Thursday, 30 September 2010

London Loves.....Tea Parties

Jane and Joan Ash, a mother and daughter who lived on the Liverpool Road estate from 1955 to 1983, are peering at old photographs on the wall when suddenly a loud cry makes them both jump. "I remember you!" Swivelling round they are met by a familiar face beaming with excitement. Rose Copsey also lived on the estate for almost forty years and has come back to mark the milestone occasion.

Jane and Joan Ash lived on the estate for 28 years

Within seconds the Ash and Copsey families are embracing their former neighbours and reminiscing about old times.
It is one of many touching moments that occur throughout the day at the Centenary celebration of this hundred year old London housing estate.

Former residents Wendy and Rose Copsey

Built in 1910 by Samuel Lewis founder of the Southern Housing group, Liverpool Road estate is an enduring success story in a city where many social housing experiments have tried and failed to provide a hub for communities. On this estate, unlike many owned by the local authority Islington council, the community are encouraged to be at the heart of things. Tyrone Willis, the estate’s facilities manager, remembers a time when the tenants association met every week and virtually ran the place. “They were fundamental to getting things done here, they had authority and when they spoke the housing association listened.” Nowadays its core members are getting older and the younger generation are less inclined to vocalise their needs, but the tradition of close community continues. A few years ago the former washhouse was re-built as a community centre where kids come to play and adult learning sessions take place.

Tyrone Willis and family

While many residents have come and gone over the last century, the estate looks like it will still be here in another hundred years, thanks largely to the maintenance that has gone into it by a housing association that seems, more than most, to care about the wellbeing of its residents.

To mark the centenary Tall Tales, a community art collective, have recreated an Edwardian era tea party and displayed art work around the estate including hundreds of yards of bunting the residents helped to make.

A band plays the Charlestown while battling with the wind blowing away their sheet music. Inside the community centre, Helmut Feder from Tall Tales is in charge of the fancy dress party in which residents dress up as characters from the period – soldiers from the Great War, doctors, even Samuel Lewis himself – then have their photograph taken against a backdrop of the estate in black and white. Feder tells me many of the costumes are borrowed from the National Theatre’s costume department and are authentic. “Some of them are actually very valuable,” he says with half an eye on the kids crashing around in bowler hats and army uniforms “it’s my job to make sure I get it all back in one piece.” I wish him luck and leave him to his fretting.

Dressing up as Edwardian characters

Tall Tales have also gotten hold of the original residency books; thick volumes detailing the families living in each apartment, the occupation of the father, how much rent they pay in shillings and a note keeping track of their movements. Rose Copsey moved to the estate as a child in 1948, her daughter Wendy was born here in the mid-1960s. Both of them have now moved on but Wendy’s brother still lives here. “Looking through these records is so interesting. We’ve seen so many people we knew from our time here. Log books seem like an archaic way of doing things now but much more romantic than just typing it into a computer.”

Tenancy book for Block B Tenement No.8 from 1910-1955

Everybody here – artists, housing officers and tenants – recognises the importance of the event, but where does the money for such things come from and will it still be possible with the looming government cuts on housing and other public services?

Tom Dacey, chief executive of Southern Housing group explains that while his organisation are not for profit, they are still required to make a surplus each year, most of which is brought about through property sales. “This surplus, funds our Economic and Social Regeneration work such as the celebration at Liverpool Road. We also get grant assistance from external agencies and occasionally the state. Every pound of surplus generated is ploughed back into our core business.”

Tom Dacey, CEO of Southern Housing, addresses the crowd

Southern Housing’s resident profile policy equates to around 80% of residents paying affordable rents 5% intermediate rent and 15% low cost home ownership, a model that allows maintenance and rebuilding work to be carried out without government subsidies. But Dacey is more worried about the impact of housing benefit cuts for some of his residents than the risk of the government spreading housing association subsidies more thinly by reducing the grant rate per unit. “This could be the most challenging environment we have ever experienced but I would like to see the fine print of the spending review before going overboard with criticism – nobody disagrees we need much more affordable housing so why would the Coalition damage the only volume providers?”

While Dacey is still pondering the meaning of ‘Big Society’ as most people are, he feels events like the Liverpool Road celebration are vital. “In urban locations, residents in high density estates may not know their neighbours or the broader community. Ways have to be found of breaking the ice and getting people to see the value of working together to achieve common aims.”

Breaking the ice with inner city communities is what Tall Tales and its creative director Gadi Sprukt are all about. Having already curated the magnificent Market Estate project, this centenary event constitutes another notable success. As Sprukt finally takes a seat to relax over a cup of tea and scones he surveys the scene and feels satisfied. “This was meant to be more intimate than the Market Estate. This project wasn’t for tourists or hipsters or art directors, it was for the residents – a way of saying ‘thank you’.”

The full extent of housing cuts remains to be seen but housing minister Grant Shapps would do well to heed the warning of Tom Dacey that sacrificing community events like this one would be a counter productive step in the coalition’s duel aims of creating a big society and revolutionising the future of social housing.

Click here to see Tall Tales' photos of the whole project.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

London Loves.....Police Car Sirens

For seven years I've visited Vendee twice a year to stay at my mother's farmhouse in the middle of the French countryside. In all of those visits I have never once seen or even heard a police car, policeman or policewoman.

Driving back into London straight from our Calais-Folkestone channel crossing on Saturday evening (the route taking us through Eltham, Lewisham, Deptford, New Cross, Peckham, Walworth, Aldgate, Shoreditch, Islington, Hornsey, Crouch End and Wood Green) we counted five police car sirens within one hour.

Us Londoners see a huge number of police cars every day, and the cars we hear but don't see are even more vast in number.

My old bedroom was a converted loft at the top of my house and my window would be permanently open all summer long. The soundtrack to those summer nights was "WEEAA-OOOO-WEEAA-OOOO".

In case you're wondering, that is the sound police cars make. It's not NEE-NOR-NEE-NOR anymore like it used to be in the 80s. Which makes me wonder; what noise do kids make when playing police car chases these days? In my day it was undoubtedly the NEE-NOR of the Rover SD1: possibly the most unprofessional police car ever manufactured...

Nowadays we have proper, Americanised, professional police cars; not black and white anymore but silver, sleek and ominous...

The noise of the police car siren has become almost omnipresent in London. Hang around any major junction for about 5-10 minutes and you are guaranteed to hear one (and if not a police car than certainly an ambulance or fire engine).

But where are these police cars going and do they really need to make so much noise getting there?

The cynical part of me thinks they put their sirens on just to get to the McDonald's drive-thru more quickly. Let's face it, McDonalds is the place we most frequently see the police. Either there or by the side of the road stopping and searching black motorists.

But my less cynical side knows there are many serious for the sirens we hear - particularly when three or four go past at once - and we all hope to god that the old bill would respond promptly if we were in some kind of trouble. It is deeply troubling then to hear that Metropolitan Police targets for responding to emergencies (set at under 20 minutes by the previous Labour Government) are to be scrapped by new Home Secretary Theresa May. I don't know about you but I would have thought reaching an emergency within 20 minutes would be an absolute minimum requirement for the victim if for example they were being attacked, bleeding to death or under some other kind of personal threat.

Clearly some emergencies are prioritised over others. Anything to do with "terrorists" these days will prompt an immediate response - an armed response unit. Whereas a mugging or break-in, you'd probably be put on hold. To be honest, most emergency calls are put on hold. Kind of making a mockery of the word 'emergency'. In the case of this ridiculous 999 call recently made by the Guardian's London blogger I would not only have put Dave Hill on hold. I'd have hung up on him or further, investigated him for wasting police time. Throwing stones at buses? Stones at buses??? Whatever next, Dave, a water balloon dumped on someone's head?? A stink bomb chucked into an off licence?? Kids talking too loudly at the back of the cinema????

It is often easy to overlook the serious things (not stone throwing) that happen in our city and in our neighbourhoods. Many of us generally walk around London as if we are indestructable superheroes completely oblivious to any dangers. And, that's one of the things that is great about this city. We should be able to walk streets carefree. But, while nine times out of ten the police sirens are simply breaking up the monotonous daily routines of the constabulary (paperwork, McDonalds, petty shoplifting call out, chatting up drunken Essex girls), here is an interesting (slightly morbid) website called Spotcrime detailing geographically some of the crimes (mostly stabbings to be fair) that happen in different parts of London. Next time you hear a siren, it may well be on its way to an incident like these.

Personally I find them strangely soothing. They lull me to sleep in a way that the total tranquility of the serene French countryside never could.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

London Loves.....Chicken

by Joshua Surtees and Shannon Dermot Friel

“Gimme, gimme, gimme fried chicken” sang Freddie Mercury a long time ago. And, to be fair, he had a point.

What that point was exactly has been lost in the fullness of time. And, while Freddie is sadly no longer with us, fried chicken, lives on.

From the humble beginnings of the colonel’s secret recipe all those years ago in Kentucky – a time of innocence in the Deep South where rednecks lynched black people and then ate fried chicken – we now live in a world where KFC, Chicken Cottage and Nando’s are an integral part of our furniture. Especially in London. You can’t move for chicken.

A friend of mine recently moved into a house where the housemates were keeping chickens in the garden. Each of them had their own chicken. The chickens are dead now. A fox ate them. They didn’t even have a chance to coat them in bread crumps and chuck ‘em in the deep fat fryer. But this blog is not about hand reared organic chickens, it’s about battery farmed, antibiotic fed, diseased broiler chickens. You know, the kind most of us eat.

It’s been clinically proven that fried chicken, consumed over a period of many years, will kill you in the most painful way possible. Try telling that to the party animals spilling out of Hoxton Square in the early hours of the morning. The chicken burger (with cheese, obviously) has surpassed the doner kebab as the food stuff of choice for the incapably pissed Londoner about to board the night bus home. And not only is it great when massively pissed…’s also great the day after a massive piss up. KFC is now officially the essential hangover meal. In fact, it’s the only time you should really eat fried chicken and feel ok about yourself*. There’s something about the greasy, salty, fatty thigh of a plump, cooked chicken that screams “eat me now” to the dehydrated, starving, just-woken-up-at-2pm-on-a-Sunday youth of today.

*the only other permissible time to eat fried chicken is when you only have £3.27 in cash in your pockets and can’t be bothered to go to a cash machine. Don’t get me wrong, you can try to get to a cash machine, but the fact is you’re likely to find a fried chicken outlet way before you get to the ATM. Shit, there’s one within 3 minutes of my front door. It’s name? Cozy Chicken. That’s right, Cozy Chicken. What, you gotta problem with the name? What’s wrong with you? I would have thought the derivation obvious. No? Ok, no.

And so we get to the crux of this blog. The essence here is not the lemon scented wet wipes, it’s not about the choice between beans or coleslaw (it’s a tricky one, but coleslaw is the correct answer), it’s not even about popcorn chicken (whatever the fuck that is), it’s about the incredible phenomenon that has emerged on our high streets over the past 15 years or so – the fake KFC shops.

These have always fascinated me whether on Kilburn High Road, Newington Causeway or Tottenham High Road. And yet we Londoners turn a blind eye to this rich comic tapestry, they have become so everyday and mundane we don’t think twice. Even the major chains get away with ridiculousness. Chicken Cottage for example. Cottage?!?! As in, a cottage for chickens? A seaside cottage perhaps, sleeping six? What about Chicken Bungalow. Chicken Villa. Chicken Winnebago. Chicken Yurt. Chicken Youth Hostel. Chicken B&B. Chicken Semi-Detached. Chicken Maisonette…….. I could go on.

When I pointed out the ridiculousness of this brand name to a friend a few years ago, he fired back two words by text: 'Guantanamo Chicken'. I still, to this day, have no idea what the hell he was on about.

So when I discovered a brilliant young Australian photographer had devoted an entire album to these brilliant social snapshots of our modern age London I was overjoyed.

Without further ado, I give you in glorious Technicolor, a brilliant photographic homage – Kentucky Fake Chicken by Shannon Dermot Friel.

Friday, 14 May 2010

London Loves.....Politics

Well, well, well. A Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.

Who’d have thought it possible, eh?, for one.

It was clear Clegg was not to be trusted. But millions out there – probably a substantial number of you reading this now – were seduced. It will be interesting to see whether you ever vote Lib Dem again. My hunch is no. So, while throwing that historic party into the limelight for once, this election may also have destroyed the Liberal Democrats and all they have ever stood for.

My brother’s mantra throughout the election campaigns “once a Tory always a Tory”, referred to Clegg’s time as Chairman of the Conservative Association at Cambridge and his days lobbying for the Tories in the European Parliament. Leopards do not change their spots.

What words, one wonders, did Cameron and Clegg (two blue blooded aristocrats who called for change in British politics and ousted a hard working, Minister’s son from Kirkcaldy) exchange whilst shaking hands outside Downing Street as the photographers clicked and flashed? Probably something about crushing the proletariat…

It’s enough to make you turn to anarchy. Or at least communism. It’s enough to make you want to emigrate. In fact, I write this week’s London Loves in Monaco; the heartland and veritable symbol of non-dom tax avoidance. The kind of place Lord Ashcroft spends most of his time, whilst pouring his fortune into a Tory campaign to govern a country he never sets foot in.

But how did London fare in the election, and where does it sit in the wider scheme of British politics?

Vote-wise, London is always an oddity. Unlike the metropolitan centres of the North West, Yorkshire and Scotland which are staunchly 100% Labour, London constituencies tend to swing from red to blue regularly; with a bit of yellow cropping up here and there to spoil the pretty pattern. Even overtly partisan boroughs, like Islington – where locals for years punished Labour and Margaret Hodge for the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the local authority’s social services department from the 1970s-90s – can suddenly swing from Lib Dem back to Labour. Or Haringey council, a perpetual Labour heartland, turning yellow. Why? Who really knows? Except to say these occurrences are highly localised and often linked to changing demographics (influxes of affluent professionals and exoduses of traditional constituents).

It so often goes beyond tribalism and comes down to the character or celebrity of the local MPs. A Kate Hoey in Vauxhall or a David Lammy in Tottenham, for example, tends to guarantee a vote for their powerful, visible presence and representation within a community. Previously, heavyweight figures like Margaret Thatcher in Finchley or Michael Portillo in Enfield Southgate commanded similar awe.

There are also some generic political rules in London’s geography. Outer London suburbs like Bromley or Twickenham tend to be Conservative, populated as they are by a higher proportion of bigots and city bankers. While inner city wards like Hackney or Camberwell, with poorer, ethnically diverse communities feel more protected by Labour’s enduring commitment to social equality.

It was these inner London communities who fostered and cherished the GLC in the 80s. Livingstone’s Greater London Council was important for many reasons, but above all for giving a voice to the disenfranchised who suffered under Thatcher’s selling off of council houses and poll taxes that punished those on the lowest incomes in the poorest boroughs. As a child I was taken through London’s streets on GLC marches and Ban the Bomb protests. I wasn’t really aware of the societal context of those movements at the time but in retrospect I am deeply proud that my mother introduced us, so young, to these fundamentally important socialist ethics.

I remember a time when the Socialist Worker newspaper was vociferously and militantly sold in many public places. Nowadays, it seems confined to Crouch End Broadway or Mare Street for risk of causing offence elsewhere.

The times changed in 1997 after the Canonbury alliance of Blair and Brown contrived their masterplan in that restaurant on Upper St. No longer, it seemed, was there a need to protest or to be overtly Marxist. The good guys were finally in power, bringing with them Kinnock’s old school socialism heavily disguised as centre-left capitalism. I, more than most, felt the enormity of the celebratory mood of that day in May; even though, at 17, I was frustratingly too young to vote. Born in 1979 – the year Thatcher came to power – I lived under a Tory regime for my entire youth witnessing a London scarred by poll tax riots and a GLC smashed, taking for granted the cardboard city under Waterloo Bridge. It’s easy to forget how bad things were under Thatcher and ignore all the good the Labour party has done to improve this country. But, believe me, under Cameron and his sham coalition, you will soon feel that polluted tide rolling back in and lapping at your feet.

Yes the Labour party made mistakes. I worked at Parliament in 2003 when virtually every MP in the Commons – excepting some Lib Dems – voted to support Bush’s invasion of Iraq. And Labour is still now being punished by the electorate for that gruesome mistake, even though the vast majority of the same electorate, regrettably myself included, did not object to the war at the time. By punishing Labour, the electorate has welcomed in something much worse that we must all now live with for five years or longer.

But, if you ever feel disillusioned about politics, my advice is this: take a stroll down Whitehall, past the stern grey stone of the ministries, the cabinet office and Downing Street, past the Treasury and Foreign Office to Parliament Square, to the seat of government and breathe in the air of democratic British politics. Yes, London may be resented by many parts of the country for ruling from afar, detached from the reality of life in Plymouth or Redcar. Indeed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland recognised this and took political action. But the fact remains; this is where your votes count. Everything that is constitutionally, legislatively, legally and politically decided is done so in these historic buildings. Our position in the world is overseen here, the laws of the land battled over in those two small chambers with green or red seats. It is inspiring.

And if you seek political inspiration on a more humble scale, then take the example of Barking & Dagenham; for too long plagued with the tag of being a racist borough. In the 2010 general and local elections here the BNP led by Nick Griffin held 12 council seats. Not only was Griffin roundly trounced and told to take his fascist politics elsewhere, but every single BNP councillor lost their seat in the council. Local activists, including the tireless John Cruddas and Billy Bragg, joined the local community – the people of this area stood up, rallied and smashed the BNP.

Well done Barking & Dagenham. London is proud of you.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

London Loves.....the Tube

In 1978 Paul Weller told us he didn't want to go Down In The Tube Station at Midnight. Two years later he claimed he was Going Underground. "Make up your mind Paul!", people screamed at their wireless radios. But those people had become confused.

The tube Weller sang of was the kind of place where innocent men were attacked and robbed by right wing thugs while simply attempting to bring takeaway curries home to their anxious wives. As well as being a microcosm of a dysfunctional, depressed Britain, it also summed up exactly what the tube used to be about.

As much as we like to complain about the twenty first century London Underground (the ticket prices, the delays, the strikes) there is so much less to complain about in the modern, sanitised version than there was when I was growing up in the 80s. Back then the tube was a hazardous stinking hell hole occupied by rampant mice, pompous businessmen and alcoholics passed out in their seats with cans of Super Tennents.

It was a place where the trains looked like this…

And the seats looked like this…

A place where football hooligans would wreck carriages, where people died in horrendous fires and horrific train crashes. Aged seven, the Kings Cross fire in 1987, seemed like the epitome of my worst nightmares. Trapped underground while a raging fire prevents your escape. It’s quite staggering that it took this disaster to happen before smoking on the tube was banned. I remember the smoking carriages on the old tubes. They quite literally stank like ashtrays.

While the tube is still a dangerous place where you can be blown up, shot dead by police, faint from heat exhaustion or fall on the 630 volt electrical tracks, the refurbished underground is a thing of beauty compared to its dark past.

The Jubilee line is a beautiful piece of engineering and architecture. The station at Westminster – the essence of futurism.

A kind of bat cave of chrome metal from which one emerges blinking into daylight, greeted by the looming edifice of Big Ben casting its benevolent eye authoritatively over the civil servants.

Canary Wharf station is another example of classic modernism and a delightful way to end a journey, even if the featureless plazas of capitalism outside are grey, cold and alienating.

But we don’t need to look exclusively at modern developments to find artistic beauty on the tube. The 1930s art deco stations at the end of the Piccadilly line are grade II listed buildings whose original features are largely intact.

Arnos Grove station, designed by Charles Holden in 1932, is a thing of beauty (in marked contrast to the bland suburb itself). Astonishingly, the Guardian’s architecture critic Jonathan Glancey named this place alongside Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim and the Empire State building as one of the 12 great modern buildings of the 20th century, describing it as “a Roman civic temple” and “a work of art that lifts the mundane into a noble architectural spirit”. I recently left my hat on the tube. It was handed in at this station. I didn’t hang around to admire the modern classicism, I was just grateful to have my hat back.

The neighbouring stations of Bounds Green, Southgate and Oakwood are also Holden works and have been designated places “of special architectural interest”.

The warm red tiling of the Northern line stations at Tuffnell Park, Belsize Park, Chalk Farm and Mornington Crescent (below) are similarly comforting and inspiring.

But when it comes to things of beauty (and I don’t mean the long legged girls at Notting Hill Gate or the dashing gents at Bank), it is commonly acknowledged that Harry Beck’s original design of the tube map is one of the greatest works of simplification ever invented.

Its modern equivalent stays true to Beck's immaculate design; discarding the notion of actual geographic location and distance in favour of logic - plotting the randomly scattered lines and stations in diagonal, vertical and horizontal straight lines. Allowing travellers (not tourists mind you) to easily navigate the rabbit warren.

And yet, while I mock the tourists and their lack of London knowledge, I admit that I too once got lost on the tube. The mitigating circumstances were that I was so drunk I could hardly see but still, the embarrassment of having to ask a fellow passenger which branch of the Northern line I should take from Euston was painful. Especially as the passenger was an American tourist. Asking an American how I get home in my own city...Priceless.

I’m aware that I’ve missed out many elements of the tube in this blog – it’s just such a huge, unwieldy entity it’s impossible to cover even a fraction of it. There are many, many stations I’ve never visited and probably never will. The furthest I’ve ever been is Theydon Bois, on the Essex border; a stifling example of cosseted middle England. But, the extent of the tube is phenomenal – the Metropolitan line goes as far as Watford in Hertfordshire or Amersham in Buckinghamshire. Quite ridiculous if you ask me but nonetheless the inspiration for John Betjeman’s wonderful 1972/73 BBC documentary Metro-land.

So, where I’ve neglected the fantastic Docklands Light Railway, the quaintly extendable East London Line and the absolutely pointless Waterloo & City Line, this is where I’m relying on you readers to fill in the blanks. Give me your favourite stations, most detested lines (the Hammersmith and City, surely?) and your tube tales.

And the latter - tube tales - is sadly where our transport system is lacking. You’ll have noted the lack of anecdotes in this article. There’s a reason for that. Nothing ever really happens on the tube. It’s the place that concisely sums up the notion of reserved London. Millions of people on a daily basis heads buried in books, ears plugged with headphones, eyes not daring to make contact with anybody else’s. The closest we get to incidents of note are when a station gets evacuated or Romanian gypsies start playing their accordions – sadly a rarity these days. You get the occasional drunken rows or Italian tourists squealing with laughter but largely the tube is a place for silent reflection, much like a monastery. But without God.

So instead of anecdotes I’ll leave you with a few bits of etiquette...

1. Never speak to anybody on the tube. Ever. If they speak to you, just smile, nod and carrying on reading your book.

2. Read a book that literally everybody is reading. That way you feel part of a community. A few years ago it was Memoirs Of A Geisha, more recently The Da Vinci Code, right now it’s the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Buy a copy. Don’t worry that it’s complete shit. You’ll fit in. You don’t even have to read it, just pretend.

3. No eye contact. N.B this is a rule I frequently try to break, but to no avail. Nobody ever looks back.

4. Offer your seat if an old person or pregnant woman gets on. Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed. Don’t think ‘oh my legs are so tired’. Just stand up and say “here have my seat”.

5. When the driver announces that we’ll be delayed for a few moments to “regulate the gaps in the service” tut loudly and shake your head at the inconvenience of it all.

6. If the platform announcement informs you of delays caused by “someone under a train”, have a little giggle. It’s a funny expression, enjoy it.

7. (And this is fundamental) if you must kill yourself by jumping under a train, do it somewhere remote and overground. Somewhere where they can get to you easily and clear up the mess you’ve made. My personal recommendation is Turnham Green. It’s perfect for a suicide. Here the trains only stop during peak hours. If you go at any other time of the day the tubes pass through at a minimum of 30 mph. You’re guaranteed to die at that speed and, what’s more, you can do so in pleasant green surroundings. Don’t under any circurmstances kill yourself at Marble Arch at 6pm on a weekday. That’s just selfish.

8. If somebody does jump under your train at Marble Arch at 6pm on a weekday tut very loudly and shake your head at the inconvenience of it all.

Friday, 2 April 2010

London Loves.....Skinny Jeans

Mercedes Bunz thinks skinny jeans are finished.

So does Blockhead.

Mercedes Bunz and Blockhead are so wrong on so many levels.

First off, Mercedes, putting Kate Moss and “not fashionable” in the same paragraph? Oxymoron of catastrophic proportions.

Secondly, the skinny jean transcends fashion. For people like me with calves the size of freshly planted elm saplings, the invention of the skinny jean was more important than the wheel or combustion engine – who needs motorised transport when you can strut around in jeans you look good in? Seriously. You should see me wearing baggy jeans, or even normal jeans. I look like a famine victim who’s been donated random outsized clothes from an Oxfam campaign.

Normal. Jeans. Are. Too. Big. I had to live through the grunge and Britpop movements of the 90s, when jeans were ripped, corduroy, tie-dyed, turned up, anything but snugly fitting. They were normally Levi 501’s. I bet there are kids out there today who don’t even know what that means.

I would look at pictures of Paul Weller, or other Mods from a bygone era in envious longing for their super-tight jeans. Then, finally, they arrived. Suddenly, Kingsland Road was awash with scenesters who were actually proud of their twig-like legs. What a revelation.

At first they were meant for women not men. But when has that ever stopped me? Half of the clothes I wear are meant for women. My first pair, in 2005, were black Lee’s. I vividly remember the Swedish shop assistant allaying my fears that they made my thighs too prominent “people will just think you have shapely thighs”. Now, that’s what I call customer service. I still have the pair in question. Though they are now washed out to a virtual grey, and are ripped in the crotch to the point of indecency, I can’t part with them – they’re part of my cultural heritage.

Thirdly, Bunz makes the crucial error of aligning skinny jeans solely with hipsters – which is a term that doesn’t really exist in London anyway. It’s as if she hasn’t been to Topshop recently or taken even the briefest stroll down Oxford Street. Everybody’s wearing them. Maybe that is the true meaning behind Bunz’s anxieties; she doesn’t want to be part of mass fashion? She wants something more minority, more elitist, cooler. Hmmmm…bring something in Mercedes. I’m dying to see it. Some fisherman’s waders perhaps?

No, seriously.

No. Seriously.

The fact is skinny jeans are perfect. Anybody can wear them – and I’m not just saying that.

You don’t have to look like this to get away with them.

I’ve seen loads of girls with fuller legs wearing them on the tube, they look great. That’s what Lycra was invented for.

In some ways it’s just about having the confidence to put ‘em on, go out and flaunt them. Sadly, many people’s answer to lack of confidence is to cover up. But, look how great Beth Ditto looks here. Don’t be afraid! People have shapes and bumps. I have a bit of a belly. Not ideal on an otherwise skinny man. It’s fine. Get over it.

But, if you really feel they aren’t for you, then where do we go from here? Well, Mercedes touts an idea at the end of her blog piece - “something a little bit wider and maybe made of wool”. Interesting idea. I used to wear a pair of red wooly trousers. They weren’t knitted for the purpose I appropriated them for and whether they worked or not is massively open to question. But this was 1994, wooly trousers must have moved on a bit by now? Surely?

And when the day comes when the laws of fashion dictate we really must move on from skinnies, surely it’ll be to something even smaller? Every modern technological evolution involves reduction in size right? So maybe the next step from skinny jeans is micro jeans?? Jeans so slim you have to be airlifted and shoved into them by a squadron of paratroopers? I’m up for that.

Or, as one commenter on Bunz’s blog suggests “what about wearing no trousers at all?” Again, I’m up for that.

But looking for a genuine solution, and with the slurs and abuse of my work colleagues ringing fresh in my ears (“now you’re 30 Josh, are you going to stop embarrassing yourself?”, “they’re painted on”, “they’re so tight you’ll do yourself a hernia”, “get an elasticated waist band man”, “they’re so tight you look like you’re pregnant”, “they’re so tight I can see the outline of your cock and balls” etc.), I went into H&M on Wood Green high street and did the unforgivable, I caved in to peer pressure and bought two pairs of non-skinny jeans. One white, one black. I felt mature. Normal. Boring, even. After all, I’d actually bought some clothing from the Men’s section. I was proud of myself.

I still haven’t decided whether they work for me or not. I’ve decided the only way to wear them is with big old fashioned 90s style Reebok trainers. They just don’t work with skinny shoes.

The following Monday morning I went in to work anticipating the imagined praise I would receive. Has anyone even noticed? Have they fuck.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

London Loves.....Art

"We are the plankton of modernisation"

The Market Estate in Holloway, North London will soon be demolished.

Designed and built in 1967, the housing estate represented a Utopian vision of modern urban town planning. The 'streets in the sky' concept; the idea of raising people above the smog and smoke of the city, was greeted with enthusiasm by a generation moving on from post war Britain. Residents loved their new apartments and welcomed this mid 20th century version of modernity with enthusiasm.

Forty years later the estate is deemed not fit to live in. The security, plumbing, structural safety and architectural design of the properties have become fractured and archaic.

Over the past few years the Market Estate residents have seen their brand new flats being built and soon they will see their old flats torn down. It's a conflicting time for some of them; a moment for celebrations and tears.

Before the bulldozers move in, the housing estate was transformed by 75 artists into a vibrant art gallery. Using the flats, courtyards, corridors and lifts, artists made these formerly public and private living spaces come alive with colour and sound.

On Saturday 6th March the public were invited to attend a one-off unique artistic experiment, the Market Estate Project.

In this audio gallery, curators Helmut Feder and Nathan Lyons from Tall Tales, former director of the ICA Philip Dodd, actors Selom Awadzi and Luka Vardiashvilli from ISO Theatre Productions and 10 year old Keehan give us their individual takes on the Market Estate Project.

(Audio gallery requires latest version of Adobe Flash player. If video does not appear please download latest version.)

Artist credits: Mauricio Carneiro & Beo De Silva 'We-Waste Room', Boyd Hill 'Where Will I Spend My Happy Days', Hinchee Hung & Nigel Goldie ' 'Behind Closed Doors, Jess Blandford & Joe Morris 'Fluorescent Yellow Room, Augustine Coll 'Market Estate's Treasure Hunt', Arnaud Dechelle, Minako Kurachi, Francois Cassin & Dan Savage 'Morning Rituals, HTA & Higgins 'Drawing Rooms, Rob Smith & Fritha Jenkins 'Zipwire', Anna Lopez 'Anyone Else Isn't You', Clarisse d'Arcimoles 'The Good Old Days', Mauren Pereira 'You Are Cordially Invited', Rebecca Glover 'Untitled', Analema Group in collaboration with LCI 'A-Field', Rosa Connor & Afsaneh Gray (ISO Productions) 'Rather Than Words Comes The Thought Of High Windows

Sponsors of the Market Estate Project: Southern Housing Group, Higgins Construction PLC, HTA Architects, Philip Pank Partnership, Islington Council, Arts Council England

Sunday, 28 February 2010

London Loves.....the North/South Divide


On Friday night I found myself stranded in Balham. Ejected from the bowels of the London Underground and keeping at bay thoughts of being savagely raped and murdered, I sent the following text message to a few close allies:

Northern Line fucked. Signal problems at Morden. The driver terminated the train at Balham. I’m now walking the streets surrounded by evil south London cunts.

If I’m never found alive, I reasoned, at least there’ll be textual evidence of my final movements.

I steeled myself for the slog to my destination: Tooting Bec (why, oh merciful God, why? …and what’s a Bec anyway??). I passed several icons of dejection whose symbolic meanings were alien to me: Balham Youth Court, an off licence called The Wine Junction, the budget German supermarket LIDL and a sinister building with a sign saying United Services & Services Rendered. “What are these unholy relics?” I screamed internally.

Finally, I began to encounter familiar signs. Fitness First, Nando’s a Kwik-Fit garage. Thank god. The temporary haven of something vaguely resembling civilisation…

Although you may not have guessed from the sentiments above, I’m actually beginning to quite like south London. Admittedly it’s a patronising fondness tinged with snootiness, but fondness all the same. I suppose my newfound tolerance has arisen from the fact that, over the past few years I’ve spent far more time south of the river than is healthy. It’s a secret liking, full of shame and regret. I can’t admit it to my north London friends. I’d be ostracised and marked out as a traitor.

As with most divides, the key to bridging the gap and getting over your prejudices is simply to bite the bullet (quite literally if you live in Battersea) and give it a try.

There are nice places south of the river. No really, there are. Dulwich, Kennington, Richmond, Greenwich, Camberwell. But for every quaint little Putney, there’s a Peckham, Lewisham, Nunhead or Plumstead Common.

Maybe it’s just a titular thing, but some of these names are enough to send chills down the spine of any north Londoner. They sound weird. They denote a barbaric wasteland perpetually stuck in 1952.

it goes further than simple linguistics. You have to be a Londoner to fully understand the north/south divide. It’s an innate, instinctive sense of right or wrong, heaven or hell. North and south London are just…….different. When I sounded people out about the differences I was told “it feels different”, “they speak funny”, “they're backwards”, and “it’s just not right”.

These comments might appear racist. If south Londoners were a race. But they’re not. They’re just a few million people who lucked out in the postal lottery birthplace stakes.

And, because there’s so little migration and cross breeding, the two sets of population gene pools remain largely isolated from one another. In a few rare cases people do migrate. Out of necessity. Or the threat of divorce. I’m not sure I could ever live down there. I’d be constantly looking over my shoulder for the knife in my back.

It’s not just us, the common folk, who see north London as superior. Nearly every building and area of notable significance or officialdom is situated in the north. Trafalgar Square, Parliament (the SW1 postcode fools nobody), Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Gherkin, the BT Tower and so on and so forth.

Perhaps the real difference is indeed phenomenological. North London is more built up and hilly. Streets seem narrower, more congested, busier. South London is flatter, and greener; it feels more open and sparsely populated. The architecture of both is remarkably different. Both have beautiful Victorian and Georgian buildings but the style varies. The metropolitan inner city in North London extends much further geographically, so even in zone 3 you are definitely still in the city. Whereas, most of the inner south is located very close to the river (and therefore the centre); an argument often used to claim southern superiority. By the time you get to zone 3 south you are in total, undeniable suburbia.

Although we are nominally sworn enemies, whenever two people from each clan get together and talk, they get along like a house on fire. Generally we enjoy the banter. Perhaps we’re not all that different after all? Maybe it’s just psychological. Maybe that big old, bendy river makes it feel different. As an old acquaintance pointed out, east and west London are far more different than north and south. He gave me a list of places that are symbiotic twins or replica versions of each other. Edmonton-Thornton Heath? Both equally grim. Belsize Park-Blackheath? Both equally fabulous.

I’m not sure how to end this blog except by saying these old engrained prejudices need to be challenged. East/west Berlin unified because the people had no choice, black and white in apartheid South Africa got over their differences (slowly). North and South can love one another. Give peace a chance man.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

London Loves.....Love

Picture courtesy Nick Boyce 2009

When a barn owl builds her nest, that is love
She may expel, orally, a crushed chewy mouse
But her love is mostly internalised
Transmitted momentarily in acts of regurgitation
Not a soft or fluffy love
But love all the same
Love at the coal face

A rain has come in the dead of night
It batters down the roses
Threatens cobwebs affixed upon streetlights
In the commuter belt long legged Susan stirs at 2am
Reaches for Apple
But not nutritious or vitamin packed
She pines for Alexander at a conference in Frankfurt
Romantic machinery
Digital love

Mrs O'Doherty sobs increasingly
Where is my daughter?
She ponders internally
How have I lost her?
Who is Ricardo?
My purpose of rearing has come to an end
Love enduring
Affection paused

Lily works Sundays at the hall of mirrors
Trapped on the pier
Bored and deceitful, caring and boastful
She loves 6 or 7 in every 10 male customers
But they love her boss
Despairing, she jumps in the Channel
Just for a swim
Who loves the North Sea?
Only the fishermen (6 or 7 in every 10)

Harry chops cows up
“It’s all done electric now”
40 or 50 cattle per day
Rumps and shoulders
Hooves and brains
Eyes no longer seeing
Ears fallen deaf
The milk of human kindness
Harry does not love anybody
He has a list of people he hates

Abdul Aziz paints his girlfriend’s outline
His cleric has told him God does not like images of the human form
Abdul loves his girlfriend’s bottom
And her vagina
And the way her legs taper from hip to ankle like a rounded obelisk
“How can God not love this?” he blasphemes
His girlfriend sometimes wears a veil
Hidden love

When a badger is killed by a farmer and lies unmoving in a ditch
Its cub nuzzles up to it
It does not know yet
That is undying love

Monday, 8 February 2010

London Love/Hates Tower Blocks

I've always been obsessed with tower blocks and council estates. Some say it's an unhealthy obsession. I disagree. Others will see this piece as middle class snobbery wading through working class life like an American tourist on a cultural exchange visit to Baghdad. Again, I disagree.

If anything, middle class snobbery was imposed upon estates at the point of conception. Evidenced by ridiculous sights such as the name John Keats House affixed to the most unpoetic building you've ever seen in your life.

These are nothing short of in-jokes invented by architects to amuse themselves (Fatima Whitbread Mansions etc...) The Arden Estate in Hoxton is the best example of titular misattribution. A Shakespearean theme emerges as you explore its ugly hinterland. Lo, my liege here lies Macbeth House, and what is this good knave, but Juliet House? Not content with desecrating these characters you soon discover Oberon, Falstaff, Bianca, Miranda and lastly Caliban all assigned to truly hideous buildings. And yet the latter, Caliban Tower, is oddly appropriate. If any building were to sum up the shipwrecked, deformed, deranged half man/half beast character from The Tempest this monstrosity is surely it.

High rises are often so outlandish in the mediocrity of their design they become beautiful oddities capturing the eye and imagination. And sometimes they are so disgusting they provoke projectile vomiting.

But the people living in them are wonderfully warm and remarkably positive. Estates and their impoverished communities guarantee you a far friendlier welcome than the opulence of Sloane Square.

As a child I was hypnotised by the sight of tower blocks at night. All those lights on in each little bedroom. All those people living literally on top of each other, surrounded on all fours sides. The bundle of tightly packed human life seemed so cosy and protected. Strength in numbers. Little did I know of the piss stenched hallways and broken down lifts .

At age 5 in a park one sunny day in the mid 1980s i watched the demolition of two tower blocks in Hackney. The event has always stuck with me. The loud bang. The hundreds of pigeons flying into the air. The delay between the detonation of the explosives and the collapse of the block. The delighted cheering and smiling from the assembled local community. The space in the air where moments before two symbols of Thatcherite oppression had stood blocking the sky.

The sound of laughter, dogs barking, sound systems pumping, scooters revving, TV soaps playing through an opened window, kids playing on the swings, old people nattering away in corridors. The everday sights and sounds of the estate. But, every estate has a finite lifespan. And for some the end is imminent.

The Heygate Estate, Elephant & Castle

Human sounds are largely absent on the Heygate estate. Soon this silently sprawling world of ghosts will be no more. Row after row of former homes are boarded up with metal panels sealing doors and windows. Even the most hardcore squatters have been deterred by eviction notices warning of the imminent demolition.

I first noticed this estate in the heart of Walworth whilst standing outside the Corsica Studios under the arches of the railway station one summer night. Opposite me stood a huge, dominating rectangular sea of phosphorescent lights and concrete. It felt like a vision of a Warsaw suburb from the communist Soviet Bloc era. I was awestruck by the dualism of its shimmering majesty and cold hearted oppression. Returning home I googled it to find it described as an estate with "a reputation for crime, poverty and dilapidation."

Walking around it five years later on a cold but sunny afternoon in February feels like that opening scene from 28 Days Later. Yet even more desolate. A surreal detritus of discarded toys, broken glass and deflated footballs litter the untended gardens and trees. Oceans of satellite dishes point in unison toward the sky waiting in vain for a signal that will never come to transmit pictures that will never be seen.

And yet, astonishingly, amidst the desolation, signs of life still exist. As you wander through echoing walkways, across doomed footbridges, through puddles of collected muddy water, past infinite grey sheet metal, all of a sudden you find yourself looking through a window into a perfectly normal kitchen scene with dishes on the draining board and cereal boxes on the table. You have found survivors. Survivors like Riikka, (below) from a remote village of 3,000 people in the east of Finland and her flatmate Cindy from Sydney, Australia.

Smiling and bemused as she opens the door, Riikka, aged 20, explains how they moved in to the crumbling flat last December and expect to be moved out by June at the latest. "I'm going to stay 'til they demolish the place" she says, defiantly, "we like it because we can do what we want. We probably wouldn't have moved in if the community had still been here".

When I ask if they throw parties, Cindy, 23, who earns a living selling theatre tickets offers a sheepish grin and a semi-guilty confession. I suspect the parties are more frequent and wild than they are willing to let on. The fact they have just got out of bed at 3pm and the sight of every available wall in the flat covered in home-made murals ranging from beautifully abstract paintings to childish surreal graffitti (ejaculating penises, talking clouds, He-Man etc.) gives an apt indicator of the lifestyle of this apartment. I ask if they ever get scared being so isolated and alone. "It feels a lot safer with nobody around. Police patrol regularly now. It's not as scary as the [occupied] flats near the station." I ask if they are artists and they laugh "no, not at all" as they set about creating another artwork. Their home made art, like the rest of the Heygate, will soon vanish into thin air. I leave them to their painting.

On Rodney Street I encounter another survivor. Born in 1938 and having lived in Elephant & Castle all her life, Yvonne Castelle (below) has survived a lot more than council bureaucracy and botched town planning. World War II for example.

She remembers the days before the Heygate estate when streets of picturesque 'two up two down' Victorian terraced houses characterised Walworth. Looking up at her bedroom window one night she felt certain the world was on fire. "Daddy the sky's all red". And it was. The neighbourhood had been set ablaze by German V1 rockets. Her dad hurried Yvonne, her three sisters and pregnant mother down into the Anderson bomb shelter. The following night she witnessed another strange skyscape; barrage balloons as far as the eye can see. The simple, yet ineffective method of deterring low flying bombers. She was eventually evacuated but soon returned.

Later, her career in dancing, cabaret, variety performances and acting took off (she shows me the book of photos she keeps in her bag), yet she remained living at home with her parents. Then in 1969 disaster struck when, on the set of a film called Moon Zero II, she fell and was paralysed in an accident. Pushed, she claims, by a jealous co-star. "Six foot seven she was! And what's worse, she was German. I still haven't seen the film to this day!" Yvonne remained bedridden for 10 years, and when she finally emerged, wheelchair bound, the streets she once knew were no more. The behemoth Heygate estate had been erected.

So, after 36 years of living with it, what does she think of Southwark council's plans to pull it down? "I think it's disgraceful. There are thousands of people without homes in this country. It turns out the government only meant for these flats to last 30 years. They say the new flats will be cheap but you can tell it'll be for the rich; gated communities." She attends all the local housing meetings and feels aggrieved at the lack of care shown by local authorities and central government. "People should have right of tenure, not the council selling the land from under their feet. Thatcher started this whole thing in the 80s. And I voted for her. I'd like to blow her up and dance on her grave when she dies". She certainly knows her stuff, Ms Castelle.

So where have all the people gone? "Some of them have been put on the Aylesbury Estate over there" she points into the distance, "which is ludicrous because that's being pulled down soon too. Others have gone to Dulwich. That's alright, it's a better area."

Heading on I bump into two Community Police officers who have patrolled here for the past two years. "It's quite sad really" says Ross, "some people have lived here 30 years, they don't want to leave". Gemma, his beat partner explains how they'd got to know people here and were friends with them. She doesn't know where they are now.

On the towering menace of the Claydon block, an Eritrean woman with four children chats to an elderly family neighbour. She doesn't wish to be named or photographed, suspicious of my introduction as a journalist. Her family are the only people left on the 4th floor. That's about 35 empty flats surrounding her. It's the same on the floor above, and below. Despite the presence of the police she doesn't feel very safe. "It's very dark, here and the heating goes off all the time. I don't have heating right now." Why have you not moved yet, I ask? "I'm waiting for them to offer me something better." Despite her trepidation about the future she is still smiling and laughing as she closes the door to feed the kids. Brave, spirited and determined.

As I return to my car, heartened and proud of what I have seen I pass the Latin American Multicultural group and its colourful display of carnival costumes. I pass the defunct doctor's surgery and the Angelus Temple Foursquare Gospel Church where a small group of black teenagers are having lunch, taking a break from singing and playing instruments. I pass the Institute of Traditional Karate and Performing Arts which, it occurs to me, is rather a strange combination of physical activities. All of these things will soon be gone. The sounds of human beings are largely absent on the Heygate estate. But those that remain have stories to tell.

Friday, 29 January 2010

London Loves.....The Night

by Gregg Morgan
(author of the If I Were Built blog)

"Beasts of prey and great cities alone in nature remain awake when darkness comes; the one in search of death, the other in search of an extra hour of life" HV Morton

London wears winter well. Why? London loves darkness is why. This sprawl of space and ideas comes to shuddering go when the sun packs up and heads south. In London the stars don’t come out at night in the sky, they come out down here - in the wonder of possibilities. We’ve given up our view of the heavens to look for them in this City. This city that can give or take a night’s sleep. London loves the night as it desires to extract just a little more from life than Nature intended.

The daylight hive of the capital, The Square Mile, dies a lonely nocturnal death – save a few bankers wasting electricity under motion-sensitive lights contemplating deficits/bonuses and probably China – as vitality courses into the surrounding streets of London. From the gaudy doorways of Soho, the thunder-dome of Camden, the meta-hip of Dalston, the unapologetic trash of Shoreditch to the celebs, paps and wannabe-papped of Mayfair, South Ken and Notting Hill, London is, in Ginsberg’s words, ‘’burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’’.

Night is a time for pleasure, for friends, pubs, lights, lovers, music, secrets, sin, architecture, cabaret, clubs, gigs, restaurants, football, theatre, film, food, drugs, raves, house parties, convenience stores, markets, strangers, celebrities and snappers, for people. London sits at its desk and sofa on groundhog days waiting to find a story out in the gloom. Does the city ever look as majestic as when it is lit up at night? Cycling over London Bridge at night, Tower Bridge a beacon of belonging, these are the kind of moments that make you realise why we live here. Indeed cycling - another London love - is at its finest when the moon is in the sky. The streets are all but emptied of the foes of pedestrians and traffic and a serene peddle becomes sublime. I can heartily recommend a moonlit cycle from Hackney to Smithfield Market. Should you wish to distract yourself with a trip to Fabric or the superb Jerusalem Tavern when you get there then that is up to you…but the architecture-in-motion of the City, the Barbican, Clerkenwell or whatever route you choose to take is phenomenal. Plus at the end of it you get to wander around one of London’s nocturnal delights, Smithfield Meat Market. Even in darkness the capital is concerned about its pounds of flesh. Pescetarian gadabouts might like to set a course for the pre-dawn marvel of Billingsgate Fish Market.

Much like Huey Lewis didn’t need no credit card to ride the Love Train, you don’t need two wheels to enjoy this ride though. London by-night is the perfect setting for the budding flanĂȘur– be it endless quiet lit nooks and crannies, or centuries of grandeur, innovation, tribute and awe, or just the incremental timeline of the skyline – all of it set to an almost peace made starkly precious by the contrast of the light-induced hubbub. It might be for the brave-hearted, and not for the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, but a walk through the city at night is like a long reviving exhalation as London meditates before the chug and onrush of tomorrow. You might even bump into Will Self. Never before have I experienced such calmness cocktailed with a twist of media-induced fear as when walking home at night in Hackney. And never does tomorrow feel further away as when you see it born. Watch the sunrise here - this City that twinkled long before you, will rise and fall long after you - and time will freeze for you…until the early/late train/bus yawns by anyway.

It’s not all fun and games of course. What of the army of workers permanently defying nature to provide for those who only rebel on a temporary basis. For starters the glorious and undervalued night-bus driver, forever offering a long tunnel home despite having to put up with this racket. Praise be to the N38 and N55, always there when the bicycle isn’t and booze might have been. So we can get home but who will feed us? I recently interviewed one waiter from the 24-hour Turkish eatery, Somine, on Kingsland Road. This chip-on-shoulder-free gent had been happily helping to feed Dalston through the night for five years. Five years of working 7pm to 7am! That the man was happily married with kids should serve as a jolt to all our attempts at finding peace, love and understanding with all these nights to call our own. Then there is the hallowed convenience store. My local? The Turkish-owned shop on the corner of Lower Clapton Road and Clapton Passage, a true godsend, it’s never closed. Every part of London has one as the night can no longer deny us milk, cigarettes, chocolate or beer. Then there are the street cleaners, the bakers, radio hosts and producers, taxi drivers, those bankers looking east, doctors and nurses, paramedics, police, fire-fighters, newspaper deliverers and of course bagel vendors plus many many more besides that make London by daylight tick over.

I’ll leave you with the words of Darren Hayman and Hefner. From the glorious ode to London that is ‘We Love The City’, I still think it’s one of the best opening lines I’ve ever heard and kind of true to this day…

‘This is London not Antarctica so why don’t the tubes run all night?’

Now it’s over to you for your London love, what are your starry London remembrances? Any night-buses of note or secret stargazing vantage points? Or do you know any unsung heroes of the night that make London love the dark?

Friday, 22 January 2010

London Loves.....Foxes

by Lu-Dos-Tres
(creator of
the crossfrontier blog )

London loves foxes and foxes love London. They’re everywhere, from sprawling suburbs dotted with parks, to the concrete jungles of inner city estates.

I remember the first time I saw a fox. I couldn’t have been very old, maybe ten. They were quite rare, strictly nocturnal animals who are, or more to the point, were very shy. In the early nineties, you would have been lucky to catch a glimpse of one. They seemed as wild as wolves and yet harmless as cats. Afraid to approach humans, they would dart off at the first sight of us. Yet their reclusiveness only made them more intriguing. The 'wily old fox' saying casts them as the embodiment of cunning. Indeed, what could be more cunning than the fox; a cute little animal that strikes only to eat pet rabbits under the cover of darkness when no one is looking?

But the funny thing is, no one ever blamed foxes for their pillaging. They were untouchable. If a rabbit was eaten, it was the fault of whoever left the latch open on the rabbit hutch. Foxes had somehow managed to muster political clout in (sub)urban households, and even right up to the upper echelons of the Houses of Parliament.

Seriously. By the end of the nineties, the country was up in arms as people came out on to the streets to defend foxes. The citizens of London in particular, protested, en masse, at the inhumane sport of fox hunting. They derided its cruelty to foxes and the pleasure it gave to old-fashioned country gentry. In turn, country folk descended on London to defend their way of life, and decry city people as ignorant. It was a heated polemic, featuring physical violence and police arrests. It finally ended with the outright banning of fox hunting in 2004.

OK, so maybe the ban was not strictly down to the cunning of the fox. But, it must be said, that their popular image definitely played a part. What if, for example, it had been rabbit-killing rats that the hounds and huntsmen chased down and savaged; would we have protested then? No we wouldn’t.

Foxes seem to know about the media game and working it to their own ends. Their media savviness can even be traced back to the 60s. They worked their way into the dictionary, with ‘foxy’ a slang synonym for ‘sexually appealing, exciting, attractive.’ You’ve got to admit that was a masterstroke by the fox’s PR people. The definition has endured the test of time and has been propounded by artists such as Foxy Brown (pictured right), and more recently the Fleet Foxes – not that they’re sexy.

Its penetration doesn’t stop at the English language or the music industry either. Like most people, my first image of the fox came not from a real fox at all but a cartoon fox; Disney’s Robin Hood film. Remember? Robin Hood as a fox, King John a Lion, the King’s soldiers all rhinos. Classic. I loved it.

Then there were the Animals of Farthing Wood! Featuring on children’s television from 1992 to 1995. Another classic. Again the foxes leading the show were moral crusaders against… erm... the baddies of the forest?! Or something…

Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox. Where we all rooted for the fox to triumph.

Fellow brethren of my generation, I think we have been mightily brainwashed.

Oh well.

The fox is having the last laugh. Immune to hunts in the country, they’ve come to urban centres in search for more excitement. Fox immigration is high. Local communities all over the capital have reported rises in fox numbers.

Inevitably, fox crime has got worse. I don’t know about you, but when I was a boy, I never saw rubbish bins half emptied out in the street. Now I see the remains of last night’s supper strewn across the front lawn, week in week out.

I’m no expert fox criminologist, but I blame it on the young‘uns. The fox cub hoodies. The first generation to have grown up free of the fear of the hunt, and the associated discipline that that enforces. Quite an astonishing behavioural trait adaption.

They’re certainly not shy anymore, that’s for sure. Only last month, a fox was spotted shooting down the escalator at Walthamstow Tube Station. TFL ticket inspectors did not let it continue its journey… it blatantly hadn’t topped up its Oyster card.

It did, however, come coolly came back up the escalator, where Kate Gray managed to capture this magnificent photo on her mobile:

Photo: copyright Barcroft Media

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

London Loves.....Music (pt II)

Hello London lovers,

Just a very quick part II on music; my favourite subject in the entire world. Apart from sex. But I'll save that for another blog.

Anybody who knows me knows that I'm a little bit obsessed with this Lily Allen tune. I also absolutely adore this original video. The one where she rides around London on her little bike. It fits the bouncy, Brazilian-tinged, sunshine music perfectly. God knows why her record company decided she needed a more flashy, mainstream, over produced video when the song became a hit.

There are many London-themed songs. London by The Smiths, London Loves (obviously) by Blur, London Calling by The Clash, 'A' Bomb In Wardour Street by The Jam, I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea by Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Hairdresser On Fire by Morrissey, Dagenham Dave by The Stranglers, Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks, London Bye Ta Ta by David Bowie, It's A London Thing by Scott Garcia (still sounding brilliant) and of course the seminal London Is The Place For Me by Lord Kitchener.

But Lily's 'LDN' is my favourite of them all because it is so ultimately positive about the capital in the face of the underlying terrors creeping beneath the shiny Cockney veneer and it brings a smile to my face whenever I hear it.

...One thing I still have trouble with however. At 1min 47secs in the video above (and again repeated in the outro starting at 2mins 25secs, Ms Allen can be heard underneath the main vocal singing (or rather listing) in 4-4 time, a quiet, half-spoken ode to different areas of London. I only actually noticed this when listening to it through headphones recently. On a stereo it's almost inaudible. Even on headphones it's difficult to correctly identify all of the place names. I've got most of them but could do with some help. If you know what she says, please tell me!

Here's what I think she says, correct me if I'm wrong:
Enfield (could be Earlsfield?), Dalston, Stockwell, Clapton, Soho, Ladbroke Grove (could be Lambeth, Bow?). Camden, Brixton, Hackney, Tottenham, Chiswick, Old Kent Road (could be Aldgate, Bow?)

Whatever she says, it's genius. Listen to it and listen to it loud. Then listen to it again, just to be on the safe side. x