All posts by Gibson Square

A Licensed Black London Cab Driver I share my London with you . . . The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

London in Quotations: James Huneker

With the possible exception of New York, there is no place like London for versatility in eating.

James Huneker (1859-1921)

London Trivia: Much ado about nothing

On 12 March London seems to have held its collective breath and done nothing. To liven up the date in 1969 Paul McCartney, then aged 27, married Linda Eastman at Marylebone Register Office with Miss Eastman’s six-year-old daughter in attendance. Hundreds of distraught fans gathered outside seeing their chance of marrying their idol slip away. The ceremony was delayed because the best man, McCartney’s brother Mike McGear of the Scaffold pop group, arrived late.

On 12 March 1836 pioneering cookery writer Mrs Beeton was born in Cheapside, her Book of Household Management is still in print

Wife selling in Smithfield didn’t become illegal until the early 20th century. One of the last reported instances, a woman in 1913 claimed that she had been sold to one of her husband’s workmates for £1

London’s smallest statue can be found on Philpot Lane – a mouse – a memorial to two builders who were killed working on the Monument

In 1985 eight people were killed in a gas explosion at Manor Fields Estate Putney Police found bags stuffed with £20 notes in the debris

Edward VI punished Westminster Abbey (St Peter’s) by diverting their funding to St Paul’s hence the phrase robbing Peter to pay Paul’

When the Coliseum Theatre opened in 1904 it featured a private elevator to transport the King to the royal box. It broke down!

The Hoope and Grapes, Aldgate has a listening tube which runs from the bar to the cellar so the landlord can listen for treasonable gossip

When Billy (the police horse who controlled spectators at the 1923 FA Cup final) died, his rider was given one of his hooves as an inkwell

The Jubilee Line was initially named the Fleet Line after the River Fleet; however it was changed to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee

When Odham’s publisher Julius Elias died in 1946 his successor claimed Elias continued to run the Long Acre firm through him as a medium

We know six ravens are kept at the Tower to keep London safe from invasion, but in 1981 one escaped and flew into a pub in East London

CabbieBlog-cab.gifTrivial Matter: London in 140 characters is taken from the daily Twitter feed @cabbieblog.
A guide to the symbols used here and source material can be found on the Trivial Matter page.

253 A mathematical novel

Anyone who regularly reads CabbieBlog probably has realised that I like symmetry: subjects are always published on the same day of the week, posted at the same time of day, using the same typefaces and formats each relating to the matter in hand.

So a recently re-published novel, about 253 people travelling on the Bakerloo Line between Embankment and Elephant and Castle on 11th January 1995 in 7 carriages each with 36 seats, plus the driver, with each person described in exactly 253 words is my kind of book, the work, nearly 30-years-old now, by Geoff Ryman also showed incredible prescience: one of Ryman’s characters has developed an automated system for taxis that would make ‘The Knowledge’ redundant.

Editor Rob Hinchcliffe who oversees London in Bits which is published on Substack has written about the recent return of the ‘hypertext novel’ – 253, and how this early example of networked fiction not only helped him get to grips with London but also showed him the Web’s potential to bring people together.

I first encountered Geoff Ryman’s novel 253 in its hardcopy form.

The ‘print remix’ of 253 was published in 1998, shortly after I moved to London and I read it straight away because I was hungry for anything which might give me some kind of insight into the city. I wanted something – other than the A-Z – that would make me feel more connected and less adrift in this unfamiliar landscape of ‘zones’ and ‘lines’ (and it didn’t hurt that one of the characters in the book worked on the same street I did).

Another reason I sought out the book was that, even though broadsheet reviewers had been a little bit sniffy about the novel, the internet seemed to love 253. While I was busy finding my way around this new city, I was also stumbling around the nascent ‘blogosphere’ (the term “weblog” having been coined just a year earlier), and I’d become increasingly impressed and influenced by what these pioneering LiveJournal reviewers had to say.

So, imagine how embarrassed I was to discover that 253 had existed in a completely different format, two whole years before I came across it.

In 1996, Ryman had taken his story of 253 people (252 Tube passengers and their driver) making the seven-and-a-half-minute journey from Embankment to Elephant & Castle and published it as a series of linked pages, each one telling the story of a different character in exactly 253 words.

27 years ago he did this! Plus, even more amazingly, he’d managed to turn the website into a book; one that you could buy in an actual shop.

I loved the print incarnation of 253, but I soon realised that the online version was even better. What had been rendered as a boring old index in the book, became shocking blue hyperlinks online; and, to me, hyperlinks were the things that made the Web feel boundlessly connected and ripe with potential.

As well as using links as navigation (‘next passenger’) or highlighting how one person might be connected to another, Ryman also linked seemingly random words like ‘art’, ‘dyslexic’ and ‘minicab¹’ – adding a whole other layer of serendipity and multiplicity to the experience of reading his story.

To jump from the mind of an “old-fashioned East Ender” in their mid-fifties, straight into the head of a young “clandestine author of slash fiction” just by clicking on the words ‘Star Trek’ was like finding some new form of magical realism, (come to think of it, it was probably the first time I’d heard the phrase ‘slash fiction’ too). And that slightly giddy, unmoored feeling that developed after clicking through these narratives would follow me out into the real world, making me hyperaware of the inner worlds lurking behind the sea of faces around me.

As Ryman himself said in a 1997 interview, in the digital version of 253 “the links change the meaning of the novel… [it] is about what makes people the same… It’s about the subliminal ways we’re linked and alike.” While, the print version was inevitably read “passenger by passenger,” turning it into a story about “how different we all are.”

While I enjoyed the storytelling of 253, it was the HTML-facilitated sense of connection and kinship that I fell in love with. This early example of a well-executed piece of ‘networked art’ not only made my new home city feel less intimidating and labyrinthine, but it also seemed to point towards all the ways that the native language of the Web could be used to bring people together in new, exciting ways…

…Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that. But that’s a different article for another time (although I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, shortly after discovering 253, I started a communal blog that would go on to become Londonist).

At some point in the noughties, the online version of 253 vanished. According to Ryman, he gave some “well-meaning convention organisers access to the site” and then, shortly after, realised his work had been wiped from the face of the Web.

Then, earlier this month, 253 was suddenly restored to the internet, resplendent in its mid-90s tones of indigo and purple.

If you’ve never read 253 before then you could do worse than spend a few hours clicking through its cast of characters (and the pigeon). It may be primitive in its presentation, but it has aged remarkably well, and it’s easy to see why it remains the touchstone for ‘interactive fiction’, inevitably referenced every time Netflix throw millions of dollars at a new slice of ‘immersive television’.

What Ryman created with 253 is a purely human story. By stripping his narrative down to its purest, most personal elements he managed to make the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. At the same time, he subverted the cliche of the cynical, unfriendly and anonymous city, and brought London to life in a way that hadn’t been done before (and has rarely been achieved since).

And he did all that without leaving the confines of a single Tube train.

The date selected for the novel is also not a random number, on 11th January 1995 Geoff Ryman discovered a close friend was HIV positive.

The online 252 page can be found here.

You can sign up for the excellent London in Bits on Substack here.

A group of mayors

What’s the collective noun for a group of mayors? ‘A magnificence of mayors’, is apparently the answer, well, our ‘magnificent’ Sadiq is hosting a conference next week with ‘mayors from around the world’ for the inaugural Partnership for Healthy Cities Summit. They will be discussing strategies to combat noncommunicable diseases and injuries. Top of Khan’s list is fighting the ‘toxic air’ that causes ‘asthma and stunted lung growth in the young and dementia in the elderly’, and no doubt burnishing his success at getting 160,000 of London’s cars scrapped at a stroke.

Johnson’s London Dictionary: Billingsgate

BILLINGSGATE (n.) Piscatorial premises where men compete to balance baskets upon their heads.

Dr. Johnson’s London Dictionary for publick consumption in the twenty-first century avail yourself on Twitter @JohnsonsLondon