Friday, 12 August 2011

London Loves.....A New Pair of Trainers

Many esteemed writers have had their say on the London riots. Most of the comment has been eloquent and heartfelt but few have really been able to put themselves inside the heads of the rioting kids. Instead I feel we ought to listen to the kids themselves - the products of this environment. And to those who grew up in the area where the whole thing exploded.

I left off for a while for things to simmer down before wording my response. Partly because the whole thing was at turns depressing, confusing, sad and at times even comical. Partly because I didn't quite know what to say. This blog is about the things London loves after all. And the vast majority of Londoners really did not love these riots. In some quarters there has been genuine hatred directed towards the looters; an incredulity and sheer disbelief at what was happening on our beloved streets, to our beloved shops, communities, buildings, houses and citizens.

The hate-filled, angry responses towards the looters did not surprise me. These responses came from people who have voices, people who index highly within the social networking sphere and aren't shy about tweeting and facebooking their disgust. Middle class, relatively affluent people, some with young children, most with a mortgage and a comfortable job. People with nice things furnishing their houses and disposable income in the bank to buy more stuff to adorn their homes (even if it means going further into our overdrafts....tut tut). People like me, people like you.

What I've tried to imagine over and over in the last few days as I saw kids smashing in the windows of JD Sports in my own beloved Wood Green (where the real looting of commercial high street premises began) was "if I was a 14 year old kid right now, would I be doing this?" The answer is no I don't think I would.

Yes I was angry and anarchistic as a kid, yes I didn't have the trainers and computer games that I wanted but I didn't grow up in poverty dependent on parents who were dependent on benefits, alcohol or drugs. And I didn't therefore have that sense of helplessness unique to poverty.

Many of the Londoners expressing disgust at what happened this week have probably never been inside a council flat. Not to generalise about council flats, but they are often sparsely furnished, undecorated, chilly and damp. This might sound like a 1980s cliche. It's still true now in at least 50% of cases even in spite of the amazing work done to social housing schemes under New Labour.

My response I suppose needs to be broken down piece by piece because the London riots were not a singular entity but a hotch potch of strange events triggering echoes in different suburbs. Wood Green, a place where I lived for 20 years of my life until moving out a matter of weeks ago is not a rough area. It is poor yes, multicural certainly. But people are generally happy and treat each other with respect. There is however a difficult relationship going on within the community. Above the shopping mall and high road there are council flats where families with young children and teenagers live. I've seen these kids spitting off the balcony onto shoppers below, chucking things off, smoking weed up there, comparing pitbull terriers. It's almost a hidden world above the shopping paradise below. They are bored, penniless, naughty and watch everyday as the capitalist machine rolls on and consumers pile in driving 4x4s from surrounding posher areas like Muswell Hill and Crouch End to do their shopping. They watch the capitalist machine they are not part of day in day out. And they get pissed off. And when they can, they nick stuff from the shops.

I'm not here to discuss the socio-economic reasons why they are bored or penniless or want to steal stuff. What I am saying is it's a reality that seemingly 90% of the population cannot understand, and that is where London society has failed.

If we cannot understand children being so disengaged from lawful, civil society that they are prepare to loot then perhaps, instead of simply criticising, we should make an effort to understand and look at what it is in London that is broken and needs fixing.

I would like to draw a distinction however between looting and violence.

While I can understand the mentality of looting what one doesn't have and what one is prohibited from having because of an entrenched system of disenfranchisement I cannot understand the wanton violence towards people and the destruction of property we have seen - particularly burning down buildings.

In the early hours of Sunday morning I watched a 1930's art deco building in Tottenham burn to the ground taking with it 23 residential flats above. On Monday I watched a building in West Croydon burn furiously for an hour also taking with it people's houses and independent businesses. The wanton, almost senseless destruction that took hold of Enfield, Ealing, Clapham and other quiet suburban areas baffled me as much as it baffled 'outraged of Tunbridge Wells' and yet I agree with some of the 'liberal commentators' who have spoken out against the massed ranks of public opinion. The system that has created inequality in these London boroughs - the economic wheels powered by a morally bereft banking system, supported by complacent politicians who further alienate the youth by closing youth centres and pricing them out of an education system increasingly aimed only at the privileged few - these are the things that should outrage people. And we should all be outraged at ourselves and our own complacency for failing to recognise how disaffected young people are in London today.

Finally, and sadly, the trigger for all of this destruction was quickly forgotten amongst the clamour and the madness. Mark Duggan, shot dead by police in Tottenham, was a black man with a young family living in a predominantly black area of London. Black men on the streets of London are 26% more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. While London has made huge strides forward since 1993 when in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence killing the Metropolitan police were described as "institutionally racist". For many in areas like Tottenham, Edmonton, Lewisham, East Ham, Harlesden, Southall and Brixton there still exists a tense stand off between ethnic minorities and the police. That this simmering tension was brought to a head by a killing is sad. Sadder still was that the furious response - a peaceful march that descended into violence - shocked so many of us. The majority live light years away from these downtrodden areas and it is not our place to cast judgement without first attempting to understand or to reach out and help poor communities.

As with the Rodney King beating that triggered the LA riots, America was shocked by the ferocity of response from the black community. But why? Here was a man being savagely clubbed by police officers only a generation on from the civil rights movement and the end of the Jim Crow segregation laws. Here in London, a place I like to think of as more racially integrated than LA, Duggan was shot dead just 25 years on from the Broadwater Farm riots - an episode of Tottenham life (in which a black woman died in her own home during a police raid) that left wounds which have never really been fully healed

More recently in 1999 in Tottenham Roger Sylvester, a black man with mental health problems died after being held down by six police officers for twenty minutes. The unlawful killing verdict was later quashed at which point his family "opted out" of the legal process.

There are other frequent incidents of poor policing and insensitive police attitudes in Tottenham and similar areas; many go unreported but are noted and memorised by the black community. It is easy to ignore what many of us do not have to face on a daily basis. The policing of these communities still has a long way to come.

The best that can come out of all this sadness would be that London becomes tighter, stronger and more unified. The famous 'Blitz spirit'. This has already begun in the shape of organised clean ups and the wonderful 'Why We Love Peckham' noticeboard outside a smashed and boarded up shop.

Quite frankly, what London needs right now from all of its inhabitants be they black, white, Turkish, Asian, policemen, looters, shop owners, MPs or residents is, quite simply, love.

Remember London loves you and you love London.


Sunday, 12 June 2011

London Loves.....Buses

by Joshua Surtees

Typical. You wait for ages, then two blogs come at once. A bit like London's buses.

This city has a strange relationship with public transport. London apparently has the best transport system in the world and the worst system in the world at the same time. And buses embody this strange dichotomy more than any other mode of travel.

On Friday night after a 3.5 hr epic Ibsen play at the National Theatre we decided, in hindsight wrongly, to get the bus back to Kings Cross rather than walk across Waterloo Bridge and get on the Piccadilly line at Covent Garden. We thought it would be fun. And, to be honest, we couldn't be arsed to walk. It was dark, raining, and windy. And there were loads of tourists huddling under the shelter looking tense and wondering if this was what is referred to as "a British Summer". The thought of a warm bus delivering us jauntily through London streets to our destination was comforting. 20 mins later, the optimism had worn off and we were huddling together for warmth. Tired, hungry, and suffering from post-Ibsen stress disorder, we cursed miserably at everything in our wake. Especially the wretched tourists. At least 10 other buses had pulled up at our stop, offering sanctuary to the lucky few. 168s to Hampstead were abundant in number. The no.4 to Archway mocked us like some kind of delinquent. Even the 243, that masterpiece of a route that terminates in God's own country of Wood Green, where the streets are paved with gold (and general litter) gave us a knowing look as it chugged onwards. The 26, 341, 188, 76, and last but not least the no.1 to Tottenham Court Road; all arrived and departed as per schedule. Later........much, much later it seemed to our tired, Ibsen-ravaged minds, the 59 finally showed up. No apology from the driver. Not even a look of guilt or shame in his eyes. In fact possibly a glint of satisfaction "I've got the worst job in the world, but I have the power to make you extremely late. And cold. And wet."

Halfway through our severely-delayed journey, a ride that had been bumpy, stop/start-y and, in truth, further marred by a loud cross-aisle conversation conducted in French by two gallic chaps, the driver informed us that the bus was terminating at Holborn and turfed us out into the damp, black night once again. Whereupon, Boris Johnson appeared out of nowhere, creeping out of the shadows, slapped me about the face with a wet fish and ran off shrieking up Chancery Lane like an albino on speed.

Ok, I made the last bit up. But every citizen of this wonderful city recognises the point I'm trying to make.

Another 'funny' incident involving waiting for a bus occured this weekend. At about 4pm on Saturday afternoon I found myself once again on the South Bank but consuming much lighter fare this time. Disney's The Aristocats at the BFI with family members including a 3 year old whose birthday we happened to be celebrating and her 4 year old brother. In short, my beloved niece and nephew.

Needing to get back to Crouch End we navigated Waterloo Bridge (this took an unprecedented 45 minutes to cross owing largely to the fascinating spectacle of boats and water and people on boats on the water all passing directly below us). On Aldwych we waited for the usually reliable 91. Half an hour later we were still waiting. "Something must be happening in Trafalgar Sqare" we muttered vaguely to each other. And something was indeed happening in Trafalgar Square as we soon discovered. Suddenly in the distance, fast approaching we saw hundreds, no thousands of naked people heading towards us. It was Naked Bike Ride day and clearly they had stopped the traffic. To be fair, if you're going to be massively delayed then this is probably the cause of delay you'd most likely choose; simultaneously entertaining and a little bit wrong.

My niece and nephew didn't think it wrong though. Just massively fun. Merrily they waved each cyclist past as if cycling naked through the city centre was the most normal thing in the world.

There are many London bus tales from my 30 years of riding on them. None quite as slapstick or bawdy as Reg Varney and co got up to but varied nonetheless.......

I've cried on buses, laughed on buses, been drunk on buses, been sick on buses. Been mugged on a bus, been mugged off on a bus, been kicked off buses and fallen off buses. Cursed bus drivers, praised bus drivers. Got lost on a bus, woken up in Tottenham Hale at 3am on a bus. Lost money on buses, found money on buses. Chatted people up on buses, been chatted up on buses. I've seen a friend (accidentally) spit in the face of a rudeboy on the bus (wind/open window/velocity is a tricky combination to master when phlegming out the window.)

Blimey, I've even driven a bus. For about a day. It was a difficult time in my early 20s. A passing phase. Not one I'd care to repeat. The experience did, however, give me a newfound respect for drivers. When I saw the work rotas including 5am starts and 2am finishes in horrendous, life-disrupting rolling shift patterns my spirit was soon broken. When I carefully considered the thought of driving a huge vehicle containing lots of moody, strange, demanding people almost non-stop for 8 hours a day on London's traffic jammed, polluted, noisy, chaotic, roadworked, traffic lighted, potholed roads. Well, let's just say it wasn't a career opportunity I embraced with open arms. I took my £100 training money at the end of the week and never went back. Even now though I can still recall the driving instructor up at the Wembley training centre screaming, literally screaming at the poor trainees as they attempted manouevres in the relative safety of the training yard, and it sends shivers up my spine.

So, essentially, have a bit of respect for the poor buggers. They may be moody, unsympathetic, rude, bad at driving and bordering on the psychotic. But there's a reason why. Any job where you think "would I do that for a living?" and the answer you come up with is "no", is a job for which a certain degree of tolerance and empathy should be directed toward those who undertake it on a day-to-day basis.

Hmmmm....where is this blog going? What's it's final destination? Is it out of service? Does it terminate here?

I wanted to wax lyrical about Routemasters. The glorious, quaint red beasts that used to prowl our streets. Ding-dinging their way from Clapton Pond to Victoria (the 38) or from Liverpool Street to Westbourne Park (the 23). I sincerely mourned the passing of these beautiful machines. They encapsulated the picture postcard image of an antiquated London clinging on to the remnants of the past. They conjured up romantic ideals of a 1950s/60s transitional period. A London recovering from the Blitz, then swingin', then roughing it through the tough economic climate of the 70s. The band I played in in the mid-noughties even wrote a love song dedicated to the subject entitled 'Death of the 73'. We couldn't understand why something so elegant, so historic, so quintessentially London would be taken away. The main claim was environmental. Which seemed incongruous in the face of how many cars clog the streets. Alas, the green march of time continues apace, and rightly so, but it's sad that allowances couldn't have been made in this instance. Instead the loathed bendy buses were launched. Nobody to this day has a nice word to say about them or can fathom why they were introduced.

The last ever routemaster bus journey took place on Friday 9th December 2005. The 159 from Paddington, passed slowly along Oxford Street with customers desperate to get a last ride, and many a tear in the eye of the old codgers who'd ridden them for years. It reached its final destination (Streatham) just before 3pm and was driven ceremonially into its permanent grave (Brixton bus garage) by Peter Hendy the Commissioner and Head of Buses at London Transport (sorry Transport for London ....I'll never get used to that one.)

I suppose I'm a sentimental old fool. I view change with suspicion. I don't like it much. The newly designed routemaster will hit the streets in 2012 in time for the Olympics. It's a lovely design, but it's ultra-modern. Not a patch on the authentic real thing.

I'll leave you with some of London's best (and worst) bus routes.

29 - Wood Green to Trafalgar Square (this bus passes through some serious ghetto-age and was famously referenced by Johnny Borell - remember him - in Razorlight's live shows.) It used to be a double-decker and I once saw somebody smoking heroin on the top deck as it rolled through Camden Town. Ah, the good old days. It's a bendy bus now. Which is an absolute travesty. A genuine contender for worst bus route in London.

210 - Finsbury Park to Brent Cross via the delights of Highgate, Hampstead and Golders Green it passes within touching distance of Karl Marx's grave. Used to be a quaint little single decker. Now it's a beast with two decks. Is nothing sacred?

88 - Camden Town to Clapham Common. Although I'm loathe to include a largely south London route, this is arguably the most picturesque, scenic route in London. From Great Portland Street onwards it's a tourist's dream taking in the busy shopping thoroughfares of Oxford Circus, Regent St and Picadilly. Next Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Past Tate Britain then across the river and into the gritty, urban hinterlands of Vauxhall before coming to a stop in the delightful confines of Clapham Old Town with its buzzing gay bars, Surrey-born trust funders and Australians trying to buy cocaine and out-drink each other.

73 - Seven Sisters to Victoria. While it has, like many other routes, been reduced to bendy bus status it is still a classic. It takes in the extremes of London, from its downmarket starting point in Seven Sisters through trendy Stoke Newington, Essex Road, Upper Street it then chugs along Euston Road before heading through the West End to the glitz of Bond Street, round Hyde Park terminating in Victoria.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

London Loves.....Raves

by Joshua Surtees with photographs by Molly Macindoe

Photograph by Molly Macindoe

On the 31st December 1997 in the pissing rain and howling wind accompanied by two school friends, one affectionately known as 'Bungle' after the Rainbow character, I found myself trudging down an ill-lit road next to a reservoir flanking Tottenham Marshes. Heading towards a desolate industrial estate, we called the 'partyline' again (an 0909 number connected to a recorded message giving directions to the venue). In the centre of this bleak scene the silhouette of an enormous warehouse could be seen and the closer we got to our destination the louder the thud of electronic beats became. The distant repetitve banging became more distinguishable, the flickering of light rigs began to colour the dark skies, the blaring of horns reached a crescendo. At the entrance a Scottish man; half punk, half new age traveller (as the 90s press liked to call them) stood outside holding a bucket and a can of Fosters. In the bucket were coins and, upon receiving the gruff encouragement "a few quid please lads" we deposited a few pound coins 'entrance fee', shuffled into the darkened interior and were quickly swallowed up into another world....

Photograph by Molly Macindoe

The scene we encountered was similar to the one above, only much darker, more crowded and far more disorientating. The venue, we quickly realised, had once been an abattoir or meat factory. This was evidenced by large machinised meat hooks hanging from the ceiling, huge conveyor belts and various bits of slicing and dicing equipment. The size of the place was almost unimaginable. Each room was the size of a football pitch. Each contained a soundsystem playing either techno, jungle or gabber. Gabber (fast, pounding techno music invented in the Netherlands) is not for everyone it has to be said and we quickly passed through those halls while taking in the sight of topless, 40 year old men in cowboy hats and huge clumpy space boots 'dancing' to the beats. Eventually finding our way to the central area where crates of Fosters were piled in a makeshift bar and onsale for £1.50 a can, we found other schoolfriends and exchanged awestruck greetings. We raved all night and left around 8am the next morning when daybreak had arrived and light ascended illuminating scenes of carnage. The party itself, so we heard, went on for days until the police finally lost patience and shut it down.

That night was my introduction to the free party scene ('illegal warehouse raves' to you and me) and it was certainly an eye opener. Being predominantly a rock'n'roll kind of guy I never got quite as carried away with the rave scene as others have. To maintain any kind of frequent appearances within that scene requires both the constitution of a water buffalo and the stamina of a long distance runner. I had neither. Many schoolfriends however were seduced. Not least Molly Macindoe, a photographer from Southgate north London who spent the next ten years documenting this extraordinary, hedonistic, rebellious underground movement and who has just released a beautifully put together book of photographs taken over the decade-long period.

It features touching portraits of some of our old schoolfriends.....

Photograph by Molly Macindoe

And some astonishing shots of landmark buildings around London including the '50 Pence Building' in Waterloo. Now demolished this building stood derelict for years, a hideous relic of 1970s 'modernist' architectural ambition gone badly wrong. It had been squatted for years and earlier free party protagonists had thrown raves there in the early 90s. At one of these early raves, hosted by old school soundsystems like Spiral Tribe, a young man, the son of an MP tragically jumped to his death off the side of the building. The final send off on Halloween 1999 was less tragic, more tumultuous and flamboyantly raucous.

Photograph by Molly Macindoe

For me, the ingenuity and imagination the rave organisers showed in picking the London locations is what made the scene so special. These were buildings lying empty in ruins. Filthy, devoid of electricity supplies or running water, windows broken, utterly neglected and destined to stay like that for years. Soundsystems such as Crossbones transformed these spaces into living, breathing, mind altering events full of colour, energy and sound. Very, very loud sound. From derelict Victorian warehouses such as the one on Beachy Road in Hackney Wick where the party lasted for 13 weeks...

Photograph by Molly Macindoe modern developments such as Millharbour on the Isle of Dogs, formerly housing the head offices of the 'Fantasy X' porn channel....

Photograph by Molly Macindoe

And perhaps the greatest rave of all in a 20 storey disused office block on Shoreditch High Street....

Photograph by Molly Macindoe

This party took place on the eve of the new millennium, New Year's Eve 1999, and turned out to be the last illegal rave I attended. Arriving as usual after midnight there were hundreds of crazy kids shouting to be let in. The 'door staff' (again Scottish punks seemingly off their faces) struggled to contain the enthusiasm and, though the buckets were offered, many must have entered the building that night completely free of charge. On each of the 20 or so floors was a different soundsystem and in the winding central stairwell connecting the floors an army of ravers shuffled up and down all night seeking out new adventures, new people to talk to, new friends to be made. I danced to drum'n'bass until the early morn and departed without many of my worldly possessions save for a t-shirt and an enormous smile. God knows what the early morning tourists on the Central Line made of me.

God knows what the early morning commuters made of these ravers in the space formerly known as 'cardboard city' under Waterloo Bridge, now home to the IMAX cinema.

Photograph by Molly Macindoe

But thank god for the organisers, the soundsystems, the DJ's, the bar staff, the doormen, the dancers, the fire eaters and the party people. These people followed a tradition established with the dawn of the Acid House movement in 1988 and the M25 raves in fields around the outskirts of London that gave the legendary Orbital inspiration for their name. As youngsters we had heard tales from elder siblings of Sunrise, Fantazia, Raindance and Tribal Gathering and revelled in the flyers we saw on their walls and the tales they told of setting off in Ford Escorts up the A12 to fields in the middle of nowhere where they would become, as Alan Partridge might say "briefly mindless".

The Criminal Justice Bill legislation arrived in 1994 under John Major's government, putting an end to impromptu outdoor gatherings of thousands of E'd up youths. And thus the free party scene was born. Out of a need to dance. A need to rave. A need to reject heavy handed governance and establish a vibrant subculture. As a reaction to the commercialised, sanitised rip-off that the live music scene in London has become.

Thank god that Londoners love to rave.

Out Of Order by Molly Macindoe is out now published by Tangent books priced £29.99
See Out of Order picture gallery on

Sunday, 23 January 2011

London Loves.....The Veil

Photograph: Shannon Dermot Friel

Ten years ago I worked as an apprentice telecommunications engineer. It involved a fair amount of driving around London from site to site (usually telephone exchanges in office blocks around the city; Old Street, Southwark, Docklands etc.) One day, on Commercial Road I saw, possibly for the first time in my life, a group of girls all of whose faces were covered by niqabs (the full face veil).

They were clearly girls and not women as they had their school bags overflowing with books and were chattering to each other in that excitable way schoolgirls do when waiting for a bus in the morning. It was an astonishing sight and, for me, perhaps the first tangible signs that a stricter form of Islam had arrived in London than previously seen.

This was pre 9/11 a time in London where the term Islamophobia was virtually non-existent. In those 'innocent' days, the 1990s, when racial harmony largely prevailed in this hugely mixed city, before the world went war mad and racial and religious divides became evident even in multicultural London, it was commonplace to see muslim women and men from Somalia, Pakistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and other places wearing distinctly Muslim attire simply blending in with the other cultural garments of everyday London - the turban, the kippur, the rastafarian hat.

How different has it felt for practising Muslims in the decade that has passed since? A decade of overt global prejudice towards this particular religious group. An era of false media portrayals and an environment in which even the former Home and Foreign secretary Jack Straw felt it appropriate to recommend women in his constituency not to cover their faces when attending his political surgery.

How self-conscious and stared-at must young women in hijabs (head scarves) have felt? And the niqab (or burka as it's sometimes known) is on another scale of aesthetics all together - prompting, in some parts of England, outright discrimination. It has become a symbol of 'othering' and a fallacy has arisen around it that assumes it is automatically and by its very nature an oppression of women's rights. That idea is surely too simplistic and hypocritical. It is claimed strict Islam forces women to cover themselves. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states this is largely the case. In London it is almost unanimously a woman's choice (taken of course, within the context of family background and community norms). The hypocrisy of labelling it oppressive is that women of all cultures (British, American, Jewish, Burmese, Maasai, Hindi) are all 'forced' by their societies to wear certain types of clothing - see the miniskirt, the 6 inch stilleto heel, the Hasidic Jewish women who shave off their hair and wear a wig in its place. It is in fact true to say that many men are also forced by their societies to conform to wearing 'appropriate' clothing. Yet people single out the veil as oppressive because they feel threatened by it.

I wrote last year for Ponderboxes on the French government banning the niqab in all public places and argued this was a clearly racist piece of legislation and a violation of human rights. It is worth imagining what such a move in London would instigate. It would be quite frankly unthinkable. It is something to be proud of that all Londoners, not just Muslims, would feel subjugated by a piece of politics like that. Because, despite claims by notable figures such as Trevor Phillips and George Alagiah about the failure of multiculturalism (depressing, inflammatory and unwelcome publicity-seeking comments) London continues to thrive on its diversity. Multiculturalism adds interest, excitement, brilliance and a wealth of experiences and opportunities that are absent in cities where everybody looks, sounds and thinks the same.

It is hugely positive that despite the continuing presence of Islamophobia in our society, Muslims themselves, and particularly Muslim women, have rediscovered a confidence, strength and pride in wearing what they like, where they like and celebrating their religion not hiding it.

This is wonderfully represented in this set of photos by Australian photographer Shannon Dermot Friel. Taken discreetly, almost secretly, but respectfully in locations across London from Regents Park to Bethnal Green.

There are stories and life histories behind each of these pictures that it would be tactless to imagine here in this blog. Instead I find these images provide a reminder of the beauty of the veil and Islamic dress. They serve to normalise a sartorial choice that has been negatively pigeonholed and the wistful, placedness of the women within ordinary, mundane urban ambiences shows how such dreary settings are enlivened by finely tailored nods toward times and places infinitely more intriguing.

All photographs © Shannon Dermot Friel 2010