Monday, October 25, 2004

The Manhole Thieves

Manhole covers are being stolen in Newham. Who are the potential culprits, according to the police?

- Irate feminists insisting that the manholes be renamed personholes.
- Cave-dwelling troglydytes attempting to gather more food.
- Subterranea Britannica on a recruiting drive.
- Jewellers on a hunt for larger, more distinctive "bling"-style meddallions.
- The provisional wing of the Ultimate Frisbee movement.
- Thames Water. Lifting manhole covers consumes valuable time and eats into dividends. This bold initiative would save enough to buy each board member a new golf club.
- The Criminal Underworld. These thefts would make the Underworld much easier to commute from.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Radio Ga-Ga #2: 1962-2004

Continuing the bizarre tale of piracy, misdirection and hallucinogens that is the history of London radio started in the previous post. PLEASE READ THE FIRST POST FIRST!

1962 saw the launch of RADIO CAROLINE from a ship moored just off the Essex Coast. Incensed by this upstart, the BBC was furious and attempted legal proceedings. However, the Beeb did have one extremely useful trick up its sleeve - the Received English Act of 1934. Originally designed as a way of keept the Queen's English free of the taint of "provincial" accents such as Scouse, Welsh or Cockney, the REA gave the BBC massive power to decide what was and what wasn't "proper" English, power it immediately used to stop Radio Caroline and the other "pirate" stations from using capital letters. It would have to become radio caroline, and would no longer be able to use acronyms or abbreviations, forcing the station to say british broadcasting corporation rather than BBC, frequency modulation rather than FM and disc jockey rather than DJ.

This was purely a wrecking tactic, designed to waste caroline's airtime and hurt its credibility. The staff were furious, but could do little, and slowly turned to the brutal tactics of the Spanish Main in order to stay operational: boarding msaller pirate stations and stealing their records, for instance, and raiding coastal villages - a devastating raid by Simon Dee (or simon fourth-letter-of-the-alphabet, as he had to be known after the REA was enforced) on Sheerness in 1968 reduced the settlement to a smoking ruin.

Eventually, weakened by this campaign and torn by schisms, radio caroline ceased transmission and was boarded by the Royal Navy under the command of Lord Belfast. The seized ship was towed into London by a triumphant Establishment and moored next to Tower Bridge, after being renamed HMS Belfast (picture).

But caroline had already had its influence. Its battle-hardened crew - including simon 4th-letter, alan "fluffbeard" freeman and tony blackburn - quickly stormed the offices of the new Radio One and secured their places in broadcasting history. Meanwhile, another set of desperadoes decided to stick with London broadcasting after the ban on capital letters was lifted. Some set up the defiantly titled "Lower Case Broadcasting" and gave it the deliberately confusing abbreviation LBC, while the notorious Chris Tarrant - feared at sea, when he went under the name "Captain Smirk" - set up the equally defiant CAPITALS RADIO, later shortened to CAPITAL FM. (If you click on that link, notice how "capital" on the logo is all in lower case - another snub to the REA!)

And so, London's radio scene settled into its now-familiar pattern, although LBC died and the stations KISS FM and XFM arrived to cater for more modern music.

However, the last legacy of caroline and the REA was a daring raid on the BBC Radio London offices at the turn of the century. An unknown band of thieves, bearded men who reeked of rum, succeeded in making off with most of the letters of the station's name, leaving it absurdly truncated to LDN. This escapade took months to correct, and shows that the spirit of caroline lives on ...

Radio Ga-Ga #1: 1920-1962

Like any thrusting metropolis worth its salt, London has a plethora of excellent radio stations to choose from (and Magic FM). However, for those of you who are new to the capital, or just visiting, or unaccustomed to the joys of the airwaves, or emerging from a lengthy bout of amnesia, or have only just recovered your lost sense of hearing, or hate radios but don't mind reading, I've prepared a little guide to them that details their fascinating, interlinked history.

Be warned. It's a bowel-loosening tale of piracy, spelling, hallucinogens and theft.

The first dedicated London station was the BAKER STREET BROADCASTING CORPORATION, which started operations from an aerial atop Selfridges on Oxford street in 1920. Rather than being a radio station as we understand it, its first purpose was to emulate an innovation popular in the West of the United States, where the plethora of new towns and cities, many of which looked alike, meant that to avoid confusion local radio stations had to constantly identify themselves so people knew where they were. Thus, the first words spoken on the London airwaves were: "Good evening. This is London."

This strategy was never quite abandonned, but over the months the BSBC's remit expanded to including news and some music for four hours a day. The then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, read the traffic reports.

By 1922, transmitter technology had improved to the extent that the BSBC covered most of the country, and since no one else was interested in escaped donkeys on the Metropolitan Line, it was given a new name: The British Broadcasting Corporation. To replace the lost service, the BBC launched BBC RADIO LONDON in 1926. Almost immediately, 26 donkeys were flushed out of the Tube network.

And so things continued until the Second World War, when the Radio London frequency was given over to the Ministry for Propaganda. As part of the War effort, it was necessary to misinform the Nazis as to the whereabouts of the capital city - it was broadcast from a variety of locations including Bristol, Stafford, Hull, Inverness and successfully fooled the Nazis so much that Operation Sea Lion, the projected invasion of Britain, was planned on the basis that the capital was just north of Leeds. Meanwhile, a replacement service called RADIO FREE LINCOLNSHIRE was broadcast in the London area; all its announcers spoke in whispers at all times and every broadcast opened with the now-iconic words: "This isn't London. Ssh!" Because of this policy of hush, Whispering Bob Harris, later of the Old Grey Whistle Test, got his big break at RFL.

After the War, Radio London returned and retained a monopoly over the city airwaves until the 1960s. Tiring of its traditionalist outlook and unwillingness to innovate, a group of young, controversial and undeniably hip DJs including Alan Freeman ("Not 'arf!"), Noel Edmonds ("01 811 8055!"), Iain Duncan Smith ("Oooooh!") and Tony Blackburn ("Hurhurhurhur!") took to a barge in the Thames and changed history ...

Monday, October 04, 2004

The Blackfriars Antiviaduct

A mysterious sight in London can be found next to Blackfriars Bridge. It's a set of what look like bridge piers running alongside the railway bridge (picture).

It's often assumed that these are the remains of an older bridge that was removed when it became obsolete. Not so. It is in fact that still very much operational Blackfriars Antiviaduct, a thrilling piece of Victorian innovation in the built environment.

An Antiviaduct is, in effect, an upside-down bridge - the vehicle-way runs along the river bed and the piers stick out above the water. Feeding into the Blackfriars Tunnel System (as previously explained on TiL), it was part of a route for the submersible Hackney ferries that crossed the river in the early part of the century after the invention of the Horse diving suit. These submersible Hackney carriages were a vital means of alleviating cross-river traffic as the surface ferry routes and bridges choked up; although hard work for the horses, they were a huge boon to their users.

But why, you might ask, would a bridge along the riverbed need piears at all? In fact, that's a foolish question as we are talking about a time when the suspension bridge was white-hot technology and still not in widespread use, so obviously the bridge needed piers to stop it floating to the surface. It would be years before a single-span Antiviaduct would be possible, and by then technology had moved on and the horse-drawn submersible Hackney Carriages were no longer needed.

A tourist service still operates at weekends during the summer holidays (low tide only).

Academic Circuses and Pedagogic Funfairs

[A lost internet connection at TiL headquarters has made posting difficult of late. Apologies. I am working to clear the backlog.]

It is considered to be mere coincidence that the West End has three major intersections named after the three greatest English Universities: Oxford Circus, Cambridge Circus and Leicester Square. In fact, it is far from coincidental.

In the 17th century, when the area now known as the West End was fields, but was fast disappearing under a network of Aberdeen Angus steakhouses and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. Having suffered considerably during the English Civil War, the Great Universities found themselves in straitened circumstances, and had to search more widely for undergraduates and patrons. So, they set up camp in strategic fields near the growing centre of London and built circuses there.

These circuses featured not only preforming fellows of the universities - Professor Sidney Woolden, a theologian from Caius College, Cambridge, was particularly famous for his death-defying thesis-eating spectacle - but also entertaining sideshows such as "Guess the Weight of This Gloss of the Book of Philemon", "Drink a Yard of Port" and "Hammer the Swan" (often played in that order).

All this was intended to lure visitors who could then be given the "hard sell" on signing up to the universities. It is believed that Adam Smith was only lured to Balliol, Oxford, after being given a flyer at the Oxford Circus and believing he was going to a golf sale.

Now, sadly, all that remains of these noble spectacles is the spaces they once occupied.