Category Archives: Puppydog tails

Red and Dead

The old red telephone box is an icon of Britain from days gone by, used nowadays only by tourists and Japanese girls modelling bridal wear. They were very popular if only because they were the only method we had to have a distance conversation but believe me, I can recall the time when most households in Britain never had a phone anyway.

Is There Anybody There?

One of my earliest memories is standing in a kiosk in a cold Saturday night, trying to persuade a doctor to come and look at my infant son who had a high fever.

Numbers Game

It wasn’t all numbers back in those days either. Phones were given acronyms depending on where they were. So if you lived in Barnet, that town came under a series of districts. The first three letters would make up part of the phone number, so you would call BAR 123456. That’s why the dial had letters as well as numbers.

Morse is your Man

Decades before digital, the telephone system had a rotary dial which interrupted the line current repeatedly, very briefly disconnecting the line 1 to 10 times for each digit. When the receiver was placed on the cradle a bar at its base disconnected the current until the receiver was again lifted by a new caller.

Kids these days don’t know the half of it, said with a big smile on my face. Lifting the receiver and emulating the wireless operator on the Titanic by tapping the bar would mimic the dial turning, so to phone my friend for free on Enterprise 5041 all that was needed was to quickly depress the bar in a series of bursts, each corresponding to the numbers on the dial.

It all sounds a million miles from today’s technology with Zoom, Facebook Messenger, Skype and with mobile phone contracts costing up to £93 a month.

Button A or Button B

Assuming you actually were prepared to pay for your call, then you had two large silver pushbuttons, namely, Button A and Button B. You put four copper pennies (some showing Queen Victoria in her prime) in the slot and when someone answered your call, you pushed Button A. If they didn’t answer, you pushed Button B and you would get your money back.

Then there were the pips. Your hard-earned four coins would last maybe two minutes if you made a local call or one minute if it was a long-distance call. Upon hearing the pips you had seconds to fumble about finding coins before you were cut off. If you are under 40 I hope you are keeping up!

K6 is King

Now everyone in the world owns a mobile phone, making the famous K6 phone box redundant. There are even subsistence farmers in Africa sharing a mobile so they can know when to sell their crop to get the best price.

Some towns and villages have kept their red telephone boxes and turned them into libraries or for storing defibrillators for emergencies, the majority of phone boxes though have been sent to a scrapyard in West Yorkshire where the general public can buy them.

Expensive shed or very small office

Purchasing one of these icons is expensive, anywhere between £1,500 and £2,500, but it’s good to see recycling rather than scrapping.

And on that note – and bear with me on this – I return to London. William Stanhope, 1st Earl of Harrington built Harrington House in Craig’s Court in 1702 hoping he would be adjacent to Whitehall Palace once the palace had been rebuilt after a disastrous fire. Unfortunately, Whitehall Palace was never reconstructed. The royals migrated westward, depriving Stanhope of the opportunity to call the monarch his neighbour and rendering his grand home an isolated white elephant (although the family remained there until 1917).

Today, the 18th-century building houses a telephone exchange and allegedly harbours an entrance shaft to a large, top-secret government bunker dubbed ‘Q Whitehall‘. Now I wonder whether I am on their watch list for defrauding the General Post Office, BT’s predecessor?

Featured image: Antoine Motte dit Falisse (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Bridge of Sighs

The Hammersmith Bridge closure continues with only waterborne emergency services allowed anywhere near the structure. This bridge has a long history of curious human activity, or like today, non-activity.

When I was a student at what’s now rather grandly named The London College of Communication we would have to compose type by hand in a typeface called Baskerville. Upon completion and subsequent inspection of the text by the tutor, it was expected that you would diss (distribute the type back into the typecase) it back for the next student.

Some less than diligent students would, instead smuggle their work out of college and ’distribute’ their work into the Thames from whichever bridge they happened to cross on their way home.

I was reminded of this when reading The Gorgeous Typeface That Drove Men Mad and Sparked a 100-Year Mystery about the destruction of an iconic typeface from the parapet of Hammersmith Bridge which took over 100 clandestine nightly trips dropping the metal into the river’s murky depths.

One of the leading figures of the Arts & Crafts Movement was Cobden Sanderson, founder of the legendary Doves Press. Both brilliant and creative when it came to commercialisation he was blinkered. Having designed one of the world’s most beautiful typefaces he was afraid that his partner Emery Walker, upon his death, would mechanise the type which he believed should always be set by hand – in the same way, I learnt as a student half-a-century later.

Lovers of typefaces (or fonts in modern-day parlance) tend to be an obsessive lot. You can, after all, get the name of a typeface by downloading the app WhatTheFont which allows you to take a photograph of a letter or word, the app then tries vainly to identify it. You can go to the type forum MyFont.com where dedicated individuals attempt to identify that elusive font, and have an opinion, often laced with copious bile upon the font’s merits.

Nearly a century later Robert Green a designer who has spent years researching this lost typeface, now available on Typespec managed to get permission from The Port of London Authority to allow divers to look for the missing punches under Hammersmith Bridge. If ever looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack applied, this was it. The bridge had been the target of two IRA bombings one if which had blown water 60ft into the air.

Green had narrowed the search to a small dip in the meandering river, and within 20 minutes despite 100 years of tidal flow, the first punches were found.

Doves Press was founded to preserve a craft that had been in the forefront of literature for hundreds of years, but at that time found itself on the cusp of an industrial revolution much like today with digital typesetting. As with this, the latest way to communicate was bound to accede to technology.

Today this typeface can be bought and used by graphic designers and typesetters using equipment beyond the imagination of its designer. So maybe this crazed perfectionist was correct and the use of his typeface would end up being commercialised.

London eccentrics

The English are known for ignoring eccentricity, or at least humouring those who don’t conform, and London has more than its fair share. I posted about the Mole Man of Hackney and I once had Turner prize-winning potter Grayson Perry, dressed as Little Bo Peep in the back of the cab.

Some self-proclaimed eccentrics even attend the Eccentric Club, formed in the 1780s although there are some earlier references to its conception in London in the 1760s and largely representing that very British tradition of the eccentric aristocrat.

Rainbow George

Anyone who listened to London’s late-night radio stations at the turn of the century would have heard the distinctive voice of Rainbow George Weiss, a serial caller of radio chat shows, who squatted so long in a Hampstead house he became the owner, only to sell the property for £710,000 then spending part of his windfall standing in 13 constituencies in the 2005 General Election and then giving away much of the remaining proceeds.

We all like to complain and if really aggrieved, protest to make our point, but for having eccentric protesters with the greatest tenacity, London would appear to lead the way.

We have of course our regular Saturday weekend protesters, who spend their week in comfortable City jobs or living off the State, who then like to spend their weekends selling copies of the Socialist Worker or walking around London with a banner, the latter becoming the leader of a major political party.

Protein Man

Taking those aside, an entrepreneurial spirit has at times been commendable with some individuals, for example, Stanley Green who upon retirement from the civil service decided against taking up golf but chose to spend 25 years warning of the dangers of protein. ‘Less Lust From Less Protein’ his leaflets printed in his front room: Eight Passion Proteins with Care went through 84 editions and sold 87,000 copies over 20 years.

The 14 pages warned that an excess of protein was responsible for uncontrollable passions and recommended that you reduce your consumption of fish, bird, meat, cheese, egg, peas, beans, nuts and well err . . . sitting, and the world would be a happier place.

Sinner-Winner Man

Phil Howard, a scruffy, beaming Scouser who hung around from around 2000 bellowing through a megaphone at shoppers and office workers. His catchphrase, ‘be a winner, not a sinner’, would extol the benefits of Christianity at Oxford Circus greatly improving the ambience of the area until he had an anti-social behaviour order served by Westminster Council, forcing him to relocate to Piccadilly Circus. Then every evening illuminated by the neon signs revellers could hear him chastising them, telling people they were going to hell because they dyed their hair until that is a second ASBO was served to prevent him from loudly proclaiming his faith. He then relocated out of the West End popping up at other London landmarks as well as major sporting events across the capital.

Gold Lamé Man

A third lone individual could still be found, after over 15 years outside White’s Club in St. James’ Street resplendent dressed in a gold jacket and gold shoes. He divided his time between a certain Lord of the Realm’s club, who he claimed had ruined his business. He blamed Her Majesty for not supporting his one-man crusade but boasted proudly to me that once he saw the Queen watching him from behind her net curtains as he stood outside Buckingham Palace regaling he for not supporting him.

Chinese whispers

For a far more spiritual demo, go to Portland Place, there opposite the Chinese Embassy since June 2002, protesting against an oppressive regime, sympathisers of Falun Gong practise Tai Chi, 24 hours a day, commendable but utterly fruitless since China hardly feels threatened by the slow movements of the protesters. But of course, if you want free Tai Chi lessons CabbieBlog recommends the pavement outside RIBA.

Make Love Not War

But my all-time favourite for endurance and cocking a snoop at authority has to be Brian Haw, who on 2 June 2001 decided to begin camping in Parliament Square in a one-man political protest against war and foreign policy. Unfortunately for Brian, the second Iraq war overtook events making him a cause célèbre and preventing him from ever giving up his one-man protest against the forces of the State. Westminster City Council then failed in their prosecution against Brian for obstructing the pavement, later his continuous use of a megaphone led to objections by Members of Parliament. Then in a glorious twist, a House of Commons Procedure Committee recommended that the law be changed to prohibit his protest as his camp could provide an opportunity for terrorists to disguise explosive devices. The Government then passed a provision to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act banning all unlicensed protests, permanent or otherwise, however, because Brian’s protest was on-going and residing on Parliament Square before the enactment of the Act, it was unclear whether the Act applied to him. He died in Berlin of lung cancer in 2011, no doubt still regaling the authorities.

The Greenground

After Tuesday’s post, today with a new more gentle tenor CabbieBlog explores a Tube map of parks and how to get between them.

Living on the north-east margins of London with Havering Country Park’s 165 acres a mere 5-minute stroll away the countryside isn’t far away.

The park has an avenue of Wellingtonia trees, dating to when the Havering manor was still present, and are the second largest plantation in the country. It also is on the route of the London Outer Orbital Path, or London LOOP, with sections 20-24 linking the many green spaces on my doorstep.

Given that I was delighted to find a ‘tube map’ showing the parks of London, joined together in ways you might want to walk.

Graphic designer Helen Ilus has designed a verdant version of Harry Beck’s classic Tube map.

The ‘Greenground’ contains eight themed lines: the Thames, Crane, Wandle, Regent (as in the canal), Royal, South, City and North. Places, where you might like to swim, kayak or just walk, are marked.

The map has around 300 parks and open spaces that are remarkably only 10 per cent of the 3,000 parks and green spaces to be found in London.

The map was originally inspired by the London National Park City movement which officially declared London as the first National Park City.

Helen has decided that it is not practical to include all green spaces to one legible map, and intends to produce more detailed local versions.

The map isn’t intended as a detailed navigational aid, but more as an inspiring prompt to encourage exploration.

I look forward to seeing Helen’s take Havering-Atte-Bower as a detailed mini-map.

Helen Ilus can be found here.

All roads lead to London . . . A4 & A5

This is our third rather pointless exploration of the starting points of five major trunk roads.

A4 London to Bath (103 miles, originally the Great West Road)

The A4 used to start in the same place as the A3, terrorist paranoia in the City of London has beheaded this first mile from the route, forcing the A4 to retreat to the edge of the City beyond a miserable security checkpoint cordon. And now the Great West Road starts somewhere rather less glamorous.

Six roads meet at Holborn Circus, which is now little more than complicated junction overlooked by the only equestrian statue of Prince Albert to be found in London. The new route chosen for the A4 follows the most insignificant of these roads, a tiny street squeezed in between a branch of Lloyds Bank and Sainsbury head office. This is New Fetter Lane, which leads before very long to the similarly quiet and narrow Fetter Lane. At the junction of the two stands London’s only cross-eyed statue, a memorial to 18th-century libertarian John Wilkes.

We turn right into Fleet Street passing Temple Bar, where traitors heads were once displayed in spikes and the westernmost extent of the Great Fire of London.

F Strand
Comply King Charles Statue
L/By Cockspur Street
B/L Pall Mall
R St. James’s Street
L Piccadilly
F Piccadilly Underpass
F Hyde Park Corner
F Knightsbridge
B/L Brompton Road
F Cromwell Gardens
F Cromwell Road
F West Cromwell Road
F Talgarth Road
F Hammersmith Flyover
F West Cromwell Road

5-mile ends at approximately Hogarth Roundabout. Should you be travelling down the A4 approaching the Hogarth Roundabout from the east you probably will be unaware that just yards from the racetrack that this stretch of road becomes during the evening rush hour, that you reluctantly find yourself driving along while following this post, is an oasis of calm.

This small backwater (I use the word advisedly) has been the enclave of choice for artists to reside for over 200 years. One property, Walpole House was once a school which William Thackeray was a boarder. It provided the setting for Miss Pinkerton’s Seminary for Young Ladies, where Becky Sharp fatefully made the acquaintance of Amelia Sedley in Vanity Fair.

But take care, the Thames floods the road, the houses have high front walls, surmounted with perspex panels.

A5 London to Holyhead (270 miles, originally Watling Street)

The A5 begins at the site of the Tyburn Tree – London’s popular spot for public executions during more than six centuries. More than fifty thousand criminals were hung here, originally from the branches of a tree beside the Tyburn river but later from a purpose-built wooden tripod of death. A memorial to these notorious gallows is paved into a traffic island at the very bottom of the Edgware Road.

The most famous landmark in the vicinity today is Marble Arch, originally designed by John Nash as a triumphant entrance to Buckingham Palace but moved to its existing location when the palace was extended in 1851.

Like the A2, the A5 follows the Roman road of Watling Street, of which this is the start of the northern section. The road from Marble Arch to the edge of the suburbs is the longest straight line in London, never once deviating to left or right for a full twenty miles. The first mile is a cosmopolitan shopping street, although probably not one you’d go out of your way to visit. Unless you were Lebanese, that is. There’s a distinctly Arabian flavour to the very bottom of the A5 – perfect for stocking up on pomegranates, using your Bank of Kuwait cashpoint card or smoking aromatic tobacco out of some mysterious piped bottle.

F Maida Vale
F Kilburn High Road
F Shoot Up Hill
F Cricklewood Broadway
F Edgware Road
F Hendon Broadway
F The Hyde

5-mile ends approximately here, and look, I’m sorry to have dragged you out here, but there is nothing of interest in Colindale.