Lost in London

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Thank you for holding

One of my favourite blogs that I've been reading for some years is Call Centre Confidential. Like most people of my age, I've done a stint in a call centre and it's nice to see that years after I hung up my headset for good, the places are still populated by the kind of people Big Brother rejects for being too emotionally volatile.

My experience of call centres began while I was at university, when I worked for one night only trying to flog double glazing down the phone. After being told to "fuck off" a record 27 times in a row, I decided I'd phone someone who'd give me a better reception, and spent the remainder of my shift on the phone to my mum. I walked out of there determined never to return. They never paid me, either, but I imagine I ran up more in phone bills more than I'd earned.

It was another three years by the time I had to experience the horror of inbound calls for the very first time. By now, I'd just finished university with my head spinning at the thought of the fabulous media career I was about to have. It was not long before my head came quickly spiriting back down to Earth, my arse hitting the ground with quite a bump.

After rejecting all manner of jobs put forward to me by the recruitment consultancy, I was told that this job would be the last thing they'd offer me. I was running out of options: my bank's love letters had turned to poison pen and the rent wasn't going to pay itself. The 'client' was a major bank and the job was to sit in a large shed and answer calls from mortgage customers, IFAs and anyone else who fancied ringing me up and telling me: "ooh I do wish you'd speak up. What accent is that?"

Training, for me, was excruciating. I tried relatively hard to hide the fact that I didn't want to be there and that I didn't care, but I was easily sussed. To my surprise, I found that the permanent members of staff who were training with me felt exactly the same; a whole pack of people just going through the motions.

My four months chained to the headset were depressing ones. From that October until the following February, my life consisted little more of spending all morning on the phones, popping out for a cigarette in the rain, eating a dog-eared sandwich in the grey Formica cafeteria and spending all after noon on the phones. Occasionally I'd work until 9 pm and on some Saturdays too. As a temp, you were treated as a second class citizen: you paid a different price for meals in the canteen, for example. It's amazing how, when you're within sniffing distance of rock bottom, a little thing like that can help nudge you closer. I briefly campaigned against this but found that absolutely nobody cared.

Finally, I'd had enough. My attendance was becoming, er, erratic, to say the least and at 24, I felt like a 50 year old man. I knew that if I stayed, a lifetime of misery befell me. The same people day after day after day, stuck together in that corrugated shed, nobody saying what was blatantly obvious: everybody hates it here. Although, amazingly, I was headhunted by other banks, I rejected their advances and allowed myself to be 'let go' by my employer. My 'team leader', who was such a by-numbers, pantomime villain type of bitchy boss that I couldn't be bothered hating her, broke the news to me that I would be losing my job. Perhaps she was expecting me to cry or shout or generally react in some way, because she paused and looked at me thoughtfully, savouring every moment. We stared at each other for a bit and then, out of politeness, I asked why and she told me: "We just felt as if this job wasn't something you really wanted to do". My response? "Well DURRR, of course it isn't." And with that, my call centre days were over.

Now, when I phone call centres, I'm almost psychotically patient. I find it pays off and people actually want to help me. On the rare occasions when I really do have someone who hates the world on the other end of the phone, I simply cast my mind back to what it was like to sit in a cavernous room full of recent graduates, staring blankly at motivational posters on the walls and being described in great detail by Dorothy in the chair next to you the problem she was having with her spoiled son. It makes me realise how glad I am to be out of it and no amount of gum-chewing, refusals to consult a supervisor or reading directly from a script can take that beautiful feeling away. Call centre workers of the world, I salute you.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

It's a cruel summer

How to fall out of love with London in one easy step: run out of money before pay day.

I'm at that difficult stage of the month where I'm far enough away from my last pay day to be poor, but not near enough to the next to be comforted by the prospect of incoming money. I mean, I have money, but it's for boring things like buying lunch and getting the shopping in, not fun stuff like drinking champagne all weekend or going to Monte Carlo to buy a creme brulée.

London's a dreadful, unforgiving whore when you've no cash. I'm always reading in Time Out or online that there's loads to do in London that doesn't cost you a penny. 'LONDON FOR FREE' boom these eternally-misleading headlines. When you read down, you see they're quacking about such undiscovered 'gems' as the National Gallery or the British Museum, which are great, yes, but have been patronised by me on many other occasions when my bank balance been in trouble. It's either that or they suggest things like "take a picnic to such-and-such park and hire a little boat (very cheaply) and sit in the middle of the lake". Well, quite, but how the fuck am I supposed to buy this hallowed picnic? Free, is it? Shall I just nip into Sainsbury's waving your 'FREE LONDON' guide as I slip sausage rolls and quiche down the front of my jeans prompting security guards to shove me to the ground and punch me repeatedly? I don't think so, do you? Gosh, what an angry young man I am today. It must be the heat. The point I'm making is that while there's loads to do in London for free, either nobody wants to do it or everybody's done it. London on a shoestring? You may as well hang yourself with it.

Apart from lack of funds for the next week or so, I'm having an OK summer. I've given up all pretence of trying to look good during the day: any grooming I do is completely undone on the tube so I may as well just go out looking like shit. And, believe me, I do. I'm even wearing homemade short trousers today. I haven't worn short trousers outdoors since 1994, so it's a big step. I feel I've turned into a corner, but into what kind of street, I couldn't tell you. As soon as the temperature dips back below solar flare status, I'll be back to normal. Let's just hope I don't completely assimilate and get too attached to this look.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Holding back the years

Jane Fonda is one of those stars who often has the words 'iconic' and 'legendary' next to her name whenever you read about her in magazines. Not only did she star in the weird and wonderful Barbarella, the ultimate '60s view of the future, she was also massively outspoken when it came to the Vietnam war, earning herself the nickname of 'Hanoi Jane' and becoming extremely unpopular with 'normal' God-fearing Americans, her father included. In the '80s she was one of the pioneers of aerobics workout videos and gave hope to millions of women in their forties who thought their chance of a hot bod was over. So after all this trailblazing, it came as a bit of a surprise to see that while Jane's still achieving her 'firsts', she's doing it in a wholly different way.

She now features in advert for some kind of moisturiser being hawked about by a well known French cosmetics company. The ad features Jane sashaying around what looks like a beach house, wearing comfy knits in a lovely shade of cream to bring out her Californian tan, swishing her highlighted feather cut as she goes. Jane looks great, no doubt about it, and why does she look great? Well according to the woman herself, she's using anti-wrinkle cream. Now, Jane is no spring chicken and she's got a fair few wrinkles going on there, but now she's decided in her late 60s to turn the tide of ageing and use this remarkable new cream that's especially for 'very mature skin'. You can just imagine the board meeting that came up with this total bollocks can't you? "Well, everyone, we've got women in their 20s and 30s shitting themselves about ageing enough to get them all buying anti-wrinkle cream, but surely we can squeeze a few extra dollars of out of some women somewhere." And lo, anti-wrinkle cream for people with fuckloads of wrinkles already was born.

Of course, the ad doesn't actually claim to be anti-ageing cream; that would be ridiculous. It is, however, very heavily implied as Jane smoothes her hand over her face, quotes bizarre cod-scientific chemicals at us and tells us how great she looks. The ad is obviously trying to keep then viewers at home guessing: they know that Jane's kind of old but aren't quite sure how old. Fifites? Sixties? But how old? Thankfully, once Jane's finished sprinting around her beach house she leans against a rail and says she "Not bad for 68, huh?" and all is revealed. Well, Jane, you're not bad for 68, but, well, you're kind of a huge Hollywood star from a pretty wealthy family. You're going to look 'not bad' whatever age you are, aren't you? You've looked pretty 'not bad' all your life. I'm all for people trying to look good to make them feel better about themselves, but something about this left me with a nasty taste in my mouth. I hope Jane enjoys spending the millions she got for endorsing this snake oil; I can't even imagine what Barbarella would make of it all.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

New in town

A friend of mine moved down to London from Scotland at the weekend. I'm almost envious of people who've just moved here. When you first arrive in London to make your fortune- and let's face it that's why most people come here- everything seems fresh and exciting. There's no time to have become jaded and you don't realise that the quirky things you love will eventually be what drives you right over the edge after a few years of living here. In a way, it's like going out with someone new.

When I first moved here, for quite a while the fact that I was finally living where I had wanted to live since a young age kept me going. All I'd heard from people before I took the plunge was "Ooh I like to visit but I couldn't ever live there" or "Oh no, it's so dirty and the people are really unfriendly". I too liked to visit and each visit convinced me even more that it really was about time I lived here.

Moving to London can be a daunting experience. You're doing it for a reason, but there are the usual worries. Will I be lonely? Will I be able to afford it? Will I find somewhere nice to live? Will I be mugged, raped, murdered or maybe all three by one of the many criminals that people keep telling me about?

Loneliness is inevitable wherever you live if you're the sort of person who can't make friends easily, I guess, but yes, I imagine that loneliness is magnified in a city this size. If you're a bit of a shrinking violet, you might nee to have a bit of an upgrade and be more forceful; it seems to be the London way. Luckily I didn't move down alone and had a few friends already 'installed' so I didn't have to 'network' that much. Failing that there's always MySpace or Gaydar for all you loners.

Unless you try and find somewhere to live near your work, commuting is a fact of life. At first you may find the tube exciting and like your daily commute. In time, you'll realise that the tube's not massively convenient, stinks, is slow and generally unacceptable. Remember that the tube map is not geographically accurate; that bitch of a tube system is taking you where it wants to go and that's usually from A to B via W. Try the overland trains (if you're in south London you'll have little choice) or get on the odd bus; you'll be able to see how the city fits together and come up with your own, faster routes.

The first area you move to is likely to be one you move from as soon as you can, never to return. Expecting to get it right first time is unrealistic and also a bit silly: you should explore as much as you can; live both sides of the river for the hell of it. You'll eventually find the area that's totally 'you'.

Once you get used to the fact that most things cost more down here then you'll be OK. If you spend most of your time reeling at the price of just about everything, you'll end up staying at home watching that documentary about tube drivers which is always on. Don't forget you should be earning more, and it kind of balances itself out. Rent is hideously expensive and can be hard to get your head around, but if you don't want to pay loads, there are plenty of areas where absolutely nobody wants to live that are affordable. You pay your money and take your chances. Pretty much like anywhere else really, except that there isn't really anywhere else quite like London.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Strangers on a train

Being crammed on a crowded train can make you wonder if you're the only person in south London with access to a shower.

We've been in the grip of a so-called heatwave in London the past few days, which may go some way to explain the reason for my lack of recent posting. This could also be attributed to innate laziness, but the heatwave excuse will suffice.

What most Londoners have to put up with at least twice a day is that good old commute. For some smart souls who don't mind living under the looming shadow of their place of employ, this isn't an issue: they can just walk to work in a few minutes and then skip home once their daily toil is done. The sad reality is that unless you're a millionaire, live and work on a sink estate, are denying yourself a social life because of extortionate rent or are a prostitute, the chances are that your daily commute is a fact of life.

Commuting in hot weather is altogether a more unpleasant experience than at any other time. Except maybe when it's raining. Let me think. No, the hot weather definitely wins out. I don't really get the underground any more as I'm lucky enough not to live near a deep level tube line, but I do get the East London line or the 'overland' train to London Bridge. Any other time of year these are crowded yet not grossly uncomfortable ways of getting to work. In the height of summer and the recent 32˚ nightmares we've been having, these trains (overland especially) become saunas on wheels where everybody's forgotten to take their clothes off (thankfully). The benefits of any early morning shower are obliterated as soon as you step on the train and are rendered near unconscious by the sheer heat and stench of the carriage. No matter how much Paco Rabanne the guy opposite has slathered on before leaving the house, the reek of his body odour is almost visible as it winds its way out of his now-stained polyester shirt and latches onto your nostrils with an unworldly power. The fun you have when you first get on of counting the sweat droplets splashing down from his head soon becomes unsavoury as one droplet finds its way onto your trainer. As he turns around to open a window, your eyes widen in horror and train snobbery as you see the back of his head is sopping, like he's been involved in a water fight that ended seconds before you embarked.

You also get people don't even bother washing at all and take great delight in hoisting up their arms to hold onto the straps to balance themselves, only to reveal a pungent underarm which, if marketed, could eradicate the need for use of poisonous gas in war. Looks like you're in one hell of a journey to work.

The problem is that there's little to be done about it. We can't 'turn the sun off' or change its temperature using a little dial. We can't make the tube companies look seriously at the problem of air-conditioning and overheating, despite the fact that they release a bullshit-ridden press release every year saying they're "looking into it". We can't install mini showers on trains to ensure that everybody stays daisy fresh on their journey to work.

So what's the answer for the constant sweaters? Grab a bottle of water, get yourself a mini-fan and- hey, here's an idea- why not avoid piling on to a packed train like your life depends on it and wait for the next one; worth a try, no? You may wonder yourself if I stick to this three-step plan of staying cool when the temperature rises. Well, as Meat Loaf said, two out of three ain't bad; it's all very well waiting for the next train but who knows when that might be?