Wednesday, 8 August 2012

London by cable

Emirates Cable Car, East London. From Royal Victoria Docks to North Greenwich. 8th August, 2012. 13:43.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Priority seating

The crowded, London-bound train had more or less emptied at West Ham Station, confirming my suspicions that most of the afternoon passengers were headed for the Olympic Games in nearby Stratford.

A few minutes later the train pulled in at London Fenchurch Street – its final destination. The remaining passengers began to gather their possessions and shuffle along the aisles towards the nearest set of automatic doors. A little girl snuck in front of me and began engaging a young blonde woman, who had remained seated, in conversation.

Girl (pointing to a sticker on the wall above the woman’s head): "What does that sign say?"

Woman: “It says 'Priority Seating.'"

Girl: "What does Priority Seating mean?"

Woman: "It means that if the train is full and there's an old person, or a pregnant woman, who needs to sit down, then you have to give up your seat for them."

Girl: "My mum’s old."

This last comment drew an indignant protest from the girl’s mother, who was part-way through an attempt to uncollapse a pushchair. The rest of us, waiting to get off the train, did our best to politely stifle our amusement.

(London Fenchurch Street Station – 3rd August, 2012 – around 2pm)

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Made you look

Viewed from its bridges and from certain high vantage points, such a Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath, the city of London broadens into a series of postcard panoramas. In the thick of the tall buildings that branch out in every direction from around its sprawling centre, the capital condenses into long vistas, offering  occasional, incomplete glimpses of famous landmarks that loom in distance.  It’s often the surprise sighting of one of these icons of metropolitan architecture that first alerts you to the fact that, somehow, you have been turned around by the slow creep between the compass points of an apparently straight road, and that you are now walking in a direction other than the one you intended.

If the grand sweep of London’s infrastructure is imposing enough to monopolise the attention, then it’s the city’s underground rail system that puts the capital’s human geography under a microscope. Close proximity to people from every conceivable background and nationality forces your concentration away from the conflicting eye-lines of your fellow passengers and onto the tiny revealing details lurking elsewhere about their person - the grazes on the worn, supple black leather of a woman’s handbag; the little finger of the Indian lady exploring the maze of her outer ear.

You might, with the rattle of the train drowning out all but the loudest elements of a song on your iPod, fixate your gaze a few inches to the left of the man sitting directly opposite, on the raindrops clinging to the window behind him: The vibrations of the carriage causing them to make a stammering, downward-diagonal transition across the pane, and your own faint reflection, before merging into the rubber seal.

Make these journeys regularly and every so often you will encounter a person whose innate charisma draws your attention towards them and encourages you to look in spite of yourself:

 The sparsely populated carriage of the District Line train, travelling in the direction of Tower Hill and beyond, was showing it s age in an archaic layout and dated upholstery.
A beautiful, middle-aged woman occupied one of the isolated seats near the doors, which in moments of standing room only are reserved, by social convention, for the elderly, the disabled and the heavily pregnant. Her face was heavily, but skilfully, made-up. Her silver-grey fur hat, long dark hair and eastern European features made me imagine her as Russian. She was wearing a thick, black woollen coat decorated with a white paisley design that achieved complexity through repetition.

Resting on her lap was a musical manuscript, printed out over several sheets of A4 paper, with accompanying hand-written annotations and other passages that had been highlighted in yellow florescent marker. Pausing over one section she resolvedly pursed her lips and whistled a single line of melody in a manner that was both controlled and utterly lacking in self-consciousness; it seemed her only intent was to explore and give body to the flattened, 2-dimensional notes on the page.

I disembarked from the train a few stops later, in the knowledge that I had been allowed a rare, unfiltered glimpse into another human soul.

(Various tube journeys – February – May, 2012)

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The long distance call

The Ramostyle building on Noel Street is ugly from a combination of bad design and neglect, occupying a slender gap between two more substantial and better cared for blocks. It is semi-derelict on its lower two storeys, though the ground floor is in the process of being refurbished. Burglar alarms litter the fringes of the walls like lapel badges on a leather jacket: An off-white shield-shaped casing, prominently displaying the Banham company logo; a blue rectangular one with lots of tiny writing on it; an orange/yellow hexagon.

In the gloom of the deep-set porch there is the suggestion of a door, slanted away from the pavement at an unwelcoming angle. Adjacent to it a large plate glass window, filled, in its entirety, by a cream-coloured blind composed of tiny horizontal rectangles, obscures the unevenly lit room beyond. The only clue to its contents is provided  by the murky silhouette of a flat, squarish object, propped up against the interior face of the pane.

Above the window a matt grey sign, smudged with faint vertical streaks of rust and grime. bears the name of the building embossed in capitals and set apologetically off-centre. In the blank space to the right of it somebody has pasted a quintet of bill posters – three in a row advertising the debut album by Maverick Sabre, followed by two for new single by Azari & III; indicators of a city racing ahead of its redevelopers, reclaiming the unused space of a property in limbo.

Beyond ground level a narrow grey facade, incorporating two separate columns of windows on each floor, is flanked on either side by pillars of dark red brick. The windows on the first floor have an empty, abandoned look about them, obscured by grubby, white, vertical strip blinds. On the left these have been pulled to one side exposing a thin triangle of dust and darkness.

The remaining storeys above are well lit and appear to function as offices.

A woman on the fourth floor is waving at two middle-aged couples who are standing on the pavement on the opposite side of the street. Separated from each other by the road, a row of parked mopeds, the glass and concrete skin of the building, and four flights of stairs, they garnish an enthusiastic shared conversation on a mobile phone with improvised semaphore.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Escape Committee

At Leicester Square tube station, a bank of three long escalators bridges the divide between the sub-surface ticket hall and the lower lobby that connects with the platforms.

Currently only one of these moving staircases is ferrying passengers down into the bowels of the station. Of the two travelling in the opposite direction, the centre-most one has been blocked off by a quartet of the Transport for London workers, who are gathered around a middle-aged man in wheelchair. As they contemplate the steep ascent, the disabled man appears to provide input with animated hand gestures.  

Suddenly, with the coordination of a bobsleigh team, a pair of the Transport Workers roll the chair onto the flat part of the escalator. As it begins to climb and the stairs separate, they take a from grasp of the handles allowing their passenger to tilt back slightly, while keeping him wedged firmly in place.

The remaining duo keep vigil at the bottom, barring anybody else from boarding.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Contested territory

It’s a few days before Christmas. Oxford Street has been closed to vehicle traffic between the Circus and the junction of Tottenham Court/Charing Cross Road, leaving it open to colonisation by meandering shoppers and other opportunists, who are readily making use of this suddenly available public space in the centre of London.

Outside the big HMV, opposite Marks & Spencer, a dark green tramcar, plucked from a bygone era, doubles as a stage backdrop for a quartet of young men dressed up in frock coats and stovepipe hats, in the manner of Victorian dandies, as they perform studiously shambolic versions of old music hall numbers on an accordion, a metal washboard, a small guitar and a double bass. Their singer, who is clearly relishing his role as the overly-effete master of ceremonies, announces to the small crowd of onlookers that their next song will be A Proper Cup of Coffee, apparently unaware that trouble is looming on the horizon:

A brass band, marching under an inoffensively-secular, festive standard, consisting of a pair of giant red globes, is advancing at a steady pace from Oxford Circus. As they draw closer the chirpy sounds of vaudeville are gradually drowned-out.  By the time the band have taken up position outside the doors of their sponsor, Marks &  Spencer, the faux Victorian fops have tailed-off in disarray, no longer able to make themselves heard.  

The brass band strikes up Jingle Bells. In a sudden moment of inspiration the four young men rally and begin playing along, their studied lack of professionalism poking a cheeky elbow in the ribs of their note perfect neighbours.

In the aftermath there is an uncomfortable stalemate, with the musicians in the brass band having realised that they have trampled over somebody else’s performance.   

“Christmas,” observes the chief dandy, “is not just about the big red inflatable balls.”