Sunday, 23 March 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I’ve got a special anniversary coming up: on 5th April it will be seventeen years since I first landed on these shores. Saturday 5th April, 1997 to be more accurate. That year I spent a month here on vacation, I went back to Havana the next month, on 3rd May, as Labour came to power. Do not read too much into the previous sentence; there’s no relationship between both events whatsoever.

If I cast my mind back to that first trip from Gatwick airport to the outer London suburb where my then girlfriend and now wife used to live, one memory stands out: typical red-brick, gabled-roof English houses dotted around the rural and urban landscape through which we were driving. A scene reminiscent of my lectures in uni in which the implicit message was that Britain (England, really) was a country attached to its traditions where people sat to drink tea at four o’ clock on the dot. If only we, students, had known then that what the British call tea at that time is more like a late afternoon light meal regardless of the hot beverage that accompanies it! Back to 5th April, 1997, though, I still recall watching the top of the roofs of the neighbouring semis through my wife’s bedroom window that evening. To me this was the London I had always heard about.

So, London, what happened? When did you start giving up on low rise property? What happened to the detached, semi-detached and terraced houses that made you famous?

According to a recent report more than 230 tall building (20+ storeys) have either been approved or are under construction in the British capital. That includes both living and working spaces. In fact the majority of these towers are likely to be residential blocks, which is good news if social housing gets a larger piece of the architectural pie. Yet, this piece of news has left me with an uneasy feeling. Call me romantic, in fact, call me hopeless romantic, but I love the traditional British house. The one with red bricks and gabled roofs. Whilst I understand the importance of “building high”, I am also concerned about the aesthetic side of it. And I’m afraid to say that I am not really impressed by the latest developments in the field of construction.

The Gherkin: a phallic symbol of London's new skyline
The Shard and the Gherkin are my usual examples of what hubris can do to a city. To say that I do not like either building is the understatement of the century. I loathe them. Every time I have to drive near any of these two humongous, urban mountains something inside me snaps. They make me cringe. Not just as Cuban-cum-Londoner who is proud of the city in which he lives now, but also as a man. Come on, I dare you to take a look at the Gherkin and not think of a... phallus, or at least a dildo. Hey, no sniggering at the back, please, this is serious!

I am not the only one. Plenty of Londoners I have spoken to do not see the need of “building high” and higher, and even higher. Who do we want to be like? New York? Skyscrapers might fit the US urban behemoth but I do not think they are suitable for a city like London where many streets are still quite narrow. The beauty of London – once you live here – is how quaint and delightfully maddening it is. Plenty of one-way roads, just to drive you bonkers, out in the ‘burbs lots of streets with width and height restriction just to confuse you (will I fit through here?) and low-rise property that no matter how unique it is, it still manages to convey smallness. That, to me, is the key phrase when it comes to London: a huge city that looks small.

As I mentioned before I understand the importance of finding suitable spaces for people to live in. In fact for more than three years I was a resident in a high-rise which, by the looks of it, would not have been considered a very tall building nowadays as it had only eighteen floors. The building where we used to live, however, was ugly, impersonal and lacked character. Same with a lot of new properties. I am not an architect and my design skills are non-existent but I do not think you need to be one to notice that many current urban developments, especially “towers”, place practicality before aesthetics. Without wanting to sound too melodramatic, London’s skyline has been ruined.

My only consolation is due to my special anniversary I am getting lots of flashbacks of the gabled roofs I saw that first time I arrived in London, as dusk turned to night, through my wife’s bedroom window.

This is it for the time being. I am taking a month off for Easter. I will be back on Sunday 27th April. I am not planning to go anywhere so expect me to pop by your blogs every now and then.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 27th April at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Urban Diary

It is early in the morning and yet, the sky is already a bright, azure blue. Today I am attending a training session in town and therefore I have to catch an early train. I amble up the short distance from my house to the station. On the way there a brisk and chilly breeze reminds me that I was wise to don my scarf, gloves and flat cap today.

The road I am on will lead me to the market and through it to the overground station. Along the way I pause every now and then to contemplate my local “landmarks”.

First it is the now vacant space where the Indian takeaway used to be until a year ago. They cooked good, proper Asian grub here and delivered the food to your door with a smile on their faces. But the prices were not competitive enough and the business went bust. I can see now that the place where the takeaway stood is being done up. Another eatery, perhaps? Next up is the old hairdresser’s and straight after that, the new barber shop. The former caters mainly to seniors and the latter is always full of young men. The hairdresser’s, long-established in the area, hints at longevity and tradition whilst the barber shop points at the future: big screen television broadcasting the Premier League.

On my right now is the Greek Orthodox Church. This magnificent, red-brick building takes more than half a block. I remember going in once when my mother visited me for the first time and marvelling at the richly decorated interiors.

I reach the train station. I still recall the times when this used to be the start of my journey as a commuter. Before the new ticket barrier was installed there was a guy from the local newsagents with a small stall selling newspapers. Branching out, you could say he was doing. Do not bother to walk the long(er) distance to the shop, I’ll bring newspapers and magazines to you. The vendor and his stand might be gone but I still see the guy who hands out free copies of The Watchtower outside the station. There was a time during my commuting days when there used to be him, another bloke distributing the Socialist Workers’Party newspaper and, inside the station, our newsagent friend flogging copies of The Daily Mail. Three publications advertising the end of days. For the Jehovah’s Witnesses behind The Watchtower, it was the apocalypse, for the burghers of the SWP it was the demise of capitalism (just don’t mention Stalin, please) and for the Daily Hate the collapse of British (English, in reality) culture and traditions.

My train arrives within minutes. I look up before entering the carriage. The sky is still a bright, azure blue. Spring  is here.

© 2014

Photo taken from the Guoman Hotels website

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 23rd March at 10am (GMT)


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