Category: London Behaviour

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.

Phoney viagra seized at Nine Elms Market, Daily Mail gets hard-on

Phoney viagra seized at Nine Elms Market, Daily Mail gets hard-on

Last week I blogged about a visit I made to Nine Elms Sunday Market. The large police presence and the seizure of counterfeit goods caught my eye. Tipped off by plod, the Mail ran with the story later in the week.

Viagra always makes a great subject as it allows papers like the Mail to be slightly prurient and indulge in a spot of innuendo. Viagra: Raising more than suspicion!

But even the mighty Daily Mail no longer employs the number of journalists it did, so no reporter will have been sent to cover the story. The facts came from Queenstown Police and the story will have been written by a hack back at their HQ in Kensington.

But, here’s the problem, with a story like this you need quotes from punters.

So, a witness at the scene apparently told the Mail: ‘Someone could have bought that perfume and it could (have) caused harm to someone’s skin, but if it was something taken orally like medication it could have had catastrophic events’. Trust me no one, and I mean no one, talks like that down Nine Elms. Taken orally? Give over.

And this: But one shopper said counterfeit goods were ‘rife at stall after stall’. No one in the history of the world has used the word ‘rife’ at New Covent Garden.

You don’t think the Mail made up these quotes, do you? Perish the thought.

Cultivating convicts

Cultivating convicts

Walking through our local parks, it’s a common sight to see teams of Community Payback (CPB) men and women in high viz jackets working in the gardens. They are people convicted of minor offences who undertake community service imposed on them by the courts.

Magistrates and Judges can order offenders to do between 40 hours and 300 hours of community service. They are expected to carry out a minimum of six hours work a week while wearing bright jackets. This is so local people know who they are and what they are up to.

Last year, following a drink-driving conviction, Wayne Rooney was sentenced to a twelve-month community order, forcing him to do 120 hours of unpaid work. With pictures of his fall from grace all over the press, I’m guessing the lack of pay was the least of his worries.

Recently, I spotted a few enforced garden operatives in Vauxhall Park; some working hard, some not so much. They were plainly surprised to be approached but most were happy to talk.

I spoke to both men and women and the general view was that if they had to endure community punishment then this was a pretty good option. Having said that, it was a sunny day; the verdict might have been a little different in March.

In our neighbourhood Vauxhall One, a non-profit organisation owned and led by local businesses, works with Community Payback participants. The project which was made possible by an arm of the Probation Service, the London Community Rehabilitation Company, has been running for five years and happens every Monday between 9am-4pm with a maximum of 10 participants.

Speaking to Javier Flores, Vauxhall One’s Environmental Services Manager, he stresses they take on work the council is either reluctant or doesn’t have the resources to tackle.

A case in point is Goding Street. It backs on to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and is where, at closing time, assorted ravers and party goers spill out on to the street from the busy clubs and restaurants. Over the weekend this creates an enormous amount of mess and by Monday morning it resembles a war zone. As Javier says: ‘Visitors like to park and extend their party time, drinking, smoking and (engaging in) other types of anti-social behaviour’. So, every Monday the CPB get stuck in and clear the street of all the party detritus.

Other tasks that Javier oversees are painting the railings on Albert Embankment, removing graffiti, cleaning telephone boxes and of course gardening. They also help dispose of trashed or forgotten street furniture and remove ever-present supermarket trolleys.

Vauxhall One provides CPB people with the necessary clothing and tools and a place to eat. They are currently in discussion with The London Community Rehabilitation Company over adding an additional working day on Saturdays.

Last word to Javier: ‘CPB has become an invaluable help on keeping central Vauxhall tidy and clean’.

Despite seeing the paybackers all over our borough, The Office of National Statistics indicates numbers are dropping. In 2007, across the UK, 191,000 convicted criminals received community orders. Last year that figure had dropped to 99,000.

The decrease in community sentences may be caused by judges issuing suspended prison terms, where an offender walks free but is jailed if they commit a further offence.

Right now, Vauxhall Park is looking magnificent, and that is, at least in part, thanks to work undertaken by people who would not necessarily describe themselves as gardeners.

Dockless bikes: Urban junk or the future of pedal power?

Dockless bikes: Urban junk or the future of pedal power?

A new two-wheeled phenomenon has hit the streets of London; the dockless bike. You’ve probably seen these orange and yellow pushbikes propped up against walls and dumped in parks. Two firms predominate: Mobike and ofo. We already have Santander Cycles, or Boris Bikes as everyone but people who work at Santander call them, but those are docked in stands around central London.

Controversy rages (perhaps rage is a little strong) over whether these new additions are two-wheeled litter or provide a useful public service. You may have seen the BBC report on dockless bikes in China, from where Mobike and ofo originate, where millions have been dumped for scrap.

I have a bike and use it regularly, particularly for shorter rides around our neighbourhood, but I also use Boris Bikes when I know my return journey will be made using some other form of public transport. So, time to check out the new kids on the block.

I downloaded the free apps for both ofo and Mobike onto my phone and signed up. This proves to be very easy; you provide your email address and mobile phone number and they ping you a code. You log that into the app which opens your account and thereafter you give them your credit card details. Both apps work in a remarkably similar manner.

Time to look for a bike parked locally and that’s where I hit a problem. At the heart of the apps is a Google map which shows your location and bikes that are close-by and ready to rent. You need to have your roaming data on and apparently it all works more smoothly if you turn on Bluetooth. There are no Mobikes near me and just one ofo, about five minutes stroll from my home.

Digging a little deeper it seems that while not regulated by Transport for London (TFL) dockless bikes do have to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with local authorities and where I live (Lambeth) that hasn’t happened. Largely, I think, because there are a plethora of Boris bike stands in our borough. In the burbs dockless bikes are very popular and have largely been welcomed by the authorities. The upshot being that any bikes in our area are incomers brought by discerning people who fancied a trip to sunny Vauxhall.

Donning a helmet and high viz jacket I set off in pursuit of my ride. It was propped as you can see just outside a local primary school. Unleashing the yellow beast proved remarkably easy. Open the app, click on unlock, the app now takes control of your phone’s camera which you focus on the bikes QR code. A metal lock around the rear tyre springs open and you are good to go.

You pay 50p for thirty minutes with a daily cap of £5. By way of comparison: It costs £2 to access Santander Cycles for 24 hours. You can make as many journeys as you like in that time but if you go over 30 minutes you’ll incur another £2 charge.

So, what are they like to ride? Well frankly, they feel a little flimsy. If you’ve ever ridden a Boris Bike you know they’re built like tanks and are extremely heavy. Not something you can say about an ofo bike. These have three gears which for my money are set at a better ratio than the Santander Cycles, I actually changed gear which I almost never do on a Boris. Another plus is they have a proper basket on the front which would certainly take a small load of shopping. This is far preferable to the strange arrangement on the front of Santander Cycles which doesn’t quite know what it’s supposed to be.

A big downside is the saddle height. I’m six foot one and it just doesn’t raise high enough for me, so getting any kind of speed up was tricky and it also proved wearing on the knees. But you know what (?), for a short trip around the corner to pick up a loaf of bread and some tea-bags (we live high on the hog in our house) it was just fine.

I propped the bike tidily outside the house, secured the lock around the back wheel and the journey was over. Then came a little surprise, I received a text saying:

You’ve parked outside ofo’s operational zone! To avoid losing 20 points from your ofo score, please ride the bike back into ofo’s operational zone – check the app for more details on where we operate.

I checked Google maps on the app and couldn’t find where their operational zone is located. This rather defeats the whole object of these bikes which is the ability to pick them up and leave them where you chose. Albeit I accept they have to be parked properly and not dumped in the middle of the road.

I’m also not entirely sure what losing 20 points from my ofo score means and what disadvantage this has put me at, but it wasn’t sufficiently scary for me to do anything about it. Around twenty minutes after I left the bike, someone else picked it up so it’s now off my conscience.

Just checking the Mobike app again and I see there is a bike available just over the road. On further inspection it turns out a neighbour has the bike parked in their back garden, so  inaccessible unless I knock on their door. Not sure what happens here, but I assume at some point a Mobike operative will be paying them a call.

What to make of dockless bikes? They’re flimsy, but cheap. They’re handy but often dumped in ugly heaps. To answer your unspoken question, I’m sure I will be booking another ride. And ultimately isn’t anything that gets us going places leaving no carbon footprint a good thing?

Before I go, you might be asking why the name ofo? Apparently, according to the company, the logo looks like someone riding a bike. Now you know.

Nicking Milk

Nicking Milk

In March we started getting milk delivered to our door the old-fashioned way, in glass bottles. Just trying to do our (micro) bit in the war against plastic. Now some little bastards are nicking it right off our door step.

Milk & More deliver in the early hours and as the More would suggest they go beyond just moo juice. On Friday we ordered their Breakfast Bundle which includes eggs, bacon, juice and two pints. At first, we thought the delivery hadn’t been made but no, it was looted.

Today we ordered one pint of full-fat and one semi-skimmed. Both bottles, drained of milk, were left on the wall in front of our house as a big fuck you to our family.

I’ve cancelled all orders until we find some sort of secure delivery box. So, thanks to those hard bastards who nick milk (#massivelegends) we don’t get our milk, Milk & More lose orders and we go back to buying plastic.

Update 1: Milk & More have refunded the cost of our Breakfast Bundle. #goodguys

Update 2: An old friend reminded me of the 1970s milk ad: ‘Watch out there’s a Humphrey about’. It was a bit of nonsense from Unigate about someone trying to snaffle your pinta. They even got Muhammad Ali on board. 

Stoned in Stockwell

Stoned in Stockwell

With the sun out, the people shirtless and picnics in full swing, the sweet smell of marijuana, along with the stench of skunk, is wafting across the parks of London.

Recently the dog ran through a tsunami of smoke caused by one of those vaping dudes and ended up on her back giggling. (Yes, my dog can giggle) So I’m pretty sure those guys are up to something too. Summer’s here and Londoners are high in Highgate and stoned in Stockwell.

Weed remains illegal in the UK and being caught with it comes with a maximum five years in prison and an unlimited fine. Police can issue an on-the-spot fine if you’re caught with a small amount and will take your stash.

But frankly unless you blow smoke in a copper’s face you’re unlikely to feel plod’s hand on your shoulder. The War on Drugs, or at least the War on Weed seems to have sputtered out.

Ask any lawyer and they’ll tell you that if a law is on the books and it’s not enforced, it should either be struck off or at least changed. But of course, that is unlikely to happen. Politicians in the UK know there are few votes to be won in suggesting weed be legalised and any unfortunate MP who takes up the cause will likely be mugged by the Daily Mail.

You have to wonder how many of our elected members have never smoked a joint. I’m sure the delightful Mr Rees-Mogg is in the clear along with our Prime Minister, but Boris Johnson? A few years ago, Ann Widdecombe (remember her?) caused a storm at the Tory party conference when she called for zero tolerance on all cannabis use and anyone caught with the drug would receive an automatic £100 fine. Even Tories couldn’t stomach that, and it was ditched.

It’s all so tricky for both politicians and the police. Just recently in Argentina a huge cache of marijuana being held by police went missing. A former police commissioner and fellow officers gave an entirely believable account as to what had happened when they told a judge the drugs were “eaten by mice”.

A few years ago, smoking a joint in public came with a police warning: ‘You’re be nicked sunshine’. Not anymore. MPs are too frightened to touch it, the police have more important stuff on their hands and so we do what we always do when faced with an intractable problem, we whistle up a van load of fudge to make it all go away.

And fudge, so I’m told, goes very nicely after you’ve smoked a joint.

How come it’s OK for men to piss in public?

How come it’s OK for men to piss in public?

Sorry for the rather crude headline, but I thought it might grab your attention.

I’m not just talking about homeless people here, it now seems any man can get his todger out and start spraying the London landscape, willy-nilly. Just yesterday I was out with the mutt in our local park and a man was leant up against a tree giving it full flow. Seeing him, the dog had a quick pee in solidarity, but close by were children and unaccompanied members of the clergy.

My wife says men are filthy creatures and we’ve always done it. I disagree, I think a change has occurred and men now think this is acceptable behaviour. Perhaps the council is to blame for not providing enough public loos, but I don’t like it and it stinks.

Whatever the case, you probably want to go and wash your hands after reading this post. At your convenience, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts.