Month: August 2017

Fascinating fences

Fascinating fences

Take a look at the picture. You have probably walked past these railings a hundred times and never given them a second thought. Why would you? They are black London railings; move on, nothing to see here.

But wait, take a second look. Why are they shaped with that kink at either end? Some design quirk? Enough of the mystery, what you’re looking at is a small but not insignificant part of London’s World War 2 history.

At the start of the war railings across London were torn down to form the raw material to make the bombs, guns and planes so desperately needed to aid the war effort.

In 1940, the London Blitz got underway; bombs rained down on the capital. Firefighters fought the blazes and ambulance crews removed the dead and rescued the injured. Are you getting it now? Yes, these fences were once stretchers; thousands were made (from steel so they could be easily cleaned) and left unwanted when the war ended.

Someone, and it’s unclear who that was, joined the dots and suggested welding the unwanted relics into stretcher fences. They can still be found on housing estates in Kennington, Peckham, Brixton, and Deptford.

Some are now in very poor repair and a campaign has been launched to protect them. Visit the Stretcher Railing Society’s website to find out where they are located and what’s being done to rescue this piece of London history that’s hiding in plain sight.

Retail is hanging by a coattail

Retail is hanging by a coattail

But it’s not game over for the high street

Rows of boarded up shops make our high street look ugly; blackened teeth in what should be a shining retail opportunity. Many of the independent restaurants, delis and coffee shops have been trodden under foot by the merciless march of Pret A Manger, Caffè Nero and Starbucks. Shops have found competition with the cyber-retailers a fight they can’t win. Amazon brought a gun to a fist fight.

In the more run down areas it’s fried chicken, betting shops, mini cab offices, and not much else. Perhaps because it’s London – an estate agent.

Like, I suspect, many people, I feel deeply ambivalent about this as I use Amazon which typically provides a great service. I also use Pret A Manger and Caffè Nero both of which are pricey but offer excellent F&B. This of course has effects; we used to have an independent bookshop at the end of our street – gone. We just lost two much loved independent restaurants ‘Counter’ at Vauxhall Cross and ‘Oval Lounge’ on Clapham Road. Fortunately, we still have an independent coffee shop – The Sugar Pot.

The daughter and I were in New York a couple of weeks ago and it was interesting to note that many Mom and Pop delis and restaurants still survive there unlike in this town.

Interlude: I was in Croydon yesterday for work and was a little early for a meeting so stopped by the Smoothbean! café close to the station. Excellent friendly service and good coffee and croissants. Use it or lose it. 

Urban axe throwing

Retail is changing fast and it’s not all bad. We now seem to be in an interim period as shops swap from selling goods to providing experiences. My firm recently went on a works outing to an escape room experience. They provide themed games where you and your colleagues are locked in a room and must discover clues to affect your release. It’s all a bit Sherlockian and often combines a murder mystery. There are many all over London, mostly occupying what used to be retail spaces.

A five-minute stroll from Vauxhall Station takes you to the Vauxhall Climbing Centre. Here you can to prepare for popping up Mont Blanc or perhaps the Matterhorn. And a little further away you can join the Whistle Punks and engage in Urban Axe Throwing. Top outing for hens and stags but you’d be advised not to turn up drunk. It’s kind of like darts only with vicious light weight axes. You never knew you wanted to do this, did you?  No, I’m not making it up – take a look.

Andy the fishman

Andy the fishman is part of the new mobile high street. He doesn’t have a shop, he runs a van and he’s not from London. Every Tuesday he packs his waggon with fresh fish bought from the market in his native Grimsby, and hits the dark and dusty to bring salmon, tuna, fishcakes, seabass, swordfish and cod right to my door. He’ll be glad to come to your door too. He ranges over London on Wednesday and is in our neighbourhood on Thursday. Our cat Ziggy is particularly fond of his prawns. A charming self-effacing man who is always ready for a chat. He faces competition from other freewheeling fish vendors, many from slightly further up the East Coast, who sell boxes of frozen fish. Stick with Andy and get the fresh stuff.

Wholesale retail

Finally, I want to introduce you to Alf, not a retailer but a wholesaler who does a little retail on the side. You’ll be glad he does.

Alf and his brother own Lays of Chelsea, which operates out of New Covent Garden Market, right by the new American Embassy and the sprawling mass of development that stretches from Vauxhall to Battersea Power Station. Alf used to run a fruit and veg shop in Chelsea, hence the name, but upped sticks in the 80s, went wholesale and now supplies the posh restaurants of London.

If you get up early enough, not later than 7.30, you can swing by his premises on a Saturday morning and buy the freshest, sweetest tasting produce imaginable for an incredibly reasonable price. I recently bought some of the best asparagus I’ve ever eaten.

They are all incredibly helpful and will point you in the direction of the best produce available. Not too easy to get there by car so bikes and back-packs are recommended. I bought a small amount of fruit today which you can see here. It cost a fiver and I’m eating as I’m writing.

Fantastic quality, fantastic prices and a friendly service. It’s what retail is all about, but supplied by a wholesaler.

A quick word about Alf; his grandad was called Alf, his dad was called Alf, Alf is called Alf and his son is called Dave. Only kidding, of course he’s called Alf. Pay Alf a call, you won’t regret it.

High streets everywhere are undergoing massive change, retail shops may be dying but other businesses are taking their place. The future will be about experience at the expense of retail. You’ll go there to eat a meal, drink a coffee and perhaps throw an axe.

Catdrop

Catdrop

You’re looking at a picture of our cat Ziggy; not an animal I’m particularly fond of as he bites and scratches anyone who dares touch him and he kills birds (obviously an aristocat).

Our neighbour rang the doorbell the other day in quite a state saying Ziggy was rampaging around her house at three in the morning and this had to stop. I suggested an electronic cat-flap which she subsequently installed. If you’re not a cat owner (lucky you), these are activated by a chip inserted into the cat’s neck. Apparently, all went well until Ziggy realised there was a two second delay once the neighbour’s chipped cat went through the flap, allowing Ziggy just enough time to gain access to another’s food and our neighbours finely stretched nerves. I liked Ziggy a little more after learning this, until he killed a thrush last week. Anyway, more of Ziggy in a moment.

Yesterday was as vile a ‘summer’s day’ as you might expect in this rain spattered country. I was working from home and the daughter was glued to whatever screen was available. It was cold and the rain continued into the evening, but we had to get out; we were stir-crazy.

On the spur of the moment I suggested we both head to the Old Vic to see “Girl from the North Country”. It’s not a juke box musical but uses Bob Dylan songs to underscore a play set in depression era America. The daughter had just done ‘Of mice and men’ at school so I thought it might fit.

Unfortunately, this idea came to me at 7.15 and the play was due to start at 7.30. We both piled out the door, ran laughing down the street, on to the tube and reached the theatre in a record 26 minutes, so only 11 minutes late. But here’s the extraordinary thing, they wouldn’t sell us a ticket as once the play starts the ticketing computer system flips to the next day. Computer says no.

Interlude: You may be reading this for some top tips on London life, so here’s one. The Old Vic has £12 tickets for sale that are up in the gods and you sit on a bench. I’ve found they are often available and you can buy them anytime (well I say that, obviously not after the show has started) and the great thing is that on several occasions I’ve been waved to an empty seat which would have cost around three times as much. If your budget is tight or you’re not quite sure about a certain play it’s a good option.

So, what to do for daughter and self? It’s still raining and cold and we decide to head towards Covent Garden for want of anything better. On the way, the teenager remembers an article about someone in New York roaming the streets and airdropping pictures of their cat on to unsuspecting stranger’s phones. Now we’ve got a plan.

Tech interlude: On iPhones ‘Airdrop’ allows you to post pictures or documents, via Bluetooth, directly on to someone else’s phone. To do this both phones must have airdrop enabled – not sure if there is a similar option on Samsung or android phones.

Daughter selects the above picture of Ziggy and we set about the essential task of ‘dropping’ our vile cat’s picture on to the phones of unsuspecting Londoners.

Out amongst the hoi polloi of old London town we went in search of those who has airdrop activated. When this happens the ‘dropees’ name appears on your phone, you hit send and Ziggy appears on their phone and they decide whether to accept him into their lives. Our highly scientific research revealed that people of Asian origin were the most likely to be airdrop ready. Watching for the surprised looks on the face of those who had been catdropped was the best part.

The daughter claimed to be doing ‘god’s work’ and in just over half an hour Ziggy found four new homes. Frankly, they’re all welcome to him.

Hey Londoners: Be Better

Hey Londoners: Be Better

We’ve all heard it, usually from the lips of an out-of-towner with an anguished look on their face; I’ve certainly heard it many times from members of my wife’s family who hail from the North East. It goes something like this: “Oh London, can’t stand it, everyone’s so unfriendly, people don’t talk to each other.” To which our reflex response is –  that’s not true, we try to get to know our neighbours, we greet them on the street, but we can’t talk to everyone. The conversation ends with neither side convinced. I’m right and they’re wrong – of course.

But wait a minute Londoners, what if you’re wrong and those pesky northerners have a point?

It’s embarrassing to admit that there are many people in my part of London (SW8, since you ask) who I meet and interact with on a regular basis, but about whom I know absolutely nothing. I may well see them more often than I see my friends but I don’t even know their names. It works like this.

You take your shirts to a laundrette that offers an ironing service. On the first visit, you merely hand over the shirts and ask when they’ll be ready. It turns out the service is efficient; the shirts are neatly pressed and the price is right. Now you are going there every week but you still don’t know the lady’s name and after a while it’s embarrassing to ask. Soon you start talking about ‘your ironing lady’.

Perhaps you’ve found a café that sells a decent flat-white close to your office, you generally get served by the same bloke who becomes ‘your barista guy’. You are starting to behave like an aloof millionaire not wanting to interact with the servants – despite only having £10 in your bank account to last you to pay day. You are morphing into that person you hate, the one who is unpleasant to waiters.

Not good Londoners, this has to change. So yesterday when I went to pick up my shirts (yes it was me all the time) I said to the ‘ironing lady’: “Hi, my name’s Jim I’m always forgetting to ask you yours…” She smiled and said: “It’s Ana, I’m from Romania, nice to meet you.” Which was pretty decent of her as I’ve been meeting her roughly once a week for the last two years.

“What’s your name by the way?” may be a simple sentence but it has a kind of magic. I’ve now used this spell on the security guard at a client’s office I regularly attend (Tito) and on my ‘barista guy’ who is actually called Geoff.

Perhaps your ‘dry cleaner dude’ is bored with his job and can use a little social interaction that goes beyond the dead eyed exchange of money, goods and services. Pleasant conversation may ensue. Why don’t you try it?  Then check that your friends in the north are doing it too. Be better, be courteous.

Small thoughts on capital life

Small thoughts on capital life

Welcome to ‘A Little London Life’ – a sideways glance at life in the capital. It’s the small picture, the micro not the macro, and sets out to find stories that are a little off the beaten track. Who knows it might even appeal to those who have never set foot inside the M25.