Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Touch Of Frost

In less than 24 hours I will be back up north on the last leg of my journey to the proverbial “In Laws”. For nearly an entire week I will be out of London. I will see greenery. Perhaps even the sky. Whether my sanity will still be in sight is another matter.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m really looking forwards to Christmas. But on top of the usual stress of being in an enclosed space with family for extended periods of time, there’s the stress of being stuck in the middle of no-where. Without a car. The “In Laws” live in a tiny village that, to its credit, has a handful of shops and pubs, but not enough to keep you entertained for more than an hour or so. The village my parents live in is quite a lot bigger, but even the town it is attached to struggles to keep me occupied for an afternoon. Oh well. Let’s face it, I won’t be venturing out much anyway. Way too many mince pies and sherry to consume.
To be fair, it will be nice to get away. Assuming that we can. Over the last five days there has been snow in London. Not exactly Arctic quantities, but enough to bring the capital to a standstill once more (remember February?). On Monday evening I was in a hurry to get up to Archway from Highbury Corner. It’s a journey I would normally do on foot, but with a bit of show and ice on the ground and sub-zero temperatures I decided to catch the bus.
Bad idea.
The bus took 50 minutes to go 4 stops up the road. It was total gridlock. After about half an hour I asked if there had been an accident up the road - nope, just snow. Apparently an inch of the white stuff is enough to cause havoc. Shortly after my enquiry the passengers started to revolt. They rang the bell and shouted for the bus driver to let them off the bus. But he refused. The bus was not in a bus stop you see. We weren’t moving but that clearly was not the point.
Eventually he gave in and opened the door for a split second, allowing one passenger off only. That really did it. Someone pressed the emergency exit button and a handful of rebels escaped. The driver quickly closed the doors. A stream of irate passengers decided to take their chances. The door was opened, the driver closed it. The door was opened again, the driver stubbornly closed it again. Then he really sat his dummy out and turned off the engine.
This did not go down well.
Complaints were shouted out about a "lack of decency” or “common sense”. He shouted back that we were all breaking the law by getting off the bus. We pointed out that we were still on the bus.
“My kids are soaking wet and freezing. If they get pneumonia I am holding you responsible driver!”
“There are more of us than you driver so I suggest you turn the engine back on and get moving!”
Eventually the cat calls died down and we continued our crawl up Holloway Road. It was painful but we eventually reached a bus stop.
At this point I cut my losses and disembarked. I figured probably better to chance the slippery pavements than sit on the bus for another 50 minutes.
The next day at work I realised I was one of the lucky ones. There were stories of people not getting home until 11.30, having to abandon their cars and not picking up their children from the nursery until 9. I was clearly one of the lucky ones.
The moral of the story? Buy some hiking boots and live within walking distance of work. Or move somewhere better prepared for a bit of snow.
The north is looking more appealing already.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

It's Not Me It's Them...

Last week I went to see Lily Allen at the Brixton Academy. It was a great show and Lily impressed with her live performance. However something strange was going on with the audience.
Please tell me if I am wrong, but isn’t the point of going to a gig, A, to enjoy the music, B, have a bit of a dance and C, show your appreciation? That’s my take on it anyway. But it would appear that has changed with the new generation of gig-goers.
Whilst I was busy bopping away and singing along, I couldn’t help but notice that only about half of the rest of the crowd were doing the same. Everyone else seemed to be stood perfectly still, watching Lily like she was a rare artefact, pointing their mobile phones at her constantly to record the spectacle.
I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for Lily. It must be so strange to be stood on stage giving it your all when half your audience seems oblivious to the fact that you are a person too, not just a commodity to be bought, looked at and posted on Facebook. Having listened to Lily’s lyrics I think it would bother her. I wonder if it makes her think half her fan base just doesn’t quite get it.
For what its worth though, I will continue to jump about screaming at the top of my lungs when I go to a gig. Maybe it will catch on and people will remember that they are at a gig to have a good time, not to impress their virtual friends online.

Head In The Snow

Today I braved the sub-zero temperatures and went out for a pub lunch in Highgate. The dodgy park up the road looked peaceful and innocent covered in a sprinkling of the white stuff. It’s amazing how snow hides a multitude of sins.
Up in Highgate the pub was packed. Luckily my friend had got there early and secured us a table. Settling down to a Sunday roast (pork with crackling - heaven!) we chatted about everything; work, my boyfriend, her fiancée. We talked about her house and my flat. Then we got onto the topic of living in London.
Being outsiders, we are both of the opinion that we will eventually move out of London. The question is when? I am thinking about buying in the next couple of years. Do I go for a shoebox in the ‘burbs? Or pay through the nose to commute into work from further afield? The other option of course is to leave my current job and disassociate with the capital entirely, apart from the occasional day trip.
Am I ready to leave London? Not now, I don’t think. But if I want to buy my own place, its something I will have to consider, and sooner rather than later. But for now I am going to enjoy the beauty the winter weather offers me and appreciate it whilst I can.

Monday, 14 December 2009

More to Life than Shoes

One of the things I loved about London when I first moved here was my new found anonymity. I had lived in a small town all my life before going to a campus based university stuck on top of a hill in the middle of no-where. Being able to walk to the bus stop without running into someone who knew my business was a refreshing change.
Like even the most expensive and innovative of Christmas presents, the novelty soon wore off. Walking around in your own little bubble plugged into your IPod may protect you from having to engage with society between home and the office, but other people’s disregard for their neighbours soon becomes an irritant. Why don’t people talk to the family who live next door, or offer their seat on the bus to the elderly lady with a walking stick?
That lack of community can wear you down, especially when your friends may live in the same city as you but they are at least half an hour on the tube away. And, let’s face it, popping over for a cup of tea is just not the done thing here.
Which is why it is great that people are manufacturing their own little communities. From book clubs (guilty) to allotments (not guilty) we seem to be making more of an effort to get together to share our common interests.
I’ve just got back from More To Life Than Shoes in Islington. More To Life Than Shoes (MTLTS) started off as a website women could register on to network with other women who wanted to get something out of life other than what the normal nine to five existence offers. They have just started holding meetings over London (and other parts of the UK, so I understand) where women can meet like minded people, talk about their goals and help each other to build up the confidence to reach them.
Which is why I am blogging right now. My goal is to write a novel (EEEEK!). My goal for next month is to write and submit a short story to my college magazine (mmm) whilst setting aside time to write between 1,000 and 1,500 words of my novel a week and maintain my blog (gulp!). Oh, and I am going to post a link to my blog on their Facebook page. And add it to my email signature. In return I am writing about the renewed energy and motivation I feel from having shared with some strangers that I want to write a novel and receiving such encouragement and support, not to mention practical advice and suggestions. I say strangers, but I don’t think they will be strangers for long. They have helped me get my arse into gear, and I am going to help them grow into something truly fabulous, darling.
So yes, some people may spend their lives oblivious to the life of most of the 8 million Londoners who share this city with them. But I’m going to embrace my new little community. There’s more to life than my craving for a pair of Ugg boots, after all.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Far From the Madding Crowd

So, December is upon us. Time to start feeling festive. On Friday I intend to hit the dreaded Oxford Street to do the unavoidable high street shop before Christmas and I am praying it won’t be too bad, being a week day. We shall see. I also intend to go and see the Turner Prize which I make a point of seeing every year - not because I particularly like anyone who is ever nominated (lets face it, who does?) but because I use it as a barometer of what’s hot and what’s not in the arty world. Last week I saw the Photographic Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery - not because the photographs are particularly cutting edge (well, not this year anyway) but because it’s a perfect excuse to stand and stare at people and wonder what their story is without the risk of getting walloped. Which is always a risk in London - especially away from the polished tourist hubs and in the real world where most people (like me) live.
So, busy busy busy. It never really stops in London. It swells with tourists in the summer and throbs with shoppers in the winter. It is hard to find solace.
However last week I found it. Having finished work in London Bridge after a late afternoon meeting, I decided to take advantage of being south of the river and took a stroll along the Southbank before heading over to the Portrait Gallery. In the summer the Southbank is a hive of tourist activity. The overpriced pubs are overflowing, street vendors tempt passers by with wire nick-knacks, roasted nuts and second hand books and street performers try their best to be original in what is already a saturated market. The Tate Modern, National Theatre and a plethora of other landmarks attract crowds like bees to honey (okay, so that should be pollen, but honey sounds better doesn’t it?).
However, last Thursday at around 4.30, all was quiet. The pubs were still. The adolescent trees glistened with blue fairy lights against the darkening sky. A few pedestrians strode along enjoying the late afternoon light, occasional suits scooted along to clinch a last minute deal. But in general all was calm. The loudest noise was the Thames lapping. Yes, it was cold. And yes, it was getting dark. But, other than a glimpse of Big Ben and the Eye in the near distance, you could almost forget where you were.
Of course, it did not last forever. As I approached County Hall a small Christmas Market was set up selling mulled wine, hog roasts and Camden-stylee gifts. A couple of street performers came into view, living statues no-doubt frozen by the icy wind and a Chinese harp player adding to the almost eerie ambience.
The crowds thickened at the base of Westminster Bridge and dodging budding photographers compositions became a challenge. By the time I was on the other side of the river, my inner calm had been replaced once more by the gritting of teeth and clenching of fists as the all-too-familiar Tourist Rage kicked in. By the time I got to the gallery I was exhausted by the effort of negotiating the crowds without losing my rag. I decided on a cup of tea to warm my numb body and defrost my icy demeanour. I watched as the hoards walked past Prêt, rushing to the next show, the next shop, the next landmark in their guidebook. I felt for the fraught amongst them, those who just wanted to get from A to B without having to play dodgems with the world and his uncle. But then I thought about the Southbank and smiled to myself, knowing that there is a little slice of London that I can escape to if the going gets tough this Friday. And it seems that most of London has forgotten all about it.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Do the shuffle

Today I have been a good little Londoner. Tempting though it is to potter about at home or hit the pub, I took advantage of living within gobbing distance of some of the world’s finest museums and went to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Natural History Museum. It was great. The photographs were breath-taking. After pledging that I too will pick up my camera and attempt to use it for more than recording the occasional piss-up with friends or holiday snaps, I wandered down the road for a mooch around Harrods food hall and the gift section (i.e. the departments my credit card limit permits me to shop in). It was all very pleasant.
Shame half the world and his sister seemed to have had the same idea. Although it is encouraging to see lots of little people away from their computer games and educating themselves they do tend to get underfoot in museums. Oh, and they are noisy. Especially in such high volumes. And we had to queue to even get through the doors. Seriously.
Then there was Harrods. Him Indoors fancied a posh cake for pudding. We shuffled into the food hall and peered through the scrum at the counter to ogle the beautifully constructed pastries. The ticket machine dispensed number 34. They were serving number 11. We decided to go to M&S instead.
Heading down the road towards the tube, we crawled along with a throng of tourists as another throng shuffled along in the opposite direction. There was no room for over taking. Then disaster struck. The couple in front of us stopped to look in a shop window. It was total gridlock.
We finally got to the tube station. Through the barriers a small crowd were gathered. Approaching them we soon realised what had stopped them in their tracks. The top of the escalator. Pushing through the crowd we descended to the platform on the magic moving stairs, muttering about bloody tourists. We squeezed onto what appeared to be a packed train. Then I saw it - lots and lots of lovely space down the carriage. Apparently no-one else had spotted it, so Him Indoors and I sidled through a wall of rucksacks and luxuriated in our own personal space.
Yes, I am a grumpy cow of a Londoner. I accept that it is great for the economy that London seems to be attracting many tourists, the sliver lining in the cloud that is our failing pound. But honestly, please just get out of my way!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Tinted Glasses

I know it’s been a while. Not because I haven’t had anything to say, but I just haven’t had a chance to say it. Having just suffered a “milestone” birthday I have been far too busy partying, eating and drinking. And London certainly facilitated the festivities well.
This is probably why I haven’t felt strongly enough to find time to write. It is true, when you’re too busy having fun and enjoying yourself you forget to notice the dog shit outside your front door and the rude waiter in Soho. It doesn’t bother you so much if the tube is a bit crowded - in fact you appreciate its warmth.
On Sunday a friend from “Up North” said he was thinking about moving down. With gusto I sang the capital’s praises, offering handy hints and the loan of my “London for Londoners” guide. Boris would have been proud of me I made it sound so rosy.
Having said that, two weeks ago London looked very different after two particularly eye opening incidents. I call them incidents, but they were actually events that I chose to go to. One of them was a play performed and written by ex-offenders followed by a question and answer session to a panel consisting of bigwigs from London probation, the council and the police.
The performance was excellent. The cast did an amazing job and the story told the reality of what life can be like for young men living in London.
Sadly, things went a bit Pete Tong afterwards. Tension between young offenders and The Authorities were not quashed by the positivity of the performance. Speakers were shouted down by people who did not want to hear. What could have been an open forum for discussion about the problems young offenders have and how they can be dealt with by the powers that be sadly became a circus. Sides were taken and those of us who sat on the fence felt decidedly precarious in our position.
Two days later I went to a talk about being white in the helping professions. Having never really thought about my own race I found myself questioning my culture and how people who aren’t white perceive my whiteness. I began to ponder how my relationship with colleagues, friends and clients who aren’t white were affected by their perception of white people. Which in turn made me even more aware of their skin colour. By the weekend my head was pounding as I became overwhelmed by over-analysis of any interaction I thought my whiteness might have affected.
The truth is, there is a lot of tension out there. Tension between people from different cultures, even if we don’t like to admit it. Spend ten minutes talking to the mother whose black son gets stopped by the police on a weekly basis or listen to a member of the BNP talk on the telly and its there. There’s tension between the authorities and those who have been through the system, spat out at the other end and left angry and disillusioned. Next time you pass someone selling the Big Issue or a young lad completing his community service ask them how they ended where they are now and I can almost guarantee some authority or another with have the finger of blame pointed at them.
So what can we do about it? Do we walk around pretending it isn’t there, that there isn’t an undercurrent of suspicion and even hate lurking in the streets? Or do we take the bull by its horns and challenge it?
I have decided that awareness is the way forwards for me. By being aware of my own colour and culture and how other people may perceive it I can start to understand why people might react to me in a certain way. By being aware of my perceived position of authority and power I can be mindful of how I deal with situations where this might be seen as a threat by the people I am trying to support. It’s a bit of a minefield and it can be difficult to strike the balance of doing my job and being sensitive to all of these things, but it can be helpful when dealing with what I might perceive as hostility from someone I am trying to help.
What I can also do is challenge other people. I can challenge people who see all authority figures as the enemy and try to point out to them how that power can be used to their advantage. I can challenge people who have preconceived ideas about people from different cultures and encourage them to look at the world from the perspective of others. And I can point out to those in authority where they are failing those people who can be so difficult to reach.
Will it make a difference? To a few people, I hope it will. But at the end of the day it’s those at the top of the chain who need to stop shrugging their shoulders and wake up to the fact that there is a lot of discontent out there. And I suspect it won’t go away on its own.

Friday, 6 November 2009

You know who I blame?

Him Indoors and I have a long standing joke. Whenever one of us starts to complain about something, whether it’s work, the internet not working, the weather, the price of beans, the other invariably answers,
“You know who I blame? The council!”
This is mainly because we both work in the public sector and, dealing with Joe public on a day to day basis have heard these words more times than we can remember. We do this in jest, as many people in this city (and in the UK as a whole no doubt) like nothing more than to point the finger of blame at anyone other than themselves.
However, I am beginning to think they have a point.
A couple of months ago I received a council tax bill. Nothing unusual there, but this one showed that I was in arrears of nearly £1,500. How had I managed to get into such arrears you may ask? Because the council didn’t send me a council tax bill last year. Despite me contacting them on several occasions, they had failed to register the flat for council tax.
Being a sensible type (to some degree) I had put aside money every month to pay the bill which I knew would inevitably arrive. When the bill arrived, Him Indoors suggested we ask if we can pay it off over 6 months, rather than having to take a huge chunk of money out of our savings account. I phoned up the council and asked if this was possible. No problemo! They replied. So I made my first payment and left it at that.
A couple of weeks later I received another letter from the council telling me that if I did not pay the outstanding balance I would be summoned to court! Outraged, I phoned them, guns blazing.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. You will be summoned but the court will see that you have made an arrangement and it will be dismissed without you having to pay court costs.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, it’s fine, I’ll make a note that you called and just call again when you receive the summons and it will be noted again what you have been advised.”
So, I left it at that. Until the summons arrived, and I realised that rather than being sent to the county court, it was to be listed at the court in the building where I worked.
It took about an hour for Him Indoors to talk me down from my high orbit, and funnily enough he didn’t use our usual quip for a little while afterwards. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be sent to the court where I worked. I was fuming. I would have to explain to my boss why my name was on the list. And any of my colleagues or clients could see my name there. It didn’t bear thinking about.
A couple of days later I called the council to explain my predicament and to ask if it could be dealt with at another court. The man I spoke to understood my concern straight away.
“I’ll see if I can get the summons removed.” he said before disappearing, leaving me on hold listening to a decidedly scratchy version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. About twenty minutes later he returned, apologising for leaving me on hold for so long. He explained to me that he had managed to get the summons removed as long as I paid the balance off now or set up a direct debit.
“I know you have been paying it off monthly by debit card, which is good,” he explained, cautiously trying to appease me, “but the imbeciles next door won’t remove the summons unless you set up a direct debit.”
I was quite taken aback by his frankness and agreed to the direct debit, thanking him for sorting it out.
“That’s fine. If the person you had spoken to in the first place had explained you would have got a summons if you paid by debit card rather than direct debit, this wouldn’t have happened!”
He had a point. Of course I would have set up a direct debit if I had known I would be summoned to the court in the same building that I work. I asked about the complaints procedure. He happily gave the phone number to me.
“I would not normally encourage people to complain, but this situation is ridiculous.” he admitted.
I agree. It is ridiculous. If I had been fully informed in the first place I would have taken action to ensure I would never be summoned to court. But I think what really annoys me is that the person who had told me not to worry about the court summons had clearly not been bothered to fully explain the situation and to try and resolve the issue. I have no doubt that if I had spoken to the same person today, I would have been told sorry love, but you just have to suck it up. If people just did their jobs properly, it would make the lives of everyone so much easier. If people could only be bothered. Is it a London thing? I don’t know. But I know who I blame.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

A Tale of Three Cities

Today is Halloween. Out in the world below the safe haven of my flat, kiddies have been trawling the streets of London dressed as ghosts and ghouls ushered by protective carers. They compete with teenagers blagging little old ladies out of a couple of Mars Bars in payment for slapping on a £3.99 mask from the local newsagents. Some adults revel in the merriment of celebrating All Hallow’s Eve, but the more cynical amongst us see it as another opportunity for people to ask us to part with our hard earned money (or chocolate in this instance) or be subjected to trickery. Or, worse still, guilt.
Guilt is a feeling we are all subjected to on an almost daily basis. A dilemma all Londoners are familiar with is what to do when a homeless person asks you for money. To walk past totally ignoring someone sat on the pavement with nothing more than the clothes on their back seems callous beyond belief. A sad smile followed by “sorry” seems pathetic and patronising. The other option is to search your pockets for change and offer them a couple of quid.
There are several arguments against the latter. About 5 years ago a poster campaign was launched in London encouraging people not to do this. We were informed we were killing with kindness, funding their lifestyle rather than forcing them to seek support to get off the streets. But what if they are quite happy living on the streets and prefer the freedom it offers them to the institutional hostels dotted around the capital? Who are we really helping, them or Joe Public who finds people sleeping on the streets distasteful?
Others argue that all we are doing is funding their drug or alcohol problems, assuming that all the street homeless people in the UK are there for this reason. On the other hand you could argue that if we don’t give them 50p towards a rock of crack, they will get money for their fix through other means, whether it’s theft, prostitution or another underground career.
Others just don’t see why they should part with their hard earned cash for somebody who relies on others to get by rather than working 40 hours a week like the rest of us. I would suggest that is being a little short sighted about the reasons behind homelessness. But I will save that for another day.
So why do I bring this up now?
Whilst I was on holiday I was struck by the different ways people from different places beg, or try to get others (especially tourists) to part with their cash. In Paris on our first day, we saw three people try the following trick. They drop a “gold” ring on the floor and knock it with their toe, bend down to pick it up, examine it closely and ask the innocent bystander if it’s theirs. The answer is invariably “no”. At this point the ring is offered to the bystander for luck, and then a donation is asked for. (Having had this scam tried on me I politely gave the ring back and suggested they sell it.) It seems like a low reward scheme for such a complicated trick, unless once you get your purse out they snatch it or fish your mobile or camera out of your bag. Maybe I’m just too cynical, I’m not sure. But if you know, please educate me.
Whilst in Marrakech it seemed that everything we saw was an attempt to get money out of us relatively rich Westerners. As soon was we stepped out our riad it started; people misdirecting us to the family tannery in the hope we were in the leather business, shop and café owners calling out at us to come into their establishment to sample their wares, henna artists grabbing our hands trying to start a tattoo before I could say ten dirhams, men with monkeys and snakes tempting budding amateur photographers with their exotic (and petrified) animals - all at a price. And fair enough. We all have to make a living.
On the other hand are the people who haven’t quite kept up. In Paris elderly women slumped on bridges across the Seine pleaded with passers by for a euro or two. Younger men and women with children followed pedestrians down the Champs Elysees refusing to leave their side until they had succeeded on getting some cash. In Marrakech the homeless congregated outside mosques, sat in the dusty alleyways of the old town, hoping to catch someone in need of obliging a faith that instructs you to give to charity.
It struck me that in London begging is less intrusive and, well, in your face. Most people ask once and, no matter what the answer is, wish you a good day and turn to their next potential donor. Some people make a joke of it.
“Excuse me miss, but can you give me a tenner so I can go and get high on smack?”
Maybe this is because they have adapted to a city where people don’t have time. They don’t have time to hear your story, or to be continually pestered at the cash point, and they get irritable if someone tries to make them feel guilty. Much better to pretend you don’t really exist, be a good little homeless person and pretend it’s okay. And you’re much more likely to get a good old English pound out of someone who doesn’t feel pressured into giving it.
So, what to do? Who do we give to? If we fall for the ring trick or henna tattoo artist, our choice of who we help in this cruel world is taken out of our hands. If we give to the persistent beggar, the guy who tries not to be intrusive loses out. But even then, the hidden homeless trying their best to do things the government’s way are probably left worse off living on Income Support rather than the spare change of city workers falling out of the pub on Friday night.
It’s a tricky one. How do you get around it? I for one have gone down the route of giving to organisations I trust will use my money wisely to help those in need. A bit of a cop out maybe, and perhaps my money would do someone more good if they were go get it directly rather that a portion of it going towards campaigning and administrative costs.
This week I sat in a coffee shop with my boss on Euston Road to catch up after my leave. We were only there for half an hour but in that time two people came in and asked us for money. I did my usual little shrug and apologised and my boss did something similar.
“Can you believe that? Two people coming in one after the other! I’m surprised the staff didn’t do anything.”” she exclaimed.
And she had a point. It was unusual for London, I agreed. And most café owners will ask homeless people to leave before they are even halfway through the door. Heaven knows a heavy dose of guilt and discomfort makes your cappuccino taste sour.
Homelessness in London is a bitter pill to swallow, but those monthly direct debits and occasional purchase of the Big Issue make it go down a little easier. For me, anyway.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Home Sweet Home

Some things never change. Within an hour of landing at Heathrow I felt my heart sink when I approached the tube only to find that the Piccadilly Line was closed for those oh-so-feared engineering works. Luckily I was able to use my Oyster card on the Heathrow Express instead. And I have to say I was impressed - clean, quick, and even a little TV screen giving visitors to the capital useful information - and a BBC news update for those of us who hadn’t watched the news or read a paper in well over a week. It almost distracted me from the graffiti and derelict warehouses along the train track and decidedly cooler air.
But some things have changed since I’ve been away. We returned home the day British summer time officially ended. Autumn has embraced London like an old friend, and London seems to have welcomed it back. Everything seems calmer. More Zen-like. Even the hoodies on the bus seemed more chilled out. Is it the slightly cooler weather? The beautiful autumnal colours of the trees? The darker evenings?
Maybe it’s just me. I’ve always been a fan of autumn. And being away from London for two weeks… maybe I’ve just missed it. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Today I returned to work. 230 emails, two malfunctioning computers, a fire alarm and exceedingly dull panel meeting later, and I still feel a sense of inner peace. And no, it was not my yoga session after work that has done it either - I felt decidedly tension free before my first sun salutation.
Maybe I’m just glad to be home.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You...

One thing I love about London is that the world is at your fingertips. Tomorrow I will be jumping on the bus to St Pancras and being whizzed off to Paris by train before moving on to Marrakech. I will be returning by air to Heathrow, where I can jump on the Piccadilly line before getting a bus from Kings Cross to be dropped off opposite my front door. As the annoying Meerkat says, Simples.
Yesterday I did a bit of last minute shopping in Angel and Baker Street. It was a pleasant day and a satisfying expedition. I did all my travelling by bus and took my usual place on the top deck. I like the top deck for two reasons: A. There is more room and the anxiety of trying to decide whether the elderly/pregnant lady will be offended if you offer her your seat is greatly reduced and,
B. You get a better view.
You have probably already noticed that I take great pleasure in people watching (Read: I am plain nosey). From the top deck you not only get to observe the other people on the bus, but also the world outside. On this occasion it was the people on the bus that caught my attention.
As is often the case, at the back of the bus a young man was playing music on loud speaker. This is not unusual. But this young man had his son with him, who looked about 2 years old. I had my back to them, but towards the end of my journey the bus driver applied his brake sharply. There was a thud at the back of the bus followed by a loud “FUCK!!” The little boy started to cry.
A woman sat behind me muttered, “Well, if you let your kid stand on the seat…”
The little boy didn’t cry for long, to his credit. He and his father got off the bus a couple of stops later. As they walked down the stairs, the father commented, “Well it will teach you not to climb on the chairs innit.”
I don’t have kids myself, but I have a father. I have never heard him say “Fuck” in all my 29 years, and certainly didn’t hear him swear until I was well into double digits. I wouldn’t say he wraps me in cotton wool, but he still warns me to be careful of a hot iron or slippery path although I’ve managed to live away from the family nest for over ten years. My point? Surely parents should take some responsibility for protecting their children from potential pain, and protect their innocence to some degree? Or am I just being old fashioned?
During the same journey a group of three were sat opposite me, a young woman and two young men. One of the young men had a learning disability (having worked in the field and like to think I have some license to make this assumption), and seemed happy enough singing to himself and looking out of the window. Just before I got off the bus, something distressed him.
“Oh God, he’s gonna kick off now.” His female companion said, then a little louder, “WE ARE NEARLY HOME NOW, OKAY?”
“It’s a shame,” the second young man said.
“Yeah I know. He always does this. And he’s had such a good day out.” She replied.
The young man didn’t “kick off”, which actually surprised me. Not because all people with learning disabilities have “behavioural problems”, but because, to be quite honest, if someone who I clearly had to rely on for support spoke about me like that as though I wasn’t even there, I’d be pretty pissed off. And not having the vocabulary to say, “Excuse me, but I have a learning disability and not a hearing impairment, would you please show me a bit of respect and treat me like a human being,” I’d want to express myself some other way.
Sometimes people forget that, just because someone is young or disabled, they still know and absorb what is going on around them. If someone they look up to and rely on behaves in a certain way, they are likely to mirror them, whether that’s being disrespectful or careless.
Fifteen years from now, I wonder how that little boy will behave whilst travelling on the bus. As for the guy with the learning disability, I hope his other carers show him a bit more respect before he does express his frustration and gets labelled as “challenging”. As for the care-givers involved in these instances… I think it’s probably too late to wish much for them.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Seeing the Wood for the Trees.

So, do I love London or hate it? I admit, so far, it would seem to be the latter. This makes me feel bad. Guilty. Almost unfaithful. It does have some redeeming features, honest. But when you see something, or someone, every day, it’s easy to dwell on the things that really bug you about it/them and forget why you fell for it/them in the first place. Yes. It’s true. There is a parallel between how I feel about London where I have lived for over 8 years, and how I feel about, dare I say it, my boyfriend of nearly seven years. The two long term relationships of my life. Hmm.
Bear with me on this one; I think I am having an epiphany.
I complain about Him Indoors all the time. But I am at the same time decidedly attached to him. I moan about him never wanting to go out and having to nag him to clean the bathroom PROPERLY, but every now and then he does or says something that makes me think, A-ha! That’s why I haven’t killed him yet!
London is the same. It’s easy to get dragged down by the mundane day to day goings on that will, if you let them, seriously drive you screaming to the nearest train station begging your northern roots for forgiveness. So once in a while it’s important to take time out with your favourite capital and go on a date.
I did that very thing last weekend (and dragged along Him Indoors for good measure). Craving a bit of greenery beyond my little orchard on the terrace I decided to go somewhere I have been meaning to go to for ages and never got round to: Kew Gardens.
It was a beautiful autumn day (good point number two: the weather in the south-east does tend to be better than up north and the west!). It took a while to get across London avoiding the weekend underground closures (not that I’m complaining of course) but when we finally emerged at Kew, I couldn’t help but take a deep breath and exhale with a smile on my face. Aaaaah!
I won’t go into details about what was so great about Kew - you’ll just have to go yourself. But what I will say is that it is worth visiting if you need reminding that London does in fact have some natural beauty, not to mention impressive architecture. And relative peace and quiet, if you can ignore the drone of planes preparing to land at nearby Heathrow.
“I really enjoyed our day out.” Him Indoors, who really does seem to hate London, admitted that evening. “We should do that more often.”
“Yes, we should. How do you fancy a trip to Hampton Court one weekend? It’s supposed to be really good. Or we could go up Monument?”
“Yes, and we really must get to London Dungeon too. Maybe when my parents come to visit next month…”
Before we know it, we’ve got something planned every weekend until the end of the next decade, and more ideas in reserve. Because in London you will never run out of things to do. You just need to make sure you don’t start taking it for granted, and show it a little bit of affection once in a while. It might just show you a little bit of love back.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Walk Vs. Ride

I won’t lie to you. My current job doesn’t really float my boat. True, it could be worse and I am thankful I actually have one in these difficult times. But at the same time I can’t say I leap out of bed every morning and skip all the way to the office.
What I can do, mind you, is walk all the way to the office. “Whoopee-do!” you might say with a hint of sarcasm. But in my opinion, this is a real luxury. No longer do I have to let three tubes pass me by before managing to squeeze in between a dolly mix of sweaty armpits, pointy elbows and inappropriately large newspapers. Every morning for over a year now I have been able to avoid this ordeal and happily put on my jacket, stick my earphones in and walk.
But be warned. Anyone who has never walked down a street in London, look out for Pedestrian Rage. Pedestrian Rage is not as aggressive as road or even trolley rage, but trust me it exists. It’s more passive aggressive. Picture the scene. Here I am on Friday afternoon, walking home with a carrier bag of groceries, happily minding my own business whilst listening to the wireless on my mobile phone. A woman is walking towards me from the opposite direction. The path is narrow and partially blocked by scaffolding. Our eyes meet. The game is on: Who will step aside first?
You may be thinking, hang on here, why not be the bigger person and show some common courtesy by stepping aside yourself rather than engaging in such pettiness? And I hear you loud and clear. But in London, not many people think like that. And there are a lot of people on our pavements. If I stood aside for every fellow pedestrian I found myself in this quandary with, I would probably still be walking home now. Because Londoners don’t have time to be courteous. It’s a dog eat dog world and to survive you have bear your teeth once in a while.
A-ha! I hear you cry. Well, if the tube is that bad and walking is so hazardous, why not take the bus? Good idea. Friday evening I did that very same thing, this time on the way to college. Liking the view from the upper deck, I sit myself down at the top of the stairs, put on my glasses and get out my book.
Two stops later a couple of teenagers get on the bus and come up the stairs.
“Yeah my bros’ back in prison innit.” Teenager One says loudly.
“What was it for this time, did he have a gun?” Teenager Two asks, all too casually.
“Nah, it was peppa spray, yer get me?” Teenager Two explains.
They set up camp at the back of the bus, talking loudly enough to make sure everyone can hear how hard they are. A few people get up and go downstairs. I don’t blame them. Not only are they unnecessarily loud, but the faint hearted amongst us could quite easily be intimidated by such talk. I have heard it too many times before to take it too seriously.
Teenager Two finally gets off the bus. Thank God, I think to myself. But Teenager One refuses to let us off the hook that easily. The all-too familiar tinny gangster rap starts to play from the loudspeaker on his phone. He chants along, reciting his own religion, his stance challenging anyone who dare ask him to keep it down.
Finally he gets off the bus. Before I can celebrate a group of young men replace him at the back of the double decker. They are harmless enough I suppose. Just pissed. And loud. Very loud. I stare hard at my page, but it’s no use. I give up.
The journey home is thankfully much quieter; it’s too late for people to be heading off for a night out, but too early for the revellers to return home. Most of the people on the bus are Suits who have only just finished at the office. They are pacified with fatigue. Result. I get my book out and am finally able to make sense of the words on the page. Before I know it I am nearly home. The journey has gone by without incident. Until we get to Seven Sisters Road where a fellow passenger sits down next to me. Which is fine. Except he chose not to ask me to move my bag. Instead he decided to sit on it.
Common courtesy in London? Let me know if you find any.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Leak

Yesterday while I was sat at my desk supposedly doing work, Him Indoors phoned me to report that we had a leak. Mildly panicked I was relieved to hear that it wasn’t a catastrophic hole in the ceiling job, but a steady drop or three from above the front window. Knowing the flat above us well (because I lived there for three and a half years) it seemed to be coming from our new neighbours’ bathroom. Him Indoors had already investigated and informed me that it was likely to be from the pipes as the chap above us had just had a bath.
So far, nothing unusual. People have leaks all over the country, the world, and I’m sure in some other parallel universes far far away. But only in London would your neighbour, on learning that you had a leak coming from their bathroom, go out for over 24 hours without leaving you their phone number or a spare key so the handyman can fix the problem. And only in London would your landlord not keep a spare key for all their properties and go on holiday leaving his secretary without means of contacting all their tenants!
I’ve literally just got off the phone to the handyman now. He is going to try and hunt down the key through his “contacts” in the handyman trade and I am going to spy on our neighbours and hold them captive on their return until they surrender a key or, as a compromise, their phone numbers (spying on them is very easy as I know their every movement without leaving my flat, as anyone who read my last blog will know!). As I said to the handyman, at least if they aren’t in the flat they can’t have another bath and make it worse.
A minor niggle, you may think. But, having had more than my fair share of experience of private landlords, I am all but too aware how these minor faults can turn into major issues leaving flats virtually uninhabitable. And in London, private landlords have more control over the housing market than is healthy. With house prices in London still ridiculously high and local councils relying on the private rental market to re-house the thousands of homeless households in the capital, the private landlord is lapping it up. How do they get away with substandard accommodation? Because the demand is greater than the supply, so desperate people (and local authorities) make do. A family of six claiming housing benefit don’t have the luxury that I do. I have a deposit and month’s rent in advance sat in my ISA so if the worst comes to the worst, I am out of here. But in a city where the difference between the rich and poor is so stark, I am clearly one of the lucky ones.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Naaaay-bers, Everybody Needs Good Naaaaybeeers...

Mmm. How typical is that? I start a blog about loving yet hating London, and what happens? A decidedly uneventful weekend. Having said that, the weekend was spent hiding out in the shoe-box. Naturally, living in London means you pay an extortionate amount of money for a broom cupboard. I recently upgraded to a cupboard with a roof terrace, which is more exciting than words - you have to have lived in London to appreciate the novelty of being able to wander around outside in your dressing gown without the police being called! It also gives me the opportunity to jump on the eco-frugal bandwagon and grow my own vegetables. Sadly I forgot I had an uncanny ability to kill even the most hardy of desert cacti when I made this decision, but am pleased to report that so far I’ve had about ten strawberries (two of which I have eaten), seven tomatoes (all green but I live in hope) and, most excitingly, my pepper plants are beginning to bear fruit (or, erm, veg anyway)!
As I type the other common downer of living in London rises its ugly head: Noisy Neighbours. Not being an eccentric millionaire, my shoe-box is not of the detached variety and we are sandwiched between two others. The neighbours below us are as quiet as the mice which no doubt inhabit nearby, but the ones above…
I like to think I am quite a tolerant person. I understand that they don’t mean to be noisy, they just aren’t particularly light footed. And when I went upstairs to ask them to turn their music down, they did. Him Indoors, however, is a little less patient. I have become accustomed to the constant noise that rumbles on in the background and hardly notice even the screech of sirens that fly by our window several times a day. Him Indoors, however, has not adjusted to life in the city quite as easily. He moved here three years ago and still hasn’t accepted the fact that you can’t expect to wake up to the sound of birdsong when you live within spitting distance of both the Emirates Stadium and the A1. Several times a night he will grumble and huff, hunched over his X Box controller.
“The fairy elephant is in I see,” he mutters, glaring at the ceiling from under his furrowed brow. And yes, he has a point. But, you know what? You have to take the rough with the smooth in this town. London is a mixing pot of people from different backgrounds, different cultures, with different priorities and values. We have to accept our neighbours flaws (to a degree - drug dealing from the bedroom window might be pushing it) and, well, suck it up. Otherwise, if the heat gets too much, the pot will blow its lid off and the stew will end up dripping off the ceiling. And, even if it's not exactly to my taste, I’ll happily eat my share rather than turn my nose up at it and cause the chef offence.
Without wishing to overstretch the metaphor, even if the main course isn’t to your liking, the dessert might make up for it! And, hey, there’s always breakfast…

Friday, 25 September 2009

Sub-Standard Services Vs Retail Therapy

Today is my “Work Life Balance” day (or “hippy day” as one friend likes to call it) which means… no work. Aaah, bliss!
Having had an early night, I wake up refreshed at around 8am. The bright autumnal sunlight filters into my boudoir. Life feels good. Although tempted to stay put, I get up and get ready for my day. I have five things to do on my mental “to do” list - pick up a parcel from the local delivery office, go to the hospital for an “open appointment”, take advantage of 20% off at Long Tall Sally (fashion Mecca for any woman over 5’9’’), start my blog (ta-dah!) and go to college.
So, plugged into my handy it-does-everything phone I tune into Amy Winehouse (very “London”) and head out.
The local Royal Mail Delivery Office is surprising quiet - there’s only one person ahead of me in the queue. Result. Optimistically I hand over my “Sorry we missed you” postcard and ID. The man behind the counter disappears to retrieve my package. He looks a little frayed. Poor chap.
Several minutes pass. Poor Chap hasn’t come back yet. A queue is forming behind me. I make impatient noises.
Finally he returns. He has my postcard, but no package. He sighs.
“I’m afraid the person who delivered your parcel was doing overtime so your parcel has been sent back to Bow.”
I blink. This is not the first time my post has gone astray. I remain calm.
“So what happens now?”
Another sigh.
“The best thing I can do is take a copy of this and your number and we’ll give you a call when it gets back here.”
He looks gingerly at me through his bushy eyebrows. He’s clearly nervous.
“Well, what should I do if I don’t hear from you?”
“You can try calling customer services…”
I’m not convinced, but ask for the number anyway. I’ve dealt with their customer services before. It was not a good experience. I ask for a pen to write down the number. Someone in the queue behind me tuts impatiently. I ignore them.
“I’m very sorry about this.”
I do feel for Poor Chap. He has clearly been in this position before. But I can’t let him off completely.
“I know it’s not your fault, but this has happened to me before. And it really is dire.”
I defiantly walk out of the office empty handed. Hmm. Not a great start.
20 minutes later I’m at the hospital reception desk clutching my “open appointment” letter. I’m feeling confident that I will get on better here.
“Hello, I saw your consultant here a few months ago and he told me to come back once I had had some tests done and gave me this letter to bring with me”.
The guy behind the desk takes my letter with an air of scepticism and skims it over. He snorts.
“This doesn’t mean you can see him today, you have to have an appointment.”
“But he gave me an open appointment! He told me to come back any Friday…”
“An open appointment doesn’t mean you can just come in and see someone. You have to phone up to make an appointment!”
It’s my turn to sigh.
“Well… can I make an appointment now?”
He sighs back and logs into his computer. I’m annoyed. He clearly thinks I’m an idiot.
“The doctor did tell me just to come back with this letter you know.”
He glances up at me from his screen, one eyebrow raised.
“Next appointment is 5th February.”
I gasp.
“Isn’t there one before then?”
“Well, that will have to do then.”
He fills in my appointment card whilst I mutter to my self about having to wait another 5 months and it being a good job it isn’t fatal. He gives me my appointment card.
“I’ll destroy this one for you.”
He waves my “open appointment” letter over the bin. He clearly thinks I’m capable of trying to pull this stunt again. Damn it.
“Will I get another appointment letter in the post?”
Satisfied, I march out of the hospital to the tube station in need of some retail therapy. At Baker Street, the sun is shining. I head down to LTS and pick up a mountain of clothes to try on. I ask the shop assistant if she has one of the skirts in the catalogue in. She says she has.
“What size? 10? 12?”
I laugh and tell her at least a 14 and am secretly flattered when she looks back at me surprised. Nothing like a bit of ego stroking to make me flex my credit card!
Several changes later I choose a couple of tops that will do nicely for work. Nothing inspirational, but certainly satisfactory. I am thankful I live relatively close to the store - there’s only a handful in the country. Yet another benefit of living in London.
I walk down Baker Street and pop into Accessorise for a last minute gift. Fighting through a gaggle of tourists I finally get out of the shop and hop on the bus to Euston, where I go to M&S to pick up something for dinner. The concourse is packed with suits grabbing a quick bite to eat and a few rays of September sun. The atmosphere is energetic yet relaxed.
By the time I get home I’m feeling content. A successful shopping trip has balanced the frustrations of this morning. And, as I cross off job number 4 on my “to do” list, I can relax until heading out for college in a couple of hours. Where else in the country are there so many evening courses to choose from, catering for every whim, time table and budget?

Love To Hate London - The Beginning

I’ve lived in London for over 8 years now. Living here had always appealed to me - the excitement of the big city was very attractive after 21 years of small towns in the Midlands. So on graduating in 2001, I found myself a job here, packed my bags and headed “Daan Saaaf” without a backwards glance. 8 years on, the glamour of the West End and energy of the East have become a little tarnished as the reality of the tube in rush hour and the impatience of everyone who has lived here more than two years (including yours truly) start to penetrate any naïve optimism that life in London is fabulous, darling.
But the Old Smoke hasn’t lost all its charm. There are days when I walk through Soho Square or admire the impressive skyline from a friend’s high-rise shoebox, I take a deep breath of fresh smog and smile to myself as I splutter out fumes from the A1. Because despite its numerous (and often hideous) flaws, London has spunk.
So here starts my record of London life. The highs and lows of sharing the innards of the M25 with about 8 million other people on a day to day basis. To remind me, and everyone else, that although London regularly takes a bite out of you, chews you a bit then spits you out, sometimes you can’t help but fall for its lovable rogue charms. Well, just a little bit, anyway.