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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An unworldly woman from Bristol makes the mistake of catching a number 36.
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:
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:
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…
So, last week, this letter arrived from Chris Roberts, leader of Greenwich council. We may have heard, said Chris, that the Government was putting in arrangements to ensure the safety and security of the Olympic Games in London –
And, well, I’ll stop you right there, Chris. Because, at the risk of setting in course a train of events that will end with a crack squad of LOCOG goons turning up on my doorstep, hauling me off to Stratford in the back of a black people carrier and tossing me into a dank oubliette beneath the EDF “Magic of Electricity” pavilion with only Coca-Cola, Big Macs and a picture of Seb Coe dressed in leather and wielding a large whip for sustenance, I think the Government’s role should actually be to ensure the safety and security of, well, me… rather than a two-week jamboree of running, jumping and splashing. But no; if evil-doers do their evil worst come July and/or August then, with Chris Roberts’ blessing, the people of Greenwich will, after a short prayer to St Alfege, be sacrificed so that the Olympic Stadium, the Aquatic Centre and the Basketball Arena might live on – ironic, really, as the Basketball Arena is only supposed to be a temporary structure.
Here’s a story you may have missed. Just under three weeks ago, tens of thousands of people descended on Greenwich and occupied the park. They came early one Sunday morning, when many of us were still in our beds. Some came on foot, and some came by car, but most used common sense and came on the DLR or took a train from London Bridge. Some, I don’t think it’s too melodramatic to say, were fanatics, and wore outlandish dress. Because that’s the sort of people the London Marathon attracts. Nearly 40,000 runners plus families, friends, well-wishers, casual observers, TV crews, medical staff – rather more in total, I suspect, than the 65,000 expected to visit Greenwich Park on the busiest day of the horsey stuff, when dressage fever will be at its height. And yet the transport infrastructure didn’t collapse, there were no outbreaks of panic or looting, and nobody went home saying that all the day had lacked was someone being accidentally shot in the back by paranoid paramilitaries.
And, of course, back on November 5th, over 100,000 people managed to make their way up to Blackheath in the dark, and by themselves, and despite a complete lack of road closures or travel restrictions, to see a series of high-velocity ballistic missiles packed with explosives being launched from, I believe, giant milk bottles (I know I’ve already mentioned this, but I thought it was worth saying again).
My point being… and this applies not just to Seb Coe’s meddlesome minions, but also to all those joyless souls whining that ever since the games were announced their lives have been barely worth living… are we not all overreacting, just a tad? At this rate – as I said to the woman queueing beside me in the Co-op the other week, tutting at a copy of the New Shopper – we’ll wake up one morning to find batteries of surface-to-air missiles by the TA Centre on Blackheath and a massive great aircraft carrier moored at the mouth of Deptford Creek.
So, anyway, last weekend, this massive great aircraft carrier moored at the mouth of Deptford Creek. She can’t pull right up to the pier, because she’s too big – largest warship in the Royal Navy, apparently – so she sits out in mid-river, and little boats – lighters, I believe, is the correct boaty terminology – ferry visitors back and forth. How they’re ever going to sail her up the Lea when the fighting starts, I don’t know, but – well, despite the hat, I’m not an admiral of the fleet, so what would I know about naval strategy?
Other than slightly more than I did before this Bank Holiday Monday when, in a well-run piece of PR, us newly expendable denizens of SE10 were allowed to go and have a go on her, for free. And great fun it was too. We sat in helicopters and played with assault rifles and got our faces painted with camouflage paint just like real soldiers and generally moseyed about and noseyed around as much as we pleased, even up on the flight deck, around the perimeter of which – deep breath – there’s no guard rail, because… well, it’s an aircraft carrier. A guard rail would get in the way of the aircraft. They have some nets to catch anyone who absent-mindedly walks off the edge, but that’s about it.
“What about Health & Safety?” joked one of my fellow residents to a smiling sailor. “Oh, we don’t worry about Health & Safety in the Royal Navy,” came the reply.
No, they don’t. And nobody died.
That’s all I’m saying.
The other photos are of the surface-to-air missile battery by the TA Centre on Blackheath.
I know this is a blatant bit of self-pluggery, but… as some of you might know, in real life I’m the editor of Smoke: A London Peculiar, and we’ve just relaunched after having a rather long sabbatical while we decided what to do about the collapse of the publishing industry. In our new guise, we’re going (unsurprisingly) to have both web and printed elements, and one of the projects we’re working on is a book about the London Olympics. So, if you feel you have anything to contribute, or just want to have a look at what we’re up to, go to http://smokealondonpeculiar.co.uk, and then look under New Book Projects to find out about the Olympic stuff.
It’s a café. UNDERNEATH A BOAT. Isn’t that enough?
Or, as one of the notes left by visitors at yesterday’s Preview Day for Locals had it, should I instead be muttering that it’s been “renovated too modern”, and that I won’t be able to stop myself falling to my knees and weeping every time I pass M&S?
“Renovated too modern”. I’ve no idea what that even means.
Look. The Cutty Sark is a fine old boat that’s had a pretty eventful life and been bashed around and knocked about many times over the years. Then, in 1954, once nobody could think what do with her any more, she came to Greenwich, to be put into dry dock so that people could look at her and say “oh, look, there’s a boat in a hole”, or words to that effect. You could walk up to the railings at the edge of the hole and peer down at the hull, but… it never struck me as that exciting, as these things go. Just a boat in a hole. Portsmouth has lots of those, and then there’s the Golden Hinde up at St Mary Overie Dock. The world is full of boats in holes.
But now, in Greenwich, we have a boat suspended in the air so that you can WALK UNDERNEATH IT, and it’s surrounded by glass, so that you can do this even when it’s raining. Or, to put it another way, you can sit and have a cup of tea and a slice of cake directly underneath a great big boat and, even when it’s raining, not get your cake wet. I’m not sure you can do this anywhere else in the world, can you, not even in Portsmouth?
Donna Summer, if memory serves, once left a cake out in the rain, and that caused no end of trouble. So she’d appreciate what they’ve done. Maybe they should have asked Donna to reopen it instead of the queen, who’s probably never had a piece of damp cake in her life, despite her family (if they were honest) being named after one.
I’m talking about Battenberg, which is what Mountbatten means when you’re not pretending not to be German.
The underside of a boat is an extraordinary thing, by the way. Especially when the whole massive bulk of it is just hanging there, above your head, looking all shiny and coppery. The shininess and copperiness surprised me; it reminded me a bit of the cladding on those new restaurants at the pierhead.
Another thing I love about the Cutty Sark, now that she’s raised up in the air, rather than stuck in a hole, is that you can see her masts from all over Greenwich in a way you never could before. Every morning, on my way to get the paper, I spot them poking up, and smile. And, of course, this works the other way round too; now that she’s up in the air, the view from her main deck is fantastic: out along the river towards the Shard, or down below to the revamped gardens with their stylish new modern lampposts, or across to St Alfege with its freshly scrubbed cherubs.
I was surprised when people complained about the cherubs being cleaned, incidentally. It seemed that they liked the dirt. Which is fine, everyone to their own, as long as you acknowledge that it’s the dirt you’re liking, not the cherub. It’s similar to when people say they prefer the sound of vinyl to CD; they’re perfectly entitled to think that, I just want them to admit that what they’re actually liking is the sound of a lump of carbon scraping through dirt, dust and cheap plastic cut in a rough approximation of the original sound waves, rather than the music.
Where was I?
Oh yes. I just can’t help feeling that, if you were visiting an exotic foreign city – Genoa, say, or Gothenburg (which is a major seaport on the west coast of Sweden and not, just going back to the Mountbatten thing, a small loaf-shaped cake comprised of squares of black and white sponge wrapped in a layer of black marzipan), or Grimsby – and you came across a preserved boat that, rather than being stuck in a hole, had been lifted up in the air and surrounded by glass so that Donna Summer could have a cup of tea and a slice of coffee and walnut directly underneath it without her cake getting wet and her life falling apart, even if it was raining, then you’d spend the rest of your holiday trying to buy postcards of it to send back home on which you’d write nothing but the words “It’s a café – UNDERNEATH A BOAT” along with three exclamation marks and a smiley face.
But, for some reason, because it’s in Greenwich, people prefer to mutter “it doesn’t look like it used to” and then complain that they can’t see why the new lampposts aren’t vertical.
It’s so that the same amount of light can illuminate more of the paving stones and less of the flower beds, by the way.
I still find the good folk of Greenwich a bit unfathomable at times. How can they, for example, work themselves up into such a right old lather about the arrival of a faux-American diner at the pierhead (whilst simultaneously demanding faux-traditional lampposts on the neighbouring piazza), and yet remain totally unfazed by the installation of a 30-foot elephant in the middle of a UNESCO World Heritage site?
I don’t know. I guess when a place is used for filming as much as the Old Royal Naval College is, you just get a bit blasé: Pirates of the Caribbean, Sherlock Holmes, Great Expectations, Kung Fu Panda III (This Time It’s Noodle Time!) – they’ve all been to the ORNC, except possibly the last. All the same, though, shouldn’t coming across a 30-foot elephant whilst on your afternoon constitutional prompt at least one raised eyebrow? Especially when you just come across bits of it, lying around on the ground, as I did last Monday.
“Well, I don’t know what it is,” observed a grey-haired gentleman to his wife, pausing briefly by the Painted Hall to consider the giant disembodied trunk lying horizontally beside a truck, “but you don’t see many of them.”
And he was right, of course – you don’t. But surely “Holy fuck, Muriel, what in the name of Beelzebub is that?!?” would have been a more appropriate response? It’s a giant disembodied trunk! Look at the bloody photo!!!
Anyway, it turns out they’re filming Les Miserables.
My first reaction, on discovering this, was that I had absolutely no idea Les Mis featured giant elephants. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realised that, despite its 25-year hegemony in the West End, I really had absolutely no idea what Les Mis was actually about at all. If pushed, I’d probably have hazarded that it involved lots of French people moping about being sad, or triste, as they say over there:
Pierre: Bof! Je suis triste…
Jean: Mais oui. Je suis triste aussi.
Pierre: Et vous, Marie, êtes vous triste?
Marie: Oui, je suis absolument désolée…
That sort of thing. But, having had my curiosity piqued by this multipartite pachyderm, I did a bit of research, and – well, I think I might just have to rewrite that little scenario:
Pierre: Bof! Je suis triste…
Jean: Mais oui. Je suis triste aussi.
Pierre: Et vous, Marie, êtes vous triste?
Pierre: Non? Pourquoi non?
Marie: Imbécile! Regardez le grand éléphant!
Because it seems there really were giant elephants in Paris in the early part of the nineteenth century. Or one giant elephant, anyway. But it was even bigger than the one they’ve built in the ORNC – it was, in fact, nearly 80 feet high.
I might as well tell you the whole story, given I’ve done the research.
OK. Ever since the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the area around the old fortress had lain pretty much derelict. And Napoleon, fearing that the site might become a focal point for renewed revolutionary fervour, decided that what was needed to put the idea out of people’s heads was some sort of imperialistic monument – a vast physical symbol, not to beat around the bush, of his military prowess. What he couldn’t decide, though, was what form it should take. He knew it had to be intimidatingly big, but beyond that… what? They already had the Arc de Triomphe, after all.
It was a conundrum. So one night, when he was alone with Joséphine, Napoleon said (and please remember I’m translating here from the French):
“Oh, ma chérie, were I to say that I wished to impress you with an enormous erection in the middle of the Place de la Bastille, then tell me – what image would first flash before your pretty blue eyes?”
Joséphine smirked, and softly murmured “Ooh-la-la!” Before she could reply properly, though, Napoleon handed her a piece of paper and a pencil and told her that a drawing would probably be best. Slightly disconcerted, she did a quick sketch, and passed it to him.
Napoleon frowned, raised his eyebrows, and then laughed.
“Of course, ma chérie, you are so clever! A giant elephant! It’s perfect!”
And he leapt to his feet and ran off to speak to the Imperial Sculptor before his beloved could tell him that he’d been holding the piece of paper upside down.
The plan was to cast the elephant in bronze made from the melted-down remains of foreign cannon captured in earlier campaigns. First, though, a full-size plaster mock-up was installed, just to see what it looked like. Unsurprisingly, it looked like a giant elephant.
I should maybe mention, at this point, that the year is now 1814. And, as any student of Abba will know, that’s highly significant. Because, less than twelve months later, my my, at Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender – seemingly under the impression that, if he did, he’d feel like he’d won when he’d lost, which is patently nonsensical, but… that’s the fog of war for you. Or just proof that winning Eurovision and winning a major land battle somewhere to the south of Brussels require totally different skillsets.
Anyway, after his surrender, the people of Paris rather lost heart in commemorating their former emperor’s military prowess in bronze. So the plaster elephant remained in place. And stayed there until 1846, when it was pulled down because rats were living in its legs.
But it features prominently in Victor Hugo’s novel, and will plainly be featuring in the film too; as will Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway Scottage. None of whom are in evidence in SE10 so far, obviously, but… any day now, I’m hoping to spot Ms Bonham Carter sat by herself in a corner of the Mitre with a pot of gin and a pickled onion.
She’s always struck me as a gin and pickled onion sort of girl.