Sunday, March 30, 2008

No, the other Stratford


We live on the cusp of Newham and Waltham Forest, off the road between Leytonstone at the top and Stratford at the bottom. Leytonstone's OK. We like it here. I've yet to find anything I like about Stratford. True, there's a nice pub, King Eddies. And er, that's it. I went down there today to photograph an interestingly bleak little barber shop I'd spotted a week or so ago. To get there I had to walk through the shopping centre. It has similar crowds to Oxford Street, but ploughing through the masses doesn't seem to bother me there. In Stratford there's a palpable tension about the place - a sort of desperation. Everyone seems to be smoking and eating fast food and drinking proprietary-brand superlager. It's hateful. There are spectacular piles of rubbish - today it was plates of food piled up in a shopping trolley outside the Wetherspoon. You always pass at least one discarded cooker.

Past the shopping centre I had to trudge along the dual carriageway, now lined with new-build flats. Some are surprisingly nice - I can't imagine anyone would live there, but still they build. The barbers wasn't as photogenic as I'd hoped, so I crossed over and headed back past the boarded-up pubs and the Stratford Rex. This is a former cinema, now a pretty 'earthy' club and venue. A young couple were pushing a pram - the father drunk. Then it started to rain. Can't wait for the olympics.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Continental scooterists, part 1

I snapped this guy in the newer part of Granada. He's on a very nice, well looked-after mid 80s P-range Vespa. I suspect he was just on his way back to work after almuerzo. No jacket, no gloves, no jeans. No boots - in fact, not even any socks. Not sure about the helmet, but he really looks the part. The cities of Europe are full of scooterists dressed like this, especially in Italy and Spain - even on the motorway. In Paris, it's fairly common to see scooterists in London-style hi-viz jackets but I can't imagine that in Rome. In the back of every London Vespa rider's mind is an image of them riding in shirt sleeves down the Viale Di Trastevere, helmetless. I feel naked if I nip to the shops wearing my denim jacket instead of my armour and cordura.

Friday, March 28, 2008

I'm still waiting for the time machine to be invented.

The marvellous Nouvelle Vague (who also do a a great cover of the Buzzcock's Ever Fallen In Love With Someone [You Shouldn't've Fallen In Love With]) used the famous café sequence from Godard's 1964 film Bande à Part. The song's called Dance With Me, a cover of a track by scary proto-goths Lords Of The New Church. It fits just perfectly. The more I hear Nouvelle Vague, the more I like them. I love Paris. I suspect I'd have loved it even more in the early sixties.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


That was the reg of the small white van that followed me down Leman street - and I'm not exaggerating here - three feet from my rear wheel. Which is exactly the thing I enjoy at 30mph and about to make the 90 degree turn into a corner so potholed the Indian Highways Authority would close it. I had no choice but to pull over and let this genius pass with a traditional hand signal from me. I don't think he was expecting me to pull up beside him at the next lights, where he glanced at me then spent the interlude mouthing expletives at his dashboard.

All this ten minutes after I'd pulled up beside White Van Man, who in heavy traffic was reading his copy of the Daily Mail as he trundled slowly forward. There was a crocodile of schoolkids on the pavement right next to him. I've had two scooters destroyed (with me sat on them) by just this sort of dolt driving into me from behind. He didn't take kindly to my strongly-worded advice.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Blue Skies Will Surely Come




Visiting the fine little village of Alnmouth, we were surprised to find these old caravans sat atop the headland like Easter Island Moai. Each little plot a promise of tartan rugs, damp comics and a black and white telly run from a car battery. The grass was neat and daffodils spikes were poking up through the turf. No facilities at all. No shop, other than in the village. No site club selling John Smith Smooth, just the magnificent Red Lion down the hill.  No Kidz Klub, other than the beach. I wonder when these caravans last moved?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I knew it wasn't a good idea...

... for The Man to turn the westbound section of the Bow Flyover into a single lane. The three lanes from Stratford suddenly funnelled into one just isn't a barrel of laughs at the best of times. Now there's another hazard. The line that originally separated the lanes on the flyover was removed some time ago, and the new road markings laid down. Suddenly, the old line has turned into a long groove, about 3 inches deep and more or less the width of a motorcycle's tyre. I've no idea how this could happen so quickly. Maybe it was the cold snap over the weekend. So that's another thing to be wary of, as well as the worst drivers in London. Seriously, this is Bandit Country. The spiritual home of the untaxted, un-mot-d, unlicenced driver with one working tail light and a mobile phone clamped to his ear. You soon learn which drivers to be extra wary of. Tinted windows? Be wary. Minicab? Be wary. Foreign plates? Be Wary. BMW? Be wary. 4x4? Be wary. White van? The dirtier it is, the more wary you should be. I see things every day that make my blood freeze, but one special memory was following a car to Stratford Morrisons, just because it was being driven so badly. I was curious to see what such a dolt looked like. What I didn't expect were no less than eight people to get out of the small car - and one of the passengers was sat on the driver's lap. Welcome to East London.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Bomber Country

Like the first time you see the blue whale in the Natural History Museum, it's the sheer size that gets you. Roy Chadwick's masterpiece is enormous and brutally gorgeous, the way many heavyweight boxers are. I was up at the RAF Museum in North London, gawping just as I would have done as a 12 year old. I just can't get enough of WW2 aircraft. I can always identify a British or American 'plane, though I struggle with some of the German ones. The Lancaster and the Spitfire are my favourites. Is it overdoing it to say that the sound of a Rolls-Royce Merlin is the sound of freedom?

The Avro Lancaster was introduced in 1942. Since we'd been booted out of Europe in 1940, aerial bombing was the only way to take the fight directly back to Germany. Bomber Command paid an expensive price in blood. A crew's tour of operations was 30 missions, but the typical life expectancy of a crew was about six – and of the bomber itself, about 10. 77 Squadron which flew Halifax Bombers from Elvington in Yorkshire (and now a museum) lost 22 aircraft from November 1943 to February 1944. 117 aircrew were killed in action, or missing presumed dead, 39 were taken prisoner of war and 3 evaded capture. A total of 159, equivalent to losing 80-90% of the squadron over the 4 month period. These statistics were by no means unusual. The Lanc here survived 117 missions, which is astonishing. I got chatting to one of the curators, who told me that some of the night staff believe it's haunted. Some have heard voices coming from the fore section and cockpit. It's hardly surprising.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

In yer face, "Pizza" Hut ...

... this gloomy little place serves the real thing, cooked up by an elderly Italian hiding behind a Cimbali coffee machine perhaps as old as he is. Great chips, too. A hot little mound of golden matchsticks to crunch while you peruse the slightly alarming mural. This is the Lorelei, perhaps the last of the 50s coffee-bar-cum-restaurants Soho used to be famous for. The outside is painted as the Italain tricolore, and the inside looks like a cross between church hall and alpine hut. It still retains its original formica tables and vinyl banquettes. The Lorelei is always quiet - I've never seen it full. In fact, the staff always seem surprised when anyone walks through the door. Occasionally, someone will stop and glance at the menu in the window then hurry on somewhere else. More fool them.

It's almost comically unmodernised - If you need the loo, it's in a brick outhouse down the yard. Since the demise of the New Piccadilly (unchanged since 1951) last year, we've been coming to the Lorelei for our carbohydrate requirements. The atmosphere at the 'Picc' was something else - you always felt like you were in a film - but to be fair, the food was rubbish. At the Lorelei the food is great, but there is no atmosphere - you have to bring your own, which is fine by me.

Friday, March 21, 2008

It's later than you think...

... if you want a new, geared Vespa. Piaggio stopped making the P-range last year. European emissions laws have finally seen off the angular old workhorse they introduced as the 'New Line' in 1978. In the picture here we have an early P, with no indicators, bracketed by two latter-day examples which have such luxuries as disc brakes, oil injection and even a fuel gauge. Surprisingly, they're not that common a site in their native Italy, - there are far more in Paris and even Hong Kong than Rome. Italians love to have the very latest of everything, and the 4-speed PX is seen by some as an old man's form of transport. Many end up at dealer fairs to be exported to Britain. The Italian stock is dwindling, however. Dealers are increasingly turning to poking around in Spanish barns for licence-built MotoVespa examples. It won't be too long before the geared Vespa is like the Lambretta - more in the UK than in its native country.

All's not quite lost. An Indian built Vespa clone is increasingly available - the LML star. It comes in jolly primary colours, costs a grand less than a 'real' PX (if you can find one), and my goodness, is meant to be better-built than its Italian cousin. Higher-grade metals, tougher paint. Blimey.

My PX was first owned in Verona - the dealer sticker is still on the mudguard - and I aquired it from Niall at Retrospective Scooters in Turnpike Lane about 4 years ago. It's a pretty austere ride, though the suspension is armchair-like compared to my beloved 1973 Vespa Sprint. Top practical speed is something like 55mph, even with a tub of lard like me in the cockpit.

The photo above was taken outside Scooter Emporium, who have been trading just off Brick Lane for about 8 years. I was one of their first customers - they furnished my with my pride and joy, a the '73 Sprint mentioned above. I'll be writing about her when the summer comes.

There was indeed beer last night

Rather a lot of it. Some of it was Taylor's Landlord, brewed magnificently in my home town and the reason of my rounded silhouette. It doesn't travel well, even though the brewery have reputedly invested in a special cushioned dray for taking the beer 'down south'. Education is the key to keeping this tricky brew well - they should send missionaries down to convert the cellarmen of the south to the joy of the Sparkler. Taylor's has changed over the last decade or so. It's not that long since the old boss, Lord Ingrow refused to have anything as flibbertygibbet as a fax machine. Now Madonna drinks it. I tried London Pride, which was better, and then after returning a soupy pint I ended up drinking licenced-brewed Staropramen, talking war films and VC heroes with my colleagues. Well, one of them.

And I had a kebab on the way home. A chicken one. It was disgusting. There are two kebab shops practically next door to each other. One uses prime chicken wrapped in bread they bake in their own tandoor. The other shop might be the reason for all the missing cat posters around here. I chose the wrong one.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Another scoot-free day.

Reason: there might be beer after work tonight. Walking down the High Road, a Matchless and an AJS (the latter with girder forks) came burbling around the corner. They were probably on the way to MCS, a good old fashioned bike workshop staffed by affable, oily men called (probably) Ted. It' s a dark shop, often with something interesting and British outside crying oil onto the pavement. They drink a lot of tea in there and don't have a website. Everything is haphazardly piled up, but they know where everything is. A punter will ask for a sprocket nut for a BSA A50, and a member of staff will walk off into the darkness of the back shop and return with the part, wiping the dust off with his sleeve. They've even supplied me with crush washers for my Italian Shopping Moped.

"How much?"

"Ah - pay us next time"

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The well dressed Vespisti

It was a cold ride today - three layers plus jacket and scarf. Every year I tell myself I'll get some winter gloves, but I never do. I prefer an open-face helmet because of the improved peripheral vision , but when it's cold I jam on a full face so I don't arrive at my destination feeling like my head has been cryogenically preserved. This is also good protection from rain - even when it's fairly light it can feel like having gravel chucked in your face for an hour. Over my legs I have a lap blanket - very popular in Italian and French cities, and increasingly common here. Definately not cool but it does keep the chill and rain off. You still get a wet arse when it rains, though. I've never got on with windscreens. The big ones are like being attached to a windsurf board and impossible to see through on a rainy night.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

You Can't Ride Every Day

Well you can, but I don't. Sometimes it's nice to have a walk and get the Tube. Except when you get to the Tube Station - having walked through Stratford, a sort of clearing house for the Jeremy Kyle show - the trains have stopped running because of "passenger action" whatever that is - I suspect it's a euphamism for someone jumping in front of a train. And then you wish you'd gone to work on your scooter.

On the way home, I changed at Mile End. I was surprised to see a couple of policemen having a good look around the Eastbound central line platform. What struck me about these two is that neither were wearing those hi-viz coats, they were both well over six foot and built like a telephone box. They looked so different, with an entirely different presence. I can't be alone in thinking that reducing the height requirement for the Met and sticking the entire Force - sorry, "service" in comical lollipop ladies coats diminished their authority?

Monday, March 17, 2008

My brakes are slightly better than I thought.

Leaving work later is a bit of a bonus sometimes. The roads are a generally much clearer. Tonight, the run on the eastbound Mile End Road from the Burdett Road junction was more or less devoid of traffic. Third gear all the way - wow, this is lovely. Under the Ferodo bridge, change lanes in anticipation of the flyover and WHOAH! Jump on both brakes, coming to a halt in front of the dolt in the mid-market white saloon who had clearly seen me, but decided to try and cut across into the filling station anyway. I shouted at him so loudly my throat still hurts. He didn't care.