Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The bottle tops of London Victoria

It was only after three challenges I was able to get the photographs to accompany this piece. And to be fair, I can understand why the three train guards, a ticket inspector and a train driver might wonder why I was kneeling down on a grubby platform at London Victoria to get snaps of the grating late one weekday evening.

It was a morning last week when I got off my regular train, unusually having pulled into platform one, that I noticed a curiosity about the grating. The grates run in the middle between platforms one and two and  are fastened by regular bolts. Along a twenty or thirty yard stretch, each and every bolt was capped with a beer bottle top.

Battling through the regular morning crush wasn't the best time to try and get closer to inspect these tops or photograph them so I returned in the evening.

It was too consistent to be an accident. Every bolt is neatly capped: Budweiser; Bishop’s Finger; Guinness; Stella Artois; Corona. They all feature and many more. 

And I have absolutely no idea who put them there. Is this the idle decoration of a bored train cleaner trying to stamp a little of their identity on the station and liven up an otherwise mundane job? I find it hard to believe it is the work of late night revellers. There is too much deliberation for it to be the work of random drunks. Beside which, it's highly likely they'd have been stopped from such antics.

There we are. I know nothing further. If anyone has spotted this curio and can enlighten me any more I'd be most grateful, no pun intended.


My parents are landscape architects and designers and specialise in restoring public parks. For years a trip to one of these fabulous places would inevitably involve careful examination of path surfaces. I doubt anyone in the country has such an impressive archive of paving tiles and resin-bonded surfacing. Odd though I must have looked crouching, in a Panama, to get snaps of London Victoria's grating, I did at least feel I was in some way continuing a family tradition.


Those nice people at London Victoria tweeted me this afternoon though they were unable to shed much light on the mystery. This is what they had to say:

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Immigration van an unpleasant waste of time

The latest edition of the government’s ‘Bash an immigrant’ policy has been unleashed this week and could be coming to a London borough near you.

For the coalition government, in its wisdom, thinks dispatching a van emblazoned with the messages ‘In the UK illegally?’, ‘GO HOME OR FACE ARREST’ along with the warning ‘106 arrests last week in your area’. And in comparatively tiny type, at the bottom, there is a line saying ‘we can help you…’. It’s a line few people will notice when the van cruises on its merry way through the boroughs of Hounslow, Barking & Dagenham, Ealing, Barnet, Brent and Redbridge.

Unsurprisingly, when this pilot, an initiative by the brains at the Home Office, was unveiled yesterday it provoked consternation and anger. Quickly, a campaign started on Twitter with the term #racistvan trending and local government leaders – who evidently were not consulted about this thoughtless campaign – called for it to be suspended.

While I don’t think it is actually racist – though its ‘GO HOME’ message has horrible echoes of anti-immigration campaigns in the past – it is self-evidently designed to frighten people, to upset and intimidate them. The size of type, the dark forbidding colours, an image of a pair of handcuffs were hardly chosen by accident.

Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, communities and local government minister Baroness Hanham happily arose in the House of Lords today and had the gall to say the posters were not meant to be intimidating at all.

‘I don’t think it is meant to be intimidating. I think it is meant to address the reality of the situation that there are people coming here without jobs and without accommodation.’

The vans were merely trying to suggest it ‘would be more helpful’ if illegal immigrants decided to return home of their own accord, she suggested.
Not only is this campaign hateful, it is also a complete waste of time, money and effort. By their very nature, illegal immigrants are illegal; they know it and thus inevitably spend much of their time trying to avoid the authorities. An aggressive government poster is hardly likely to convince them otherwise.

And much like the poster campaign which urged neighbours to alert the authorities if they suspected someone was cheating benefit, these are tactics which have chilling echoes of tyrannical Cold War regimes.

And then there’s the UK Border Agency, the country’s most incompetent and unpleasant state body. In regards to the 106 arrest figure mentioned above - if indeed it is an accurate number and not simply dreamed up - judging by the lamentable record of the UKBA, many of those will have been held in error and be perfectly legally entitled to be here, while the rest are probably trying to negotiate their way through the labyrinthine immigration process.

And all the time, the government loudly ignores its own Office for Budget Responsibility which advised last week we will need more immigration in order to deal with the impacts of an ageing population.

There’s clear disquiet amongst the Liberal Democrats. Former minister Sarah Teather thinks it’s unpleasant and president Tim Farron told me this afternoon he wants to see the van ‘removed from the streets asap and the banners shredded’.

I can only hope he has success in persuading colleagues in government, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Update: It seems the billboard's actual target agrees with me. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has today described the campaign as 'nasty, unpleasant' and 'Big Brother'. 

He added: 'What the billboards should say is please don't vote UKIP, we're doing something. That's what it's all about, of course it is.'

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Surely the honourable lord didn't just lie?

There was a curious moment yesterday in the House of Lords when a peer apologised for ‘unintentionally’ suggested the DVLA committed breaches of data protection laws.

It all started on Friday when the Conservative peer Lord Selson arose to bemoan ‘badly behaved’ British families going off to the Alps in 4x4 on skiing trips throwing rubbish from their windows. He told the House:

‘There are the ones I’ve followed occasionally and, for a bit of fun, I’ve just taken note of their number and occasionally managed – because I have friends with the DVLA – to find their telephone and I give them a ring.
‘I just say “I’m sorry, I happen to be involved in the political world a bit and it was noticed that at a particular point you did this”.’

So rather extraordinarily, the noble lord has claimed he trails people, gets their numberplates, calls his mates at the DVLA who promptly hand over personal details just so he can make pestering, menacing calls to the no doubt unpleasant people who fling litter from their windows.

Understandably, the DVLA was a bit concerned it had been linked to such illegal activity so it wrote to Lord Selson ‘to ask for further information’. A spokeswoman added; ‘Depending on his reply, we will then decide on whether or not it is necessary to conduct a full investigation.’

But, now there is no need, because the honourable lord had made it all up. Yesterday, he made this ‘clarification’:

‘In my speech on the second reading of the Littering from Vehicles Bill on Friday, I unintentionally suggested that I might have been provided with the personal data of motorists by the DVLA.
‘I would like to confirm that I have not at any time asked for, or been given from the DVLA, any information which is not in the public domain.
‘In particular, I have not been given names of keepers of vehicles. I much regret that my speech, made without text or notes, should have given rise to press speculation to the contrary and I would like to apologise to the House.’

He noticeably didn’t say he lied, as that would be unparliamentary behaviour, only that they were ‘unintentional’. But obviously someone is lying. Either the lord, in a fit of vanity, shabbily made it all up to boost his ego, or the DVLA has got away with pretty wretched illegality. My money is on the former.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

'You do believe in the nuclear deterrent?'

Whom or what exactly do our Trident nuclear submarines deter?

This was the question I posed earlier on Twitter, swiftly generating a few responses.
Answers included ‘MOD spending cuts’, ‘fish mostly’, and one from my most hawkish friend which read ‘At the moment, nothing. In the future, possibly the Iranians, Chinese, North Koreans, French, Germans’ - I think he pines for the days when you only needed to have a shufti across the Channel if you fancied a bit of swash and buckle.

The logic of maintaining a nuclear deterrent during the Cold War, while much debated, was at least clear. Indeed, it can be argued that the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction, acknowledged by all sides, prevented leaders from going that fateful extra step in one of the many moments of high tension. But, these days it is hard to identify a single country vaguely deterred by our nuclear arsenal whatsoever.

Defence secretary Philip Hammond was pretty clear on the Today programme that now is not the time to downgrade our nuclear options. He said: 

‘We have had for 45 years now a continuous-at-sea deterrent posture which has served this country very well and we do not believe that with nuclear threats, if anything, proliferating, with more countries seeking to get nuclear weapons, this is the time to downgrade, certainly not to go to a part-time deterrent.’

But this argument simply isn’t coherent. In his very comments, Hammond exposes the intellectual dishonesty of the deterrent claim. Despite our ‘continuous-at-sea’ posture, no country has been deterred from seeking a nuclear weapon. Proliferation has, as the minister acknowledges, continued. If anything our retention of nuclear weapons has simply spurred others on to join the club.

After all, does Iran, pressing on with its nuclear programme, look over its shoulder nervously, worried if a British submarine might rise in the Strait of Hormuz? Seems unlikely. North Korea appeared perfectly happy to indulge in a bit of silly sabre rattling, making all sorts of wild claims about its military capabilities, regardless of Britain’s nuclear weapons. But the government remains committed to spending billions – some claim up to £100billion over 30 years – on a new generation of weapons just in case.

And then there is the question of whether a Prime Minister, or defence minister would actually press the button if such terrible circumstances arose.

A few years ago Denis Healey, who served as defence secretary under Harold Wilson, was asked this very question. If Britain had been attacked and Wilson had been killed, Healey would have been the minister to go to the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command bunker and trusted with the decision as to whether to retaliate. This is what Lord Healey said:

‘I did feel rather worried about it because I knew it would be a very difficult decision to take. I realised I would find it very, very difficult indeed to agree to use a nuclear weapon – and I think most people would.’

Further pressed, Healey was asked what if the head of Bomber Command told him Russian nuclear weapons were already raining down on targets across the country. He replied: ‘I think I would still have said that that, I’m afraid, is no reason doing something like that. Because most of the people you kill would be innocent civilians.’

Lord Healey is hardly a shrinking violet and any minister today would face an even trickier decision. For Healey was talking about days when an enemy could be clearly identified; that is no longer the case. Yes, rogue states can be counted simply enough but one of one of the biggest nuclear threats facing the UK comes from rogue individuals and terrorist organisations who have no country allegiance. It would, for example, be inconceivable to launch a nuclear retaliation on Pakistan if Al Qaeda terrorists from there successfully detonated a device in London.

Of course what this is really about is prestige. Both major political parties know that in order to maintain any international authority retaining nuclear armed submarines is necessary. Whether Britain needs to play such a major role on the international stage is another debate entirely. But it would be good if those pushing to spend such vast sums of money on military toys would at least be honest about their motives.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Agar demonstrates the joy of Test cricket

A cry of anguish spread round the office as Australia’s number 11 Ashton Agar holed out just two runs away from an extraordinary debut test century.

Picked ostensibly for his bowling – a left-arm spinner, perhaps just to target Kevin Pietersen – Agar’s performance and position at the end of the innings appears to demonstrate Australia know as little about this cricketer as everyone else. Read more 

Monday, 8 July 2013

Betjeman; not always such a romantic

John Betjeman is often seen as one of Britain’s great conservationists and romantics of the last century. He battled unsuccessfully against the destruction of the Euston Arch, a staggering example of cultural vandalism, and fought with greater success to save St Pancras station, both campaigns in unlikely alliance with Nikolaus Pevsner and his austere, academic rigour. Betjeman celebrated steam trains, quaint country branch lines and rolling countryside. He toured the country visiting village churches, producing whimsical little books and television programmes.

But it seems he wasn’t always such a romantic as it appears as a young man he was very sniffy towards the architecture of the City of London, in a way which would horrify critics of the soaring towers of today, like Sir Simon Jenkins.

The following fascinating snippet appears in David Kynaston’s majesterial Austerity Britain:

‘We must give up the building rule which restricts the height of buildings, and we must not only do that, but we must build office blocks twice as high as St Paul’s, and have green spaces and wide roads in between the blocks…. Two dozen skyscrapers, thought they would obviously dwarf St Paul’s, wold not take away from its beauty if they were beautiful themselves. They would alter the skyline, certainly, yet we should not sacrifice health, time and comfort to one skyline because we have not the courage to create another.’

It was written by the young poet in 1934 answering the question ‘What Would Wren Have Built Today?’ One wonders whether Betjeman, considering St Paul's has long since been overshadowed by increasingly architecturally extravagant skyscrapers, would approve of the City of London today.


At a loose end in St Pancras station the other day, I inevitably found myself in Foyles and picked up a lovely little book called 'John Betjeman on Trains'; published in 2006. It's a collection of letters with explanatory notes by architecture writer and 'like-minded train nut' (according to JB's daughter Candida Lycett-Green) Jonathan Glancey. 

It provides a few 
extra hints regarding the source of the poet's flirtation with modernism in his early days and explains Betjeman's uncharacteristic call for modernist architecture around St Paul's.

In Glancey's text, accompanying a 1946 journey from Rye to Beulah Hill to see already-aged though yet-to-be-knighted Gothic revivalist architect Ninian Comper (pleasingly via my home station of Penge East, mainly it seems to give Betjeman a chuckle at the area's unfortunate name and to show off his knowledge of obscure transport timetables), he talks of Betjeman's time at the Architectural Review magazine.

Glancey writes: 

'When JB was Assistant Editor at the Architectural Review (1929-1935), he fell, for a dizzy moment, under the spell of the bright young Moderns promoted by the influential magazine. He went so far as to become one of the founding members of MARS (Modern Architecture Research Group), yet, soon enough, returned to Edwardian and Victorian ways and began to think of 100 per cent Moderns like Chermayeff as figures of fun'.

(Chermayeff, Glancey had previously explained, was the Harrow-educated Russian architect who, with Erich Mendelsohn, designed the lovely De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea.)

So it would seem likely the quotation from Austerity Britain, answering the hypothetical question of what Wren would have constructed in the early part of the twentieth century, would have appeared in an article penned by Betjeman while at Architectural Review. Of course, any correction or clarification a reader can offer would be greatly appreciated.


As ever, one thing leads to another and I noted the house in which Ninian Comper lived, from 1912, was called the The Priory, Upper Norwood, and designed by Decimus Burton whose work I recently enjoyed during a trip to London Zoo. Burton was responsible for the initial layout of the zoo and many of the earliest buildings including what is now the First Aid hut, the Raven Cage and the still-in-use Giraffe House. Sadly The Priory no longer exists though this piece on the Norwood Society's website reveals what a lovely building it appears to have been.

Does Andy Murray really deserve a knighthood?

It’s no surprise to see the Prime Minister suggest Andy Murray deserves a knighthood for his extraordinary achievement at Wimbledon yesterday; after all, if a bandwagon passes a politician, they tend to do their utmost to leap aboard.

‘Frankly, I can’t think of anyone who deserves one more,’ the Prime Minister declared and in some ways it could be argued ending one of British sport’s longest failure deserves such an accolade.

While there’s no danger of sportsmen receiving honours for simply doing their jobs, as still seems to occur in politics with Sir Gerald Howarth and Sir Edward Leigh being recent prime examples - as I can work out their only achievement is remaining long surviving MPs in safe constituencies - surely there is a danger of being a bit hasty?

Once upon a time a sporting great would be summoned to the palace at the end of their careers or long after they had retired. Sir Ian Botham was knighted, for services to cricket and charity, only in 2007 and received no honour for his heroics in the 1981 Ashes. Sir Stanley Matthews and Sir Donald Bradman both got the nod in the twilight of their long sporting lives. David Beckham is patiently waiting. And Fred Perry was never knighted.

One could take a puritanical line and question whether winning Wimbledon deserves a state honour at all. After all, Andy Murray was simply doing his job for which he is extraordinarily well paid.

But that would be a bit mean. Sporting achievements do cheer up large swathes of the nation but awards hastily awarded in the wake of success have made a mockery of the honours system. A case in point was the blanket awarding of MBEs to the 2005 Ashes winning team (except captain Michael Vaughan who got a CBE). This included Paul Collingwood after scoring just 7 and 10 in his only match of the series. There’s little doubt Collingwood deserved such recognition for his later exploits representing England, but it’s no wonder Shane Warne was merciless in his mockery at the time. Ironically, Warne thinks he deserves a knighthood.

Of course, times have changed and Britain’s success in the Olympics saw several new knights created, such as Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins. But, these sportsmen were at the pinnacle of their careers. Is Andy Murray? Can he top this achievement? Well, he’s only 26 so yes, he could win several more Grand Slam tournaments; he may even defend his Wimbledon title. But if he’s already been knighted, how else could the honours system recognise a long career sparkling with more successes?

Andy Murray is not going to suffer any shortage of honours this year and he is practically guaranteed the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Knighting him now would almost be honouring him for ending our wait for a men's Wimbledon champion. So let's be patient and put the knighthood aaway for another day.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Struggling for policies? Blame an immigrant

Today has been the coalition’s ‘Bash an Immigrant’ day. Every government has them though this administration indulges more than most. They occur when ministers run out of ideas, are listless, searching for a purpose, fail to find one and resort to easy, headbanging, tabloid pleasing measures which might be good short-term politics but are completely pointless and prime examples of bad government. And the coalition has excelled itself, presenting the country with two useless policies before breakfast.