I’m Not Really Here

SlopesCoverFinal350I 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:

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Greenwich City Farm

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?


A Postcard from the Orion–Cygnus Spiral Arm

The worst crime a blogger can commit – well, other than poisoning a city’s water supply or working for the BBC in the 1970s or turning up at a six-year-old’s birthday party dressed as Michael Gove – is, of course, to get all self-referential and start apologising for a lack of posts, as if readers were growing shivery and itchy and not turning up for work on account of the silence. Also, apologising mostly requires an explanation and, personally, I’d rather you used your imagination, and pictured me, say, chained to a radiator in a drab apartment block on the outskirts of Bucharest, rescuing stranded polar bears from rapidly melting ice floes using nothing but a kayak, a length of nylon rope, and a large inflatable salmon, or being intimately probed in the hospitality suite of an orbiting spaceship by a race of shimmeringly beautiful but (sadly) anatomically incompatible space lovelies. These things can happen.

Or you can just assume I had to go to Düsseldorf again (see previous post).

No, by and large, it’s best to just get on with things, whilst quietly cursing the fact that it doesn’t seem possible to turn off the “date” function in the free version of WordPress.

HOWEVER – I think this time it does make sense to tell you why this site has kept mum on even such exciting SE10 happenings as the sudden departure of Ristorante Soteri and its Chef’s Special cottage pie, the imminent arrival of Jamie Oliver, bish bosh, and that secret gig Radiohead did at the Pelton Arms as a warm up for their O2 shows. Basically, I’ve been working on a book. I know, get me! A book! Just like what people used to read in the olden days. But actually this is a collaborative book, and it’s occurred to me that I ought to tell you about it, in case you wish to collaborate. For it is a book about the effect that this year’s Olympic shenanigans had on London. And, obviously, they had a bigger effect on Greenwich (and Woolwich) than on most parts of the capital, so… some of you may have tales or photos you’d like to share.

It’s called From The Slopes Of Olympus To The Banks Of The Lea and there are more details over at the Smoke website (that being my day job), but essentially we’re not looking for anything about the jumping and trotting, but about the impact – good and bad – the games had on the city. Anything from the original decision to award the games to London and all the faffing about in the run-up through to the shooting of the horses and the restitution of the Oyster card reader on Platform 3 at Greenwich station (which still hasn’t happened). It can be a single paragraph, a short story, or a photo – but the more imaginative the better. Our official deadline is the end of the month, but… given that only gives you three days notice, I’m prepared to be flexible.

Which is, oddly, exactly what I said to the incompatible space lovelies, but it turned out they weren’t, not under any circumstances.

Some parts of the Orion–Cygnus Spiral Arm really are very prudish. No wonder their people are dying out.

I use the word “people” loosely.

Here are some examples to get you thinking:

The Song Of The Olympic Binman
Ha Ha Road
A102(M)
Two Olympic Haikus
80,000 Cheers
Olympic Park, Hogwarts Gate

To Answer Your Question, Düsseldorf

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:

Two Olympic Haikus
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.
The Beer Goes In The Pub
Because frankly there aren’t enough short stories set in Charlton.

I don’t know, I’ve never bunted

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.

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Non-illuminated Olympic Signage

Apologies for the lack of posts, but I’ve been in northern France – Cherbourg, Caen, Rouen, Le Havre, that general area – trying to track down supplies of a small, bread-like, sultana-bearing cake that was, I’d been told, absolutely delicious with cream and jam.

[Readers wishing to do their own punchline at this point can use the following hyperlink to go straight to the start of the next-paragraph-but-one.]

Sadly, my Norman scone-quest proved fruitless – I only found ones without sultanas – and I’ve now returned to SE10 a sadder and a wiser man, not to mention a man sporting the heightened facial colouring of one who’s lately been repeatedly slapped.

OK, none of that is true. But the truth is a bit dull, so I thought I’d jazz it up. Basically, since mid-May, I’ve mostly been wearing my other hat – the one with the built-in eyeshade and anti-poet alarm I wear when I’m editing Smoke magazine. Or Smoke magazine and website, as it now is, because – as casually mentioned a couple of posts ago – Smoke, like Greenwich station when the Lewisham extension opened, has gone multi-platform. Which is exciting, of course, but there’s also been a lot to sort out, and I find it difficult keeping more than one ball in the air simultaneously, especially when both balls are quite similar, which mine are.

Both being blogs about London.

The similarity of my balls has, though, given me the idea for this post. A few pieces on the Smoke website – and not just those by me – have, you see, been about south-east London, and therefore may be of interest to people reading this blog; so – at the risk of being accused of cross-pollination and self-fertilisation and a host of other things I’d not normally do without first drawing the curtains – I thought I’d make a little list. Clicking on the title will take you straight to the relevant page (it will open in a new window), where you’ll also find larger versions of the photos.

ALL THE WONDERS OF THE UNIVERSE

A short play set in Cutty Sark Gardens in which two pigeons discuss the ineffable beauty and infinite mystery of space whilst arguing over a discarded chip (possibly a hand made skin-on chip from Byron) and whether or not their relationship has a long-term future.

GEORGE OSBORNE BREASTS THE SURF

Have you ever dreamt that you’re on a Cornish beach and George Osborne is bursting lustily through the foam towards you? If you haven’t, but would like to, then the story of how we made the surprising discovery that our beloved chancellor has had himself immortalised in brightly painted wood for use as a ship’s figurehead, and is now on display below the Cutty Sark, might be perfect bedtime reading.

NOT AS GOOD AS MR TUMBLE

There was something rather heart-warming about watching the people of Bermondsey bond in the rain over Skol and bits of wet chicken while waiting to have their view of a boat not containing the queen blocked by someone’s umbrella. I mean, obviously it’s a shame they couldn’t have bonded while celebrating something more worthwhile, e.g. the introduction of an 80% tax band, the return of Michael Gove to his home planet, or the abolition of Fearne Cotton, but you can’t have everything.

IS THIS WHAT PEOPLE DO?

A story written in the aftermath of last August’s riots and set entirely on board the Woolwich Ferry, but not entirely in 2012.

And then we have two stories set in Peckham, which isn’t SE10, I know, but… it’s still SEsomething.

THE LARGE APPARATUS

Do you ever worry that Peckham might be the opposite of a penguin, and have a dark underbelly? If so, this tale of a playground assistant uncovering a portal to hell below the large apparatus in the school hall might strike a chord.

I WAS JUST TRYING TO BE NICE

An unworldly woman from Bristol makes the mistake of catching a number 36.

So there you go. Normal service will now be resumed, because there’s much to discuss. That new grandstand in the park, for instance – that’s looking very impressive, isn’t it? And then there’s the non-illuminated Olympic signage being installed on our road, about which I’m very excited, because I’m forever getting lost on my way to the park or station. The station itself will soon have a new entrance leading directly onto Straightsmouth, by the way – though heaven knows how the horses are supposed to get down the steps.
Oh, and apparently we’re getting one of these…


Victoria Wood and the Giant Purple Horse

Another week, another letter from the council. This one comes from Victoria Wood. Not that Victoria Wood, sadly, but her namesake in (deep breath) Development Control at the Directorate of Regeneration, Enterprise and Skills – I’ve no idea what that is, but I’m guessing it’s where Greenwich Council stores all its recently repossessed nouns. Anyway; Victoria, it turns out, is writing to inform me, completely out of the blue, that I have 21 days to object to the erection of a temporary sign, 15 foot by 15 foot, round the back of Greenwich station.

Now, usually when a woman draws your attention to a large and unexpected temporary erection, your best bet is to smile awkwardly and shuffle behind the sofa; unless you’re at a party and suspect she’s simply trying to break the ice, in which case suggesting she finds a steak mallet or small hammer generally makes more sense. Clearly, though, neither response was appropriate here. But what was? Vicky’s letter really didn’t give me too much to go on, and my immediate thought was that we were about to get something like this:

Big Boris is Mocking You

Or maybe something more parochial. Maybe every street in SE10 was to be blessed with a giant painted image of Chris Roberts, leader of Greenwich Council, beaming into the middle distance as, like peons in Pyongyang, we scurry beneath his beneficent gaze and marvel at the greatness of his works.

Clearly, I needed to find out more about Planning Application 12/0971/A. Which meant either a trip to Woolwich library, or going online. And last time I went to Woolwich I got chased by a man with very little hair and a very angry dog, eager to discuss their right to walk on a designated cycle path when there was a perfectly good pedestrian walkway alongside, so online it was.

And that’s where I discovered this mock-up of what we should expect:

Straightsmouth Horse

So, it seems like we’re getting a 15-foot horse. A purple and white horse, in fact (I don’t know why they’ve not used purple in the mock-up). It won’t be illuminated, either from without or within, and it won’t project more than 5cm from the wall. It will, though, be made of vinyl, so be easy to wipe clean, should it become… marked.

Obviously this is another Olympic thing, the thinking behind it presumably being that spectators, being barely more evolved than deep-sea sponges, aren’t capable of finding their way from Greenwich station to Greenwich Park without a 15-foot purple horse to guide them. But… if that’s the case, then… isn’t the horse facing the wrong way? So… maybe it’s showing them the way back to the station? Well, if so, it’s making a mockery of the Great Olympic Gyratory which, as I’ve mentioned previously, is going to completely disrupt my breakfast. Now, quite literally, I won’t know which way to turn.

I don’t think I’m going to object, though. Instead, I think I’ll just write anonymously to Seb Coe suggesting that drug testing be extended from the athletes to all members of LOCOG – or at least to all those who, when invited to brainstorm, begin gabbling about giant purple horses…