Sunday, 29 November 2009

London loves.....Monopoly

My brother owns three properties. In real life, I mean, not in monopoly. In monopoly he’s probably never owned more than two. Although I can’t say this for sure. In my family, when we play Monopoly, nobody is ever entirely sure a) when the game has finished or b) who has won.

It’s fair to say our games end in a degree of acrimony and recrimination. Often we revert to stealing (both from the bank and each other). Often
properties get vandalised. I say vandalised, I mean fed to the dog. Community Chest cards get chucked across the room, defaced. Amidst the accusations and denials my mother is often heard to say “right, that’s it, I’m never playing with you lot again.”

In our family, the only game that ends worse than Monopoly is Scrabble. We have literally never finished a game of Scrabble. As for Cluedo, a three year relationship with an ex-girlfriend once unravelled and was effectively terminated during the course of what began as a light-hearted game. (She won the game. I was a tad ungracious in defeat. The solution, I believe, was Miss Scarlet with the lead piping in the Billiards Room, but don’t quote me on that. It was late, we were drunk and there were tears involved).

Monopoly is fun because it allows even the most hardened socialists among us (by this I mean Rach and Euclides) to be greedy and capitalist for an hour or so. (I say an hour; a game has never lasted longer than 45 minutes in our house. To put this into context, the instructions on the box say an average game should last 2-3 hours). Some people say Monopoly is like a metaphor for London life. Some people are idiots. Monopoly is about as far removed from real life as you can get. Unless you’re Michael Winner.

Who, for example would ever buy a hotel on Whitehall? Is that even legal? You’d have a job getting planning permission. Who even knows where Northumberland Avenue is? Or Bow Street, Coventry Street, Vine Street? Ok, maybe Vine Street (30 years in London has never improved my knowledge of the West End I admit). But the point is, there are far more relevant streets in today’s London that would make the game feel more real. Commercial Road for example. Or Holloway Road.

Who has ever been sent directly to jail for no apparent reason? Nobody. Oh ok, maybe anybody who was black in the 1970s or Muslim er….now. Who has ever won £50 for a beauty contest? Who ever heard of free parking in London? Who randomly pays school fees on demand, surely there should be a regulated system in place? A monthly direct debit perhaps? Even the stations are odd. Kings Cross and Liverpool Street, fine. But Fenchurch St. and Marylebone? Two quaint and beautifully designed little stations granted, but surely Waterloo and Paddington, the two biggest stations in London deserve more prominence. About the only realistic thing is that the two ends of the social spectrum are accurately identified: Old Kent Road for a mere sixty quid, Mayfair setting you back to the tune of four hundred nicker. (Tip: try to buy both. a) you’ll look diverse and cool b) you’ll monopolise that corner of the board near ‘Go’ and c) they are nice colours.)

But hey, we don’t play Monopoly for a reality check do we? We play it as a throwback to an age of innocence. I say innocence, I mean a time of colonialist Empire building, the Wall Street crash and war in Europe.

But just look at the pieces we play with: the dog, the boot, the ship, the iron (hold on, the
iron?!), the top hat and the car. Pure innocence and eccentricity. The beauty of Monopoly lies in its simplicity. The colours, the near symmetry, the collecting £200 just for passing go. It’s very much the Kate Moss of board games.

Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to actually finish a game. What does that look like? Does ticker tape explode from the ceiling covering the players and scaring the dog? I don’t think I’ve even got as far as buying a hotel, let alone monopolising the whole board. I have been made bankrupt. That’s it. This Christmas, just for once, maybe my family will play a game to its conclusion. I have dreams of a string of houses on Bond Street. It’s never going to happen.

Monday, 23 November 2009

London loves.....crime scenes

My boss has a habit of giving directions to London locations by referring to the infamous crimes that have taken place there. Instead of simply saying “take a left on to Commercial Road” he will add "you know…where that bloke got shot in the head six times outside the bingo hall”.

Wherever you are in London he could tell you what murders have happened there. Slightly morbid? Perhaps, but when you think about it, many places are forever linked to and even defined by the murders that have taken place. The Dakota building NYC, the town of Omagh in Northern Ireland, The British Medical Association HQ in Tavistock Square stained red with blood.

This week’s London Love is not really a love of ours. Rather, a morbid fascination, driven by media bloodlust and the folkloric nature of tales of local murders. A recent personal example illustrates this. A few weeks ago a body was dragged out of the Regent's canal and laid on the towpath within site of our office windows. Rather than respectfully bowing our heads and continuing our work, the primary concern of 100 or so co-workers was to gleefully pontificate as to the nature of the poor man’s demise. “Was he pushed in by local kids? Was he pissed out of his face and fell in? Was it a heart attack? Was he decapitated?” And amongst the hubbub, the most frequently heard cry was: “can you see it? Can you see it? CAN YOU SEE IT??”

I have never seen a dead body. But I know people who have: police officers, morticians, scene-of-crime forensic experts. They tell me it is a surreal yet perfunctory activity when bodies are dealt with by the authorities. At a distance it seems such an unreal thing to encounter. And yet, that is how we will all end up one day. (Dead that is. Hopefully not murdered).

Back to my boss. The most poignant example he refers to (on an almost weekly basis) is the scene he walks past daily on his way to work. At the height of the summer of teenage killings in 2008, 16 year old Ben Kinsella was killed at the corner of York Way and North Road. Now a London landmark, this corner was adorned with flowers, football shirts, scarves, mementoes and heartfelt letters for months afterwards. While Kinsella’s murder marked the key turning point in London’s fight against knife crime, the scene of crime itself became a focal point for locals to vent anger, to collapse in sorrow but also to celebrate a young life, all too soon expired.

London has many notorious murder spots. The one which holds most gruesome fascination for me is in Muswell Hill a couple of miles away from where I live. Close to the top of an oppressively suburban, long, steep hill of semi detached houses sits the house at 23 Cranley Gardens. Driving past it today one wonders whether it is occupied and if so, by whom? And are they aware that 30 years ago Dennis Nilsen murdered men there? Keeping their dead bodies hidden around the house, practising necrophilia on them, butchering them, burning them in the back garden, depositing pieces of the bodies down drain pipes, cooking them and indeed eating them.

Equally creepy is the thought of 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill where John Christie murdered at least 6 women in the 1940s and 50s. You can find out more about this particularly bleak sequence of murders in the film 10 Rillington Place starring Richard Attenborough. Be warned, it is one of the most depressingly sad films you will ever see.

Ok, so we’ve covered a gay murderer and a misogynist woman killer, what about one for the girls? Perhaps the quintessential feminist killing in modern times happened in an inconspicuous corner of Hampstead. The Magdala pub still carries the evidence of the final bullet, fired from Ruth Ellis's gun. Intended for Ellis’s former lover, David Blakely, whom she had already pumped five rounds into, the sixth bullet ricocheted off the wall plunging the pub into eternal infamy and Ellis into history. For the murder of this man, the final in a string of hopeless, abusive, womanising drunks who had plagued her life, Ellis became the last woman ever to be hanged in Britain in April 1955.

Although London is more peaceful than most major metropolitan centres in the world, there are still way too many killings. Stephen Lawrence (1993), Damilola Taylor (2000) or the French students Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez (2009) stabbed 244 times in Deptford, are just three examples of events that Londoners really do not love.

It is strange, however, that the further away in time and history one moves from a crime the more lightly it is viewed…

…Our final death spot is not necessarily a scene of crime per se. Unless of course you consider bad driving a crime. Which I do.

Driving home through Barnes, well-fed, quite probably pissed and tonked up on qaaludes on 16th Sept 1977, pop star Marc Bolan was killed when his girlfriend declined to follow the one of the lesser known laws of the Road Traffic Act: don’t drive off the road into a Sycamore tree.

Saturday, 14 November 2009


Before you read this week’s love-in, watch this short 2 min video. (It does not contain any actual football)

What you just saw happened in East London on 25th August this year. Why? Well, because those ridiculous, almost hard-to-comprehend scenes are what tends to happen when grown men love football a bit too much.

I can’t be overly critical of them, I love football myself. In fact if football was suddenly banned or outlawed I think I’d probably kill myself.

…Or maybe just watch figure skating.

In 1981 in a televised interview, Bill Shankly the Liverpool FC manager, made the famous quote “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. It’s not. It’s more serious than that”. The men you just watched attacking each other and fighting with police would undoubtedly concur. It’s not merely the sport as a stand-alone entity (22 men kicking a pig’s bladder across a pitch into two metal constructions known as ‘goal posts’) that provokes such intensity. It is the history, the embodiment of identity, the localisation of innate pride and engrained partisan loyalty for your club that manifests itself not just in love but in equal parts joy, sadness, frustration, anxiety, boredom and anger.

The two sets of fans you saw fighting were West Ham and Millwall supporters. Hated rivals from East and South East London. This is by no means the biggest rivalry in London. There are 13 professional football clubs in London. More than any other city in the world. Just to put this in context, take America as an example; most US cities have just one professional team per sport. Sometimes entire states just have one professional team! In rare instances you will get two per city (Chicago Cubs/Chicago White Sox for example), London has 13. They range from massive clubs whose supporters number millions globally (Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea) to clubs with very small localised fan bases (e.g. Barnet or Brentford).

As well as professional clubs there are countless part-time or amateur London clubs, all of which feasibly have the opportunity to turn pro if they ever get good enough. English football’s tiering system, unlike most other sports around the world is ultra-democratic, allowing for virtually unlimited ascent or descent through the leagues.

But never mind long established clubs, one only need look at the number of football pitches and 5-a-side Astroturf pitches you find when travelling through the city to be convinced we are singularly football mad. Hackney Marshes in itself has the highest concentration of pitches in Europe. On a Sunday morning, more than 100 games take place. That’s 2,200 men waking up hungover or otherwise bleary-eyed and dragging themselves to a desolate expanse of land to have the shit kicked out of them by their opposing marker (an overweight builder wearing tight shorts and intermittently puking up last night’s Stella and doner by the corner flag). This is a level of devotion bordering on mental illness.

Football violence is equally insane. And yet in a way I respect both of these versions of a shared passion. Surely the willingness to put your body and mind in mortal danger on a Saturday afternoon denotes love in its most extreme form?

For those that do not understand, it’s difficult to teach. Normally one falls hopelessly in love with football around the age of 7 or 8 years old in the school playground. Unfortunately once smitten (or scarred depending on your view) you can never walk away. Personally I’ve never completely trusted any man who doesn’t like football (note: lesson one in how to alienate a clearly specified section of your readership). And I find it hard to contemplate how anybody can live without it. However, I will now attempt to illustrate the point with a poignant London footy tale about some poor unfortunate souls who were forced to live without it.

Until 2004 London had 14 professional football clubs. In that year, Wimbledon FC, located in South West London since 1889 and FA Cup winners in 1988 were forced to relocate 56 miles north of London to the concrete suicide bunker known as Milton Keynes. After a decade or more of Taylor report-induced ground refurbishment, ground-sharing with Palace, wrangling over land ownership and the inability of Merton borough council to find them a suitable home locally, the owners of Wimbledon FC sold the Plough Lane ground to the supermarket chain Tesco for £8m and moved the club away from its London home and its loving supporters.

Imagine you had followed a club (or for that matter invested time, love and money in anything of personal importance: a lover, a horse, a theatre, a Datsun Sunny) for 20 years or more. Then suddenly that club/horse/theatre/Datsun Sunny is whisked away from you (60 miles away) renamed MK Dons, rebranded and irreversibly altered forever. The impact of this for local supporters must have been devastating. Out of this sad set of circumstances, however, emerged a Phoenix from the flames representing enduring Londonish love. In 2002, when the Milton Keynes deal was finalised, AFC Wimbledon was founded by a set of supporters in the local area and began life (again) in the lowly amateur leagues. Former supporters of Wimbledon FC immediately flocked to follow this ‘new’ team within the community, considering the club a continuation of the original Wimbledon and deriding MK Dons as ‘Franchise FC’. Seven years on, promoted four times in seven seasons, AFC Wimbledon currently sit 10th in the Blue Square Conference Premier, just one tier below the professional football league.

That’s devotion, that’s true love.

Right that’s enough love for one day, let’s go and kick someone’s head in...

Sunday, 8 November 2009

London loves.....postcodes

Do not underestimate the power of a London postcode.

They are the definitive alphanumeric signifiers of status and location. It isn’t the boarded up council estates or luxurious mansion houses that decide whether your area is grit or glamour, it’s the postcode. SW1 and SE17 are very close to each other geographically. In postcode terminology they’re in different universes.

Paris has its arrondisements, New York its boroughs, London has its precious postcodes.

Trying to sell a house? Your postcode could literally halve or double your selling price. Been on a hot date? Getting the night bus home to N17 rather than say NW3 might wreck your chances of a second date. Postcodes can even influence the way your CV or job application is viewed. There is a class thing going on. Some postcodes signify wealth and charm, others signify poverty and dereliction.

I have a personal bugbear. I don’t like my postcode. And I’ve lived with it for 18 years. N22. I often feel embarrassed saying it. I don’t know why. It somehow just seems so bleeeurgh. Prosaic. Silly. Boring. Suburban. It’s the highest of the N numbers making it sound really far out. It’s not. Look at the map; it’s just above N8 and next door to N10. I can’t help it, sometimes I just long for my beloved old N4. Everything seems ok in N4, surrounded by part-time hippies, eco warriors, middle class Arsenal fans and alternative therapists. N22, on the other hand, sounds like you’re at the top of a massive hill like some kind of freakish Gulliver accidentally stomping over the N1’s and E2’s.

Ok, rein it in Josh; you’re firing off postcodes like an anti-tank gun. Some people may be a little confused. If you are confused, i.e. if you are not from London, I don’t have time to go into great detail. Sorry. There isn’t any great logic to the system to be honest. For a start the numbering goes in no logical sequence (almost the complete opposite to the Parisian system which runs from one to twenty and is arranged in a near-perfect clockwork spiral beginning on the banks of the Seine and ending in Belleville. In London, W13 is squashed in between W5 and W7! Crazy.

The suffixes themselves are not even logical; there is no ‘S’ prefix (simply South) in London (only SW’s and SE’s) and there is no ‘NE’ (North East) only N’s and NW’s. Crazy. There is of course an explanation for this; in 1866 ‘S’ and ‘NE’ were scrapped and re-assigned to Sheffield and Newcastle-Upon Tyne. But that kind of logic cuts no ice with me. It makes London seem messy and disorganised!

Just to make things even more confusing, some central areas, the EC1’s and WC1’s have random extra letters attached (e.g. EC1V or WC1H). I find this little quirk an endearing feature I must say...

But please don’t ever attempt to work out which London borough you’re in by using the postcode system because, as Wikipedia rather eloquently puts it “the boundaries of each [postcode] sub-district rarely correspond to any units of civil administration such as parishes or boroughs. Despite this they have developed over time into a primary reference frame”…... Primary reference frame?! Yeah, thanks Postmaster General. Thanks for making things so easy to understand back in the 1800s.

Ach, what am I moaning about? There’s no geographic consistency in London anyway so why should the post coding be well ordered? London is an insane hybrid mish-mash of bending, maze-like roads built totally at random at different points in its two thousand year history. Starting with the Romans and hybridising all the way up to us. There’s even a possibility the construction of the 2012 Olympic Games site could create a new postcode where once barren wasteland was simply incorporated into surrounding codes. It’s happened before. Thamesmead in the 1970s was assigned SE28, after extensive development work was done to create the area.

But of course postcodes do not exist in isolation. When we think of them we think of the areas and what they signify. So, for example, E1 we think Whitechapel (Kray Twins, murdered Victorian prostitutes, skinny jeaned Scenesters). SW1, Sloane Square (‘could one please pick me up from Harrods in the Bentley?’) while N16 Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill is an odd blend of quintessential liberal Socialist Worker middle class North London and orthodox Jewish families.

I’m so obsessed with postcodes I once wrote to the Notes & Queries page of The Guardian requesting an explanation for the randomness of their assignment. I’m still waiting to hear back...

I’ll leave you with a few of my personal favourites…

1. N5 - majestic, crisp, beautiful. Highbury

2. EC1-to-EC4 - the City sends Dickensian shivers down my spine

3. E8 - Dalston and London Fields. Horribly trendy and yet a fantastic blend; the epitome of gentrified, shabby chic, arty, industrial-turned-Bohemian, beautiful Victorian semi detached, railway arched, fabulous pubbed, retro, multicultural, down to earth, working class liberal East London

Go on readers. Show yourself some love. Move to the postcode you’ve always dreamed of. (But remember kids, SW3 might be a little bit out of your league...)

Monday, 2 November 2009

London loves.....cycling

Some love affairs are actually love/hate affairs. So it is with London and cycling.

As a recent convert to cycling I cannot claim to speak for the longstanding cycling community. I can, however, speak for myself and the army of rubbish cyclists who cycle back and forth from work everyday in the London streets foregoing the luxury of more ordinary and dignified modes of transport. Like the Piccadilly Line. As I am totally non-expert, there will be no mention of 160 psi tyres, or tubular frames. There will simply be tales of things that occur on bikes in London.

Recently, cycling home from work I spotted a faster cyclist in front of me and conducted an impromptu experiment by catching up with him and then remaining close behind him in his ‘slipstream’. My rationale being that the aerodynamic effect would make it easier for me to cycle. Something to do with less wind resistance? I don’t know. I got a D for GCSE Physics*. Anyway, it seemed like a good idea at the time as I glided through Manor House.

In actuality it was a fairly poor idea. While I was unable to discern any noticeable easing on my cardiovascular exertion, I definitely got wetter, as the spray from his back wheel flew up into my face coating my glasses and rendering me temporarily blind. I didn’t stop to pull over and wipe my glasses. Oh no, that’s just not London cycling. Instead I made it to the next traffic light, half blind…. and then wiped my glasses. Therein lies a metaphor for the madness of the London cyclist; the oscillating emotions of green or red: possibility or halt, to see or to be blind. It’s always about the next traffic light. And nothing else matters**.

Suffice to say, I have not attempted the ‘slipstream’ trick again. But I have done and indeed observed other things that encapsulate the city’s cycling obsession.

In London, the nature of the gruelling slog of our thoroughfares, means no matter how much poise, confidence and Tour De France spirit we begin with as we leave our front doors, within 20 minutes we’re all reduced to a strange horde of sweaty, slightly confused-looking, suspicious, competitive people. Hard-breathing and lolling our heads like Paula Radcliffe. We London cyclists are not a pretty sight. Amusingly, the sweaty horde status quo is disturbed along the way into town as we, the moist ones with raised heart rates and in slight disarray, come into contact with new, fresh, un-crumpled cyclists who have clearly just left their front doors and are still half-smiling, before the anarchy besets them.

Putting sweaty unity to one side for a moment, there are also more divisive forces at work causing meltdown amongst even the most placid London cyclist. For starters there’s the hideous competitiveness. Racing bike riders are, generally-speaking, outrageously macho. (Even female racers are outrageously macho). This can be intimidating. You never quite know where they are, who they are or how they may attack. They are very much like the faceless Russian fighter pilots in Top Gun, only less egalitarian. The tell-tale signs of the racer (the alpha male or queen bee of the cycling dominion) are the calf muscles. Exposed, hairy and obscenely muscular. A warning sign equivalent to glimpsing the rapidly disappearing back view of Aryton Senna’s yellow helmet roaring past you (you, of course, being Gerhard Berger, less technically gifted and therefore provisioned with a slightly less impressive machine)***.

Other cyclists are not the only competitors out there. London’s traffic-laden roads between the hours of 7-10am take on many of the qualities of the Battle of The River Plate. Rush hour is very much ‘move out of my way, or I’m taking you down, and I’ll deal with your insurance claims and/or paralytic brain injuries problems at a later date’. Cyclists clash with anyone and everything: cars, motorcycles, pedestrians, buses, dogs, squirrels, weather, hills, darkness, drunkards, trick or treaters, road markings, speed bumps, pot holes, traffic lights and professional wrestlers. …I made the last one up. But you get the point.

I realise this blog is becoming fairly ragged and irreverent. I fear I may be set upon in the coming days by lycra louts wielding bicycle chains****. While initially I had intended to inject a modicum of intellectualism into this piece, in the form of a philosophical conundrum concerning the metaphysical position of the lonely solo cyclist vis-à-vis the empowered social cyclist as member of a community, sadly I have chosen instead to leave you with a few giggle-happy anecdotes about cycling in London. Sue me.

I recount a friend of a friend who managed, against all the odds, to cycle his bike uphill into the back of a bus. Quite a tricky feat at the best of times, the person in question managed to achieve the feat not only after many months of experience as a professional cycle courier but whilst the bus was stationary, offloading passengers at a bus stop. I often wonder whether he laughed or cried….

Finally, I re-tell the tale of a somewhat Machiavellian, enthusiastic cyclist, new to the game, who, upon exposure to the ‘us vs. them’ world of London cycling found himself battling with anything in his path. Including fowl. One summer evening, whilst cruising down a slight incline on Grays Inn Road he spotted a fat, lazy, unmoving pigeon on the road ahead. Taking it upon himself to engage in a spot of cheap sport, the cyclist headed straight for the fat pigeon, clearly expecting it to move and take flight. The pigeon did not move. The pigeon remained precisely where it was as the cyclist careered on, squishing the bird unceremoniously into the tarmac. Upon returning to the injured creature, the cyclist was able to ascertain from its unmoving remains that it had indeed not been faking indolence but was in actual fact very old, very decrepit, very fat and very lame. And now, as a direct result of his Shimano-gear driven homicide, very, very dead.

Such things are the way of life for the London cyclist. And we must take them in our lycra-clad stride.


*there were complex mitigating circumstances concerning this poor academic result which I don’t have the time to go into here but may return to at some later date. Suffice to say that the circumstances preceding the failure were nobody’s fault but my own.

** I threw this sentence in merely as a reference for Metallica fans to enjoy. I probably shouldn’t have. (I should make clear here that I am not a Metallica fan).

*** I recognise that this is the second reference to Formula One in as many blogs, for which I apologise. (I should also make clear here that I am not, particularly, a Formula One fan)

**** this is a reference to the Morrissey song ‘Such A Little Thing Makes Such A Big Difference’, the b-side to the 1989 top 10 single ‘Interesting Drug’ (I should make clear here that I am a massive Morrissey fan).