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Happy New Year

This is just for any followers who may still be signed up after such a long silence. Thanks for not deleting me from your list…and maybe I will get around to carrying on where I left off, sometime soon. Have a great 2014.

In the event of somethin’ ‘appening to me…

The Bee Gees’ first big hit and in my view one of their best was recorded in 1967, and made a considerable impact (‘New York Mining Disaster 1941′). Robin Gibb, who co-wrote it with his brother Maurice, died yesterday.* It’s been said that the song was inspired by the Aberfan disaster in the South Wales mining village of that name the previous year, something which made a terrible impact on all of us here at the time, especially perhaps if one had some welsh blood.

Given the song’s opening words it’s perhaps ironic that Robin was personally involved in another gruesome disaster later in 1967 – the Hither Green railway crash which killed 55 people (just down the road here in fact). A London disaster. Strangely I don’t remember it at all though it was truly awful.

* it was yesterday quite a while ago now. This is in fact an old post craned in haphazardly from a redundant blog.

The 1958 house pt 2

It seems to be nearly ours. A few more weeks of legal stuff. I have cold feet as well as hot flushes of excitement – how absurd at my age? I’ve always lived in the inner city (bar one year) so will I feel uncomfortable in a suburb so outer that one can see horses, sheep and even cows at times from ones’ living room? Will I cope with so much land to manage? For a born and bred townie like me the garden seems huge.

Heading towards me there’s a whacking great one-off tax payment to Her Majesty’s Government, a levy which these days is called ‘stamp duty land tax’. It’s my not inconsiderable contribution to reducing her majestic Kingdom’s National Debt, which I understand is a modest £1.6 trillion overall and rising by the minute. In fact the one-off tax I will pay for the privilege of moving house is more than enough to cover my share of the annual per-person cost of paying off the National Debt. So I am paying not so much my alloted notional share this year, but my actual share, unlike most people. Suddenly its not notional at all but truly painful! No wonder no-one but me is trying to buy a house.

All that aside, I am still a little anxious about the major life change rushing towards me (us). Will we feel isolated when we can no longer hear our neighbours through the walls either side, coughing and decorating, and jabbering on their mobile phones in the garden while they chain smoke? Will we miss the comings and goings in this little street, which has a school at each end and thus a huge daily ebb and flow of yummy and not so yummy mummies (and daddies) and their offspring. Will we miss the vast supermarket just around the corner, and being in walking distance of about 20 quite good eateries of an infinite variety of cuisines, and three different railway lines into town (‘uplondon’)? Will I miss having my daughter live at the end of the street, even if she works all hours and we barely see her once a week. Will we be surrounded by oldies like ourselves, with no young couples and no-one with an inadequate income (shall we call it that?)?

It’s all a worry. For I have never lived in the 20th century suburbs, and I am aware that it’s a different experience. We may have to work hard to adapt and get the best out of our new surroundings and lifestyle, even though it’s still in London and not actually the Outer Hebrides.

The City Canal


I have a print of a map here above my desk, a map called ‘Environs of London’. The map shows no railways, bar one*, but it does feature London’s (very few) canals.  This suggests that the original map dates from the 1820s or 1830s.

Two of the canals have long since vanished, while another went within my memory.  One is the Croydon Canal, which ran from the Surrey Canal southwards from New Cross down to (you might guess this) Croydon.  It was bought out by a company wishing to build a railway from London to Croydon and beyond – ultimately to Brighton and the south coast.  When you travel south from New Cross Gate by train you may wonder why the cutting is so much wider and grander than usual for a railway, and this is because that is how canal builders tended to build. The railway uses much of the civil engineering from the canal, and one or two canal features survive at Forest Hill. The Surrey canal is the one that I can remember. That one became a road.

The third canal on the map to have vanished came as a surprise to me – this is a short canal running east to west across the middle of the Isle of Dogs.   It’s on the left side of the rather elegant 1802 painting above, by W Daniel, which seems to have been an early ‘artists impression’ – a picture intended to show how something will look when finished.

I thought I knew this city well enough to at least know its canal routes, past and present.  Clearly I don’t. The ‘City Canal’ opened in 1805 and ran just south of the West India Docks, which were built around the same time.  The City Canal was built by the City of London Corporation, although the project was miles outside their area of jurisdiction as the City lay several miles west. The aim was to provide a shortcut, an alternative to taking your sailing ship laboriously around the great ox-bow loop in the river, where the winds and tides might not be favourable on at least part of the way round. In fact it wasn’t that helpful in practice.

You can clearly see the Isle of Dogs on the map currently at the the top of my blog, unhelpfully labelled “Docklands”  (unhelpful because the IOD is only one part of the great swathe of Thames-side London, some eight miles long, which properly bears this name).

Since 1987 or so the West India Docks have been home to the Canary Wharf development (more on that anon), which has steadily grown well beyond the narrow wharf of that name which lies between the two original dock basins, built for trade with the West Indies. In fact it’s the finger of land in the centre of the painting.  These were London’s first enclosed docks, the whole site being enclosed by a vast high wall, partly to keep out local residents with light fingers, but also to prevent the landed goods ‘taking a walk’ , as we say, with the assistance of the casual labour employed in the docks.

As demand for the enclosed docks system on the Island increased, the unsuccessful City Canal was absorbed and effectively became a third long dock basin. Eventually it was widened.  The smaller basin at its eastern end with its large lock gates is now the sole means of waterborne entry and exit from the docks system on the island. The dock system that started life over 200 years ago remain largely open to vessels although it is many decades since any cargo was handled here – apart from the barge traffic which helped build many of the new (well, new to me) buildings that have sprung up since 1987.

Remnants of the massive 20 foot high dock walls can still be seen on the Island, along with some of the original and very attractive warehouses that survived both World War 2 and the attempts to modernise the docks before the system eventually closed down because the nature of shipping and trade changed so much. One houses the very excellent Museum of London in Docklands.

I might add that the Isle of Dogs is not an island, and features no more dogs than anywhere else, though you can find llamas, goats, sheep, donkeys and pigs. Oh, and a lot of dead fish up at the top end (in the UK’s largest indoor fishmarket).

*The Surrey Iron Railway – the world’s first public railway, from Wandsworth to Croydon. Also built at around this time.

The Book of Mormon

Mitt Romney’s candidacy last year for the presidency of the United States made briefly topical (here) the belief system that is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.  Now (here!) we have the Broadway show which pokes a spear into the side of this – to UK eyes – slightly odd branch of Christianity, a cult based on the notion that there is a whole third testament  that somehow got left out of the Bible, thereby wilfully concealing the role that North America played in the Bible story.  The show opens here this week, and I was very pleased to get a ticket to the very first performance in front of a London audience – the first full dress rehearsal for the hottest musical of the year.

It is funny, sharp, amazingly energetically danced and sung and glitch-free – apart from one dancer’s hat falling off. It’s certainly not a show for sensitive souls, for anyone from a certain African country that might be feeling a bit sensitive, or those who think it’s wrong to take the mickey out of organised religion and its more gullible adherents, or to treat Christianity with none of the circumspection afforded to Islam. If you think female genital mutilation is no laughing matter, you too had better brace yourself.

I was uneasy at some of the big laughs at things that are, in the cold light of day,  just not funny. I’d rather one or two lines were rewritten to be clever or witty instead of shocking.  I know it’s harder to be witty!  But I laughed too, even if I sometimes wondered at myself for doing so. (Did they just say that, really?)   But it’s a good show, a wonderful send up of the musical genre and the USA. If you like The Producers you will overcome your doubts about some of the laughs and be swept along by the sheer energy and fun.  And those Mormon boy-elders sure look pretty…if you like that kind of thing!

50 years of London

I have lived continuously in London for exactly 50 years now, plus a year when I was a bit younger. Unlike my daughter, I am not a real Londoner; but I can say that I am an honorary Londoner, and on my mother’s side they all I think were Londoners, going back for perhaps 150 years, or more if I can find the energy and drive to research the family history to the back of beyond.

No other place feels more like home to me. In fact my real home town, Cardiff, feels a bit strange and I do not feel at all at home when I am there but instead slightly uncomfortable and distinctly foreign. My accent is wrong for Cardiff, my height, my colouring too;  and I do not entirely know my way around even the town centre, compact thought it is compared to London’s, which if one takes the Circle Line as a boundary is about 9 kilometres across – perhaps 6 miles.  I wouldn’t be surprised if central London alone was far bigger than the whole of greater Cardiff.

It may have been here long before the Romans arrived, but London is only 50 years old in one sense – which is that the present boundaries were established by the London Government Act of 1963. Strictly speaking though, the newly enlarged entity didn’t come into effect until a year or two later.

Greater London, like perhaps any great metropolis, consists largely of hundreds of small towns, villages and hamlets, engulfed by the spread of housing that filled in all the fields, orchards, claypits, piggeries, water meadows  and woods that once lay in between them. Many London suburbs still have at heart a central shopping street that is recognisably a village high street, and one may even sometimes find a few old cottages surviving intact from an earlier era in the outer areas,  though most were destroyed by the relentless demands of the original speculative development, and by all the development pressures since.  There are lanes and greens surviving in the road names and place names, even if no trace of those features exists now. Near me is a Verdant Lane, which is anything but. And yet it meanders slightly as it climbs a gentle rise, and with a bit of imagination the endless houses can be made to melt away and instead hedgerows and ditches, cows and neat rows of carrots line the road in place of the 4×4’s, wheelie bins, and anonymous white vans that nowadays fill our London gardens, having eliminated most of the vegetation that our parents would have carefully nurtured of a Sunday afternoon.

Man plays a woman pretending to be man

When not playing Richard III at the Apollo recently, Mark Rylance appeared in a parallel production by the same company on the same stage and using the same set.  I am not sure the company did both plays on the same day (extraordinary if they did, amazing even if they didn’t) but the two pieces were certainly done many times a week each for a whole season, now sadly just ended.

If you hadn’t guessed already, the second play was Twelfth Night. As this was a production in the Elizabethan style, the female roles were played by chaps. As there are rather a lot of restrictions on stage performances by school-aged actors, adult men played the female roles rather than the teenaged boys that the Elizabethans would expected to see on stage (acting was no job for a respectable woman until the mid-20th century). The plot calls for a girl to pretend to be her own lost brother in order to gain access to court, and a huge amount of misunderstandings and fun arise as a result, only compounded by the fact that the female parts are acted by males.  Mark Rylance once again plays a blinder, with a terrific performance as Milady who falls for the young man, who is of course the girl, played by a bloke.  If you are confused by this description, you should see the play.

So not only was Richard III ending on the West End stage just as the long lost remains of the real Richard hit the world’s headlines, Twelfth Night ended just after the House of Commons voted to allow those of the same sex to marry. So Milady could nowadays have married her boy lover, even though she was a chap and he was a chap too.  Shakespeare is nothing if not topical, 400 years on…

On the tube to the theatre, a man gave up his seat to me. Tonight a small child of two whom I had never met addressed me as ‘grandpa’!  Just what is going on? I thought I was more or less sixteen, as always…


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