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.