Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Gherkin Isn't Working

Swiss Re, the owner of the Erotic Gherkin, is finding London's newest skyscraper hard to let. Why is that?

- Potential tenants mishear "crystal phallus" and think it is Crystal Palace, SE19.

- Potential tenants experience deep-seated insecurity and a vague sense of unease when approaching the building.

- In this time of downsizing, staff wary of moving to any building with the word "axe" in the street address.

- Floorplans dramatically decrease in size when the weather is cold.

- The thick, curly undergrowth that surrounds the base of the tower is offputting.

- The tower provides too many opportunities for lazy internet satirists to make cheap nob jokes.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Box Clever

Well, my journey to work yesterday was ruined, like those of many others, by a signal failure at High Street Kensington, so I thought I would do a bit of research into how the Tube's signals actually work. Here are the results.

Pictured is G-10x signal unit, typical across the network:

Its components are:

A: The master signal control. The linchpin of the unit, the master control establishes what trains are on the line and which way the points are set. In a design that combines durability with resourcefulness, most of them are made from parts scavenged from toasters.

B: Signal relay board. This is the mechanical heart of the unit and provides back-up in the event of electronic failure. It's made from high-grade British plasticine.

C: Electronic control box (inset picture). Similar to those used in the reactor cores of the old Magnox nuclear power stations, this tangle of wires might not look like much but it was cutting-edge electronics in 1971, capable of providing computing power equivalent to a modern wristwatch. Once the Tube upgrade is completed in 2008, it will provide computing power equivalent to a modern digital watch. The wires are mainly surplus from the Romanian tractor industry.

D: I'm not entirely sure of the usefulness of this part. It's a yoghurt pot painted silver and stuck to the side of the unit with Pritt-Stick. It must do something important, because it's on most units.

E: System anchor. This ensures the unit isn't shaken to bits by vibrations caused by passing trains. It's held together by top-quality chewing gum (inset picture) and guaranteed by Wrigley's. Only Spearmint will do, unlike lesser networks that use Juicy Fruit.

F: Signal switch hub. This passes information from the signals back to trains and control rooms. It's a triumph of British design and miniaturisation: the box may look small, but the Tube engineers source especially small people to sit in them, pulling levers.

So don;t curse the next time you hear about a signal failure. These high-quality precision machines work faultlessly for hours on end, and failure rates have fallen significantly since the last balsa-wood components were eliminated.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Ĉu vi parolas Cockney?

As any schoolchild could tell you - in between sending their 187th text message of the day and hacking into the CIA database - Esperanto was created in the 1880s by LL Zamenhof.

What is perhaps more obscure is the influence this idealistic "second language for the world" has had on London, and in particular its remarkable relationship with Cockney rhyming slang.

One of the earliest problems afflicting Esperanto during its early years was the absence of slang. Most languages had slang, and although Esperantists was convinced that in time slang would develop, they were concerned that "regional dialects" would develop along with it, undermining the original purity of the concept of a designed language. For instance, French speakers of Esperanto might develop a version of slang that differed from the German version.

Therefore it was decided in 1902 that a pre-emptive effort be made to systematise Esperanto slang, just as Esperanto had systematised language. A problem with this idea was that it might mean inventing new words, something Esperantists were reluctant to do as their language was meant to be more pure and elegant than that.

Then, they alighted upon Cockney rhyming slang. For the uninitiated, Cockney rhyming slang replaces everyday words and phrases with rhyming equivalents, so one would say "apples and pears" rather than "stairs", "rat and mouse" rather than "house" and "Warren Beatty" instead of "Comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty". This creates a kind of colourful code language.

Immediately, the Esperantists started translating Cockney rhyming slang into Esperanto and establishing equivalents to the most commonly used phrases (which mean "lovely", "oi", and "shouting").

Crack teams of Esperanto linguists and ethnologists descended on the East End to thoroughly catalogue and translate the language therein. However, once installed in the area - taking jobs as taxi drivers, market vendors and pub landlords - the experts ran into problems. For a start, the scale of the Cockney rhyming vocabulary dwarfed their expectations. Also, the rate that neologisms were added to it was incredible. In the five years of the operation - 1931 to 1936 - 135,000 expressions were captured, including 12,000 that had been invented during that time (including "seven shiny pence" for "Sonoluminescence", and "kitchen entry" for "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century").

With the crisis in Europe deepening, the decision was made to recall the teams and abandon the attempt. However, the Esperanto community was horrified to learn that many of its top experts had "gone native", having taken a liking to jellied eels.

Then, the Second World War intervened, and the entire episode looked like disappearing into history. But the spirit of Esperanto lived on. Absorbing the atmosphering of East London, the vestiges of the team were discovered in the 1950s to be perfecting a new "scientific language" that would remove the hard constanants from English and replace them with glottal stops. The so-called ESperanto TWO vocabulARY - ES-TWO-ARY English, later Estuary English - can still be heard today in East London and Essex.

Monday, November 15, 2004


The Guardian has reported that the story that the monarchy would fall if the ravens left the Tower of London is, in fact, tosh and baloney. It was invented by the Victorians.

But this is only the beginning of the sort of blood-curdling saga of skullduggery that regular readers will now be familiar with.

In the early 19th century, East London had a healthy population of ravens, although they were not particularly associated with the Tower. They were much loved by the people of the East End for their ability to be taught simple tricks such as riding small penny farthings and juggling, and they were also useful for scaring away rats.

This changed in 1845 with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven. This charming and lighthearted story for children catapulted the large, black birds into the American popular imagination, and they swiftly became prized pets thanks to the easygoing and kind behaviour towards small children. The dark flipside of this was that the United States' population of ravens was swiftly depleted, and a trade in raven smuggling sprang up, aided by the East End's gangs of rogue ninjas.

Within months, the streets of East London were almost completely denuded of ravens. A mass petition was raised for the government to intervene and save the cherished birds, touching the heart of the young Queen Victoria. She ordered that no expense be spared in rounding up the birds and transporting them to the safety of the Tower.

This operation was a success, but hugely expensive. With the rest of the country questioning why so much money and time had been devoted to the wildlife of East London, a scandal was threatened.

Resourcefully, Victoria secured the services of a pamphleteer named Jerome Oundle. Oundle published a weekly title called The Illuminated London News. The ILN first appeared in 1830, when it was published on a shoestring. However, Oundle realised this made it very difficult to read and switched over to paper to publish his round-up of invented facts about the capital. By 1845 it was a modest success.

Oundle was asked to come up with a convincing story as to why it was in the national interest to herd the ravens into the Tower. His first attempt, claiming that ink produced from the raven black feathers was critical to the production of railway timetables, was widely derided. The scandal was turning from a minor row into a catastrophic farce, with the good name of the young Queen in peril and with it, the future of the monarchy. The public demanded that the Crown release the ravens from the Tower so that the remarkable inky properties of their feathers could be tested. Oundle said that this could never be allowed, and that to release the ravens now would cause the fall of the monarchy. The ploy worked.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Friday, November 12, 2004

58 London things

Here. I only had answers for a third of these, and a third of those answers were guesses.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Alfie: The Commentary

The classic London film Alfie has been re-made by director Charles Shyer with Jude Law in the Michael Caine role. TiL, a site that appreciates London films, has been sent a sneak preview of part of the commentary track that will go with the DVD edition. Here is a transcript; the voices are Shyer and Law.


Jude Law: I think what really impressed me about ... what got me interested was how unnecessary this film was.

Charles Shyer: [Laughs.] Yeah.

JL: I mean, I really wanted to make a completely unnecessary film.

CS: The idea really came when I heard they were making Ocean's 12. I thought 'I can make a more pointless film'.

JL: It was fun.

[Opening scenes. Alfie is walking down a New York street.]

JL: New York, New York ...

CS: [Laughs] My kinda town!

JL: This isn't London. Why did you decide to set it in New York, not London?

CS: Oh, lots of reasons. I mean, London's like the co-star to Michael Caine in the original. It almost upstages Caine. It's an archetypal London film. So I thought 'Hey, we're draining all the life and soul out of this, London has to go!'

JL: Yeah. I also felt that setting it in New York added an unnecessary complication of it being a bit like [Woody Allen's 1979] Manhattan.

CS: Only much worse, obviously.

JL: Sure. But it just gives the film that extra edge of being utterly confused in atmosphere, directionless, a sodden mass of half-hearted homages and pastiche.

CS: Really? I didn't aim to give it that much depth.

JL: Now, I thought this scene was a real desecration. [Laughs.]

CS: Yeah! I mean, I really ripped the hell out of the character of Alfie in the screenplay -

JL: - I mean, Bill Naughton's stuff was OK in the 1960s and 1970s, you know, when people were interested in being challenged by issues of morality and society and shit, but now that stuff's kinda boring -

CS: - yeah, but all the same I was impressed by how Jude managed to play Alfie with absolutely no emotional depth whatsoever.

JL: Thank you! I mean, Caine played Alfie brilliantly, the smirking face of a real moral black hole, a sexual predator, the bastard child of the permissive society, and I thought 'I'm trying to find my own voice here, and all that stuff has been done, and besides, that sounds like hard work'. So I looked for my own voice, and found that it was 'automaton with commitment issues'.

CS: There are episodes of Ally McBeal that have more profound things to say about sexuality and society. That was really the benchmark I was aiming for. 'More shallow than a typical episode of Ally McBeal.'

JL: I really enjoyed shooting this film, partly because of how much it will annoy fans of the original, and partly in the knowledge that anyone else will walk away with nothing. And yet people will still go to see it.

CS: Yeah. Suckers.

JL: This scene was hard work, but I think we managed to ruin it ...

[Continued in the same theme for one and a half wasted hours.]

TiL's review of Alfie? Five stars! Out of 10,000.

Infrequently Asked Questions

I checked one of the so-called "facts" on your website and found it wasn't true. Are you deliberately attempting to mislead?
Most of the stuff on this site is made up. I make it up. It isn't true. I am lying. This is fiction.

Aren't you worried that someone will believe you?

But why bother?
I enjoy it. Besides, most of the so-called "factual" information about London either isn't strictly "true" - exhibit A, Mr Harry Beck's Tube map, and the station indicator boards in most Tube stations - or is so wildly unlikely as to be unbelievable. For instance, this is a city that believes it will fall if some birds leave a big castle, and its global icons are called things like "Pearly Queens" or "Beefeaters" or have big hats made out of bearskin. London seems to require a bit of suspension of disbelief from its residents and visitors.

Where do the ideas come from?
How should I know? Mostly from noticing something odd about London and thinking about how it ended up that way. Or from people saying "you should write something about Leicester Square".

So you do requests?

I've written something. Would you like to use it?

Why is there often a long gap between posts?
Sorry about that. I am sometimes a little short on inspiration, and I do have a day job and a variety of other demands on my time.

Oho! So what do you do with the rest of your time?
I'm a freelance journalist, and I'm trying to write a book that isn't about London.

Talking of books, I think something TiL-based would make an excellent stocking filler for my nephew. Any chance of a TiL book?

Why "Taxloss"?
It's a very long story. I am not devoted to the band Mansun, but have used the name of one of their songs as a screen name since university. My real name is Will.

I long for legalese, am wowed by waivers, desire disclaimers, and get off on technicalities. Would you mind showing me some small print?
Oh, OK then. This Isn't London is copyright, and that's proper copyright, not some namby-pamby tree-hugging "copyleft" creative commons-style re-use agreement. Copyright is reserved by the author. All quotes must carry linked attribution. In cases where I am not the author of a piece, the copyright for that piece is retained by its author.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Here's a Hint

When looking for images of the statue in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, never ever do a Google Image search for "eros".

Sunday, November 07, 2004

For Fawkes' Sake

[Yes, I know this should have been published on 5 November, but I've been on holiday in Dorset. It was lovely, thanks for asking.]

As any schoolboy will tell you - in between asking for “Penny for the Guy” and stealing your mobile phone - the 5th of November remembers the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

Fawkes’ attempt was doomed to failure from the start, but not for the reasons that history books so irresponsibly print. He packed barrels with a mixture of sawdust, Mighty Crackers, Thunderbolts and Krakatoa rockets, standard for any large fireworks display in the early 17th century, but rather than stacking them in the cellars, as most people assume, he first sited them in the Members’ Tea Room, hoping to blow up the parliamentarians as they fortified themselves with bath buns and Earl Grey (at that time Earl Grey served tea for members) before the opening of parliament.

Disastrously for the plot, most people assumed the barrels were there for a lucky dip and started to take the fireworks and let them off from the terrace. (This was, incidentally, considered to be a success by the members, who decided it would be nice to do it every year, as well as the traditional tombola, burning of Catholics, and bingo.) By the time Fawkes managed to wrest control of the barrels from the increasingly over-excited parliamentarians, most of his arsenal had already exploded over the Thames.

Furious with himself, swearing to vote Lib Dem next time, and terrified that he had been foiled, Fawkes dragged the now nearly empty barrels down to the cellar, where he discovered that all he had left was two Flash-Bangs and three packets of sparklers. He set off the Flash-Bangs himself but they failed to penetrate the cellar roof and simply bounced around, singeing his eyebrows (he had failed to retreat to a safe distance, which in the original plan had been France). Exhausted and deeply disappointed by the awful failure of his plans, Fawkes tried to cheer himself up by lighting a few sparklers and spelling his name in the gloom of the cellar. Again, poor planning caught up with him. With no bucket of water to drop the extinguished but still-hot sparkler sticks into, he dropped them onto the floor, where one soon kindled some wood shavings into flame. Terrified that the building might burn down with him in it, Fawkes ran for help, and the rest is history.

The Quality of Hosiery

After the failure of Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, several vital changes were made to Commons security. They included:

- Sergeants were no longer equipped with flimsy 15-denier tights but instead moved up to the much more robust 40 denier, which is better at preventing laddering.

- The guards at the gates were instructed to first check if anyone had ordered 40 barrels of explosives before waving them through.

- War was declared with France. The French had not been involved with the plot, but they were known to have gunpowder, they had certainly used gunpowder in the past, and frankly it was the sort of thing they were likely to do. Besides, invading France just felt like the right thing to do.

- It was decided that the Commons cellars could no longer be allowed to remain empty, so they we safely filled up with firewood kindling, tar paper, lamp oil, blotting paper and old curtains.