Jay Foreman’s back with a long-awaited tenth episode of Unfinished London. This one follows up on Why does London have 32 boroughs? and looks deeper into the complexities of the partially-devolved local government of London.
When the Woolwich foot tunnel closed for repairs in 2011, it should have been a routine job. The pathway had been providing pedestrians with a quick route beneath the Thames since 1912. A century on, a few minor improvements were necessary. Contractors were hired to plug holes, improve access and bring communications capabilities into the 21st Century: swapping leaky tiles for a leaky feeder.
But Woolwich residents will recall that the refurb of this much loved and much used walkway did not go according to plan. When it finally re-opened it was 8 months behind schedule, having been closed for more than a year and a half. What the average Woolwich dweller doesn’t know, however, are the unusual circumstances behind this delay.
Despite being only a short journey away (made even shorter by the new railway station that appeared near by house last year), I rarely find myself in London. But once in a while a week comes along when I feel like I’m there all the time.
On Friday of last week, Ruth, JTA and I took one of the London Transport Museum‘s Hidden London tours. Back in 2011 we took a tour of Aldwych Tube Station, probably the most well-known of the London Underground’s disused stations, and it was fantastic, so we were very excited to be returning for another of their events. This time around, we were visiting Euston Station.
But wait, you might-well say: Euston station isn’t hidden nor disused! And you’d be right. But Euston’s got a long and convoluted history, and it used to consist of not one but three stations: the mainline station and two independent underground stations run by competing operators. The stations all gradually got connected with tunnels, and then with a whole different set of tunnels as part of the redevelopment in advance of the station’s reopening in 1968. But to this day, there’s still a whole network of tunnels underneath Euston station, inaccessible to the public, that are either disused or else used only as storage, air vents, or cable runs.
A particular highlight was getting to walk through the ventilation shaft that draws all of the hot air out of the Victoria Line platforms. When you stand and wait for your train you don’t tend to think about the network of tunnels that snake around the one you’re in, hidden just beyond the grills in the ceiling or through the doors at the end of the platforms. I shot a video (below) from the shaft, periodically looking down on the trains pulling in and out below us.
Our host tried to win me over on the merits of working for Twitter (they’re recruiting heavily in the UK, right now), and you know what – if I were inclined towards a commute as far as London (and I didn’t love the work I do so much) – I’d totally give that a go. And not just because I enjoyed telling an iPad what I wanted to drink and then having it dispensed minutes later by a magical automated hot-and-cold-running-drinks tap nearby.
And that’s not even all of it. This coming Thursday, I’m back in London again, this time to meet representatives from a couple of charities who’re looking at rolling out Three Rings. In short: having a direct line to London on my doorstep turns out to be pretty useful.
The Great Smog of London, or Great Smog of 1952, was a severe air-pollution event that affected the British capital of London in early December 1952. A period of cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants—mostly arising from the use of coal—to form a thick layer of smog over the city. It lasted from Friday, 5 December to Tuesday, 9 December 1952 and then dispersed quickly when the weather changed.
I spent the weekend of my birthday working in London, alongside the Squiz team, who make the CMS that forms the foundation of most of the public-facing websites of the Bodleian Libraries. We’d originally scheduled this visit for a different week, but – in that way that projects sometimes do – the project got juggled about a bit and so I found myself spending the week of my birthday away from home.
But on Tuesday – my second day working on-site at Squiz’s office, and coincidentally my birthday – disaster struck! Our first clue was when the lights went out. And then, a minute or so later, when the fire alarm started going off. No big deal, we all thought, as we gathered our possessions and prepared to leave the office – it’s probably just that the fire alarm sounds as a precaution if it’s electricity supply is disrupted… but as we started to go down the stairs and smelled the smoke, we realised that there really was a fire.
The first two fire engines arrived within minutes. Apparently, they don’t mess about when a city centre office block catches light. The smoke was very visible from the street: thick grey plumes pouring out from the basement windows. Theories about the cause of the fire were whispered around the assembled crowd, and the consensus seemed to be that the substation in the basement had overheated and set alight its room.
A third fire engine arrived, and – after about a quarter hour of assessing the situation and controlling the crowd – we were told that we wouldn’t be able to get back into our building for “at least an hour, probably more.” So, being British, we therefore decamped to one of the nearby bars for networking and a round of gin & tonic. After I texted some friends to say that I hadn’t expected to spend the afternoon of my birthday in the pub, but that it wasn’t an entirely unwelcome experience, a few of them had the cheek to ask once again how the fire had actually started.
By the time we were allowed to return to the building, it was already getting dark, and we quickly discovered a new problem that faced us: with the power still well and truly out, the electronic door locks that secured the offices had become completely unusable. Not willing to abandon my laptop, keys, and other personal possessions overnight in an unfamiliar office, I waited around until a locksmith had been summoned and had drilled his way through the cylinder and allowed us into the building.
It being my birthday, I’d arranged that Ruth would come and spend the night down in London, and that we’d go out to Dans le Noir, a restaurant that I’d heard about from news articles and via friends some years prior, and always wanted to try. The restaurant has a distinct and quite remarkable theme that you probably won’t find anywhere else: that theme is that you eat unidentified food in pitch blackness.
As our (blind!) waiter, Gao, led Ruth and I by touch to our table, we suddenly realised that we’d all but forgotten exactly how dark pitch blackness actually is. When you stumble over your coffee table in the dark on a morning, that’s not truly black: there’s that sliver of light coming from underneath the curtains, or the faint glow of the LED light on the stereo. Real, complete darkness is disorienting and confusing, and to sit around in it – not even able to see whether your eyes are open or closed – for hours at a time is quite remarkable.
It took us a little while to learn the new skills required to survive in this environment, but Gao was incredibly helpful. We worked out mechanisms for pouring drinks, for checking whether our plates were empty, and for communicating our relative movements (being geeks, as we are, Ruth and I quickly developed a three-dimensional coordinate-based system for navigating relative to an agreed centre-point: the tip of the bottle of our mystery wine). We also learned that there’s something truly humbling about being dependent upon the aid of a blind person to do something that you’d normally be quite capable of doing alone: simple things, like finding where your glass is.
But the bigger lesson that we learned was about how darkness changes the way that we operate on a social level. Ruth and I were sat alongside another couple, and – deprived of body language, the judgement of sight, and the scrutiny of eye contact – we quickly entered into a conversation that was far deeper and more real than I would have anticipated having with total strangers. It was particularly strange to see Ruth, who’s usually so shy around new people, really come out as confident and open. I theorise that (in normally-signted people) eye contact – that is, being able to see that others can see you – serves as a regulator of our willingness to be transparent. Depriving it for long enough that its lack begins to feel natural makes us more frank and honest. Strange.
Back at Squiz the following day, there was still no electricity. Credit is due to the team there, though, who quickly put in to effect their emergency plans and literally “moved office” to a handful of conference rooms and meeting spaces around Shoreditch. “Runners” were nominated to help relay messages and equipment between disparate groups of people, and virtualised networks were established across the city. I laughed when I discovered that Squiz’s old offices had been in an old fire station.
Before long, the folks I’d been working with and I were settled into a basement meeting room in a nearby café, running a stack of Mac desktops and laptops from a monumental string of power strips, and juggling an Internet connection between the café’s WiFi and a stack of Mifi-like devices. We were able to get on with our work, and the day was saved, all thanks to some smart emergency planning. Later in the week, a generator was deployed outside the building and we were able to return to normal desks, but the quick-thinking of the management ensured that a minimum of disruption was caused in the meantime.
Not one to waste the opportunity to make the most of being in London for a week, I spent another of my evenings out with Bryn. He and I went out to the Free Fringe Fundraiser, which – despite a notable absence of Peter Buckley Hill, who had caught a case of the then-dominating norovirus – was still a great deal of fun. It was particularly pleasing to get to see Norman Lovett in the flesh: his particular brand of surrealist anti-humour tickles me mercilessly.
So what could have been “just another business trip” turned into quite the adventure, between fires and birthdays and eating-in-the-dark and comedy. If only it hadn’t taken me two months to finish writing about it…
I gather that we’re going to be deploying surface-to-air missiles in London during the Olympic Games this year. I can’t help but feel that this could be a really bad idea.
Do we really want to shoot down an aircraft over one of the areas of highest population density in the country? Even if you know that AirBus is exclusively filled with evil, nasty terrorists, I’m not sure that raining burning aircraft onto the city is necessarily an improvement.
Furthermore, is the solution to terrorism in Britain really to put even more dangerous weapons into the affected area? Isn’t there a risk that these powerful rocket-propelled explosives could be turned against our own targets?
I’m sure that somebody must know what they’re doing. I’m just not convinced that it’s the people making the decisions.
This weekend, Ruth & I went to London for a short course in massage. After hitting up a couple of geocaches in the beautiful Holland Park, we trotted into Notting Hill and met up with the woman who was to show us a variety of different ways to massage a variety of different body parts. “This is going to hurt,” the instructor warned us, as we sat ourselves down alongside the other two students – a Spanish couple about ten years older than us – and introduced ourselves. “We’re going to be experimenting with the extremes of hard and soft pressure to understand when each are useful and to find the middle ground. If you don’t wince at least once during that process, then your partner is doing it wrong.” She wasn’t kidding. At one point, I remember musing over whether the instructor might run an S&M dungeon on her days off. I think it was right after she said, “Come on; I want to see red marks!”
Feet, hands, shoulders, heads, backs… we took a tour of the body, swapping over from time to time to alternate who was the masseur and who was the… masseuee? Apparently I was the star pupil and picked it up quickly, but I may have had an unfair advantage because I’ve got “just the right kind of thumbs” for massage – they’re fat and straight, which is apparently ideal. So if the world of software goes belly-up when we someday invent computers that can program themselves, at least I now know that I could retrain as a massage therapist.
It’s a profession for which I’ve discovered a new-found respect. Massage is hard. Surprisingly harder than it looks. Despite her slender arms and shoulders, our trainer had a hell of a grip and a lot of upper body strength: emulating the level of pressure that she was able to apply was incredibly challenging, and by the second time that we were switching positions, I’d begun to work up a bit of a sweat. In my case, at least these bouts of exercise were punctuated by getting a nice relaxing massage (or, at worst, being used as an experimental punching bag), but for a professional masseur there’s no such relief.
All in all, it was a fun afternoon/evening out. We learned some enjoyable skills and got the chance to practice them under expert guidance. Once I’d learned to think of the rhythm and looseness as being similar to drumming (“What is that? 3/4 time?”), I really got a knack for loosening up back and shoulder muscles with hand-tapping. And Ruth learned to do an awesome hand massage trick using her knuckles.
As if we hadn’t been busy enough the weekend before last and the one before that, there’s more that I’m only just getting around to blogging! It was only when I thought about writing this up that I realised how much I’d neglected to write about already (and had promised people would be “coming soon”). So, without further ado; here’s what Ruth, JTA and I got up to last weekend.
Aside from our two attempts to conquer the Dunwich Horror (both attempts were failures, although the second was ever so close, ending with Ruth’s character in a one-on-one deathmatch with a Great Old One), our major event was a trip down to London on Saturday. After all, since the move to Earth, London feels like it’s pretty-much on our doorstep: so there’s no excuse not to take in a bit of culture once in a while in the heart of the capital. Of course, when we say culture…
Ye Old Cock Tavern
We started out in Ye Old Cock Tavern on Fleet Street, because – hey – early afternoon is a perfectly good time to start drinking on a weekend. They did some pretty good chips, too, which we picked at as we drank our pints and watched a crowd gather for a wedding at the church up the road, nestled between the old newspaper buildings.
Next up was Volupté, a burlesque club with a bi-monthly lunchtime Afternoon Tease. We started with a few fabulously-mixed and ludicrously ornate cocktails: only the first of many. The bar staff are simply entertaining to watch
Aside from the ongoing stream of cocktails (I particularly enjoyed the Porn Star Martini – which I’m seen drinking in the picture above – I don’t even remember what was in it, except that it came with a “shot” of champagne to drink before starting it), Afternoon Tease consisted of:
- Drinking champagne and eating finger sandwiches
- A guy dressed as Elvis, spinning hula hoops in ways that I didn’t think possible, to a medley of Elvis hits.
- An extraordinarily erotic, genuinely tantalising peacock dance from a young lady going by Vicky Butterfly. She later returned for a second, different performance; not quite so arousing but equally mesmerising. That’s her in the picture, above.
- Volupté’s special take on traditional tableaux vivants – gateaux vivants: a wonderfully mischievous woman posing behind little more than suspenders and a cake (with a fabulous parody of M&S food adverts gone by).
- Scones and tea
- A Miss. Rose Thorne, performing a tribute to Doris Day; and I can honestly say that I’ve never before seen a pair of gloves removed with such… deliberate choreography. Very impressive.
By the time we staggered out into the afternoon sun, we were very entertained and quite spiffingly drunk. Volupté gains my recommendation, although I shall have to check the state of my bank account before trifling with their cocktail bar again!
The Golden Hinde
Next up, we made our way over the Thames to visit the replica of the Golden Hinde, the ship in which Sir Francis Drake completed his famous circumnavigation of the globe.
Yeah, it’s just a big boat (and not even that big). Ruth was pleased, though, but she is almost a big a fan of boats as she is for optimised road junctions. Of course, not to break the theme, we stopped for a drink in each of the two nearest bars to the vessel, as well as a snack to give us the energy for the next leg of our adventure, when we whipped out our Oyster cards and zipped down to Hammersmith for…
Penn & Teller
Yes, the Penn & Teller, during their 4-day-only visit to the UK (the first in 15 years), doing their usual mixture of magic and comedy in their in-your-face style, in a spectacular London show. If you’ve gotten this far down the post before you realised how awesome my weekend was, well, what took you so long?
- Teller “drowning” at the end of the first act as part of a card trick (yes, really!) gone wrong.
- A whole series of fabulous tricks done with evidently-confused members of the audience (especially the one with the woman they had blindfolded and throwing knives towards Penn, and narrowly missing – it was all done with electromagnets, see?).
- Stunning examples of cold-reading done using jokes randomly selected from joke books, with a predictive “hot reading” twist at the end.
- The thought-provoking ending, in which Penn (between bouts of fire-eating) asks the audience to think not about how they do what they do, but why, along with some clues related to his experiences as an audience member of various shows.
By remarkable coincidence, Sundeep and her partner, Ashley, were also at the Apollo to see Penn & Teller! Wandering back from the bar during the intermission we just bumped into her. As she doesn’t blog these days, for the benefit of those who might be wondering: she’s doing well, still on maternity leave and looking after Vanessa, her daughter (who’s looking quite cute in many of the billion or so pictures she carries around with her on her phone), and both are happy and healthy. Ashley – whom we hadn’t met before now – seems nice: he has a certain rugged-but-cute French look and he works for a very worthwhile charity, both of which give him good points in my estimation.
After leaving the show, we were peckish again, so we went around the corner to a cramped but wonderful-smelling Mexican restaurant for a round of Mexican-style tapas, which was delicious. By this point, we were just about ready to settle into a bus for the long but comfortable journey home, when…
Penn & Teller, Again
…wandering back, we spotted a small crowd of people near the Apollo. Wandering over, we discovered that Penn & Teller themselves were hanging out with folks outside the theatre, signing things and answering awkward questions.
Needless to say, we hung around for a few minutes and got the chance to meet the magicians themselves.
Ruth – perhaps as evidenced by her expression in the photo, above – did her usual thing when in the company of a celebrity (as those of you who knew how she behaved around Lloyd Kaufman will know) of becoming a giggling little girl. She also managed to make a fool of herself by mumbling a question about the stage lighting to Teller, to which he didn’t have an answer (not a result of his on-stage muteness, though: he’s certainly happy to talk in person).
Meeting some of the most fabulous (and eccentric) magicians in the world is perhaps the best way to end a night out in London. But there was one more stop on our journey as we worked our way back to a Oxford Tube stop (avoiding the Circle Line, which wasn’t running):
Yeah; perhaps not actually the highlight of the night, but as we were passing, Ruth insisted that we should get one more photo – for Adam‘s sake:
We got back to Oxford a full 15 hours after we’d first left: considerably more exhausted, more drunk, and merrily surfing the buzz of all the fabulous things we’d gotten up to over the course of the day. Sunday became very much a day of rest (and recovery) – we’re not as young as we used to be, as I discovered to my horror during my last party-sized jaunt into the capital. Exhaustion aside, however, this was a fantastic day out.
How’ve your weekends been? Not as legendary as mine, I’m sure.
Right now, I’m out in Oxfordshire for this a “code week” – a get-together for the purpose of hacking some code together – for the Three Rings project. That’s got nothing to do with this post, but helps to offer a framing device by which I can explain why I was in such proximity to London in the first place.
Last night, y’see, Ruth and I hopped on the bus down to London to meet up with Robin, her brother, for his 21st birthday. Starting out at The Dove in Broadway Market, we began an adventure of epic proportions, backed up by some of the least-consistent planning ever encountered in a pub crawl. At times, the revellers and I were as one unit, moving together through the capital, shouting “Dave!” in unison. Other times, keeping the group together and headed in the same direction was a little like trying to herd cats.
But progress was made, and a milestone birthday was celebrated. Highlights included:
Pub Monopoly is so last week: Pub Jenga is the new hotness. At each bar, we brought out a set of Jenga, the bricks of which had each been emblazoned – using a marker pen – with the names of diferent areas of London. When the tower collapsed, the brick responsible dictated where we would go to next.
The person responsible for the destruction of the tower was required to drink a penalty shot of Jägermeister and be the bearer of the Jenga set and The Trowel until the next pub. Oh yeah, The Trowel. Robin’s plan was that, at the end of the night, the Jenga set would be buried forever at a secret location. As we’d left before this point to catch the bus back to Oxford, I’ve no idea whether or not this actually happened.
Ruth and Robin’s older brother, Owen, had come prepared: having numbered each of his eight pockets and placed a mystery item in each, Robin was periodically charged with picking a number, at which point the contents of the pocket were revealed and used. Some of the items revealed were:
One of the first Mystery Pockets contained red and green face paints, with inevitable results. Also, I’m not sure what was in them, but quite a lot of people at the table started itching quite a lot after they were applied: whoops! Click the thumbnails for bigger pictures.
After these were chosen, everybody managed to get ahead of Robin by sprinting down a tube station fire escape staircase, and hiding around the corner at the bottom. Which might have been more effective if not for the fact that it’s quite hard to hide a dozen people in a tight stairwell. Also, that Robin had decided by this point to “fall” down the staircase.
It’s silly. ‘Nuff said.
People Of London
Our travels put us into contact with a variety of people from around the city, like:
The Moon Man
In Covent Garden, we got a small audience as a result of our various exploits, but this one – persuading a random stranger to bare his colourful underwear to the world, might be the best. In the background, you can just make out an unrelated group of partygoers, about to tie themselves together with a long rope left lying around by a street performer.
The two women at the next table from us in a bar in Oxford Circus, who seemed quite pleased and impressed when Owen tore his shirt in half in a show of manliness. I’m pretty sure that if he’d have asked, they’d have paid to see more.
Jamaican Me Crazy
A busker with drums who we persuaded to play the most reggae interpretation of Happy Birthday To You that has ever been heard.
I can’t even remember how, but it quickly became our callsign that – in order to make sure that everybody was together (at least, after we’d lost the enormous Papa-Smurf-penis-styled balloon, fresh from Owen’s mystery pockets, that had previouly been our beacon), we’d all shout “Dave!!!”, as if we’d lost somebody by that name. No, I can’t explain it either.
A Cornish-Pasty Themed Pub
Seriously, such a thing exists. We almost gave this one a missing, mistaking it for merely being a late-night Cornish Pasty Shop (yes, that was more believable to us at this point), before we noticed that it had a bouncer. “What kind of bakery needs security?” “Ohhhhh.”
Playing Jenga In Unusual Places
Like the game on the steps of St. Paul’s Church.
Racing Around The Transport Network
You know all of those signs about not playing on the escalators, not running up the escalators: all that jazz. Apparently some of the group didn’t think that they applied to them, with hilarious consequences. Honestly, I’ve never seen somebody slide all the way down the central reservation of a 100-foot escaltor before, “bouncing” over every sign and emergency-stop-button as they rocketed down along the polished steel. And if I never do again, that’ll be fine, because I’ve seen it now.
Meeting Some Fabulous People
Turns out, everybody who came along to Robin’s birthday – most of whom I hadn’t previously met – were all awesome in their own unique ways. It’s been a long time since I’ve hung out in the company of such a lively crowd. Thanks to you all for a fantastic night out.
I’m back in London again, this Easter. Expect a whole load of people to get told about AvAngel.com, one way or another.
Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #46:
Go for two days on minimal sleep (a catnap on the train) and maximum alcohol (the secret joy of the London nightlife)… Well? It’s two of my friends birthdays!
The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.