Archive for May, 2008
Sit down, Chris Roberts fans, I have some sad news for you. I have just received my copy of Greenwich Time, and although the whole household has combed through it, no one can find any photographs whatsoever of The Man Himself. In fact we can only find one picture of any councillor – Jackie Smith (of whom I confess I’ve never heard, so it hardly counts.)
It’s a bit of a shock, I know. Going cold turkey – from up to seven pictures in one week to none at all could be quite upsetting for some vulnerable sections of our community and so far I have been unable to ascertain that the council have set up any kind of special counselling service to help people deal with the emotional fallout resulting from this decision.
I have to say that many will applaud this zero-tolerance attitude, and some may even point out that the paper seems to be pulling its socks up, but I feel that this measure is a little draconian.
My suggestion would be a softer regime. By instigating a “Pin Up Corner” (somewhere between the wheely-bins and the vast number of stories about small children gardening) Roberts addicts – and, indeed, all collectors of Chris-o-bilia could have their own section – without which the whole thing could go underground and become difficult to police effectively.
A specially-commissioned portrait one week, maybe; tougher images the next, for the hardcore mob (with accompanying Parental Advice warnings prominently-displayed on the previous page, of course.)
Perhaps Our Man sitting astride a Harley Davidson cuddling a kitten, or in action-pose standing on top of One-Tree Hill dressed as Neo from The Matrix ? Ah. I’m the only one that fantasises about that one then. The Phantom moves swiftly on…
I can just see the section now – lovely pictures – a heart-shaped one, perhaps, with dotted lines around it and a little scissor-symbol to make it accessible for all. Or maybe he could be wearing a chef’s outfit and it could be combined with a healthy recipe for all the vegetables those kids are growing?
Or what about his own cartoon strip? A Marvel/DC Comics superhero-type thing? The Councillor. No – that’s all wrong. That sounds more like a super-villain. Maybe a Photo-Love Story then? Let’s face it. The possibilities are endless. We could have an annual freebie calendar – Chris with a beach ball, Chris with mistletoe, Chris as the Easter Bunny…
Or – if this is all too much of a temptation for people trying to kick the habit, perhaps he could be quietly inserted into one of the other pictures. Peeping from behind bushes, or looking through one of the windows of the available council houses for example. Searching for him could take all week and there could be a small prize for the first person to Spot The Chris.
I’ve just had a couple of people thinking that my RSS has gone mad, but I have to confess that it’s totally my fault here, this time, not Blogger (for once.) It goes like this:
I started writing the Greenwich CTT piece (below) a couple of weeks ago, but halfway through, Blogger stopped letting me upload pictures. So I stuck it into my drafts section and didn’t get around to coming back to it untill just now. I finished writing and uploading the pics and hit “post” about 15 mins ago – trouble was, I hadn’t changed the date on it, and it appeared in the middle of two-weeks-ago’s posts, promting a rather odd RSS feed. So I reposted, having changed the date. Cue another RSS feed. And a few moans from RSS users…
Sorry folks. I always forget that you have to see my mistakes. For heaven’s sake don’t plough through that lot twice!
I’d always wanted to actually take a train from Grand Central Station. It’s the stuff of movies. Of romance, Of adventure. Yeah, yeah – so I was only going 35 minutes into Suburbia, but – well – you know me.
I bought my sixteen-dollar ticket and trotted off to Platform 113 (Platform one hundred and thirteen, guys…) coffee and bagel in hand, hope in heart. For the full effect, I added a copy of The New Yorker. Well – it’s not every day an English Phantom gets to play on an American train.
Like commuter trains here, the ones arriving were jam-packed, but going out of Manhattan, it was empty. Just me and a couple of guys in business suits behind me, talking loudly about hedge funds.
The great thing about travelling on rails above the city is the sense of geography – just how damn big Central Park is; just how far up north Harlem is; just how cool it all is when the sun’s out and the sky is blue – even if the temperature is somewhere around zero.
My conductor, a cross between Ned Flanders and Tom Hanks in Polar Express, punched my ticket and I settled back in my seat, waiting for some countryside. Of course it never came. New York is exactly like London – a big old sprawl – even leaving the state and entering Conneticut. The only bits that hasn’t been built on seem to be the gigantic cemeteries. With mile upon mile of close-boarded houses, each with attendant Stars & Stripes flying proudly outside, I turned back to the train map and idly wondered what lay beyond my destination, just a single stop away now.
Two Greenwichs? Hmm. Greenwich and ‘Old’ Greenwich. Not next to each other, as in East and West or something – but with another stop, called something totally different, in between. Surely they weren’t so short of names when naming towns here that they called two just a few miles apart the same thing? Which one was the real Greenwich, CTT? The first was perilously close now. I needed to ask Hedge-Fund Guys.
“Excuse me – but which is the main Greenwich station?”
Do you know? In all my years of visiting America, I have never before met what they so charmingly call “an asshole.” Now I was about to meet two. The pair nudged each other and smirked.
“What do you think, Al?”
“Shall we say?”
“It depends on what you want.”
“Just the one where the main town is, really.”
The stop was getting closer.
For Dog’s sake. All I wanted to know was the difference between the two stops – whether they were part of the same town, whether they were reachable on foot – simple questions, I thought, from a simple traveller, who had, admittedly, neglected to notice that their destination had procreated into two different towns.
The pair giggled like schoolboys, turned away from the English weirdo and prepared to leave. I decided that if these two were getting off, it must be the main station, and followed them. As they disappeared around the corner, I heard a burst of laughter. Hilarious. Lost tourists. They make me die too.
Sorry folks – just had to get that off my chest. A timely reminder, perhaps, though, that we live in a tourist town here in Greenwich, England. We ARE all kind to visitors, aren’t we…
I tried reading up about the place before I went, but the information I gleaned from their official website made it clear they’re not used to tourists, though they claim that visitors have been coming since 1642, when the town was founded. It told me how to pay a parking ticket or get a birth certificate and warned me not to use a picture of the town’s seal without permission, but not what the town’s about. I was going to have to try to work that out for myself.
It’s well-heeled, that’s for sure. The first thing you see as you leave the station is a 1930s sports-car showroom, and the shops along the main street consist of branches of Saks and Tiffany’s. Eurochasse sells an eye-popping array of hunting equipment, and Te Amo sells imported cigars. A lot of banks, cute-clothing-for-kiddies-with-cash shops, jewellers’ stores and, er, Claire’s Accessories. The only food shop I saw was a wet fish shop (Now. Let’s not start that discussion again, eh, guys…)
There are some great buildings – public and otherwise. I’d guess that the Ginger Man bar is the oldest shop, wooden-fronted and heavily over-painted,
but most of the buildings seem to be 20th Century. Lots of fine civic buildings and powerful obelisks, quirky architectural styles and curious detail. I particularly liked this Tudor-style American bald eagle:
It’s a neat town. Tidy parks, litter-free streets and – and I’m not kidding – a policeman at every crossroads, directing the traffic – of which there’s virtually none. Click on the image below to see what I mean.
The streets were deserted, so I went looking for people to talk to. In the glorious post office (the Americans just do post offices really well, don’t they? Fabulous buildings, complete with brass 1930s PO boxes, and a real feeling of service, unlike our pitiful efforts, though I’ll give us the delivery-speed prize – for now…) a sensible-looking middle-aged woman looked just the ticket.
We didn’t get off to a good start. She was almost disproportionately shocked that, given that the stamps I had left over from my last visit needed extras to make up the new price that would totally obliterate my postcard, I chose to buy a single new stamp. “But that’s money you have in your hands,” she protested.
I changed the subject. What was it like to live in this town, I wondered?
“It’s very nice.”
I tried again. Was there anything I should be seeing?
Well…she thought for a bit. “There’s the museum, I guess.”
A museum. That’s good. “What’s it like?”
“I don’t know. I’ve not been. I don’t go out.”
This is in a town where there doesn’t appear to be anything else. Ok…
“What about this ‘Old’ Greenwich? Is it part of this Greenwich? Is it far?”
“I don’t know. There’s a bus, I think. You need to wait at one of the crossings.”
This was like pulling teeth. Still- at least there was no one waiting behind me. Was there a guidebook to the town, perhaps?
“I don’t know. You might find one in the newsagent.”
Grand, clean buildings. Scrupulously clean. Not a weed, not a piece of litter. Tidy. Two churches. several iconic-looking public-buildings (including a couple of inexplicably tatty vintage buildings – one a deserted art deco cinema, the other a very sad-looking ex-antique centre, in wooden shingle – clearly very old and very unloved, a surprise in this country where they actually give a damn about their history.) I poked my head around one of the big buildings – possibly the library – which boasted an art exhibition, but was given a Paddington-hard-stare by various old folk having lunch in the canteen and beat a hasty retreat onto the deserted streets.
In fact I saw practically nobody the whole time I was there. It’s a pretty town, full of Public Art – just everywhere – bronze statues of children – cycling children, running children, tree-climbing children. Just no real people.
The woman in the post office had mentioned the newsagents, and when I went in, I began to get a little more of an idea of this insular community. The magazines on sale were very much of the glossy variety, and, perhaps more telling, there were European imports in all the major languages. Sadly, for a town that is over three hundred years old, no guidebook – the nearest thing being a directory of services. The newsagent himself was chatty, but claimed to know nothing about the town. This didn’t stop him trying to sell me souvenir teaspoons and shot glasses with a Greenwich coat of arms on them. I am still kicking myself that I resisted the temptation.
So. A sunny, beautiful visit to a lovely-looking town about which I cannot say I know anything more now I’ve been there. But this was only the half of it. There was still that other mysterious ‘Old’ Greenwich. There was nothing to do but get back on the train and seek it out…
My, my, what a flurry of Greenwich Park-ery. I’m going to move on today, folks, but don’t think for a moment I’m going to let that paticular issue lie. I’m going to be returning to the fate of our park, with its trees, quirky features, archaeological remains, ancient trees and – hell – its collection of lovely nooks and open spaces to just go and sit – on a tediously regular basis.
But before normal service is completely resumed, Rod has brought another thing to my attention. It may not quite measure up to the possible destruction of Greenwich Park in priority, but it’s yet another little quality-of-life thing.
What’s the story with that little cut-through that starts by the Post Office (opposite the Rivington and the Clocktower Market) and takes you through two bends over the railway line and into Randall Place (or is it Straightsmouth at that precise point – yes probably is)? It just says “Footpath Closed”, and there’s obviously building work going on. Nowhere does it say “temporarily”, or explain anything really. I know this doesn’t compare to many other local issues, like the destruction of the Park for example, but I’ve used that alley for over 25 years and I don’t see how it can be taken out of public use (except temporarily) just like that.
The Phantom replies:
I don’t know, to be honest, Rod, but perhaps someone here will. I assume it’s temporary, but it’s worth an ask. Is the name of the builder written anywhere on the scaffolding? There may be a temporary closure notice on it at the council planning office. I’m a bit up against stuff just now (having spent FAR too long on park-stuff yesterday) but someone here may have some extra info…
Well, I said I’d copy you in…
Dear Boris Johnson
It’s occurred to me that a bungle has occurred. It wasn’t your fault – this happened long before you came on the scene – but you could help sort it out. In fact, you sort of need to, because the people who dug themselves into this hole are way too deep in it to admit they were wrong – and without someone like yourself who can come in wearing big boots and kick up a fuss, giving them an elegant way out, we could be headed for a real problem.
The thing is, that back in the days when the Olympics were just a few scribbles on a fag-packet, it seemed like a really good idea to bung most of the shebang in Stratford and the North East of London. When it came to the Equestrian stuff, though, somehow the new Olympic Park just wasn’t going to cut it.
Then some bright spark came up with the idea of using Greenwich Park. “Oooooh yes,” said everyone. “That will be pretty. All those TV shots of Wren’s Naval buildings and the Queen’s House with vigorous, thrusting Canary Wharf in the background and the Cutty Sark’s rigging silhouetted against the setting sun over the Thames. They’ll bring in the cash. Lovely. OK. Done. We’ll never get the games anyway – let’s just put that down on the application and move onto the beach volleyball…”
Then it all happened. I was at the Old Royal Naval College the day they announced we’d won. And people were – and still are – genuinely pleased to see the games happening in London.
Trouble was, that now these blue-sky thinkers were suddenly faced with the problem of actually trying to fit the Equestrian Quart into the Pint Pot of Greenwich Park. No one could back down ’cause that’s what they’d promised and by now the TV companies were slavering.
Mutterings and mumblings began. From a few of us locals to start with – not really being able to see how it would all fit in, but, perhaps naively, assuming that it had all been thought-out. But then it started from the athletes themselves. They were concerned that the size of the park would not allow for a proper course to be lain out, especially the cross-country.
So there we were having worried about whether it can be fitted in around all the 300-year old trees, Anglo-Saxon tumuli, Roman remains and Victorian layout – and there they were not seeming to think that it could be fitted in at all – even if all our unique natural, cultural and historical features were chopped out of the equation.
We have to face up to facts – Greenwich Park is just too darn small for the Olympics. Or at least the cross-country events.
But by now, the Olympic Authorities had painted themselves into the proverbial corner. They would lose face if they lost the Royal Park and went to somewhere suitable – and already built, tried and tested – such as Badminton. or Hickstead. Badminton is the athletes’ choice – it would be my choice too, if having the games meant losing our park. Already, alarming reports of the Park being closed for 18 months before the event (and presumably a similar amount of time afterwards too) are gaining momentum. That’s not someone putting up a few spectator stands or a couple of horse-jumps. That’s wholesale destruction.
What’s odd is that the Olympic guys haven’t considered how much face they’d lose if the games went ahead and the place WAS too small – and the rest of the world laughed at us because of our rubbish facilities. (You might care to bear in mind too, that Greenwich and Blackheath are full of holes – secret caverns, tunnels and chalk mines – including many in Greenwich Park itself – let’s not even begin to think of what would happen if some horse and rider ended up in one of them…)
You don’t have the power, I am sure, to put the kibosh on this. But you do have the clout to be able to ask some serious questions and knock a few heads together. Quite apart from the wholesale traffic and other chaos it would cause (I’m personally less worried about that – that’s temporary) this could be extremely damaging to Greenwich’s tourist trade from 2013 onwards. These events really mustn’t happen here.
Not In My Back Park? Yeah, possibly. But this isn’t going to be my back park for ever – and I’m asking you now to give the Olympic Delivery Guys the chance to back down gracefully for all the generations whose back park this is going to be in the future. We can’t just go to the local DIY centre and get a few 300 year-old trees to fill in the holes or get archaeologists to discover new and exciting things retrospectively. We HAVE to protect what we have now.
I understand you’re rather fond of Greenwich. That’s presumably the Greenwich we have now, not what little Greenwich we’ll have left if three weeks in 2012 are allowed to take their toll. Please. Ask some questions. And don’t take anyone’s word for it.
I will be delighted to relay your reply to my readers….
The Greenwich Phantom
Add your own voices, guys, if you feel as strongly as me – and the people who have told me they’ve written to the Mayor today. Don’t wait for ‘someone else’ to deal with it.
It seems that people have been doing their homework this afternoon and I’m delighted to pass on some of the sites related to today’s earlier post that I’ve been sent:
Greenwich Council has “united with one voice”, and it’s that of Chris Roberts:
Good artists’ impression here:
The stifling of debate is a bit of a concern:
Like many articles, this quotes Dane Rawlins, but notes he “lobbied for the equestrian events of the Games to be held at Hickstead in West Sussex”
Here are some pictures of the 2008 venues in Hong Kong (moved from mainland China after worries about horse diseases). The showjumping etc arena is for 18,000 people, compared to the 23,000 required (by the IOC) for Greenwich.
This shows the combined size of the two Hong Kong venues:
Interview on site in Greenwich with the course designer:
I’d meant to wait to talk about the fabulous chestnut trees in Greenwich Park until the autumn, when they fruit – and are the traditional source of much merriment for centuries of people from sundry backgrounds (more about that later). But things have escalated, and I am writing about them now as I am beginning to seriously fear for their safety.
Greenwich Park as we know it was laid out in the early 1660s – a time when the Restoration was still fresh, as were the tastes of the new King Charles II (and Samuel Pepys, of course, who often walked through the park with lecherous thoughts of “Bagwell’s Wife…”)
Of course, it’s unlikely that Le Notre ever made it here – if he had, it’s just possible he wouldn’t have designed the park quite like it is now – his drawings are glorious on paper, but frankly they look a bit – well, quirky, given the amount of ups and downs that Greenwich Park’s geography actually has. But no matter. It’s our quirky – and for centuries we’ve loved his lines of chestnuts, curious paths and his nearly-cascades (just below the Observatory, that strange, undulating hill is what remains of steps which had been intended as a grand cascade – Charles, of course, being Charles, ran out of cash before it got any further…)
Tree-planting began in earnest about 1664, once the main groundwork was done. John Evelyn, a local – and famous for two things – his diary and his almost obsessive love of trees, got very excited indeed:
“March 4th, 1664 – This Spring I planted the home field and west fields about Sayes Court, with elms, being the same year that the elms were planted by His Majesty in Greenwich Park”
Naturally, it wasn’t His Majesty himself that did the spade-work – it was the Keeper, Sir William Boreman’s gang of trusty gardeners. 600 Elms and, rather more interesting for us, rows of Spanish Chestnuts, brought over from Lesnes Abbey, plus all kinds of other botanical goodies. It cost £545 just to plant them up. There were also coppices and dwarf orchards (we’re still clinging onto one of them – a little haven of hope in a worryingly bleak time for the park.) There’s also a mulberry tree listed – the first in England, planted by King James – I have no idea whether it survives and if so, where. Any clues?
But the best bits were those chestnuts, with their curiously spiralled, gnarled trunks and their majestic canopies – loved for generations of hungry locals for their fruits. A few got banged up in Queen Elizabeth’s Oak for pilfering the chestnuts, but for most it became a bit of a local autumn sport. Luckily the trees are tough enough to have withstood the annual chestnut beating by eager locals hoping for a bumper crop (see above pic). Curiously, they still do. Suburban Bushwacker sent me a pic last year of a sign in the park (in both English and Chinese, interestingly) forbidding any kind of tree-human contact in the harvesting of chestnuts:
“The collection of trees, shrubs and other plants is extremely valuable.”
Funny. You know, I thought that was a given. I thought that this huge natural resource for Londoners and wildlife alike was somehow important to our heritage. To Britain. But ever since I wrote that piece last week about the forthcoming Olympics, I’ve been receiving worrying emails that make me think that perhaps none of this matters to certain people who would rather see Greenwich Park decimated for their own aggrandisement, and who are in a position to directly affect the fate of our most valuable natural asset, than actually protect our heritage.
AD Webster points out that the peculiar Greenwich soil – very gravelly – is particularly suitable for the Spanish chestnuts. But this soil is also very susceptible to compaction. Hooves, feet, crowds, stands, toilets, jumps. Think about it. This isn’t a couple of Chinese grannies nicking a few nuts – this is wholesale destruction. Especially if the course is to be full, rather than gymkhana-sized. In that case, we’re talking actual cutting-down rather than just giving trees a slow death.
Of course it’s not just 300-year old chestnuts that are in the firing line. Who, like me, has sheltered inside one of those old holly trees, so ancient they’re totally hollow, in a sudden downpour? What about that fabulous herbaceous border down by the Queen’s House? Literally first against the wall, I’d wager. I wonder if the future King Charles III knows about this?
Sadly everything I have so far is opinion, and I cannot repeat it without putting myself in the firing line for a libel case, but I am beginning to believe that our concerns are just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Folks, I am beginning to think that we need to worry about this and worry a lot.
Without actual evidence I can go no further so far. But I implore you. Start asking around. Ask awkward questions. And ask everyone. Time is running out. Major decisions are just about to be made, and mostly behind closed doors. We will be presented with a fait accompli which will possibly mean the closure of Greenwich Park for years and, in the long run worse, wholesale destruction of not only our park but large swathes of the heath.
You can’t just go to B&Q and pick up a few 300-year old chestnuts after the event. This isn’t Ground Force doing a quick makeover in three days with a spot of decking and some blue paint. Gardens and Parks take years to mature, and yet these selfish, selfish people are, I am beginning to get the horrible feeling, intent on decimating centuries of wildlife and culture combined in harmony within the space of a few months. We cannot let this happen.
I repeat. Ask questions and ask them now. If you get any hard evidence, broadcast it. Don’t necessarily send it to me – send it to the people who will make the loudest noise (by all means, copy me in though!) Trust no one.
I don’t know whether it was the wet weather or something, but I’ve just peeked at my inbox and found a GIGANTIC collection of exciting-looking emails. I’m delighted to see so many missives, and I’m really looking forward to reading them all, but it’s going to take me a while, I’m afraid.
Please bear with me. And don’t stop sending me stuff – I LOVE to hear from you…