Wednesday, 27 October 2010

This one's for 009

Yesterday I went to the circus. A 'WORLD-FAMOUS' one, no less, which appeared to have forgone invitations to perform in the Tuileries, Vienna and Hyde Park in favour of a week's run on Chingford Plain.

I work just up the road, but despite a couple of us sending out quite a lot of invites round the office with subject lines like 'THE GREATEST SHOW IN CHINGFORD', many appeared strangely unenthusiastic, and only seven people ended up skidding across a muddy field in the dark, making our squelchy way past the little caravan encampment towards a tired-looking big top.

I will admit to having expected just a touch more glamour. I realise this is probably because I have never actually been to a circus before, and my impression of them is based almost entirely on Octopussy. I went armed with visions of lithe Bond beauties in sequined dresses and close-cut ringmaster coats performing daredevil stunts while clowns who double as international agents hide behind balloons and moody Russian twin assassins fling knives at each other on spinning wheels.

At Cottle's, there was just the one clown, with no discernible skills, least of all in the field of comedy. Aside from one rather fine episode where he made two complete strangers entwine themselves lovingly and awkwardly for a photo that he never seemed to get round to taking, his brand of amusement consisted mainly of smashing eggs at the front row, running round the stage with a pissing plastic monkey wrapped in a tablecloth (not as funny as it sounds) and getting fat kids from the crowd to play musical chairs (likewise). His acts were interminably long and regularly interjected between the feats of acrobatics, a bit like the songs from the new album that you have to endure when you go to see a band that you liked in the 90s. When he came on for the third time, a voice to my right whined 'Oh MAAAN!'

That is not to say that the carnival atmosphere was not splendid, and the other acts not remarkable in their own ways. There was an outstanding juggler; a pair of deeply homoerotic acrobats, and one fellow (evidently, from his bearing, the diva of the outfit) who did the sort of aerial ballet thing with the wide blue cloths that hang from the ceiling. The acts were predominantly male, though there were a couple of ropey-looking sisters from Russia wearing wigs quite clearly manufactured out of mop heads, who juggled while balancing quite impressively on spinning boards, each other, or a combination of the two.

There were of course the regulars, like the spinning plates and the comedy car (one of my favourites, though if I were nit-picking I'd say the horn could have played a better tune). And then there was the moment when the ringmaster announced, 'Fresh out of Africa - Mambo Jambo!'

Among our party was a Polish girl who is responsible for diversity in the youth organisation in which we work.
'Mambo Jambo? To me this sounds a little bit racist...'

Such fears proved entirely unfounded, as the four black guys in leopardskin loincloths skipped out waving what appeared to be spears but turned out to be apparatus for a flaming limbo. This device, and its accompanying dance, constituted the main portion of their act, when they weren't having cartoon fights or pretending to set fire to their crotches to a backing track which sounded like the score for the Constant Gardener.

In the interval, members of the audience were invited to pay £3.50 for the privilege of having their photo taken in the ring with a couple of stagehands in grubby Mickey and Minnie Mouse outfits, and at 50p each this seemed an opportunity not to be missed.

So we queued up with the lines of shy children clutching bags of popcorn and light-up swords, and by the time our turn came, the comedy was all getting a bit much. The photographer had some difficulty in getting us all arranged within the frame.

'Yeah, sorry about this', I muttered to Minnie.
'It's ok', he replied jovially in a a thick Eastern-European accent, heavy with the scratchiness of a 20-a-day habit. He adjusted his skirt and struck a glamorous pose for the camera.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

You can't beat the system

Sitting in the window of the 8.33 to Chingford this morning, I became aware of the gentle metallic drumming noise of the semi-recumbent, dreadlocked man in the seat behind me having a slash on the floor of the train carriage.

Living as I do on the Skid Row of Lower Holloway, on a stretch of road housing, in the main, parking wardens and large numbers of the mentally ill, such spectacles are nothing new, but it did make me pause to consider the delights of the daily commute.

I am unusually fortunate in that, unlike my dreadlocked friend, I am not at the mercy of the flow. In contrast to the hordes of the wretched pouring into town, my morning pilgrimage to Essex takes me out of London, and I sit on half-empty tubes and even more sparsely-populated trains, reading my book in the quiet, interrupted only by the Yellow Submarine tones of the driver updating us about the broken-down Victoria line train responsible for the thrice-weekly delay at Seven Sisters. It did concern me that with the end of unemployment, the luxury of several hours each day buried in a book would be lost to me, but in fact I have continued to nibble my way through novels, usually from an era as far removed from this one as possible.

On the downside, I have never spent so long with continuous low-level illness as I have since I began rattling round North London on the red and grey pestilence wagon, to the point that the childhood asthma that has not bothered me in over ten years has even raised its wicked head. (Though this did have the pleasing consequence of a visit to Dr Shah, a kindly lady who has possibly drawn level with the magnificent Dr Ho as my favourite local GP after accusing me of being 'obviously athletic'.) You cannot help being conscious that the fug in the carriages, and the black streaks on your hands, are not good honest dirt or the grime of machinery, but an entirely human foulness.

And this is on a spacious route. The ordeal of entering Central London at rush hour is one that in the last eight years of London life I have put myself through only a handful of times, and compares unfavourably with other life experiences such as, say, anaphylactic shock or walking all morning through the desert without any water. Some people inflict it upon themselves every day. Twice.

As if being a wage slave for the kinds of parasitic, emperor's-new-clothes enterprises that flourish on London's Petri dish was not enough, the poor souls of this tough old city must de-humanise themselves on a daily basis, burning themselves through the torments of a purgatory that does not purify, to access, at best, one of the more merciful circles of hell.

(Just by the by, I was also considering this morning that, should one be fortunate enough to access paradise after death, then the one to pass into would almost certainly be Valhalla. Not for me grace and enlightenment, but eternal winter outside, roaring fires, unlimited beer, food, girls, friends and stories, and no hangovers.)

In fact, several people I know cycle to avoid the underground, and a return to the tunnel rat life holds traumatic memories of an existence escaped but still unnervingly close. Laurence is forced to endure flashbacks to a time before bicycles now and then, through requirements of work or bike repairs, while Twigley, who zips into work in twenty minutes from South London, was only last week describing the awfulness of the crowds at Clapham North station, queueing three ranks deep to cram themselves into trains that are already packed to bursting. To those who do not do it, the fact that anyone could endure such an experience is incomprehensible. No doubt the odds of being an RTA are rather higher than that of being 'one under', but I suppose it is all a question of balancing gambles with mortality against quality of life.

At least I am lucky enough to avoid the worst of it, and my wait on the platform at Walthamstow station each day holds occasional pleasing encounters, like twenty minutes chatting to a cheery alcoholic called Paddy just the other week. I imagine whatever job I get when this contract runs out will entail a daily odyssey into the heart of the beast, so I shall make hay while the sun shines.

Thursday, 5 August 2010


If ever there were a place to truly appreciate the zoomorphic nature of people, it is among the human bats and pigeons drifting round the galleries of the Royal Albert Hall.

For anyone who doesn’t know (I am ever mindful of my foreign and colonial readership), the Proms are a series of concerts that run from July to September at the Albert Hall, where I have still never encountered Hitler’s other bollock. Pretty much every night during this period you can go and see world-class musicians perform to packed-out halls, yet for a classical music festival there is something gloriously proletarian about the Proms.

Tickets in the cheap seats are only a tenner or so, and if you turn up on the day there are hundreds of standing tickets for just a fiver each. Get there half an hour beforehand and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get in, even for a sold-out concert, which is something few music events of any genre can boast.

Of course, with that many concerts, they can play new music and rarities, but they don’t shy away from the popular hits. This shows a refreshing lack of snobbery, but can occasionally be a double-edged sword. The other night, for example, was Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Lying stretched out on the floor up in the gods, you try desperately to appreciate its emotive mix of wholesome American frontearjerker poetry and the finer touch of corrupt, old-world Continental delicacy. You try to take it for the quite lovely piece of music that it is, but overshadowing all its merits, dancing in the foreground of your mind like the cavorting spectre of James Brown, is a Northern pensioner banging on about how he had to cycle to the top of the hill on his bread round, but it were alreet on’t way down. Damn you, Hovis.

Sidetracked, as ever. If you turn up as a ‘prommer’ (that is, on the day, for a five-pound ticket), you have two options:

You can stand down in the arena, which despite its intimidating name is substantially less crowded than your wretched journey to South Kensington will have been. The sound is good, and there is a faintly festive feeling to things. It has a peculiarly English aura of standoffish camaraderie, and there is a notion that you are among people who will happily stand for the better part of two hours for the love of the music. You are definitely at the heart of things.

Then there is the gallery. Right up at the top of the building, on a wide, circular balcony with doors that open in the intervals to let in a little polluted breeze and the soft evening light, you find the lotus-eaters. They lean against the railings, sit with their backs propped against the walls, or lie on their backs on rugs on the floor. Some of them make a nest by a pillar and settle down to read their books with apparent disinterest through the entire performance.

On one side of me last night was a Spanish-looking lady who spent most of her time writing very slowly in a notebook, while on the other side a youngish, bespectacled fellow who wore his hair and shabby suit with the air of a man unafflicted by vanity, lay on a thin wool blanket with his eyes closed. At one point he started quietly to snore, then to my alarm began unconsciously to pluck at his own crotch, but fortunately a surprise chord in the Beethoven piano concerto that was playing jerked him drowsily awake.

On a few specially-placed chairs a short distance away sat a row of watery-eyed old-timers eking out their pensions. Just in front of them the slim, recumbent figure of a girl in her twenties lay in the attitude of an artist’s model, that tightrope between languor and innocence, while her friend, in hippy uniform of linen trousers and a baggy woollen thing off one shoulder, sat cross-legged, hands resting on knees and palms skyward in studied meditation. A man in a rugby shirt and tight jeans jerked his head in a cockeyed way to the more vigorous movements like he might have been a baby bird wanting its supper or a psychopath listening to David Bowie in a petrol station he was about to rob. A bearded young man in a slouch hat padded past him barefoot.

It’s almost like a quiet patch of grass in a sleepy park on a summer afternoon, punctuated by the rise and fall of the music: the increase of activity brought on by a fast movement and the rough slicing of massed strings, or the moment a pianist can freeze an audience of a thousand mid-breath by holding back a note a fraction of a heartbeat.

Some day I will tire of London. But not just yet.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010


There is a phone on my desk at work. Someone told me to be wary of answering it, but I am of the opinion that it’s much safer to answer someone else’s phone than your own. At least then it’s almost certainly not you they’re after. This is doubly so of my current situation, since I am not only a faceless freelancer, but also happen (through the quirks of office geography and computer availability) to be situated in a department that is not my own, somewhere between fundraising and IT.

So when the snappy grey plastic telephone on my desk rang last week I answered it almost straight away. It was an American woman with a voice like the love interest in a 1970s Clint Eastwood film, wanting to talk to a lady no-one had heard of about some lanyards. I couldn’t help her, but we had a little chat about lanyards anyway. After such a pleasing experience I have resolved from henceforth to answer whenever it rings. At present no-one’s biting, and I’m wondering if maybe I should put up some cards in phone boxes or scratch the number into the window on the 8.17 out of Walthamstow Central. But perhaps such action might bring about the end of my contract a little earlier than planned.

It makes such a pleasant change from the days at my former place of work where the corner of my crash-site desk clamoured like a spoiled child with a steady stream of morons and timewasters, angry bar owners, flirtatious PR girls (they were alright) and the optimistic fellow who called once every couple of months to see if we wanted to buy some bog roll.

It occurs to me that maybe I simply used to take my responsibilities to the curly-tail a little too seriously. Yesterday the lady at a desk nearby picked up her phone.

‘Hello? Yes... oh. Tell you what, tell him I’m dead. Tell him I’ve fallen off me perch. It’s all over. Yeah ok, bye. ‘

And that is how to deal with demanding callers.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Alfie with a straight razor

Normally I’m all in favour of making a bad impression, since it saves you the trouble of being discovered as a fraud later on, but job interviews are a notable exception, and I had one a few weeks back, so I went to the barber. And trips to a barber are always an adventure.

My hairdresser has an excellent full name. Obviously the curse of Google being as it is, I can’t actually write it, but it is only one letter off that of a famous Jewish hero with superhuman strength relating to the length of his hair. This tickles me in some small way, (for those of us without much nobility or ambition, a sense of humour makes as good a guiding force as any other), and is probably a large part of why I go there. Sammy (for short), is neither the closest nor the cheapest scalper in the hood, but he is a cheery, worldly-wise fellow (and, by the by, international martial artist), unfazed by requests for a haircut ‘like a Spitfire pilot’. His shop is decorated with the usual black-and-white sample photographs of absurd-looking Italians taken in the mid-1980s, and in summer a cat that looks like a crumpled up feather boa sometimes slinks in from the yard and sweeps itself through the piles of hair.

On this particular occasion I wasn’t the only one with grand ideas about my own projected appearance. Just ahead of me was a small black kid, at a guess somewhere around six, who clambered up onto the board that Sammy puts across the arms of his chair for little people to sit on, and coolly demanded a flat-top. Any child whose style icons are Grace Jones and the Fresh Prince deserves to be applauded.
‘Just a grade one as usual please’, whispered his mum.

Later, as Sammy was working in silence on my Flame and Citron look, a story came on the radio about Ashley Cole’s philandering ways.
‘Everyone says he’s a fool, right,’ observed Sammy in his distinctive Cockney-Cypriot accent, ‘but I don’t think men are designed to stick with just one woman. It’s just not how we naturally are, you know?’
I regurgitated a half-remembered theory from a book that Laurence had once read with a chapter about the relative promiscuity of different primates. I don’t exactly remember the details, but anyway it had something to do with us being apparently naturally inclined to be rascals because we are closer to chimps than gorillas. Lozzer reads lots of interesting things.
‘Makes sense to me’, said Sammy, which surprised me, because I wasn’t sure whether my garbled, second-hand account could have made any sense to anyone. He continued.
‘Most I ever had on the go at one time was sixteen.’
‘Sorry, what?’
‘Yeah, sixteen women at once, all over London. Mostly West London though.’
‘Nice. Did they not, erm… did none of them find out?’
‘Oh they all knew mate. I was working as a personal trainer for all these bored housewives. I used to go over and we’d do some training, then a bit more on the side, you know. They used to recommend me to their mates.’ I wasn’t exactly sure what to say.
‘Suppose all jobs have their perks. Some people get private healthcare and free food and pensions and all that.’
‘Oh it wasn’t a perk, they paid me extra for the sex. I was a… what do you call it? A… a gigolo. That’s it, a gigolo. You know, male prostitute.’ He paused a moment, and grinned at himself wistfully in the mirror. ‘I was 20 years old. Time of my life.’
We lapsed back into silence and listened to another news story about a freak accident involving a falling lamp post in Chiswick.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Touristic information

While tumbling through Holborn Circus and a meandering conversation with my old mate Francis at around midnight last Thursday, I was delighted to discover that there is a statue of Ignatius J Reilly in New Orleans. Not just on account of his magnificence as a character, but as a happy reflection of the imagination of Americans in commemorating an entirely fictional person. And why not? A quick google of his name (particularly an image search) reveals scores of cartoons, fan shots of fat moustachioed men in hunting caps, souvenir photographs and articles verging on the absurd (one page on a current affairs website is entitled ‘what Ignatius J Reilly tells us about Pakistan’). In Ignatius’ status as a cult figure and apparent sage, the fact that he never existed seems fairly immaterial.

So I have been thinking that London should follow suit, and start broadening its repertoire of statues and its commemorative plaque scheme. Currently the only made-up characters I can think of who possess such memorials are Sherlock Holmes and Paddington Bear, and there must be others equally deserving. Just on Caledonian Road there’s a plaque on the side of an ugly university halls of residence (named Piccadilly Halls after the tube line that the poor bastards are going to have to spend half their lives rattling through the sewers on), dedicated to some bloke with an Italian name who once had a store house full of Norwegian fjord ice on the same spot. To me that sounds no less absurd than, say, sticking a sign on Big Ben saying ‘Richard Hannay, adventurer, dissolved an international spy ring around the time he dangled from this clock face’ (yes, I realise that only happens in the film, but I feel the 39 Steps works better including this incident and excluding that unfortunate plot twist in the book where it is all the fault of the Jews). History is all just dubious stories anyway.

They’d be so much more interesting than the real plaques about worthy sorts who wrote pamphlets leading to inefficient public services, or statues on columns of princes who never did anything much apart from gamble, fornicate and get nursery rhymes written about them (bad example perhaps), and you’d also be saved the trouble of strict accuracy as to location or date. I can see a blue plaque on the side of a pub in Earl’s Court: ‘George Harvey Bone, split-personality alcoholic, sat here in 1939 and contemplated the murder of Netta Longdon’, or one somewhere in St James’ Park: ‘Harry Palmer, black marketeer and spy, did not enjoy listening to a brass band here in 1964’. Then of course there would be the classic on the side of the Reform Club: ‘Phileas Fogg, returned here 21st December 1872 after journeying around the world in 80 days’. One to Philip Pirrip in the Royal Exchange might be on the cards too.

What would be really exciting would be to merge fact and fiction sort of half together. Like maybe sticking a plaque somewhere round Senate House saying ‘Joe Chill, murdered near this spot, but not by Batman’, or popping one on the Vic Naylor pub in Clerkenwell saying ‘Gordon Sumner, musician, operated a bar here in 1998’ (though you’d have to wait until Sting died for that one, I think the posthumous memorial rule should definitely still stand). You could even take a more proactive approach in the progress of fiction and history by strolling five doors down the street to the house from which I am almost certain the local parking wardens operate, opposite an estate where bored men in oversized clothes prowl with their incontinent Staffordshire terriers, and putting up a shiny blue oval saying ‘paedophiles live here’. The possibilities are endless.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Square eyes

Another day, another ad in my in-box that informs me that e-book readers are now reduced in price at various retail outlets. I wonder if anyone has ever bought one, and if they have, whether they have ever used it. Not that I didn’t consider aspiring to one for about four and a half seconds while reading a rather fine article in The Week about the best ones on the market at the moment, before realising that e-book readers will not make me cool and futuristic, and are not going to do for books what MP3s did for music.

There, I’ve said it, and in four or five years I will no doubt be eating humble pie. But seriously, why would you spend £200 buying a machine that comes pre-loaded with a hundred ‘classics’ (half of which you are guaranteed never to want to read, because oddly enough all people do not like all books), and that thereafter you have to buy new content for, when books are cheap and last for longer than you will ever need them? I walked into a peculiar but excellent secondhand shop in Chingford station last month and bought a copy of Martin Chuzzlewit, dated Christmas 1927 (and presented, if you’re interested, by Winifred to Florrie), for £2.50. That book has survived 80 years and possibly several children. Alright, so it might have been well treated, but as another illustration, my friend Jos gave me a paperback copy of Kerouac’s On the Road eight and a half years ago, and it has since been read by at least six different people that I can count, stuffed in various rucksacks and even once been immersed in water for a while when Dave’s flat flooded back in 2004, and yet it still lives on. Nothing with a half-life and a plasma screen is going to match that any time soon.

Not that I think e-book readers will fail completely (and actually I don’t want them to – someone with ambition and vision has after all probably spent several years pinning their hopes on them), because as far as I can tell, we are all hopelessly besotted with screens.

The other week I was on a Eurostar from St Pancras to Gare du Nord. Every time I take the Eurostar (which isn’t actually vastly more expensive than taking a return trip to Leeds), I am delighted that a mode of rail-based transport so pleasant and uncomplicated has sprung forth from a nation that has been making trains shite ever since we invented them, but then I remember with a stab of national shame that the French were involved too, which is probably why it’s good.

I digress. What was interesting about our warm train, sliding through the dark towards Paris with its lights dimmed, was that in almost every seat was a screen of some sort, usually a phone or a laptop, though there was the odd travel DVD player. I wondered, (in that way that you do when you have two and a half hours just to sit and think), what would happen if you turned the carriage lights off. You’d still have been able to see, just in an eerie blue light emanating from all the screens, like the sad ghost of imagination humming around the carriage. A sort of blue version of that greenish tinge they have in the Matrix, except that it’s a filter that we’re so used to viewing the world through we don’t even notice it any more.

It reminded me of a trip to the British Museum with a friend a week or so before. We didn’t have very long, but drifted round some old favourites – the clocks, the Assyrian horsemen with too many legs, the statue of Amenophis III with Belzoni’s graffiti, the Elgin marbles and the Temple of the Nereids (both of which are lovely enough to make me guiltily thankful for the colonial shamelessness of times past). The trouble with the British Museum these days though is that you can’t stop and loiter by anything for very long, because you’re always in the middle of someone’s photo. Wherever you turn there are more screens, more hasty flash-past mementoes, and if you happen to stand in one place for too long then you’re spoiling the shot. Less is more, when it comes to holiday snaps.

The most fascinating thing is that nobody is actually looking at anything in the museum. Not with the naked eye at least. They frame it on a little screen and take the picture, admiring the object’s tiny digital self a bit like you might use an eclipse viewer, except that it won’t blind them, and they’re not watching mysterious celestial bodies but pale stone statues, shaped by the delicate hands of men who stood back and critically studied each chisel-stroke, and thought and loved as they worked; statues stripped of their paint and detail by thousands of years of wind, rain, cold and heat that have watched nations rise and fall, and occasionally been blasted to pieces by Venetians then reassembled by more careful men, who I always think of as wearing wire glasses. Nothing takes the romance out of something like a screen.

But then the point is not to see what’s there, but just to preserve it, organise it, label a hundred photos like it with some blanket album title on a hard drive somewhere then forget about them all. I realise this is a case of pot calling the kettle black, coming from a man who is rarely without a notebook and forever trying to record meaningless scraps of the world around me before they fade, but in my defence it’s the detail that concerns me. At least if you sketch or write about something then you’re processing it somehow through your own brain. There are also those people who make very good things on screens, but then they are still processing, creating something from the world and the events in front of their camera, rather then just recording something static and reducing it as if they were converting it into an MP3. Things that are easy to do are rarely worth doing.

Anyway, come 80 years, all the laptops, screen readers, 3G phones and portable DVD players of today will all be broken, vanished and replaced with something newer and vastly better, and someone will perhaps be paying a modest sum for my water-damaged Kerouac in a shop in Chingford hoverport. Bar natural disaster or nuclear war, the lapiths and centaurs will still fight for many centuries yet, and the headless Nereids and their temple will long outlive all the photos taken in the British Museum that afternoon