Tag Archives: London

Blimey. Look who’s on the fifth floor

It was properly spine-tingling. Aung San Suu Kyi visited New Broadcasting House. As the news spread around the building, people came out into the shared spaces and caught glimpses of her progress through the building – she visited the Burmese Service on the fifth floor and went on to meet Dave Lee Travis, John McCarthy and composer Jonathan Dove. Here are some tweets, pics and stories from her historic visit.


Boris Bike lessons

Note: I’m not a proper cyclist. I don’t own a bicycle pump or a puncture repair kit. The Mayor of London takes care of all that for me. I have a Boris Bikes fob and I swan around on one of his sponsored blue bikes for a total of about three hours per week. But here’s what I’ve learnt anyway:

Don’t wear anything special. This is my top tip. In nearly two years of Boris Biking in the West End I’ve never had any grief, never been cut up by a truck, shouted at by a cabbie or come off the bike. I may just be lucky but I reckon I’m beating the odds here (at least if what other cyclists tell me is true). And I have a strong feeling (no evidence at all, though) that this is because I don’t dress the part. Motorists steer clear of me because I look like a fat loon who’s borrowed a bike. So: no helmet, no lycra, no hi-viz and no special glasses (what are the special glasses for anyway?).

Take up a lot of room. To be precise, try to use a whole lane. Science bit: if you politely ride in the kerb, you’ll give overtaking motorists the strong impression that they can probably just squeeze past you without going into the next lane or onto the other side of the road – and your polite side will want to agree. But you mustn’t because, people being people, they will actually try to do it. Pain and aggravation will follow. So, if you take up a whole lane, not only will drivers have to slow down and think carefully about passing, they’ll have to politely indicate and move into the next lane, disturbing the flow of traffic and making everyone think. All of this boosts your odds.

Get out in front. This is about being visible (so it does slightly contradict my ‘no hi-viz’ rule). I always used to wonder why cheeky couriers and fixie herberts were always right out in front of the queued traffic at the lights but it’s obvious once you’ve tried it. You need every driver on the front row of the grid to know you’re there and to have to use their time at the red light to plan a way around you.

Jump lights. This is related to the previous point. Going through a red light when it’s safe to do so will get you out in front of the traffic and give you a chance to get organised before the rush begins. There are, of course, many circumstances when doing this would be stupid. Common sense applies (and they should probably change the rules to allow cyclists to do it legally. Getting the bikes through the lights first would be safer than requiring us all to go at the same time). The other thing is, I think drivers actually get this and appreciate you making yourself visible (although they might not show it and might phone in to James Whale later on to bitch about it).

Go round the outside (don’t try this on the North Circular). This is obvious but can be a bit scary. It’s basically the rule about not trying to squeeze down the left-hand side of trucks and buses where you will be squashed. But the larger point is: don’t be afraid to be in the right-hand lane. You are probably safer there than in the gutter. I think that the more confident and prominent cyclists are – the more ownership we take of the road – the safer we will all be.

Communicate. Wave, shout, raise your hand in a sort of taciturn, blokey way, point and smile. It’s like life: sullen silence will get you sullen silence. Don’t assume everyone knows what you’re planning and don’t assume they know inwardly that you’re grateful when they give way. I am quite sure that substantially increasing the sum total of communication done on the road will improve everyone’s mood, change behaviour and save lives. And another thing: when I started with this cycling thing, I think I assumed that cyclists would be chatting all the time, swapping anecdotes at the lights etc. But that doesn’t seem to happen. Why not? Is it just me? (see ‘fat loon on a bike’ point above).

I cold-called the man who invented the World Wide Web

Tim Berners-Lee

1984. I’m well into my fourth ‘gap year’ (in fact, I’m redefining the term ‘gap’). I’m working at a telesales place in Queen’s Park. This telesales place is different from the other dumps I worked at during the slack years, though – it’s run by a Californian cult whose working practices involve shouty ritual humiliation, enforced separation from family and the loud singing of Mustang Sally at 8am. One of my tasks during my few months in North West London – which included cleaning the cult toilets, walking the cult dogs and photocopying cult ‘training’ materials – involved cold-calling organisations of every kind and grilling them about their IT. Later in life computers became my thing – look, I’m using one now! – but I hadn’t encountered one then (isn’t that a crazy thought? 21 years old and never met a computer!). I might as well have been asking questions about, you know, particle accelerators.

Some other important things happened in that year: William Gibson invented Cyberspace. The Mac was introduced. ‘How Soon is Now?’ topped John Peel’s Festive Fifty. Everybody watched The Living Planet and Spitting Image. The miners’ strike tore up Britain.

I had a script. My goal was to acquire ‘qualified leads’ for my client to contact later. “Do you use computers in your business?” “What kind of computers do you own?” “How many?” “Do they run MS-DOS, CP-M, GEM, DR-DOS or [long list of defunct operating systems]…” One of the organisations I phoned was called CERN. Yes, CERN – essentially the coolest place on earth. Of course, in 1984 I knew even less about CERN than I did about computers.

My list said CERN was in Switzerland, though, which made it a more interesting call than the others I’d make that day so I was going to enjoy it. The cult had taught me that persistence was vital, so, after ten minutes bothering various receptionists, supervisors and under-managers, I was put through to ‘someone in IT’. He was impatient, seemed a bit absent-minded and spoke very quickly – but he spoke English and, at some point, he obviously resolved to help the clueless drone from London on the phone. He told me he was a developer, in information systems. He didn’t buy computers for CERN and and he didn’t know who did. He was obviously a million miles from being a lead, qualified or otherwise.

The cult I brushed with (they never bothered to try to recruit me) was called ‘Exegesis‘ and the telesales firm, which was called ‘Programmes’ emerged after Exegesis was investigated by police. They were a pretty scary bunch – intense, contemptuous of the unconverted, messianic.

But I had a form to complete and knew that a miserable stand-up humiliation awaited me if I didn’t finish it after spending so long on the phone, so I pushed on, obtaining a list of computer technology so exotic, so science fiction, as to render the whole call pointless. I don’t remember the detail but by the time I’d finished I’d used three extra sheets of paper and pretty much the whole of my new friend’s Geneva lunch hour. The cheer from the other telesales drones when I hung up raised the roof. I was ecstatic: on my entirely useless list there were PCs and workstations, minicomputers, embedded systems, mainframes and supercomputers… hundreds of them.

It was many years before it occurred to me that this harried developer with a rather posh voice might just have been the inventor of the World Wide Web. It’s difficult, of course, to know exactly how much influence I had on the final shape of the world-changing technology that was even then forming in that patient man’s head but it’s gratifying to know that I was there at the beginning. Something to tell my grandchildren.

London’s stabbing epidemic

The stabbing epidemic in London is puzzling. Not the grief and suffering of victims and families: that’s not puzzling (I get that part). It’s the behaviour of the perpetrators. It’s as if they’re all stupid. In fact it’s a stupidity epidemic. Correct me here if I’ve got this wrong, but as far as I know every single stabbing this year has been quickly followed by an arrest or arrests. There have already been convictions and there will surely be more—and there was no need to call in CSI here. In fact, typically, the arrest seems to involve no detective work at—just a cursory look round the corner for the wide-eyed teen with the blood-stained blade.

I really don’t want to be flippant about this. It’s hardly funny. But these kids seem to be displaying the most basic self-destructive behaviour. In the moment he draws his kitchen knife or his switchblade, the killer is throwing away the life of his victim and, along with it, his own. And don’t argue with me on this, I’ll allow no contradiction here: no murderer, no matter how lenient his sentence, is returning to normal life any time soon: that’s a life ruined, a life flushed away, whatever the actual penalty.

So we’re dealing with an outbreak of ghastly, aimless nihilism. Kids stabbing kids, kids trashing lives, kids robbing families of loved-ones. And, while they’re at it, consigning themselves to punishment, marginalisation, poverty and self-hate—to the animal existence of the outcast—for decades hence. It’s a small social disaster and we seem to have no tools to deal with it. We’re lost. The only guidance on offer is coming from talk radio and the tabloids and it has nothing to commend it: it’s just more of the same.

If kids are ready to slash and stab and destroy lives on a whim, in return for precisely nothing (no pecuniary gain, no honour, no respect—at least nothing that lasts longer than the terror of the moment) how is a stiffer sentence going to influence them? Does anyone seriously think that even a life-means-life sentence in a labour camp could alter behaviour in those fevered seconds? Does anyone have the faintest clue what motivates a child (or a near child) to the hormonal frenzy of a street corner stabbing? No. I thought not.

Building Magazine on why construction needs migrant workers

migrant_builders.jpg
Gordon Brown’s announcement of a larger quota for desperately needed overseas construction workers is cue for a good piece from Building magazine about migrant workers on UK sites. The article focuses on the experience of workers on the huge Paternoster Square development, next door to St Paul’s Cathedral in The City – from Italy, Hungary, Zimbabwe and Germany. This is the kind of access only a prestige trade title like Building could get but it’s crying out for a longer treatment – five workers from four nations on one well-run site is hardly an in-depth survey.

The magazine’s coverline sums up the UK building trade’s attitude to migrant workers: “The indispensibles: why construction needs migrant workers”.

And watch out for those pea-soupers…

Strange ‘insider tips’ from The Economist’s London City Guide that came through my letterbox the other day, apparently cut and pasted from a 1950s travel guide:

Table manners are keenly observed as a sign of good breeding. Never talk with your mouth full; never reach across the table; do not wave cutlery around or yell “I’m done” to the waiter. The British are less politically correct than their American counterparts. Wittiness often means an agility with sexual innuendo, with a pint in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The woes of public transport are a sure-fire way of reviving a flagging conversation.

Ironic? Out of touch? You decide.