Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Label fable

The Thames, in London near the Wobbly Bridge, is a tourist Mecca. Rightly so. As I've explained before, on the south side you have the Tate Modern, with Shakespeare's Globe just nearby, and looking north you see an immense view of Wren's masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral. These days, the place is absolutely heaving with visitors from around the world. Welcome as they are (and I am always hopeful that our many visitors all have a positive London experience and leave with fond memories and a desire to return), it can be awkward moving around in such a crowded place. Invariably, those of us who live and work here can be caught trying to walk upstream into a tourist tide. Not easy.

Just yesterday, I was nearby trying to get to Southwark Tube station (Olympic Games visitors might want to note that this is pronounced "Suth-erk", with a soft "th", as in "the", and the stress on the first syllable), but picked my moment badly. I came up against an overwhelming mass of apparently German youths, presumably heading for the Tate, and given that I'm not that enormous and some of them were, I felt it better to move to one side and let the thronging horde pass unimpeded. Who cares if I was late? At least my delay gave me the chance to observe them as they wandered on.

As they streamed by, one thing that struck me was the labels in their clothes. Summer has landed abruptly on London and it's currently swelteringly hot, leading most people (except my eccentric commuting friend perpetually attired in whaler-friendly yellow sou'wester) to don lighter clothing. The swarm of Germans were no exception, and as they herded past I observed a myriad of t-shirt labels, all poking up jauntily from the backs of collars. A young blond lady was wearing a pink, sleeveless vest-top type thingy (I'm an obvious expert in describing clothing; perhaps I should write for fashion journals). At the back, I could clearly discern washing instructions on a small tab of white nylon.

One of her bulky Teutonic fellows was also attired in a vest-top thingy (sigh), although his was green and tight, showing off fine, toned and muscular phsyique, similar to how my own isn't. But he shared his friend's stuck out label, which was jigging gently as he walked. Why weren't any of their fellow group members helping these people?

As I walked in the crowd, a fluid thing hefty in number and anxious to tour as tourists do, I became increasingly aware that people everywhere were similarly afflicted. Labels, present in great quantities in all directions, sticking out of the backs of vest-tops, t-shirts, jumpers (because this person hadn't spotted that London was a sweltering twenty eight degrees celsius and felt that an item of fashionable and snug knitwear was just the thing). At least sou'wester-man knew how to keep his labels neatly tucked away. It wasn't just tourists either. London's army of workers were similarly afflicted in many instances, my favourite example of which was an attractive twenty something woman not only helpfully informing me that her blouse should be hand-washed only, but also that her shoes, retaining their newly purchased sole-sticker, had leather uppers and man-made heels (which I believed because those heels were not natural).

Perhaps I'm no fashion expert, as I've mentioned, but please, London! Let's all try to get dressed nicely shall we? We've got an Olympics to host, and people will see.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Trafalgar Square -- a beautiful grey colour

It's my view that London has an intense beauty in the sunshine. It's not necessarily a beauty that everyone would recognise; not all people are enamoured with high rise buildings or overwhelming crowds or long angry queues of traffic. But somehow the sunshine adds vibrancy and life to this sometimes grey and foreboding metropolis. In the warm glow of an early summer's day, I watched London today, and I can't deny it. I love it.

In the centre of London, virtually smack where you'd stick the needle if you were an overseas visitor deciding to hit London and see the sights, is Trafalgar Square. Its unmistakeable landmark column, with Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson standing atop, commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, and Nelson's other campaigns. This battle was fought in 1805 and was a decisive naval victory for the British fleet in the ongoing Napoleonic wars. Nelson himself, serving aboard the HMS Victory, was mortally wounded in the battle, and thus lives large in the British psyche in that way that gallant dead people do.

Trafalgar Square is itself a grey place, with impressively grand buildings surrounding it, notably the National Gallery (housing as fine a collection as you will see in any gallery anywhere on the planet), as well as Canada House. Also, there is South Africa House, once the subject of many anti-apartheid protests, but happily these days a less controversial tenant of London's West End. Meanwhile, the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is near one corner of the gallery, at the southern end of Charing Cross Road. Here can be heard rousing classical concerts if you time your visit right, but buy a cushion if you're planning to sit through Wagner's Ring cycle as the wooden seats can numb one's behind.

The grey of Trafalgar Square first began appearing in London in the 1820s, when John Nash was commissioned by King George IV to redevelop the area then housing the Kings Mews and Green Mews (where the National Gallery now stands). The square itself opened in 1845, designed by Sir Charles Barry, although modifications to plinths and fountains found their way into the square as you stand in it today.

File:Trafalgar Square, London 2 - Jun 2009.jpg
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
In 1843, the William Railton designed memorial to Nelson was completed. It was topped off by E H Bailey's statue, made of Craigleith sandstone. The whole thing is 169 feet 3 inches (or just about 51.6 metres) tall, to the tip of Nelson's hat. Some time later, in 1867, Sir Edwin Landseer's lions were added to the base of the column.
File:Trafalgar Square-2.jpg
Picture by David Castor

Perhaps the most important thing about Trafalgar Square, though, is what it has in common with other squares in many of the world's great cities. It is a place of the people; it is where people go when they need to go somewhere, and today, in London's sunshine, it was like that. It was a riot of colour, and the grey is simply a backdrop, or a frame. It bustled with tourists and Londoners alike, just busy, doing their thing. But I have seen it when there were real riots and protests. I have seen movies made there, with casts of strangely horrific injured people, perhaps reenacting a scene from the Battle of Trafalgar itself. I have been there when there have been concerts and political speakers, all of which bring the square alive and straight up to date. Every year, Norway sends us a gift of a Christmas Tree, which is annually sited in Trafalgar Square for everyone to enjoy. It's a place where people go to do things, to get involved.

Perhaps you're coming to London soon, maybe for a business trip, maybe for a holiday, or perhaps you are going to join us for the Olympics. When you're here, you should pay Trafalgar Square a visit. It's not just simply about being a tourist. It's about visiting a major cultural centre. It's an important place.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

JFDIY. Or Maybe Not

With car fixed and mobile again (see here for details), it's back to the important business of getting on with my life. It wasn't too painful. After having a go at dismantling the car myself and (after three or four hours of fruitless tinkering and colourful use of English) discovering I couldn't, I called a chap recommended by a neighbour. He turned up to collect the car the following day exactly when he said he would. He charged me a reasonable, sensible amount, which also concurred with his original quote. He called me with an update twice during the next three hours, then brought the car back on the same day, fully fixed up, and exactly when he said he would. What a man! If only it were always like this.

Sadly, it's not always like this, which is one of the reasons why people like me (tight-fisted and cynical) attempt Do-It-Yourself as an option in the first place. I was once charged an £86 (+ VAT) call out fee by a plumber who came into the bathroom only to say "sorry mate -- there's nothing I can do about your busted toilet". He was there for at least two minutes. I'd booked through a UK-wide web-based plumbing service and in the small print I was condemned -- he'd turned up, so I had to pay. There was nothing I could legally do about it, although I have kept my vow that I would never use this website's services ever again. It's one of the largest of such services in the country and, if you're UK-based, you will have heard of them. Be afraid.

I don't know; perhaps it's toilets. I haven't had much luck with faulty cisterns. For example, I had a problem in a previous, and more downmarket residence (London's pricey when you're young and just starting on life's journey). There, I had just one bathroom above my kitchen, and one day I noticed that the overflow was constantly... erm, overflowing. Suspecting a faulty washer in the siphon (I had all the talk, didn't I?), I opened the lid simply to size the job up before proceeding downstairs to fetch tools and turn off the mains supply. All I did was touch the top of the siphon before the end of it shot off and mains pressure water started spraying my bathroom. Oh dear! I stuck my finger in the end of the exposed and squirting pipe, much like the little lad with the dyke. The flow stopped, and my finger began to gradually cool down and ache.

I suppose the plumbing fixture had gradually been working itself looser and looser over a period of some weeks, and it now dawned on me, unhelpfully at this stage, that the washer was probably OK. I was stuck, alone in my little home, with no prospect of my flatmate returning any time soon, wondering how to refit the ejected component without starting a new staircase Niagara. Especially since said widget was nestled neatly out of reach on the carpet, some distance away.

After a while considering my options, it occurred to me I was faced with a stark and binary choice. As I think back now, I hear John Kramer in my head saying "I wanna play a game... make your choice". My choice was:
  • Try to reach the far flung pipey valvey screw-on thingy (I no longer had all the talk) that had been hosed to the other side of the room under pressure, then refit it.
  • Try to run downstairs as fast as I could, and close off the mains inlet valve.
Neither seemed much of a choice. If I opted for the first plan, this would result in water sprayed around the room while I fumbled for the part, then the ordeal of trying to refit the rogue doodah while high pressure water fought right back against me. There was no guarantee that the part would go back on. It may even be faulty. Plan B contained two certainties, although one was very unpalatable. I would certainly be able to staunch the flow, and I would certainly create a big splashy watery mess while on my way to the valve to turn it off.

It had to be the second choice. It had definition, a visible end-game. I mentally planned my route, imagining every possible twist and turn, visualising all the known obstacles. I readied myself, took a deep breath, then ran for it.

The torrent was immense and powerful, as I knew it would be. I felt like it was chasing me down the stairs, visceral and alive. As I made it to the bottom, I could hear the water roaring as it sprayed its way into the bathroom carpet and through the floorboards. I turned through the lounge and on into the kitchen, the aqua-monster now screaming its watery scream directly above my head. I threw the kitchen bin out of the way (this was always the plan -- it only contained empty beer bottles anyway, nothing too messy) and dived under the worktop to get to the tap. It was stiff, but thankfully it turned, encouraged by some of my more ripe and fruity rhetoric (the first known Middle English usage of which was published in The Proverbs of Hendyng, not later than 1325 CE). Then, the rushing sound stopped almost immediately, and the deluge had ended.

But what trouble would follow in its wake? Hopefully it wouldn't be too serious. I could see some soggy looking patches emerging on the ceiling above me. How bad could it be? I allowed myself to feel a sense of relief that it was all over, and as I mused, the kitchen ceiling collapsed. It dumped plaster and dirty water everywhere, and I stood sorrowfully in the middle of it all, newly coated in a damp patina made from my house.

I called in a plumber and a plasterer to oversee the repairs, while I mopped, vacuumed, shed a little tear, and said a little prayer -- "please God make that didn't happen." God had left His voicemail to field calls that day, and never got back to me.

If you're someone like me, you're faced with a non-choice every time a fault develops or some little job requires jobbing. Do It Yourself and risk a gigantic (and potentially soggy) cockup, or call in someone and risk paying a charlatan for nothing. Where there's a job, there's a scary looking toolbox or a bloke with a BlueTooth-attached chip-and-pin card reader ready to take your money and (perhaps) put it right. It's how the world goes round.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012


It's not easy to keep up a stream of blogs. Quite often, things I feel I need to share with you pop into my head at inconvenient times, and I am too lazy to note them down. Then later, iPhone in hand or laptop on lap, I'll be staring blankly at the screen, thinking, "what the hell was it I was going to write about?"

I wonder if it's a sign of my scarily advancing years. I mean, I'm no ancient and crumbling fogey quite yet, but there really can be no doubt that youth is well behind me and middle-age has instead sunk its teeth in. It is manifested in many ways; I wake up most mornings and absent mindedly rub something or other because, inexplicably, it aches. I sensibly drink a bit less because a serious hangover can last for over a day afterwards, instead of just a few hours. And sometimes I start sentences without ever actually finish

Anyway, it's arguable that a blog itself is the sign of an emerging mid-life crisis. I need to vent, I need to share my inner mysteries to a wider audience of anyone who'd care to read them. It's an essential part of my existence suddenly. The air I breathe, the meaning of life. I am gripped by a need to expose myself. No, no! That came out wrong! You know what I mean.

And what is this inner turmoil that I must share with you? I'm sorry, I haven't a clue.

It's true. Today, on a strict timetable of editorial requirement, I need to deliver the next instalment. It's due for publication just about now, and here I am, an incomplete middle-aged nutter with plenty of words but nothing to say. I had something earlier, sitting on the train. It may have been to do with the interesting amount of rabbits seen from the window, or the particular artistic qualities of a bit of graffiti, but the moment's passed, I never wrote it down, and I just can't be sure. I am even fascinated that the spellchecker just amended a mistyped "sure" to "suede", which then got me thinking about the mysteries of English once again (why do British English speakers pronounce "chamois" as "shammy"?). Oh look; another rabbit.

One is then forced to invent things. I can see a cloud shaped like an elephant. I just saw a peregrine falcon being mobbed by a bunch of parrots. Betelgeuse is expected to go supernova by the end of next week (it's not, I'm afraid; I'm lion about Orion, or lyin about Ori-in; oh hell, I can't even get my internal half-rhymes working properly).

In the end, it'll be a vague post about nothing which will be today's exhibit, m'lud. I'm sorry. Please bear with me; I'm sure it'll be better tomorrow. Maybe. Oh look! A cloud shaped like a rabbit! No, really. Nuts! No one's going to believe me now...

Saturday, 12 May 2012

It sounds silly, so belt up

I am currently inconvenienced (hopefully in a temporary way) because my car is malfunctioning. The electronic indicator panel behind the steering wheel says, unhelpfully, "ALTERNATOR WORKSHOP!!" (sic) and the battery light has come on. It's not really clear exactly what this capitalised alarm phrase means, but it was soon really clear that the battery wasn't charging. Oh well. One of the joys of car ownership is that stuff like this happens, so one grits ones teeth and considers ones options. Calmly, patiently, and with a very British stiff upper lip, I endeavour to get the problem resolved.

It's not the first time car misfortune has befallen me (see here). Sadly it's an all-too-common part of my life. But I have a socket set, and the urgency to effect a repair motivates me to get on with it. All I need is a part. This should be straightforward. I need an "alternator drive belt" (I hope), once called a "fan belt" (cars were simpler then), but now, according to my Haynes manual and several websites I've looked at, it's called a "Serpentine Auxiliary Drive Pulley". A what?

Ok. I suppose it makes some sense. It curls round several gears and cogs in a snake-like fashion, drives several mechanisms including the alternator and the air conditioning (but not the fan), and it does pull. Armed with my newly acquired technical knowledge, I set about sourcing the replacement I need.

Now you'd think in one of the world's great sprawling metropolises this would be easy. This is a city full of Homebases and Halfords, and zillions of small car part shops. But not so. I start with the web; typing in exactly what I want. "Serpentine Auxiliary Drive Pulley". Nothing, save for the various blogs and car geek sites that first offered up this obscure phrase. I try entering make and model of car, even my registration number, but to no avail. Sigh. Ok, let's make some calls.

Before taking to the telephone, I decide that the car geek nonsense speak was not something I could be persuaded to say on the phone. I opt for "alternator belt" since this is actually what I want. It seems to me much more likely that a real human answering a telephone would respond positively if I adopt this approach. After all, I don't think anyone would actually walk into a McDonalds and say "I'd like a McChicken sandwich and some chicken McNuggets and a McCoke and make it McSnappy, please". Us Brits don't really do that, do we? Only the most pseudo-intellectual Brit would say "cellphone", because here they're "mobiles". I know others call them "cells" or similar, but the point I am aiming at is that most regular Brits are fairly uncomfortable with names which, in British English, would seem pretentious. I never get my money from an ATM, my luggage goes in the boot (assuming the car is operational), and tonight I am not going to eat a "take out", but in the words of the late great Lily Allen, I'm going to have a Chinese and watch TV. Oh, wait a minute, she means "telly", and as far as I know she's not dead (let's hope not because she seems nice).

Before any of my American friends take umbrage at any of this, please understand that I am not in the least bit critical of American English. On the contrary, I find it endlessly fascinating to watch the way that English has evolved around the world, and the separate efforts of Webster and Johnson effectively ensured the divergent paths of English on either side of the Atlantic (although they were only really endorsing existing trends anyway). In any event, American English at its best is a vehicle for the finest of art -- look at Poe, or F Scott Fitzgerald, or Mark Twain, or J D Salinger, or Harper Lee, or many others. All this is simply to say that Americanisms can sound ridiculous in British mouths. Despite this, a growing number of people resort to them.

I suppose American English is now very abundant, and I suspect it inadvertently provokes British nonsense speak. This can lead to either unnecessarily politically correct nonsense ("Seasons Greetings", in case "Happy Christmas" offends my Hindu colleague, who is cheerfully baffled by such idiocy and shares sweet Diwali goodies with us every year), or hellish tautologies (which, I suppose, are what they are), or baffle-speak designed to obscure something's true meaning ("I think we need to solutionise using responsive relative mobility techniques").

In the end, my car's slipping alternator belt is named in baffle-speak. That's why I had to say "alternator belt" to the nice lady on the telephone. She was trying hard to help me find the part I needed but had been previously unable to locate using any web-based search facility. She was very helpful. She said, "I can't seem to find an alternator belt in-stock for your car, sir. The only thing we have seems to be a serpentine auxiliary drive pulley. Sorry."

--------------------------------- oOo ---------------------------------

When researching this blog-post, I was delighted to find the Plain English Campaign had a gobbledygook generator. It's great fun -- try it here. Thanks to them for inspiring me to a couple of items of high quality nonsense, deliberately sprinkled into this blog.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Olympic Insecurity

I have met some doormen in my time. Occasionally, some were polite and friendly, but others were distant and disinterested. Many were unnecessarily surly, perhaps unaware that I really did only want a pint with a mate, or maybe just to throw some shapes into the early hours. Ah, those were the good times; these days I'd be more likely to throw a spinal disc herniation. The belly would wobble more in this second decade of the twenty first century than it once did, too. I had a baby-face when I was younger, and that of course may have been the reason I used to struggle.

Mulling on London's doormen, I was surprised to learn of a new trend which wouldn't have come up in the days when there was still some doubt about whether I was legally allowed to drink (there's no doubt now -- these days they direct me straight to the snug and bring me a half of light and bitter along with the evening newspaper). It seems that some bouncers are now checking Facebook and other app's on people's SmartPhones in an effort to ensure that people are using legitimate id's. This is all very well, but since it doesn't say Siddie Nam in my passport I would have immediately been given the classical "...not tonight mate..." speech and sent on my way. Another evening thirsty, lonely, and unable to strut my funky stuff.

I wonder how many of London's youths these days have suffered a similar indignity? I would think most people in their early twenties are, just like the rest of us, Facebook fanatics, but what if you really happened to be Billy No Mates? Perhaps you wouldn't be going out anyway, I suppose.

The streetwise young people of the UK's major population centres are well able to fend for themselves, so I won't worry about them too much more here -- have a good evening everyone, and don't do anything I wouldn't do. Meanwhile, what of visitors to the UK who will be invading in their tens of thousands in the next couple of months for the Olympics? What security trials and tribulations will they face? Well...
  • Bottled Water (and any other non-"official" drink) will be banned. Could be a security, threat, obviously. Or it could be a Pepsi, not a Coke.
  • Not more than one soft-sided bag per person, not more than 25 litres in capacity (that's a lot of Coke; at my age I'd be needing to visit the gents constantly)
  • They will be in range of anti-aircraft artillery deployed even as they fly in to this proud and free country (see here for rapier missiles deployed on the peaceful and ancient common-land of Blackheath).
Compared to a rapier missile, I'd take the big chap outside the Slug and Lettuce any day. He may be a bit of a grump, but he has a vocabulary of a good couple of hundred words and phrases (like "no trainers", and "you looking at me, mate?"). You know where you are with a man like this. The Rapier would creep up on you, and the guys operating the metal detector at the Olympic Park (or Heathrow Airport) are far more likely to take to you one side while slipping on a rubber glove and greasing a finger).

I worry about our country sometimes. London is a wonderful, tolerant place -- it is one of the great things about this super city. I fear it won't feel like it though when we welcome guests from around the world in summer. Before you say anything, I acknowledge that there is a real security risk around the Olympics and, sadly, some misguided people out there believe it is OK to strap a bomb to themselves and maim and kill innocent people. No you don't; not in my town, thanks very much. But I just think we could be a bit more discrete about defending ourselves. Wouldn't it have been better just to keep quiet about the military and intelligence operations taking place, for example, rather than plaster our national insecurity all over every news bulletin? Surely it's better for our own purposes that the potential enemy, whoever it might be, does not know how we propose to fend them off? I can't see how it helps to have all these things out in the open, worn as a badge of honour, like an Olympic medal. It seems to me to have made quite a few Londoners a bit nervous.

If we really have to be so touchy about it all, perhaps a few big blokes in bow ties standing near the entrances to the Olympic venues should be enough to see off any bother. "You got any ID mate? Sorry..."