Mind the (Service) Gap

river-541456_1280There’s a(nother) 24-hour Tube strike on the way in London this week. But I remember the fun-and-games of London Transport strikes in the early 1980s.

Do you work in London, commute by Tube?  If so, you have my sympathy. But having studied and worked in London for years, done my share of commuting and borne the brunt of a fair number of transport strikes, I confess, it’s just great being a home-based worker.

Working From Home on a strike day is an option for many. Laptops, broadband, mobile devices, personal hot-spots – all make this relatively easy. But it wasn’t always like that.

In my first job back in the early 1980s, I worked in a company based in Farringdon on the fringe of the City of London.  For several months, London Transport (buses and tube trains) engaged in a series of all-out strikes, often running for 2 or 3 days at a time and scheduled at no more than a few days’ notice.

Not only was this in a time long before mobile communications and remote working, but my company needed a full complement of staff in the office, every day, for the work it undertook. On a strike day, that meant getting upwards of a thousand people into the office from every part of London and the Home Counties. With no buses and no tube trains, it was a logistical project of epic proportions.

I worked in what would today be called the HR department, and it fell to my immediate boss – and therefore to me – to handle it.

We knew where everyone lived of course, from their personnel records, held on the company’s mainframe computer (remember those?).  But how to get them into London and home again?

For the most critical workers, we booked hotels. We got there fast and paid top rates, so we got rooms. But people – horror of horrors – had to bunk up together. One just didn’t do that in those days.

Then we set up contracts with several coach firms. We put a massive map on the wall and we worked out routes beginning in the suburbs or even further afield and winding their way into London picking up as many staff as possible at pre-arranged points. We worked out timings which often involved those in the farthest reaches being at their pick-up points at 5:00am.  That might not sound too outrageous today, but those were the days when people rarely commuted more than an hour and never started work before 9:00am. We had coaches snailing into London from Essex, Kent, Surrey, Middlesex, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.  And we communicated all this to every individual without the assistance of email – just phone calls, hand-delivered memos and lists pinned to notice-boards.

We organised car shares too, persuading people from different departments and vastly differing statuses to squeeze in together and actually talk to each other on these protracted journeys. Formality gave way to cheery resilience and here and there, a glimmer of ‘Dunkirk Spirit’.

Of course, provision had to be made in London for all the extra cars. Without the WFH option, the only alternative for many was to co-opt the family car and join endless queues on the arterial roads. Such queues began around 5.00am and lasted all day; come to think of it, not unlike a normal workday in London in 2015.  I remember temporary surfacing laid out by the Army in Hyde Park and St James’s Park and other places, which turned them into massive car parks on strike days, grass chewed and flattened in the interests of keeping London moving.

Come around 4:30pm – only the most modest of concessions for the day’s discomfort – all those coaches and cars would head for home, forming the kind of queues which were alien to commuters of 35 years ago, but all too familiar today.

This fun-and-games took place perhaps four or five times over the couple of years I worked at the firm. We got quite good at it – getting to coach firms and hotels before everyone else, the logistics, the communication, the massaging of executive egos, the polite rejection of all but the most compelling of excuses for non-attendance. As a young and naïve junior secretary, it was both a great way to get to know everyone and a superb lesson in project management.

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10 things that quite irrationally jerk my chain – about going into London

underground-534617_1280I made one of my rare trips into Central London this weekend, to meet a friend for lunch at Leicester Square. It was fun meeting up, but trips into Central London freak me out a bit these days.

That’s weird, since I’ve lived around London for most of my life. I studied in the City. I commuted into the West End, City and along the Embankment for years. I used to love popping into London for an evening out, lining up the kitschiest of cocktails or spending a fortune on theatre tickets and a bite to eat at some anonymous hole where they couldn’t care less if they ever saw you again. I knew secret parking places you could depend on; I used to mooch around Selfridges all day, eat my lunch in Grosvenor Square and swing by Seven Dials just to visit a favourite shop. That was when I could drive the 18 miles or so in a little over a half-hour. Now the journey time has doubled whatever the time of day, the Congestion Charge adds an extra weekday burden, the secret parking places aren’t secret any more and it costs a small mortgage to leave your car anywhere for even an hour or two. That means travel is mainly by London Underground, which is (IMHO) a loathsome experience (even though I’ll admit that both the service and stations have much improved in recent years).

But here’s the problem. I’m an introvert and my introversion has grown more entrenched as the years have gone by. Crowds, bustle and noise discomfort me now more than they ever used to. So those delightful hours spent meeting up with an old friend came with a few… irritants:

  1. The passengers who wanted the whole carriage to share their conversations – their voices screeching and yabbering high up the decibel scale; a relentless, ear-grinding counterpoint to the rattle-and-hum of the train on the tracks.
  2. The blast of sooty air whooshing out of the tunnel as the train departed. It’s a challenge, getting grit in your eye when you won’t touch your face before you can sanitise your hands.
  3. The crowds piling into and around Leicester Square ticket hall… milling, meandering, dawdling, oblivious.
  4. Tourists. The sort who stop suddenly on a busy street to take a photograph of their pals against the impressive cultural backdrop of… a branded restaurant chain. And the ones wielding giant backpacks, who swing about, clouting, bumping and squashing the unfortunates around them.
  5. The vile individual, gobbing gelatinous spittle on to the pavement just feet ahead.
  6. The delicious lunch. Yes, are you surprised? But tasty though it was, it bore a toxic bacterial payload. It has left me with – I’ll put it delicately – tummy trouble for the last two days, confining me to within an easily reachable distance of… oh, you know the rest.
  7. The smallest and narrowest of restaurant toilet cubicles, the sort where you have to squat on the sanitary bin (ladies, you know of what I speak, don’t you?) and then practically climb into the toilet to open the door.
  8. Wetness everywhere in the Ladies room. Soapy basins, water and residue everywhere. Nothing, but nothing, is dry. There is nowhere to rest a handbag. So you grapple with it as you wash your hands, only to find there are… no towels.
  9. Another vile individual, delivering a volley of snorty, snot-laden sneezes into homebound Tube carriage. Enough already. I changed carriages.
  10. The man who sat beside me in that second carriage, his legs in that dominant spread-apart pose that men love to adopt and women hate to witness. For thirty minutes  his thigh jogged against mine as he shot at people’s heads on his mobile.

You’ll tell me I’m intolerant and cantankerous and when it comes to public transport and crowded places, I’m a bit of a clean-freak. And I confess, you’d be right on all counts.

London is one of the world’s finest and most fascinating cities – and I know I’m fortunate to live within its environs. I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from visiting and taking in its rich heritage and culture, vibrant nightlife and spectacular retail opportunities. But this amazing, extraordinary city – with all its crowds and bustle, and its dirt and grime – does tend to bring out the worst in me.

Off-message – but on top of the world

On a trip into London and an unexpected high.

River Thames from Millbank TowerOkay, so this is off-message, I know – but WordPress tells me it’s my 100th post, so I hope you’ll indulge me.

I live to the west of London. If anyone except another Londoner asks, I say I live in London because that’s specific enough. But there’s Central London and then there’s the wide band of suburb stretching out in a radius of perhaps 10-12 miles from the centre before you get to the M25, the motorway that encircles the city. And I’m at the far edge.

Mostly I stay away from the centre of the city. It’s crowded, noisy, stinky and dirty like any large city, and in the summer it’s overrun with tourists shouldering hazardous backpacks and stopping without warning every few feet to take pictures of each other. For years I commuted daily to areas in the West End (shopping district), City of London (old financial district before Canary Wharf came along) and Westminster (the seat of power). But as a home-based worker now, my trips into London are rare, perhaps five or six times a year, no more.

Yesterday I was to be in London on behalf of a client, attending and doing the write-up on a seminar at Millbank Tower by the River Thames. As usual I grizzled to myself about the journey; whichever way I try, it never has less than three legs and never takes less than 90 minutes. Choking on the fumes I abandoned a walk from Victoria and took a taxi – the lazy approach, but I didn’t want to arrive unable to breathe. I knew Millbank Tower was tall – the clue is in the name – but I hadn’t realised I was headed up on one of those lifts that zips past the first 15 floors, ultimately to the 29th floor. The venue was called Altitude – I should have realised.

The view that greets you from the 29th floor of Millbank Tower all but takes your breath away. My last trip ‘up’ in London was to escort a friend from the USA on The London Eye (see it in the photos), but on the day in question it had drizzled solidly and the clouds tickled the capsules as they rounded the top of the wheel, smothering the view.

London from Millbank TowerYesterday was different, so I took some photos – of the city I simultaneously hate and love. Down on the ground, it’s an assault on the senses – and not in a nice way. Up there it was magic, insulated from the noise and dirt; an urban panorama harking back centuries and stretching forward – and upward – into the future. The skyline changes year by year as old buildings are dwarfed by structures reaching ever higher. (Can you spot St Paul’s Cathedral? It’s just to the right of the tallest crane.) Individual towers, striking when they were built, become swamped by their neighbours within a year or two. Look closely and you’ll see the scene is cluttered with cranes, as old real estate is levelled and spires of steel and glass take root. It’s a constantly changing skyline. In a weird way it’s not unlike a forest, with its natural balance of decay and renewal.

Anyhow, it fair took my breath away, so I thought I’d share one or two photos I managed to snap before the business of the day got underway. Enjoy.

An Eye on London

London EyeAn old friend is visiting London from Atlanta over the coming days. She hosted me for a holiday several years ago and we toured the Orlando theme parks, Savannah (I remember ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ was my companion book of choice that week) and the beautiful South Carolina Coast.

She’s in London to work, but it’s my turn to host and we plan to snatch a couple of days to play tourist. It occurred to me that I haven’t played tourist in my own home town since I was a child, when I recall being forced to traipse the streets, exposing a succession of visiting American and Canadian relatives to the charms of the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and more.

This time, I’m looking forward to my couple of days as tourist guide. We’re set to visit a few places that I’m embarrassed to confess I haven’t yet experienced. You know when you live somewhere, you do your best to avoid the backpackers, not join their numbers. So unbelievably, I’ve never been on The London Eye, never stood in Shakespeare’s Globe, never crossed The Millennium Bridge and (shame of shames) never visited the Tate Modern.

All these deficits in my life experience will be rectified this week.

I expect we’ll also nose around market stalls, drink coffee at the riverside and find somewhere eclectic and absent of branding for our lunch. I’ll take my notepad and my camera, and I’ll scribble and snap relentlessly, to capture at least a small corner of London, seen through the eyes of a visitor.

The experience won’t be much use for my current novel, which is set in Turkey. But I’ve discovered I like this writing business, so there’ll probably be another one along later, and who knows, it might just involve old friends meeting in an unfamiliar city.