Month: July 2018

Funfair stinking up the park

Funfair stinking up the park

I like funfairs, I’ve been going to them all my life. A particular favourite is the Dodgems, but I’ve done time on the Waltzer and even the Wall of Death.

So, I was happy to hear that Bensons Family Funfair was setting up shop in one of our local green spaces, Kennington Park. Well, I was happy until I went there.

We live in a pretty polluted part of town, I shudder to think what the smog levels are on Harleyford Road or Clapham Road. Fortunately, the London parks act as the capital’s lung combining the absence of traffic with trees performing that magic of absorbing carbon dioxide and other harmful gasses, and then releasing pure oxygen back into the air.

This morning, the mutt and I walked into Kennington Park and were hit with the acrid stench of diesel. I’m assuming that without a nearby electricity supply the funfair is forced to run its rides with power generated by its trucks. This means diesel motors are running constantly.

Funfairs have probably done this forever, but we didn’t notice or if we did, we didn’t care. But now we know about nitrous oxide (N2O) and particulates and all the other evil stuff that engines pump into the air and what it’s doing to our health.

In London we accept the inevitability of heavy traffic and look to the Mayor and Transport for London to help reduce pollution, but now the very place we seek solace from the stink is being stunk up.

What about the council providing an electricity supply so the trucks can power down? What are your thoughts?

Bumper crop: Urban market garden

Bumper crop: Urban market garden

Green-fingered Mrs Preen is responsible for a bumper crop in our modest market garden this year. I guess the industrial strength sunshine may have helped a bit too.

Favourable Spring weather, meant the tomato plants went in early and as you can see from the pictures, we are overwhelmed by the little beauties.

The cucumber plant we call the chicken plant; it lays a new cucumber every day. They sprout so fast, I swear you can see them growing.

Peppers are tricky in our temperate climate and we are only growing them this year because we were gifted a free plant, but as we now live in what seems like Southern California rather than Southern London we have four incubating.

We are growing broad beans following a project management cock up at the highest level. Mrs Preen meant to order runner beans, but because of an administrative error scored broad beans instead. Now I love a broad bean as much as the next man, but they are tricky to grow and are suffering as they went unwatered for a week while we were away. The poor loves seem to be bouncing back, but broadly speaking, there’s not much bean action.

The only ne’er-do-well, lazy backsliders in our garden are the strawberry plants. Beautiful, healthy looking specimens they may be, but totally unencumbered by any fruit. Shape up strawberries, or you’ll be ripped up by the roots. It’s survival of the fittest round our way.

Old Oval: As time goes by

Old Oval: As time goes by

Neighbourhood architects, Rolfe Judd, has its offices on Claylands Road SW8 in what was once a Congregational Chapel. (See above) It’s always been a local firm, starting out in premises on Kennington Road in 1968 and moving to its present site in 1982.

It now employs more than seventy architects and town planners and works on upscale projects at the Oval cricket ground and Nine Elms Point in Vauxhall. They recently held a summer fete where they displayed pictures of our neighbourhood from bygone days.

Kate Ludden, who works there as a business administrator, kindly sent me copies of the pictures which I thought you might like to see in case you missed their event.

I’ve mixed their shots with ones I took today.

Claylands Road

Clapham Road

Fentiman Road

A risk register of loathing

A risk register of loathing

Journalists: not a popular bunch by and large. In these turbulent days of supposed fake news, reporters don’t inspire much public trust. This is hardly new. Princess Diana died while being pursued by paparazzi and at the time I think the only person disliked more than reporters was her husband Prince Charles.

Back then, I was regularly sent out to do perhaps the most useless form of television journalism: Vox Pops. This is where you ask members of the public what they think about the topic of the day. When asked about the heir to the throne, people told me in pretty fruity language that he should never be King. Perhaps his star has risen a little since then.

Balkans

In 1992 a heady dose of pig-headed nationalism and long supressed violence got the conflict in the Balkans kick-started. Here the various warring parties thought that on balance, the best kind of journalist was a dead journalist. Obviously, reporters had died in conflicts before, caught up in the cross-fire, but as far as I’m aware this was the first time they were seen as the enemy and targeted. Someone I knew was travelling down sniper’s alley in Sarajevo in a van marked TV on the back door. To make his point a sniper placed a bullet right between the T and the V which struck and killed a young reporter inside.

But journos rarely see themselves as victims. We are Millwall: You all hate us, we don’t care.

Real Estate

Journalists could always take comfort in the fact that on the risk register of loathing there were at least two groups below us: Estate Agents and Bankers.

Apparently, such is the rake off in real estate at the moment that in Central London, the sale of one house is enough to pay the running costs of an agent’s office for a year and that includes salaries, rent and rates. Nice work if you can get it.

It’s the small things that irritate. When my family moved to Oval SW8 at the turn of the century it was a sleepy enclave dissected by major roads getting people and goods in and out of the city centre. Planning laws changed, and we now live a stone’s throw from the biggest building site in Europe that stretches from Vauxhall down Nine Elms Lane, past the new US Embassy and fetches up at Battersea Power Station. Whether there are enough oligarchs to buys these over-priced hutches is at best doubtful

Close to us, is a high-rise block that mimics the Flat Iron Building in New York along with a series of apartments in low rise townhouses. They are advertised as Luxury Apartments Built in Britain’s Famous Brick. Except they aren’t. They are built of steel and glass and clad in brick. It is real brick, I’ve had a close look, but it’s half an inch thin and stuck to a metal frame that’s attached to the side of the building. Built in brick? Fake news.

But as elsewhere in the economy, maybe times are getting tough in realty as American’s call it. I see hardly any For Sale signs on our streets, but what I do see is a proliferation of builder’s vans with houses everywhere being re-booted, with loft extensions put in for young adults who can’t afford to leave home and side returns for that dream dining room and kitchen you always craved. Not surprising really, if you sell a house and move you might as well, go into your garden armed with not less that £50,000 and chuck it on the barbeque. Doing up is the new moving out.

Giving the realtor community the benefit of the doubt, I walked into a local estate agent and asked if they no longer used For Sale boards. I was told that boards were still very much part of their sales approach. I said, there are none around here, business must be terrible. To which the reply came: ‘not at all, business is buoyant.’

Banking Barons

The financial sector, with its Banking Barons or in Tom Wolfe’s famous phrase ‘The Masters of the Universe’ doesn’t inspire much love either. Ten years ago, the Western World suffered the worst financial crash since the 30s. Following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the whole banking system was just hours away from turning turtle and taking us all down with it. In George W Bush’s words: ‘This sucker could go down.’

Ultimately that didn’t happen as the government decided the taxpayer should step up and bail out the ailing banks. Very decent of us, but as a result we’ve all had to live with austerity and reduced public services for a decade and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

But what of the bankers who caused this mess? Was anyone prosecuted or held to account? They were not. It seems that ‘Masters of the Universe’ can make hay with their massive bonuses when the sun is shining, but when things turn nasty, it’s up to you and me to pick up the tab. And just in case you are concerned the poor loves are suffering, the bonus pool in UK finance last year was £15 billion, the largest since 2007.

There you have it, a risk register of loathing: Journos, Estate Agents and Bankers, what a threesome! Where bloggers fall in this register, I’ll leave up to you.

Atheist meets God in novel conundrum

Atheist meets God in novel conundrum

Last night Mrs Preen attended two book launches, one at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, the other at Waterstones in Islington. I know it seems unlikely, but women are allowed into The Reform and have been since 1981. So early days, but some of the members are still visibly shaken. Not that they didn’t try to exclude the wife. She was almost slung out on account of bare shoulders and shockingly primitive shoes – sandals.

As there were government ministers present they served scallops, steak tartare and a daikon radish dip guzzled down with fine Club claret. I was not invited, but the second event proved more down-to-earth – they served peanuts. I know that, because I ate most of them.

As to what book was launched at The Reform I forgot to ask (call yourself a journalist?) but I can tell you at Waterstones Simon Edge unleashed his latest novel ‘The Hurtle of Hell’. It’s the story of an atheist who meets God. Full disclosure: he’s an old friend. Simon that is, not God.

The author read the opening chapter where the hero, Stefano Cartwright, almost drowns, has a near death experience, and travels along a bright white tube of light where he reveals: ‘I think I just saw the eye of God.’

This is Edge’s second novel. The First was the Hopkins Conundrum which as improbable as it may seem involved a Welsh pub landlord, his faltering love life, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and a covey of shipwrecked nuns. Simon likes to paint on a broad canvas.

Talking of painting, the latest novel’s cover was created by cartoonist David Shenton, which as you can see from the picture is fortunate, as he looks like God.

‘The Hurtle of Hell’ is packed in my suitcase and will be coming with me on holiday to Italy next week. I’m sure Stefano will make a great travelling companion.

Click here to bag yourself a copy.

Clapton phones it in

Clapton phones it in

Last Sunday night (8.7.18) Eric Clapton played one of the British Summer Time gigs in Hyde Park. It was a glorious summer evening with the smell of hot-dogs, mixed with high notes of weed, wafting across the Royal Park. As the great sage of the blues guitar ambled on stage he muttered the immortal words: ‘It’s coming home’. Well if the footie’s coming home, the music had clearly missed its connection. The gig was as dull and dreary as cabbage. Perhaps the old boy’s past it.

OK, a little context is needed here. I’ve been a fan, off and on, for years. At school, my trigonometry text book (is trigonometry still a thing?) had the name of his band Cream written in psychedelic bubble letters on the cover.

Then in the 90s, friends of mine, the mighty Kick Horns, were Clapton’s brass section and I remember seeing some wonderful gigs at The Albert Hall.

Clapton made one album with Blind Faith, a band which featured one of my musical heroes Steve Winwood. Their only gig in London was at Hyde Park in 1969. As Winwood was also on the bill, I felt it safe to assume they would get together to thrill the crowds in 2018 as they had done all those years ago. Santana were also playing, and as Carlos and Steve have worked together it looked like a super celebrity mash-up of old mates was on the cards.

Earlier in the evening, both Winwood and Santana played blinding sets, but it was ‘Slowhand’ we had come to see. He started out quite low key with some mid-tempo blues, including Hoochie Coochie Man, and then became all but invisible with four acoustic songs including Layla and Tears in Heaven.

All of which may sound fine, but his heart wasn’t in it. Nobody was smiling on stage (not strictly true, the drummer seemed to have having a good time) there was no chemistry between the band members and Eric’s singing was at best perfunctory. Steve Winwood never showed up to partner with his old mate and it was left to Carlos Santana to spark things up when he came on to jam at the end.

Clapton didn’t even introduce his band which has the wonderful singer Paul Carrack in the ranks playing Hammond organ. If you don’t know the name, you’ll know the songs: How Long? The Living Years, Tempted. He has a fantastic soul voice but the only time we heard it was on the final song, which was the old Joe Cocker shout-a-long, ‘High time we went’.

Trust me, this is not the review I wanted to write, but for an audience to have a good time, the band need to have a good time. In truth Clapton barely turned up, went through the motions, and largely ignored the audience, some of whom started chanting ‘Football’s coming home’ during one of the more tedious segments.

For you completists out there, here’s the set list:

  • Somebody’s Knocking
  • Key to the highway
  • Hoochie Coochie Man
  • Got to get better in a little while
  • Drifitn’ Blues
  • Nobody knows you when you’re down and out
  • Layla
  • Tears in heaven
  • Lay down Sally
  • The Core
  • Cross Roads
  • Little Queen of Spades
  • Cocaine
  • High time we went (encore)
London & New York: Twin capitals of the world (2)

London & New York: Twin capitals of the world (2)

Hard times in the city

In my previous blog about the twin metropolitan giants, London and New York, I mentioned an essay by E.B. White called ‘Here is New York’. I imagine quite a few readers scratched their heads going E.B. who? Well, if you don’t recognise the name you may recognise the books. He wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and if you haven’t read the books, I’m guessing you know the films.

White’s essay, written in 1949, is a love letter to his beloved New York (albeit one that carries warnings), which is written in the elegant, effortless prose style, that writers from that era perfected in columns for the New Yorker and elsewhere.

The article surfaced again after 9/11 because of a resonant paragraph towards the end of the piece about how vulnerable New York is to destruction. He says: ‘A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers and cremate the millions.’

While White could never have imagined the damage wrought by passenger planes used as weapons of war, he knew then as we know now that London and New York have a certain terrorist priority. He writes: ‘In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm’.

On that terrible day I was at work in London, doing my job, which as improbable as it sounds, is to train people how to deal with crises. My wife, working on a national newspaper, texted me that a plane had flown into a building in New York. When I told the people in the room, they initially thought it was part of the training.

Thereafter, I remember walking home and watching television for hours trying to make sense of what was playing out live in front of our eyes. We saw the buildings come down and the crowds running from the swirling clouds of dust, ash and smoke; it was gripping and depressing in equal measure.

My birthday falls in September and that year (2001) my wife, had very kindly bought airline flights to New York as my present. Immediately after 9/11 all flights were cancelled, and passengers received a refund. Our tickets were dated about a week after the event and by then airlines, possibly feeling the pinch, said there were to be no more refunds. Do we go, or do we stay?

We discussed the pros and cons, and while, in the short term, the likelihood of another attack was vanishingly small, the thought of going on holiday to a place that had suffered so much death and destruction did seem a little odd. Frankly, I knew pretty quickly that we would go, but what I couldn’t have predicted was the reception we received.

After an uneventful flight (I like them that way) we checked into The W Hotel in Midtown. I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged by someone on reception when trying to check into a hotel. Although we hadn’t cancelled our booking there was a clear expectation that we would never show up. Locals seemed to think that tourists would never return, but there we were, being celebrated by New York’s hard bitten finest.

But of course, there were very few tourists, the city was eerily quiet. We paid a brief, respectful visit to the smoking ruins of the Twin Towers and walked for miles through deserted streets, occasionally coming upon small parks with pictures posted everywhere of the missing.

Two nights into our stay, Broadway opened its doors and of course we went to see a show. Later that evening we joined friends at a piano bar in Greenwich Village where we all belted out songs from Broadway shows. Drink was taken, the singing may have been terrible and some of the songs ridiculous, but it seemed like a small, splendid act of defiance.

The daughter of a family friend was studying in New York when the catastrophe happened, and her parents asked us to find her. We made contact and I remember seeing her sitting out front of her boarding house looking very small. She had been helping look after those who had been rescued and at 18 years old had found the experience overwhelming. We sought shelter in the best kind of New York sanctuary, a diner, where we ate eggs over easy with hash browns.

Then it was our turn. On the morning of 7th July 2005, exactly thirteen years ago today, terrorists struck London. Four suicide bombers with rucksacks packed with explosives travelled from Leeds to wreak havoc on the capital. Just before 9am three bombs exploded on the London Underground and a little later a fourth was detonated on a red London bus at Tavistock Square. Fifty-two people died, and more than 700 were injured.

Sitting at the desk I’m sitting at right now, I heard the news on the radio. My mobile and landline phone promptly stopped working but I managed to get an email through to my wife and received a reply to say she was OK. All emails then went down.

Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London at the time. To many he is now a somewhat discredited figure, but his rallying call to Londoners and his message to terrorists in the heat of the moment, was pitch perfect.

‘I know that you personally don’t fear giving your own life so you can take others, that’s why you are so dangerous. But I know what you do fear is that you will fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society.
‘And I can show you why you will fail in days that follow. You will see. Look at our airports look at our railway stations look at our seaports and even after your cowardly attack you will see people from Britain, people from around the world, will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.
‘They chose to come to London like so many have come before, because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. And nothing you do, no matter how many you kill will stop that flight, to our cities where freedom reigns.’

Perhaps you think that overly romantic, just political hyperbole, because I’m not blind to the fact that even on a good day London can seem brutal, daunting, even frightening. But Livingstone was right, people come here from all over the world to fulfil their dreams: the musician from a little village in Northampton, which he can’t stand a moment longer, the artist from Poland, who seeks a broader canvas and the builder from Romania desperate to send money home to his family.

In towns and villages all over Britain, all over the world, people right this instant are planning to come to London to make a go of their life, to accept the capital’s tough love. Now there’s something.

Want to be welcomed as a local in a Suffolk village? It might take two generations to find acceptance. Want to be a Londoner? Great, then be one, right now, immediately. Say it out loud: ‘I’m a Londoner’. And if that doesn’t give you a little chill, then perhaps this town isn’t for you.