Friday, February 27, 2009

The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

Everybody loves the Monroe lines of a classic scooter, most famously those of the GS model. Among the last of the curvaceous largeframes was the Rally, and the Sprint Veloce (my own beloved example 'Bella' is pictured here on a visit to North Weald Aerodrome), phased out with the introduction of the distinctly chunky P Range, from 1977. The P Range was the last manually-geared Italian scooter and continued in production until it was taken round the back of the EU Emissions office and shot by The Man in 2007. The Vespa range nowadays is a line up of excellent automatic transmission future-retro scoots, most of which take their styling cues from the Vespa's sixties heyday. Given the numbers that they sell, there's a huge demand for stylish retro scooters.

In the last 15 years or so there have been several pretenders to the Vespa's curvy crown. Notably there's been the very decent Aprilia Habana ridden by Jamie Oliver and the Italjet Velocifero. The Velocifero was much loved by the likes of Oasis at the height of Britpop but suffered from spares availability of almost zero and comically priced accessories. Passenger seat pad? That'll be £100. Get a few scooterists down the pub, and sooner or later someone will ask why nobody's producing a GS replica with a modern engine in it. It seems so obvious. Well, now someone has.

This here scoot is apparently the prototype 'Venti', a project by an American company which specialises in Chinese-made off road vehicles. It's clearly heavily influenced by the GS. According to 2strokebuzz it's a plastic body over a tubular frame, rather than the steel monocoque the Vespa is famous for. It certainly looks the part, or will with a few modifications. There's some speculation that the automatic motor is a 150cc unit, either Indian or Chinese. The Venti was on show at the Indianapolis Motorcycle Show this month, so it looks like it might actually be a goer, unlike the 'new' Lambretta rumours that were knocking around a couple of years back. There are at least four companies that claim to own the trademark for Lambretta (quite apart from the clothing company of the same name) two of which have launched scooters. Both of these turned out not to be the beautiful near-replicas promised by teaser images, but bog-standard far eastern auto mopeds rebadged with the famous name, like this insult for the American market, or this slightly nicer one for the Italians. Ugh.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Watching The Watchmen

I've been looking forward to the release of Watchmen since last year, which doesn't get its UK release until 6th March. A phone call. It's my mate Stuart. Stuart has miraculously snagged two tickets to the press preview that night. Would I like to go? Would I? I don't get frothy about anything much, but it was all I could do to stop myself running around the office like Daffy Duck.

Sitting among the film reviewers and junketeers at the Odeon, I steeled myself to be disappointed. I'm still dripping mental bleach into my mind's eye to erase the memory of the last Alan Moore adaption I saw, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. However, it was three hours of brilliant cinematic spectacle. To be fair, the story is weak in parts where the graphic novel (OK - comic) hasn't translated too well, or Zack Snyder has changed the story a bit, but I didn't leave the cinema with the overpowering urge to hire a hitman which I did after the LOEG. It's a film that credits the viewer with intelligence, and it could have been so easy to make it into Hollywood grey goo - which nearly happened. There was a plan a few years ago to have - God 'elp us - Arnie Schwarzenegger as Dr Manhattan, and for the film to be standard helicopter-blowing-up pap. There's a lot of scenes which are almost frame-by-frame replicas of the original, and overall it's pretty faithful. Is it as good as the book? No - but then, nothing really could be. And for something that has been called 'unfilmable', it's very good indeed. Well done, Mr Snyder.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

More Lazy Blogging

Flight Of The Conchords, 'Foux Da Fa Fa'.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Red Brick Dreams

A google for Len Deighton's London Dossier - inspired by a recent post on Unmitigated England - turned up a page about Rowton Houses. These were hostels created in 1892 by philanthropist Lord Rowton. His idea was to create a cheap, clean place to stay for working men as an alternative to squalid cheap hotels and flophouses. George Orwell stayed in them during the period that later became Down And Out In Paris In London. He liked them a lot:

"The Rowton Houses are splendid buildings, and the only objection to them is the strict discipline, with rules against cooking, card-playing, etc. Perhaps the best advertisement for the Rowton Houses is the fact that they are always full to overflowing"

Things must have improved since Jack London stayed at the Whitechapel hostel in 1902, describing the place as full of "life that is degrading and unwholesome". Lord Rowton himself claimed his hostels were "fit for an archbishop".

There were six Rowton houses in London, built more or less to the same plan. There was a barber, dining room (with provision for self catering), a smoking room, library, cobbler, tailor and post room. The bedrooms were a private cubicle with a chair, bed, a chamber pot, good ventilation and "plenty of blankets" according to one account. Only one of the hostels is still in use, Arlington house in Camden (above, when newly built), which by the 80s was run by the local council. The other Rowton Houses have been demolished or converted into flats, like this one in Whitechapel - imposing doesn't even begin to describe the presence of the place, which in its heyday had 816 beds. Despite Rowton's best intentions, the hostels became associated with dossers, a reputation still prevalent in the 60s when Deighton wrote his London Dossier. In 1967 - five years after the Kings Cross Rowton House was converted into the Mount Pleasant hotel - the owners of the Mount Pleasant successfully sued Deighton for claiming in the Dossier that the hotel was "too expensive for a place that used to be a hostel for down-and-outs".

The first time I ever came to London was a school trip in 1980, to see England Under-16s play their Irish counterparts at Wembley. The things that remain with me from that trip are: The shock that our national stadium was less comfortable than Keighley's rugby ground, the unanimous disappointment at the size of Nelson's column and a trio of very camp men dressed as Adam And The Ants that shocked even the gobby hard lads of our group into terrified silence. The other thing that I vividly remember was where we stayed - the Mount Pleasant Hotel. Despite the refit our rooms were still effectively cubicles with a chair, bed, and a cupboard with a radio bolted into it. There was no longer a chamber pot, but there were still plenty of blankets. 26 years on I agree with the Deighton asessement, though I have stayed in very much worse places since.

(pictures from

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Lovers Lane

On sunday we paid our first visit to Brick Lane Market for about 4 years. My goodness, it's changed. Until we moved to Glittering Leytonstone we lived in the environs of The Lane for the thick end of 12 years. My first visit to the market was with my then girlfriend (now Mrs TIW) and her dad, early one autumn morning in 1992 - a year or so before we moved to the area. The market to my companions was nothing new, they both grew up in the East End. To a wide-eyed boy who'd been in the capital for only two months it was almost like walking into a modern-day Dickens novel. The streets back then were swarming with geezers, chancers, wideboys, barrowboys, preachers, feral kids, mock-auctioneers and card sharps. If I'd seen a fakir doing the Indian rope trick I wouldn't have been a bit surprised. There were walnut-faced crones in headscarves, wheezing old men, blokes who looked like Mike Reid eating rollmops with their orange wives, circling pickpockets and a knot of big-eared skinheads selling neo-nazi hatezines. Alongside the official stalls flogging fruit, boiler suits, padlocks, damp books, live crabs, toys, hammers and brushes were the amateur pitches selling junk of every flavour. Betamax video recorders, bike parts pinched from the West End, headless Barbie dolls, musty curtains, 80s top shelf mags by the pile. There was one old boy selling bent, rusty nails and an oily towel. If you knew who to ask you could buy a monkey from a nervous Italian in a pub.
The whole area was dominated by the old Bishopsgate Goods Yard, a solid redbrick complex of switchyards and warehouses which was originally built in the 1840s. There's a massive redevelopment going on as the site is to become the new Shoreditch overground station. A new bowstring bridge has been placed over Shoreditch High Street, with a smaller one over Brick Lane which slices through the old arches on Grimsby Street. It has all the grace of a park bench dropped onto a model village. Hideous, and on sunday I wasn't prepared for it at all. To me, the railway arches were a large part of the areas unique appeal. It was also somewhat sad to find that some of of the old stalls had gone, replaced with empty spaces, a van selling pies and even a couple of blokes selling tourist tat. Health and safety legislation seems to have done for the 'fly' traders along Bethnal Green road, although you could still buy your stolen bike back on Sclater Street. The Coppermill plant, where bales of old cotton pyjamas were sorted on the first step to becoming banknotes had been part demolished with the site earmarked for - sigh - flats. You can't expect the past to be preserved in aspic, but some of the developments going on in the Brick Lane area seem to be killing off what made the area so appealing to me and many others in the first place - the effortless grimy charm of it all.
It was good to see that two old stalwarts remained - Blackman's (Buy Your Boots Where Your Dad Got His) is still shoeing the workers of the East End and the salt beef bagels from the Bagel Bake tasted as good as ever, even if the cabbies and elderly hardmen in the queue have been replaced by self-facilitating media nodes and their tiny Japanese girlfriends.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Right Stuff

There aren't many boozers anywhere that tick all - or most - of my boxes, and only a couple in That London. One is the Harp, this is the other. The Old Mitre can be tricky to find even if you know where it is. Thoughtfully, on Hatton Garden there's a sign on a lamppost showing the way to happiness. The alley leading to Ely Court used to be part of Cambridgeshire, and the pub still gets the odd letter addressed to 'Cambs' . This is a hangover from the days of the Bishop of Ely having his London palace on the site. The pub itself grew organically out of the servants quarters, and dates roughly from about 1546, though the Mitre as it is now was built in 1772 and the dark panelled interior is from a 1920s refurb - I think we're all glad it wasn't done in the 60s or 70s. I'm sure a purist would have something to say about those heavy oak Hollywood-Arthurian thrones in the front bar. A lot of the interior is original though, and the place is creaking with a genuinely old patina.

It's not a pub for a quiet drink on your own - it's almost always rammed with loyal regulars and the odd tourist with a good map, squeezed into three small rooms. Despite the crush, service is quick and the beer always on top form, served up with old-school slickness and banter. The bar area is so small that the pumps are double-clipped. On our last visit you could have chosen Deuchers IPA, Adnams Broadside, Adnams Bitter and the Beartown Brewery's Snoopy Special. This was a new one on me, and was a fruity, tangy, hoppy delight with a tight head that laced the glass down to the last delicious drop. It travelled well from Cheshire. The Mitre's one of the few places in London to have a 'real' cider always on offer, typically from Thatchers, if you fancy a change. Hungry? Have a toasty, a sausage roll or a pork pie. That'll be £1.50, please squire. If you need the gents, they're outside in the yard, sir. No music, no TV, just the murmur of conversation, the squirt of the pumps and the thud of full glasses settling on tables. To tick all my boxes, a pub has to have a dog. The Mitre doesn't have one. or so I thought. Just as we were leaving the guv'nor was leading his spaniel out for a late night walk round Clerkenwell. Tick.

This is a classic pub - one of the best anywhere. Get to the Mitre and leave London behind. If you can find it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Years Of Living Dangerously

The public perception of the scooterist is of a bloke on a Vespa or Lambretta with so many mirrors and lights that it looks like a Christmas tree. This image is due in large part to pictures taken by the news photographer Terry Spencer, who covered the "battles" between Mods and Rockers during the 60s. The 'Christmas Tree' scooter was - apparently - a short lived fad amongst a group of South London Mods. Short lived I would imagine, because covering an underpowered shopping bike in acres of heavy chrome is plain daft. Daft unless you want to travel everywhere at 10mph worrying about rust. However, Spencer captured the fashion at its peak and the 'Christmas tree' became an icon copied the world over.

Hollywood couldn't invent Terry Spencer. He was born in Bedford in 1918 during a Zeppelin bombing raid. Joining the RAF in 1939 he was twice made a POW and at one time held the record for surviving the lowest parachute jump in history - 30ft over the Baltic Sea after his Spitfire exploded, the blast opening his 'chute for him. He was also the first pilot to use the wing of his aircraft to flip a V1 flying bomb in flight, which caused it to crash. This got him the lifelong nickname 'Tip In Terry'.

After the war he flew a single-engined 'plane to South Africa (without a radio or even proper maps) where he started an aerial photography business and flirted with diamond smuggling. He started to work for Life Magazine in 1952, and over the next 20 years photographed troublespots like The Congo, Nigeria (where a request to try and visit the Sultan of Kano's harem prompted him to send the telegram: “ONLY WOMAN PHOTOGRAPHER CAN ENTER HAREM OR POSSIBLY EUNUCH STOP NOT EVEN FOR LIFE MAGAZINE AM I PREPARED MAKE SACRIFICE NECESSARY FOR LATTER STOP”), Vietnam, Algeria, Indonesia, and Cuba where he covered a disastrous CIA operation to rescue defecting Soviet agents. In 1963, Spencer was persuaded by his teenage daughter to photograph an emerging band, The Beatles, which became a feature in Life just before the band's total conquest of the USA. Spencer's time with the Beatles amounted to almost 5,000 negatives, some of which were published in 1994 as It Was Thirty Years Ago Today. When life folded in 1972, Spencer became a freelance, continuing almost until his death on February 8th this year. His wife of 62 years, Lesley, died within 24 hours of him.

Spencer claimed that after surviving WW2 he never worried about his personal safety. Indeed, he was only ever hurt when attacked by Paul McCartney after discovering his secret farm on the Mull of Kintyre, years after their first meeting.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Boxing Day

Unstuffed Matchbox

Here's a plug for a new Flickr group, The International League Of Matchbox Stuffers. In short, see how many things you can get into a standard matchbox. My effort is above, with a piffling 19 items, though it did give a new purpose to the Captain Webb box I picked up at a flea market in Hebden Bridge.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Hello Pot, Meet Mr Kettle

After the cobblers spouted by Malcolm Gluck a couple of weeks ago, beer writer Melissa Cole challenged the Guardian's wine writer to a beer tasting. It can be seen in all its glory here. Malc clearly had his mind made up before he arrived, but his body language speaks volumes. If he was in a boxing ring, he'd be on the ropes. And as for beer drinkers being 'unsexy... sad sacks and losers' - I don't think you should be lobbing rocks from that particular glass house you're standing in, Mr Gluck.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

(un)Dead End

British roads are ever-more cluttered with nannyish and often pointless signage. My pet hates are those boards instructing 'pedestrians' to walk around the fenced-off 8ft deep hole some gas company or other has dug, rather than attempt to walk through it. Cheers. Thanks for that. In the US, hackers have been risking $250 fines by tampering with road signs in Texas and Illinois. Presumably these are a genuine warning in the remoter bits of Louisiana.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Snow. It happens every year.

Heavy snow is an appeal on Pennine Radio asking for volunteers to help farmers dig out their sheep. Heavy snow is the RAF dropping supplies to outlying villages and 4 inches of ice on the water butt. The sort of snow that happened several times during the years I was at Bradford college in the late 80s, and still the buses ran from Keighley to Bradford. I was only even late once - wrap up warm, and set off a bit earlier. No dramas. This morning every bus in London was cancelled. I'd walked to to Stratford before I got a call telling me not to bother going in to work, so I went straight home for a snowball fight with the wife. On the way back I passed a couple of laughing Africans enjoying their first encounter with snow, and this jolly fellow outside our local shop.


It's almost comical the way the one of the worlds richest capitals staggers to a predictable and shameful halt every time it snows. 8 unusual inches today, but when we had two inches a year or so back the results were broadly the same - just without snowmen.