Sunday, 29 April 2012

Cycling in the rain: the Big Ride

According to the London Cycling Campaign ten thousand people turned up for the Big Ride on Saturday, despite a steady drizzle and grey skies all day. It certainly seemed like a lot of bikes and people from the stage area, at the bottom of Park Lane, waiting for the ride to start moving: a sea of red and yellow waterproofs packed in solid, all three lanes, all the way back up to Marble Arch. The roads were closed to traffic, but this was nothing like the Skyride, no tearing around in both directions. The ride proceeded sedately, stopping at pedestrian crossings, so it took just over an hour to get from the starting point to the finish line on the Embankment.

The point of the ride was to support the LCC's campaign to make London's streets more people friendly. There's been a certain amount criticism of Boris Johnson in connection with the issues of cycling safety and giving priority to vehicular transportation, to the point that it almost seemed inappropriate to come to the ride on a Boris bike. It's worth considering his actual achievements though. A cycle hire scheme that seemed to materialise overnight. The cycling superhighways, incomplete and widely criticised but still quite a step forward. Decluttered streets (probably miles of railings removed and a move towards shared space, intended to promote shared responsibility (Exhibition Road, Oxford Circus)rather than enforced separation. Not everything he's done is right or admirable but as Londonist says today, apart from his vanity projects, quite a lot of what he's done is relatively modest, making quiet incremental improvements that spend money where it can really make a difference.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Jean Cocteau in Leicester Square

Tucked away in a side street off Leicester Square, next door to the Prince Charles cinema, is Notre Dame de Paris, the main Catholic church for French nationals visiting and living in London, also known as the French Church. Stone steps and a fairly bland facade give no hint of what you might find inside, but this eccentric mural is just one of the surprises hidden away from the tourists.It's currently being restored, which is why the altar is covered with bottles and brushes. It's absolutely nothing like an English church. When I visited on a Sunday afternoon, a colourful collection of people were variously praying, sitting quietly or chatting together loudly in groups, while disembodied organ music came from somewhere up in the dome. Nobody else seemed to be there for sightseeing reasons.

The mural was painted by Jean Cocteau, French poet, artist, dramatist and film maker. Painted directly onto the plaster with the lines seeming to bleed into the surface, Cocteau had clearly established his regular style by this time. It depicts standard scenes of the Annunciation and Crucifixion, but the interesting thing is the way the figures are portrayed. Look for eyes drawn as fishes, faces gazing upwards with eyeballs protruding, figures joined together, wispy beards, rounded and protruding body parts - lips, nipples, backsides - carefully exaggerated. You only see Christ's feet: the dominant figures in the crucifixion scene are the Roman centurions, nun-like characters, and what might be a self-portrait.

The church was badly damaged by bombing in WWII and rebuilt in a strange blend of neoclassical and Art Deco styles, keeping the original circular shape of the damaged building (once a Georgian panorama). Cocteau, by then an old man, was commissioned to do the mural when the building work was finished. There's an entertaining notice in the church describing how he surprised visitors to the church by talking to his characters as he worked. It took him only a week to finish the painting, in November 1959. He signed it in 1960, the same year his last film was showing in cinemas nearby.


Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Street sculpture in Notting Hill Gate

Dotted around Notting Hill Gate you might notice little bits and pieces of sculpture, on top of buildings mainly. There's an arcade of shops with stripy mosaic decoration on the pillars, and an abstract mobile that looks like a broken television aerial, clinging to the side of a building. These are all projects carried out by the unlikely-sounding Notting Hill Improvements Group, and it's apparently privately funded and in their own words, 'dedicated to improving the general environment including the character, appearance and facilities provided by Notting Hill Gate for the benefit of both local residents and visitors to the area'.

Star of the show is this quirky stylised elephant, the Carnival Elephant by Lebanese urbanist and sculptor Nadim Karam, made as a sort of trelliswork of delicate stainless steel bars. It's on the pavement outside Waterstones, at the bottom of the steps leading up to a bleak 60's tower block. You might not realise at first what it is, but look closely and there are four legs, eyes and trunk. The eyes are pair of little aluminium propellers, one of which spins but the other one has blades missing, putting it off-balance. The lack of safety measures is refreshing: in 2004 the Group discussed some kind of warning texture in the paving to stop anyone walking into it, but that never got done, so you have to assume people have more sense.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

London's pigeon menace

A couple of weeks ago I posted this low-resolution photo of pigeons on a tree, taken on my un-smartphone one lunchtime - with the brief caption, "Be a rebel! Feed the pigeons next time you're eating a sandwich out of doors". I didn't actually feed the pigeons at the time, but it did get me thinking. Since then I've noticed what people are saying about the London pigeons in particular, and more generally the theme of nature intruding on our civilised way of life.

Two things particularly stand out.

First of all, there was an article in the Independent extolling the merits of a maze that's temporarily installed in Trafalgar Square. That square is the focus of Ken Livingstone's anti-pigeon campaign: in 2003 he stopped the bird-seed sellers operating in the square, and shortly afterwards banned feeding the birds and introduced fines to back up the ban. Now there are security guards who are quick to move in if they even suspect anyone of breaking the byelaws. The article in the Independent talks glibly about 'flying vermin' and the supposed health hazards, a standard line of anti-pigeon reasoning that is becoming mainstream self-evident wisdom (although the health issue is largely speculation with nothing much in the way of hard evidence to back it up): pigeons are a nuisance on a par with rats and dirty drunks / drug addicts asking for money. A whole industry has grown up to provide pigeon wires, plastic spikes and netting everywhere a pigeon might want to perch, and the language of their advertisements speaks for itself. Pest control. Deterrent. Reducing numbers. Unhygenic. Using hawks to scare off the pigeons is advertised as an environmentally friendly solution.

The second thing that grabbed my attention was an alleged form of malaise that's being called Nature Deficit Disorder. BBC News reported in March that "British children are losing contact with nature at a "dramatic" rate and their health and education are suffering", according to a National Trust report. The NT are latching on to the term Nature Deficit Disorder, which was invented by an American journalist and probably overstates the case for contact with nature at a formative age, but it certainly corresponds to a sense that wholly artificial surroundings can't be entirely healthy at any age.

Pigeons are related to the domestic doves that were widely bred at one time, now reverted to living wild. They look just the same as wild wood-pigeons and make the same rather beautiful cooing call that you hear in the countryside. Most of them look healthy enough - admittedly not all. Watch the way they move as one but compete for the pickings on offer, observe the pecking order in action, and the way they fly off, circle and land again in a loosely coordinated formation. The pigeons were and always had been a popular tourist attraction, as much a feature of central London as the statue of Eros and the flags on the Mall, until Ken decided to get rid of them. Is that really what we want, isn't there another side to the story? Visitors to London used to come to Trafalgar Square specially to feed the pigeons, not to look at half-baked art on the fourth plinth. The problem of course, is that eating outside doesn't mix well with begging vagrants and scavenging birds, so we discourage both as much as possible - but I'd say we lose something in the  process, another part of the natural world swept out of reach. 

So yes, feed the pigeons next time you see them and have a little food to spare. But don't even think about tempting the security guards at Trafalgar Square.