Saturday, July 31, 2004

Two Plans for London: #2

Wren wasn't the only one to have grand designs for this fair city. In 1951 architect and intellectual Thaddeus Roshanak unveiled his new for a rebuilt London to a breathless crowd in Methodist Central Hall. Roshanak was an arch-modernist and his plan displayed the clear influence of Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin for Paris, but was far, far more radical.

Under Plan Thaddeus, Central London from Ludgate to Bayswater and from Charing Cross to Regent's Park would be demolished. In its place would rise a new, modern city of gleaming white towers and broad, straight avenues. The railway stations would be combined into a new 72-platform central station, linked by tram to Paddington Airport, where Oxford Circus now is.

So far, so predictably Corbusier-style. But Roshanak's genius went further. None of his new streets would have corners, which he despised, and would thus only run east-west. Pedestrian traffic would be carried by looping travelators arranged in a stylised form of the coat of arms of the Royal Institute of British Architects. In a nod to the city's destroyed heritage, the 40-storey residential and business tower blocks of the centre would be thatched. The central station would only accomodate inbound trains in order to promote tourism. And the new city would be entirely nuclear-powered, with each flat and office having its own reactor.

Understandably, the radical plan met with a mixed response. The National Trust called it "barbaric". The Royal Fine Arts Commission wanted to know if it was "some kind of sick joke". Malcolm Muggeridge praised its "excellent benches". And the Evening Standard was so horrified it refused to come out for four days.

In the end, Roshanak lost his fight for the plan and it was consigned to the dustbin of history. Intensely disillusioned, Roshanak quit architecture and became a freelance mermaid.

Two Plans for London: #1

It's a common misconception that time constraints and greedy developers confounded Christopher Wren's plan for the rebuilding of London after the 1666 Great Fire (here). This is not true.

The real story is rather more mysterious. After hearing that the city fathers were minded to approve his grandiose plans, Wren went on a terrific all-night drinking session with Robert Hooke. After drinking some twelve pints of Old Vituvius Ale - which he and Hawksmoor arranged into the secret twelve-cornered hexagon of the Masonic God Jabulon (or something) - he passed out and rolled under the table.

When the next day came, he awoke to discover not only that he was late for the meeting that would formally endorse his plan, but also that Hooke had spilt beer all over it. The ink was running quite badly, but there was no time to do it again, so Wren attempted to fill in the gaps and repair it while on the way to Westminster.

A combination of the rubble-strewn streets and an attack of the morning-after shakes meant his new version of the plan possessed few of the clean, crisp lines of the original. Nevertheless, his plan was approved and remains the basic layout of the city of London today.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Pot Needle

This isn't Londoner Pom du Cap writes:

Cleopatra's needle is a well known landmark on the north bank of the Thames near the Embankment tube station. What is less well known is how it got its name. Some speculate that it is because of its pointed shape, but the truth is more interesting. The obelisk was presented as a gift to London in the 19th century by the rulers of Egypt, who were less than impressed with Britain's foreign policies of the time. They decided to get their own back in two ways. The first was to make a great show of presenting the monument to the British High Commissioner in Egypt, but then to make it Britain's problem to get the thing back to these shores. The transport by boat, and the subsequent erection took months, cost the British authorities a small fortune, and produced no end of problems. The second thing the Egyptians did was to cover the needle in hieroglyphics, which of course the Londoners could not read. Years later it transpired that the etchings translated as rude jibes at Queen Victoria, and the British in general.

When this story got out, the Londoners started to refer to the monument as "Cleopatra's Needle". The Egyptian queen had of course been dead for a while by this stage, but the combination of her name and the word "needle", taken colloquially to mean wind up or irritate just seemed to fit, and the name stuck.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The Longest Year

It's still 1998 in the London Borough of Newham. The reason for this rather odd fact stems from the calendar reforms of 1752; as part of a political compromise to adopt the Gregorian calendar, the burghers of Newham were given the right to ratify every new year's calendar before it came into force.

This ratification proceeded like clockwork for more than 200 years, with the new calendars passing into local law on the nod. However, the debate over the endorsement of 1999's calendar proved to be unexpectedly contentious as the affair became entangled with a dispute over the funding of the Millennium celebrations. The ensuing deadlock has yet to be broken, although a meeting scheduled for December the 2027th 1998 may provide a breakthrough.

The Treasures of the British Museum

The Elgin Marbles may be the most notable example, but as the Director of the British Museum says in this article: "The range of the British Museum's collections is truly worldwide." So, what other booty plunder spoils of conquest disputed cultural treasures can be found in the museum's hallowed halls?

* The contents of the original Parthenon gift shop, including a wide selection of postcards

* A Hittite frieze depicting what is believed to be the first ever game of Twister

* Ayer's Roll, stolen from Australia in 1802

* Fourteen tonnes of pieces of the True Cross

* The mummified feet of St Ockwell

* Bangalore's tram network

* Former Swiss Finance Minister Otto Stich

Friday, July 23, 2004

An Eye for the Eye

Planning permission for the London Eye runs out next year. Remarkably, it's been suggested that this great tourist attraction and adornment to the London skyline might have to be taken down forever, or maybe re-erected elsewhere. So what are the other options?

* Wheel to be accelerated slowly until it dismantles itself

* Easyjet to take over sponsorship from BA; ticket prices will drop to £1 but the view will be of Luton

* Dismantled and re-erected horizontally on top of the Telecom tower to act as a giant merry-go-round

* Dismantled; pods converted into pedaloes and set afloat in Thames

* Dismantled and put into storage for 994 years so that it can be re-erected on the same spot and fail to turn on December 31st 2999

* The wheel will be unhooked from its spindle and, thus freed, will roll around the country solving mysteries and avenging wrongs

* How about this: Despite its popularity, dismantled in an act of bureaucratic vandalism, put into storage, much of it melted down and turned into ashtrays, then re-erected on the same spot 55 years later after a popular campaign? Yeah, right, that'll never happen.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Coming soon: the Desertorium

Inspired by the success of the Barnes Wetland Centre, where disused reservoirs were converted into a haven for bird life, London authorities are planning a follow-up. The London Desertorium, planned for a nine-acre former civil service car park in Balham, will recreate a desert ecology a mere stone’s throw from the city centre.

When completed, a process requiring 19,000 tonnes of sand and rock, the Desertorium will simulate the 40 degree celsius noon temperatures of the world's most extreme deserts with the aid of a series of powerful arc lamps. It will be stocked with all the exotic flora and fauna one would expect to find in a desert, including camels, venomous snakes and black widow spiders, scorpions, stinkbugs, praying mantises, vultures and rampaging Berber tribesmen.

Bring the family!

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Dog Barons

All of London's dogs are owned by the same company. Amalgamated Canine Industries was founded when the dog population of the city was nationalised under the Attlee government in 1948, and its holdings were leased back to the pooches' former owners. Since then, this company has, in various forms, regulated all dog activity in the capital.

However, it was not always successful. Inefficiencies and strikes in the late 1970s plagued ACI, and ultimately led to some dogs going as much as three days without walkies. Hampstead Heath was littered with unreturned sticks, and the Minister for Employment struck out at some of those involved, claiming "I have found many to be not very good boys at all".

In 1987, Thatcher privatised ACI in order to improve its competitiveness, and in 2001 the company rebranded as ProCanis.

On a related topic, it's interesting to note that, although they operate on a freelance basis, the squirrels of St James's Park are unionised. This makes them the third most organised group of animals in London after dogs and wombles. Wombles do not have their own union, but most are members of Unison, the public service union.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

The New East End

The Government's solution to London's chronic housing shortage is to expand the city to the east. However, a lot of people don't really like the idea of living in east London. To tackle this image problem, the Deputy Prime Minister has proposed the "rebranding" of certain districts to make them sound more attractive.
For the first time, TiL can exclusively reveal what the new names will be.
Dagenham --> "MoTown"
Barking --> "Thames Riviera"
Poplar --> "Popular"
West Ham --> "Parma Ham"
Deptford --> "Prudenceford"
Mudchute --> "Chelsea East"
Blackwall --> "Domeview"
Stratford --> "Stratford upon Avon"
Canning Town --> "Candem Town"
Beckton --> "Beckham"
Woolwich Dockyard --> "Marlowe Marina"
Rainham --> "Sunnytown"
And so on. A vast improvement, I think we can all agree.

Friday, July 16, 2004

The TfL Vision for the Railways

Mayor Ken is to take over London's railways. What will this mean?

* Old Routemasters to be used as spare carriages on congested lines

* Now the Mayor's office has King's Cross, Marylebone, Fenchurch Street and Euston stations, it can charge everyone who uses them £200

* Prince's Risborough, Luton and the other outlying commuter areas are to be reclassified as "Lesser London"

* Trains now liable for congestion charge

* "Normal" service to be renamed "wonderful" service

* "Integration" of train, Tube and bus services mean that delays will be harmonised across the system as soon as scientists have developed a way to cause buses to suffer signal failures. Similarly, commuters will be pleased to hear that strikes will now be synchronised across all three services

* Birmingham next on Ken's list

* By 2008, railways will demonstrate the same level of improvement that the Tube has since 2000.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Paddington Airport

From 1928 to 1968, there was an international airport near Paddington station. As the closest airport to the West End, it was extremely popular, handling more than 30,000 customers a day.

This is depite the fact that, because Paddington International was in the middle of an extremely built-up area, planes had to taxi into the terminal from Northolt, travelling down the Westway.

The airport had to close in 1968 because the wider wingspans of modern planes could no longer handle the turning into Harrow Road.

The Egyptian Gods of Green Lanes

As a lifelong inhabitant of the royal borough of Haringey, I am often asked why the name of the borough is spelt as above while the neighbourhood that stretches from Manor House to Wood Green is called Harringay.

The answer is somewhat unexpected: the extra r and a are a tribute to the Egyptian sun god Ra, who has been worshipped in the Green Lanes area for at least 6000 years. His temple is now the car park at the McDonald’s DriveThru but Ra’s followers still meet on the first Monday of every month at Johnny English Potatoes and Melons under the railway bridge. To join the congregation, just go to the counter and ask for Tut.

Contributed by CS.

10 Remarkable Facts About the Simon & Garfunkel Concert Tonight

1. The gig will use enough cabling to stretch all the way to Paul Simon's home town of Pydehark, New Jersey.

2. A brace of specially trained stunt condors has been shipped in from Argentina and will be released for the closing chorus of "El Condor Pasa".

3. Art Garfunkel's rider includes a handbag-sized can of Charles Worthington No More Frizz hairspray, a 500ml bottle of Body Shop Vitamin E Body Lotion and a copy of the 12th edition of Chambers Guide to the Legal Profession.

4. Diana, Princess of Wales, is known to have been a big fan of Watership Down and psychics believe there is a 95% chance that, if the duo play "Bright Eyes" at midnight tonight, her spirit will appear floating above the memorial water feature that was recently erected in her memory.

5. Other celebrity visitors tonight will include Euan Blair, Salman Rushdie and H from Steps.

6. Peter Gabriel will come on towards the end of the gig to do some backing vocals in that yelpy way he has of singing.

7. One of the few things that Art and Paul have in common nowadays is that they both suffer from hay fever, so the park's grass has had to be temporarily removed and replaced with astro-turf.

8. Rumours that Paul and Art can't stand to be around each other these days are totally untrue: in fact, they will share a trailer and will doubtless be keen to continue the game of chess they have been playing since 1972.

9. Paul Simon is, in fact, two inches taller than Art Garfunkel, but a clause in their contracts dating back to 1959 (when the duo were a skiffle act called Simofunkel) states that Art will not perform unless wearing stilts.

10. The auto-tuner used by Paul Simon's guitar technician was confiscated at US customs because apparently its case can easily be dissambled and turned into a lethal terrorist weapon powered by the chemicals used to scent the moist towelettes offered to passengers in first class on Virgin planes. Luckily, however, the canary used by the crew to detect poison gas leaks has been found to chirrup a perfect A and tonight, this will be used to tune Paul's guitar.

Contributed by Fizzwhizz.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Tarantino's Lost London Film and the First Italian Restaurant

This isn't London has been inundated by two emails from Fizzwhizz and CS. Here they are ...

Four killings and a film deal
Quentin Tarantino's most recent films were originally to be called Kilburn 1 and Kilburn 2, writes Fizzwhizz. They were to be set in the eponymous north London suburb and featured an angry housewife's attempts to get revenge on the man who sold her a jar of gefilte fish so dodgy that it gave her husband a bad stomach upset and left him unable to attend his own daughter's wedding. The Lucy Liu character was originally to have been a comedy Indian grandmother played by Meera Syal; Bill was to have been a self-conscious upper-class fop played by Hugh Grant.

However it was decided to move the setting to America and increase the martial-arts content of the movie after studio executives became concerned that a gentle ensemble comedy would not afford sufficient opportunities for a video-game follow-up.

Taxloss responds: I heard a similar rumour. Apparently the posters were to be based on the traffic markings on West End Lane, an influence that can still be seen in the posters.

“Of course, this is nothing like the food we had at the Medicis”
The first Italian restaurant in London opened almost 300 years before the creation of the Italian state, in 1582, writes SC. Its proprietor was one Carlo Ghiradino, who had left his mother’s house at the tender age of 41 to bring the secrets of her kitchen to a wider audience.

He set up shop on Dogspit Lane, in the heart of the capital’s epicurean district. He could not forget home entirely, though, and honoured the tiny city-state from which he came – Tremestino (turn left at Piedmont and please drive carefully) – by covering his wooden tables with its distinctive red-and-white checked flag.

Before long, Carlo was the toast of Elizabethan London and his humble hostelry echoed to the sounds of fashionable diners exclaiming: “I remember this place when it was actually run by Italians” and “Of course, your actual Tuscan fisherman will eat something entirely different”. Soon, Ghiradino was able to enhance his décor with miniatures in oils depicting himself welcoming celebrities of the day such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Kit Marlowe and, on one memorable occasion, Queen Elizabeth herself. It was reported that she did not like the gnocchi.

Ghiradino was truly the city’s first celebrity chef, but his fame did not last. After being falsely accused of being a Venetian spy – a rumour first spread by a jealous member of the Worshipful Company of Gammon Fashioners – he was imprisoned in the tower. On 17 April 1587, he was doused in boiling olive oil and flash-fried with garlic before an audience of jeering Londoners. His last, agonised, words were: “No, you must tear the basil.”

Thanks, guys!

The Begging Charge

The Mayor's office is apparently planning to follow the Congestion Charge with a similar scheme to cut down on overcrowding at the city's more popular begging sites.

Prime pitches such as around the Hungerford Bridge, along the South Bank and near mainline stations including King's Cross and Victoria will be marked with a large B surrounded by a red circle. Use of them will cost £5 a day.

A well-placed source told TiL: "What do you mean it's an outrageous abuse of power? We're perfectly within our rights. This scheme will raise thousands, thousands I tell you. Thousands! Folk music concerts in Trafalgar Square don't pay for themselves, you know. Now get out of my office."

Thanks, Herman

Heavy German bombing during the Blitz actually increased property prices in Walthamstow.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Hello Guardian Readers

This site was featured on the Guardian Unlimited Weblog yesterday, and as a result traffic to this site has increased a bit. About 7000%. Anyway, as a result I've made some changes; you can now see my profile, which has an email address for this site and is throbbingly dull, and (hopefully) leave comments even if you don't have a blogger account (or something).

I only mention this because I welcome feedback and also maybe submissions, although I haven't really thought that part through.

Normal service will now be resumed. Over and out.

Minority Report

London’s smallest minority is Mr Uighr Denala, the city’s only representative of the Tamlyk people from a distant corner of the blasted tundra of Siberia. He is also the editor of Hnk Tamlyku (“Hey, Tamlyks”), the capital’s only Tamlyk-language newspaper, and lead DJ of its sister radio station ?Ulk Temo Prghu? (“Is there anyone out there?”).

Where Did All The Pigeons Go?

Mayor Ken Livingstone’s scheme to rid Trafalgar Square of pigeons has been extremely successful. So where have all the pigeons gone?

34% KFP
29% Guest presenter slot on Newsnight Review
15% Always wanted to visit Venice
8% Suing pedicurist
7% Writing memoirs
3% That infuriating tea advert
2% Auditioning for remake of The Birds, plotting revenge.

Monday, July 12, 2004

The Many Duties of the Stanners

The Worshipful Company of Stanners, a livery company, was founded in 1321 to recognise a form of civic official unique to London. "Stanners" were - and still are - licensed to make arrests, practice as a doctor, conduct weddings, advise on astrological issues, divine for wells, issue financial advice, hunt deer within city limits and sell pamphlets and newspapers.

In order to provide these services to the general populace, they stand in little kiosks around the city - generally near Tube stations - and announce themselves by shouting: "Stanner! Stanner!"

Escalating Difficulties

Many Londoners and visitors to London often express their horror and disbelief that it can take London Underground more than three years to repair an escalator and that escalators are so often out of order at stations such as Notting Hill Gate, Brixton and Bank-Monument.

In fact, the reasons for these long interruptions are believed to be similar to the reason unused Tube stations are mothballed - so that the government can use them secretly.

For instance, the third escalator at Brixton has been out of commission for years simply to provide a discreet ministerial “fast lane” for government officials visiting the Fridge nightclub. And the semi-permanent malfunctions of the escalators at Bank-Monument are actually part of a clandestine government initiative to keep the Square Mile’s office workers in peak physical condition in the event of a national emergency.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Sad Tale of the Moquette

"Moquette" is the robust, deep-pile material used to cover the seats on the London Underground and on London buses.

For many years these seats were simple wooden benches. When the decision was made to upgrade to padded seats, the Royal Geographical Society despatched explorers to points throughout the British Empire to find a material tough enough to withstand the rears of thousands of Londoners.

The breakthrough was made by Sir Magnus Larchwood in south-west Africa. In 1923 he discovered a species called the moquette (a relation of the meerkat) that had checked fur in a variety of striking colours, notably orange, purple, blue and brown. A trade in the moquette was set up and Tubes were furbished with their hides.

Sadly, such was the demand for moquette skins that the native population quickly dwindled. The ranks of this noble beast were further eroded after the second world war when they fell prey to Wrigley's Disease, a malady spread by discarded chewing gum. The last moquette died in captivity at the Royal College of Fashion in 1974 during a desperate attempt to equip the new Jubilee Line.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Open Post: Gorblimey Trousers

This isn't London is not merely intended to be the ultimate reference guide; the author also has frankly misguided ambitions about creating a community of those dedicated to unearthing untrue, misleading and plainly wrong trivia about this great city.

With this in mind, I present the first "Open Post". I'll run one of these when an item of Arcana Londiniumensis exhausts even my considerable scholarly powers.

Let's set off with this: can anyone tell me the origin of "Gorblimey Trousers", as mentioned in the stirring Cockney Ballad My Old Man's a Dustman? Old Moore once mentioned that they were imbued with mystical powers. Any thoughts? Comment below.

The Origins of the A To Z

London's famous A To Z street guide was first serialised in Blackwoods magazine in the 1930s. Its evocative renderings of the London of the time were an instant hit, but many found the plot lacking and characterisation almost non-existent.

In the story, the heroic Kensal Rise travels from left to right in straight lines across London attempting to visit every street, an epic quest that takes him from Neasden to Grove Park. It was often compared to James Joyce's Ulysses, mostly in the sense of "nothing at all like Ulysses".

It was adapted for radio in 1936 but did not travel well, and was taken off the air after Page 62 (Earl's Court, Fulham and Parson's Green).

In 1946 it was discovered that German strategist had been using the map that accompanied the full text as a street guide to London while planning the invasion of Britain. The publishers thought they might be onto a winner and, taking a risk, released the map separately. It was an instant hit and still sells strongly today.

For the author of this site, however, nothing quite beats the original eight volumes of leatherbound fiction. Although they can be a little unwieldy on the Tube, they do provide something to read during delays and also, crucially, do not include the Elephant and Castle shopping centre (TiL passim).

Friday, July 02, 2004

Inhuman Traffic

Traffic has been an abiding bugbear of Londoners since Roman times. As Fetlock's London Chronyk pointed out in 1475:

"The Streetes doe so heave Wyth carts and theyr beastes of Laboyr that this Chronykler wasse layte for his worke agayne and didde gette a Ryght ticking-off fromme the Manyger of his Line; and suche is the heaving of the Beastes that their Dirt and Manyure does mayke manye a Pedestryan heave also."

In recent times, though, much of the motorists' ire has been directed at Traffic Wardens, who issue fines to illegally parked motorists. With these custodians of the yellow line again heavily in the news, we revisit the three most extreme cases of wardens overstepping the mark:

1. Parking services had to be suspended for three weeks in Islington in 1994 after it emerged that wardens were ticketing items of street furniture including bollards, benches and street lamps. While the council approved of the wardens' zeal and creativity, it found it self-defeating to end up paying the fines itself.

2. A 1990 plan to force drivers in the borough of Wandsworth to carry a warden in the front passenger seat of their cars at all times, believed to be the "final solution" to traffic violations, was abandoned after an "extremely successful" pilot because it cost too much.

3. Haringey council's innovative and more cost-effective policy of summarily executing errant motorists was scrapped in 1999 after three years of operation because of the escalating problem of abandoned vehicles and health and safety concerns.