Snow. My. God.

The icy drifts of SW London

Not to underplay the serious inconvenience caused by inclement meteorological conditions to some parts of the UK, but I’d just like to take a moment to reflect on this typically calm and understated headline from yesterday’s London Evening Standard:


A few points.

If you’re still measuring the snow in inches rather than feet or yards, it’s not an “extreme” weather event, it’s a “bothersome” one. The words “extreme weather” should apply to total snowmageddon, not tobogganing & a bit of a whinge about slippery pavements.


On the night train

Sorry for the recent silence: I’ve been on the road a bit – or rather, on the rails. First, a dash around the country, taking in Cardiff, Leeds and Edinburgh in the space of 4 days, and then a week later, I took the Caledonian sleeper to Fort William, which was a first for me, and highly recommended.

Inside the sleeper carriage

Oh it’s very pleasant when you have found your little den
With your name written up on the door.

So this is what it's like to be in prison

And the berth is very neat with a newly folded sheet
And there’s not a speck of dust on the floor.

There is every sort of light – you can make it dark or bright;
There’s a button that you turn to make a breeze.

Comfort kit on the Caledonian sleeper

There’s a funny little basin you’re supposed to wash your face in
And a crank to shut the window if you sneeze.

Caledonian Sleeper lounge car

Then the guard looks in politely and will ask you very brightly
`do you like your morning tea weak or strong?’…

Breakfast on the move

[Poem: TS Eliot’s Skimbleshanks, of course]

And this is what you wake up to the next morning:

Dawn viewed from the Caledonian Sleeper

[The following is from a mail I wrote to someone who asked how I’d booked it and what it was like]

There are four sleeper services to Scotland that I know of, between London and:

— Glasgow
— Inverness
— Aberdeen
— Fort William

The Glasgow service leaves London very late – 11.15pm or so, I think – and arrives into Glasgow around 6.40am. This is a bit of a problem because then you’re stuck in Glasgow before breakfast, so if that’s where you’re going, I’d recommend taking a daytime train. London – Edinburgh is about 4 hours, and Lon-Gla is about 5 during the day.

But if you’re going further north, then the sleeper is a good option, in at least one direction (I took the sleeper up and then a daytime train back down – it’s possible to do the journey from Oban – London in a day, but it’s a lot of sitting on trains!)

The sleeper I took left London at 9.15pm, and arrived in Ft William about 9.45am. Clearly it didn’t take that long to do the journey, but the train was moving (slowly) for most of the time, stopping a few times in sidings for 30 mins or so. It’s one big long train until Edinburgh when it splits into the three sections – Aberdeen, Inverness, Fort William. I was asleep for most of it, though I was vaguely aware of waking up at one point, peering out of the window and finding myself at Edinburgh Waverley station.

I think the route is something like: London Euston – Watford – Crewe – Birmingham – Preston – Carlisle – Edinburgh – Crianlarich – Rannoch – Fort William.

I woke up about 8am with breakfast being delivered to my cabin, which I ate looking out over Rannoch Moor – a stunning bit of the world.

In terms of photos, I took most of the pics through the (rather grubby) window of the carriage, either in my berth or in the seating car a little further down the train. The secret is to take lots and lots and lots of shots, and one is bound to come out well eventually.


In Edinburgh

Years ago, this city was completely familiar to me.

Nearly twenty years ago, young(ish) and stupid(ish) with emotion, I visited a lot, staying in a top floor flat just off Lothian Rd, from which you could watch the fireworks spilling over the castle roof on Hogmanay, while lying on the sofa. There were wooden shutters on the windows, and I’d bet that now it’s lived in by an insufferable yuppie or two.

We ate at Mama’s on Grassmarket, drank creamy pints of 80/- at the Malt Shovel and Bannermans, browsed endlessly in Fopp and wandered up to Tollcross to buy ingredients in Lupe Pintos to make homemade burritos. Idyllic. Naive. Fleeting.

A year later, I moved up here, rather rashly, leaving behind a decent job in Leeds because I wanted to be closer to that someone, who turned out to be an utter swine.

Suddenly, I wasn’t allowed to stay in the flat handily in the centre of town, so found a place in a dubious flatshare out in Muirhouse, in a terrible block that has long since been demolished. There was blood on the walls of the stair, and the agitated barking of big dogs behind closed doors was a constant soundtrack.

I got a job as a waitress in a cafe in town which paid – I’m not exaggerating here – £2 an hour, before tax, which left me worse off than being unemployed. It came as some sort of relief when they had to let me go because of budget cuts. I signed on (at Torphichen Street) and spent the days looking for work, doing whatever came my way (I once dressed as a penguin at Edinburgh Zoo) and mooching around town, forlornly waiting for The Swine to fit me into his schedule. I took advantage of the UB40 discount to watch films in the afternoon in the plush velvet seats of the Cameo and Filmhouse, and walked the cobbled streets until my soles wore thin.

Soon after, I moved to Aberdeen, and Edinburgh became a place of transition – somewhere I didn’t feel comfortable anymore, wasn’t welcome. It belonged to those who stayed behind, and I’d given up. Given in. Moved on.

And now I’m back, for less than 24 hours, for work.

I’ve been back a few times in the last twenty years, but always somehow very fleetingly, or staying in unfamiliar parts of the city. This time, I’m near Tolcross, in an unexpectedly decent hotel (it’s one of those without many stars but with a lot of class and – mercifully – no stag parties), just metres down the road from where I used to come and stay, live, belong, bimble.

I’m tempted to get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow, just to have an old-time’s-sake saunter down amnesia lane.

But some things are best left in the past. And besides, I have a full day ahead.

Looking forward, not back.

Memo to the women who work at reception at the BA lounge at Amsterdam Schiphol airport

baWhen you try to connect to the free guest wifi in the lounge, a login screen appears, which says – and I quote:

The username and password to access this free Wi-Fi service is available from the front desk of the lounge.”

So when a “valued guest” goes up to the front desk to enquire what the username and password for the wifi is, it’d be really awesome if you could prevent yourself from getting a big lip on, barking “the information is posted on at least three cards on the coffee tables,” then marching into the lounge, signalling for the traveller to follow, in order to point to one and say “like this one, for example.”


a) your own site says the username and password is available from the front desk
b) there are only three of those cards in the lounge, and none of them, by the way, are in the second (quiet zone) lounge, so travellers can hardly be blamed for missing them and
c) your attitude stinks: being passive aggressive, rude and mardy with paying loyal British Airways customers seems like a particularly idiotic and short-sighted way to run a hospitality service.

Also, your cheese is warm and rubbery.

Goodnight, sleep tight…

So it’s something after 4 in the morning, and I’m sitting in the business centre of a supposedly 4* hotel in the middle of Amsterdam, trying to figure out how much time I need to kill before the sun comes up so I can go for a walk, to kill some more time before I can head to the airport for my noon flight.

I’m here on business, so the hotel is not my choice, but the reviews on Tripadvisor seemed to indicate that it was OK at least, and the photos on the hotel’s own glossy site gave the impression (of course) of a spacious, luxurious space. Of course, it’s possible that my experience has just been unlucky, and that the rest of the hotel is fine.

When I checked in, they gave me a room on the first floor, except when I get to it I realise it’s up to the first floor then down a couple of flights of stairs and so actually in the basement, more or less. It’s stuffy as hell and completely overheated, and the windows are nailed shut. Not so 4*.

So I call reception and they transfer me to another room, this time on the second floor, at the front of the hotel, overlooking one of Amsterdam’s main streets and all the trams, traffic and hubbub that comes with it. The room is small – miniscule, in fact – but once the balcony doors are shut it seems quiet enough and it’s only for a night so I get ready to do my talk and then leave for the evening.

When I get back, it’s late. I have a shower and crash out on the bed to watch Nick Griffin making an arse of himself on Question Time, and then drop off.

A couple of hours later, I wake up. My skin is itchy and red, especially in places where my allergies usually show – cheeks, thighs, chest, upper arms. I figure that they must use some particularly strong detergent on the sheets, so I get (partially) dressed, throw a t-shirt over the pillow and roll over.

A little while later, I wake up again, with the unmistakable feeling of something crawling over me.

I sit bolt upright and turn on the light, and there it is, on the sheet next to my pillow: a little ovalish reddy brown beetle, scurrying away. I scoop it up with a tissue and look at it closer.

My first thought (borne of too many dodgy hotels on my travels in South America) is teeny cockroach, but I look again and it doesn’t have the wee feelers and the wing structure. Plus this is really small – like ladybird size, maybe half a centimetre.

I flush it down the loo, but I can’t go back to sleep, because I’m wondering what it was. I get out my iPhone, connect to the wifi and search for small, red brown oval bug.

What I read, strewn across the first page of results, makes me leap out of bed, brushing myself down. Bed bug.


I shake out everything I’ve brought with me, resolving to wash it all the instant I get home. I stand against the wall of the room, eyeing the bed suspiciously.

Eventually, I gather my things together and head for reception.

The night receptionist is polite and offers to get me another room. He says it’s an executive room, much bigger, and imprints me another keycard as I stand there, wild eyed and hair dishevelled, at the desk, with luggage in hand.

This room is on the third floor, so I take the lift up there, navigate the labyrinthine corridors and then unlock the room door….only to discover that the bed looks unmade, the room smells like it needs cleaning and…what’s that on the table? SHIT! An open suitcase!

The unmade sheets on the bed rustle and move, and I back out as quietly as I can, then leg it down the corridor. When I get back to reception, on the verge of overtired stressy tears, they look puzzled and apologetic, and then say the only other room they have is a smoking room.

I opt instead to sit in reception – or here, in the business centre – for the next few hours before I can head to the airport and home, to boilwash everything I brought with me.

So here I am. It’s nearly 5am in Amsterdam, as Michelle Shocked once said. And I’m crazy tired, itchy all over, grumpy and killing time.

Plus, of course, mentally composing my Tripadvisor review.

Synchronicity and gaming

I was interested to learn (via Mashable) that Hipster social location game Foursquare is launching in London at the end of the week. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s not in fact the primary school playground game we used to call “Champ”, but a location based social networking game played mainly via mobile apps, which involves players “checking in” whenever they visit a bar, restaurant, event or hangout to receive points based on frequency, pattern of activity, who else checks in at the same time as them and so on (there’s a full breakdown of points awarded in their Wikipedia entry). With enough points, a player becomes the “Mayor” of a particular venue, until someone else overtakes them.

Friends (and family) in the US tell me that it is hopelessly addictive and that it’s increasingly the first thing people do when arriving at an event these days.

I’m not sure that London has enough social butterflies and hipsters to make this take off in much the same way (who am I trying to kid? Of course it does!) but it reminded me a bit of two other things I’ve been engaged with in recent time.

The first is recently-acquired by Nokia social travel tracker Dopplr, which contains strong elements of synchronicity and coincidence built in to the user experience – while no points are awarded, the service tells you when your friends will be visiting your city, or when your scheduled trip will coincide with that of another traveller you’re linked to. In theory, that could mean that you’d be able to drop people a line saying “Hey, Dopplr tells me you’re going to be in Madrid at the same time I’m going to be there – let’s do lunch!” though in practice my experience has been that I tend to know when friends are going to be in the same place as me because we’re going there for the same conference or wedding or whatever.

But another game I’ve been playing recently (and really getting into) is the rather marvellous which is wonderfully simple yet very addictive. The game involves taking photos of things you’ve spotted and then geotagging them on Flickr.

You get points for noticing things
and points for being geographically near someone else’s noticing
and points for being the first noticing in a new area
and points for being noticed within a few minutes of another player’s noticings
and so on.

All you need to do to play is take a photo and upload it to Flickr, tag it “noticings” and make sure it has location data – some mobile phone apps include this on upload, but if not, you can always do it manually later, bearing in mind that points are only calculated on the previous 24 hours of noticings.

It appeals to me partly because it’s a habit I have anyway (spotting interesting things on my daily routine or extraordinary explorations and migrations across town) combined with a delicious frisson of pointy reward but for things which are not to do with effort but to do with coincidence and synchronicity and chance.

In other words, playing the game is rewarding in itself because it encourages you to open your eyes and capture interesting stuff in the everyday; getting points for doing so in a time/place which coincides (or not) with another player’s actions which you couldn’t know about is a delightful, random cherry on top.


Oops. It all went a bit quiet there for a while, while I was on holiday. Sorry.


We went to San Francisco to visit my lovely sister and brother outlaw, and spent a lovely week and a bit wandering around the city; meeting up for food and banter with various friends; watching unexpected 1940s-themed burlesque in a jazz bar in Haight Ashbury; exploring Golden Gate Park and Noe Valley and the Mission and Japantown and other areas both new and familiar; drinking margaritas the size of our heads and summer ales from local breweries; going to the baseball; clothes and art and sushi rolling equipment shopping; watching lovely movies (Up in 3D a particular highlight); picnicking in Napa valley (the wines (and views!) at Artesa are phenomenal, especially the Meritage, and I highly recommend the deli at V.Sattui) plus a night in Sausalito (nested holidays rock) and more pleasant pootling around the Bay area (eating at In’n’Out – I had my burger animal style, natch, but don’t ask how many calories are in the chocolate shake) and playing minigolf in the blazing sunshine.

You're looking the wrong way

This building, viewed from the roof of SFMOMA, looks like something Gothamesque

Speaking of sunshine, everyone we spoke to before we went said in dubious tones “San Francisco in August? Better pack your thermals” and “don’t forget to bring a jacket” and “well, you can forget the sunglasses”

So we did.


And then we got there, and it was balmy and beautifully sunny every day and we ended up having to go shopping for more summery clothes (me) and sandals & sunglasses (P) plus silly hats to wear at the baseball (both, but you’ll never see the photos) and sunscreen. Phew!

Now, I’ll accept that we were staying on the traditionally “sunny” side of the city, but even our local resident experts had told us it was pretty chilly, and that the fog belt was heavy every afternoon. But the reputation for fog and summer chills wasn’t fulfilled in the slightest.

So it came as something of a relief when, on our last afternoon, we drove up to Sutro Heights for a picnic on our way to the airport for our flight home, and discovered the whole of Ocean Beach wraithed in white fluffy stuff. So that’s where they’d been hiding it all week.

Some photos here – more to come when I’ve recovered from jetlag a bit.

Anyway, I’m back. What did I miss?

It must be time for another rant about commuting, surely?

Given that I currently spend a minimum of two and a half hours in transit every day, I’ve been pondering for a while whether there’s a particular thing that would improve my commute.

Certainly less time on public transport would be a boon, but would unfortunately mean living somewhere either entirely unaffordable or unsavoury, neither of which I’m keen to do.

So in the absence of cutting the time spent down, I’ve been wondering whether the addition or removal of anything specific might actually make the whole thing more tolerable.

Not going yet

The short list so far includes:

  • Air conditioning on the tube: not a big thing at the moment, and I understand there’s work under way, but some of the lines – the Victoria, mainly – do seem to get ever so fetid in summer rush hours
  • Turning off the heating on London bus services: I know that it’s probably related to the engine of the bus, but there’s been times on my twice-daily bustrek that I’ve been sure I could smell something singeing. Like human flesh. Forty years ago, we managed to put a man on the moon. Are we seriously unable to stop grilles pumping out heat on buses during the hottest part of the year?
  • People shutting up on the tube: I know it’s a bit anti-social, but on the longest bit of the tube journey, I generally try and read, and if people are shouting at each other in English, Spanish, French or German, I find it enormously distracting, no matter how loud the music in my ears is. So sometimes I wish they’d SHUSH or (better and less grumpy) that there was a dedicated reading/quiet carriage, like on long-distance trains.
  • Less human chaos in and around King’s Cross Underground station: I know they’re redeveloping it at the moment, but the fact that there’s only one main entrance/exit which is around a hairpin corner from the ticket gates means that every day – without fail – is a seething mass of bewildered tourists and idiots dragging suitcases behind them and tripping people up while looking for the right exit for the Eurostar, all bottlenecked into a pretty narrow space.

    Plus don’t get me started on the poor escalator and platform etiquette I observe daily – standing still in the “fast lane” or in the doorway to a platform is still one of the quickest ways to get punched in the back of the head in London. Fact.

    In fact, I feel that a general reduction in human idiocy between stepping off the tube and stepping into the office would be a massive (but unlikely) improvement: the main problem here is that I work close to a major transport hub, so all human life is there, albeit mainly just standing about gormlessly and smoking.

    And on a related point, whose bloody stupid idea was it to put a major bus stop on a bit of pavement just around the corner from the station on York Way? The pavement is so narrow and there are regularly 100+ people waiting for the next bus to trundle along, and since they’re not as well-versed in the art of queueing as their W/SW London compatriots, that makes it impossible to actually walk down the pavement, which instead means anyone wishing to do so needs to make a detour into the (three lane, busy) road, which can’t be a long-term good idea.

The tube renovators can't spell

All of these things are irritating, and removal/refinement/improvement in each area would doubtless improve both the experience of commuting and the state of my mood when I arrive in the office or back at home.

But after much consideration, I must conclude that the single thing that would improve my commute – and, I’m sure, that of countless other poor souls in London – is some sort of ASBO preventing people in branded T-shirts from handing out free commuter newspapers while standing in the middle of the pavement.


I appreciate that their job is to hand out free newspapers, but standing in the middle of a busy public thoroughfare, desperately thrusting free sheets into the hands of harassed commuters may well be an effective way of dispensing resources but it’s a remarkably piss-poor strategy for making people feel well-minded towards the companies who instruct their minions to do so.


Every evening is like a gauntlet of dodging the eager profferings of these branded thrusters. It’s not enough that I don’t actually want to take one of their papers – I still have to dodge and swerve around them as they slow traffic by standing directly in front of the entrance to the station, or in the middle of the pavement, or at the point at which the pelican crossing disgorges onto the main pavement from the road.

I don’t blame the individuals, but I do wish I could get a message to their shift supervisor, or whoever instructs them in the tactics of their tasks.

So here’s a message, specifically to whoever’s in charge of distribution training at thelondonpaper and London Lite, in the hope that this mention will get picked up by their social media signal filters:

Tell your uniformed distributors to stand beside rather than in the flow of foot traffic around major stations and busy areas.

If you don’t, I’m going to report them – and you – for causing an obstruction and endangering safety on the public highway, and start a campaign to get your antisocial tactics banned altogether.

Here endeth the rant.

Time tourism

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could not only visit a particular place for a holiday but visit it during a particular era?

Looking back at the city

I’ve been thinking about this in preparation for our upcoming visit to San Francisco, a city that I know and love and have visited a number of times over the past 20 years (erk!). It’s always good to visit (and especially so nowadays, as I have family and friends there), but on the train the other day I found myself ruminating about how interesting it would be to visit that incredible city, but during it’s hippified free-love-and-flowers-in-your-hair heyday in the late sixties. Or during the wild days of the Barbary coast?

San Francisco Panorama

What if you could book a holiday in the past?

That got me thinking about other places with particular times it would be interesting or characteristic to visit – like Manhattan during the late 50s and early 60s – the Madmen era.

Or London during the swinging 60s…wait, is this just a 60s thing? No, there must be other places with characterful or formative times associated with them…. Help me out here.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s imagine that the tourism time machine doesn’t go further than 200 years without your face melting off, so no visiting of Pompei or having hot chocolate with the Aztecs.

Where would you choose? And when?

Never parted

On the tube, they cannot let go of each other. There must always be something touching – thighs; fingers; shoulders; lips.

When a single seat becomes available, he urges her to take it and then hovers in front of her. She reaches out; they touch.

On the tube; they cannot let go of each other