Category: London History

Terror on the tube: Inspector Sands to the rescue

Terror on the tube: Inspector Sands to the rescue

I don’t want to alarm you but if while riding on the tube you hear an announcer say: “Would Inspector Sands report immediately to security” you may be part of an unfolding terror attack.

Apparently ‘Inspector Sands’ is the bland formulation used to alert staff, but not the public, that trouble might be brewing. What you don’t want in times of crisis is an announcer going into the ‘we’re all doomed’ routine, so the fictitious inspector fits the bill.

I know about this because my 14-year-old daughter told me and as far as can be established said 14-year-old has never been wrong about anything, ever.

Following some in depth google-research on my part it seems there might be something to it. Apparently, it originated in theatres and was used in case of fire. The name Sands being selected because they used sand to put out the fire.

And now you’re thinking: For heaven’s sake Jim, Inspector Sands because they use sand to put out the fire? Well please yourself, but the 14-year-old claims to have heard the announcement twice: once at Clapham South and once as Waterloo. She came through without a scratch.

It’s out of this world as Londoner beats the odds

It’s out of this world as Londoner beats the odds

We are just back from grabbing some summer sun in Florida. And if you’re thinking it’s all very well for some, but what on earth does this have to do with London? Then bear with me.

Our hotel, located on the ‘Space Coast’ was a forty-five-minute drive from the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral. I could tell you what a fantastic museum it is, about how you can see the space shuttle, the Apollo rockets, the moon buggy, get to touch moon rock, but that stuff you can find on Trip Advisor.

Walking by one of the Saturn rockets that sent Armstrong and Aldrin hurtling towards the moon there are a series of front pages capturing the excitement of the moment. A Saturn rocket may be an awe-inspiring sight, but a splash about the moon shot, for an old news hound such as myself, is impossible to resist.

Working through the headlines: “First footprints on alien world” –  “Everything ‘Go’ Astronauts walk in lunar dust” – “Moon is magnificent desolation” –  “Old Glory hoisted by first moon men” my eye was caught by the headline: “Briton gets $24,000. Landing Pays off.” It was a short article at the foot of the Tulsa Daily Herald from 21st July 1969 and tells the story of David Thelfall who, in 1964, placed a bet of £10, that a man would set foot on the moon before 1971. At the time £10 was twice the weekly wage.

Threlfall later said: “In 1963 I heard President Kennedy make a speech in which he said there would be an American on the moon by the end of the decade. I thought if a bookmaker was prepared to offer reasonable odds it would be a common sense bet.”

Threlfall contacted William Hill and was duly offered the odds of a thousand to one. When Neil Armstrong took his ‘giant leap for mankind’ and the bet was won, the bookmaker presented Threlfall with a cheque for £10,000 live on TV from a London studio. In today’s money that’s around £150,000.

William Hill never revealed who their representative was who offered such absurd odds and as for Threlfall, he went out and bought an E-type Jag.

Thick fog smothers Tate Britain

Thick fog smothers Tate Britain

Peeking out from behind swathes of mist and murk great paintings emerge at Tate Britain’s ‘Impressionists in London’ exhibition, but you have to wade through some dreadful muck to get there.

I know you won’t take a blind bit of notice of what I say, but if you plan to visit this exhibition,  do wear trainers. You’ll want to go at quite a lick.

Room 1: With the Prussians beating the bejesus out of Paris in1871, French artists, including Camille Pissarro, Charles-Francois Daubigny and a young Claude Monet decamped to London in many cases to paint pictures of Sydenham. I mean I have nothing against Sydenham, but with your home city in flames, doesn’t London have a bit more to offer? Nothing to see here, keep moving.

Room 2: By now you really want to be building up a good head of steam, perhaps whip out a skateboard and marvel, as you glide by, at the awfulness of the Quality disporting themselves in paintings by James Tissot of well, the Quality disporting themselves. These paintings are why photography was invented so nobody has to do this stuff anymore.

I’m also not sure what any of this has to do with impressionism, looks more like expressionism to me.

On! On! past Alphonse Legros doing his worst and as quick as you like through the room dedicated to the ‘celebrated’ sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. I don’t know about you, but I only notice sculpture when I’m backing up to get a good look at a painting and then bash into it.

By the time you reach Room 5 you’ll have reached optimum velocity, but hold up is that a painting worth looking at? Yes, it is and it’s Monet’s ‘Leicester Square at night’, great splodges of greasy reds and blues. Perhaps not Monet in mid-season form, but certainly worth a glance.

It’s funny I’m sure I used to like Pissarro, I remember enjoying a couple of his paintings at the Ashmoleum in Oxford years ago, but now they look incredibly trite, almost chocolate-box, paint by numbers kitsch.

By the time you enter Room 6 you may be losing the will to live, but help is at hand in the form of three paintings or nocturnes by the American artist James McNeill Whistler. They are simple washes of grey blue, with lonely stick figures haunting the canvas, but taken together are magnificent. They are owned by the Tate but don’t often get a run out. Oscar Wilde commenting on his friend Whistler’s work in typical Oscar style said: ‘There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we know nothing about them. They did not exist until art had invented them.’

This exhibition really ought to carry a weather warning as the dense fog leaks from Room 6 and blankets the next room. It’s a regular pea-souper in Room 7, which holds Monet’s celebrated pictures of the House of Commons and Big Ben. You can hardly see the nose in front of your face.

Monet, in his sixties, came to London for three consecutive winters saying he wished ‘to sum up…impressions and sensations of the past’ and there is a melancholy, retrospective quality to the pictures. Staying at The Savoy, one room for sleeping and one for painting, he would venture out into the gloom at about 4 o’clock to capture the sun going down. Surely, these must be some of the greatest pictures of London. Fog swathes Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster as the fading sun hits the Thames; they make London look as beautiful as Venice.

Here’s the question: when these pictures were complete and put on sale how many were sold in London? Not one, nada, zip. We don’t want that weird, modern, foreign rubbish round here thank you very much.

The ‘Impressionists in London’ exhibition is 60% dreadful, 20% mildly interesting and a further 20% utterly magnificent. It costs £19.70 to get in, you do the maths. For me the three Whistler paintings alone are worth the price of admission.

Open until 7th May 2018

On my way out I spotted a fantastic exhibition by Bernard Cohen, an artist new to me. It’s free and definitely worth a look. Here’s one now.

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.

 

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.

Posh Pigeon Update

Posh Pigeon Update

My short blog on London’s ring-necked parakeets has sparked some comment, particularly whether they are a menace to our indigenous birds.

Kate commented: “Unfortunately they take food and nest sites that native species like robins, blue tits and sparrows need.”

James said: “I have noticed a HUGE decline in small birds in the back garden since the arrival of the parakeets.”

To try and get beyond anecdotal evidence I turned to the RSPB to see what they had to say. Here’s what I learnt.

There are various reasons why parakeets do so well here:

  • They originated in Lowland India and the foothills of the Himalayas, so obviously don’t mind a bit of a nip in the air.
  • There is a plentiful supply of food for them in London from berries to bird-tables.
  • Their breeding season starts very early; often in January so they have an enviable supply of nesting sites with little competition from our indigenous species some of which don’t lay eggs until June. They are hole-nesters in competition with owls, woodpeckers and starlings.

The RSPB is concerned about the interlopers’ effect on our native fauna, but are not currently calling for a cull. This may change as their population rises and their numbers need to be monitored.

Despite being incomers the ring-necked parakeet is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, though it is illegal to release them into the wild.

So in short, it looks like the RSPB, along with most avian species, is sitting firmly on the fence when it comes to the Posh Pigeon. It also means I’ve probably not moved this debate on any further.

Blue Planet II

But here’s something animal related that is unequivocally good; Blue Planet II is currently the most watched programme of 2017. Yes, a show about animals presented by someone in his nineties has scored 14 million viewers. According to The Guardian newspaper this made it not only the most watched programme of this year but the third most watched of the past five years, behind only the football World Cup final in 2014 and last year’s Great British Bake Off final.

As the camera goes deeper towards the ocean floor, seven miles down last week as I recall, the animal life gets more and more strange and everything starts to look like a 1970s prog rock album cover.

London’s Posh Pigeons

London’s Posh Pigeons

Posh Pigeons, London Pests or Parrots, if you live in the capital you must have seen or at least heard these green screaming banshees. Not sure what I’m talking about? London is now home to thousands of ring-necked parakeets.

When out walking the dog I usually hear them first as they shriek from tree to tree, then catch a flash of green as they speed past. I don’t know if they’re just trying to warm up, but they seem to fly faster than indigenous birds. Their numbers are booming, but why? Could it be global warming? Whatever the reason there seem to be a plague of them about town.

So, I hear you asking where the hell did they come from? This is where the story gets a little murky. Some claim they are the descendants of birds that escaped from Isleworth Studios during the filming of the movie ‘The African Queen’ which starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. But that was made in 1951, and I’m sure I never saw the little pests when I first moved to London.

Another bonkers theory is that Jimi Hendrix released a breeding pair during the 1968 Summer of Love.

A more likely explanation is that they are just escaped pets, which have somehow adapted to our rigorous climate.

Some would like to wring the necks of these ring-necked parakeets but not me; they don’t seem to bother other species and with winter on its way, they add a little tropical colour to our sometimes monochrome city.