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In which Martin meets annoyances at Waterloo

I don’t mean to come over all disgruntled again, but on arriving at Waterloo (by bike) this morning, I found two changes which seemed designed to inconvenience travellers, with no obvious gain.

First, at the entrance I usually roll in by (the wide one next to the Costa Coffee shop), they have added two bollards. Quite widely spaced, so no immediate problem for cyclists or pedestrians: except that anything unnecessary in the way is a distraction and just adds to the complexity of a journey. And what purpose do they serve? All they can possibly be for is to stop cars and vans driving in that way. And while that is something that has been technically possible until now, I wasn’t at all aware that we had a problem with it.

Indeed, apart from floor-cleaning machines and those little luggage carts, the only motorised vehicle I’ve ever seen inside Waterloo is an ambulance. I do hope they haven’t stopped those from getting in.

Perhaps more significantly, they have added some sort of tall rack containing, I think, paper timetables or other leaflets. But they’ve put it in the middle of the floor near the the departures screens. So not only is it in the way, but from certain positions it obscures the view of the screens.

Screens which have been hard enough to see since they were introduced, replacing the old big boards. The screens’ main fault is that they are in the wrong places: over some of the shops which form islands in the concourse, instead of over the entrances to the platforms. As well as that, the text on them is smaller than the old boards, so you have to stand closer to make them out. This last will have the effect of amplifying the blockage caused by the rack (this can be proved by a simple piece of geometry, which I won’t go into).

At least the rack looks as if it should be easy to remove; but bah, grumble, etc.

Transport against london

I take a couple of weeks off (a week at home with the kids, a week in Dorset: very nice, thanks, since you ask) and when I first get back to posting, I find I’m channelling the excellent Disgruntled Commuter. This morning’s journey into work was a vision of madness and chaos straight out of Dante’s Inferno.

I exaggerate, of course. The Waterloo and City Line is a key link in my standard route to work, when I go purely by public transport. Hackney to Wimbledon is not the simplest route between two parts of London, but it doesn’t have to be insane. That line, though, is currently closed. Until September. If we assume it won’t reopen until the end of that month at the earliest, that means it will be closed for half the year. I understand that things wear out and break down and have to be maintained: but it only goes between two stations. There’s not that much to it. How long can things take?

So for two days this week I cycled to Waterloo (I work at home on Wednesdays) which is the best way to get in anyway, for all the usual reasons why cycling is best1. But lately I’ve fallen out of the habit. To break myself back in gently (in other words, to give myself a rest from it today, or out of sheer laziness), I decided to chance public transport today.

I’m a great fan of public transport generally, of course: but there are times and services that… don’t show it in its best light, let’s say. The North London Line is one that has a bad reputation at best: indeed, the aforementioned Disgruntled one has written about it in the past. Yet gettting that line to Highbury and Islington and then the Victoria Line to Vauxhall for the last leg to Wimbledon seemed the best alternative route for me.

You’ll have guessed, since I’m writing this, that it was not.

The North London Line is characterised by infrequent, jam-packed services, and it deserves the characterisation. Don’t get the idea that this was a surprise to me: I knew perfectly well what it would be like. What do you think was the biggest prod to get me back onto my bike?

So that wasn’t really the problem (though the difficulty of seeing the station name signs when you’re jammed in standing up makes it extra hard for the infrequent user to be sure they are at the correct station). No, the problem was my old friend2 the Victoria Line.

It was, in short, fucked.

So I got on that curious bit of non-Underground underground line that also runs out of Highbury and Islington (and that I can’t remember the name of), and got a train to Moorgate. Thence by Northern Line to London Bridge and Jubilee to Waterloo. I left home at about 8:15 (significantly later than I originally intended to, admittedly) and the train from Waterloo pullled into Wimbledon at 9:35. Bah!

1. Exercise, knowing fairly exactly when you’re going to get there, and not being at the mercy of the transport network chief among them.

2. Before I lived in Hackney I lived in Walthamstow. You get on at the start of the line (and thus are almost guaranteed a seat) plonk yourself down, open your book, and don’t look up until Vauxhall.

Cafe culture

Well, I feel like a proper 21st-century blogger at the moment: I’m sitting typing this in a cafe. Specifically, the Clissold House Cafe, in Clissold Park in Stoke Newington, North London. The kids are currently at a tennis ‘camp’ (two hours’ intensive training a day for four days this week). It being the school holidays, I’ve taken the week off work to look after them.

So with two hours to fill, I went for a wander round the shops of Church Street (only bought two books in a second-hand bookshop) and now I’m back at the park, waiting for the tennis to finish. I’m typing this on my Palm with folding keyboard setup. It doesn’t have anything fancy like WiFi or Bluetooth, so by the time you read this it will be (at least) several hours later, when I upload it to the PC and post.

The coffee’s not very good, either. Their specialty is more cakes here, but I’m holding off until lunchtime.

I’m am reminded as I type of the existence of John Scalzi‘s book on writing, You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing. Still, I’m not trying to impress (or, indeed, fool) anyone (nor, I imagine, succeeding in doing so).

At the same time I’m listening to Radio 4, where there’s a program about ‘battleaxes’, which is kind of bollocks, as all such stereotypes are. It isn’t annoying me enough to switch it off yet, though.

Curiously, they just played an extract from Fawlty Towers that I don’t remember ever hearing. There’s only about twelve episodes, so it’s hard to imagine that there’s one I’ve never seen. Then they’ve been talking about Thatcher as a battleaxe, which is an interesting one that I won’t go into here.

I sat down to write fiction, but ended up doing this. It doesn’t make for the greatest of blog entries, but I suppose it serves as slight relief from bleak political posts.

Damn, nearly made it without mentioning politics.

Sleepwalking into a police state

I’m thinking of declaring the 29th of March 2006 ‘[tag]Freedom Day[/tag]‘, because it is the day that freedom died; or at least started to.

Maybe I’m being over-dramatic — even melodramatic — in these posts; but I don’t think so.

The House of Lords has been doing sterling work in standing up to the [tag]ID Cards bill[/tag], as have the few sane voices in the Commons: Liberal Democrats, some Tories, and a few brave Labour rebels. But yesterday the Lords accepted a ‘compromise’: from 2008, when we get or renew a passport, our details will be placed on the [tag]National Identity Register[/tag]. However, we will have the option of opting out of getting an [tag]Identity Card[/tag].

Err, excuse me? Is it possible that their lordships have totally missed the point? The database is the whole problem. The database is the thing we can’t step back from. The database is the single point of failure. An identity card — just a card with some personal information, such as our parents or grandparents had during the second world war — would be bad: but the real problem in the modern age is that the card itself is just a key to the database1.

What were they thinking of? For that matter what were the Commons thinking of in letting this through, and what were the government thinking of in introducing it in the first place? Are these people so dazzled by power — is the Labour party so intoxicated by its brief2, unfamiliar taste of it — that they can think only of exercising it in more and more repressive and restrictive ways?

Welcome to the police state, people: maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives.

And while it might not be the end of the world — many people all through history and into the present have had to live under far worse conditions than we can expect here in Britain — it is the end of something we might call the British Dream. The idea of Britain as one of the oldest modern democracies, governed by ‘the Mother of Parliaments’; of Britain as any kind of bastion of freedom: that idea died a bit yesterday. And it will die a little more today, as the legislation is passed; and a little bit more in the future. It is dying by pieces; we may not live to see it choking its last breath out in the gutters; but our children will. And by the time that last gasp happens, it will be too late to do anything about it.

I only hope that our children will be able to find some way to resurrect it.

1.Perhaps not just a key to the database: presumably a smartcard, it will actually be able to hold a lot of data itself.

2.Even at nine years it seems pretty brief to me. Especially compared to what came before. Though even Thatcher never tried anything like this.

[tags]ID Cards, police state, freedom, uk government, politics, single point of failure[/tags]

Stanslaw Lem

Just heard on Radio 4 that Stanslaw Lem has died. He was 84.

I’ve only read Solaris, but I recall it as being very good.

[tags]books, writers, stanislaw lem[/tags]

Book Notes 6: Saturday by Ian McEwan

This is an interesting one: another Booker nominee, if I’m not very much mistaken, and a strange and masterful work. It is a portrait of a single day in the life of its protagonist, one Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon.

For a large part of the novel there is essentially no plot as such. Indeed you could probably argue that the whole thing has no plot; though things happen early in the day that have consequences later in the day. But despite the exiling of plot — of story itself, you might say — to the background, this is an immensely compelling work.

Such is the quality of the writing (I can only assume: I can’t honestly say that I understand how he does it) that the small and largely insignificant actions of one man and his family, and the musings of that man (it is a third-person narrative, but with only a single viewpoint; it is exclusively focalised on/through Perowne) command the attention and require the turning of pages.

This is great, really great; and the characters are endearing enough that I want to know what happened to them afterwards: indeed, what is still happening to them now.

Everything I’ve ever read about this book makes quite a big thing of the Saturday in question being the one of the big anti-(Iraq) war demo in London (and around the world). But in fact that is only really a very minor physical background to an early chapter. Certainly it provides fuel for Perowne’s thoughts, and for a heated discussion with his daughter; but the fact of it happening on that day is not really significant. Which makes me wonder whether he only did it as an attention-grabbing device, much as Banksie did when he set the first chapter of Dead Air on the 11th of September, 2001. Still, there’s nothing wrong with grabbing the reader’s attention, as long as the device is integrated fully into the story, and doesn’t jar with the narrative: and such is the case here.

[tags]books, book notes 2006, reviews, this year’s reading, ian mcewan, “Saturday”, booker nominees[/tags]

Reading matters

This year I’ve been blogging about the books I read. I started over on my LiveJournal, but I’ll continue here. So far, though, there have been:

  1. The first volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell
  2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  3. Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, by Cory Doctorow
  4. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
  5. Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami

No a bad wee collection, if I say so myself. I’ve also read Ian McEwan’s Saturday, which I’ll be posting about shortly, and am struggling through (while enjoying) Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital.

[tags]books, book notes 2006, reviews, this year’s reading[/tags]

TV roundup: what I’ve been watching recently

Turning away from politics, for a wee while, I’ve been finding things have been pretty good in the TV world, recently.

I thoroughly enjoyed Life On Mars on BBC 1, recently. I expected slightly better — or at least different — of it when it was first announced: I thought there would be more (or some) ambiguity or doubt about whether Sam Tyler was experiencing it all in his mind while in a coma, or had actually travelled in time.

Shortly after the start there was no such ambiguity about that, and we were deep in The Bridge or Marabou Stork Nightmares territory (if you can compare a TV series with a novel, then I’d say it’s better than the latter but nowhere near as good (obviously) as the former). What I was hoping for in the final episode, though, is that Sam would wake up back in 2006; and that he would then look into the history of the personnel at the station, and find that Gene Hunt and the others (and DI Sam Tyler, for that matter) really existed. Maybe he would even look up a now-aged and retired Gene, an Annie who is a grandmother.

Obvious, maybe, but it could have been a nice touch.

I had some mixed feelings about the whole thing, though. I wanted it to be resolved and completed, for dramatic satisfaction. But I so much enjoyed the interactions between the characters (especially the growing and grudging respect between Tyler and Hunt) and the quality of most of the stories that I became (and remain) keen to see more. If he had woken up, there would be no going back.

The West Wing maintained its high standard through the recent season (in fact this season, 6, was significantly better than 5 was, I would say) and I’m profoundly glad that we got a digibox and so could watch it on the excellent More4, rather than having to wait for the DVDs to be released. More4 are taking us straight into season 7, so only 22 21 more weeks and then it’s over forever.

More4 is also where we get The Daily Show With John Stewart, to give it its full-length name. This is just a fabulous show; hilarious, thought-provoking and informative. What more could you ask for?

Well, I could ask for something as good — and in a similar vein — for Britain.

The IT Crowd was disappointing enough after two or three episodes that I didn’t bother to work around its clashing with The West Wing on Friday nights). I’ve read some positive comments on it, though, and it ought to have been good, given its pedigree; so maybe I’ll watch out for the repeats. I wonder if that stupid announcer ever stopped calling it ‘The it Crowd’, though?

Hyperdrive was largely disappointing, and Invasion just petered out: that is, I petered out of watching it.

Most importantly (in comedy, at least): at last they’ve started showing the trailers I’ve been waiting for: “New Green Wing. Nearly ready.” Hooray! The funniest comedy of the last few years: right up there with Absolutely I can hardly wait.

And to top all that, my old friend from uni, Paul Cockburn inadvertently reminds me that the new Doctor Who will be starting quite soon. Fantastic!

[tags]tv, television, green wing, doctor who, absolutely, the west wing, the daily show[/tags]

Maybe that revolution won’t be needed, after all

After my, perhaps over-excited, post about that bill, I had some discussion with [info]zotz on this post. Graham is clearly thinking more clearly and calmly than I am on this one, and I wonder if — and hope that — things might not be quite as bad as I feared.

Still, it would be better if the bill did not pass in its present form, just to be on the safe side.

[tags]politics, Legislative and Regulatory Reform bill, backtracking[/tags]

Pray the future will never need…”

I had hoped to be the first to coin the inevitable term, “loangate”, over the recent Labour funding scandal. Not surprisingly, though, The Independent has beaten me to it.

Labour sleaze: it’s real, it’s here, it’ll probably bring Blair down. Let’s just hope he takes the corrupt & cynical ID cards bill — and more importantly, now, the Abolition of Parliament bill — with him.

Labour shouldn’t be dealing in peerages at all, of course: except to abolish them. Sadly the time when Labour might possibly have abolished peerages — or even significantly democratised the upper house — seem long ago and far away, now. May 1997 feels like another time in another world. True, we knew that ‘New’ Labour wasn’t going to be the real Labour that we wanted; but it was dawn after the long Tory night, and there was a mood of optimism in the air.

I got up on the morning after the election and put Billy Bragg records on, in celebration. Though admittedly one of the tracks was ‘Ideology’, which warns about the dark side of politics.

And how dark that side has turned out to be. It strikes me as slightly ironic that the Abolition of Parliament bill should be starting to come into higher visibility at the same time as the film version of V For Vendetta has just come out.

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