131: god save us all

This week my guilty watch has been THE QUEUE. Not in real life, obviously, but on the live tracker on YouTube. As I write, the queue is at capacity and the waiting time is approximately 24 hours. Announcers on the stations yesterday were saying THE QUEUE IS FULL and DO NOT TRAVEL TO JOIN THE QUEUE. Around me I could almost see English heads exploding as their patriotic right to queue was removed (OK, I may have lied about the last bit). There are probably people in the queue at this minute, having spent a very chilly night near the river, muttering about Blitz spirit and that sort of thing because that is what English people do under many circumstances (tube delays, rail strikes, Brexit, scone shortages, and so on).

I am trying to work out if I have ever heard of any other occasion when people have volunteered to join a six mile queue – I mean, if it was the M25, they’d be cursing it and there almost certainly wouldn’t be doughnuts involved. Even legendary squeaky-voiced (but aging attractively as long as he doesn’t talk) ex-footballer David Beckham was in THE QUEUE for 13 hours. 13 HOURS. Like he was a NORMAL person or something. I get that this is an historic moment, I really do, and – as the mawkish would have it – “we will never see her like again”, but this is still peak English. A queue with a control room, wristbands, its own YouTube tracker and weather forecast, toilets and street doughnut sellers: the queueiest queue ever. I suspect Charles will not have the same kind of turnout in twenty years or so, when he shuffles off*, although surely he deserves some sort of recognition for longest apprenticeship ever. I wonder, also, whether it was quite so urgent for him to make the tour of the UK when he is so clearly grieving hard for his mother. We have TV and social media, we all know what he looks like and he is not, after all, actually governing the country in anything but name. The period of ‘national mourning’ should surely apply to him too. It’s not as if we’re going to revolt.

Another thing I don’t understand is how a three-minute Jubilee skit with a pretend bear has come to define a 77 year reign – marmalade sandwiches are all very well, but you won’t be saying ‘awww’ when central London is overrun with giant rats hyped up on white bread and sugar. Plus, if I was a bear arriving at Buckingham Palace I’d have been seriously concerned for my skin.

Not a real bear

The thing I don’t understand the most is the way that businesses are behaving. This week is the first time my beloved has got angry about workers’ rights, and I think he may finally see the point of my role as a union rep. Schools are closing for the day. Chains like Aldi, Costa, McDonalds are closing for the day ‘out of respect for her Majesty’. However, there is no legal obligation for companies to pay their staff for a normal bank holiday let alone this extra one – so those people who have their bank holidays folded into their leave allowance (20 days leave plus eight bank holidays is their allowance for the year, which is bad enough) are having one of their precious 20 days compulsorily deducted. As long as the employer gives a minimum of 48 hours notice that they are going to do this, it’s perfectly legal. While I understand that employers are not making profits while they are closed, there are implications to this: for parents who hoard their leave to save money on childcare in the holidays, for example, or people who have used up their allowance for the year. Presumably they will be made to take unpaid leave.

Spare a further thought for those people who work part-time in those closed schools as cleaners, or lunch time supervisors. For those zero hours workers working on events which have been cancelled during this period, or casual workers who don’t get paid if they don’t work. Minimum wage workers, for example, on £9.50 an hour if they’re over 23 – and that’s the minimum living wage, not the ‘real living wage’ which is calculated at £9.90 outside London and £11.05 in. Remember that only the minimum wage is a statutory requirement, too, not the ‘real’ figure. These workers may only be doing a couple of hours a day in these roles, but in those two hours that’s £19 they’ve earned. After NI and possibly tax depending on how many part-time jobs they’re doing, that’s £15 or so to take home. That’s a week of school dinners if you’re just over the threshold for eligibility for free school meals. That’s several days’ food for the family. That’s a couple of days on the electricity and gas key, if you’re also being screwed over by the power companies in that way. Think of the sub-contractors who aren’t earning either, and the self-employed. My standard Asda shop went up by £40 this month, the definition of ‘cap’ seems to be different for the energy companies than it is for the rest of us, interest rates are going mad. Handing out an extra bank holiday in the name of national mourning is all very well, but to take money out of people’s pockets with the other hand is an insult.

What I’ve been reading:

False Values/Amongst Our Weapons/What Abigail Did That Summer – Ben Aaronovitch

To the Land of Long Lost Friends/The Joy and Light Bus Company – Alexander McCall Smith

*On the subject of Charles, have a word with your advisers about their planning skills. Owain Glyndwr Day was not the wisest choice for your first trip to the principality with your new hat on. Probably not your fault, but still – after 50 odd years in the Prince of Wales role, a bit of historical tact wouldn’t go amiss. Ask Michael Sheen. He’ll tell you.

Cover Image: Sky.com

123: the downside of up-and-coming

Stardate 20220724: Weather remains hot. Still no rain. The garden is wilting. So am I. The summer holidays have started, the Things are already bored, and the fridge is empty.

As I was working in Stratford yesterday on the Great Get Together 2022 on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, I stayed in London on Friday night with my best friend, her daughter and son and some of his university friends. Her son (my eldest godson) makes an excellent espresso martini, I was told, and when we got back from putting the world to rights with the dog round the streets of Shoreditch, there was one waiting for me. I had a brilliant idea for this week’s blog content while we were walking the dog but (three excellent espresso martinis later) I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.

So I’ll tell you about Shoreditch instead.

When I lived down on Hackney Road, a mere 20-odd years ago now, Shoreditch High Street was a no-go area – dodgy pubs with lunchtime strippers, shoe and clothes wholesalers, kerb crawlers on the side streets in search of a quickie, dealers, all-night garages, drunks in doorways, empty office blocks and warehouses. It was not a ‘destination’ but merely somewhere the bus or cab would drive through on the way to destinations. Close to Old Street, Liverpool Street and Spitalfields and the creeping gentrification of the East End, it was inevitable that it would change but there are – as you avoid the balloons, the nitrous oxide canisters and piles of vomit on the street – moments when you question how much this change has been for the better.

It started with small galleries: lots of artists have lived and worked in the lovely old houses off the main street. Cheap studios as they’d been converted from old warehouses and manufactories: Shoreditch was known for furniture manufacturing and many of the early slum clearances made way for artisans’ and workers’ dwellings like those on the beautiful Boundary Estate and the end of Columbia Road. Tracy Emin, Gilbert & George and more had their studios at the Spitalfields end. These of course are now priced out of all affordability for young artists, and are being turned into architect designed conversions.

Now it’s bars and (this is good) little independent shops as well as some designer outlets alongside the galleries. Redchurch Street, only 0.2 miles long, is apparently London’s coolest street. I remember it mostly as the home of one of the dodgier estate agents I dealt with back when the other Kersti and I were flat-hunting. You can’t spit without it landing in someone’s artisan coffee*. A couple of years back I was visiting the Migration Museum’s incredibly moving Calais Stories exhibition, and a coach pulled up and disgorged a load of French teenagers for whom this was a tourist experience.

The little shops, the cafes, the vintage clothes dealers: these are lovely and great for a mooch and a coffee. Vibrant street art abounds. There’s new hotels, there’s street food markets, there’s the Box Park with the little start-ups on the corner of Bethnal Green Road. But now it’s become a no-go area on weekends for a different reason: the bars which teem with hen parties and stag parties, office workers on a Friday night, trainloads of revellers from Essex and Hertfordshire who go home again afterwards (or pass out on a park bench) and leave the residents to hose down their doorsteps where people have urinated (and worse). There’s a men’s urinal on the streets but nothing for the ‘ladies’. Signs in the bar windows now say ‘People seen using nitrous oxide will not be allowed on the premises’ instead of ‘Lunchtime Strippers’. Sleeping in a room overlooking the street requires earplugs, especially when the hound takes against the dealers hanging round on the corner outside the old Nike warehouse.

I’m sure the novelty will wear off at some point and Shoreditch will settle into quiet gentility, but until then…watch where you’re walking.

*I do not recommend actually doing this.

Things making me happy this week:

  • Thing 3 finishing primary school, ready to join Thing 2 at secondary in September
  • Thing 1 looking so grown up and gorgeous as she went off to her prom
  • Nailing the whole godmother thing just by saying ‘when we were playing D&D last week’ – Fairy Geekmother, perhaps?
  • Getting the Temperature Galaxy up to date
  • Finishing a crochet project
  • Visiting the Small is Beautiful exhibition

See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Tales from the City – Armistead Maupin

Moonglow – Michael Chabon

117: once upon a time

A long time ago when the world was young, a girl moved to a new city and fell, most unexpectedly, in love. Not with a person, as you might expect, but with the place. There were a few ill-judged flings along the way, but we all make mistakes.

This was not the plan. I had a perfectly good plan, which was to get a few years teaching experience under my belt in the Smoke and then move back to Wales. I had a term’s supply teaching in a school in Newham, so I’d found a flat in Forest Gate only a few streets away from where my grandparents had lived when they were first married. My parents drove me to London with all my worldly possessions, and as we headed further and further round the M25 my dad got very a bit grumpy and decided to come off a couple of junctions too early which led us down through the admittedly terrifying streets of Edmonton and Tottenham. He was not happy. It was not a civilised bit of London, compared to where London sister was living in leafy Ealing.

Eventually we made it to the right bit of London, which – being on the edge of Wanstead Flats – was at least much leafier and my flat was lovely. Each day I would hop on a bus down Green Street to the enormous school I was working in, travelling past shops full of glorious sari fabrics, vegetables I’d never even heard of before, Caribbean takeaways, Indian sweet shops, the West Ham stadium, noisy markets, multiple languages in my ears and people everywhere. It was chaotic and colourful and completely new to me.

I next lived in Plaistow, near an African church full of chattering families in bright wax print outfits; then Kersti and I moved to Whitechapel. Whitechapel was noisy and scary at times: if the wind was in the right direction we’d be woken up by the muezzin calling the local Muslims to prayer at the East London Mosque and the walk from the station in the dark was not pleasant. The kitchen tiles were held on by blu-tack, the heaters were broken downstairs and the radiators upstairs were rusting away, we had the worst letting agents in the world but the balcony looked out over a disused Jewish cemetery which was spooky and atmospheric and magical. The walk through Bethnal Green to our favourite pub took us through every sort of housing: post-war flats, streets of ‘Improved Industrial Dwellings’ built around the same time as the museum, shabbier (but gentrifying) Georgian streets, past a listed Brutalist block which was being turned into luxury flats that none of the previous council tenants could ever have afforded, an early tower block, past workers’ dwellings and Peabody Buildings. I wrote a tour of the area a couple of years back, taking in a circle around the museum and exploring the phases of social building and philanthropy over the past century or so.

I worked in Wapping, surrounded by evidence of the past in the shape of warehouse buildings, Execution Dock, historic pubs, cobbled streets and peeks through tall buildings to the river. Three years working in Chelsea at the National Army Museum showed me another part of London which was much shinier and elegant, but I never fell in love with it the way I had with the East End.

Holding forth on the Limehouse Cut

By the time I moved across to work at the Museum of London Docklands in 2005, there was no hope. I immersed myself in the history of the East End (and got paid for it!). My specialist subject was migration and diversity, even writing a unit for the London Curriculum on the subject. The move to my current role means I don’t have a much of an excuse for social history any more, so this week I jumped at the chance to deliver a training session for our local teaching alliance on local history and using museums. Over an hour and a half we took in London’s oldest stretch of canal, a lost river, a school which was bombed the the First World War, London’s original Chinatown, a Hawksmoor church, a couple of old pubs, wharves, the beginnings of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the East India Company, Ian McKellen’s pub and Canary Wharf before a visit to the museum. Luckily the sun stayed out for us, and it was great to see the trainees again – they’d all just got their PGCE results, and many were looking forward to starting their first teaching jobs in September. ITT has always been one of my favourite bits of working in museums, as they’re my visitors of the future. I’m looking forward to next year already!

Making me happy this week:

  • working at the Digital Accountancy Show at the Tottenham Hotspurs Stadium for We are FTW. This year I got to be the voice of god and make all the announcements. I will also never run out of socks again.
  • The usual Sunday swim with J followed by the apres-swim hot choc and a bacon roll
  • Getting excellent feedback on the first part of my current course
  • Lunch with M, R and E with added babies
  • Saturday dog walks followed by coffee and enormous croissants
DAS 2022. Birds-eye view from the 4th floor, home to the NFL suite. Really I was scoping out the free notebooks.

This week I’m back in ‘proper’ work mode as we count down to the museum’s 150th birthday in a fortnight. I can tell you the history of it if you want!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Villager – Tom Cox

Attack and Decay – Andrew Cartmel

The Vows of Silence – Susan Hill

114: We’ve come to White City by mistake!

Or, Cemeteries and Cocktails part IV: Brompton Cemetery in the no-man’s-land of west-ish London.

Let’s get this clear right from the start, shall we? West-ish London has never been my stamping ground, other than having to go to work in South Kensington rather often at the moment, and as it turns out it’s equally unfamiliar to my partner in these adventures. Between us we are pretty good with east and north, but west and south are unknowns. Keep this in mind as we progress!

We met at St Pancras, which was heaving with Sunderland supporters who were on their way to Wembley for the Division One play off or something. There were lots of them, and even at 10am the station pubs were awash with red and white stripes as they all got into the spirit of things (except the poor man who’d brought his wife and son and who was being dragged off to Leicester Square. He was not being allowed to get into the spirit of things, judging by the look on his face.). Wycombe were the other team in the play-off and presumably they just had to get on the outer reaches of the tube – we didn’t see any, anyway! They lost, possibly as their fans weren’t in the spirit of things.

A and I successfully negotiated the Piccadilly line to Earl’s Court and to the cemetery, which was about 10 minutes walk past nice houses. We tried the North Lodge cafe first, with an almond milk hot chocolate for me and a flat white for her, and we shared an almond croissant. Cute dogs galore, and very clean toilets. I could have lived without the person in front of me in the queue ordering his ‘iced americano, yah, with just a dash of oat milk, yah’ and adding daft things to his drink every 30 seconds. So, I suspect, could the baristas.

The cemetery looked green and lovely, so we set off in search of Emmeline Pankhurst’s grave and whoever else was laying about in there. Unlike the previous three, Brompton is clearly used much more as a leisure space by the locals – lots of cyclists, runners and dog walkers were in evidence. It didn’t feel as friendly as the others, either, possibly because people weren’t all there to see the graves and so there were less hellos from fellow wanderers.

The cemetery leaflet very helpfully lists their ‘Top 25’ must-sees and there is a downloadable PDF with another 75, so every so often you find a small metal number in the path telling you where someone is. Other notables in Brompton include John Snow (the cholera one, not the newsreader or the Game of Thrones one. Duh!), Sir Henry Cole (without whom I would not have my current job or something), and James Bohee who was apparently the best banjoist in the world. We didn’t find all of them but we did meet a lot of extremely tame crows and squirrels, who were happy to share one of my emergency biscuits.

After 180 odd years there are a lot of graves in the cemetery – it’s still a working cemetery so there are recent burials as well as the older ones. These are very well tended, some with beautiful miniature gardens and one which is permanently decorated for Christmas. You’re no longer allowed to build giant mausoleums any more, sadly, or have the huge family plots. I have always quite fancied a mausoleum, to be honest, but since that doesn’t seem to be an option I’ll go completely the other way and have a woodland plot instead. One mausoleum we rather liked was that of Hannah Courtoy, who sounds like a woman I’d like to have met: she had three children with an older man and although they never married she – somewhat controversially – inherited his fortune which paid for her Egyptian-style tomb. It looked like a TARDIS, so we half expected a Doctor or 14 to appear.

We wandered past the catacombs (the plan is to go back in July for a tour) and the Brigade of Guards monument, and worshipped briefly at the paws of a supremely disinterested cat who was drowsing in a coat-lined hollow in the sunshine. Many of the older sections have been allowed to grow wild so are covered in grasses and spring flowers attracting bees and all sorts of wildlife.

What’s White City got to do with all this, I hear you ask?

Once we’d had a good explore and put the world to rights, we congratulated ourselves on not having been accosted by weirdos or chased by strange men in skips, and decided it was time to go and find some lunch – Nandos or a good burger, we thought. We left the cemetery and headed back to Earls Court – and somehow we missed. We took the next road down from the one we’d come in from, thinking that we’d find our way back, and next thing we know we have seen a lot of seedy hotels, some very expensive houses, and we’ve found ourselves at a huge Tesco on the A4 where a strange man was juggling clubs in the middle of the road.

With the aid of Google Maps we oriented ourselves, found a bus that was supposed to go to South Kensington and with a sigh of relief we sat down and anticipated a good lunch. It was with dawning horror that we slowly realised the bus was going to White City instead, despite what the bus timetable had said. There was our weirdo, too, in the shape of a little old lady who rang the bell for every stop but did not get off! Instead, she harangued the poor driver until he let her off somewhere between stops as she claimed he had not opened the doors where she wanted (he had) and she did not want to walk back.

It was with another sigh of relief that we spotted Westfield – not where we’d wanted to be but we were pretty sure we’d find some lunch there. We did, in the shape of GBK, and a well-earned burger and fries. We passed on the joy of going shopping, and headed home instead. Next up: a return to Brompton and then Nunhead. What excitement will a foray south of the river provide?

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Not Dark Yet/The Price of Love – Peter Robinson

79: meerkats and wildcats and parrots, oh my!

Yesterday we managed a family day out to Capel Manor Gardens – not far away geographically but work has got in the way all summer. It took a while to get out of the house while different children threw almighty strops about being asked to go out/get dressed/brush hair/etc but eventually we made it. £20 for a family ticket, with two adults and up to three children (under 16) was quite reasonable, and Things 2 and 3 took a stamp trail each.

We started with the animal collection, which is quite small: meerkats, an invisible porcupine, rabbits, pygmy goats, fluffy rabbits, parrots and a few other crowd-pleasers. Careful peeking through small gaps by my beloved located the Scottish wildcat. A wander through the Which? garden area where they are testing different plants and flowers was interesting, and then the kids wanted to head for the very well signposted ‘Secret Faerie Garden’.

The Horde discovered an absolutely enormous fallen tree to climb, despite Thing 1 having her arm in a sling, as well as a fairy door, statuary and a ‘ruin’ which came from one of the Chelsea Flower Shows. The kids tackled the Holly Maze and the sensory garden, we wandered through the cactus garden and the succulent greenhouse, and then headed to the cafe for lunch.

Lunch had a limited menu – chicken curry and rice, chickpea falafel and rice, chicken nuggets and chips, jackets, sausage rolls, pizza – but it was quite reasonably priced for a good sized portion. We decided to make the assumption that it was the counter person’s first day, as service was a little strange and very slow. It was tasty if not very hot, and at £34 for five main meals and five drinks, it was good value. There are also lots of picnic areas around the site, so you could take your own lunch if you wanted, or the cafe also sells sandwiches and snacks.

After lunch we wandered round the demonstration gardens, mainly ex-Chelsea Flower Show designs – I loved the one filled with pumpkins and nasturtiums (so did the honey bees), and the slate garden. The kids found all the stamps, and got a medal in return, and we escaped via the gift shop. General verdict was that it was a nice day out – I’d like to have seen inside the manor, and some of the gardens need some maintenance to bring them back up to show standard, but if you’re looking for some good ideas for your garden then it’s a great place to visit.

I’ve only been on the tube one day this week, but managed to finish the dragon’s egg dice bag after several attempts to get it the right way up! The pattern is the free Dragon’s Egg lined dice bag by 12SquaredCreations, and is easy to make up as long as you pay attention to the pictures!

I also finished the succulent terrarium cross stitch, which will be a gift.

And right now my stomach is telling me it’s lunch time, so I’ll be off! See you next week,

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

Equal Rites/Witches Abroad/Maskerade – Terry Pratchett

Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett (Audible)