I think it was the Ancient Babylonians who decided there would only be sixty minutes in an hour, sixty seconds in a minute, and sixty ways to leave your lover – no, wait, that was Paul Simon, and even he had to trim it down to fifty so it would fit on a 7″ (thereby depriving listeners of ten of the most esoteric/contrived ways – conspiring with the window cleaner to kidnap you while your inamorata was downstairs making breakfast always seemed particularly desperate, and only really worked if your windows opened inwards, or had sash cords). But, yes, it was those pesky six-fingered folk from Mesopotamia who bequeathed to us the temporal system by which our lives are now governed, and whom I therefore blame whenever anyone asks why this blog hasn’t been updated for a bit: there just aren’t enough minutes in the day.
This is particularly relevant at the moment, as I’m working round the clock trying to get a book finished. Possibly it would help if I moved the clock out of the way, but… I digress. Basically, over at Smoke (my, ahem, “day job”), we’ve been putting together a book about London’s response to last year’s Olympics, and it was supposed to be at the printer’s, ooh, about three weeks ago. So now I’m doing nothing else till it’s finished.
This, of course, as well as being an apology/explanation, is also a blatant plug for said book. But given it contains quite a lot about Greenwich, as you might expect from a book about the effect of the Olympics co-edited by someone living in SE10 who had a man with a giant foam hand stationed outside his house for much of the duration, I’ve no qualms. But I’ll let you know more once it’s actually published. In the meantime, here are a few words to tantalise.
Don’t ever get me started on the Ancient Sumerians, by the way, them and their bloody stick writing.
Oh, this too; taken yesterday in Mountsfield Park, Catford:
The proposed Silvertown Tunnel will make south-east London “a more attractive place to live, visit and do business”. That’s what TfL say, anyway, adding that it will “pass under the River Thames and be built to modern standards” – the original idea of constructing an above-water tunnel by laying a large tube woven from reeds and withies over wattle and daub pylons presumably having been abandoned.
At first glance, it might seem odd to be considering a new crossing in this neck of the woods so soon after the last one opened. But the cable car, despite being a vital piece of transport infrastructure which, as Boris Johnson made clear when he agreed to make up the funding shortfall, could carry up to 2,500 people an hour across the river in each direction, something that would otherwise take 30 buses to achieve, has one basic flaw: it only works when the weather is nice. As soon as the wind gets up, it gets shut down.
Once the Silvertown Tunnel is built, though, this won’t be a problem; because, whenever it gets a bit blowy, thirty specially commissioned cable car replacement buses will be on hand to shuttle the people of Canning Town and Beckton under the Thames – yes, under the Thames, because it’s a tunnel – to the shops, bars and cafes of Millennium Village at two-minute intervals.
And in addition, say TfL, it will help alleviate overcrowding in the nearby Blackwall Tunnel.
In short, the economic case seems rock solid. And it’s inspired Greenwich Council to come up with a similar plan of their own, for a second foot tunnel under the Thames between Cutty Sark Gardens and the Isle of Dogs. Such a tunnel will, said a council spokesman, launching the campaign this morning with a promotional visit to the Island Gardens Cafe, help ease congestion in the present Victorian structure – which, after recent renovation work, is clearly showing its age – and unlock the huge commercial potential currently being stifled by the natural barrier of the river.
He added, wiping a crumb from his chin, that the Island Gardens Cafe serves excellent coffee and has a fine selection of cakes at prices that won’t hurt your pocket.
You know how it is. Every Christmas, the same old decision: do you go for one with a chunky wooden base that can just be stood in a corner of the sitting room, or do you go for one without a chunky wooden base that needs to be wedged in a wastepaper bin filled with earth dug up from the garden or a local park? Or do you – just for once, just for a change – think, what the hell, and go for one that needs to be supported by an obscuring framework of waist-high steel crash barriers?
It’s like a metal polo-neck jumper on a triangular-headed green robot spy in some Sixties TV sci-fi oh, this is not a good simile.
But you know what I mean. Poking up over the top of the barriers like that, it just looks a bit neckless, and sad. It wasn’t helped by the fact that there was no sky today.
I hate it when the sky disappears.
Obviously some years you end up with a shorter one than you intended, just because the big ones are sold out (2009), or too expensive (2008), or you can’t get them on the bus back from Clapham (2007), but – surely, when that happens, you just stand what you’ve got on an improvised coffee table plinth or upturned bucket covered in crepe paper, don’t you?
Just to leave room for the presents, if nothing else.
Do Greenwich Council really not have any spare plinths?
I always imagined they had loads… and took turns standing on them after every meeting…
Also, those lights; everyone knows that Christmas tree lights wind round and round like a helter-skelter, they don’t just drop straight down from the top like maypole ribbons. Where’s the artistry in that?
Oh well. It’s done now, and that must mean Christmas is definitely on the way. I see there’s already a “pop up gift store” next to the Greenwich Clipper, selling things that are, by definition, useless, otherwise shops would exist to sell them in the other eleven months of the year. While I was staring in through the window, trying to see what was on offer – origami toast racks, hats made of cheese, prettily decorated boxes to keep other boxes in – I spotted, for the first time, the small print at the bottom of the Clipper’s STAND-BY HAIRCUTS AVAILABLE NOW £20 sign; it pointed out that such haircuts are performed UPON REQUEST ONLY.
Damn it. For weeks now I’ve been crossing over at the lights, just in case someone leapt out of the Greenwich Clipper with a pair of scissors and tried to give me an unsolicited Justin Bieber.
I’ve no idea whether the sudden appearance of a board outside Green Village advertising “all-day breakfasts” is also a festive gesture: I suspect not. And it wasn’t there today, so maybe they’ve thought better of it. Shame, as I was really quite tempted by that offer of bacon, eggs, beans and two slices of toast served with a choice of existential despair or overwhelming hopelessness.
I do enjoy my afternoon strolls.
Everyone’s been getting a bit exercised of late about the chainification of Greenwich’s restaurants. First it was Nando’s and Frankie & Benny’s down by the pier, then Jamie Oliver, bish bosh, moving into the old Bar du Musée, and now, this very week, comes news that Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n’ Biscuits has taken on the lease of the Rivington Grill for its first outlet outside North Carolina. Even so, I wasn’t remotely prepared for what I saw this afternoon, as I stopped to gaze wistfully at the locked door of Ristorante Soteri and wonder, not for the first time, just how special the Chef’s Special cottage pie had really been: a notice taped to the window bearing the unmistakable logo of Mudchute City Farm. Now, I never had Mudchute City Farm down as particularly expansionist; they always seemed perfectly happy over there on the island, serving up Tuscan sausages or vegetable crumble in a slightly ramshackle shed by the goat pens. So the idea that, even as I stood here peering at Signore Soteri’s sadly stripped interior, teams of Gloucester Old Spots might be tugging trolleys laden with seasonal ingredients and locally sourced vegetables through the foot tunnel to a new outpost in Greenwich, right next door to Goddard’s Pies, was a tantalising one.
As I was pondering this, three girls emerged out of the sun.
“Can we ask you some questions?” one of them said. “It’s for school.”
“OK,” I said, shielding my eyes.
“What did you think of the Olympics?” said the same girl, reading from a small strip of paper.
I pondered, trying – and failing – to place her accent.
“I liked them,” I said.
She turned and glared at the girl next to her.
“He says he liked them,” said this second girl to the third, who nodded, and wrote something down on a piece of paper attached to a clipboard.
The first girl turned back to me.
“Are you proud that England held the games?”
“Pleased, not proud,” I said. And I was going to go on to tell her why it’s not really possible to be proud of something you’ve not yourself actually done, in the same way that I’m pleased to be British, and sometimes relieved, but never proud, because proud makes no sense. But she’d already turned to stare silently at the second girl, who was relaying my reply to the girl with the clipboard.
“He’s pleased not proud.”
I shrugged inwardly, and waited for the next question.
“Do you know how much it cost?”
“How much it cost? No, not exactly, I…”
“He doesn’t know,” said the second girl to the third.
The first girl smiled brightly.
“Thank you very much,” she said.
And off they trotted, leaving me staring once more at the poster for Mudchute City Farm. I like the thought of pigs in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College. Opposite the Old Brewery, perhaps?
I wonder if they were Brazilian, from Rio?
Has it all gone? Is it safe to come out now?
You know what I miss? Seeing the Russian paralympic team having breakfast outside Café Rouge every morning when I walk up to Sabo’s to buy the paper.
That’s what I miss.
But now the Russians have gone – I saw them boarding a coach this very morning – and so has everyone else. And what have we learnt from the past six weeks? Well, mainly this: if you reconfigure the whole of Greenwich as giant one-way system, put pink and purple stewards with giant foam hands on every street corner, erect a seven-lane footbridge guarded by soldiers across Romney Road, close Cutty Sark station in case people try to use it, suspend all residents’ parking bays, re-draw the council refuse collection rota so that bins are emptied in the middle of the night, construct an extra exit from Platform 1 at Greenwich station and then put barriers along the length of Platform 2 to make sure that DLR People don’t collide with SouthEastern People (and remove the Oyster card reader from the DLR platform while you’re at it, in case it causes milling), divert all the buses and close half the bus stops… if you do all that, then a stadium holding 23,000 spectators – or 4,000 less than the number of people who went to the Valley to see Charlton play Stevenage last season – can function safely and efficiently and with very little actual loss of life.
Which makes me feel a bit stupid for having panicked and run off to hide in Düsseldorf.
Yes, that’s where I’ve been – Düsseldorf. Though I wasn’t really hiding, because – intelligence-insulting over-reactions and giant foam hands aside – the Olympics has clearly been a wonderful thing, better even than mid-afternoon Pflaumenkuchen, as all but the most joyless, unimaginative and self-interested member of NOGOE will now surely admit. But I still had to go to Düsseldorf and miss Mo Farah doing the Mobot, because… well, sometimes one just has to go to Düsseldorf. I really can’t go into details – it’s more than my life is worth. Which, thanks to the continued weakness of the Euro, is slightly less than when I left.
Düsseldorf was very nice, though, and – let me tell you – Greenwich Park looked absolutely fabulous on the TV in the corner of the bar of the Hotel Sankt Andreas. But… eventually, the endless sausage and emphasis on handball started to get to me, and I wasn’t sorry to come home.
Even if, when I got back, Café Rouge was full of Russians. Maybe the name reminded them of the old days?
But, as I say, even the Russians have gone now, so…
… a normal service will henceforth be operating on all lines.
Actually, before I disappear, there have been a couple more SE-related posts on the Smoke website you might be interested in, namely these:
Because often, when faced with armed police and giant pink foam-rubber hands at the end of their road, people will find themselves seeking solace in ancient Japanese art forms. And then, once they’ve set fire to their origami model of Sebastian Coe, trying a bit of haiku.
Because frankly there aren’t enough short stories set in Charlton.
Obviously people have been up in arms about the fact that local residents won’t be able to get into Greenwich Park for the duration of the Olympics. And I’m sure they have a point, but… how about a little sympathy for those of us who were caught on the wrong side of the fence when the gates clanged shut? There I am, happily gambolling about in the rhododendron dell one afternoon, and the next thing I know I’m looking around thinking, “Where’s everybody gone, what’s with the big blue fence, and why is that horse staring at me?”
So, that’s why this blog hasn’t been updated for most of July. I’ve been digging.
Luckily, I soon tapped into Greenwich Park’s mysterious network of underground tunnels and, despite surprise encounters with some dinosaurs, a buried spaceship, and someone who may or may not have been King Arthur (he was asleep, and I didn’t like to wake him – or any of the blokes in armour he was with), managed to make my escape. And what a strange world I found waiting for me outside: a world of totally over-the-top road closures, massively over-staffed stations, and comically over-priced buffets at the Trafalgar (£40? For a buffet? In a pub?). It’s going to take me a few days to digest – all the changes, I mean, not the buffet, which I obviously wouldn’t touch with a three-foot spoon, any more than I’d pay six-fifty for a bit of cheese on toast (to pick from their regular non-Olympic let’s-rip-off-the-tourists bar menu) – but, in the meantime, here are some photos. Clicking on the thumbnails below the slideshow will bring up bigger versions, and informative captions.
Oh, when I got home, I was also surprised to find a letter on the doormat from Greenwich Council explaining that, in order to avoid upsetting Our Olympic Visitors and/or scaring the horses, they’d be emptying our bins in the middle of the night for the next three weeks; and another one, from TfL, saying that if I wanted to go to Lewisham first thing in the morning, I couldn’t. I responded to both these bits of information in the only way that seemed sensible: I rewrote the lyrics to Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman and posted them on the Smoke blog. If you want to sing along, you can find them here: SE10 Binman.
If you don’t… well, I’m not coming to any of your parties. Unless they’re being held at the Trafalgar, and you’re paying.
Since last week, there’s obviously been only one topic of conversation here in Greenwich: the opening of something so outlandishly bizarre and incongruous – something so, frankly, foreign – that most of us, despite the evidence of our own eyes, still can’t really believe it’s been allowed to happen. Ever since the planning application first went in, and we were asked if we had any objections, it’s been hard to take it seriously. This sort of thing was all very well in France, we said to each other, but… in SE10??? The idea was preposterous! Who on earth did they expect to use it? Especially with those prices.
But we were wrong. And so it was that, last week, behind carefully arranged barriers, Café Rouge duly unveiled their new pavement seating area, bringing a little slice of Continental-style café culture to the Royal Borough, possibly in a raffia basket with a small pot of jam.
And… you know what? Good luck to them, I say… because the thought of Greenwich’s Jean-Paul Sartres and Albert Camuses… Camu’s… Camus’s… sitting round small square tables at the bottom of Stockwell Street passionately wrestling with the great philosophical conundrums of our age is one that appeals to me greatly. In these dark days of TOWIE and Fearne Cotton, anything that encourages philosophical wrestling should be encouraged. The topic of debate isn’t important; what’s important is that debate is taking place, whether it’s about personal responsibility, the decline of Western liberalism, or what the point is of TfL telling us in its service updates whether or not either cable car terminal is out of action, given that a cable car with only one functioning terminal is, to all intents and purposes, a kite.
And, of course, this culture of debate, this desire to question the true nature of reality, will be infectious. As I passed by the tables this morning, for instance, on my way to get the paper, a stiff-aproned waiter was grimly stabbing some half-deflated red and white balloons with a steak knife – a prelude, I assume, to tying plump new ones on the railings in their stead. But, as he pierced the rubbery skins, one balloon broke free, and – caught by the July breeze – sailed off up Greenwich High Road. The waiter paused, his fist still tight around the knife’s thick shank, and an expression of existential foreboding passed across his face; it was like he was watching his own hopes and dreams slipping out of reach and disappearing, just like that balloon, in the general direction of Deptford Bridge.
A week ago, when they only had tables out on the veranda, I’m sure he’d just have carried on stabbing. He looked the sort.
In other news, they’ve just opened a cable car – I think I alluded to it earlier. And this is also a fantastic development, as it means I can finally visit my relatives in Silvertown.
I wonder if they still sing the old songs?
P.S. For more Greenwich-Café-Rouge-related fun, there’s a small post on the Smoke blog too.