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.”