A lovely day on the Estuary

Anyone who’s read my books will know I have a bad case of the Thames. It’s a very particular strain of the disease, too. You can keep your picturesque stretches alongside the Houses of Parliament, or your genteel meanderings around Kew and Chiswick. No, for me, the real river is wide and grey and ugly and starts at Tower Bridge. It winds up and down and east and west before opening out into the immense skies of the Estuary. Give me Canvey Island over Chelsea, Sheerness over Sheen, any day of the week.

So last week it was an enormous pleasure to board a ship and travel down from Tower Bridge and out into the North Sea and back, via Gravesend, Southend and Sheerness; to sail over the great naval mustering point at the Nore, to see the masts of the SS Richard Montgomery peaking above the waves, and, most of all, to witness the same sunset skies heading back into town as must have once enraptured Turner.

Here’s some pictures from the journey – the first of which I claim no credit for. But I did want to show you the beautiful vessel on which we sailed, and I didn’t get a decent picture myself.

Click on any of the pics to open a nice big gallery viewer.


London, UKIP and English freedom

A week or so ago, UKIP super-chump Nigel Farage raised eyebrows (in some places) and glasses (in other places) with his observation that he’d sat on a train leaving London for Kent and had not heard a single person speaking English until he was well clear of the metropolis. This was intended as an illustration of how terrible things are, how the English lost England, and how UKIP are the only ones telling it like it is.

Now, apart from the fact that Nige’s story is almost certainly just that – a story – it did serve to illustrate a new and rather wonderful fact about modern England, and it’s this: you can choose the environment you want to live in (as long as you can afford to live anywhere, that is). Want an all-Caucasian English-speaking village? We’ve got lots of those. Want a semi-urban environment with religious facilities with a distinctly South Asian feel? We’ve got those. Want a deserted windswept wilderness? Yep, go ahead.

And want a multicultural metropolis where English is the lingua franca but not the monoglot essential? Yes, we’ve got a few of those, too.

What Nigel doesn’t understand is the essential freedom that England now offers us. I well remember a receptionist I once worked with telling me she was moving out of Morden and into Surrey. When I asked her why, she said, without a trace of shame: “Too many blacks.” Shocking, yes. But she had somewhere to go to rehouse her appalling racism. She could go and live with other racists (and UKIP councillors, eh, Nige?), somewhere green and pleasant and suited to her own tastes.

That’s what’s great about England. I live in London precisely because of the reasons Nige gave for not living here. There’s room for us both. And if Nige or any of his ilk move into my street, I’ll sell up and move somewhere else. Because with that lot moving in, before you know it the whole place will be crawling with them.

John Kay on the pointlessness of forecasting

When it comes to big urban projects, says John Kay, we’re never going to get the forecasting right. The only question worth asking is does the work leave the city in a better state than when it started. Kay’s example is London’s sewer system:

Yet if Bazalgette’s scheme had been subjected to current appraisal procedures, it is hard to imagine that it would have been built. Although the embankments are an amenity of enormous value to London, their construction had many negative consequences. The once magnificent river entrance to Somerset House, for example, now sits forlorn behind a main road. The gardens of the Inns of Court no longer give on to the Thames. Procedural objections would be innumerable and the delays interminable.

The project would also have been subject to the criteria laid down in the modern Treasury’s appraisal process, which requires a careful assessment of benefits over its expected life. Several hundred years I suppose, since the need for sewers seems likely to continue, but these benefits would be discounted at a rate of 3½ per cent a year.The civil servants would have been required to survey the impact of noxious smells on property values. But the principal issue would have been the consequences for health – they would have got this badly wrong, since Victorian physicians overestimated the ill effects of miasma from the atmosphere and underestimated the role of bugs you contract from contaminated water. The statisticians and consultants would have estimated the time saved if hansoms and sedans could make their way to the City along the Embankment rather than through clutter on Fleet Street. They would have struggled to analyse the likely traffic on the underground railway since none had ever been built.

Their estimates would have been completely wrong and irrelevant anyway. The salient fact is that London could never have become a great business and financial capital if its residents felt an urge to vomit every time they went outdoors.

via John Kay – London’s rise from sewer to spectacle.

A visit to Johnson’s House

We had a lovely walk from Blackfriars to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, then to Dr Johnson’s House. This part of London on a winter Saturday afternoon is virtually deserted.