Thursday, 26 June 2008

The Lord of Abbeville Road

I'm reading George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris in London at the moment, having rather a lot of time to myself and little else to do.

There aren't many similarities between my current situation and Orwell's experience - for a start, I'm not in abject poverty and Orwell's celebrated memoir described some very tough times in the 1930s.

But I have now joined the ranks of the down-and-outs in south-west London. OK, so being unemployed in Balham is not quite the same as being forced to pawn your only overcoat, or having to work eighteen-hour days as a plongeur in a filthy Paris hotel. But, like Orwell in Down and Out, it does expose you to meeting people who don't do the traditional nine 'til five day, and the sorts of characters you will never meet stuck in the office. A person without a job and who lacks structure in their life gets stuck in a very strange, basic sort of existence, as Orwell finds even more so in the second part of the book.

In the relative affluence of Abbeville Road, where I went for a mid-morning latte today after visiting my GP, there are plenty of people inhabit the coffee shops in daytime because they've either got kids, are retired or they're not working for some other reason. A much stereotyped 'yummy mummy' gossips about a friend who's doing Versace's advertising and an argument rages in an Italian cafe across the street. In Starbucks, a well-dressed, Wildesque figure with a long-flowing mane greets from the terrace:

"Good-day to you sir, would you fetch my drink from inside?". He pointed to his cane, and a cigarette in his other hand, thus rendering it impossible for him to safely convey his iced hot chocolate from the counter.

I brought the drink out and took a seat next to him, hoping to make the most of the sunshine. James David Cameron (no relation to the film director or the Tory leader) wore a crisp linen jacket and had a colonial air about him. He seemed relieved that I was reading the Guardian, a 'friend of mine' and acknowledged everyone who passed through for their morning coffee. Some ignored him, others had a cheerful greeting for him. He complained loudly to the staff about the lack of whipped cream on his drink and the wobbly tables. He even managed to give graphic accounts of his sex life with his girlfriend. A Bulgarian woman was gently teased about her poor spoken English. Cameron excitedly told anyone who'd listen about his upcoming role as an extra in a film with Russell Crowe - and "did I want to be in it too, £3,000 for a fortnight's work?" He insisted on taking my number, just in case.

It seemed appropriate to meet James after watching an outdoor screening of Withnail and I last night, for unlike Richard E. Grant's character he made unemployment seem so civilized. But , who desperately tries to appear superior and aloof despite his alcohol and drugs binges, there was nothing incapable about James apart from having suffered from MS since he was 17. The self-styled "Lord of Abbeville Road" was engaging and entertaining, and pleased to have company.

So, here's to being a 'bum', and as my friend Greg and I have recently discovered, you can 'rest' in style, and have a lot of fun at other people's expense whilst you're doing it!

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Friday June 11 2004, Wisconsin - South Dakota

To Badlands National Park, America's smallest. It is basically a lot of sandstone and unusual looking rocks, once engulfed by a vast sea millions of years ago. Not much opportunity for hiding here or doing my own thing, but lots of photo opportunities. We are lucky tonight in that we have the use of a cabin lodge at our campsite - a proper bed and decent shelter! But it turns out to be a peaceful evening anyway.

A highlight of this stop is the 'Corn Palace' in a tiny little town called Mitchell. The corn palace is essentially a large town hall decorated with....err...corn. Oh well, whatever amuses the locals I suppose...

Thursday June 10 2004, Chicago - Jackson

In Britain, the country is going to the polls in the European elections, which I helped campaign in before I left. President Reagan's funeral also takes place today.

We're on the road to Jackson, having left Chicago at 10am. Weather is poor, much cooler and raining all day.


There is not a lot to do or see in Jackson. I suppose this is God's way of making Kesgrave* look exciting. The campsite pitches are gravelly and the weather's getting quite miserable. I don't sleep well.

*The village I grew up in.

Wednesday June 9 2004 - Chicago

Weather clear, fine and humid - a little rain later.

Awoke a little later, but perhaps I'm justified as I had some good news - I've been awarded an upper second class degree with honours in Politics and International Relations. My stepfather, Rob, called me at 7am in the morning in my hotel room from to announce my results - so I'm very happy indeed! This is all despite my atrocious performance in a statistics module last year, which I resented every moment of, and the slog that was International Law.

So, my free day in Chicago went a bit like this; after leaving the hotel I had a Starbucks breakfast (club sandwich) and a large mocha, which is about twice the size of the British equivalent. Then, a lot of fuss and walking to get a Transit card, and a bus to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry - an enormous nineteenth century building a little way from downtown. Only spent an hour here, but it was worth a visit even just to see an early diesel-electric Streamline locomotive plonked in the middle and a Boeing 727. Then, back to the hotel and North Michigan Avenue to buy a new shirt in H&M. I'm constantly impressed at how globalization has made all of these stores so homogeneous, for the moment I walk in I know exactly where I'm going. The men's section is never on the ground floor, of course!

In the evening we take a trip by taxi to the Second City comedy club, where some of America's greatest comics have started out. There are two acts - the first is a troupe of women whose show consists of patchy character comedy, which when it's great is very sharp, but I'm not hugely impressed. The second act is is 'experimental' to put it diplomatically. The act is based on a rock band and the gags are cringe worthy and painful to watch.

Weather much cooler, and wetter.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Tuesday 8 July 2004, Sandusting, Ohio - Chicago, Illinois

Weather fine, clear and humid

It's exam results day today - and I'm on the road to Chicago - the windy city,and home of the blues.

Arrive in Chicago - such a contrast to New York. The weather is wonderful, but a sticky, humid heat. The skyline is similar to NY but the place has a more prosperous air about it. I really like Chicago.

Check in at the Cass Hotel in downtown Chicago - for a budget hotel it's quite pleasant. OK, it's costing me $90 for two nights but I'm sure can live with that. For the most of my trip I'll be camping, in all weathers, except in the larger cities where camping isn't practical. In the evening we take a walk to the visitor centre, then to Cafe Due for a rather scrumptious pizza meal. After the ten of us somehow all manage to pile in a taxi to the Sears Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, where we watch the sunset over Chicago, and the lights of the city begin to turn on. It is serene and rather beautiful.

Kingston Mines is our final visit of the day - not some sort of underground workings but a lively and surprisingly good Blues club. I had no idea I enjoyed Blues until this evening. Cori, our driver, becomes drunk and disorientated - I'm quite glad she's not driving tonight! I must look really young as everyone expresses surprise at my ID - 21 is the legal drinking age in the US, and in most states I've only just hit that milestone. Back at the hotel I'm absolutely knackered, and hit my bed straightaway.

Monday 7 June 2004 - Niagara Falls - Ohio

9:30 am - weather fine, clear and humid.

Up at 7am this morning for a return to the Falls, this time for the 'Maid of the Mist' boat ride - taking us right to the bottom of the Falls. We are issued with plastic ponchos and waddle lemming-style on to the boat. It is an incredible, beautiful experience. Bought some postcards to send to the folks back home, then hit the road to Sandusting, Ohio. Pass through some rather run-down parts, such as Cleveland.


My views on the political hues of this country seem to be reinforced. Yesterday at a gas station I saw a whole host of patriotic memorabilia - including that famous playing card t-shirt with the the words 'Saddam Hussein - we got him!' on it. What a load of gung-ho crap.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Sunday 6 June 2004, New York - Pennsylvania - New York

5:45am, Gershwin Hotel, New York

Despite the somewhat unfamiliar surroundings, I quickly check out of the Gershwin and head for the subway. Well, that's the plan anyway. I like to think I've got a good sense of direction generally, but I don't really know where I'm going, and two ladies endeavour to help me as I scan the system map. But despite being native New Yorkers, they don't really know where I'm supposed to be going either. Someone tells me to get the New Jersey train - that can't be right? Eventually I tire of their misleading directions and ask a policeman who helpfully directs me back to street level. The familiar sight of a yellow cab hoves into view - sod it, I'll pay $11 to get to the Hotel Belle Claire if I have to. It gets me there on time - and it must be the distant Scottish ancestry which keeps my hawkish eye fixed on the meter as we progress through deserted early morning New York.

Meeting the fellow Trekkers (this being the plural for the group of travellers on the Trek America 'Transcontinental North' trip), I notice we're a surprisingly British bunch of people. The only non-English person is Astrid, an Australian who I consider an honourary Brit for the trip. So our full contingent are made up of me, Dave from South Wales (who I met last night), Pete (who's from Dover originally, and used to do a politics show on Invicta FM back in Kent), Martin (the oldest of the group at 34), John and Jo (a couple), Sara and Sarah (also a couple, and from South Wales). The two couples have just finished the Transcontinental South trip, which started in Los Angeles and ended up in New York, so they're already on chummy terms with Cori Tucker, our zany tour leader.

* * *

Ronald Regan died yesterday at the age of 95, and with it a whole epoch of American politics. I guess no-one's seen or heard much of him in recent years, as he had suffered the debilitating Alzheimer's Disease. There are flags at half mast everywhere, and tributes appearing in all the newspapers. Presidents Bush Snr and Jnr have both been quite visible, as have Reagan's European contemporaries Gorbachev and Baroness Thatcher. Apparently, Thatcher recorded her tribute two years ago - she won't speak at Reagan's funeral in person as some brave Chelsea doctors have banned her from doing any more public speaking. But America seems to be carrying on as normal in the wake of this loss.


10:30pm - Niagara Falls - USA and Canada

We are now in Niagara Falls, which to quote every visitor to this place, is 'awesome'. After arriving at the Four Mile Creek campsite I manage to capture a gorgeous sunset with my new digital camera. After dinner, we go back in the van to see the Falls fully floodlit. The Falls are divided into two parts - American Falls and Horseshoe Falls. The latter is the most famous part and tends to be the picture postcard depiction. It is absolutely amazing, and I had no idea it was so close to Canada. The city of Niagara Falls is lit up on the other side of the border. We visit Hard Rock Cafe and get our passports stamped by the amicable Canadian immigration controls people. Coming back across the bridge to the US their counterparts are abrupt and unfriendly. In the space of just an hour, I notice a small cultural difference between the US and Canada.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

New York, Saturday 5 June 2004

Weather: cloudy but fair.

Sitting in a branch of Wetherspoons at Heathrow's Terminal 4 eating a £5.99 'traditional breakfast' - trying to relax, with a cup of Tetley's tea. This will be my last taste of British culture for five weeks - quite literally.

There is something reassuringly grim about British airports - the staff working in the bars, cafes and overpriced designer shops are no more friendly or personable than anywhere else. Terminal 4 is the newest of all the Heathrow Airport termini but it's style seems refreshingly bland and quite unlike its European or American counterparts. No glamour, no frills, no inspiring architecture. But, you bet you can find an absurdly expensive perfurmery or a Sunglass Hut that boasts of tax-free prices.

I feel ridiculously nervous and tense, because I hardly got a wink of sleep last night. My erstwhile housemate had been out drinking until the early hours, and upon stumbling back home with his new 'companion', continued his hedonistic pleasure with my supplies of Irish whiskey and Bombay Sapphire. I woke up late for my flight, with my Dad on the doorstep, ready to drive me to the airport, wondering why I haven't showered or dressed yet. The bathroom graphically displays the regurgitated evidence of last night's partying, so I decide against it and opt for a quick bath instead. So, after my panicked start to the day, you can see why I'm not exactly in the best frame of mind, and I don't even look back to wave goodbye to Dad, Molly and Mary as I go through security in to the departures area. This is the first time I've flown by myself - I'm 21 and looking forward to another 'liberating' experience, which I'm supposed to enjoy. Perhaps it's the coldness and systematic procedure of the airport that makes me feel so close to 'the edge'.

Ah well, give it a few more gins once I get on the plane and I'll be fine...

10:00 PM - Gershwin Hotel, 7 East 27th Street, New York. Weather, cloudy but fair. Rained this evening.

Well, here I am. Arrived in John F Kennedy airport at 4:00pm, surprisingly earlier than I expected. Went through the usual bureaucracy you have to go through when coming to the US, so that I can check I'm not a terrorist, communist, or a homosexual (oh, hold on...). Headed straight to the SuperShuttle, which is somewhat more low-key than its brandname suggests, being more of a glorified Ford Transit. But they're full, and a typically upfront taxi driver quotes me $19 for the ride into town. He actually charges me $33 in the end, but I'm so keen to get to the hotel I don't quibble with him. The ride does include an interesting trip through downtown Manhattan though, so we get a good view of the skyline, Time Square etc.

My hotel, the Gershwin, is quite a funky sort of place, with a retro, Sixties feel and lots of abstract art adorning the walls, and it plays house music in the entrance lobby. I can't imagine anywhere like this in London. We're just a stone's throw from the Empire State Building here, and Macy's department store, the biggest in the world. At ground level it all feels a bit unimposing now that the World Trade Centre is gone.

I meet Dave early in the evening, who joins me on the trip. Dave is from South Wales, and staying in a different hotel prior to beginning the tour proper tomorrow. later, who's closer look at Time Square later - it has an amazing vibe about it, absolutely bustling with life and very exciting. Weaving our way back to my hotel, I'm struck by how filthy the streets are here - perhaps it's because it's the weekend? Or is it that these giant overflowing trash cans still aren't capacious enough to serve the hearty appetites of Americans? I do give London a hard time, but for a supposedly world-class city there's litter strewn all over the streets and a general smell of decay. I suppose that's a sign that this is a living, breathing city which, like London, is a bit rough around the edges. In any case, New Yorkers are wonderfully friendly and seem to go out of their way to help you.

Back at the Gershwin, I am sleeping in a shared domitory, and I arrive to find evidence that it's definitely lived in. I shower and settle down for the night about 10:45pm, only briefly woken by a girl who sneaks in during the night, realises I'm in bed, and then scampers off - "Sorry!". I didn't realise I had the place to myself, though I wake up constantly throughout the night worrying that I'm going to oversleep - again - and miss my tour departure!

Some travel writings

It's about time that some of my travel writings made it to my blog, rather that sit in scrawled ballpoint in a little red Fidel Castro notebook. In the next few weeks I'm hoping to transcribe some of the entries, and maybe, in the style of thelondonpaper's City Boy, embellish them a little. I've also got another trip coming up in a few weeks' time, to Sweden, where I might be able to entertain you with some more thoughts and experiences.

The forthcoming posts will deal with my trip to the US in June 2004 - blimey, that's four years ago, when I was just out of university and making my way in the big wide world. It's not blogging in the true sense of the word, as everything happened a while ago now, but this seems the most appropriate channel for it, rather than letting it get dusty in my box of junk!

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The need to be self-indulgent

So, I’m unemployed for the first time in my life. Apart from being a student and having the odd gaps between study and proper ‘grown-up’ jobs, this last week has been the first time I’ve ever had to think about the structure of my day aside from the usual getting up, eating, washing, sleeping and checking my emails, as I do first thing anyway. Besides the very important job-hunting, there’s little else to do and being essentially a very social person who needs other people to bounce off, I’m finding these long daytimes don’t exactly stimulate me.

On the other hand, it feels strangely like being eighteen again, in that long hot summer before university started. Well, it might not have been that long and hot, but everything looks rosier in retrospect! I had my mum’s car at my disposal, plenty of friends in the same position and what seemed like unbridled freedom. I hadn’t got a care in the world and a hugely exciting three years of being away from home ahead of me.

Seven years on I’m lucky to have been able to shape my life quite happily, and I’ve reaped the benefits of being a bit more sorted and with somewhat more direction in my life. Leaving my last job was a temporary setback – perhaps knocking my self-belief somewhat – but it was the right thing to do and those eight months have now been safely deposited in the dustbin of history. At least I’ve got the time and mental space to meaningfully look for something else. Every morning I’m getting quite excited by the prospect of working for more dynamic and exciting organisations, so there’s hope yet. And a holiday in a few weeks time should help recharge my batteries even more, in preparation for the next challenge.

This evening I’ll be doing my volunteering at the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, which I’m looking forward to, as I’ve not done a shift in a few weeks. At least I can listen to other peoples' problems on the phones in the knowledge that my worries aren’t all that bad!

Friday, 13 June 2008

A referendum on personal vanity

I'm really looking forward to the pending by-election in Haltemprice and Howden (Con, David Davis) because the definite abstention of the Liberal Democrats and the likely ignorance by Labour means that Davis has a good chance of digging his own political grave without the other main parties being involved.

By-elections aren't for single issue politics, and 'principle' of opposing 42-days detention is not served well by creating a publicity-seeking by-election for the benefit of an embittered right-winger with leadership ambitions. Under the British constitution a member of the Cabinet must accept collective responsibility. The minister or shadow is bound by the decisions made by his or her colleagues as a whole, and resigns when the issue is such that they feel they can't accept the decision and stay in their post. Going the whole hog, and resigning your seat as well as your shadow cabinet post is baffling, and high-risk

He says he wants to 'lead a national debate on civil liberties' but by resigning his seat he's making sure that debate is most firmly centered around....erm....him!

The Irish are counting the results today of their own referendum on the Lisbon treaty - now, that's the proper way to have a national debate about a big issue! Davis was, until yesterday, an elected representative of the people of Haltemprice and Howden who most probably voted for him because of his stance on many issues, and has forced a referendum in his own constituency. Meanwhile, the constituents of Haltemprice and Howden will face a pointless by-election in which they get to vote for the (a) dangerous right winger , the (b) nutcase right winger or the (c) facist, assuming that the usual shower of lunatic parties decide to stand a candidate.

(STOP PRESS: Need I say more, Kelvin MacKenzie, erstwhile editor of The Sun has announced he might be interested in standing in the seat - roll on this ridiculous showdown!).

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Driven by the drink - thoughts on Boris Johnson's alcohol ban

I felt compelled to respond to my boyfriend’s blog post on Boris Johnson’s somewhat misguided ban on alcohol on public transport in London, not only because I have a slightly different view but because he’s worried that no-one reads his blog!

Actually, I don't think this ban is so much as a criminal offence, but probably more of a by-law. The Underground and buses publish 'conditions of carriage' which stipulate things like passengers not talking to drivers whilst the vehicle is in motion, not putting your feet on the seats, and giving up your seat to an older person etc. They also ask you to do things like not eat revoltingly smelly kebabs, and to turn the volume down on MP3 players for other passengers’ comfort.

Most people see these things as being quite reasonable and help retain an order of general acquiescence and a pleasant environment on public transport. A ban on alcohol effectively comes into the same category as the rules which stop people going through the grey gates at the end of platforms, or board a bendy bus with a pre-pay Oyster and not ‘touching in’ for example.In terms of being enforceable, a bus driver can refuse someone travel if they're being violent or abusive and in principle, they should have the right to ban someone with alcohol if they think it's going to cause a problem. So it's right that TfL staff should be empowered to prevent someone drinking on their vehicles if they think it's going to be a problem. The problem is that they won't have the confidence or the training to challenge a whole load of Arsenal/Fulham/Crystal Palace supporters (delete as appropriate!) who’ve just come from their game all tanked up and ready to cause trouble. If such a ban would work, it would be applied just as equally to the slightly squiffy young City couple on the train back to Epsom with a half-drunk bottle of Pinot Grigio in their hand...

Ultimately it's a bit harmless as a rule, and hardly criminalises the act of drinking – and as it will be so difficult to police (given British Transport Police’s other, more pressing priorities) it's hardly worth worrying about. Those people so utterly devoted to their right to carry on drinking whilst between the pub or restaurant and home might feel aggrieved that their liberty is being somewhat encroached upon. But for people who feel that buses and tubes are a 'neutral', safe, space where we just go from A to B without feeling the need to get sloshed in between, there's no harm in this ‘law’ from Boris saying “we’d rather you waited until you got to the other end!”

If anything, it just proves that Boris' policies aren't really that serious and don't get to the root of the problem - namely a culture which encourages excessive binge drinking! That one will take literally generations to sort out. Personally, I'm more concerned that Boris won't be giving any money to the Pride celebrations in London this year, or respecting the importance of London's diverse communities which Ken Livingstone used to.

So, right now I’m just going to set up a Facebook event to organise a massive piss-up on the Circle Line on 31 May! Hic

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Election postscript

I've never spent such a tense day as I did yesterday, constantly checking on the progress of the Mayoral election results. And when the result finally did come through, confirming our worst fears that Boris Johnson had comfortably won City Hall, it really hit home.

Ken's valedictory speech was moving, and I could detect a little bit of emotion in his voice as he spoke from the platform. Hardly surprising, given the passion with which he's served London and the way in which he's understood it like no other politician. He's faced down his critics admirably, sometimes controversially, but always honestly. No-one could forget the way in which he brought the city together on 7 July 2005, and the speech which said it all about what sort of city London is. And at the risk of being a candidate for Private Eye's 'OBN' column, I don't mind admitting I shed some tears last night when I think about what sort of man London has lost.

Here's one of my favourite clips of the man in action...proof of what he was up against

Ken loses it at City Hall

So where did we go wrong? Ministers such as Justice Secretary Jack Straw have been saying we all "shoulder the blame", particularly with regard to some national issues, but I think London's politics are something quite different. We really should have won this.

Our campaign was flawed for a number of reasons. An article in yesterday's Guardian went a long way to explaining these issues. For me, a lot of it is about geography and Ken's inability to reach out to the middle-class suburbs. London is like a doughnut, or a Polo mint. We concentrated too much on the hole in the middle and didn't reach out enough to the people on the outside - inner London and the suburbs are after all two very different places. Our activists were really thin on the ground in places like Bexley and Kingston, which really didn't help get out the vote there. We also didn't stick to a clear message - was Boris just a clown or a nasty right-wing Tory? Or both?

A part of me is going to have to get used to Tories in top jobs again, but the divisiveness of Boris Johnson means I really can't see how he's going to appeal to ethnic minorities, gays or anyone who's vaguely socially progressive. Johnson is a pretty much unreconstructed free-market Thatcherite, whom - bumbling persona aside - represents the return of what the sort of hard-line right wing Tories we thought we'd seen the last of in 1997. We don't really know how his policies are going to pan out, such as his fabled new Routemaster (which I suspect will be quietly forgotten once he's realised how unworkable it will be). Alongside delivering the chaotic and ill-thought out manifesto, he even promises us the "odd indiscretion" from time to time, which will no doubt have Londoners glowing with pride as this comic character attempts to run a city of eight million people.

Boris may have won London, but he's not won our hearts and minds. Roll on 2012.

Friday, 2 May 2008

All over, bar the counting

So it's all over bar the counting. Ken, and Labour's fate is sealed not only in London but across the country. As I sit down in front of the BBC's Election Night coverage it feels strangely like the last General Election, because to all intents and purposes this is a referendum on the performance of the Government since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Oddly, I don't feel Labour's general woes have been reflected in London, as I knocked on doors and spoke to voters across the capital. Whether people in Balham or Barnet have their own reasons to vote for or against the Labour candidate is a separate issue. Personalities have dominated, as they tend to now, especially with the coverage afforded by the free newspapers, blogs, and other media outlets.

Anyway, we did well today. I'm absolutely exhausted, but the hours of traipsing the streets seemed to work a treat. We had the highest turnout of anywhere in the ward, which was good news for our patch at least. Not one person I personally spoke to said they were voting for Boris, although I'm sure they existed somewhere in the ward. Here in Balham it is difficult to tell - we're in an inner London borough (Lambeth) but with plenty of green space and wealthy commuter occupied homes. The place actually looks quite Tory, but the make-up of our street suggests otherwise.

I still have no idea what's going to happen, but I've enjoyed the campaign, and I can sleep well tonight knowing I've done something to prevent London going blue. Tomorrow will tell...

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Brixton Market, Wednesday afternoon

I really didn't need convincing that this man needs another four years to carry on his excellent work running London. But I took the opportunity to join the Ken campaign team this afternoon to convince the people of Brixton too - and it really wasn't difficult! After a slightly chaotic start, when we were told that Ken would be arriving on the Victoria Line, then by car, then finally arriving at the tube in the rain, an enthusiastic crowd of Labour and Ken-sympathetic people joined Ken Livingstone and Val Shawcross on the campaign trail around the iconic Electric Avenue, and some of the warmest supporters of this man that I've met so far. I lost count of the number of people who wanted their picture taken with him - market traders stopped what they were doing and owners left their shops to get snapped.

We were also joined by slightly random Japanese television crews as well as BBC London and LBC. Each got a fair assessment of the campaign from the man himself, who pronounced he'd enjoyed himself, although I bet by now he's absolutely exhausted, as is Victoria, his press officer, another party person whom I know through a friend. I bet they'll be glad when all this is actually over - it's not been easy from the press side of things.

I'm too tired to write any more now except to say I've had a fantastic time on the campaign trail myself and I can't wait to get down to the polling station tomorrow!

Monday, 28 April 2008

Lessons to be learned after 1 May

The vitriol and the smears from the Standard have continued right up to the very bitter end, but I think Ken may just clinch this election. Today, their headlines claimed Boris had claimed an 11% surge over his rival, only a couple of days after the Guardian/ICM poll put Livingstone 6% ahead. Or, 4% if you count the people who've actually registered. So, as those who've interpreted this campaign have proved throughout, the truth is somewhere in between and not one candidate has really pushed that far past his rival.

I suspect we're in for a few surprises on Thursday - and not necessarily with the final outcome of the contest. If anything, this election will prove that pollsters' methods are outdated. Have they really taken into account the multiple combinations of first and second preference votes? There are some unholy alliances which will undoubtedly manifest themselves on polling day, and they won't be confined to the 'big four'.

So, to the big organisations who supposedly act as a weather vane for democracy - remember, not everyone in London has access to the Internet. Consider whether your sampling methods are fair and representative of the online and offline electorate. And, a caution to the candidates who judge their popularity by the number of people signed up to their respective Facebook groups. Perhaps I take democracy too seriously, but there's more to this than casually joining an online group when you don't necessarily intend to back it up at the ballot box.

I said in my previous post that I think this election could be won by the bloggers, but the issue is with the gulf of expectation between the number of people who say they'll vote, and those who've already scribbled down their choices by post or will plod down to the polling station on 1 May. More often than not, the results of these knife edge elections will have a number of factors influencing their result. Thursday could bring with it torrential storms and resulting in a huge swathe of less mobile and older people who decide against voting. On the other hand, we could be blessed with fine sunny spells - either way, it'll have an impact on the final result.

Whatever happens - the majority of voters will have made up their mind at this stage in the campaign (even if they weren't telling me so when when I went canvassing the other night!) and the final push of the Ken campaign will hopefully have made a positive impact. Ken's really made this job what it is by constantly pushing the limits and out-politicking everyone else. By doing so he has proved there's too much at stake to leave this fantastic city in the care of at best, a somewhat confused right-wing buffoon, and at the worst, a reactionary unreconstructed Thatcherite. London deserves a bit more confidence in its future than that.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Why this election might be won by the bloggers

Guardian blogger Dave Hill has been blogging about the various TV debates, including the most recent Question Time on BBC One.

The problem with the national TV debates has been that the producers have been desperately trying to make the Mayoral contest relevant to people all over the country. But, although the job of Mayor is a highly influential position, with potential hotlines to the Government and the many other perks of being a world-class city leader, it's genuinely not of any interest to the people of Aberystwyth or Aberdeen, Belfast or Bournemouth.

The same situation is apparent in the national press, although Joe Public arguably gets more opportunities to ignore the London coverage when flicking through their copy of the Daily Mail. Put the other way, it would be like people in London being forced to watch televised debates of the Kesgrave Parish Council by-elections every day for a month.

The two-way (at best three-way, if you count Brian Paddick) debates become inherently confrontational as the programmes have to simplify the issues, and broaden their appeal to justify their airtime. Both Johnson and Livingstone had to resort to getting a little nasty with each other on the ITV debate the other night, and even Paddick, often praised for his good nature, told Boris Johnson to "shut up" on Question Time. Not exactly the most Parliamentary of language, is it? Or perhaps a different set of rules applies for candidates who are not bound by the conventions of the House of Commons...

Perhaps that's why this election, more than any other, will be won by the bloggers and other media outlets where TV targets the wrong audiences, and does so in a way which patronises not only the electorate of London, but the poor souls in the provinces who have to be bored to death by our own local politics.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Three men and a dog - take two

The success of our little stunt outside the Stonewall hustings on Saturday convinced a group of us Labour activists to pull it off again. This time, it was the turn of ITV to hold their big Mayoral debate. A more raucous, less civilised affair than it's BBC counterpart, the 'Big Three' as they're becoming known all took part, taking questions from the audience sporadically. We decided to focus our protest by the queue waiting to go into the studio - this time we had to make do with a stuffed dog from the Disney store, but he more than served the purpose. In fact, we got rather attached to 'Lucky'...

Brian Paddick bounded up with his entourage, probably seeing the yellow banner and thinking we were Lib Dems. Ken arrived and nodded at us cheerfully on his way into the studio. He seemed to appreciate the effort we'd gone to, though I'm not sure he knew which party we were from.

Most telling was the fact that Boris' campaign visibly panicked when they noticed our presence, and their man was nowhere to be seen. Presumably because he didn't want to be photographed in front of our banners. Johnson claims half his campaign team are gay - really? I haven't met a single gay man or lesbian in London who's backing him - and when he was writing such ignorant bile about LGBT people as recently as 2000, is it surprising?

Sunday, 20 April 2008

I've been pierced!

My first ever bit of metalwork, which I had done today at Selfridges on Oxford Street.

It doesn't hurt as much as I thought it would, either!

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Stonewall fosters healthy debate in Mayoral election

I went to the Stonewall Mayoral hustings this morning - an event I had been eagerly anticipating for weeks. It was refreshing to see a room full of gay and lesbian people who were actively interested in politics - and on all sides of the spectrum - in an age when apathy is rife and my apolitical friends tell me that no politician could do anything for them.

The candidates were true to form - with a few surprises thrown in. Each candidate spoke in the order in which they had accepted the invitation to the hustings.

Brian Paddick (Liberal Democrat) was first up, although touched on very little of what I would call 'policy'. He's actively exploiting his openly gay police officer status, and the accolade of having successfully sued both the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday. Paddick comes across as remarkably dull and not a particularly coherent speaker. A bit like a date you can't wait to get rid of.

Boris Johnson (Conservative) speaks at breakneck speed. He had been carefully coiffured for the occasion, the scruffy blonde mop being conspicuously absent. Boris' main argument seemed to me to be that he was a man who wanted merely to tinker with the successes of Ken's eight years as Mayor - not someone with radical new ideas, and worse, someone who couldn't be trusted to manage a city of eight million people. As the Beano candidate, Boris amused the audience with his posh, clumsy way, but got angry at one point, thumping his fist on the table when one questioner took him to task over the discrepancies between his stated positions on civil partnerships (the infamous 'two men and a dog' quote) and the fact that he had voted for the repeal of Section 28. This was a debate Boris' campaign advisers couldn't save him from.

Ken Livingstone (Labour) was the only candidate who not only successfully hit all the right LGBT buttons, but also the wider issues facing London - transport, climate change, affordable housing, and so on. As the current incumbent he has an inbuilt advantage, but he clearly understands that gay and lesbian citizens not only care about how much City Hall gives for the Pride march each year, but astonishingly - they want decent homes and a reliable tube service as well! With a pedigree of serving London which goes all the way back to the early seventies, and long-standing support of the LGBT community, Ken is the candidate with the broadest appeal - at least on paper.

Sian Berry (Green) was well informed on LGBT issues - she understood the frustration of the LGBT community on issues such as the promised LGBT museum, which the GLA had mooted back in 2004. For various reasons, this hadn't happened - and it was a slightly obscure point anyway, as most gay Londoners will be more concerned about bread and butter issues like policing and transport than cultural niceties, which although important, shouldn't be the things on which elections are won and lost.

I didn't have a particularly high opinion of Lindsay German (Left List) before today (she's a long standing member of the Socialist Workers' Party/Respect), but she comes across as a passionate speaker, especially on issues such as child poverty in London. Lindsey advocated Left List supporters voting for Ken as their second choice, although why they can't all vote for Ken, who's quite possibly the most powerful socialist in the country, is beyond me. Still, that's third-camp Trotskyism for you...

Thursday, 3 April 2008

A response to the Time Out editorial, issue 1963 - 3 April

I wonder how the Time Out editorial team think that political parties are run in this country?
You quite rightly took the decision to stand down your candidate Michael Hodges from the London mayoral election. We agree that standing a candidate on the popular ideals of Time Out readers is the basis for a politically confused campaign (and don't get me started on Boris Johnson...).
But where on earth did you get the idea that political parties can pay their members to go out and campaign on their behalf? I've been a member of the Labour party for the last five years, and I can't remember a single occasion when a cheque dropped through the door for my Sunday morning efforts leafleting on a Lambeth council estate. Political parties are made up of people who care about politics and have a shared set of ideals about how they want to see a country or a city like London run. And, apart from a relatively small number of full-time staff, they certainly don't expect monetary renumeration for their efforts.
(Incidentally, political parties get access to the electoral rolls because they are democratically accountable to their members, unlike fringe loony magazine candidates who are accountable to whatever decisions you take over a cosy cup of tea in your editorial meeting!)
One more thing - what are the discriminatory barriers standing in the way of anyone wanting to run for election as Mayor? There is at least one genuinely independent candidate standing in the election this year - as well as representatives from every other major party. In democracies, people naturally join together to form common associations of like minded people. The 'people's manifesto' which you champion exists in every single one of the manifestos promoted by this year's candidates, no matter how much I disagree with the people in other parties. That's genuine democratic choice.
Yours sincerely
Paul Prentice

Thursday, 13 March 2008

A listening post

For the past couple of years I've been searching for the perfect volunteering opportunity, since deciding I wanted something to fill the rather empty gap between work and play.

Apparently, I'm quite a good listener, and I've always wanted to get involved in a cause where I can use those skills to help someone through a problem. I really believe people can be helped through their demons by listening to someone who's got the time and willingness to hear them, helping them through logical steps and positive thought to find solutions.

Personally, I guess I was brought up in the 'pull yourself together and get on with it' school of thought, but that doesn't mean I'm somehow emotionally distant or incapable of showing it when I've got a problem. Perhaps that's a sort of strength - a sign of a true Taurean maybe - but it makes it all the more frustrating for me when other people don't talk about their problems!

Towards the end of last year, I thought that the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard might seem the perfect outlet for my skills. After an interview back in January they offered me a place on their core assessment training (CAT) course. I tried something quite similar once during my university days - it was 'Niteline' then - or 'Gayline' on Wednesday nights. I remember getting very passionate and angry when the union decided to close it down and even took motions to our union council condemning it. University distractions and the lure of the pub meant that I never persevered with it.

Last night was the second session, in which we learnt lots of useful tricks on how to answer a call. For example, 80% or so of communication is through face to face contact, so you have to make up for it on the phone. You can give verbal 'nods' so a caller knows you're listening, and callers can be encouraged to divulge more of their problem through reflection and 'echoing' of the question. I've started to irritate Andy already with my practice of my new-found skills in everyday conversation. I don't want to give away too much about the training here, because it's probably not the done thing!

I think this might turn into quite a worthwhile distraction for me - the course is very well run, and I'm confident I can reach the standard required to pass and become a fully-fledged volunteer. It'll also be another string to my bow in terms of communication skills - I passed the first stage of British Sign Language level one course last week. There's still a long way to go with both, but the journey's immensely enjoyable.

London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard
020 7837 7324 (daily 10am -11pm)

Monday, 10 March 2008

A Routemaster response from Boris' campaign team

Further to my earlier blog post, I got in touch with Boris Johnson's campaign team about Boris' ill-thought out plans to replace London's Routemaster buses with a 21st century replacement. Here's my email, my reply and my response to Boris' policy team.

Dear Mr Swaden,

Thank you for your detailed reply, which I was pleased to receive. I was already aware that TfL do not own the bendy buses outright, this being a by-product of the London Buses privatisation in the 1990s. I think my issue is with the costs of designing and producing an entirely 'new' vehicle essentially based on what is essentially a 1900s design. Your projected £8 million cost of wholesale bendy bus replacement ignores the fact that the original Routemaster took some five years of development, some fifty years ago,and even then it wasn't perfect. Who would pay for the cost of a new bus? TfL? The private companies? I am also sceptical of a bus with an open rear entrance (leaving TfL and the bus companies open to expensive lawsuits from a higher accident rate) would be the safest and most appropriate solution for London in 2008. Personally, I love the Routemaster for its 1950s charm and classic design - I've worked on them as a conductor in a part-time job for a private hire company too, so I know how they operate down to the last detail! So, for Boris to envisage wholesale replacement of the bendy bus with a replacement vehicle within the four-year term of the Mayor's office is just impractical. A new double decker with ample Oyster readers, wide doors and disabled access is what is needed. London doesn't need special treatment as other European cities will testify.

With regards to consultants, it's easy for politicians to demonise the 'army of consultants' employed to suggest improvements to services. But, when you consider that London has a transport system which is the envy of the world, an extra £79 million a year, with the 2012 Olympics coming up is hardly a huge price to pay. Ken Livingtsone, to his credit has placed great faith in public transport and the slightly extended price of a professional, expert opinon is far lower than the potential cost overun which could be caused by a Mayor who has never run anything bigger than a political magazine. Mr Johnson would easily be out of his depth.

With kind regards, but a vote for Ken Livingstone,

Paul Prentice

Dear Mr Prentice,

Many thanks for your email, Boris has asked me to reply on his behalf. Boris feels that Londoners want an iconic bus that they can identify with. Pensioning off bendy buses will not cost anything, as when we renew the bus contracts we will specify to the bus companies that they must not use bendy buses. TfL doesn’t even own the bendy buses, so the removal of this unloved bus will not cost Londoners anymore than it has already. TfL claim getting rid of bendy buses and introducing a new Routemaster with conductors wouldcost £60 million. This is untrue. The current per annum cost of the 24 conductors on the remaining Routemaster routes is £590,000. That is £24,600 per conductor. If you replaced the 337 bendy buses with new Routemasters,with conductors, that would cost £8,290,200 per year, not £60 million.

To put that into context, TfL plan to spend an extra £79 million next year juston consultants, so even if it did cost £60 million, we could afford it by scrapping the extra consultants without having to increase fares. If there is anything else you would like to raise with us, please do nothesitate to do so, it is vital that we hear from Londoners on issues thatconcern them.

Yours Sincerely

David Swaden, Boris Johnson's Policy Team

I'd like to know how Boris' plans for a 21st century Routemaster would befunded. I agree that bendy buses are not the ideal solution, but reintroducing buses with conductors (which would double the cost of staffing each individual vehicle) would be unworkable.

I can't see how any Mayor could develop an entirely new vehicle whilst continue to improve bus services at the sametime. Most cities don't have their own specially produced buses and I wonder how it would be possible for London to afford it, especially as the Mayor's fare rises are always criticised (I think, unjustifiably, given the price of oil etc) every year.

I'd appreciate a response, thanks.

Paul Prentice

Monday, 3 March 2008

Why bringing back the Routemaster isn't the answer for London

Boris Johnson launched his transport manifesto for London today, but his ideas struggle to sound coherent or even workable. The Conservative candidate for the job of Mayor claims Ken Livingstone has "run out of ideas", when the current incumbent of the job has demonstrated anything but. TfL is a remarkably different organisation from the old London Transport inherited some nine years ago. Bus use has risen dramatically - a reverse of the considerable decline outside the capital and there are signs of considerable investment in the Tube (even if the Metronet debacle has somewhat damaged public confidence in the funding structure). It's all down to a co-ordinated, well-funded and integrated transport policy and a Mayor with a genuine passion for the things which make a difference to Londoners.

Johnson's latest wheeze proposes bringing back the Routemaster, seemingly in an attempt to capitalise on public mistrust of their replacements, those nasty European bendy-buses which happily purr down continental boulevards but which have never really caught on in Britain.

The last Routemasters were retired from front-line service in December 2005, minus the ten or so which currently ply their trade on the 'heritage' routes. There was public outcry at the abolition of these venerable old beasts, as many a Time Out article and opinion piece pointed out. What the travelling public didn't quite realise is quite how time expired these vehicles were.
The Routemaster was developed as a replacement for London's trolleybus fleet, in a post-war Britain, catching up on the development of new vehicles had been stalled for at least six years during wartime. The concept of the vehicle was revolutionary for its time, but its basic look and feel was little different from the pre-war 'RT', itself a development of the 1910 'B' type. So, in 2005, a fleet of buses was operating on front line services in central London based on a design which originated before many passengers' grandparents were even born. Operators of the Routemaster struggled to find spare parts, their capacity restricted their usefulness somewhat, and they cost considerably more than one-person buses to operate because of the necessity of the conductor to collect fares and oversee passengers embarking and disembarking.

Boris has announced a competition to design a new Routemaster - a bus fit for the 21st century. But London Transport long ago stopped building its own vehicles, and in an age of standardisation and globalised transport manufacturers, a bus that's specially designed for London use only isn't going to find markets elsewhere. The black cab only survived because its basic design was so adaptable elsewhere.

To Boris and his campaign team, this dewy eyed notion of a cheery conductor returning to shout 'fares please' up the stairs might be a vote winner. But, as TfL have stated, returning the conductor to London's buses, not least developing the replacement vehicle, would cost something of the tune of £108m. Is that a price Johnson is prepared to pay? And if so, how would he fund it? It's a question I've already put to him - and it'll be interesting to see how nostalgia will survive in a mayoral election which is already more bitter than the previous two.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

"Bal-ham, gateway to the south!"

My view isn't so Oval any more. I named this blog after the famous cricket ground of the same name, but since my last post way back in July 2007 I've migrated further south down the Northern line to "Bal-ham - gateway to the south" - as immortalised by Peter Sellers. It all happily conincides with a change in relationship status and a fabulous new home, which is making me very happy. The name will remain, and I will try and post my thoughts, opinions and analysis on here a little more often.

So, 2008:

I need to get more political again! The year has started with dire predictions for the economy and politics in general, if you believe the resurgence of the Tories has any substance to it. Someone's got to fight that social-democratic corner - it's a tough, lonely place sometimes though.

I'd like to be doing something more cultural. When I was at university, I sung, was in book groups and saw more live music! I really must make more effort with those sorts of things.

I'm looking into the possibility of doing some further study, in journalism. If I can combine it with full-time work, then I can look more seriously at doing it properly as a career. But I'm a third of the way through my Level 1 British Sign Language, which is proving a lot of fun! Andy and I seem to get a lot of practice on the way back from the pub, though I'm not sure how much of that is on the curriculum...

Have a very happy, successful and prosperous 2008!

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