Lost in London

A look at London and life in general through the eyes of someone who sometimes can't bear to watch.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Show me the money

I notice that I tend to blog the most on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I wonder why this is. Perhaps it's when I feel at my most creative. Maybe Monday, Wednesday and Fridays are write-offs for me intellectually. Oh whatever the reason, it's a bit like EastEnders before they started stretching themselves to four episodes a week: regular as clockwork every Tuesday and Thursday. I'm the Pauline Fowler of the internet! Woo!

I had quite a nice weekend, ruined only by the fact that on Saturday night, I couldn't find a cash machine and had to pay for everything by card. Now, if you live in a small village, a lack of 'ATMs', as our American cousins are so fond of calling them, probably isn't a big deal; perhaps you just sell a cow to tide you over until you can ride your horse into the next town to go to the bank (or am I thinking of the Wild West?), but when you live in the capital, a dearth of cash machines is horrifying. Why, my capital-dwelling ironic haircut quivers at the very thought of it (not really)!

I'm a bit like the Queen in that I tend not to carry that much cash around and like to pay with cards if I'm shopping. Come a night out, though, and it's a different story. All of a sudden that spirit of my Northern upbringing takes over and demands that I withdraw a set amount of money and keep a close, obsessive eye on it all night to check I'm not being short-changed, overcharged or stiffed by people who order expensive drinks when it's not their round.

I was out for a friend's birthday in Shoreditch, which is notoriously bad for availability of cash machines. I only had a tenner on me and some other friends had insisted we get a taxi so I was in a blind panic, trying to calculate how much the taxi journey would cost and working out how I could find a cash machine. My repeated requests to the cabbie to pull over at a bank were completely ignored as he swerved and screeched his half-empty people carrier round the streets of south London. By the time he agreed to stop at a bank, the machine was empty and subsequent kerb crawls around the dirty streets of Shoreditch to other machines suffered the same fate.

Pity my poor fellow passengers as they witnessed me lamenting the lack of notes, as a debit card-filled night stretched before me. Paying for drinks on a debit card all night makes me lose all my inhibitions, I decide to order bizarre, expensive combos of just about every drink; ridiculously contrived bar snacks; and usually two drinks too many every round.

Thankfully, in the taxi on the way home, I was allowed to stop at a bank where I withdrew three times as much as I needed. Like a smackhead getting that extra big hit of heroin to take away the pain of lengthier than usual abstinence, I felt more comfortable knowing that I had a stockpile of cash in my pocket. Alas, I've spent it all now.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

That's entertainment

There's nothing new about happy slapping; we've all been watching it for years on TV.

Police in London are looking for the victims of 'happy slapping' portrayed in movies on a mobile phone confiscated from a convicted killer, Gary Roper, or one of his associates.

The movies depict ordinary people going about their business as a group of teenagers surprise them and violently attack them. They then play the movies to each other and friends and sit and have a good laugh about what's happened. This apparently new phenomenon is 'taking the country by storm', with teens everywhere using the capabilities of their mobile to film these disturbing crimes.

I, however, don't see this as a new craze at all. The technology may be new, but the story is old: people just love to laugh at bad things happening to other people.

Take a look at the popular programme You've Been Framed. Now in what seems like its billionth year, this show's USP is that it broadcasts videos of people falling over, tumbling from rooftops, riding bikes into walls and bouncing off trampolines into barbecues week after week after week, all raised to a new height of 'hilarity' by an amusing voiceover by its presenter (currently the large-collared Harry Hill). I haven't watched a full edition of the programme since the early '90s, but from what I have seen it hasn't changed much, except that the injuries inflicted on the hapless twats filming themselves seem to be getting worse, and the gap between the cameraman filming the accident and putting down the camcorder to get help or assist his subject is getting even longer. There's a lot at stake: large cash prizes are awarded for the one which makes the moronic studio audience laugh their hearty chortles the loudest.

These camcorder-wavers, who carry on filming as their child screams blue murder after taking a tumble, are just 'happy slappers' of a different generation. If the technology had existed when they were younger to film any unfortunate event they could, they probably would've done. And yet these more mature happy slappers aren't living on sink estates. They've probably got a decent job- after all camcorders still aren't that inexpensive- and are probably living the kind of lives that the younger happy slappers can only dream about.

Happy slapping isn't restricted to rough, disadvantaged kids with attention deficit disorders who roam the streets and get their kicks from smacking the shit out of a passer-by. If you've sat and had a good chuckle at a good old suburban trampoline accident or said "oof" as a builder is filmed falling ten feet from a block of scaffolding, you too are contributing in your own little way to this so-called 'new craze'. Happy viewing!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cooler than the red dress

This is the band they like to call the Sugababes, whose new single Red Dress is out in a couple of weeks and has been bothering my iPod on a daily basis since I first heard it. The Sugababes are one of my very favourite pop things at the moment. What I like about them is they don't pretend that they get on all the time like some of their more plastic counterparts; they've spent their entire career fighting to the death and have managed to dispense with not one but two members in the five or so years since they first came to my attention. As girlgroups go, they're almost up there with Destiny's Child for bitchfights and ganging up on each other.

Their most recent departure was that of founding member Mutya Buena, who jumped ship just before Christmas, suggesting at first that the birth of her child had forced to re-evaluate her commitment to the group, before admitting that she was, in fact, bored of all things Sugababe and fancied striking out on her own.

This, in a way, was a shame for the group. Mutya was arguably the most interesting member of the group, with her tattooed chest, withering stare and general air of someone who would rifle through your pockets as you slept.

In another way, Mutya's departure has revived my interest in the group, much as Siobhan's controversial walkout of Bananarama did in the late 1980s. Curiosity over the new member and new sound has meant that where I would probably be largely ignoring the third single release from an album I already own, I'm now looking forward to it in an almost teenage manner. Well, not quite.

The main difference with this re-jig of the line-up is that Bananarama, disappointingly, sounded almost exactly the same once new member Jacquie was installed, whereas new Sugababe Amelle's raw, honking and frankly brilliant voice brings the whole shebang a new image. Thanks to her 'wrong side of 20 Marlboro' speaking voice, she sounds a bit like Mutya when interviewed and while she probably wouldn't attempt theft during your slumber, she'd keep watch at the door while the rest of the Sugababes did.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Burning up

The Big Smoke looks set to become The Big Not Really That Smoky At All from next year, with MPs going for a total ban on smoking in public and enclosed places. Although I'm always reading that smoking is on the decline in the UK in general, in London it seems as if everybody is making up for the rest of the country. Fags are as popular as ever, as my nicotine-drenched clothes and hair will testify as they return from yet another night in the pub.

I am that most dangerous of breeds: the ex-smoker. Years of loving smoking, becoming bored with it and finally hating it with a passion only reserved for evil exes or former friends finally gave way to being smoke-free within a couple of months of moving to London. I felt liberated after just a few days and would never go back to those dark days of panicking if I didn't have enough money to get a packet of fags in the morning; trailing to the shop in the rain for ten Marlboro Lights (as was). Oh I could go on for ever about it, but the general idea is that rather than enjoy my little vice, I felt enslaved by it. Luckily I put all of that crap behind me over three years ago.

Although ex-smokers are credited with being smug, sanctimonious whingers, I don't agree with this ban for purely selfish reasons. Granted, it's annoying when you walk into a pub and it's like someone's gone tits with the '80s dry ice machine at Top of the Pops. It can be irksome, too, when you sit down with five friends and all they do all night is smoke so much that your throat dries up and a huge virtual speech bubble of smoke hangs over you. Yes, when people ask for change for the cigarette machine or come up to your friends and ask if they can buy a cigarette (my pet beef: just go to the fucking shop!), it can grate a little.

All of this pales into insignificance for me, however, when I consider the alternative. Nights out will consist of fag-loving friends 'just nipping outside for a smoke' leaving the non-smokers in limbo; conversations will be left hanging until the smokers return, and they'll all really stink of fags. The only thing worse than the smell of someone smoking is the scent of somebody who's just put one out.

Will it really make people give up? I don't know. I can't help but feel this ban is a cynical move to curb the increasingly litigious culture that, according to the Daily Mail (probably), we have inherited from the USA. The leisure industry doesn't want disgruntled employees turning round and suing them because they had to work in a fume-filled bar.

So, Tony and your cronies, for the sake of all those smokers out there who are too addicted to go two hours without a fag, and for the benefit if those who know most of them, let London light up for a little bit longer!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

No sweets for *my* sweet

Why share your day of romance with everybody else? What's so special about that?

It is, of course, St. Valentine's Day today. It's an event which I have frequently ignored and nearly always detested.

From the very first time I received a handmade Valentine, plonked on my desk and featuring such design classics as 'smudged kiss using mum's lipstick' on front and 'backwards writing of common rhyme, re-arranged to sound funnier', to the last time I forced myself to go out for a celebratory dinner and sit among hoards of arguing couples, I've always felt like this event simply wasn't for me.

This year, we are definitely not 'doing' St. Valentine's Day. There will be no box of chocolates, no meal in a crowded restaurant, no cards and no red roses. My only concession might be to buy a bottle of cava on the way home, but that's due more to me being a borderline alcoholic than a hopeless romantic.

I don't really buy into the idea that all year round your relationship is supposed to be a mundane, administrative tax break, only to turn into a Brothers Grimm fairytale on 14 February, where you'll be nice to each other all day and whisper sweet nothings. Should you be the kind of person who thinks that showing appreciation for your partner must be restricted to one day and one day only, there are plenty of other days around the year to do this when half of the world isn't joining in: birthdays; anniversaries; days off together. Quite why anyone wants to wait until a usually freezing and rainy day in February to declare undying love is completely and utterly beyond me.

There'll be no cards this year; I absolutely put my foot down. I think, since we've been together: one year one person didn't bother; and then the next year, the other person didn't bother; then the following year, I think we both did out of duty; so this year, it's not happening.

If you're with someone you love, spread throughout the year all of the hopeless gestures, gifts, compliments and- oh I don't know, energetic handjobs- that you'd normally reserve for today.

Why restrict yourself to a day of celebration that everybody else is doing anyway? We get enough of that at Christmas.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

We are each other

I try to be a calm person. It's not easy, though. I'm fast to anger and sometimes almost choke with frustration if things don't go my way. I often wonder how I can change all this before I suffer a heart attack in the middle of the street because someone pushed past me, but I think I've now resigned myself to it: I'm going to be just as much of an angry old man as I am/ was a young one.

It doesn't take much to set me off. Lost keys; the stubbing of a toe; a phone gone unanswered; a mis-spelled word. Pretty much anything that would be a small annoyance to some has me turning the air blue, tearing from room to room with my face aflame and my partner dodging me as I come towards him.

Conversely, at times I can be almost zen-like. Sometimes I channel my anger in other ways and remain as serene as possible. Somebody once told me that you just learn 'acceptance' as you get older and so things don't piss you off any more. About ten seconds later this person was screaming at a motorist for running a red light, but I think there is some truth in that.

London is a bit of a difficult place to live if you're the angry type. There are so many things just waiting to annoy you: tube doors slamming shut just as you get to the train; litter; tourists stopping suddenly in your path to consult a map larger than Hyde Park; shop assistants so rude that they must all have been trained at some secret evil retail HQ; bad service in restaurants; awful food unless you pay a fortune for it. I could go on and on and on but I won't. In short, if you're easily stressed and are annoyed by pretty much everyone around you, London's possibly not the place for you.

Fortunately, what I love about London far outweighs what I hate about it. I don't think I could live here otherwise. I'm a complete cityphile and so have visited many and lived in a few, but I don't think any of them would (or in some cases, did) suit me quite as well. It's a neurotic, breakneck, emotional turmoil of a city and five days out of seven, that sounds pretty much like me. Looks like we were made for each other then.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Don't leave me this way

I was sad to see that publishing giants Emap have done the inevitable and sent pop tome Smash Hits to the great newsagents in the sky.

Anyone who has seen a copy in the last couple of years (and I, unfortunately, have, as part of my job) will have seen the fatal shot to the heart a mile off. Smash Hits is being axed because, quite simply, it isn't any good any more.

I was a relatively late entrant into the world of ver Hits; I was around 11 when I bought my first copy. Its logo was a kind of burnt orange that week (it changed colour every issue, usually according to the eye make-up of its cover star) and it featured U2 on the cover. Yes! U2! They were once a pop group, in the days before pop meant that you styled yourself in whatever you could find in Topshop's window and went mental with the hair straighteners.

It was a pretty unique publication, Smash Hits. It was all about pop music and the charts and pop stars but had a way of dealing with them that made you wonder if everybody who worked there was taking the piss. They were, of course, but there was still a great love of pop music there, and it showed.

Magazine stalwarts like Black Type, Gordon Bennett and Bitz, (with its sweetie-decorated pages) eventually fell away in the early 1990s when the magazine suddenly ditched its unisex, gently-ribbing editorial tone and turned into yet another teen mag for girls.

I remember buying the very first issue of the new-look Smash Hits, which carried a picture of Kylie and the incomprehensible headline 'Who's hot for who?' I later discovered it was trailing an feature on popstars' secret crushes, but this was irrelevant to me. Who cared that Christian Slater fancied some American soap actress I'd never heard of?

Where was the Smash Hits lexicon of 'blee!', 'frightwig', 'LA (man)', 'foxtress', 'popstrel' 'swizz' and 'Dame David Bowie'? I wanted ver Hits back! Back! BACK!.

I never got my wish.