The Village People

Victoria Park Village

[I] have often thought that successful estate agents have been blessed with as fertile imagination as that possessed by J. K. Rowling. First we had such euphemisms as Pied à Terre, no lift; compact, no room; walking distance, get stout shoes; in need of modernisation, dump; conveniently situated, above a 24 hour corner shop; popular, with rowdy teenagers.

For long cabbies have been directed to Dulwich when the destination is in fact Peckham; Islington for Dalston; and South Chelsea – well, anywhere south of the River.

Now a new type of creative advertising has been creeping in. An article in the leading taxi trade paper drew my attention to the many times that I’ve been asked for a village of late.

In recent years estate agents have taken the expression that London is just a series of villages to a whole new level. In an effort to make properties more marketable in downmarket areas, at the same time pushing up house prices, and therefore their commission a series of ‘villages’ have been created.

Their customers have believed the hype and are now calling their neighbourhood a village. Chepstow Village appears to be in a rather downmarket area of Notting Hill, I was given Chelsea Village once that turned out to have a village green the size of a triangular traffic island, which in fact it was. Victoria Park Village [pictured] is a favourite with its proximity with the City, as someone who was brought up there; the trade journalist described it as “a dodgy 1960’s roundabout”. It has its obligatory organic shops and a baker that caters for the ladies who lunch. Yesterday I went to Millennium Village that turned out to be in the middle of the empty space that is the Greenwich Peninsular.

I’m just waiting for 2013 when the Olympic Village will feature on east London’s estate agents brochures as village life in the heart of an industrial wasteland. I bet they are sharpening their pencils now.

The A to Z of London – Part 2

[T]his is the second part of ‘the 26 places to see in London before you die’ to cut out and keep. The choice of what is best in London is by its nature subjective, and inevitably I’ve left some places out, I have not, for obvious reasons, been on the Big Bus Company’s excellent tour of London. More importantly at the end I have included some popular tourist activities you should, in my opinion, avoid.

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National Gallery’s collection of French Impressionists is one of the finest in the world, but if you want to examine some of the collection in more detail then join one of the evening lectures conducted by an art expert. When you have seen enough of the world’s masterpieces the restaurant at the top of the Sainsbury Wing has tremendous views towards Buckingham Palace.

Opening approximately 500 times a year Tower Bridge should be on everyone’s itinerary. But don’t just take a picture and move on, go on the Tower Bridge Tour and experience one of the world’s most iconic bridges. Best photographed from the car park of the Gouman Hotel and not standing on the bridge like most tourists seem to favour.

Phantom of the Opera was first performed 25 years ago and still pulls in the crowds, particularly liked by the Japanese. When you see it you’ll understand just why Lloyd Webber is simply the greatest living writer of musicals. The stage design by Maria Björnson is worth the price of the tickets.

Queen’s official residence in London is Buckingham Palace and from the outside it is probably the most boring palace that you’ve ever seen. Come in August and take the tour inside to see its magnificence – every room designed to proclaim you are in the presence of royalty.

Routemaster Bus Ride, take a bus ride on a piece of London history. You can take a ride on a one of those iconic red double decker buses, it beats me why all those tourists that get excited every time they watch one go past, never actually go for a ride on it. Only two Routemaster routes exist nowadays, on what are known as ‘Heritage Routes’ numbers 9 and 15. Take the ride you know you want too . . . a real piece of nostalgia.

St. Paul’s is Christopher Wren’s masterpiece a tour will show you why Londoners just love this building. Wren was one of the first to have been buried in the crypt, his tomb marked by a simple black marble slab reads “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you) – precisely.

Tate Britain, not to be confused by Tate Modern. By all means go to Tate Modern to catch the boat which runs between the two “Tates”, then head for the Clore Gallery, which is dedicated to the work of England’s greatest painter J. M. W. Turner.

Underground or the Tube as Londoners call it, among other things. It was the world’s first subway system and many of its regular users would say that it still retains much of its original charm – and infrastructure. Don’t let that put you off, when it’s working the tube is by far the easiest way around London. The iconic signage with the roundel, Art Deco stations like my favourite Southgate and the much copied underground map are worthy of attention.

Victoria and Albert Museum has representation of cultures from around the world. That said much it is “acquired” from Great Britain’s Dominions or in modern parlance, taken from its subjected peoples. It’s free and whatever civilization you have an interest in you’ll find it represented here. If you have children then take them to the Science or Natural History Museum nearby – both are great fun for children and adults alike.

Wolf’s Statute high up in Greenwich Park gives you the most commanding view you will find of London. Nearby Maritime Greenwich is a world heritage site. Only a short ferry trip away from central London, yet many of its inhabitants have never bothered to visit. Home to Greenwich Mean Time (have yourself photographed standing astride the meridian line), Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory, Christopher Wren’s Old Naval College, Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House and presently being restored after a fire the Cutty Sark once the world’s fastest tea clipper. Spend the day but wear sensible shoes for the hill is quite a climb.

X marks the spot where all measurements from London are taken. King Charles’ Statute on Trafalgar Square should be the start of a walk through Admiralty Arch and into St. James’s Park, London’s prettiest open space, head towards Buckingham Palace at the other end of the park. Double back to the Houses of Parliament nearby.

Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, located on Fleet Street is probably the most popular tourist attraction pub in all of London. Famed for being one of the oldest pubs in London and what I like about the place is that it still retains much of its old world charm. The pub is said to have been frequented by numerous famous literary figures, including Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson and William K Wallace! I constantly hear people whining on about the Ye Old Cheshire Cheese being a tourist trap, but if a tourist trap is a bar full of people from all around the world, having a few drinks enjoying themselves, it is a good place to be if you ask me!

Zoo in Regent’s Park is one of the world’s oldest menageries. Now dedicated to conservation and education. I spent much of my childhood there and loved watching the penguins in their beautiful pool. Alas the penguins have been moved into a new enclosure, but the pool designed by Berthold Lubetkin is a Grade I listed building in the UK Government scheme for protecting important buildings. Don’t miss the new rainforest constructed in the old mammal house – fascinating.

There you have it my personal favourites. And here to save you time and money is a selection of the things you should avoid.

Madam Tussaulds. Yes I know its London’s most popular tourist destination, the queue outside is testament to that. Not cheap a combined family ticket with the next choice on my list to avoid costs £159.60. The only realistic waxwork is Colonel Gadaffi and he looks like a waxwork in real life.

London Dungeon, personal choice here, if you like blood and gore under a Victorian railway arch this is for you. I found it depressing.

Steak Houses. Two chains of tourist trap steak houses are scattered around London, not an all inclusive price, you pay for the “extras”. And Hey! Who wants to eat black forest gateaux these days it’s a relic from the 1970s.

Mini-cabs, if you take just one thing away after reading these posts, it should be this: Don’t get into a vehicle that the driver claims is a cab, many are expensive, dirty and dangerous. Hail a black cab or go to a mini cab office registered by the PCO and stay safe.

London Aquarium. I’m probably being unfair here, the kids seemed to enjoy it, but London’s aquarium isn’t a patch on many others around the world. It also is quite dark in there, but if it’s raining, there are worse places to go – no restaurant or tea room though.

Oxford Street. If you took out Selfridges and John Lewis this mile long shopping thoroughfare would have nothing to commend it – except a traffic jam of buses and road works. Try Regent Street or Knightsbridge.

Billed as the world’s longest running theatre production, the Mousetrap seems to be a must with American tourists. London has over 100 other theatres each providing better drama and entertainment. Ask me nicely and I’ll tell you who done it.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who wanted to see Notting Hill in my cab. Trust me all are disappointed, it’s nothing like the film. Having said that the writer of Notting Hill, Richard Curtis still lives there, but you won’t see Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts.

Abbey Road pedestrian crossing made famous by the Beatles’ last iconic LP cover. But it is just that – a pedestrian crossing. If you do get run over by a frustrated motorist who is fed up with tourists just standing in the middle at least it’s on CCTV as a live feed is to be found on the web.

London Bridge is on the site of the Thames earliest crossing, don’t confuse it with Tower Bridge, it is what it calls itself – just a bridge.

Pedicabs or rickshaws – It’s not a matter of “if” rather than “when” a serious accident or fatality involving a London rickshaw takes place. The rickshaw drivers do not have criminal record checks, and are not tested on road safety or their knowledge of London streets, with the result that the streets of Soho and Covent Garden have become a dangerous free for all with over 400 plying for hire and already one London pedicab driver has been convicted of raping a passenger, they are also the dearest way to get around London – you have been warned.

Mobile hot dog stands. Why anyone would buy food from the itinerant food venues is beyond me, the man preparing the food hasn’t the facilities to even wash his hands. So don’t blame me if after eating one you spend the next day using the en-suite in your hotel room.

So there you have it – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of London – the list isn’t comprehensive but I hope at best the selection has given a flavour of what can be found in our Capital City. As the great Londoner Samuel Johnson said: “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Census and Sensibility


[T]he English tend, by nature, to have a dislike of bureaucracy and any meddlesome officials interfering in their lives. So it is that every 10 years many get confirmation of their prejudices when the National Census drops on their doormat.

One hundred years ago my grandfather should have sat down to fill out the 1911 Census. In a very small house not a stone’s throw from the modern Emirates Stadium, with four young girls running around and my own father, who had been born just months before probably crying to be fed, he was probably reluctant to give up what little spare time he had to answer the questions posed to him on his one page questionnaire.

At a time when life was more fragile than now, he had to report ‘who was alive at midnight on 2nd April 1911’, with hindsight he might have declared ‘a lot more than when you took us to war three years later’. Another poignant question asked at the time was how many children had been born alive to the couple and how many had died.

The final question if asked today would be a gift to wags. ‘Are any of your household: lunatic, imbecile or feeble minded?’ To which one would nowadays answer ‘just the mother-in-law’.

Today the Census has grown from granddad’s single sheet to 32 pages, with 272 questions and 918 tick boxes all available in 56 languages in large print or Braille. The mischievous in me is inclined to ask for my copy to be supplied in Yoruba Braille, but as the bill for this paperwork is set to cost £480 million, one shouldn’t push the eye-watering costs even further.

Soon Daily Mail and Guardian readers will stand shoulder to shoulder in condemning the survey’s intrusion into our privacy, this year they are wrong, for whoever poses these questions has learnt from past mistakes. In the last Census when 390,000 people annoyed about being asked for their religion put down ‘Jedi Knight’, now the question is optional, though in true English tradition the Humanist Association object that religion is even acknowledged in the Census.

That said there are still opportunities to be unco-operative with officialdom. Question 17 states ‘This question is intentionally left blank’, to which WHY? Could be inserted causing the scanning system apoplexy.

My personal favourites concern my occupation:

Question 34 – What is (was) your full and specific job title? – Taxi driver

Question 35 – Briefly describe what you do (did) in your main job – Drive a taxi

Question 37 – At your workplace, what is (was) the main activity of your employer or business? – Driving a taxi

Question 41 – How do you usually travel to work?  – Well, you get the drift.

I hope this will not be the last Census; it’s a valuable tool for historians, sociologists and genealogists. And who knows in 100 years time they will view the 32 pages as the halcyon days now they have 320 to fill in, and ask what the Hell is a taxi driver.

The A to Z of London – Part 1

[I] could have subtitled this 26 places to see in London before you die, OK it’s a bit dramatic but for tourists and Londoners alike the City should be explored but with so much choice can be a little bewildering. Covering an area of over 610 sq miiles and a population of over 7 million there’s an awful lot to choose from. It’s tempting to go for the most famous tourist hot spots, many of which will be both crowded and expensive. So what criteria should be applied to the top 26? The common denominator is a simple one; each place must impress the visitor or Londoner – and I hope you dear reader – it should give some sense of the City’s magic, integrity, wonder or legacy and offer value for money.

So here it is – Your Handy Cut Out and Keep Guide to London:

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A walk along the South Bank of the Thames is one of the best ways to see the City. Christopher Wren rented a house here to watch his St. Paul’s rising from the ashes after the Great Fire, and you can too. London’s skyline is continually changing and from this vantage point many landmarks are visible. Visit the Anchor Inn for refreshment.

British Museum is one of the largest collections of human artefacts in the world. So many exhibits are on display pick the best: the Rosetta stone; Elgin Marbles; and the Egyptian Gallery. Richard Rogers covered the courtyard with a dramatic roof; enjoy your coffee break there.

Claridges for partaking in the English tradition of taking afternoon tea. Elegant, with its green crockery, delicious and efficient. The clientele tend to be regulars and more refined than the Ritz which has at times has the nouvelle rich being a little brash.

Drive a London cab. Alright a little self promotion here, but take a taxi tour and have yourself photographed “driving” a London cab with Big Ben in the background.

Eros in the heart of the West End. The statute is in fact a memorial to the 7th Earl of Shaftsbury, and is intended to represent the angel of Christian charity. OK it’s not Times Square but the illuminated adverts are worth watching.

Fly the London Eye. This elegant modern piece of engineering was built by David Marks and Julia Barfield for the Millennium; it’s Europe’s tallest observational wheel. Buy advanced tickets and enjoy the 40 minute flight soaring 412 feet into the sky, worth every penny for the unparalled views – and surprisingly no vertigo.

Globe Theatre. The original was built in 1598, and saw many of Shakespeare’s plays performed there. Cannon fire during a performance in 1613 of Henry VIII set the thatch alight, rebuilt it eventually closed in 1642. It took an American, Sam Wanamaker, whose inspiration and drive got this perfect replica built, a perfect except that is for the fire sprinklers, where’re taking no chances this time. Visit in summer and watch theatre like you have never experienced before. Simply brilliant. Good interactive museum next door.

Houses of Parliament. Tours are possible during summer months or if you are a UK resident contact your MP to be booked into a conducted tour, be warned though; you might have to endure your MP’s waffle afterwards. Alternatively it is best seen at night from the Albert Embankment on the south bank of the Thames. Stunning.

Ivy Restaurant. Book a table at London’s best-known celebrity restaurant, just don’t stare if you see a celeb, it’s not done. Described as “modern eclectic” the Welsh rarebit is to be recommended. Failing to get a table try Rules Restaurant London’s oldest eatery, serving traditional fare in its present location since 1798.

Jack the Ripper tours most evenings in East London during summer. He murdered at least five prostitutes at the end of the 19th century. The case remains unsolved, but a small industry has built up catering for the less squeamish.

Kew Gardens are worth a trip into West London. The gardens are a convergence of three 17th century projects. The Palm House is worth the trip alone. Pop into The Maids of Honour Tea Room opposite for a delicious tea before you go home.

Librarians in the British Library try to keep a copy of every book that has been published in the United Kingdom and the building contains over 14 million books. Forget the academia head for the museum with its exhibitions on how early printing was done. Also early editions of English classics are on show.

Music played in St. Martin’s in the Fields church by Trafalgar Square. Performed in 18th century costume and illuminated by candlelight. Romantic and ethereal.

A paucity of plumbers

Very soon we will experience our first taste of spring. We will flock into London’s parks and gardens to enjoy the first rays of sun and to see the flowers of spring in all their glory. It wasn’t so long ago that we would marvel at nature’s ability to throw off the shackles of winter and look forward to warmer days, indeed early man would celebrate the spring equinox as a magical event and the prelude to summer with all its bounty.

[N]owadays whenever we get a pronounced change in the weather the doomsayers predict that its cause is climate change, and if man doesn’t heed the warning, unpredictable warm spring days will become the norm.

The first scientist to claim he could change the world was Robert Oppenheimer when after inventing the A-bomb he declared, with some justification; Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

Now a massive industry has been created around climate change forecasting and the proposition that man is the destroyer of worlds; with each individual within this new industry needing to justify his or her remuneration. The London Mayor’s office is no different; they have created the Mayor’s Air Quality Strategy, which slowly has prevented any commercial vehicle operating in London if it is deemed hazardous to the environment.

After buses had been converted the cab trade was next to receive their attention. First all cabs had to comply with Euro 3, entailing for many an expensive conversion. Not content with that the Mayor’s office have deemed that all cabs over 15 years old must be scrapped, with no cabs to drive this will mean that many part-time and older full-time drivers will retire – so much for the Government’s initiative to have us work into our retirement years. The 15 year limit will also remove about a third of the current vehicles currently plying for hire.

Now the Mayor’s Air Quality Strategy has gone further. The Low Emission Zone encompassing the City will become tougher. From next January any lorry, tipper-truck or motor home weighing more than 3.5 tonnes has to be less than 6 years old or it will cost the driver £200 per day to enter the City. Larger vehicles face a fine of £100 per day if they are found to be over 10-years old. Refusal to pay the fine will incur additional costs of up to £1,000.

So after all the razzmatazz of the Olympics have died down and you want a self employed, plumber, decorator, bricklayer or taxi and don’t want to employ the services of a large corporate company, just remember why they are in short supply in London, there’ve all moved on to a place in the country. As the American economist J. K. Galbraith said “There are two classes of forecasters: those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know”.