London Bridge (station) Is Falling Down

Caution: Wet Floor sign

There is a stretch of tunnel at London Bridge station, linking the Underground with the Southern Railway platforms, which is lined with half-a dozen shops of the sort that you make an emergency visit to when you are on your way to someone’s birthday party and you have forgotten to pick up a card. It is dingy and badly-lit, and the clock overhead is wrong for at least six months of the year. It is not a place you would choose to linger for longer than it takes to buy a birthday card.

In the last few months, though, it has become even more offputting. Now, as you walk through, you have to dodge large puddles of water, in the middle of which sit optimistically-placed buckets and the odd “Caution Wet Floor” sign. Sometimes, you have to dart at odd angles across the corridor to avoid being dripped on.

Now.  We’ve had a lot of rain this summer, I know that. But it rains a lot in winter and autumn, and it has never caused the roof of the station to develop this many leaks. Call me crazy, but I can’t help wondering whether the 310-metre-high building which has been built inches away from the tunnel could be at least partly responsible for this sudden instability.

If you are an engineer and can tell me why I’m completely wrong, please do, ideally before this evening when I will have to make the journey again. A crowded, sweaty, stinky commute is one thing. One carrying even a minimal danger of becoming crushed in a collapsed heap of brickwork and birthday cards is quite another.

The perfect baked potato

A baked potato
A baked potato

Over the years I have got better at cooking not gradually, but in a series of leaps that look like this:

1976-1994: No cooking at all.

1994-99: University years. Specialities: pitta-bread pizzas, cheese toasties, tuna pasta bake.

1999-2005: Spent living with a chef. Learned a few bits of proper cooking, but mostly left it to him. Specialities: stuffed peppers, chilli con carne.

2005-2008: What I like to think of as The Wilderness Years. Very little cooking. Specialities: pasta with grated cheese, buttered crumpets, crisps.

2008-date: Sudden keen interest in cooking, wedding vouchers spent on kitchen equipment. Specialities: roast chicken, roast beef with yorkshire pudding, chicken pie, lasagne, apple crumble, sausage rolls, bread, cheese scones.

From which we can conclude that if you want to come over for dinner, you should do it now and not five years ago. Unless, that is, you want baked potatoes. I love baked potatoes. They are one of the simplest, cheapest, most honest and unfucked-about-with things you can eat, and a big one is a meal all by itself. But here’s the thing: I can’t bastard cook them. I have tried every method, and whatever I do they end up unevenly crunchy where they should be soft and soft where they should be crunchy or else so dried out as to be more or less inedible. There is no in-between. Occasionally, like one time in twelve, they have turned out OK, which makes it even worse because it’s just encouraging enough for me to keep trying, with almost-inevitable disappointment each time.

If you have a miracle method to share with me, please do. I will probably make a cock of it, but I’ll give it a go. The perfect baked potato is:

  • Fluffy
  • Not too dry
  • Not reheated
  • Liberally annointed with butter and cheese
  • Elegant in its proportions, not the size of a half-brick

Damn, I’m hungry now.

Olympic rage

I have spent seven years defending the London Olympics to everyone who thinks they are a terrible waste of money and effort. “The Olympics”, I have said more than once, “are the only time when the nations of the world come together in an activity which isn’t a war. They represent the best of human society and endeavour, and we should celebrate them”.

I still think that, but Londoners have been exposed to an increasing amount of games-related publicity in the last few weeks, and I think I’ve finally snapped. It’s not the solemn entreaties to walk or cycle instead of taking public transport this summer (although unless you’re going to refund some of my £160 monthly travel costs, Boris, you can fuck right off with that suggestion); nor is it the utter mess they made of ticketing (although I’m separately angry about that). No: the reason my stomach clenches every time I see one of the posters is the unutterably hideous font they’re using to promote the event.

Look at it:

London Olympics text

It looks exactly like the kind of design I used to come up with, freehand, when as a teenager I briefly thought that I might like to be a graphic designer. It was the fact that my fonts looked like this that made me realise I wasn’t good enough. It’s ugly, it’s difficult to read, and most of all it looks half-finished, like a placeholder that’s being used as a joke to remind the designer to replace it with a proper font before he sends the proofs over.

But it’s not a joke, or a placeholder: it’s the font that somebody, somewhere – possibly, even, a committee – has decided should be used to showcase British design talent on the biggest, brightest stage of them all. I feel ashamed every time I look at it, and you know what? I could absolutely have done a better job.

(Also terrible: the logo, which I have ranted about elsewhere, and the mascots, which are so bizarrely awful that I almost can’t bring myself to mention them at all, but just for comparison, here is Misha, the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Misha, for the avoidance of doubt, is a bear:

Misha the Olympic bear

…and here are Wenlock and Mandeville, the mascots of the 2012 London Olympics:

wenlock and mandeville

Wenlock and Mandeville are, uh, they’re…aliens? In…cycle helmets? Cute! I want one!

Still, at least they aren’t named after a small-town law firm. Oh.)

Sherlock

If you don’t like a TV programme, you should probably stop watching after the first episode, rather than keep watching and getting a bit crosser each time. Although, actually, I quite liked the first episode of Sherlock. It was the second, startlingly racist, episode that put me off, but somehow I kept watching, even when the third episode was unsatisfying and then we had to wait a year for number four. I can’t really explain it, except that I kept hoping it would get better.

And it wasn’t awful. There was lots to like about it: the casting is uniformly excellent and everybody does the best they can with the script. It looks good, and it sounds good, and it makes London look better than it does in real life.

But ugh, it’s so pleased with itself! The joy of the Conan Doyle stories comes from how clever Sherlock Holmes is, not how clever Arthur Conan Doyle is. It’s a small, but important, distinction. Sherlock is delighted by itself more than it is by the character, which makes it feel all wrong. I don’t want to be able to hear the programme-maker breathing down the back of my neck when I watch a drama, and watching this show I can feel him looming sweatily over me throughout.

(I’m not talking about anyone in particular here, but he is definitely a “he”. Drama on British TV is currently in the grip of a chummy group of clever-clever, white, middle-class men who are all jolly pleased with themselves and each other for being smarter than normal people. Unfortunately they are all quite good at making TV, damn them, but that doesn’t mean I have to like them.)

The problem the programme has, when it gets very overexcited about being clever, is twofold. Firstly, it loses sight of the beautiful simplicity that sits at the heart of the best Holmes stories. This show has more plot in ten minutes than an entire Conan Doyle novel. Secondly, if you’re going to be self-consciously clever, you’d better make sure that you are, in fact, being clever, and this is where Sherlock falls down for me. Quite apart from the dangling plot points and the baffling improbabilities, which flit by so fast that you can mostly ignore them, the show is terrifically excited about Technology, which somebody somewhere in the bowels of the BBC has clearly decided is going to be used as a Metaphor. The problem is, they haven’t bothered to get anyone with an actual grasp of the technology they’re talking about to act as an advisor on the show, with the result that we, the audience, are expected to be delighted by Feats of Technology which in real life are either ridiculously unimpressive or so improbable and unexplained as to be plain silly. Just as The Archers needs an agricultural story editor, Sherlock could have done with a technology advisor. And somebody should have sacked whoever decided to give Watson a “blog”. I put it in inverted commas because so do they, every time they mention it.

But that’s all nit-picking. What I really object to is the idea that the source material needs to be improved upon, when (a) it doesn’t, and (b) whatever description you might want to give of Sherlock, an improvement on the original is not it. At one point, during the entirely nonsensical denouement of last night’s show, Moriarty (wince-inducingly described in BBC1’s preamble as “Holmes’s ultimate nemesis”, as though you can have grades of nemesis) said to Holmes: “…that’s your weakness, you always want everything to be clever”. And I thought: you got it in one.

(I had a separate rant last night at the TV and the beloved about what they did with Moriarty, but since it included the words “postmodern” and “non-linear” I shan’t repeat it here, or we’ll both go away thinking I’m the most terrible kind of wanker.)

Bad all over

A few years ago, someone published a book called Is It Just Me, Or Is Everything Shit?. At the time I instinctively recoiled from such an ungenerous assessment, and I was pleased a short while later when in response someone else published a book called It Is Just You, Everything’s Not Shit.

(I have never read either book; I think this must all have happened during my bookshop years, which is how I knew about them. I am not wildly into novelty books, apart from One Hundred Great Books in Haiku, which is totally worth the £9.99 even though it only lasts eleven minutes.)

But I am generally in favour of being in favour of things. After all, everything’s not shit. There’s this, for example. And this. I called this blog Glad All Over not only because it’s the Palace anthem, but because I like the sentiment. I even used to have a rule about only posting cheerful things, though that went by the wayside some time ago. You have to be able to rant sometimes, after all.

But today is different. Today I don’t have anything to rant about, specifically. Today I’m just baffled and weary: at the rioters who swarmed and set fire to my city; at what seems to be wilful misunderstanding of the causes of the riots by members of the commentariat of all political persuasions; at the rage and hate that spilled out of Twitter over the ensuing days; at the undignified spat now bubbling away between the government and the Met police; at the sensibility that says we don’t force companies to pay their taxes but we should put a student in jail for six months for stealing a bottle of water; at the endorsement of genuine lunatic Michelle Bachman by the voters of Iowa; at the fact that my season ticket has stopped working for the second time in a week and the man at Charing Cross won’t replace it because it was issued by Southern and he works for Southeastern, and, today, at the fact that I used week-old ingredients to make the salad that I had for lunch, and it was exactly as horrible as you’d expect. It’s all just exhausting.

But there are spots of light in the darkness, even if lunch wasn’t one of them.  For every closed-minded bigot railing against The Youth Of Today there was someone giving a thoughtful and balanced response. There was the father of one of the men killed in Birmingham last week, who has now spoken publicly twice and been extraordinarily measured, dignified and wise both times. There were the people who gave their time to clean up after the riots, and the companies who offered rebuilding and glazing services for free to people whose houses and shops had been damaged. There’s the campaign that raised £35,000 to help Aaron Biber, the 89-year-old whose Tottenham barber’s shop was wrecked on the first night of the riots, and the £22,000 that was donated to Ashraf Rossli, the student whose mugging was caught on camera. For all the horror and the violence of the riots and for all the ugliness of the political reaction, there have been some shining moments of humanity over the last week.

So there you go. It is just me, and everything’s not shit. But I’ll tell you what: I am treating myself to a proper lunch tomorrow.

Hello, Sydenham!

A few weeks ago I wrote about not being sure whether to spend my summer swimming at Brockwell Lido or the Endell Street baths. Within a week of that the weather had changed and I found that I had no inclination to swim in the unheated lido when the temperature outside was below 25°. So it was already pretty much moot by the time we packed our bags last weekend and upped sticks to leafy SE26.

I love Herne Hill, but it turns out that almost everywhere else in South London is cheaper to live in, so for the first time we have a nice big flat with an ACTUAL BATH and a SEPARATE KITCHEN and even a SPARE BEDROOM. It’s very exciting.

And Sydenham has cool stuff too! Aside from the unheard-of convenience of a choice of several cash machines, none of which want £1.95 of my money in order to let me at the rest of it, Sydenham has a High Street with proper shops in it (as well as a useful sprinkling of pound shops and takeaways); a corner of Crystal Palace Park as well as at least two more parks of its own; a Christopher Wren steeple in a private back garden; a beast, and direct rail access to almost everywhere you could hope for – London Bridge, Charing Cross, Victoria, Norwood Junction (got to get to those home games), Shoreditch, Hoxton, Highbury and Islington, West Croydon (home of the nation’s last remaining Allders) and Crystal Palace (should we be feeling very lazy indeed), as well as Brixton and Herne Hill. We’ve gone from zone 2 to zone 3, but my commute is suddenly the easiest and pleasantest I’ve ever had.

So I am delighted to have landed in this friendly corner of south London, two minutes’ walk from one station, ten minutes from two others and less than five minutes from my god-daughter and her family and their dog (they don’t know it yet, but we plan to spend the whole summer having barbeques in their garden, even when they’re not there).

I don’t know as many people here yet as I do in SE24, but I have already joined the Sydenham Town forum, and one day I might even say hello to someone in real life.

The lido

Finally recovered from the trauma of last year’s visit to Brockwell Lido, I took myself off there again this weekend. It is a stunningly beautiful place – more attractive in every way than the Endell Street baths, where you’ll more commonly find me – and early on Easter Sunday morning, it was blessedly empty.

The last time I was there, the combined shock of the cold water and the length and depth of the pool meant that I struggled to swim at all, panic overcoming physical strength almost immediately. This time around the water was no warmer, but I’m so much better at swimming than I was a year ago that I managed to fight through the cold and the panic, and about a length and a half in I started to enjoy myself.

In the end I swam ten lengths, which since the pool is 50 metres long means half a kilometre, which doesn’t sound far but is the first time in my life I’ve ever been able to measure a swim in kilometres rather than metres, even if it only was half a one. And it was blissful and gorgeous and I couldn’t believe I was less than five minutes’ walk from home, because it felt exactly like being on holiday, possibly somewhere angular and Scandinavian.

So I went back again yesterday, and it was swarming with children, apart from in the lanes which had been designated for Serious Swimmers (I could tell they were serious, because they all wore wetsuits and goggles and went at speeds more appropriate to motorised vehicles), of which I am not one. I managed two lengths of getting kicked and jostled and splashed on before I gave up and went and sat poolside with a book. And that was just as much fun as the swimming.

So now I have to decide whether I am going to become someone who swims at the lido, where it is bracing and elegant and I feel faintly heroic having swum there, or someone who swims at Endell Street, which is craven and heated and more like having a bath than a swim. I suppose I could alternate, but annoyingly the lido isn’t one of the pools included in my Swim London membership, so it’s a fiver each time I want to go. Am I a woman of action, or a woman of leisure? This summer, I’ll find out.

Talking of things you can do in Brockwell Park, I played bowls yesterday. Or boules, or petanque, I’m not sure, and in any case we played a bastardised version of it because we didn’t know the rules. But it was nearly as much fun as swimming, and a lot more sociable. I foresee more sunny afternoons spent on the bowling green.

Confused of Herne Hill

As far as I can make out, the UK is either about to start or has already started bombing Libya. This seems to have happened almost overnight with very little discussion or preparation, and I am reminded of 2003 and the weeks of protest (ours) and handwringing (theirs) that preceded the invasion of Iraq. The main difference this time around seems to be that the French are joining in, but that doesn’t seem a good enough reason to go ahead and do it without debate.

It’s easy to cry “oil”; so easy that I’m never sure it’s true. But if it’s not about oil, I have literally no idea why we get involved in the internal conflicts of some countries but not others. Gaddafi may be mad and dangerous, but so is Mugabe and so, no doubt, are lots of other people that we’re not interested in at all. But if it is about oil we can’t say so, which means we need other justification, except I haven’t heard any, so maybe we don’t even need justification any more. Maybe we just need France to say yes. I have no idea. All I know is that the effects of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan were devastating, and that nobody is safer because of them. So unless it’s specifically about getting rid of a particular regime without much caring about what happens next, which seems short-sighted even for politicians, I’m stumped.

But then, I am easily stumped. I don’t understand why anyone thinks it’s OK for the countries with nuclear weapons to dictate which other countries should be allowed to have them, as though there’s some kind of ineffable hierarchy which says that the richest countries are allowed to decide what happens in the others. I thought we had stopped equating moral superiority with privilege around the time we stopped believing in the divine right of monarchs, but apparently not.

And I don’t understand why one o’clock clubs and play schemes and libraries are being closed while companies like Vodafone and Boots avoid paying billions of pounds in taxes, as though they and the government think nobody will notice, or that if we do, we can’t do anything about it. But one thing we know from watching Libya and Egypt and everywhere else that’s seen grass-roots dissent this year is that if there are enough of us, we can do something about it, which is why I will be joining the TUC’s March for the Alternative this Saturday, March 26th, in London. Because when I stop to think about it I’m not so much confused as angry, and there are some people I’d like to know about it.

Olympic countdown

I walked past the Olympic countdown clock in Trafalgar Square this morning:

Olympics countdown clock

It went up last night and it will count down the 500 days until the London Olympics begin next August. I walk across Trafalgar Square every weekday, so I’ll be able to keep a close eye on it and make sure nobody’s cheating.

Tickets for the various Olympic events also went on sale today. The process for buying them seems complicated, excluding and unfair, but I’m still going to try to get hold of some, which I suppose is what they’re counting on. If you have a monopoly on a hugely popular commodity, you can pretty much do what you like with it.

It’s disappointing that the ticket sales mechanism is so badly-designed, but not as disappointing as the design of that logo. Have another look at it:

London 2012 logo

I mean, what? It doesn’t even look like anything. It certainly doesn’t look like the numbers “2012”, unless you squint really hard. When it was first unveiled four years ago we were assured that we’d get used to it. Tessa Jowell, my MP and at that time the Olympics Minister, said:

“This is an iconic brand that sums up what London 2012 is all about – an inclusive, welcoming and diverse Games that involves the whole country.

“It takes our values to the world beyond our shores, acting both as an invitation and an inspiration.

“This is not just a marketing logo, but a symbol that will become familiar, instantly recognisable and associated with our Games in so many ways during the next five years.”

That’s clearly all bollocks, but what is especially bollocks is the part about it being “iconic”. When you use the word “iconic” to describe something that looks like this:

London 2012 logo

You pretty much defile its use to describe things that look like this:

Union flag

Or like this:

Penguin Classics covers

Or like this:

London Underground map

Still, at least the London 2012 website doesn’t look like this any more:

London2012.com 2007 design

I suppose that’s something.

The average and unique: a love story

I can vividly remember the first time I heard Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. I was fourteen years old, it was late July, or maybe early August, and I was in a field in Wales. I was at a church camp (I’m Jew-ish, but it’s complicated) where every minute of every day was filled with activity, but for some reason there was nowhere we had to be just then; and somebody – probably Marsha, who would go on to make a career out of introducing people to new music, but maybe her impossibly cool older brother – had smuggled in a cassette player, and into the hazy afternoon sun snaked the crashing chords of Prince In A Pauper’s Grave. My tiny mind was blown. It was the most exciting song I’d ever heard.

So when I got home I taped someone’s copy of 30 Something and listened to it obsessively until the following year, when 1992: The Love Album came out at almost exactly the time I met my first ever boyfriend. By the time the relationship ended three months and four days later, I knew all the words to every song. It was a heady time.

That autumn I got a Saturday job at the hippie stall. The hippie stall probably had another name for trading purposes, but I never heard anyone call it anything else. It was run by Pam and Martin, a proper hippie couple, and they hired a series of schoolgirls attracted by the subversiveness of selling candles and incense in the middle of Bromley, where everybody else sold curtains and lampshades.

I worked the morning shift. One day I was early, so I hung around listening to my walkman while I waited for Pam and Martin to arrive. When their beaten-up old van lumbered up, I took my headphones off. Martin got out of the van.

“What are you listening to?”

I hesitated. Martin could be witheringly sarcastic, in a way that was breathlessly funny if you weren’t the target, but less so when you were.

“Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine.”

“Oh yes, I’ve heard him. Very good at playing his…machine, isn’t he?”

It’s not a him, it’s a them, I wanted to say, but I didn’t. They play guitars as well as machines, I nearly said, but I didn’t. What’s wrong with making music on a machine?, I should have said, but I didn’t.

I expect I just shrugged, not realising then that casual dismissal of something I thought heartstoppingly good was to be a standard reaction from other people for years to come. When I went to HMV in Bromley to queue up to meet Johnny Rotten and have him sign a copy of No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, I was careful not to mention it to Martin. I knew his limits.

Nobody ever liked the music I liked, so in later years I learned to like the music other people liked, and my CD rack grew heavy with albums by Blur and Pulp and David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. And I do like them all. But I didn’t find them for myself, and I bought their albums because it was something people did. Carter will always hold a special place in my heart because for a little while they were only mine. (Secretly, I still think they are.)

Which is mad. Everybody should listen to them. They are brilliant. The tunes are brilliant, the arrangements are brilliant, the energy is brilliant, the words, especially, are brilliant: witty, biting statements against the world interspersed with moments of melancholy and occasional whimsy, firmly set in an all too recognisable South London, and sung in a rough diamond, devil-may-care voice that you recognise in an instant.

I was an orderly, list-making sort of a teenager. 1992 was the best album. Prince in a Pauper’s Grave was the best song. Suppose You Gave a Funeral And Nobody Came was the best song title. The best lyric, from My Second To Last Will And Testament, was perfect in its simplicity:

Give my body to medical science

If medical science’ll have me

They can take my lungs and kidneys

But my heart belongs to Daphne

(No wonder Jim Bob is a writer now.)

The genius of their lyrics was always in taking the banal and the familiar and twisting it into something new. Rubbish contained a reference to Elmers End. I lived in Elmers End. Nobody lived in Elmers End: it was tiny, and people from five miles away had never heard of it, but this band, my band, had made it famous.

I learned to draw the red-and-white band logo, and I traced it carefully across my bedroom wall, over the back pages of notebooks; on to the canvas flap of my school bag. The hardest part was making sure the words “The Unstoppable Sex Machine” were centre-aligned in relation to “Carter”. You had to start with the “Unstoppable”, halfway across the “A”, and work outwards from there.

(Other logos I have obsessively drawn: the grafitti spray of BAD from the Michael Jackson album; the clenched fist of the Socialist Worker Student Society.)

But nobody liked the music I liked, so I never went to see them play live, because I could never find anybody to come with me. And they’ve played a few reunion gigs over the years but I’ve somehow missed them all, and when they announced “big news” a couple of weeks ago I knew they were going to be back again, but the London show is on our wedding day, and we’re getting married in Dublin, and even if we were getting married at home I don’t think I could get away with leaving the reception to go to a gig.

(Could I?)

So maybe I’ll never get to see them, and although that breaks my heart a little bit, it also lets me persevere with the delusion that their music belongs to only me. So I’ll keep listening to them through headphones and squirming with secret delight at every delicious angry joke. I might tell people I’m listening to Radio 4, if they ask.

Should you happen to be charged with choosing music for my funeral, however, I have a suggestion. You needn’t go with it, because I’ll be dead so I won’t care, but at sixteen I decided that I wanted to be waved off to the sound of the last two songs from 1992; Skywest and Crooked and The Impossible Dream (they always did cover versions better than anyone else, better than the originals), and I’ve never found a reason to change my mind:

This summer will mark the twentieth anniversary of that day in a field in Wales. Crystal Palace Football Club is the only entity I’ve loved for longer, not counting actual people, but football’s different because it causes at least as much pain as joy, especially if you support Palace. When you find a band you love, though, your life gets uncomplicatedly better, which is why music is better than football.

Now, excuse me while I go and turn up the stereo really loud.