical proportions, eagerly anticipated by many after an over-long hiatus. Both promised much but delivered little, blighted in the former case by cloud cover and in the latter by the long dark shadow of Jar Jar Binks. I've rarely experienced a more disappointing week, to be honest. But hopefully the film had a more positive impact on the new target generation of 12 year olds sat in the row behind me, assuming they were paying attention between mouthfuls of popcorn, that is.

Star Wars episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
I watched my fifth Star Wars film at the tender age of 37. I took a new best mate to the cinema this time, and no birthday treat was required as an excuse. The film's title suggested, rather disturbingly, that this might turn out to be a martial arts movie featuring men with handlebar moustaches, but thankfully this turned out not to be the case. I was less than impressed by this plot-lite soppy love story with battle interludes, and before the end credits rolled I'd conceded that the original trilogy's charm and dynamism was probably unbeatable.

Star Wars episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
I watched my sixth Star Wars film at the threshold age of 40. I was going to watch it in Stratford, but then a class of secondary school children turned up outside the cinema so I hoofed it down to Docklands instead. On this occasion I went to the cinema by myself, so was there was nobody to turn to on the way out and discuss the aerial battles, the evolution of the Dark Side's helmets or how adequately the screenplay had bridged the trilogies. I thought that the film had overdone the internal politics, and got a bit bitty towards the end, but my diary review concluded that George Lucas's swansong was "good enough".

Star Wars episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
I watched my seventh Star Wars film at the elevated age of 50. I hadn't anticipated there'd ever be another film, but Disney's force was strong, and box office takings in the run up to Christmas too much to resist. I wasn't alone, my best mate came again too, and this time we risked Stratford's chattering hordes... who thankfully shut up during the 2¼ hour blockbuster. I enjoyed the mix of old and new characters, the satisfying narrative arc and the stunning range of digital landscapes. Afterwards we slipped into Pizza Express to mull over what we'd seen, and to avail ourselves of the festive menu. Our consensus was that the movie marked a impressive return to form, and that the seasonal toppings weren't as good as last year.

Star Wars episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)
I shall watch my eighth Star Wars film forty years after I watched my first. I'm not flying solo, indeed it's the sixth time I've attended with a best mate, such is the social significance of the overall franchise. Perhaps we'll agree in our post-credits washup that the special effects were overblown and the diversionary subplot somewhat underwhelming. But I've read the reviews, and managed to avoid the spoilers, so reckon I'm in for enough of treat to make my anticipation worthwhile. And when the soundtrack kicks in and the big yellow letters start scrolling up the screen, I hope that I'll be transported back to my own childhood, a long time ago in an Odeon far, far away.

 Sunday, December 17, 2017

Britain's greatest civilian disaster of WW2 unfolded on 3rd March 1943 in Bethnal Green. No bombs exploded, but 173 people lost their lives in a crush on a staircase after a single person tripped and fell. Today, almost 75 years later, an extraordinary memorial to their deaths is being inaugurated in the corner of Bethnal Green Gardens. The Stairway To Heaven has been a long time coming.

The original incident took place on a damp evening following the firing of new anti-aircraft guns in Victoria Park. Thinking they were under attack from enemy action, hundreds of people surged towards Bethnal Green tube station to seek shelter on the platforms below. The southeastern stairwell was lit by a single 25 watt bulb, thanks to the blackout, and lacked handrails because the government had told the council they weren't needed. The stairs were also slippery from the rain, so when a middle-aged woman carrying a baby tripped and fell, a lethal domino effect came into play.

People continued to press down into the stairwell, unable to see what was happening below, and within 15 seconds hundreds were struggling for air. Most of the casualties occurred on the landing where the staircase turns, just 19 steps down from the safety of the street. The first policeman on the scene estimated that over 200 bodies had been compressed into a space the size of a small room. 27 men, 84 women and 62 children never made it out alive.

A junior A&E doctor at the local children's hospital remembered how "one dead person after another arrived on stretchers, their faces wet and pale mauve in colour." Dr Martin is now 102 years old, and she'll be the oldest person present at this morning's ceremony. Also in attendance will be the Mayor of London, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, the local MP, several Pearly Kings and Queens, and notable East End celebrities with a longstanding connection to the memorial campaign.

For many years the sole physical recognition of the disaster was a small plaque at the foot of the stairs, and even that took some time to appear. This much larger memorial has been on the cards for almost ten years, thanks to the actions of the Stairway to Heaven Trust, and the determination of a Kent woman whose mother survived the tragedy.

It took a considerable amount of imagination to conceive a memorial which is essentially a cast of the staircase, inverted and suspended in midair. It also took a considerable amount of money, over £400,000 all told, which is why the final structure has emerged in two parts. First to appear was the Portland stone plinth, almost five years ago, since when it's been sticking up above the road junction like a peculiar snaking spike. Plaques on the upright name all the victims and their ages, from Betty Aarons (14) to John Yewman (13 months).

The final part, the actual staircase, was winched into position last month. It's made of teak and has been beautifully carved with the surname of every victim around three of the sides. Inside it's hollow, and on the top surface 173 conical holes have been drilled to allow light to pass through. During the day they look like tiny points of sky but after dark, with all the streetlamps blazing, it's easy to believe each is a star shining down. The Stairway To Heaven memorial thus achieves its aim, and is well named.

Around the base of the memorial is a small garden, planted with daffodil bulbs to bring colour each year on the anniversary of the tragedy. There's also a small bench, for contemplative purposes, and information boards to explain the significance of what happened here. At present, however, the whole area is boarded over and barriered off, to ensure that this morning's unveiling can take place without creating a mudbath. Ceremonies begin at 11.15am, should you be interested in attending.

But the memorial is already turning heads. I passed by yesterday, and was struck by quite how many people stopped and stared, or at least deliberately looked, trying to hard comprehend why on earth an upturned staircase might be suspended here. Hopefully the publicity surrounding its official unveiling will help explain, or else more people will pop into the park to read about its history once the area is opened up.

What always chills me, though, is passing the memorial and then heading down the stairs into the ticket hall. The treads and handrails may be new, but the landing at the foot of the steps is still the same size, and in only a few seconds you pass through a tiny space where almost 200 people lost their lives. One slip was all it took to turn an ordinary passageway into a tomb, and a place of refuge into a suffocating hellhole. As more recent events at Grenfell Tower also remind us, skimping on health and safety can have catastrophic consequences we must never forget.

» The Stairway to Heaven website (includes the full story of the tragedy and victims' stories)
» The Bethnal Green Memorial Project (includes individual stories and an excellent 30 minute audio trail)

 Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Night Overground launched this morning. According to officialdom it launched on Friday, but that's because TfL decree that days continue until 4:30am, even though it was definitely Saturday by the time the first train ran.

Officialdom turned up at Dalston Junction in the early hours to celebrate the launch. They smiled, posed for photos and hopped onto the first southbound Night Overground train, departing for New Cross Gate at 12:35am. But the very first Night Overground train had in fact set off over quarter of an hour earlier, heading north from New Cross Gate, and that didn't get quite the same send off. I was on that very first train instead.

Friday night is party night in east London, and southeast London has a semi-banging time of it too. But up until this weekend the Ginger Line has always packed in just as things are hotting up, around half past midnight, leaving merry revellers to wait for buses, hail Ubers or simply hang out til dawn. In New Cross the Marquis of Granby is buzzing, the Venue bustling and the Amersham Arms somewhat quieter, so far as I can judge from the number of smokers stood outside. A conga of students spills onto the pavement, vodka bottles in hand. Someone has left half a clingfilmed panettone on top of a pillar box.

New Cross Gate station is bright and welcoming, even if the platforms are somewhat bare. There aren't many takers for the inaugural Night Overground service, it's heading against the flow, but there is a member of staff on board with a white and orange lanyard to answer any questions nobody seems to have. As the departure time nears, more than one driver walks up to the front of the train - perhaps there's a kudos to being on this inaugural journey.

The first Night Overground train sets off at 00:19, bang on time, but mostly empty. A couple of the carriages contain only a couple of people. A press photographer bides his time waiting for something to happen. An evening shift worker tucks into a wrap and a bottle of cloudy lemon juice. Two bikes have been wheeled into the centre of the train. One over-merry bloke enjoys a quick workout hanging from the overhead bars.

At Surrey Quays things pick up a little. Four bickering mates stride aboard and get animated about how something isn't making them very happy. Thankfully for my ears they only stay on for one stop. At Canada Water the demographic shifts markedly, thanks to the Jubilee line connection, and my carriage companions are now well dressed white couples in scarves and berets. We're into the busiest section of the journey here, with possibly 60 or 70 passengers now on board, the Night Overground's most appealing feature being that it crosses under the Thames.

On every platform we pass, one roundel has been transformed with a sparkly vinyl ring, to add a little branding magic to the overnight line. As for those of us on board, what's nice is that our new service is entirely indistinguishable from a normal service, except that this train wouldn't usually be running at this time of night. Very few of the people on board look over 30. I may be the only one over 40, it's hard to tell.

At Shadwell the driver makes an announcement and welcomes us "to the first Night Overground train". He has a more important message for everyone, which is that "this train will not be stopping at Whitechapel". This station needs to stay closed to allow Crossrail work to happen overnight, which adds a somewhat annoying gap in the middle of the line. We sail through Whitechapel at normal cruising speed. At least five people head towards the doors, then look confused because we haven't stopped, and then check the maps, which give absolutely no clue as to what just happened.

The southbound platform at Shoreditch High Street is a lot busier than ours. A pair of police officers are waiting near the top of the stairs along with two Overground staff, forming a hi-vis quartet. By contrast Hoxton is pretty much dead, which might come as a surprise to all those of you who assumed it was party central. By my reckoning there are now fewer than 10 people per carriage, although that's not bad all told for this time in the morning. Most people are well wrapped up. A few Christmas jumpers can be seen poking out over zipped up jackets.

Somewhere between Hoxton and Haggerston the first southbound Night Overground train rushes by in a blur. Somewhere aboard is the Night Czar, clutching her special roundel and looking for smiling passengers to have her photo taken with. There are no such excitements on our inaugural service. Neither is there any special recognition when we finally arrive at Dalston Junction, indeed you'd never know any official ceremonial had been taking place on the platforms only a few minutes earlier.

The streets of Dalston are busy, especially with da yoof. Although most of the bars and restaurants have packed up for the evening, McDonalds is doing a bustling trade, and more than one kebab vendor is busy slicing meat onto trays of chips. On the main roads and up various sidestreets, certain doors normally ignored during the daytime have opened up, and a queue of would-be clubbers is waiting patiently outside.

Fliers for Atone are scattered on the pavement outside Dalston Kingsland station, which has just shuttered down for the night. Outside Voodoo Ray a man is breathing into a balloon, while passers-by kick several empty silver capsules along the pavement. Some teenage same-sex snogging is underway against the wall outside The Speakeasy. Only one police car speeds through, sirens blaring.

Back inside the station, a trio of tipsy women are annoyed to find there are no trains to Stratford. A member of staff suggests they could head down to Canada Water and change there, what with the Night Tube network being so restricted, but the girls have never heard of Canada Water and decide to take a nightbus instead.

According to the display in the ticket hall and the indicators on the platform, all the trains to New Cross Gate are departing from platform 2. This turns out to be very much not correct, and dozens of waiting passengers have to be cajoled over to the train on platform 1 instead. This departs, again on time, with a healthy cargo of bobble hats, bicycles and bleary-eyed travellers heading south.

This time I get out at Shoreditch High Street, where I'm impressed to see dozens of people on the platform, and less impressed when I have to nudge through a huddle to alight the train. Down in the ticket hall a group of posh lads is bemoaning the fact that none of the overnight trains are going to Clapham, without realising how lucky they are to have turned up on the first night there are any trains south of the river at all.

Once outside the station, Boxpark may have sealed up but the nightlife is buzzing. Groups of young people are clustered all over the streets, some walking between bars, others looking for one, and others keener to find something greasy to eat. It's easy to see how the Night Overground could be of long-term use here, and even more so when the extension to Highbury and Islington begins next year. But the overall overnight network remains somewhat limited, so I need to take the nightbus instead and head home the old fashioned way.

 Friday, December 15, 2017

I miss Instant Messaging.

That little pop-up service on your computer which allowed you to speak to anyone else on their computer, in real time, back in the days when conversation at a distance was a novelty.

I joined ICQ in 1997, and Yahoo! Messenger in 1998, and MSN Messenger in 1999, even AIM in 2000 to make sure I had all the conversational bases covered. I made lots of friends via Instant Messenger, or rather I kept in touch with lots of friends, and sometimes passing acquaintances became people I spoke to on a regular basis.

Back then the amazing thing was the "instant" part of instant messaging, whereby a sentence typed at my end could be off to the other side of the planet and a response back in a matter of seconds. Sometimes I could even see they were typing something, so I knew to hang around to see what it was, and so the chat continued. It had suddenly become very easy to have a decent conversation without actually speaking, which was brilliant because I'm not one for picking the phone up and actually ringing someone.

What I liked best was that you could see whether or not the other person was actually there. If they were around their little light flicked on, and when they went away their little light flicked off, so I could always tell whether it was worth giving conversation a try. This worked particularly efficiently during the days of dial-up, when the divide between "at computer" and "not at computer" was very clear. Then broadband came along and computers started to be connected all the time, at which point a third state intruded (variously called busy, be right back or do not disturb) and I might end up trying to start a conversation with someone who wasn't there.

What also helped was that computers were large static boxes plugged into the wall, so people went to the room where the computer was and concentrated on the screen for a set length of time. Even if the person at the other end was multi-tasking they often had time for a chat, and I could get through quite a few pleasantries, anecdotes and queries before they wandered off. Laptops helped keep people online for longer, but also made it much easier not to be paying proper attention to the screen, hence conversations sometimes dried up mid-flow with no explanation.

The advance of mobile technology has helped to make instant messaging obsolete. Apps have come along which do much the same thing, like Whatsapp, Telegram or even Snapchat, creating new walled gardens of conversation. Photos and video have become more important now they're much easier to send, so fewer people are faffing around on portals which require text, especially because tapping on a tiny screen is much slower than using a full-size keyboard. What's more mobiles and tablets weren't originally designed for multi-tasking, so attempting to watch a video or play a game or read a map AND manage an online conversation was doomed to fail... and by the time "notifications" came along IM had already fallen.

Email's not the same. You can write more, indeed writing more's encouraged, but then the whole chain of communication becomes slow and is anything but instant. Twitter's not the same. The whole conversation's public, and I don't know about you but I'm not happy to broadcast my private thoughts like that. Texting's not the same. Even though it's free and easy there's still a relatively lengthy delay between each message, and using a titchy keypad restricts meaningfully rapid conversation. Browser-based messaging services aren't the same. Once you press send it can be at least a couple of minutes before the page refreshes and any response returns, and you can waste hours of your life hanging around that way.

I'm not bereft. Several other messaging services have become available, and they have hugely greater functionality than those 20th century originals. Wifi and 4G also mean they work from almost anywhere, like halfway down the high street or at a mate's house or the middle of a field. But as each successive IM system has disappeared it's taken with it a slew of people I used to talk to, and they're no longer a regular part of my life, and that makes me sad.

Windows Live Messenger fell in 2013. It's OK, they said, we've bought Skype and we'll transfer you all over there. But by that time most of the users had fallen away, and Skype is a bloated service plagued by ads, and I haven't had a decent conversation on there in ages. Yahoo Messenger faded out in 2015. This didn't really matter, because most of the userbase had long deserted, so there were hardly any current interactions to snuff out. But today they're pulling the plug on AIM, as AOL's new owners shut its Instant Messenger service down, and this extinction has annoyed me more.

I've been chatting to BestMate on AIM almost daily since 2007, when we switched over from Yahoo where we'd been for years. I know what he's up to, he knows what I'm up to, we organise meeting up and we help each other out with problems as they arise. Significantly BestMate also uses it to talk to his work colleagues in the States, indeed the chat function has become an integral part of a corporate working day. But whereas it worked fine for business communication yesterday, today it's being switched off, and now the company is having to adapt to survive.

BestMate and I have switched to Slack, which is working pretty well so far, and on-demand conversation has been maintained. It's better because we can now chat anywhere, thanks to the app, but it's also worse because I can no longer easily tell whether he's at home on his computer or not. I send messages that get no response, and he sends messages that get no response, but at least we can still talk in real time as instantly as before.

It turns out the main reason I miss Instant Messaging isn't the technology, it's the people. There used to be dozens of people I knew on there, and now there aren't. Indeed there were several years when I only had to log into the system and some friend would pop up for a conversation, maybe several. Then there were several years when there were fewer people, and then several years when I could log in and nobody would say hello at all, and nobody would be there if I wanted to say hello back. So it doesn't really matter that I can no longer even log in, because there's no longer anybody there to talk to, they all left ages ago.

I blame the multiplicity of new chat services. When MSN and Yahoo were the only big players, most people were on one or the other, and both were easy to monitor. Then other opportunities cropped up, other walled gardens, and people started to drift off elsewhere overnight. One week you'd be chatting happily to someone, and then they never came back and you realised you didn't have any other means of contacting them. If you hadn't thought ahead to get an email address or mobile number, and didn't know them via any other route, suddenly they were gone. Most of my online acquaintances blinked out like this, like candles extinguished in the wind, never to be relit.

I never joined Facebook, and I suspect that's where I went wrong. Most people wound over up over there, chatting and liking and tagging and generally distracting each other, publishing photos of their children and/or pets and/or lunches ad nauseam. If I'd joined Facebook I might still be talking to several of my former IM buddies, might even know what they were up to these days, or perhaps I'd just be incensed by their frantic over-sharing. But it's a bit late to relocate there now, especially as dozens of these people were only ever nicknames to me and I'd never know where to start looking.

I miss Instant Messaging, and the people who used to use it. I wonder if anyone's missing me.

 Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Bexley/Crayford/Erith
The modern borough of Bexley is a four-way amalgam - the Municipal Borough of Bexley, the Municipal borough of Erith, Crayford Urban District and as much of Chislehurst and Sidcup Urban District as lay north of the A20. All were previously in Kent, which has inspired 50 years of tedious nominative argument we'll not delve into here. But there's no doubt Bexley still feels somewhat disconnected, even unexplored, so I thought it would be a great place to go for a random walk.

Dérive - Bexley

Psychogeographers love a good dérive. A dérive is "an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there". It comes from the French word for 'drift', the same language that gave us flâneur, meaning 'one who wanders aimlessly'. But it's quite tricky to drop one's expectations and freewheel, so what's often needed is a strategy to aid unbiased exploration. You could flip a coin at each junction, you could draw a straight line on a map and try to follow it, or choose to only walk downhill. As a reader of this blog, I'd hope you've flâneured at least once.

To aid me in my drift around Bexley I used an app called Dérive, which deals a pack of virtual 'task cards' to direct users around an urban landscape. Every time you need a new challenge you press for another card, read the instruction and off you go. The app even takes note of time and distance, and generates a map so you can see where you've been. The app's small, and free, and has been updated to a new improved version only this week. If you ever have an hour to spare in an unfamiliar location, or even half an hour closer to home, you too could give Dérive a try.

I selected a base deck of general urban tasks and combined these with a specific set for London, let the app do the shuffling, and set out. For my starting point I picked the point where the three boroughs of Bexley, Crayford and Erith originally met, which it turned out is on the edge of Northumberland Heath. Annoyingly the precise spot is at the bottom of the garden of number 20 Courtleet Drive, a residential cul-de-sac off the Erith Road, and therefore inaccessible. So I stood outside the front garden, attempting not to look in any way suspicious, fired up the app and began.

Find a dustbin. Well that's easy. Even better, my first success is the bin outside 20 Courtleet Drive.
Stroll. Greet a passing stranger. Take a photo of their shoes. Apologise and continue. Ah. Some of these cards require actual interaction with your environment, and this instruction demands more interaction than most. I head up to the main road and soon pass a middle-aged gentleman, somewhat grumpy-looking, and fail to carry out the full sequence of three. I do grunt "morning", and he ignores me. I do snap an awkwardly surreptitious shot of his sensible black trainers, but I decide against following up with an apology because that would only make things worse.
Look for some trash on the street. If it's moving, follow it. I meet a fox sitting brazenly on the pavement at the top of Doris Avenue, but I guess that's not the kind of trash intended. A squashed Coke can suffices instead.
Find silence. Oh now that's a good challenge. Even though this is Bexley on a weekday, the backstreets are never entirely quiet. A slammed car door. The postman on his rounds. A beer barrel thumped off a lorry outside The Brewers Arms. Jetwash. A Mercedes being pushed onto the back of a breakdown truck. Aeroplanes overhead. Numerous birds. Eventually I work out that Burstead Wood offers the best opportunity for peace, so head there. It is an absolutely glorious winter's day in the park, and absolutely nobody is here but me. The sound of scrunchy leaves fades away as I stop walking. Perfect silence.

Identify a group of people. Walk towards them and loiter around for a bit. This must be dead easy in the centre of the city, but it proves much harder in the Bexley suburbs. Most people drive. Only singletons are out walking. The bus shelters are recently emptied. I walk towards the shopping parade in Barnehurst, but even this retail hub can't generate a 'group' of any description. I blame the large billboard beside the computer repair shop which urges locals to go to Bluewater instead. In the end I resort to visiting the station, where a group of glum hooded figures with hands in pockets await the Victoria train. I loiter until they depart.
Find a cat. The best place to spot a cat must surely be a residential street, so I head to the adjacent warren of commuterbelt avenues. Up the fourth avenue I think I spot a cat crossing the top of the hill, so hike up, and there's a black and white tabby perched on a wall behind the hollybush at number 15. Tick.
Turn around. I was hoping to continue up the hill, but I'm not in charge here, the app is, so I turn around.
Walk towards the heart of the city. If there's no heart, conjure one up. That'll be west, then. And Grasmere Road has plenty of heart, in the form of wreaths on doors, a jolly snowman on one front step and an illuminated polar bear on another.

Find graffiti or tagging. In most inner London locations this would be easy, but this is Bexley and surfaces are generally pristine. I even find a row of ten garages behind some flats, and am amazed to see that their doors are clear - pure white, pure brown - until finally the tenth has a splash of faded tagging above the handle. Memo, whoever you are, much respect.
Follow a green vehicle. I soon confirm that green cars are vastly outnumbered by their duller-coloured counterparts. I stand at the fiveway junction in Northumberland Heath, breathing in the sweet smell of baked goods, for at least five minutes before anything appropriately emerald goes by. And that's why I exit via Brook Street, one of the only roads across the original heath, long built-over.
Alternate between lefts and rights until you find something that's framed. Left, past one of Bexley's rare tower blocks. Right, towards Londis at the back of the Pheasant Garage. Left, past the recently boarded-up Pheasant pub. Hey presto, I've arrived at the source of that gorgeous smell, Erith's Hovis bakery, a huge industrial affair running down to the back of Courtleet Drive. And ahh, framed on the wall outside is a child rolling a hoop with a huge loaf of wholemeal on his shoulder. "Hovis ensures a healthy race." My random walk is finally delivering the goods.

Look for someone wearing red shoes. Take notes and directly afterwards, take the 1st left. I'm hopeful, because red trainers are definitely in vogue at present. But not during schooltime, not in winter, and today everyone's in white or black. I ply the entirety of Northumberland Heath's shopping parade, an extensive beast, and the best I can come up with is a pair of purple boots. The Big Issue seller is in brown flats. The Santa Claus in the window of the charity shop is barefoot. Eventually I spot a bloke outside the Utopia Nail Spa with red soles, and he'll have to do.
Zigzag from street to street until you find a patch of grass. Horsa Road... Ethelbert Road... Hengist Road... Penda Road... Collindale Avenue... a triangular traffic island with a tree on it. I like how all the streetname signs in Bexley include the logo of a defecating dog rather than the borough's coat of arms.
Meander in the direction of a green car. My quest is suddenly starting to feel a bit repetitive. Green cars continue to be distressingly rare. I meander more in hope than expectation, finally spotting one on Brook Road.
Meander in the direction of a green car. What? Again? But this time I spot one almost straight away, parked up behind iron gates, windscreen frozen over. My dérive has delivered me to Erith Cemetery!

Pick a flower. Oh that's cruel. Obviously whoever put these cards together had no idea that this one might pop up in a graveyard, but even though it's the one place you're sure to find flowers in winter, there's surely no worse place to pick one. Nobody else is here, other than a stonemason hiding in his van, but seriously, no way. I pass several vases of artificial blooms before reaching the final resting place of Valerie Iris Thomas, died 10th January 1942, aged 4 years. The pot of real pink flowers on her grave has blown over in a recent gale, and looks bereft, so I pick it up and set it right. The app has inspired a good turn after all.
Look down for the next 15 steps. Pine needles, pine cones, large brown oak leaf.
Find yourself a quiet spot. Contemplate your surroundings and take the busiest exit. In a cemetery, finding a quiet spot isn't difficult. The land falls away sharply beyond the railings, opening up a vista towards rooftops, a pile of spoil in a former quarry topped with cranes, and a heaped-up landfill site on the other side of the Thames. It's strangely pretty.
Find a parked sports (or just fancy) car. Walk in the direction its front wheel is pointing. A posh car in Lessness Heath? I'm unconvinced. The app's allowing me freedom of direction so I cross the valley and climb the hill and pass the flats and nothing's looking even vaguely souped up. Thank heavens I reach the soft top Mini Cooper outside Court Lodge seconds before its owner emerges and drives off.
Follow a phone user. Here on the main road I'm spoilt for choice - everyone's tapping away. I follow the nearest woman, and only later do I discover I've been stalking a young mother on her way to nursery. I doubt that "blaming the app" would stand up in court.

Find an object that's out of place. Continue in the direction the object appears to be facing. Everything on Erith Road (another Erith Road) looks normal, especially the houses, even the fire station. But a steep hill sign still shown as a ratio (1 in 9) is definitely unusual, indeed it's very Bexley.
Follow something black. That's too easy. I follow a car from Elaine's Driving School, Erith-ward.
Walk north and find something you can draw hope from. Ah, no longer Erith-ward, but heading towards the Thames. I'm expecting to reach St John the Baptist church, one of the oldest buildings in Bexley, but instead halt before the dual carriageway at the lowly pebbledash Erith Working Men's Club. Its back door is open and a working man's knees are sticking out, fag in hand. Another working man drives up in a van and parks outside. There is hope.
Turn left in 10 steps. Done. Blimey, this is almost shantytown Bexley up here, with less than sturdy homes crammed in on unadopted roads.
Head towards a nearby square of some kind. At the top of the hill is Franks Park, a splendid hump of woodland separating the two residential flanks. It has a former bandstand and a former air raid shelter, and a central panorama of the Thames, but nothing obviously square. I choose to walk down into Belvedere in the hope that its shops are in a square, but Asda and B&Q are too sprawled and the rest too linear. Outside the clothes shop a police officer is giving a full body search to a mouthy man in overalls. Her colleague is checking his van, which has a hockey mask hanging prominently over the front seat. The man is proclaiming his innocence, and giving them a full rundown of recent surgery on his tendons. I'll never top this, I reckon, and decide to end my dérive here. To reveal the true nature of a place, sometimes it's best to have no plans at all.

 Wednesday, December 13, 2017

It's been a year since I discovered that the Metropolitan line extension had been cancelled/stalled/sidelined/scrapped.

It's been two years since TfL said the extension would open in December 2019. It's been four years since TfL said the extension would open in December 2016. It's been six years since the Government gave the go-ahead for the scheme. It's been more than 20 years since trains last ran down the line. It's been over 40 years since the extension was originally proposed.

But with the project in limbo, what's been happening on the ground? I walked the length of the extension last December, and I've walked it again this December, so I can reveal all.

Spoiler: Nothing's happened, so there's no need to read the rest of this report.

At the foot of Baldwins Lane, where a new viaduct is planned to launch off from the existing Metropolitan line, nothing's happened. The Croxley Car Centre is still trading in second hand vehicles. Traffic still flows down to the Two Bridges roundabout unencumbered. At Cinnamond HQ (Demolition & Site Clearance; Windows, Doors & Conservatories) one side of the yard has been completely cleared, ready for the new bridge to stalk across, but as yet no stalking has occurred. Vegetation on the embankment, last year mostly cut back, has begun to grow again. There is no indication that anyone was ever planning to build anything here, other than on a map.

Facing the curve of the roundabout, the former Croxley Green station remains sealed off. The same metal barriers lean up against the gap between two billboards, but this year with a slight gap, potentially making it easier to push through, ascend the steps and trespass on the ex-platform beyond. The children's playground by the Sea Scouts hut is still in action, rather than being buried under concrete feet. Narrowboats remain permanently moored up at Cassio Wharf beneath the crumbling lattice bridge, rather than facing eviction. Of the viaduct which ought to be the centrepiece of the new extension, there is absolutely no sign.

Cassiobridge station is scheduled to be built where the old railway bridge crosses part of Ascot Road. You wouldn't know. It's not even obvious where the steps might go, let alone any lifts. A couple of twiggy trees can be seen growing on the trackbed above the lane, just past where the new viaduct might connect. Walk up the alleyway, round the back of what used to be Sun Printers, and you can peer through the metal fence and see where two new platforms might go. Last year labourers levelled the vegetation along this stretch to a few stumps and some grass, but after an unrestrained summer much of it is back, some of the grass head high, with saplings reappearing in its midst.

Watford West station will not be served by the new extension, but most of its infrastructure remains, plain as day. Under the old archway, one of the laminated safety notices attached to the gate has half-blown away since last year, but the other three are still firmly in place. Lampposts painted Network-South-East-red still lead down the steps and along the platform, where weeds are now sprouting up between the tiles. The former British Rail tracks can still be clearly seen, but not as clearly as last December, having been encroached upon by burgeoning undergrowth nobody's been back to extinguish since. It's much better than six years ago, when the entire cutting was a forest with trees far above road height, but a second abandonment phase is decidedly underway.

The humpbacked bridge on Vicarage Road still looks like an odd place to build a tube station. The land around this future interchange is taken up, clockwise, by a primary school, a large electricity substation, Holywell allotments and Harwoods Recreation Ground. The bridge across the former railway is so narrow traffic can only cross it in single file. Time it right and you can step across to look down at the remains of the previous station built here - Watford Stadium - a halt added to deliver travelling Hornets to the football. Orange netting draped around the former platform has been partially breached. If anyone was truly serious about building the new line they'd have dismantled the lampposts and removed the platform, because a second track won't fit otherwise. Nothing is looking serious.

At the end of Stripling Way, the cycle path underneath the dilapidated railway bridge should still be fenced off. Instead some ne'erdowells have broken one of the panels and opened up a portal to the former industrial park beyond, now demolished, now mostly mud. They might even be the hoodies I saw lurking underneath in the shadows, who convinced me it would be unwise to investigate further. One day the path will be reinstated, Metropolitan line extension or no, connecting to a 253-unit residential community for Watford's over-55s, complete with health club, swimming pool and multi-purpose village hall. In the meantime a lengthy, inconvenient diversion is required.

Last year I was amazed by the emergence of Watford Health Campus, a razed development zone sprawled across brownfield land to either side of the former railway. This year I was surprised how little had changed since last year. A lone road swoops impotently down from the hospital, all traffic other than ambulances banned, linking to the back end of a public car park. Over the parapet large tracts of levelled mud await rebirth as 408 residential dwellings, notionally a short walk from a non-existent tube station. The twelve warehouse sheds which were supposed to form Trade City are now complete, but only one is occupied, the remainder still screamingly to let. Had the Metropolitan Line extension been built already it'd have no new passengers to serve... not here, not yet.

The final quarter mile of former railway exits the development zone to follow the back of a Victorian terrace, track removed, vegetation slowly retaking hold. But here as everywhere else along the route all the evidence suggests that TfL walked away many months ago, the land silently mothballed, hands washed, eyes elsewhere. Physically it wouldn't take much to restart the project, just some heavy strimming, but with every extra summer all the work done to remediate the line could start to slip away.

The real problem is of course financial, as TfL refuses to pay anything over and above the £284m Boris signed them up to last year. Growth Fund documentation released this month suggests the estimated final cost is now £355m, which is three times what the extension was supposed to cost in 2011, and even higher than the last figure the Mayor gave out in September. Meanwhile the Department of Transport says the extension will be built or else, and Watford's Mayor looks on wondering how her beloved development zone can thrive without the tube station everyone else promised. While financial stalemate continues, it looks ever more likely that the old line will be reclaimed by nature long before it sees another train.

» 50 photos from 2011/2014
» 25 photos from 2016 (which is also pretty much what 2017 looks like)

 Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Crossrail, which launches in a year's time, is "a marvel of engineering and state-of-the-art design which will fundamentally transform the lives of Londoners, businesses and visitors". It's also about to become the most valuable advertising canvas in town, as TfL revealed yesterday.
"We are seeking six exclusive partners who will work with us to launch the line, transforming how we work with leading brands to engage one of the most valuable and diverse audiences in the world."
TfL are looking to go into partnership with six commercial partners for a year-long Crossrail deal, each of whom will get one-sixth of the advertising estate, and the opportunity to focus their messages on millions of affluent passengers.
"In December 2018, the world will be watching as we embark on the launch year of Crossrail. Our vision is to begin this journey in the company of six sector-exclusive brand partners. With official designation status, one-sixth of an unbeatable advertising estate and your brand integrated with TfL’s Crossrail campaign, you will be embedded within this moment in history."
These lucky brands will get to place their logos alongside the line's roundel in campaign collateral and claim to be Launch Partners, "enjoying association and exclusivity for the transformational 12-month period". They'll be six brands with bugger all to do with Crossrail, other than they share certain key behaviours, or mutual vision, or some other weary brandspeak. But they'll be everywhere - up the escalators, on the platform doors, even on the trains - and given prominence within TfL's media spin operation for a full year. Top multinationals are already salivating at the opportunity.

When the Jubilee line extension was designed, the focus was cutting-edge architecture. With Crossrail, however, a different priority has been envisaged. We're told that these are "new stations designed with advertising in mind". Your journey through the station is being micro-managed to ensure "an integrated, clean, trusted environment, giving consumers time to absorb brand messages." Your attention is being hijacked by "premium infrastructure and full-motion capability delivering unequalled levels of engagement". Even if your head's in your phone, these are adverts it won't be possible not to look at.

To some it's marketing nirvana, "a unique opportunity that will align with this historic moment for London." To others it's visual prostitution and the depressing outcome of a permanent budget squeeze.
Catch the eye of the world by showcasing your brand to:
• A global audience who are commuting, shopping, socialising, studying and enjoying all of London’s vibrancy
• International visitors who will spend £15bn in London each year
• Influential business leaders and decision makers
• A London audience, who are otherwise light consumers of media
Obviously I'm interested. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to launch the diamond geezer brand in front of the world's elite, and I want in.

It's not especially expensive either. All I have to do is crowdfund £6.5m, which is less than £1 from every Londoner, which is easily achievable. The £40m TfL hopes to raise from this rights auction is less than 1% of what they collect in fares in a year, peanuts in the grand scheme of things, so I'm sure we can all muck in.

I'm excited by the cross-fertilisation synergies between my blog and the Crossrail brand. The slate grey of my blog's background is a clear match to the modal colour of the new line's roundel palette. I have already communicated the line and the transformation story to new and wider audiences, so I'm well ahead of the game there.

I embrace the opportunity to plaster my latest blogpost all over the panelled doors on Crossrail platforms. I look forward to hiring minions in fancy dress to hand out branded packs of playing cards in Crossrail ticket halls. I can't wait to see my latest Dangleway review rippling up Crossrail escalators on digital ribbons. I'm excited by the possibility of renaming Farringdon 'Diamond Junction' as part of a tie-in deal with a nearby Hatton Garden jeweller.
"This is a moment not to be missed. As an official partner you will be granted rights to state-of-the-art advertising infrastructure in newly designed, premium, trusted environments. Your partnership goes way beyond advertising, with your brand becoming fully integrated into all aspects of the new line, including PR, marketing, VIP events and digital."
As an Official Launch Partner my blog will be given regular prominence within official TfL editorial. I'm thrilled that my online portfolio will be showcased at VIP events during initial project rollout. I'll laugh at the misfortune of my sector competitors, whose promotional messages will be excluded from the entire line during the twelve month launch period. Crossrail's customer experience will be enhanced by my needy marketing strategies, and you'll have no choice but to absorb what I have written.

TfL's Commercial Development Sales Presentation includes essential audience profiles to help me select the optimum stations for my ongoing campaign. Should I target the Penthouse chic of Bond Street, the Rural vogue of Liverpool Street or the Alpha families of Canary Wharf? Is my target market the mature married couples of Paddington, the pet owners of Farringdon or the large extended families of Whitechapel? If you thought Crossrail was only a transport project, think again.

My crowdfunding initiative will launch early next year, aligned to the unveiling of TfL's virtual reality showcase for potential partners. In March I'll be taking up the offer of site tours for interested parties, keen to visit the subterranean portfolio with the Director for Commercial Development to scrutinise locational opportunities first hand. I'll submit my tender in April, as required, and expect to be announced as a successful partner in October. Please give generously.

You'll be seeing a lot more of the six winning Official Launch Partners when Crossrail launches, as trains and real estate are liberally scattered with targeted advertising collateral. Imagine facing adverts for Audi, BUPA, NatWest, Shell, Sky and Smirnoff, or whoever, on every commuter journey for an entire year. A railway triumph we thought had been hijacked by the Queen will instead be dominated by half a dozen highest bidders, unavoidably embedded in the customer experience, as the new line finally reveals its true colours.

 Monday, December 11, 2017

Here are half a dozen photos of a snowy Olympic Park.

Feel free to ignore them, and revel in your own snow experiences instead.

It's time to update my list of snowy days, specifically days this century when it's snowed in London.

You can do this thing when you're the sort of person who keeps a daily diary, and who adds a special symbol every time it snows. This is therefore a wholly unscientific list, unverified by meteorological professionals, and sometimes dependent on whether I happened to be looking out of the window or not at the crucial moment. Indeed the whole thing's woefully subjective, sorry, but it's better than nothing, OK?

It snowed on every date listed in the tables below. Most snow events were just a few flakes or a light sprinkling. If it snowed enough to properly settle, the date's in bold. If it snowed a lot, and settled a lot, the date's underlined.

Snowy days in London (2001-2017)
2001Jan 18, Mar 2 
2003Jan 8 30 
2004Jan 28 
2005Feb 21 22, Mar 4Dec 27
2006Feb 23 
2007Mar 19 
2008Mar 22 23Nov 23
2009Jan 5, Feb 1 2, Apr 6Dec 16 17 18 21
2010Jan 5 6 8 9 12 13, Feb 8 10  Nov 30, Dec 1 2 3 6 16 17 18 20
2011 Dec 16
2012Jan 31, Feb 4 9 
2013Jan 14 18 19 20 21 23, Feb 11 22 23 24, Mar 11 13 23 24 30, Apr 4 
2015Jan 31, Feb 3, Mar 3Nov 21
2016Jan 17 
2017Jan 12 13, Feb 10 11Nov 30, Dec 10 11

Some thoughts...
* 2017 is one of only four years with as many as six snowy days.
* Yesterday was one of London's very few snowman-making days this century.
* My word, the winter of 2013 stands out (but then it didn't snow again for almost two years).
* January is the snowiest month, followed by December and February, then March.
* It snows a lot more at the start of the year than the end of the year.
* There have only been two snow-free years this century - 2002 and 2014.
* If it snows, it only settles about one-third of the time.
* If you live outside London, yes I know, "bold/underlined" is nothing compared to what you get.
* Whatever global warming may be up to, it does still sometimes snow in London.
* For a rather more precise set of data, check out the nw3weather website.

 Sunday, December 10, 2017

K Twickenham
The London borough of Richmond is unique in that it spans the Thames, its north-of-the-river portion being the former Municipal Borough of Twickenham. Within its boundaries were Hampton Court Palace, Teddington Studios, the National Physical Laboratory and of course the home of English rugby union at Twickenham Stadium. But I've chosen to visit a much less well known tourist attraction, barely a dropkick from the rugby, in the leafy suburb of Whitton. Kneller Hall's collection is only available for viewing for two hours a week, and you need security clearance to get inside, but my word it's worth the effort.

The Museum of Army Music

Location: Kneller Hall, Whitton TW2 7DU [map]
Open: Wednesdays, 2pm-4pm (or by arrangement)
Website: army.mod.uk/music/23294.aspx
Twitter: @armymusicmuseum
Facebook: Museum-of-Army-Music

Whitton's a mixed bag of a suburb, with winding residential avenues and an arterial road slicing through. Its high street is probably the best preserved 1930s high street in the capital, neither over-posh nor unduly chained, almost as if Middlesex were still a thriving entity. But head slightly north and you'll discover a large enclave surrounded by razor wire under the ownership of the British Army. And within the security perimeter, somewhat unexpectedly, is a large neo-Jacobethan mansion with a grand facade, all redbrick bays and pointy towers.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, the finest portrait painter of his age, built his Hall in 1709 on the site of a former manor house, allegedly from a design by Sir Christopher Wren. After his death the house was sold on to a lawyer, then an MP, before being mostly demolished and rebuilt in even grander style. The first new tenant was a teacher training college, then in 1857 Kneller Hall was taken over by the War Office as their first ever school for army bandsmen. Previously it hadn't really mattered that every regiment played music their own way, but the advent of collective military ceremonial, watched by Her Majesty the Queen, forced a rethink. The music school's been here 160 years.

Getting inside is... memorable. I turned up on spec on a Wednesday afternoon, and spent a few minutes looking for a public way in. No such entrance exists. Instead all visitors have to use the main gate, which is padlocked shut, by gaining the attention of the soldier on the far side. I asked whether the museum was open, and he seemed uncertain for a moment, then unlocked the gate and allowed me inside. This felt slightly surreal. Ten minutes earlier I'd been looking at novelty t-shirts in The Rugby Store, and now I was a civilian lurking inside an army base.

Next stop the Guardroom, which is a bit like a concierge's desk but with focused military intent. Most of the hut's business can be conducted through a window at the front, but I had to step inside to open up a chain of communication, and again to have my mugshot taken. I also wasn't going to get any further without showing photo ID - a driving licence sufficed - and then I had to stand around and wait while my details were being checked against some unknown database of national security ne'erdowells. Thankfully I appear to have passed, and a black and white badge was printed out for me to dangle during the rest of my visit.

The Museum of Army Music occupies three of the main rooms on the ground floor of the main building. During the rest of the week they're part of the music school, so rehearsals or drill or study might happen within, but on Wednesday afternoons the squaddies have to get out and the rooms revert to being a collection of display cases. Don't expect to look round unsupervised, I was shepherded by a curator throughout my visit, but that was excellent because she truly brought the place to life.

Over the course of 160 years the museum's accumulated a unique collection, and all from within its own ranks. A wide array of drums is on show, each bearing the painted names of the major campaigns that regiment was involved in. The gorgeous music stand banners have a rather sadder backstory - each ends up here only after its regiment has been dissolved or merged with another, which in these days of Army cuts is all too frequently. A large section is given over to Trooping the Colour, or the Queen's Birthday Parade as it's more properly known, the major annual event at which the armed forces' musicians get to showcase their talents.

The museum's particularly good at showing the evolution of instruments over time, for example how the serpent became the ophicleide became the tuba. They have all the saxophones, despite this not being an instrument you'd normally associate with a military band. They have a pair of super-duper cornets with additional tubing to allow the user to mimic other brass instruments whilst only carrying one. And they also have the pair of busted-looking bugles pictured below, one of which was sounded at the Charge of the Light Brigade and the other on the battlefield of Waterloo. The manuscript book comes from the latter, according to the inscription "picked up by the side of the dead body of a poor drummer boy."

I hadn't previously considered that brass instruments used on battlefields needed to be dull rather than shiny because a telltale glint might get you shot. I learned that army musicians no longer have front line roles because modern warfare requires more specialised training, although they do still spend a fair bit of time on location charged with keeping up morale. And I also got lucky with a slightly broader tour of the house than I think most visitors get, including a nose into the Officers Mess (all armchairs and portraits) and a trip upstairs to see the historic chapel where services double up as additional practice for spiritual ceremonial.

But Kneller Hall's days may finally be numbered, as budget cuts force the downsizing of the MoD estate. The Defence Minister announced last year that the site was to be 'released', with permanent closure currently scheduled for 2020. There just aren't enough trainees left - current numbers are nearer 25 than the original 250 - and the upkeep of a historic building for general admin duties isn't an efficient use of limited funds. Some lucky developer could surely make a fortune by knocking down the barracks and building on the sports ground, although the main house isn't in the best of nick after years of underfunded maintenance so any renovation for luxury apartments might be a costly gamble.

It's OK, the museum has accredited status so its future is secure, and the Royal Military School of Music will be relocated to an as yet undecided location. But its new home will undoubtedly be a long way from London, so if you want to see the collection and poke around inside a historic military building, you probably only have a couple of years left. In the meantime regular chances to enter Kneller Hall exist in the summer when a series of evening concerts take place in the grounds at a specially constructed mega-bandstand. But the museum is off-limits on music nights, so Wednesday afternoons remain your best chance to infiltrate a working army base and meet the top brass.

 Saturday, December 09, 2017

One year from today, on Sunday 9th December 2018, Crossrail begins.

One year from today, finally, blimey.

But perhaps not quite in the format you were expecting.

Those of us who've been paying attention have long known we won't get be getting the full Crossrail service until the end of 2019, and that the Abbey Wood branch will be opening first.

But only yesterday did I see written confirmation, tucked away at the bottom of a TfL press release, that Crossrail will be...
...operating initially as three separate services:
Paddington to Abbey Wood
Paddington to Heathrow
Liverpool Street to Shenfield
Paddington to Abbey Wood includes Crossrail's 'proper' central section, and all the big inner London stations that billions have been spent on building. Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road and Farringdon all open on Day 1, along with Whitechapel, Canary Wharf, Custom House and Woolwich. Bet you can't wait to get down there. Trains will initially be running every 4 minutes, which may not be quite as frequent as you were hoping for, but it'll do for starters.

Paddington to Heathrow currently exists as Heathrow Connect, but will be rebranded TfL Rail from May 2018. Trains will run twice as often - that's four times an hour, stepping up to six at the end of 2019. It's not yet been confirmed how fares to Heathrow will be set, but expect to pay more than if you trundle in on the Piccadilly line. Heathrow Express services are not affected, for people who think saving 10 minutes is worth an extra £12, and tourists who don't know any better than buying the first ticket they see.

Liverpool Street to Shenfield has been running as TfL Rail since last year, with new Crossrail trains being brought sequentially into service. Nothing will change in December 2018, other than an onslaught of rebranding. Only in May 2019 will these trains start slipping down the new tunnels between Stratford and Whitechapel, increasing the number of trains on the central section from 15 an hour to 24.

To summarise, there's currently one TfL Rail service on the tube map, from Liverpool Street to Shenfield. Next May a second disjoint TfL Rail service will appear, from Paddington to Heathrow. In one year's time the TfL Rail brand disappears as Crossrail's central section opens with trains out to Abbey Wood... but each of these three sections will initially operate as a separate service.

Until December 2019, if you want to get from Bond Street to Heathrow, you'll have to change at Paddington. This will involve alighting from your Crossrail train at Paddington, ascending from the underground platforms to ground level, and boarding a separate Crossrail train at the mainline station. This diagram I've found on a hoarding at Whitechapel station sort-of shows what'll be going on. It's not exactly interchange nirvana, and will add several minutes to your journey, but it is only for a year.

Meanwhile at Liverpool Street there'll be another disconnect.

Until May 2019, if you want to get from Tottenham Court Road to Stratford, you'll have to change at Liverpool Street. This will involve alighting from your Crossrail train at Liverpool Street, ascending from the underground platforms to ground level, and boarding a separate Crossrail train at the mainline station. It's not interchange nirvana, and will add several minutes to your journey, but it is only for a few months.... and there's always the Central line, which might even turn out to be a less annoying way of doing it.

But whereas the Paddington disconnect will eventually disappear, the Liverpool Street disconnect is scheduled to continue as a special case. In the morning peak some westbound trains on the Shenfield branch will be terminating at Liverpool Street, above ground, rather than descending into the tunnel and running all the way through to Paddington. This means some trains will be going from Stratford to Liverpool Street via Whitechapel, underground, and others will be going from Stratford to Liverpool Street via no intermediate stations, overground. That's going to take a bit of explaining.

This complexity will be mirrored in the evening peak because some eastbound trains will be starting at Liverpool Street main line station, above ground, while others will be running through via the subterranean platforms. Liverpool Street will continue to have two Crossrail stations, one High Level, one Low Level, and it will sometimes be crucial to know which is which. Will they end up with two different names? Might only the occasionally-used high level platforms get called something else? Whatever happens on the Shenfield branch, expect route diagrams in carriages to be a bit complicated, and onboard announcements to be potentially complex.

Anyway, that's all for the future. What's important is that the first proper Crossrail service launches one year from today, and travelling through central London will never be the same again. To begin with it won't be quite as fantastic as you're expecting, and a journey from Heathrow to Shenfield will involve two split-level changes of train. But all of Crossrail's bits will eventually be connected up, and one day we'll forget about the year-long intermediate stage, indeed we'll wonder how London ever got by without it. 365 days, and counting.

 Friday, December 08, 2017

A sharp line of stormy rain is advancing rapidly across southeast England, heralding the arrival of winter chill.

If I time it right, I think, I can get to the chemists in Stroudley Walk before it arrives. I time it wrong.
"Stroudley Walk Market lies in the heart of Bow, an area which was immortalised by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. Situated within the East End, people often believe that to be a true Cockney you need to be born within earshot of the sound of the Bow Bells."

I laugh sometimes at the twaddle written about my local shops. Chaucer wrote about a nunnery later destroyed by Henry VIII, not the scabby ruins of a churchyard half buried beneath a dual carriageway. The Bow Bells beloved of Cockneys are in Cheapside, three miles hence, a fact which regularly escapes the marketing muppets hired to upsell Tower Hamlets.
I see the squall advancing up Rainhill Way, a swirling curtain of water whipped up by the wind. In a split second it's upon me, damper by multiple factors than the previous rain, a whole new meaning to the word wet. Fortunately I'm only a couple of steps from the shelter of the arches outside the old post office so duck under, shiver imperceptibly and stop to watch the onslaught.
"Serving the local community as a small local market providing fresh fruit and vegetables, Stroudley Walk Market supplements the other local provisions in the square, such as the post office, dry cleaner and health centre."

Whoever wrote this blurb has mastered the art of overstatement. What they've called "Stroudley Walk Market" is in fact the ultimate in a micro-economics, a single market stall plonked in the middle of a gaping concrete void. Postwar planners had high hopes for the viability of this rebuilt high street, leaving space for at least fifty market stalls along a pedestrianised piazza. Instead just one trader sets up his fruit and veg stall daily, a few boxes of fruit and veg unpriced beneath an awning, and local mothers look in occasionally for okra and onions.
A barrage of water flushes down onto the single stall, its striped sheeting flapping in the gale. The group hiding inside is hit sideways by an icy blast and swiftly recognises that staying put is not an option. The trader runs first, dashing across the square to the closest end of the brick arcade. His partner follows a few steps behind, and then the two ladies who were either shopping or talking, it's no longer possible to tell. Both are briefly but emphatically soaked, their headscarves no match for the December monsoon.

Next to flee is an empty wooden box, tipped off its crate and toppling onto the pavement at an awkward angle. A young Chinese couple, glasses steamed, run in from the High Street. They were much further from shelter when the rain strengthened, all of fifteen seconds ago, so have had to make a fast dash to our colonnade to avoid getting sodden. We wait together, the seven of us a microcosm of the new East End, outside a shuttered window and a locked door.
"Serving the local community as a small local market providing fresh fruit and vegetables, Stroudley Walk Market supplements the other local provisions in the square, such as the post office, dry cleaner and health centre."

The Post Office in Stroudley Walk closed in 2014, and reopened at the back of a supermarket on Bow Road. Nobody mourned. Its miserable interior has been shut off ever since, no other commercial interest interested, nor ever likely to be so. The fish and chip shop nextdoor metamorphosed this summer into a halal grill specialising in chicken in a variety of moulded forms. Its menu does include something called 'Cod Meal', but more likely microwaved than fried, and you're no doubt better off with a biryani.
The rain eases fractionally then whips back with a stormy squall which makes the market stall almost disappear. We hunker down as the precipitation comes in sheets. The pool of water accumulating on top of the awning inexorably approaches critical mass, then suddenly gushes over the lip in a heavy wave. A box of fruit or vegetables underneath proves perfectly positioned for a consummate soaking. I think tomatoes, but maybe onions, and now is not the time to go over and check.

A young man in crocheted cap and tunic splashes by, running from midday prayers to the DLR, because needs must. On the far side of a growing puddle, the electronic screen on what used to be a phone box beams out a video advert for Hugo Boss fragrance, in flagrant disregard for the local demographic. Ladbrokes must surely be missing its most persistent betting clientele this lunchtime, because nobody'll be keen to slouch outside with copious cans of lager in this weather.
"Serving the local community as a small local market providing fresh fruit and vegetables, Stroudley Walk Market supplements the other local provisions in the square, such as the post office, dry cleaner and health centre."

The dry cleaners finally closed a few weeks ago, or rather was relocated to an alternative unit near the hairdressers, entirely lacking the grimy ambience of the original. Its flight leaves the entire parade shuttered and empty, ready for redevelopment plans that have been on the drawing board for years but never yet materialised. All the units at the far end of Stroudley Walk are due to be demolished and replaced by flats. The entire windswept expanse where a bustling market never materialised is due to become more flats. The tallest block of flats is due to become a taller block of flats. The former Rose and Crown is listed so can't be knocked down, so will likely remain a peri-peri coffee shop.

The Chinese couple are the first to make a break for it, ill-advisedly as it turns out, the rain conspiring to strengthen as they flee. I hang on another minute, because I've seen the radar image so know the storm front is only brief, and my hair might just dry out a bit while I wait. When I'm satisfied the worst is past I duck out from my shelter and continue past the corner shop to Bow Pharmacy, where it turns out they don't have my tablets in stock anyway so I need never have come.

The rain is less ferocious on my return. The fruit and veg stall is being reassembled, ready for occasional ladies to drop by and gather ingredients for tonight's dinner. The remainder of the piazza is quiet, as it generally is these days, in sharp contrast to 100 years ago when this was a positively thriving high street. If post-Olympic plans get their way a fresh retail district will be constructed on the other side of the A12 where Tesco is now, and what commercial life there is in this economic backwater will be mostly flushed away. Stroudley Walk feels utterly washed out, and not just because of the weather.

 Thursday, December 07, 2017

I have no idea if this will work but let's give it a try...

I'm attempting to compile a map of free toilets in inner/central London.

• free - no entrance charge to the toilets, or the building
• both Ladies and Gentlemen
• Zone 1 or Zone 2 only
• in public places - not in pubs/hotels/restaurants/supermarkets
• not "Community Toilets"
• not on the far side of a security check or a ticket barrier



Several libraries, including Willesden, Church Street and Maida Vale

St Pancras International station
British Library
Wellcome Centre
Camden High Street
The O2 Centre
South End Green
Hampstead Heath

Several libraries, including Pancras Square, Camden Town and Holborn

Angel Centre
Chapel Market
Old Street Roundabout
Nags Head shopping centre

Several libraries, including Finsbury and Central

Hoxton Market
London Fields
Narrow Way
Ridley Road
Dalston Passage
Clissold Park
Hackney Marshes

Several libraries, including Hackney Central, Dalston and Shoreditch

Westfield London
Kings Mall shopping centre

Several libraries, including Hammersmith, Fulham and Shepherd's Bush

Several large department stores, including Selfridges, John Lewis, Heals, Hamleys, Harrods, Waterstones Piccadilly

St Martin in the Fields
Lincolns Inn Fields
Paddington Street Gardens
Victoria station
Charing Cross station
National Gallery & NPG
British Museum
Royal Academy
Somerset House
Hyde Park - bandstand and Lido cafe
Tachbrook Street market
Tate Britain

Several libraries, including Leicester Square, Charing Cross Road and Mayfair

Cannon Street station
Fenchurch Street station
Barbican Centre
One New Change
St Paul's Cathedral crypt
Bishopsgate Library

Five City libraries

Spitalfields Market
Museum of Childhood
Whitechapel Gallery
Royal London Hospital
Victoria Park
Canary Wharf: tube station, shopping centres, Crossrail
Museum of London Docklands

All the Idea Stores

'The Museums', notably the V&A
Bevington Road
Kensington Town Hall
Talbot Road
Westbourne Grove
Design Museum
Peter Jones
Saatchi Gallery

Three libraries

Royal Festival Hall
BFI & National Theatre
Gabriels Wharf
Oxo Tower
Tate Modern
London Bridge station

Westfield Stratford City
Stratford International station
Canning Town bus station
QEOP: cafe by Orbit, View Tube, Aquatics Centre, Timber Lodge

Southside shopping centre
Circus West, Battersea Power Station
Battersea Park
Debenhams, Clapham Jn
Wandsworth Cemetery
Putney Exchange

Several libraries, including Wandsworth Town and Battersea Park

Vauxhall bus station
St Thomas' Hospital
Myatt’s Fields Park
Brockwell Park
Clapham Common

Several libraries, including Waterloo, Brixton and Clapham

Southwark Cathedral
Surrey Quays Shopping Centre
Canada Water bus station
Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park
Burgess Park
Maltby Street Market
East Street Market

Several libraries, including Nunhead, Peckham and Canada Water


National Maritime Museum (at all sites)
Old Royal Naval College Visitor Centre
King William Walk
North Greenwich station
The O2
Lewisham Shopping Centre
Hilly Fields

Several libraries, including Deptford and Greenwich

I haven't managed to think of many.
I'm sure there are several more.
But not a huge number when you need one...
...which is the point of the map.

If you have any suggestions, please add them to the appropriate comments box, and I'll add them to the map. Free toilets only, remember. It'd help if you could confirm that they are free (or, if I've added any that aren't free, tell me that).

5pm update: Thanks everyone! The map now has about 60 more free toilets than it had at 7am, courtesy of your contributions. Some aspects of the list are a bit subjective, so sorry if you don't like how I've done it, or if your choice hasn't been added. Further suggestions (or additional information about toilets I haven't included) still very welcome.

» The TfL webpage Public toilets in London lists toilets at stations and, brilliantly, links to the relevant webpage on dozens of London borough websites. Special mentions to Camden, Greenwich, Kensington and Chelsea and Islington for crystal clear lists. No prizes for Lambeth. Boo to Southwark, for having a great list on the old version of their website they're about to switch off.
» This TfL toilet map of loos at tube stations is good, but doesn't tell you if the toilet is free or not.
» There's also The Great British Toilet Map, an online scrollable map which is nationally comprehensive, and very detailed, but not always easy to scrutinise.

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