Month: January 2018

Secret London: Postman’s Park

Secret London: Postman’s Park

The City of London, financial capital of the world, home to The Gherkin, the Walkie Talkie, the Cheese Grater and other towering monuments to the power of capitalism. As is well known its streets are paved with bitcoin. All of which is rather in danger of overpowering a little splash of green located at its heart known as Postman’s Park.

To be honest at first glance it doesn’t look up too much. It’s just a tiny garden, a former graveyard, (honestly, I don’t spend all my downtime in cemeteries) that’s located close to where the General Post Office building once stood, hence the name.

It has the usual London Plane trees, some uninspiring Hosta shrubs and a few sad banana trees that cut a forlorn sight on a cold winter’s day.

The reason you go, is to look at Watt’s Memorial, a strange and melancholy  piece of Victoriana that commemorates deeds of heroic self-sacrifice, often by children. A rather rickety shelter is home to 62 plaques that document the death of an individual who died trying to save another.

  • ‘David Selves supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms.’
  • ‘William Donald aged 19 drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed.’
  • ‘Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist, who died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion.’

All of them touching stories that George Frederick Watts made it his life’s work to commemorate. Watts, a minor Victorian painter, suggested the idea in a letter to The Times to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. He had been collecting newspaper cuttings of heroic self-sacrifice and from these the names were chosen.

The memorial opened in 1900, just four years before Watts died. In 2007 another name, Leigh Pitt, was added. He drowned saving a nine-year-old boy who had fallen into a canal. It has been decided that no further names will be added.

If you want to know more about the individual stories, then visit this website.

If you want to see for yourself, jump on a tube to St Paul’s and take a two-minute walk up St Martin’s Le Grand. Go on a summer’s day – you’ll be glad you did and thanks to the reader who suggested I check out their little bit of Secret London.

Random thought: A writer should base a short story on each plaque.

 

So long Ziggy

So long Ziggy

The grim reaper has just claimed our cat as his latest victim. Yes, I’m afraid Ziggy is no more.

Keen readers of this blog will have come across Ziggy before and will know he was not always an easy animal to love. When people or indeed pets die the convention is to heap praise upon them. Whatever their true nature, once dead they are miraculously transformed into the most loved, most kind, most cherished individual. I’m going to pay Ziggy a compliment and break with this tradition.

Ziggy chose us as his family while has was residing at Battersea Cats and Dogs. He was a kitten then, but right from the word go he had an independent not to say violent nature.

Prior to Ziggy’s arrival the odd mouse used to scuttle through our kitchen and despite getting the rat catcher in every autumn we couldn’t entirely get rid of the vermin. Ziggy was made of sterner stuff. One feline trip into our kitchen and the mice could be head packing up saying yeah, we’ve has it good, time to move on.

The problem was on plenty of occasions Ziggy treated us like vermin. You would pick Ziggy up at your peril and probably receive a juicy bite for your trouble. He was kind of sneaky too because as my wife pointed out with Ziggy is was often: lick, lick bite. Two licks to draw you in and then BAM, he’d sink his teeth into your fleshy parts.

For all that we were suckered in by his feisty nature; the fact that on one occasion he dragged a whole rump steak through the cat-flap still wrapped in plastic. He’d clearly nicked it from some neighbour’s kitchen table. He ate it pan-fried.

Then there was our neighbour who understandably got upset with Ziggy regularly arriving at her house at 3am and throwing a bit of a party with her cat. She was forced to install an electronic cat-flap to keep him out. Ziggy quickly learnt that if the owner’s cat went through the flap there was a three second delay allowing him to scuttle in behind.

I met this neighbour shortly after Ziggy’s demise thinking she might be glad to see the back of the cat demon, not a bit of it, she was in tears.

Ziggy died of Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) a horrible cat disease for which there is no cure. We knew he was on the way out but still it was a shock when I discovered him, looking surprisingly peaceful, laid out on the bathroom floor.

We considered burying him in the garden, but decided it was best if his mortal remains were disposed of by the vet.

I took him on his final journey which was endearingly and somehow fittingly surreal. I put him in his old cat carrier, which he used to hate as he knew it meant a visit to the vet. It’s a short trip to the surgery, but it was raining so I jumped on a bus for two stops.

An old lady perhaps guessing I was going to the vet asked me if there was something wrong with the little fellow. I said no he’s fine, just dead. She jumped back horrified, it was almost as if she’d been bitten.

So long cat, we miss you.

Stockwell Continental

Stockwell Continental

A new Italian restaurant in Little Portugal

Anyone who has read this blog knows I don’t like to criticise – it’s not an attack blog. But sometimes gentle criticism is appropriate.

It’s probably unfair to review a restaurant that’s only been open for a few days, but really Stockwell Continental you had better up your game.

Friday night supper with friends and family is something of a tradition with us. So, it was with real enthusiasm that we descended on this newly opened pizzeria deep in the heart of Little Portugal on South Lambeth Road. It comes with an excellent pedigree and is owned by the group that runs the much-loved Canton Arms which is just over the road. We are knee deep in Portuguese restaurants, so were delighted to welcome an Italian outfit into our midst.

The restaurant is on the site of the old Rebato’s restaurant which was famous for about five minutes a few years ago when a tired and emotional MI6 agent went AWOL from his HQ up the road and left a laptop full of state secrets behind. The restaurant dined out on this until it closed with newspaper articles and cuttings festooning the walls.

Menu

Looking at the Stockwell Continental menu we discovered it sold mostly pizzas, and as one of our party remarked they had better be good as it’s not exactly difficult to get a pizza in this town.

Unfortunately, things did not get off to a good start; as we came through the door we were met with the smell of eau de drain, with high notes of muck. The restaurant is long and narrow with bare white walls and is over lit. It has the mood lighting of a Chinese takeaway.

The staff seemed distracted, not rude but just not very helpful. One of our party, a coeliac, has to maintain a gluten free diet. None of the pizzas are gluten free and so we asked whether the risotto was suitable. The waiter went away to find out but didn’t return with an answer.

Latterly, we discovered that none of the main courses were GF and when I pointed out this was something they really needed to fix I was told in a quite belligerent manner, by someone who may have been the manager, that some of the starters, mostly the salami, were GF. It seems that at Stockwell Continental the customer is not necessarily right. We were made to feel we were the problem. Clearly the restaurant was not part of the solution.

Antipasti

And to be fair some of the starters were passable particularly the Roast pumpkin, chestnut and ricotta. Starters cost between £4 and £7 with the most expensive pizza coming in at £10, so pretty reasonable prices

Struggling for authenticity the menu does not wear its Italian heritage lightly. I had a Nduja pizza which was new to me. It came with Fior de Latte (soft cream cheese), Nduja (spicy salami) and pickled red onion. It also came topped with some unidentified green kale like substance that neither looked nor tasted appetising. Once I had swept much of the topping to one side I discovered a passable pizza lurking underneath.

Although it has since closed I remember when Counter at Vauxhall Cross opened a pizza restaurant, they announced it was a soft opening, that pizzas were half price and comments and criticism were welcomed. It’s a shame that Stockwell Continental didn’t adopt this approach.

As we were leaving the general consensus among our party was that we would not return, when we could get much better at Pizza Express. However, I think everyone deserves a second chance and I will go back in a couple of weeks to see if things have improved. We would love an excellent Italian restaurant in the neighbourhood and we all really wanted Stockwell Continental to be good. Let’s see if they can up their game.

The Unwelcome Guest – Test Drive

The Unwelcome Guest – Test Drive

Back to Guy’s Hospital cancer centre for some more tests. They seem to have an animal acronym fixation here, so today it was both a PET scan and a CAT scan. I thought about asking if I should bring Rusty but I guess they’ve heard that gag before.

For those who have had the fortune never to visit Guy’s cancer centre, and I highly recommend you keep it that way, it is a bright new building with airport style displays often telling you your appointment has been delayed but ultimately which consulting room you should attend. Fortunately, there are no signs for departure gates.

Architects Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners and specialist healthcare architect Stantec designed the building which as it says on the website is based around a series of ‘villages’. This is when you realise the whole 14-storey block is suffering from AED or Acute Euphemism Disorder as we doctors call it. There is the Chemotherapy Village and the Radiotherapy Village. As my friends will tell you I’m not much for the countryside but I don’t remember the Chemotherapy Village nestling in the foothills of the Cotswolds.

What I do think they should have at the cancer centre is a bar. I quite fancy swapping cancer related anecdotes with my fellow sufferers while getting on the outside of a bottle of Jack Daniels. And given everyone’s condition, smoking shouldn’t just be allowed it should be positively encouraged. ‘Smoke ’em if you got ’em’ should be the watchword at the Radiotherapy Bar. It would really help with the whole Villagey atmosphere they are trying to create.

The persistent patient

I’ve never been seriously ill before, so the experience of being an NHS patient is new to me. I have no doubt the care that I’m getting is second to none, Guy’s is rightly called a centre of excellence, but I’m learning there’s more to being a patient than just turning up on time.

The hospital is large and has many consultants so you don’t form a relationship with any one doctor. I’ve seen a different consultant on every visit, without exception they have been great, but you don’t get the personal touch.

In my experience comms is where they fall down. On several occasions, I’ve received letters inviting me to an appointment, after the consultation has taken place. Not a problem because I’d nailed the appointment on my previous visit. I’ve also had appointments booked that I didn’t need. Your appointments may be in several different locations and you may, for example, need to fast before a blood test. I’m in email contact with a nurse who helps me sort all this out as getting through on the phone is difficult. Keep notes, keep a diary and keep on track.

At other times, I’ve been in waiting rooms with perhaps 50 other patients all waiting to see a doctor. In this situation, I check the name on the badge of the person at the desk, say hello using their name, and If I’ve not been called half an hour after my appointed time I go back to the desk and ask very politely when I will be seen. Now, if English is not your first language, you are of a retiring nature, or perhaps you are old and not up the struggle, it is possible you will get lost in the system.

Screaming and shouting will get you nowhere, but quiet persistence will. Being a patient means looking after and looking out for yourself.

Doctors have a great mordant sense of humour. At one point I was banging on to a consultant about how both my parents had died of heart attacks at quite a young age and how I’d always assumed I’d be having triple heart bypasses and the like and with no history of cancer in my family never thought I’d be a (baby) boomer with a tumour. The doctor thought for a moment and said well Jim just to put your mind at rest you’re still far more likely to die of a heart attack. Thanks doc.

Secret London: Brompton Cemetery

Secret London: Brompton Cemetery

A while back I asked readers where they would take people who had never visited the capital before. I was hoping for recommendations that went beyond Madame Tussauds and the London Eye. I was after the hidden treats that make London a special place; perhaps a favourite café or park, something off the beaten track.

Picking up on one of the many suggestions and accompanied by the wife, two teenagers and Battersea Bucket we headed to Brompton Cemetery. Although a Royal Park, which are usually kept in peak condition, this boneyard is quite a mess, which perhaps makes it all the more interesting.

Victorian era

Opened at the start of the Victorian era, when death was enjoying a good run, it was built to ease pressure on overcrowded graveyards elsewhere in the capital. The earliest graves are from the 1830s and with most family members long since dead no one tends the graves. Weeds and squirrels rule.

Imagine the most Gothic thing you can think of and then season with a bit more Gothic to taste, then chuck the pot in. The Victorians had a bizarre relationship with death and for the upper and middle classes this place was clearly a portal to their next destination which would be almost indistinguishable from their comfortable English life but with added cherubs.

Allow all of the above to marinade for almost 200 years, let the grass grow, let the memorial angels fall into disrepair, bring your own smoke machine and you have the perfect horror movie location. It’s a graveyard smash.

Suffragette

Unlike Highgate Cemetery which boasts Marx, Douglas Adams, Malcom McLaren and George Eliot, Brompton is not chock full of celebri-toombs – there is suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and cricket stats supremo John Wisden, but that’s about your lot. Ms Pankhurst is located at the north end of the park and has, quite rightly, a rather fine modernist tombstone. We were unable to locate Mr Wisden, perhaps he moved.

Dogs are meant to be kept on particular paths but as I’ve long suspected Battersea Bucket can’t read and so made herself at home amongst the dear departed. The teenagers found rather maudlin entertainment doing mental maths as to how old people were when they died. Well I guess GCSEs are coming up.

To get there jump on the District Line tube and get off at West Brompton. The northern gate is a two-minute walk away.

I can’t deny it was an odd morning out, we saw a man carrying two enormous blue parrots (go figure), but it’s not without interest.

From signs placed at the entrance it seems Heritage Fund money has become available to do the place up. Some might welcome this but I’m not so sure. It’s current horror-show state seems to suit it well.

The Unwelcome Guest

The Unwelcome Guest

You may have wondered what happened to this blog and whether I’d disappeared. In short no, I’m still here, but just before Christmas I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, so as you might imagine that rather got in the way of writing humorous essays on London. But more of that in a moment.

Around sixty years ago god was checking the paperwork to see who was out for delivery and luckily it was me. The big man paused and looked at his notes, muttering to himself: “Well it looks pretty sweet for Jim Charles Preen. British, born to middle class parents, gets a decent education, the good things are programmed to rain down upon him. Well, lucky for him but what say we redress the balance occasionally?”

Of course, god was right. Well he would be, wouldn’t he? Extraordinary things have rained down upon me, but that didn’t stop him from having the odd laugh.

Sideburns, beards and moustaches

Growing up in the early seventies was a pretty hairy time, I mean literally. Hair was everywhere, it touched men’s shoulders for the first time in 200 years and sprouted luxuriantly from sideburns, beards and moustaches. Just take a look at that old devil Peter Wyngarde, what that man couldn’t do with a smoking jacket and an industrial set of whiskers.

This all made a deep impression on my teenage version and I’m: “Where do I sign up?” Hair was grown down to my knees, brushed and occasionally washed, that is until I was 28 and like the second in line to the throne it all fell out. Bald as a billiard ball. Score 1, god.

I always loved music and was introduced to jazz by my dad at an early age. He brought home a walnut encrusted gramophone that sat self-importantly in our living room. It came with LPs that displayed its stereo capabilities. My dad and I sat between the two speakers mesmerised as ping pong balls shot from side to side and trains trundled from one speaker to another. Hi-tech sixties heaven.

The New Frontier

Then came the albums or LPs as we called them. The covers were almost as good as the music. The Dave Brubeck Quartet gave us the soundtrack to President Kennedy’s New Frontier with modern art on the album sleeves and modern jazz deep in the grooves.

Oscar Peterson wore his pianos out playing more notes than seemed humanly possible. Chet Baker melancholy and bleak and who I thought when he sang was a woman until I looked at the beatnik cool album covers. I danced to them all and love them to this day. But here’s the rub I’m now quite deaf and struggle to hear those beautiful sounds in the way I once did. Score 2, god.

Now in my sixties; the knees are gone, the hair’s long gone, the hearing’s gone and I live in constant expectation that my cock will drop off. Men of my age are in what some call sniper’s alley. What was that, that went whistling by? A stroke, cardiac arrest, so many interesting possibilities. Up until now they have all missed their target, but not now, now I have an unwelcome guest.

In similar circumstances, when he was diagnosed with cancer, PJ O’Rourke said: “I looked death in the face. All right, I didn’t. I glimpsed him in a crowd.”

I’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer, it’s treatable, manageable and just possibly curable, but cancer can be a slippery bastard and demands to be taken seriously. In fact, the worst aspect of the diagnosis is that right now it’s hard to think about anything else. I didn’t expect a cancer diagnosis to be so damn compelling but at the same time so boring. Thanks god, score 3.

So, what is a writer supposed to do with this information? Well write about it I suppose.

I’m being treated with brisk efficiency at the Guy’s Cancer Centre at London Bridge. Actually, I favour brisk efficiency as if nurses and doctors show their softer side I’m likely to get teary and embarrassing. But being in the NHS mix is interesting and while there have been many cancer memoires by writers far greater than me, I’m inclined to draw the curtain back a fraction on my experiences. Don’t worry I’ll keep it light. Well that’s my intention, let’s see how it goes.