I write this on a rainy Saturday night in the West of Scotland. I’m listening to the Dark Knight Soundtrack and wondering what the rest of the world is doing. I’m missing human contact somewhat. It’s always amused me in an ironic way that I’m an individual prone to debilitating loneliness and yet I’ve displayed consistent inability to form meaningful relationships with other people my entire life.
I haven’t blogged in six weeks or so. In all honesty I haven’t really done much during the intervening period, so you’re not missing out on any historical records of great import. I suppose the two most interesting things that occurred during September were the Dragon Boat racing and the long weekend in London.
The former started with a text message from Mantak on a Saturday night. I was babysitting my two young nieces, and as they’d both been tucked up safely in bed, I was watching WALL•E when the phone buzzed. It had been off due to a low battery, and I’d only just turned it back on again, so when I read the message asking if anyone was interested in Dragon Boat racing at the Maryhill Locks in Glasgow the following day, I replied optimistically, suspecting that I’d have missed, figuratively and literally, the boat. Happily he responded in the affirmative, and I met up with my team mates at Glasgow Chinatown the following morning. Incidentally, I had planned on taking the train or bus up, only to find neither of them run before 9:30am on a Sunday. So, car it was.
The race itself was part of the Big Man festival, whose aims are to celebrate ‘Maryhill, its canal, and its people’. The eponymous Big Man is both the name of a bridge that will link North and South of the canal, and a Glaswegian term of near endearment for a gentleman of above average height. Maryhill is incidentally where the earlier series of Taggart were set, but like many parts of Glasgow, its reputation for violence is unfair and somewhat archaic. In any case, when we reached the dock that was the site of the competition, the sun had emerged and was beaming lazily down on proceedings.
The team I’d been invited to join had been entered by the Chinese Development Partnership, an organisation I know very little about other than they represent the Chinese-British of Glasgow and several of my friends and acquaintances are active in its social and sporting endeavours. Aside from Mantak, Vinny and Tony from Saturday afternoon football were there. I wasn’t the only white person either; three of the 18 of us were Caucasian.
CDP actually entered two teams; why I’m not entirely sure, but we watched from the riverbank the other teams’ opening heats. The second boat to go out capsized to voluminous ironic cheers from the spectators. The initial races let us size up our opponents; most appeared to be North Glasgow social work or housing organisations, although one team was a beauty salon and another was a construction company. One team were dressed as Vikings and another, somewhat fantastically, as Smurfs.
Our turn to race soon arrived. Aside from the odd row round a boating lake, I’ve never done much by way of water sport. I’ve never had the chance to go on any outward bound courses with school or my employers, which I regret somewhat, and so this was my first brush with paddling a boat of this type. I wasn’t alone; only three of our group had Dragon Boat raced before. I remarked on this, pointing out that if white people lost a Dragon boat race to a Chinese it would be disappointing, but the inverse would mean ritual suicide. I was rightly ignored. After our safety induction and instruction from a long-lost member of EastEnders‘ Wicks family, we were let loose on the water.
I lose count of how many heats our two teams raced in, but I know I was in the boat for all but one of them. I think it our team captain reasoned that I would add a bit of power, enough to offset the mass I would add, and I’m not sure his decision was sound. If I recall correctly our fastest time placed us fifth out of eleven teams overall. Which wasn’t great, but not that bad either.
The winners were the construction company. At the climax of one race against us, as they crossed the winning line victorious, they capsized. We cheered and laughed with Schadenfreude, although it shortly became apparent one of their crew had bashed his head and needed first aid and a hospital visit. A short while later, I was wandering along the bank when I passed them, sunning themselves and their wet clothing in an attempt to dry off. A quick glance at the physiques of what amounted to around half their team suggested that they were not exactly strangers to exercise. Somewhat surprisingly however, the Smurfs finished second, and no amount of woad could hide that some of the members of their team were.
Your humble narrator and the Chinese Ringo Starr.
We then repaired to the Chinese restaurant on Sauchiehall Street for Dim Sum and karaoke. I’m nothing if not cultured, me. Unfortunately I had to leave early, faced with a 6:30am start the next morning as I was. Unfortunately as I’d parked on an incline, all the remaining petrol in the car’s tank had flowed out of reach of the fuel line. I had to then walk to the petrol station in Woodlands, fill the spare tank up, and return. Then I had to buy a bottle of water and melt the base off with a lighter because there was no nozzle on the spare tank to get the petrol into the car. I only spilt around 5% of it on the street and down my trousers, and only got home two-and-a-half hours after I’d tried to nip off early.
The following week was the September weekend, a perhaps curiously Scottish practice whereby your town or region bestows upon you a public holiday on both Friday and Monday, allowing you to spend some quality time with a motorway of your choice. Actually, I think the English have one in September. Nevertheless, I’d decided that I was going to go away for the four days as I’d been unable to afford a proper holiday this year. London was nearby but far enough away from home, and was reasonably cheap, in that the four days worked out cheaper than the Wolverhampton jaunt earlier in the year and very likely any destination in the North of Scotland. The flights themselves were cheap, and this does annoy me. I enjoy travelling, but I’m conscious about the pollutants this results being pumped into the atmosphere, but when your two main alternatives cost four times as much and take four times as long, it’s difficult to hang onto those particular principles.
One particular obstacle had been my elder niece’s birthday, falling as it does around the September weekend. Fortunately, as every other likely guest seemed to have plans for that particular Saturday, the party had been moved to the following weekend, meaning I had no obligations. Trouble was I was no longer feeling particularly enthused about a flight and train travel and a hotel and hot, sweaty city four hundred miles away…I suppose I was just a little run down from work and whatever because by the time I was standing on the south bank of the Thames at Greenwich, marvelling at a beautiful hemisphere of blue above and the comfortable warmth it had brought, I was feeling terrific.
Sky over London, Greenwich
I was at Greenwich to visit the observatory, something that I’d meant to do at some point on my previous two meetings but hadn’t got round to. I’m fascinated by the whole concept of the meridian, and datelines, and Greenwich’s place in maritime history, and it’s in a fantastic location, so it’s a must see. I heartily recommend it. From there I took the tube to South Kensington, where I spent a few hours browsing the somewhat slightly disappointing Science, Natural History and Victoria & Albert museums while waiting to check into my accommodation and the evening’s reveries.
I was staying at the University of Westminster International Halls in North Lambeth; I’d stumbled across them while looking for hotels, and I thought their rates of £27 a night for a private room with shared toilet/shower was not to be sniffed at. It was very basic, no frills fare and was almost identical to the room I lived in during my first year at university, almost to the millimetre; same timber, same layout, same light fittings and carpet. I immediately felt at home.
It was apt I’d been thrown back in time to the opening weeks of university as that evening I was meeting up someone I met during those heady days nine years ago. Amy and I had been classmates on the BA photography course, although we didn’t really start to bond until our third year. We’ve remained in touch since, despite each losing contact with other friends from that period, mutual or otherwise. I’d mentioned I might be coming down to the big smoke at some point, and she said she’d love to meet up, and as ever she was true to her word. I met her and her partner Rachael (I’m going with this spelling as that’s the variant my niece’s is) at Oxford Circus, and we went for a drink in some dark and extremely slender subterranean bar in Little Portland Street, where I sipped a glass of water underneath a large portrait of Doves singer Jimi Goodwin, taken by Natalie Curtis, Ian Curtis’ daughter. We then went for a Chinese buffet on Shaftesbury Avenue, and I felt that this was somewhat magical, given that I’ve lead a sad and sheltered life. (Although it was really magical). Rachael had an early start on Saturday morning and a tube and train journey back to Amy’s house, so we all departed for our respective beds around 1opm.
I didn’t have any real plan or itinerary for the following three days. I had a list of places that might be interesting to look at and photograph and the tube station nearest, but not much else. So, on Saturday morning at 8am, I walked from North Lambeth to the Barbican via the Southbank and St. Paul’s. I paid a brief visit to the Museum of London and the Barbican centre, although I can’t claim to be particularly enamoured. I thought the architecture around the Barbican was especially fuck ugly, to quote Shaun of the Dead.
Back on the tube, I looked at my list of destinations and decided that Notting Hill Gate would be my next stop. I knew nothing of the area other than what I’d learned from the Hugh Grant film (not very much, according to Junior Simpson), and that Dire Straits had a song that name-checked Portobello Road. I didn’t realise the market featured in Notting Hill was the Portobello Road one, and I also didn’t realise that the main market day was Saturday, and had I turned up the next day, there might not have been anything there.
It was an experience. The first section of the road, nearest Notting Hill Gate, where George Orwell once lived, is relatively sedate. Then you hit the real market section, which is some sort of reasonably controlled chaos, an veritable panoply of primary colours, brass and leather. It took me the best part of an hour to find my way to the northernmost end of the street, where I caught the tube back towards Hyde Park.
I'm not surprised you see no ships, you fool.
What a load of old balls.
Some people would settle for a mole on their back. Other people have to go one better, don't they?
I adore Hyde Park. So many landmarks that I’ve grown up with, touching from a distance, have sadly disappointed when I’ve finally seen them in the flesh/steel/concrete, but Hyde Park (and Kensington Gardens for that matter) is everything I’d dreamed it to be. Again, my mental construct of London is informed by Douglas Adams here; Hyde Park is mentioned in his sublime novel So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, and I think I fell for the park as I fell for the character of Fenchurch. If I’m in London for any concerted period of time and I feel fed up, that’s where I go, and that’s where I went. I had an ice cream and I sat on the grass and watched people on boats out on the Serpentine, and I perhaps caught the scent of that sense of stillness that continues to evade me.
After a while I walked back to Oxford Street via the 7/7 monument and Speaker’s Corner, wandered about Regent Street for a while, and then went back to the hotel-thing. I did think about going to the IMAX cinema nearby, but I decided to go to bed instead and rest my weary feet. It was 7pm.
An hour and a half later, I was giddily walking around the noble gas petting zoo that is Piccadilly Circus snapping taxis and tourists with my compact Canon. I walked to Leicester Square and Covent Garden, where I watched a street performer. Then I walked all the way back to Piccadilly, caught the tube to Embankment and walked to the Houses of Parliament. I then somehow got from there back to North Lambeth, and I’m not entirely sure how. I know I didn’t get the tube, and it would be very uncharacteristic of me to walk under Waterloo station at half eleven at night. It’s all a bit strange, and it’s only a few hundred yards. Still.
Sunday was another uncharted day, full of nothing and lazy possibility. I decided my main goal was to see Regent’s Park/Primrose Hill, and I was able to catch a Bakerloo train straight from North Lambeth to Regent’s Park station. Unfortunately, a large swathe of the park was fenced off for preparation for some art display, so I carried on to Primrose Hill, which was very pleasant. Once I’d reached the top of it. It’s a location mentioned in one of my favourite Blur songs, ‘For Tomorrow’, as well as being featured visually in almost every rom-com ever set in London. It’s easy to see why; there’s a relaxed, cheerful ambience to the place on a Sunday morning, and you’re furnished with a great view of London and the south of England. I dallied a while.
Take a drive to Primrose Hill/It's windy there, and the view's so nice
I walked back to Baker Street via the illustrious suburb of St. John’s Wood, and caught the tube to Oxford Circus. I’d read in Time Out that there was some form of street festival happening in Regents Street, and I was keen on seeing what was afoot (Baker Street reference there). It hadn’t quite lurched into life by the time I got there, so I walked to Covent Garden again to visit the transport museum. When I found out I would have to pay £11 to get in, I turned on my heel and caught the tube to South Kensington. I’d mentioned my dissatisfaction with the Natural History Museum’s lack of dinosaurs and other ‘mad animal shit’, I think my exact words were to Rachael and Amy, and they informed me there was an entire wing I’d overlooked. So I went to see that.
"Release the flying monkeys!"
This is all so much covering old ground, but I was killing time to an extent. Amy had seemingly felt guilty about the quantity of her company she’d been able to afford on Friday and had offered to come back into town on Sunday so we could both visit the Imperial War Museum. She was moving house, and running somewhat late, so I decided to pop over to Trafalgar Square for a spell. There was an event on there, ‘London Week of Peace’, and several musical acts were performing on a stage at the square’s southernmost side.
I milled for a while, and was just about to leave when I happened to spot Holly from the Forever Delayed forum sitting at the base of the fourth plinth, a curious coincidence. I talked to her and her companions for a while (although mostly Holly as knowing someone vaguely through the internets is easier for my shyness to tolerate than someone I don’t know at all), just slightly longer than the amount of time it took me to realise we were sitting directly below Anthony Gormley’s One & Other project. As it was, we couldn’t see anything, and the music from the stage meant we couldn’t hear anything either.
Shortly afterwards I met Amy at Marylebone Station and we caught the Bakerloo directly to North Lambeth and the Imperial War Museum. It might seem like a slightly dispiriting way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon, but Amy and I share an interest in the Holocaust, and there is a comprehensive exhibit on the subject there. We spent two hours looking at the displays, although I left a little earlier than Amy. We talked about what we’d seen on the way to Covent Garden for a drink. A lot of the time the Holocaust is too big for me to process; it will be for many people. What happened to the Jewish, homosexual, disabled and political subservients of Germany, as well as untold millions in Poland and Russia as a direct result of the Third Reich is just unthinkable. And I know that’s a horrible sort of weasely, bland word, but it’s apt. Perhaps we’re desensitized to it as well. At my most cyncical I feel humanity is determined to act like murderous vermin most of the time. It’s always the small stories that make it more real to me. Oskar Schindler, a philandering businessman bankrupted himself and risked death to save 1,200 Jewish factory workers. Albert Göring, brother of Hermann, who spent the war undermining his sibling’s government. The White Rose, who tried to stir Munich and Germany into rebellion against Hitler, despite knowing what their ultimate fates would be. I realise there’s something faintly pathetic about highlighting these examples, these flowers of compassion in a desert of arid complicity, but they are the keystones that help us attempt to understand why some humans went out of their way to persecute while others sacrificed their own lives for others. It would have been easier for Oskar Schindler, Albert Göring, Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, Alex Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christophe Probst, Traute Lafrenz and Kurt Huber to simply do nothing, or at least be more circumspect about how they went about their activities. But they didn’t, and for anyone that’s ever beheld the truth in whosoever uttered the words ‘For evil to triumph, all that is required is for good men to do nothing’, we must thank them. I couldn’t help but think of my second cousin Sarah, who I’ve got to know over the last two years. Her father was part of the kindertransport, the mass migration of Jewish refugee children from Germany in 1938 that settled in Britain, and fortunately his mother made it to the U.K. as well. I found it blackly ironic that many people lost family due to the Nazis, while I’ve gained kin.
The remainder of the evening was less ominous. Following a drink and lengthy conversation in a pub near Covent Garden, we repaired to a bar in Leicester Square for an hour or so before public transport dictated her departure. Which is a shame, as I could talk the hind legs off Amy given half the chance. She really is rather wonderful.
And slowly Sunday turned into Monday, but I didn’t notice because I was in bed asleep at the time. I dozed in bed for a while, then got up and checked out. Looked at buying a day travelcard, didn’t because it was still on peak, so I walked from North Lambeth to Oxford Street to find and photograph a building that had been on the cover of AJ the previous month.
I had two more places I desperately wanted to visit before I caught the plane home, and they were both in Highgate, which lies in Zone 4 of the underground map, meaning a slightly more expensive ticket. My destinations on this morning were Highgate North (Northern Heights) tube station. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see when I emerged from the extant station on the Northern Line below it. A little disappointed I pressed on to Highgate East cemetery.
Most people that pay their £3 to stroll through the graveyard possibly do so to see the grave of Karl Marx (paying to see your grave, how do you like them apples Carlito?), but I wanted to pay my respects to an author I’ve already mentioned twice in this blog, Douglas Noel Adams. Twelve years after I first read his wonderful novel version of his own radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he remains, I feel, my favourite writer. If you haven’t read h2g2 as its blissfully abbreviated, you should, and then you should read the four sequels, and the two novels about Dirk Gently, the holistic detective. They’re simply marvellous, elegant, intelligent, funny, cynical, essential and many other adjectives that Douglas Adams would know and I don’t. If he hadn’t been such a lazy arse he might have created more wonderful gubbins for the world to bury its nose in and burble in delight, but he didn’t, and he died of a heart attack at just 49. I felt it important to see his place of rest, as Highgate Cemetery is due to be demolished to make way for a new bypass.
Douglas Adams' gravestone. Fittingly, there's a mouldy towel behind it, packed with nutrients.
I was on the home straight by the time I caught a bus back into Oxford Circus and milled around for a while (I can do this at a professional level) before heading to St. Pancras and the train to Luton. I managed to survive EasyJet’s vigourously stupid check-in procedure, and was in my own bed by nine. And that was London.
So what are my findings? I think I may well have exhausted the capital as a mine of geographic interest. From now on, I suspect I’ll only visit to see people and events. It’s still a vibrant, exciting city although as I get older the sight of large throngs of people fills me with ever-decreasing dread. Did anything interesting happen? Not overly. Amy was the only person I was able to meet as everyone else I knew in that area was busy. However, a man did pull up in a car in Greenwich and offer me a watch. He said “I work for Rolls Royce, and I’ve just been given this watch. I don’t need it, do you want it?’ I told him I didn’t, pointed to my own watch, and walked off. I think it might have been some sort of scam, somehow. I’d been in the city for little more than half an hour, and it had just turned 9am. And I walked past Julian Barrett from the Mighty Boosh on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. I freely admit I was staring at him, in that ‘he looks familiar, do I know him, oh I know it looks like him off the telly, hang about, it is him off the telly’ way. From a close quarters examination, he’s not very good at shaving. And I saw what nearly developed into a physical altercation between a father of a young boy and two middle-aged dogwalkers, as he berated them for smoking in his child’s vicinity without due care and attention.
The most important thing that came out of my trip was a boost in my photography abilities. I had a little bit of a disaster towards the end of my degree that resulted in me having to resit a module to pass it, and I don’t think my confidence has ever quite recovered. I find I’m prone to letting photography slip away from me, and not fighting to improve as I should do. I bought a fairly expensive camera last year, but found I’m too nervous to take it certain places in case someone stole it. I decided that I was going to insure my camera, take it to London and I was going to take the pictures I wanted to take. And I got about 97% of them. I’d love to have taken a few long exposures of Piccadilly Circus just to cross them off the list, but I genuinely feel as if I’ve crossed a plataeua that’s been holding me back. As with my writing and my music making, my mental appreciation of the art of photography has improved markedly over the last five years, but as with the former two subjects, I need to pull my socks up as regards technique. But I’m feeling stronger and more confident.
In other realms of the Jayniverse, not much has been happening. I’ve started back at college, and I’ve enrolled in a nightcourse that might help me get onto a degree course in architecture should that avenue open up for me. However, it looks very likely that my place of employment will face budget limitations under whoever should win the General Election next year, so it’s currently not even guaranteed I’ll have a job. In the past, I would have let this crush me, but my construction training is equipping me well, and I’ve started putting in place the foundations of a contingency plan should the worst happen.
Rachael celebrated her fourth birthday last week. She continues to develop well, despite the ongoing concern about her vision, and she’s just started her last year of nursery. Little sister Kate is laughing, has teeth coming through, and despite not being able to sit up as well as Rachael could at six months, seems to be a little steadier on her feet.
It's my party, and I'll disappear upstairs to play Nintendo if I want to...
I’ve been dabbling with music again. I bought a new bass and some recording software for the princely sum of £60, and last night Fred, Kev, Andy, Daniel and I convened in a rehearsal room in Finnieston to try and make some music. It didn’t go well, and we need to have a talk about what we want to achieve from the ‘band’.
New bass. Named Tina, after Tina Fey.
Frustratingly, I seem to spend my life in a permanant rage, but I never write any of it down, and thus am learning nothing from it all. That said, my ire seems to be mainly directed at traffic control, the proliferation of which in the West of Scotland has rendered the clutch and manual gearbox useless. Driving around Glasgow these days is like solving a Rubik’s Cube puzzle. There’s a lot of lateral shifting and near misses, and some people can do it. I can’t. It drives me, literally, insane.
And, harking back to my comments about the holocaust, people in general have started to seriously sicken me in recent times. Your average human’s outlook on life seems to be set to ‘me, me, me, what I think, what I want & nothing else matters’. You can see it in th way people park, in the way they walk, in the way they go on national radio and broadcast their opinions. For instance. It’s the whole ‘I’m alright, Jack’ attitude that gets me down. The increasing rise of misandry upsets me. I’m aware this all makes me sound like a misanthrope, and I used to counter this by saying it all came from a deep love of humanity and frustration at its inane, violent farrago, but I’m not sure any more. I suppose you can’t really parcel people up like that. Some are nitwits, and some are wonderful.
It’s taken me a few hours to write this. I’ve bed and a short story to finish. I shall call again in November, time permitting. But for your consideration, some photographs…
The part of Glasgow that reminds me of Hollywood.
Busy, busy bee