Today I came across a book on the Second World War that had no value, but contained some striking photographs of the Blitz. The quality isn't great, but they remind us what people had to endure and starkly depict the terrible waste of life and resources.
Before I threw the book away I scanned a few images:
Sunday, December 08, 2013
Has the tube always been this crowded?
I'd travelled to London to meet two old friends. I hadn't seen them for 13 years, but within minutes we'd settled back into the same relationship we had as teenagers, albeit with better social skills. It seemed silly that we'd let so many years elapse before meeting again, but sometimes life gets in the way.
We grew up in leafy Richmond-upon-Thames (somewhere I never really appreciated until I visited the badlands of Neasden, Plumsted and Acton) and when I was 16, I naively assumed that we would all remain in the area until our dying days, still meeting up for odd game of snooker, or perhaps to go cycling in Bushy Park.
Taken during my 'stripes' phase
The late teens are a magical time in some ways - a nebulous borderland between childhood and adulthood, when newfound freedoms aren't crushed by the burdens of responsibility.
Naturally I squandered some of this time sitting in my bedroom feeling angst-ridden, but even that was enjoyable in an odd sort of way. I was the hero of my own narrative, able to delude myself with grandiose ideas that didn't have to be sustantiated by achievements. As one girl said to me, "You're all talk and no action."
I wouldn't go back to the past, but I wouldn't change it either.
The flight of hundreds of thousands of Londoners to the shires has, until recently, almost passed without comment, but next to immigration it is one of the biggest demographic changes this country has seen since the 19th century.
In some ways, it is simply of reversal of what happened in the Victorian age, when London's population quadrupled in size and small villages and towns became swallowed up by the growing metropolis. Five generations ago, my ancestors left rural Kent in search of a better life. Today, their descendents are leaving London for the same reason.
Perhaps, like me, they don't share Boris Johnson's vision of the future and would prefer to live in a less 'dynamic' economy that isn't obsessed with unsustainable growth. I suspect they would also like to live in a town where they know their neighbours and can feel reasonably certain that in 50 years' time, the streets and houses won't have changed beyond all recognition.
But there is a price to be paid for this mass exodus. Some local people now sardonically refer to Lewes as "Islington-on-the Downs" and resent the fact that they are being priced out of the area by an influx of Londoners. Where can they go?
The other night I went to a local screening of a worthy Chilean film about the 1988 referendum that rejected General Pinochet. The hall was packed, which was great, but it also made me realise how true the Islington jibe was. The town is becoming increasingly homogenous, like a retreat for Guardian readers.
Perhaps. It wasn't a bad place to live:
On Richmond Green, outside 'The Cricketers' pub
On balance, I'm still glad that I moved to Lewes. Which is just as well, because unless you're in possession of a large fortune, once you leave London, there's no going back.
Finally, a clip from the 'good old days'. I wonder if any of the children in this clip still live in London?
Sunday, December 01, 2013
Sadly, the station was a failure. Built at the end of a one stop spur on the Piccadilly line, the number of passengers was lower than expected and when several leading theatres in the area shut down, Aldwych became a white elephant. Surprisingly, it wasn't closed until 1994.
Today, the London Transport Museum offers a limited number of guided tours of Aldwych station. The demand for tickets is high and the tours are usually sold out within hours. Luckily, I'd found out in time after making a brief foray into the Twitterverse and booked a ticket for yesterday afternoon.
The train from Lewes was packed. At first it looked as if it was standing room only, but then I noticed that someone had done the old coat and bag trick on the seat next to them, so I took great delight in making them move their things. One point to me.
As the train pulled out of Lewes and entered a tunnel, I got my book out. I wanted to find out what Alice Vavasor had written in a letter to her cousin Kate. Then it started: pchhh, pchhh, pfffff pfffff, pchhh pchhh, pfffff pfffff... My seat-hogging companion's earphones were just loud enough to distract me from reading, but not noisy enough to warrant a complaint. One point to them.
I got my smartphone out and decided to watch a video. After scrolling through the list, I settled on an episode of 'The World at War', which I've been watching over the last couple of months. The credits began and the episode title appeared: Japan.
I spent the next 50 minutes watching footage of Pearl Harbour, 'Zero' fighters, Japanese people performing Nazi-style acrobatics, Tokyo being bombed and the bloody capture of Iwo Jima. It was fascinating stuff, but for some reason my companion seemed to be increasingly agitated. I wondered why. It wasn't as if he could hear the explosions through my headphones.
As the train drew into Victoria, my companion frantically gathered his stuff together, as if he couldn't wait to get off the train. I was busy watching footage of Kamikaze pilots, but turned off my phone and got ready to leave. I turned round and looked at my companion's face for the first time. He was Japanese.
I wondered how interesting a station that had only been closed 20 years ago would be, but hadn't realised that the veneer of modernity had been stripped away and what remained was a series of fascinating time capsules:
The lifts are now out of service, so visitors have to be prepared to use a 160-step staircase:
George Formby and other celebrities of the day used to perform concerts on this platform, some of which were relayed to the neutral USA as part of a propaganda effort.
We only lived a dozen miles from Hyde Park Corner, but it might as well have been a hundred.
The police regularly train sniffer dogs at Aldwych station. Our guide told us that for some unknown reason, the dogs refuse to enter this tunnel.
The tunnel complex is a little spooky, but the best parts are those that haven't been lit:
The tunnel complex is a little spooky, but the best parts are those that haven't been lit:
A couple of friends had joined me for the tour. They were both as impressed as I was, but one was disappointed by the absence of any maruading aliens. For British people of a certain age, the London Underground is synonymous with this:
However, the guided tour was excellent, striking the right balance between being informative and giving visitors time to look around and take photos. I'd happily go again. If I do, I'll bring a proper camera instead of relying on my phone.
Indeed, one of the best aspects of the tour was the absence of tourists. I'd just spent half an hour trying to dodge my way past hordes of people aimlessly dragging suitcases on wheels. The Aldwych tour filtered out the box-ticking "10 Things You Must Do" brigade.
As you can see, quota of white, balding middle-aged men was predictably high, but there were also a couple of beanie hat-wearing 'urban explorers' and someone who was particularly interested in some of the Art Noveau features.
After the tour, we went for a drink in the Strand, followed by superb curry in the India Club. I left London agreeing with Dr. Johnson, but also felt grateful that ten minutes away from my front door, I have this:
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
It has been a rather odd few weeks. My best supplier of books went bust, a friend learned that they were in the final stage of lung cancer and my oldest son almost managed to burn the house down.
My wife says she feels as if we're in a badly-written soap opera. I know what she means, although I'm sticking to the 18th century novel theme that I mentioned in an earlier posting. Our lives are more Smollett than Eastenders, not relentlessly grim, but oscillating unpredictably between triumph and disaster.
For example, only days after my book supplier went out of business, a far bigger one got in touch and said that they would be able to supply me with whatever I needed. Then a week later, a corporate customer contacted me about supplying books. My only role in both events was to say yes.
Sadly, I don't see how there will be a change in fortunes for the friend with cancer.
20 years ago, she was living in Los Angeles. Her father was a Hollywood screenwriter, her sister was married to a movie star and our friend worked for a film studio. She seemed to have a gilded life. But then the biological clock began to ring and she convinced herself that a man she met at a party was 'the one'.
She became pregnant and looked forward to a new life with her husband and child, but two things happened. First, she quickly realised that the father was not husband material (or even father material). Second, the baby turned out to be babies.
For some reason, she decided to raise the children in her native England and found a house in Lewes. As a single mother of twins in a new town, life must have been hard enough, but it would become even more challenging when it emerged that one of her boys was severely autistic.
I've no doubt that smoking played its role in the lung cancer, but I also think that she was run into the ground by a life that was unremittingly hard. Her autistic son never sleeps for more than a couple of hours at a time, so neither does she. Sometimes he hits her. She looks frail and worn out.
When I drove her home from the hospital, I tried to think of something to say. I thought of all the people I knew who had survived cancer. But I also knew that whatever I said, it would sound like a hollow platitude. In the end, all my wife and I could offer was practical help: homemade soups, lifts and visits.
This year has made me feel jittery. I think most of us like to believe that we have a certain degree of control over our lives, but during the last 11 months, most of the evidence has been to the contrary. I notice that I have become obsessed with certain household chores, as if the chaos of the external world can be counterbalanced by the order of the internal.
Perhaps that's why some people in Russia and East Germany have expressed their nostalgia for the days of communism, when people could feel reasonably confident that nothing would ever change.
Take this old Soviet commercial, for example:
There's no existential nonsense about lifestyle or aspirations of auditory perfection. It's a radio. It's got a volume/on-off button and a tuning dial. You can be certain that it will be slightly crap and that you'll have to wait for two years before yours is delievered from the Novgorod People's Transistor Radio Combine.
I wonder if the Soviets included batteries?
In the next commercial, the announcer is saying "Can you guess which one of these men is a Zionist enemy of the people?"
It's a little menacing.
The next commercial is jollier, but notice that the man has to try twice to shut the door of the car, and the numberplate is wonky:
In the next commercial the message is clear: if you want to eat a decent meal, you need to be a magician:
The final clip has some groovy music and features a couple on their journey to nuptial bliss:
It's a pity they'll have to share their flat with another family. The whole business of flat-sharing was, perhaps, the single biggest failure of the Soviet Union. In a country with such a low population density, why was it impossible for the communist authorities to provide every family with a home of their own?
But perhaps that will be London in a few years, unless someone stops people treating the city's property as an investment opportunity. Apparently, 75% of all house sales in inner London go to foreigners (and by foreigners, I mean people who live outside the UK, rather than the ones that have moved here) who want a good property portfolio. It's utter madness.
It's interesting how the two extremes of a completely planned economy and a totally free market end up producing the same results. That's why I'm always suspicious of people on both the right and left who pursue ideologies at the expense of common sense.
I apologise for being so serious in this post. Let's have another commercial break: