diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 28, 2015

I'm not quite sure how I'd never been to The Proms before. Indeed it's been a few decades since I was even inside the Royal Albert Hall, such are my inadequate attempts at full cultural integration. But I'd been meaning to go, and my Dad had been suggesting it for years, so when I spotted the 2015 ticket window opening up I sprang to attention.

You have to be quick. I got home from work on the designated day to find various Proms already fully booked, though thankfully not the one I'd set my eye on. Even so it had only a paltry number of tickets left, all with a Restricted View, the upside of which was that they were particularly cheap. £7.50's not bad for a top notch concert, I thought, so I stumped up and waited for my ticket to arrive in the post.

I plumped for a classical dead cert, The Planets by Holst, which I'm pretty sure I was taken to hear at the RAH when I was small. Musically it's got a bit of everything, from fierce to stirring to ethereal drift, plus I knew the suite really well so I'd not get bored. But the Prom also included a couple of pieces that would be more challenging, one a French avant garde number, the other a BBC original commission, making the overall programme more representative of the season as a whole.

The Royal Albert Hall is really big. I know this is fairly obvious, but it pays to go for a walk once round the outside before you go in. All kinds of people will be pouring in, this being the Proms, not just your usual jacketed hoorays and blonde grandmothers. The longest queue is for the five pound Arena Day Tickets, where summer blouses and yellow plimsolls are more than likely to make an appearance. Who else but the BBC could fill this hall nightly across the summer with such a broad cross section of the public?

I was heading for the very back row of the Circle, perched just below the balcony at almost vertigo-inducing heights. Way down below were the serious Prommers, standing, then the stalls, then a double ring of boxes, mostly full, and then us. They hadn't been kidding about the Restricted View. From my seat I could see the second but not the first violins, the brass rather than the woodwind and, so long as the Chinese dad in front of me leaned back, the female conductor. He didn't lean back much.

As the orchestra readied to begin the seats beside me were taken by a courting couple, he an Albert Hall regular, she seemingly a classical virgin. But when the baton was raised she suddenly realised with some horror that the entire auditorium was about to fall silent while she had a bag of crisps balanced on her lap. Her Tyrells Lightly Sea Salted then sat there temptingly but unavailable for the entire first piece, until eventually she could take no more and reached in... crinkle, crinkle, crunch. I hope he dumped her after the performance, but in truth I blame the RAH for selling the irresistibly noisy snack in the first place.

I think it's fair to say that most of the audience hadn't come for the first half selection. Up first were Pierre Boulez's Notations, a selection of five brisk compositions written intermittently over half a century, from 1945's Fantasque to 1997's Strident. It sounded more like the orchestra was having fun than playing a tune, zipping here and there in turbulent motifs, and showcasing various instruments with a flurry. More traditional in format, if not in style, was the première of Luca Francesconi's violin concerto, Duende. As with any concerto this was essentially an opportunity for the soloist to show off, here quivering around the very highest notes on the fingerboard like a demented humming bird, while the orchestra buzzed underneath. Her virtuoso performance earned considerable applause. And then ice creams and more red wine, anyone?

The Planets is Holst's masterwork, not least because not one of the seven movements hits a duff note. They're each based on astrological persona, not astronomical reality, and were composed over a two year period precisely a century ago. The suite begins with Mars and heads in towards the Sun, then returns to Jupiter and departs the solar system. As a kick-off The Bringer of War hit a relentless note, and made clear the huge advantages of listening to a live reverberating orchestra rather than a tinny laptop stream.

Jupiter was the biggest crowd pleaser, its bucolic jollity ideally suited to Last Night of the Proms sensibilities (where I believe it was indeed played in 1997). The ensemble delivered a blisteringly emotional performance, inspiring the audience to break protocol and applaud loudly at the end. But Uranus might just have been my favourite, twisting and cavorting like an outtake from the Sorcerer's Apprentice, and finally giving the organist something to do with a crashing chord right at the end.

Neptune brought the suite to an atmospheric end, the members of the orchestra gradually putting down their instruments so that the Elysian Singers could sing the final haunting notes... until interrupted by the bawling cry of a small child throughout the crucial fade-out sequence. His father eventually dashed with him for the exit, but not before the ethereal effect had been ruined for all of us in the hall and by the thousands listening live on Radio 3. Don't bring your pre-toddler to a Prom - they won't appreciate it, and neither will we.

But as the final applause lifted the roof, the seven year-old boy in the row in front of me beamed with delight. He'd been banging his little fists to Mars, and drifting off gently to Venus, and bobbing slightly from side to side during Jupiter, and had clearly enjoyed an eye-opening first night at the Proms. I hope he comes back. I'm damned glad I did.

To listen to last night's Prom...
» Part 1: Pierre Boulez, Notations 1–4 & 7; Luca Francesconi, Duende – The Dark Notes
» Part 2: Holst, The Planets
» The whole thing: this Friday, 7.30pm, BBC4
» To listen to offline for 30 days: get the new iPlayer Radio app, and download to your phone or tablet

 Monday, July 27, 2015

Living Walls of Camden Of all the things you could do at the weekend, how about a walking tour of Camden's social housing? The Camden Tour Guides Association ran a two hour tour on Saturday to celebrate the borough's 50th birthday, part of a lengthy celebration that this borough is taking more seriously than most. And Camden has a housing record to be proud of, building tens of thousands of homes over the years, and embracing an astonishing diversity of architecture. Over 85% of Camden's population live in flats, we were told, which is the highest proportion in the country, so it's just as well they tend not to build nasty shoeboxes. You could tell it was going to be a good tour when one of the London Assembly members had booked in to attend, and I for one was wondering where precisely our route was going to go. There are social housing gems all over the borough, as this map indicates, but kicking off outside the Old Town Hall on the Euston Road meant we surely couldn't tick off very many.

The first stop was Flaxman Terrace, a very early example of social housing, indeed only the second block to have been erected by St Pancras Borough Council. That was back in 1908, in an era when a caretaker's house would automatically be included in any development. Spacewise things were rather smaller than we expect today, and the 84 flats have since been remodelled into about half that. We'd be spending most of our time across the road in Somers Town, an underrated community sandwiched between Euston and King's Cross (and under threat of partial demolition from the arrival of HS2). Take Levita House, for example. This Grade II listed building is tucked away beyond the British Library, and was constructed by the London County Council around 1930. Its architect George Topham Forrest wanted to bring something of the continent to inner London, and based this dense seven-storey block on modernist Viennese public housing. We peered in through the gated arch and tried not to disturb the locals.

The LCC was Britain's most successful deliverer of affordable homes, knocking up over 200,000 mostly-flats over its 75-year lifetime. At their peak they employed 350 architects on London-wide projects, with a completion rate that puts today's privately-focused market to shame. One of their last was on Churchway, after which (in 1965) they handed over the reins to Camden who got on with their new more modern design. And blimey, Oakshott Court. This fills one whole block at the heart of Somers Town, and looks more like a stepped Mediterranean terrace than a council house development. Two perpendicular banks of flats meet in the top corner, with apartments stacked so that every tenant has a southerly aspect, and there's even room for brightly planted gardens to be squeezed inbetween. Compared to any 21st century shiny box in the sky it looks like heaven. The site has form as social housing too, dating back to 1784 when a 15-sided block called The Polygon was right built here. In its early years this slum was the birthplace of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, although it's her campaigning mother Mary Wollstonecraft who's commemorated by a brown plaque, as we were shown on the tour.

Further quality council blocks were pointed out ("see that urn up there?"), although Camden's other most startling projects are much further north and we missed those. Instead the walk drifted more into "we know some interesting facts about this area and can twist them into the general theme of housing" territory, which was fine, this being a fascinating part of town, but not quite what I'd been expecting. Then to finish we wandered up Camley Street to a brand new staircase down to the canal, and followed the towpath (in parts floating to avoid building works) past the most recent model for Camden's housing. Tightly packed apartment towers are being erected on the site of a former gasworks, and the moneyed will eventually be able to live in flats inside three restored gasholder frames. The development's not going to make a dent on Camden's thirty thousand strong housing list, that's for sure.

It had been an illuminating tour, both geographically and historically, not least regarding changing attitudes towards rented accommodation. Where the state once propped up those unable to afford market rates, and built homes to be proud of, now the gap between provision and need is becoming unbridgeable. And above all it re-opened my eyes to Somers Town, which I thought I'd explored but in reality anything but. So next time you're half an hour early for a train from St Pancras or Euston, why not forego that coffee and a pastry in favour of a brief wander round the neighbouring backstreets?

And while I'm in the area, have you spotted the Ladybird book exhibition that's currently taking place at The House of Illustration? I visited (and enjoyed) when it was in Bexhill earlier in the year, and now this marvellously retro display has come to London. It'll cost you £7 to get in, whereas on the south coast it was free, but this time no expensive train ticket is required. Peter and Jane await your presence.

It's three years today since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games.
Here's what's still not open...

the Olympic Stadium (OK, so the Anniversary games are on, and the Rugby World Cup is on its way, but West Ham don't get in for another year)
the loop road round the back of the Olympic Stadium...
...and the associated footpath linking to the Greenway
two footpaths south to Stratford High Street
a chunk of the Greenway (for which we can still blame Crossrail)
the replacement allotments (south) near Marshgate Lane
much of Here East (formerly iCity, formerly the Press and Broadcast Centre)
the Canal Park (the grass'll grow eventually, surely)
the majority of the surrounding offices and flats
Sweetwater, East Wick, Marshgate Wharf, Pudding Mill

 Sunday, July 26, 2015

In Merton, by the River Wandle, there's an arterial road through a retail park. Underneath the arterial road there's a subway. And in the subway is a door that's usually locked, but is occasionally opened to reveal a medieval secret beneath the carriageway. That'll be Merton Abbey Chapter House (1114-1538). And it was open to visitors yesterday, and it's open again today.

The immediate locality has a peerless history. The Romans built Stane Street directly through the site, and then a millennium later Gilbert, sheriff of Surrey, established a priory church. It grew to become terribly important, esteemed by royalty, and a stop-off for King John on his way to sign Magna Carta. Famous pupils at the priory include Thomas a Becket, and also England's only Pope, the almost famous Adrian IV. 500 years ago Henry VIII razed it to the ground, and the riverside site was reappropriated for water-powered industry - William Morris would eventually choose to site his textile mills here. A lightly used railway passed through, including an even less frequented station called Merton Abbey, closed in 1929. The majority of the priory's ruins are now lost beneath a giant Sainsbury's hyperstore, thankfully dug over by archaeologists before the car park and frozen meat aisles went in. Then in the 1990s the council built a new trunk road, Merantun Way, along the line of the railway, except this was precisely where the Chapter House's foundations still lay. So they raised the carriageway slightly, created a concrete-topped chamber underneath, and Dorking-bound traffic now drives obliviously across the top.

The site today is horribly blandly out-of-townly commercial. The Sainsbury's is a giant box above a car park, now coupled up with an M&S to lure the car-driving populace of SW19. Across the road is an architecturally dead Premier Inn, plus a Pizza Hut and a KFC of the kind that uninspired families drive to after work. Admittedly Merton Abbey Mills down by the river is rather lovelier, with William Morris's works now populated by craft stores and restaurants with a splash of character, and a waterwheel that still turns same as it ever did. But there's no joy to crossing Merantun Way through the subway, descending past the foot of an electricity pylon, not unless the door in the wall is open.

It was open yesterday, if only the passing shoppers could be bothered to step inside. Initially they were more fixed on grabbing a trolley than on archaeology, and once they had bulging orange bags it was too late. But several folk had come deliberately, having seen the rare opening was taking place, and I overheard at least one couple say "Oh, I've always wanted to look in here." Spread out beneath the low grey roof is a dimly-lit chamber, perhaps the size of two tennis courts, with a staked out border around a sandy expanse in the centre. This is approximately the shape of the old chapter house, the remains of whose stone walls can be seen raised intermittently along much of the perimeter. One end curves more than the other - this used be the apse - hence the bulge you'll have seen in the subway wall outside. If you're good you'll be allowed to walk out into the centre of the room for a closer look, and if you're a small boy called Rufus your parents may allow you to play in the 'Archaeology For Young Children' sandpit dig, at least until it's time to insist that you stop having fun and leave.

It was in this very room that The Statute of Merton was drawn up in 1236, an agreement between the barons and the king along the lines of Magna Carta, and generally considered to be the very first English parliamentary statute. Various aspects of the site's history are explored around the edge of the room, including that of the priory itself and the dig that rediscovered it. Bits of masonry may, or may not, be from the original abbey, and several of the sheets stuck up on the displays have a slightly faded "we found this in a magazine" feel. A particular focus is the work of William Morris, including catalogues of wallpaper, a few Liberty dresses, and a small Arts and Crafts bedecked sitting room, which manages to create the right atmosphere out of not a great deal. If you're smitten there's a table of heritage related goodies in the far corner, most of them paper-based, and probably a gaggle of volunteers to whom all credit for the attraction's opening should be directed.

There are plans afoot to open up the Chapter House to a wider audience. Almost £200,000 has been set aside by the Lottery and the council to create a proper Visitor Centre, the main effect of which will be to replace the southern wall of the enclosure with a new glazed wall so that anyone can peer in, and to greatly improve illumination. Part of the plans will also provide a toilet, a kitchen and a dedicated storage space, elevating the basic facilities to the level of say a small church hall. Eventually there'll be an education centre, even a cafe, and a thin extension poking out beneath the elevated roadway running parallel to the medieval walls rather than constrained by the road. This may take a while, but in the meantime the Chapter House is open on a handful of weekends a year, including September for Open House, and this weekend as part of the Festival of British Archaeology.

As Ian says, the site is quite small so it's probably only worthy of a diversion if you're in the local area, or if you like this kind of thing, which obviously we do. In particular it'd be nice to think you could tear yourself away from your shop at Sainsbury's and take a peek under the road you just drove in along, to view an amazing survivor of some importance, because who'd ever have thought?

 Saturday, July 25, 2015

Last week I blogged about the areas of London that are more than a mile from a station, and it turned into one of my three most popular posts ever. Most of this irresistible shareability was down to the map, or rather Geo_Rich's map, because that was super accurate and zoomable and everything a modern cartographical experience should be. Several other people thought so too, including four branded digital accumulation services who repackaged and rebroadcast the map along with some condensed commentary. Let's see how they did.

The online arm of Shortlist magazine were first off the mark, 24 hours later, with this condescending masterpiece of geographical ineptitude.

The Ten Worst Places In London To Catch A Train

When temperatures rise above 20 degrees and you’re hurtling underground in a sweat-can staring into an armpit who hasn’t yet made a courtesy apology, it’s easy to be scathing about London’s transport. But walking a mile in someone else’s shoes could change the way you view your struggle. By which we mean, actually having to walk a mile to get to any kind of station.

According to this map, there are around 36 ‘dead zones’ in London in which residents have at least a twenty minute walk to then embark on their journey. The underlying theme is if you want to live somewhere green, you’ll need to adopt a new found patience and really love your job. Or get a car, but this is London.

Here are the ten worst places to live if you don’t want to spend 70 percent of your life commuting to work.

BURGESS PARK (WALWORTH): We hadn’t heard of it either. Probably because there’s no station until you cross the lines into Elephant and Castle.
WOOLWICH COMMON: You’ll have to invest in a decent pair of trainers, but you could stroll down the fittingly mocking Ha-Ha Road.
THAMESMEAD: Waterfront property with amazing views of the Thames and great schools, the estate agents will tell you. Affordable because you’ll live in total isolation.
SHIRLEY: Bus drivers will become your best friends. They’ll take you to Croydon.
HOUNSLOW HEATH: Planes will soon become your most convenient mode of transport.
RICHMOND PARK: Your postcode will do nothing for you if you don’t have a car.
LONDON ROAD (NORTH CHEAM): Despite the name, if you want to get into the city, you’ll need to leave at sparrow’s fart.
LONGBRIDGE ROAD (BECONTREE): See you when you move house.
BROMLEY: Technically you can say you live in London, but you’re basically in Surrey with a commute to match the fact.
COLDFALL WOOD: Living by an ancient wood has its perks, until you get lost in it on the way to work.

If you want to totally eliminate the possibility of ever having to walk a mile to a station, your best bet is the boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster, Lambeth, Islington, City of London, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham.
I shared this post with Geo_Rich, and we both shuddered at the ill-judged selective interpretation in the top ten list, especially the assumption that Bromley's basically in Surrey. Time Out were up next, and they did something none of the other three publishers did, they asked first. They also checked how we'd like to be referred to in the post, waited over the weekend before publishing, and then gave us a nudge by email when it was up.
This map shows all the places in London that are more than a mile away from a station

While The Proclaimers might have been happy to walk 500 miles (and 500 more), we'd be pretty miffed if we had to walk more than one mile to get to our nearest station. Yes, we know walking is good for you, but sometimes you at least want the option to be lazy. Luckily, this handy map created by London blogger Diamond Geezer and Geo_rich shows all the places in London that are more than a mile from the nearest tube, rail, tramlink or DLR station, which is about a 20 minute walk.

Unsurprisingly, most of central London is pretty well connected but there is one blackspot in Southwark, although it's mostly within Burgess Park so we're guessing that doesn't bother too many people. But if you thought that living in Zones 1 and 2 meant you'd have loads of transport options on your doorstep, spare a thought for the folks living in Aylesbury Estate, which is the only spot in the whole of Zones 1/2 that's almost a mile from any station.

And if you've got a serious aversion to exercise, you'll be pleased to know that there are eight London boroughs where no point is more than a mile from a station - that's in Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster, Lambeth, Islington, City of London, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham – if your boots aren't made for walking.
It might be possible to conclude from the penultimate paragraph that Time Out haven't reported on Walworth very often in the past. Nevertheless, their online clout spawned a lot more interest, including this slightly blokey take from Gizmodo. Don't these people love a long headline?
Map Shows London Travel Notspots More Than One Mile From a Train Station

A map of London that shows areas more than one mile away from any sort of rail-based public transport station has been put together, showing that you're unlikely to have to walk very far to catch a train as long as you live in a bit that's on the EastEnders titles and aren't so lazy or wearing such inappropriate footwear that you think nearly one mile is far.

The map, complete with one-mile exclusion zone annotations has been put together by London blogger Diamond Geezer, and can be seen here. The Geezer says he's included all forms of not-a-bus public transport link whether that's tube stations, overground rail lines or the retrofuturist trams of the distant and mythical Croydon outpost, with the resulting map showing that London's really rather well connected indeed.

In fact, the only part of the central area that's not got a station within one mile is a bit of Burgess Park down there in the south-ish bit, with just a handful of houses on Albany Road and Coubourg Road falling inside the mile-away station limit. Woolwich, which non-Londoners might describe as being to the east and down a bit, is one of the lesser connected areas, although the dead zone there also covers much of Woolwich Common and Shrewsbury Park, almost as if planners had some sort of clue.
If there's a theme developing here, it's that the suburbs are places to mock because nobody serious lives there. Would that we all had the money to live in the centre. And finally Lifehacker chipped in, though only briefly.
This Map Shows Londoners Where Not to Live if They Want Good Access to Public Transport

We're used to finding maps created to help us visualise the top places to live in London, but now a new one created by London blogger Diamond Geezer is here to show us where not to buy or rent a place - assuming you want to be close to public transport that is.

Created using Google Maps, the interactive map of London (which you can take a look at here) shows you which places in the capital are more than a mile away from the tube or any other kind of rail-based public transport station. Which is about a 20 minute walk.

The map shows that most of central London is actually really well connected, with only an area of Burgess Park in the south east(ish) area and Woolwich Common being more than a mile away from a station. It gets more interesting as you get further out and could well be a useful tool if you're thinking of moving to the suburbs but still want to be able to get central fairly easily.
And I fear that this makes the key point most clear. Whereas I'd thought the map told a story about trains, in fact it told a story about house prices, and maybe that's why it got rebroadcast so much. Whatever, the Outer London suburbs that certain people had laughed at might actually be the only places in the capital that many Londoners can afford to live. And for goodness sake don't forget the humble bus, because like anybody chooses to walk more than a mile these days, what?

 Friday, July 24, 2015

Overground: The Hackney Footbridge

When the Overground extended up the Lea Valley at the end of May, one of the slightly embarrassing things about the new network was that it didn't interchange anywhere with the existing Overground. And now it does. The long-awaited footbridge between Hackney Downs and Hackney Central opened yesterday, and now you can walk from one to the other without leaving the station. It's a relatively cheap and relatively simple construction, but also an inspired idea and a gamechanger for connectivity. [5 photos]

It works like this. The North London line crosses the West Anglia line about 200m to the west of Hackney Central, and about 200m south of Hackney Downs. What the contractors have done is to build a covered walkway along the edge of one line to the crossing point, then turned through 90 degrees and followed the other line to the other station. The two railways run at different elevations (obviously, else there'd be a crash), so at the halfway point there's a set of steps to lead you either up or down. And because this is the 21st century there's also a lift alongside (and this mechanical complexity is one of the reasons the project's taken so long to open).

There is a catch to such an austere link, which is that it only connects to one of the platforms at each station. At Hackney Downs on the new Overground that's platform 1, which is one of the two southbound platforms, so if you arrive on a train from Chingford good news, you're in the right place. Arrive on any of the other three platforms, however, and it's a bit of a trek, especially if your carriage doesn't stop near the stairs. The next step is to head down deep into the subway, then turn right and come up the other side, past the independent cafe. And even then the entrance to the walkway is right down at the far end of the platform, through a fresh gap in the brickwork on the viaduct above Spurstowe Road. If you're not right at the very front of the train from Chingford, you've a walk on your hands.

The entrance looks like an arch but is essentially an gate, so that TfL can seal off the walkway as and when required. The hole in the wall had two passengers fooled yesterday. As they stepped off the train they saw the opening ahead of them and went to walk through it, perhaps not twigging that the Hackney Something station mentioned wasn't the one they were at. When they saw the long passageway beyond they retreated and laughed off back to the exit, but they won't be the last. And it is a very long first passageway, taking at least a minute to walk down at yomping pace, and duly supervised by CCTV just in case. On Day 1 all was very clean and very white, echoing functional simplicity, although this may not last.

The steps at the dogleg point are broad, which futureproofs them somewhat should the connection become busy. But there's no sign of this as yet, indeed as I stood at the corner yesterday I could see nobody whatsoever in either direction. Signs have been erected all around both stations pointing to the new connection, but there's no wider publicity as yet, so why would any potential interchange user alight? But the lift is a very useful touch, so that for example it's now possible to ride in your wheelchair from Highams Park to Homerton... but alas it's not possible to go back again, thanks to that awkwardly deep subway at Hackney Downs.

Once you've descended to ground level, there's another long latticed walk ahead. This takes at least another minute, plus however long it takes to get down the 40 steps, making a total of I'd say about three minutes for the whole thing. But that's good, because the out-of-station walk used to take more than five minutes, I timed it earlier in the year, and the new link doesn't involve roads or pavements or awkward things like ticket gates.

But you do have to touch in on your way through. There are pink card readers at both ends of the new connection labelled "Please touch in and out", which is a lot more strident than pink card readers usually get. I'm not sure whether TfL expect you to go beep at both ends, given there's no other possible route you could have taken inbetween. But there were two staff standing on guard at the Hackney Central end urging every passer-by to touch in as they passed, presumably because otherwise the software assumes you've travelled via more zones than you actually have. "But I have a Travelcard!" I said (after being challenged for walking straight past), which really didn't satisfy one of the two men, until his colleague pointed out I might know what I'm talking about.

Again it's a bit of a hike at Hackney Central if you want a westbound Overground train, because the footbridge is down near the station entrance, so there's no crossing at what used to be the dead end of the platforms. But it's all still much better than the route you had to take before, and the L-shaped walkway really does link the two lines properly together. Perhaps there are other spots on the network where something similar might be tried, a quick win interchange alongside intersecting railway lines, even if only from one of the platforms to another. But for now simply rejoice that the connection TfL have been showing on the tube map since May is now genuinely a connection, and those who travel through Hackney now have a conveniently simpler option to hand.

 Thursday, July 23, 2015

How much does it cost to travel by train from St Pancras to Stratford?

I ask because
a) it's more than you think
b) it's changing
c) it's complicated
d) it's so complicated I've had to rewrite some of this since breakfast time

If you go by tube it's simple, but it takes a while.

PeakOff peakPeakOff peak

A return costs twice as much as a single, because that's how tube fares work. And the journey, via Liverpool Street, takes about 20 minutes.

If you want to go faster you ride the Highspeed line instead. This runs to Stratford International (which we'll pretend is Stratford proper), and takes only six minutes. Unfortunately it also costs more. This is one of the very few train rides in London you can't do with Oyster or a Travelcard because Southeastern treat it as a premium service. Until next week, that is, when (hurrah!) after more than five years of waiting, Highspeed services will finally accept Oyster/contactless/whatever.

This isn't proper acceptance. Highspeed is still an added extra, not part of your main journey cap, a bit like taking a trip on a riverboat or a ride on the cablecar. But you will at last be able to swipe through the gates without having to stop and buy a paper ticket, which should increase uptake on this express shortcut no end. Except there's a premium cost.

PeakOff peakPeakOff peak
Paper ticket£6.00£6.00£10.80£7.60

Things to notice. If you have Oyster, then travelling by Highspeed always costs more than by tube, especially off-peak. An Oyster return costs twice as much as a single, because the system charges you for one journey at a time. If you don't have Oyster and have to buy a ticket on the day, a return is always cheaper than two singles (an off-peak return is cheaper by almost £5).

Let's throw an added complication into the mix. Southeastern are currently offering a special online discount for buying your ticket via their website. It applies to any off-peak train between now and August 24th, and is potentially a bargain if you know your day of travel in advance. You'll have to stop off at the ticket machine first, which'll slow you down, but it seems you can buy these tickets even an hour before you travel.

PeakOff peakPeakOff peak
Online discount-£4.45-£5.65

For a six minute train journey this is all terribly complicated, so let me attempt to summarise with a single table. The cheapest Highspeed fare in each column is highlighted in yellow, and I've added the tube fare in blue on the bottom row for comparison.

St Pancras-StratfordSINGLERETURN
PeakOff peakPeakOff peak
Paper ticket£6.00£6.00£10.80£7.60
Online discount-£4.45-£5.65
Oyster (tube)£3.30£2.80£6.60£5.60

So, in summary...
a) For a single journey on Highspeed, swiping through with your Oyster or contactless card is always cheaper than buying a paper ticket.
b) For a return journey on Highspeed, swiping through with your Oyster or contactless card costs the same as buying a paper ticket.
c) BUT if you're planning a return trip entirely within the off-peak period before 24th August, the online discount ticket is about £2 cheaper.
d) The tube is always cheaper than a Highspeed train, if you don't mind your journey taking quarter of an hour longer.
e) Off-peak the tube is a pound cheaper than Highspeed, while at peak times it's about TWO pounds cheaper. That's per journey.
f) BUT if you have a travelcard covering Zones 1-3, NEVER waste pounds on the Highspeed because the tube's free.

Yesterday, at the end of my Isle of Wight travelogue, I published my ten thousandth photograph on Flickr.

It's of a tube train at the seaside. This seemed only fitting.

 Wednesday, July 22, 2015

IoW postcard: Ticket to Ryde
There are several ways to get to get to the Isle of Wight from the mainland - there need to be. Five ferry services shuttle back and forth across the Solent to England's largest island, for the benefit of residents trying to get off and tourists trying to get on. Most of these depart from Portsmouth, which is convenient if you're coming from London, and two of them head for Ryde. This is the northeasternmost town on the island, and the only place in the country where you can board a tube train, a hovercraft or a catamaran. What more reason do you need?

The hovercraft is the quickest way across, not surprisingly, assuming you're not totally amazed that a regular hovercraft service exists in this day and age. Unfortunately for inbound rail passengers it departs from the beach at Southsea, so any time benefit is lost in trekking down the seafront, which is why I took the catamaran instead. This leaves from the jetty alongside Portsmouth Harbour, so is a doddle to get to, and the sailings are timed to connect with the trains. On a Saturday morning the top deck is full of Wightventurers, many of them in lycra with their bikes docked down below. More regular travellers sit in the saloon because there are more seats and because they've seen it all before. Towering over the departure point is the Spinnaker Tower, now bedecked in its full Emirates branding, although the red stickering would have gone all the way to top had the airline's original plans been accepted. The sights keep coming, from Victory's masts to Gosport's tower blocks, then recede as the ferry heads out into open water.

Hampshire's maritime folk love their watersports, so you'll likely see several out and about on the water. I spotted a flurry of colourful yachts a-regatting off the harbour at Cowes, and a solo sail tacking past a distant seafort. At one point the hovercraft sped by on a parallel path, as if scheduled to depart later and arrive earlier to make a point. It sped on to land on the shore of the approaching town, skirt billowing, while we (after twenty minutes or so) sidled up to the end of the pier. This is a rusty construction, with seawater sploshing in the gaps between the girders, which is perhaps not surprising on the world's oldest seaside pier. Now over 200 years old (201 this week to be precise) it consists of three parallel structures. The first is a promenade now used by pedestrians (for free) and cars (for a toll of £1), while the second is a disused tramway sealed off and gaping deep. And the third is for tube trains, by golly yes, and this obviously was the way to go.

You board your 1938 stock at an almost normal platform, apart from the fact it's above the sea with water visible beneath the planks. A couple of minutes of potential hovercraft-spotting takes you to the town's main station, ooh how exciting, and then there's an actual tunnel (whose dimensions are the main reason these old trains are still used). Ryde St Johns is the railway's hub with its sidings of stock, some of the carriages in far better shape than others. And then the line heads out across open fields, the landscape of inner Wight being particularly attractive, to reach the resorts of Sandown and Shanklin. Saturday morning's service was quite busy, more with tattooed locals than daytrippers, and only the one obviously agitated trainspotter. But the line through the chalk to Ventnor has been closed for almost 50 years, so at Shanklin those going all the way have to transfer to the bus. Assuming they can bear to alight, that is - I was always going to be the last passenger out. [12 photos]

IoW postcard: Ventnor
The sunniest town in Britain sprawls across a long clay cliff overlooking the English Channel, its houses laid out in south-facing rows like the banked seats in a theatre. I was immediately won over as the bus switchbacked over tumbling sea-view fields, then descended sharply to the main town at almost sea level. With only half an hour between buses there wasn't time to fully explore, so I did the next best thing and popped into the Ventnor Heritage Museum . This is a proper local honeypot which attempts to tell the diverse history of the town rather than simply shoving some fossils in a case. I enjoyed reading the print-based ephemera on a series of display stands, and scoured the list of famous residents to discover that Brian Murphy of George and Mildred fame was born in Pier Street, whereas Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens's soujourns were merely temporary. Special thanks to the volunteers who keep the museum open almost daily, in the face of visitor numbers that rarely reach double figures, and who were more than keen to highlight points of interest and to get the train set working. By the end of my visit I was more than convinced that I absolutely definitely have to come back and visit this amazing little town properly, and rest assured I will. [2 photos]

IoW postcard: Newport
One impressive thing about the Isle of Wight is how good its bus service is. Having planned a ridiculously jam-packed day out, reliant on several connections, not once did the buses let me down. After a series of rides via Shanklin, Godshill, Ventnor and Blackgang, eventually the number 6 deposited me bang on time in the centre of the island at Newport bus station. Newport's not especially lovely, or at least none of the corners I identified during my short stay. The Guildhall broods sub-gothically, and there's a sweet narrow lane curving close by, but the quayside overlooking the River Medina was dominated by a concrete overpass, and the backs of pubs populated by cussing drunkards. Much like any town really, but on Wight it disappoints. [2 photos]

IoW postcard: Isle of Wight Steam Railway
If the island you're visiting is holding a real ale evening on a steam railway the day you visit, obviously you go. It packs even more into the day, offers a meal into the bargain, and delivers a ride through remote countryside (ah bugger, taxi required). The Isle of Wight Steam Railway runs services only along the central miles of the former link from Newport to Ryde, serving a population of almost nil, which is both fabulous and means you don't come to a real ale evening without a designated driver. It's a bargain too, offering two end-to-end services and a first free pint for under a tenner, and after that go buy some plastic tokens from the cheery lady over there.

Just before six the blue engine at Haven Street puffs back and up and back, attaching itself to the carriages before a far smaller crowd than usual because on this occasion beer is more enticing than steam. For reasons of beer and steam I'm also one of the youngest here, although there is a defiantly youthful contingent from abroad soaking up what being British is probably all about. A total of three stations have barrels in place, the idea being to sample a variety of ales and chestnut porters while the train pauses up and down the line. The Men Who Play At Trains wear their smartest uniforms to check the tickets, while paying punters attempt to find a narrow third class compartment whose padded bench seating is as yet unoccupied. Nobody seems to mind that eventually-drunk people are taking plastic cups of liquid aboard heritage rolling stock, nor to have sorted out an efficient queueing system at the first station we reach. Years of practice on the Central line enable me to grab my glass of Scrumdiggity before most have even left the train.

There's bangers and mash back at Haven Street, a tasty platter but served so slowly that the back of the queue has to gulp it down fast before the train proceeds. The fields before Ashey are alive with rabbits, bounding from the undergrowth and disappearing down their burrows as we approach. It's a delight to be out here on a summer's evening, inhaling the occasional sooty speck, although had the sun come out it'd have been even better. Most of the passengers alight at the penultimate station, the 4.3% Wight Squirrel proving too tempting, but I'm intent on reaching teetotal Smallbrook Junction at the end of the line. This unusual station has no exit and exists only to transfer passengers to the Island Line. Alas the timetable doesn't permit connections this evening so I have to watch a tube train speed by - it'll be at Ryde Pier Head an hour before me, from which I'll start my journey home. But when the alternative is beer and steam and more rabbits, extending your Isle of Wight meander is clearly a winner. [6 photos]

» 45 IoW photographs [slideshow]

 Tuesday, July 21, 2015

IoW postcard: Blackgang Chine

Britain's oldest theme park sits at the southern point of the Isle of Wight, somewhat precariously, on the edge of a crumbly clay cliff. It's been here since the 1840s, when the island first became a holiday destination, and is still run by descendants of the same family. The scenic ravine which gives the area its name has long since disappeared over the edge, as have a number of the older attractions therein. But there's plenty left to enjoy on a family day out, at this low-key fantastical and delightfully quirky pleasure ground.

There can't be many theme parks where you enter between the legs of a giant fibreglass pirate. Getting any further costs the best part of twenty quid, not helped if you turn up on the first day of peak season prices, but for that you can come back any day for the next week (which if you're holidaying here is a bargain). I had two hours between buses, which required a dash around to sample the majority of the site including most of its weirder corners. [10 photos]

I last visited Blackgang Chine in the early 1970s as part of a family summer holiday, and for some reason my abiding memory is of the Crooked House and a hall of mirrors. There was no sign of the latter, but the Crooked House is still there, overlooking the clifftop close to the park entrance. You walk in expecting mechanically shaking walls and floors but oh no, Blackgang isn't like that. Instead this is an exercise in oblique carpentry, with walls and narrow passageways at non-orthogonal angles, and scenes from the rhyme "There was a crooked man" incorporated in tableaux along the way. The crooked man sleeps under a seventies brown duvet, cooks breakfast in a depressingly retro kitchen and watches the test card on his ancient TV set with an IoW-shaped aerial. Most of the children larking through in the wrong direction must have wondered what the hell the point was, but those who 'got' it might well be bringing their kids here in thirty years time.

Down a twisty track is the Smugglers Cave, a tale of derring do and shipwreck on the rocks below, and a licorice allsort cottage, and the home of the Weather Wizard who (no, sorry, I'm on a tight schedule). The Triassic Club is gobsmackingly not what you expect, spoilers, as an animatronic dino-butler ushers you through to a hungry smoking-jacketed allosaurus accompanied by an ostrich on the piano. I walked out having to pinch myself that this actually happened. Rumpus Mansion is similarly semi-mechanical, as various spirits and goblins almost run riot at the press of a button, while in the Valley of the Dodos a colony of big extinct birds gyrate to the BeeGees hit Staying Alive. And yet today's kids seemed much happier elsewhere, clambering over anything they could climb on, or running amok in Cowboy Town, a facsimile Wild West main street laid out beneath towering cliffs which may one day erase it.

It's not all old stuff. One of the latest attractions is Restricted Area 5, a lengthy boardwalk down the cliff face where scout packs can come face to face with giant moving dinosaurs, including a T-Rex that had one small visitor fleeing in terror. It's brilliantly done, including witty takes on warning signs and a section where you'll likely get wet. The park's recently bowed to modern tastes and introduced a rollercoaster called Cliffhanger, whose 35mph curves I spun round twice, but which is also portable should the land nearby ever crumble. I also braved the water slides, where you climb into a dinghy and speed down a bumpy chute, but so did several five year-olds so it's nothing to be especially proud of. But the centre-less hedge maze I had pretty much to myself, and as for Nurseryland (which brings various seminal rhymes 'to life') not one target audience visitor could be seen. Alas Old Mother Hubbard and The House That Jack Built aren't the crowdpleasers they once were, if ever.

As part of the park's unstated ambition to inform, educate and entertain, the sheds containing World of Timber are just as exciting as you might expect. Rather better is an indoor exhibit based on the BBC's Coast, in which Dick Strawbridge tells the tale of repeated local cliff falls, and invites you to stand on a shaking platform to experience the same. Nextdoor the Wight Experience offers a 15 minute cinematic overview of the island (not ideal if there are only 14 minutes left before your bus goes). But if you want to see the model village you really are too late, because that toppled over in the great collapse of 1994. Indeed there are several old paths at Blackgang Chine that have had to be fenced off because they end in slumped clay cliffs. There's a particularly good view of the collapse from the edge of the Water Gardens, an extensive gouged-out splurge of Lower Greensand with the remainder of the island's cliffs strung out behind. Best visit soon.
by bus: 6

IoW postcard: Godshill Model Village
A few miles inland, in the picture postcard village of Godshill, is the Isle of Wight's modelmaking hotspot. A minor model village exists in the gardens round the back of The Old Smithy, centred around a giant map of the island edged by a shallow blue channel. They like their giant maps in Wight, indeed I remember wandering around a similar but larger one back when I was but small. But the Smithy's is merely the aperitif, for across the lane lies the proper Godshill Model Village, and this is both main meal and dessert rolled into one. The top of the gardens is the oldest, dating back to the early Fifties, and based on the seaside streets of nearby Shanklin. From the parish church down to the shore, past a complete hotel and high street, the buildings are enlivened by the most wonderful array of characters each with a charm of their own. From punks to nuns and morris dancers to bandsmen, each has been lovingly created with a spark that'll make you smile... look, a streaker on the football pitch, and why are there dinosaurs on the train, and isn't that Santa atop the 1:10 scale wind turbine? [11 photos]

Lower down the focus switches to Godshill itself, with the model medieval church atop on a mound in front of the real thing. The owners have taken this approach to its logical extreme, and the model of Godshill village contains a model of the model village itself, within which can just be seen a model of the model village in the model village. The other thing that sets this place apart are the trees, sculpted to appropriately scaled dimensions, and at this time of year beautifully arrayed across a spectrum of vibrant greens. Nobody said the place had to be a perfect representation of anything so there are bright Montgolfier balloons hanging in several corners, just because. But it's the variety of mini-people that tips Godshill from good to great, of a quality you'd flock to in London were they displayed as "art". Both humorous and photogenic, there's so much here for the model village aficionado to adore.
by train: Shanklin, then by bus: 2, 3

 Monday, July 20, 2015

Yes, I have opened my package now, but blimey don't new computers take a long time to set up. I've got most of the connections attached, and tried to remember all the passwords I last entered years ago, and ditched the pre-loaded security trial in favour of a free service, and tweaked various other settings to make things as familiar as possible, but I haven't got round to switching email or transferring photos, and loads of other finicky things, so I still haven't had time to write about Saturday's day trip, sorry. Have four more photos instead.

If you believe TfL's Cycle Superhighway 2 upgrade page, major roadworks on Bow Road begin in August and end in February. Not so, officially they begin today, with the start of the phased tearing-up of roadway, pavements and street furniture between Harley Grove and the Bow roundabout. And they'll end in January, not February, by which time cyclists will have two long-longed-for segregated lanes, and cars and pedestrians will have less space to get around. The first phase of roadworks have been causing merry hell up near Mile End station, and now it's our turn to bear the brunt at the flyover end. If you drive or catch a bus along Bow Road then expect slower journeys, if you walk then expect to find pedestrian crossings temporarily closed, and if you cycle then expect to have to negotiate narrower lanes and unsafer traffic before the whole thing's complete.

As a very-local resident, TfL have just sent me a letter warning of imminent disruption, which contains the following information about the closure of bus stops. Given that they haven't seen fit to share the same information online (or if they have, it's bloody well hidden), I thought I'd post it here.

Bus stops (eastbound)
• Bus stop A (Bow Church Station) will be temporarily suspended from mid-September for around six weeks [that's going to cause chaos, what with this busy stop being the location of driver changeovers on route 25]
• Bus stop E (Bow Church) will be relocated 50m east and combined with bus stop G (Bow Church) permanently from late October [i.e. the bus stop outside the hairdressers closes, and routes 8 and 488 will then stop (along with the other four buses) opposite the church instead]
• Bus stop Y (Bow Road Station) will be temporarily suspended from early December for around six weeks [this'll be the last bus stop closure, ending mid-January]
• Bus stop M (Bow Flyover) will be closed permanently from from late December [thank you cyclists, you've killed this bus stop off] [we should cope]

Bus stops (westbound)
• Bus stop Z (Bow Road station) will be temporarily suspended from late October for around three weeks [it won't take so long to install a bus stop bypass on the wide pavement outside the Magistrates' Court]
• Bus stops J, K and L (Bow Church) will be temporarily suspended from late October for around three weeks [that's the same three weeks as above, so expect the bus stop outside the DLR to be very busy]
• Bus stop B (Bow Church Station) will be temporarily suspended from early November for around three weeks [the westbound bus stops seem to need a lot less re-engineering than the eastbound]

 Sunday, July 19, 2015

Heavens no, I haven't opened my package yet.
I've been far too busy.

 Saturday, July 18, 2015

Yesterday at eleven twenty-eight precisely, Delivery Company arrived outside my house to deliver my laptop. Unfortunately, as I'd told them twice already, I wasn't in.

I told them over the phone on Thursday morning that I wouldn't be in on Friday, and they told me I could come and collect my package from the depot instead. When that failed at the depot on Thursday evening I told them again, and they told me I could come and collect it tonight from a different depot instead. But what the hell, it was On The Van, so the driver drove out of his way to deliver it anyway, only to find I wasn't in, like I'd told them. He left me a little note. I didn't read it, because I wasn't at home.

Instead I went to the second depot after work, like they'd told me, because what could possibly go wrong a second time? This was a long way out of the city centre, because delivery companies like to cluster where there's a lot of space and a lot of roads, in this case on a bleak industrial estate of the highest order. More to the point this depot was in the red zone, over a mile from a station, so getting there from work took ages. I joined the rammed crowds on the bus, my office shirt standing out somewhat in contrast to local apparel, and we queued to cross the arterial out of town.

I eventually found the depot past where the council estate faded out, deep in lorry country, where Delivery Company's vans were arriving back from their daytime runs. Their gatehouse doubles up as the customer entrance, with a seemingly cramped counter space, but in fact merely a portal into the building beyond. Three swing doors and a set of steps followed, so the bloke behind me carrying a large parcel was delighted I was there to hold things open. Eventually we reached an unmarked desk beside two further doors - with no signs, no staff, no nothing. But there was a bell, which wasn't labelled, so I pushed that. Nothing happened.

After a few minutes, and another push, and another minute, a man appeared. I said I'd been told I could come and collect a package, and was it here? "I hope they booked it in!" he said, I thought getting in his excuses rather on the premature side. So he typed in my 18 character tracking number (a system with enough combinations to allow the entire population of the earth to send 6 packages a day for a million years) and then exclaimed "Oh, they didn't book it in." Surprise.

Further well-worn excuses followed. "I hope the driver's not come back early," he said, as if this ocurrence would have set in train further unpleasant consequences. "Ah no, good, it's still on the van. I'll go and ring the driver and see when he might be coming back." And that was the last I saw of him for ten minutes. Two other blokes were waiting, seemingly had been for a while, and they shuffled up on the Sofa of Purgatory to make room for me. Thankfully there were no spiders on this one.

Further customers arrived, some with packages to drop off, others with packages to collect. They pressed the bell and hung around, not quite forming a queue because they weren't sure whether the rest of us were still waiting to be served or merely bored. "Is anybody working here?" one asked, which we didn't really know how to answer based on fifteen minutes' experience, but we suspected not. Vans pulled in outside the window, occasionally wafting diesel our way, and so the Friday evening assembly grew.

Eventually the employee returned, joined intermittently by a female colleague, and set about attempting to deal with a few of us. They didn't necessarily do this in the right order, because nobody had made any attempt at a queue, indeed I hope nobody ever employs these two as bar staff! Customer drop offs were quickly dealt with, but collections took longer, especially when "I hope you booked it in" proved negative. A couple of weekends were ruined while I watched thanks to incomplete bureaucracy.

Some fortunate folk discovered that their packages were waiting in an adjacent room, a bit like they'd turned up at Argos, though with looks of surprise/horror when the box turned out to be too large/heavy to easily transport home. Others discovered that their packages were still in "the warehouse", which took rather longer for staff to find time to get to, and during their absence the crowd even grew larger. Meanwhile the particularly unlucky discovered that their packages were still out On The Van, in one case on the slowest van of the day and could they hang around a lot longer?

The two blokes who'd arrived ahead of me, ten and five minutes respectively, ended up waiting three quarters of an hour before they received their bounty. I was looking to top that. My Friday evening was ebbing slowly away, and several text messages from BestMate enjoying beers in the West End didn't help. The assembled collectees stared deeper into their phones, occasionally being summoned for processing, all of them looking like they'd far rather be somewhere else with a new toy to play with, or simply somewhere else.

"Right, you," said the man to me at last (his female colleague having by now vanished into thin air). "Your driver should be back around seven, so hang on." My package magically appeared seconds later, and then it was finally my turn to look smug in front of the throng. I could have showered vitriol at the guy for the way his company had treated me, but he at least had been the one person who'd delivered so I decided against. Instead I waved my photo ID, signed the electronic box and headed for the door... which I had to be buzzed out of, because they're paranoid like that.

It had taken a whole hour to get there, then a whole hour waiting, then a whole hour to get home, which is the magic of mishandled parcel delivery. I'd now finally lugged my three kilograms of laptop back to where the man in the van had attempted to deliver it several hours earlier. Also waiting in my letterbox was a letter from Delivery Company welcoming me to their customer service programme, and containing the activation code I needed to authenticate my address, which is what they'd insisted I do before they'd allow me to reschedule a delivery, which is the main reason I'd ended up in this mess in the first place. I went online and typed in the profile cancellation code instead because, like I'm ever going to want to use UPS again.

 Friday, July 17, 2015

Based on your advice, and because it's about time, I thought I'd buy a new laptop.

I didn't buy it off the shelf, I thought I'd invest in a decent personalised machine. I use my laptop rather a lot, and the current one's lasted over five years, so I don't mind forking out over the odds. I went back to Laptop Company, based abroad, who allowed me to pick and choose the appropriate components for my machine. I hope I got it right, it's always difficult not to accidentally tick the wrong box somewhere, especially late on a Sunday evening. But I double-checked the list, and added my product to the shopping basket, and then proceeded to the checkout. Name, address, debit card details, everything, and then I pressed the button.

Transaction declined. Dammit. Normally when this happens, High Street Bank sends me an email and/or rings my phone, to confirm that I really am trying to buy something expensive. With Laptop Company being thousands of miles away in another land, this caution was understandable, even sensible... but no communication came. I checked my online account, and no payment appeared to have been made, so I thought I'd press the button again. Transaction declined. This happened five times, by which time I'd either bought five laptops and was deep in overdraft, or my bank was refusing to let me spend my own money and not telling me that.

It turned out to be the latter. I couldn't ring High Street Bank's customer service team because it was Sunday evening, and they didn't try ringing me until ten o'clock on Monday morning by which time I was at work. You're useless, I told them, what is the point of Verified by Visa if you're not going to believe it, and then not be around when I need to talk to you? They lifted the block, but I still had to go back to the Laptop Company website and attempt the purchase again, and to try to remember all the correct boxes to tick, so I waited until I got home before risking it. And this time everything worked, but by now it was almost a day later than my first attempt, which meant a slightly later delivery.

Delivery will be within X to Y working days, said the Laptop Company website, which was good because I was actually intending to be at home during most of that time. I know you're supposed to send your packages to work, or to that collection point round the corner, but naively I'd assumed that directing this particular delivery to my home address was the best idea. Yeah right.

Day X passed, as did day X+1, and eventually day Y arrived. It was only at this point that Laptop Company sent me an email introducing me to Delivery Company, into whose care my completed machine had finally been delivered. I learned that my package was currently only in Shanghai, and wasn't due to arrive with me in London until two days time. And this was somewhat awkward because I wouldn't be at home on Thursday, I'd be at work, which threatened entrance into The Great Non-Delivery Charade - a fate to be avoided at all costs.

Perhaps I can get the package rescheduled, I thought. There was a big yellow Amend Delivery button on the Delivery Company tracking page, so I clicked on that and hoped it would solve my problem. Instead it created a new one. Delivery Company would only allow me to amend a delivery if I created a personal profile on their website, which meant filling in a shedload of necessary (and seemingly unnecessary) personal information. We've all struggled with these forms, but Delivery Company's requirements were some of the worst I've ever had to endure; repeatedly refusing seemingly rational data, demanding an unnecessarily complicated password, preventing me from ticking a crucial box until I scrolled down through its legal disclaimer, and sorry, no, back to the top again. I only want to change a delivery date from Thursday to Friday, I screamed, how difficult can it be?

Impossible, as it turned out. Once equipped with my new username I attempted to Amend Delivery again, but was directed instead to attend to a problem on some submenu of some hidden tab before I could proceed. I eventually worked out where it was, only to discover that I couldn't amend my delivery day until I'd authenticated my delivery address. And I couldn't authenticate my delivery address until I'd entered my activation code. And I couldn't enter my activation code until they'd sent it to me. Apparently they were sending my activation code by post, to arrive in 2-5 days. And their letter would be arriving after my package was due, so there was no way to Amend this particular Delivery, so I gave up and arranged to take Thursday off.

Over Tuesday and Wednesday I watched transfixed as my package progressed from China to Korea to Kazakhstan to Poland to Germany to a depot in East London. Wow this is impressive tracking I thought, so I went to bed happy. By breakfast it had inexplicably been taken to Stansted and thence to somewhere else in London, but I wasn't unduly concerned. Not, that is, until a new message flashed up at half past eight.

Incomplete address information may delay delivery. We are attempting to update this information.

It appears that Laptop Company failed to write the whole of my address on the label, and so Delivery Company didn't know where to take it. They could have worked it out, indeed they could have checked the customer profile I'd so diligently entered two days previously, but instead my package was added to the daily pile of Too Hard, Didn't Deliver. I learned this when I rang up customer service, but only after I'd jumped through all the necessary hoops. First an automated voice required me to enter my 18 character tracking number, after which I got to talk to a human being, who immediately asked me for my 18 character tracking number again. He was then sort of helpful, at least in explaining what had happened, but indicated that once a package was On The Van there was bugger all could be done about it. They'd deliver it tomorrow, if that was OK... except it wasn't, because I didn't have Friday off.

I agreed instead to go and collect my package from their depot, except this couldn't be until after 6pm because The Van Cannot Be Halted. And of course their depot was nowhere near where I lived, because that would be too easy. The operator read out the street name using a pronunciation which suggested he hadn't been speaking English very long, and promised to warn them I was coming. I then completely reorganised my day, in the absence of the unpacking activity I'd been expecting, and made tracks to an estate in north London late in the afternoon.

"Oh no, we don't have your package here," said the man behind the desk, "who told you that?" Somebody had finally worked out my full address and relabelled my package, and now it was back on the van ready for Friday delivery. "It was loaded early so it's right at the back," said the man with an air of practised mendacity. "But hang on and I'll see what I can do." I waited for ten minutes on a tumbledown sofa, discovering a small-ish spider crawling over my trousers halfway through. "Ah sorry, the van just left for the East London depot," was the eventual response, again prompting a raised eyebrow from the weary customer.

Having wasted a large part of my evening I arrived home to find a small spider scuttling down my shirt, so at least I'd brought something back with me even if it wasn't my intended laptop. That's continuing its world tour for another day, maybe even turning up at my front door when Delivery Company know I'm not in. And when I arrive at the designated godforsaken trading estate this evening I'm hoping to be served up with the product I ordered days ago, and not yet another litany of excuses. It's a wonder our online economy works at all, to be honest, if this is the level of competence and disregard that our courier companies display.

 Thursday, July 16, 2015

If you're fortunate enough to be in government in a year ending in '6' you can do whatever you like to the BBC. The Corporation's charter comes up for renewal every ten years, and negotiations with ministers shape its future path over the coming decade. Amendments to governance can be tricky, and a focus on efficiencies uncomfortable, but the nation's broadcaster has tended to come out of these negotiations relatively unscathed. Until now. Our new majority Tory government, unencumbered by their coalition partners, has recognised it has a one-off chance to cut what it sees as a biased unjustly-financed public service down to size. And, alas, they're making a damned good job of it.

The attack began at the start of the last parliament with the freezing of the licence fee for six years. The Chancellor fixed the annual payment from 2010 to 2016 at £145.50, silently diminishing the corporation's revenue in real terms with each passing year. At the same time he passed on responsibility for funding the World Service and part of S4C, essentially kicking the BBC twice, while blaming austerity for his "need" to do this. And that was just the start.

The latest war kicked off in May with the appointment of John Whittingdale to the role of Culture Secretary. This free-marketeer and former backbencher had previously been chairman of the Media Select Committee, and has made clear his long-term opposition to the licence fee and to certain "anti-commercial" BBC activities. He's already revelling in his new position, and by being in charge during the Charter Renewal period he has free rein to impose his Thatcherite ideals. If you want to carve a piece of meat well, put an expert butcher in charge.

2015's first big assault came in the budget (or rather a few days before, in the now traditional leakage of every political announcement that might be a bit controversial). The Chancellor had railroaded the BBC into taking on the payment of free TV licences for the over-75s, deftly cutting his own outgoings whilst dumping the financial responsibility elsewhere. At a stroke he's reduced the BBC's income by another 20%, an amount equivalent to the Corporation's entire annual spending on radio, and probably received a congratulatory telephone call from Rupert Murdoch in the process. Most of the national press cheered loudly in response, because they hate the BBC too and have no impartiality rules preventing themselves from saying so.

There is a financial sweetener in Osborne's deal, which is to bring the licence fee into the modern age and extend its coverage to those who "only watch catch-up" on the iPlayer. So how's that going to work? At present you can watch the iPlayer from anywhere inside the UK, with the assumption that it's a service for all citizens. In future you'll need to prove you've paid the licence fee, which'll no doubt mean some kind of password-protected BBC account applicable to everyone in your household on whatever device they happen to be using. Demanding payment for catch-up will bring more revenue, but it's also a devious and deliberate step away from universal access, and perfectly set up to permit a move to an all-subscription BBC later when conditions permit.

And there's worse to come, because that 20% cut in funding is solely a Treasury deal and has nothing to do with Charter Renewal. John Whittingdale is still waiting for his chance to dig his teeth in, and has delighted in saying as much in the press. What follows over the next few months is a review of "the purposes and scope of the BBC", and only if these remain unchanged will the Chancellor's financial deal be honoured in full. There's not much hope of that. The Culture Secretary thinks the BBC should do less, cutting back on populist programmes and focusing more on public service, because that gives commercial competition a fighting chance. He'd love to snuff out big entertainment shows, he's more than keen on culling specialist radio stations, and he's already expressed a desire to shrink the BBC News website. The purposes and scope of the BBC will be reduced, and with them a further assault on the BBC's budget.

To help decide the BBC's future the Culture Secretary has assembled a panel of eight independent, but unbalanced, experts. One is a fervent believer that the Corporation shouldn't compete with commercial channels, another is an executive at a Murdoch company, and another supports top-slicing the licence fee to hand round to other companies. There's no room here for public opinion, which is far less anti-BBC than certain newspapers would like you to believe. But any free-marketeer would likely do the same if they were the minister in charge of Charter Renewal, they'd bring in a chorus that reflects their own personal preferences, and move inexorably towards an enforced reining-in.

There are further devious tricks in the wings, such as the possibility of shortening the Charter period from ten years to five. That would keep Auntie permanently on her toes, and speed up the rate of change, for example allowing the licence fee to be scrapped in 2022 rather than 2027. There's also the likelihood of a vicious circle whereby the BBC is forced to cut back on popular programmes so becomes less popular with the public, which justifies further cutbacks and greater unpopularity, until what's left is a marginal rump the shadow of its former self. The BBC's not perfect, it's too creative an organisation for that, but we shouldn't exploit its imperfections as an excuse to make it worse.

I do not understand how so many people can be against a broadcasting service that delivers so much for just 40p a day, but will merrily pay far more for a Sky subscription that's mostly repeats. I see no logic in eroding a national broadcaster whose output is the envy of the rest of the world, in particular in countries dominated by the commercial media our Culture Secretary is trying to emulate. I despair that the government seems hellbent on dismantling the BBC purely for ideological reasons, and not because it's what the general public actually wants. But most of all I'd really like somebody somewhere to stand up and lead a proper national protest against what these evil bastards are doing, rather than the entire country simply rolling over and letting them get away with it. As we're starting to learn to our cost, a universal public service lost can never be regained.

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