London’s Woodland-Themed Christmas Lights: Fab or Fail?

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Hands up if anyone has ever seen a rabbit hopping about in Covent Garden. Or how about a fox making its way from Trafalgar Square? Perhaps you may have come across a squirrel in Seven Dials? No I have not gone completely mad – but Covent Garden may have. This year, Seven Dials have gone with a woodland theme for their festive displays. Original, yes. But does it work?

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Last night signalled a step nearer to the big day, as the Christmas lights in Seven Dials were officially switched on. It was a whole evening of festivities, with mulled wine and Christmas cocktails, money off and music – myself, along with a fair few other savvy Londoners, took this opportunity to get 20% off most shops and collect our complimentary drinks: we have to make the most of these things after all.

With free grilled cheese, more mince pies than is possible to eat, and the chance to toast your own marshmallows at the fire-pit S’more station, this was more than just shopping. Wreath-making workshops were even on the agenda, for the people that were feeling particularly productive on a Thursday night.

At 6pm was the big switch on. Crowds gathered around the centre of Seven Dials, where all seven streets converge to a central point, where what looks like the Monument’s rather puny cousin, stands proudly. This was not just a case of pressing a button – there was a build-up to a) get people very excited and b) to try and explain the reason why Seven Dials was full of cardboard cut-outs of various woodland animals.

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This build-up consisted of a Lumiere-like light projection on the surrounding buildings, while a voice read out a rhyming story to narrate the projections. I listened avidly, but still didn’t manage to make head nor tail of why the woodland creatures ended up in the middle of London. Admittedly, the light display of foxes and rabbits on Covent Garden’s buildings were pretty cute, but when the poem tried to find multiple rhymes for ‘Seven Dials’, you just knew it wasn’t going to end well.

Finally, a countdown ensued, and on 1, the streets of Seven Dials suddenly lit up. It cannot be denied that this was a thoroughly festive affair, especially when acclaimed band Dirty Old Brasstards began to play ‘So here it is, Merry Christmas’.

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Looking around I did indeed feel very Christmassy. The lights, even if they are in the shape of a badger, or surrounding a bemused bunny, may be slightly odd, but they are fairly cute, and very twinkly.

I may not be following in Seven Dials’ footsteps, and decorating my tree with deer decorations and bunny baubles: but the Covent Garden area is definitely branching out with their forest theme, daring to be different, and making London even more full of lights, which, let’s face it, can’t be a bad thing.

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Breakfast in a Bag: The Initiative Providing Breakfasts for London’s Homeless

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It is impossible to walk down any street in London without coming across a homeless person. You may notice their curled up figure, hidden in a sleeping bag, or glimpse them sitting on a salvaged piece of cardboard, trying to keep their dog fed and watered. But precisely because homelessness is so commonplace nowadays in the city, perhaps it has lost its ability to shock. The sheer volume of people living on the streets has almost become part of the scenery, making it easier for the masses to walk by and ignore the issue.

There is no shortage of charities and organisations attempting to address the problem. Soup kitchens and food banks are popping up left right and centre, offering a place to sit and refuel with some nutritious food – a brief moment of solace and comfort before those with nowhere to go spend yet another night on a pavement.

These food banks and soup kitchens, however, often only serve up food in the evenings. We are constantly told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so why is there such a lack of attention paid to the morning meal when it comes to the homeless? After a whole night in the cold, breakfast is very much needed by the hundreds of individuals living on London’s streets.

Introducing ‘Breakfast in a Bag’ (BIAB), the brainchild of Michelle Clark, who has been working with the homeless since starting her Off the Streets London outreach project. BIAB is pretty much what it says on the tin – breakfast in a bag – yet so much more.  These bags, often containing juices, breakfast bars and fruit,  are delivered to the city’s homeless to provide them with a healthy start to yet another day without a place to call home.

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Michelle explains that while she was aware of the many resources available for homeless people, she realised that no-one was giving any attention to breakfast. ‘I gave it some thought and realised that a healthy breakfast would really kick start their day.  Illnesses such as diabetes are quite common among the homeless, maybe due to a bad diet. It can be quite dangerous for diabetics not to eat in the mornings so the breakfast bags are very important for them.’

Initially, the contents of the bags were completely self-funded, but now Michelle has been lucky enough to receive donations from brands such as Weetabix and eateries including Pret, who want to help the campaigner on her breakfast mission. ‘To start with, I was buying pretty much everything locally, I’m sure my local supermarket thought I had some sort of cereal addiction!  Since then I’ve been lucky to have had support from the likes of Greggs, Pret, Morrisons and Weetabix with donations of food.  Only yesterday we received 3 boxes of Energy Bars from HIGH5 Sports Nutrition who supply them to world class athletes.  These will have huge benefits for our homeless friends as many of the carbohydrates that benefit a world class runner will be just as welcomed by a homeless person.  I think it’s unrealistic to ever expect to be fully funded by food manufacturers and supermarkets but we are hoping to partner with as many as we can as we move forward. Every time we get a bulk donation through from a food supplier it means our donations from the public go a lot further so we can make and deliver more bags.’

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BIAB is gaining in popularity on Twitter

Currently, Michelle does ‘bag-drops’ three times a week, and has recently opened a static Brekkie Station at Victoria on a Friday night, where people can come and collect a breakfast bag for the next day. ‘The numbers for this are increasing each week as word spreads among the homeless community’, explains Michelle. ‘It’s quickly become a safe place where the homeless gather to socialise over some hot food and a cuppa and is already about so much more than just providing them with a meal and a breakfast bag for when they wake up on Saturday mornings.’

As BIAB becomes bigger, more and more people are donating to the cause. Just £3 can fill a bag, and it is amazing just how many are prepared to part with that bit of change to fund a breakfast. Michelle is clearly overwhelmed with the reception her concept has received. ‘I’ve learnt that plenty of people are prepared to hand over the price of a decent cup of coffee to buy a breakfast for someone less fortunate than themselves through the response to our “Sponsor A Bag For £3” campaign.  Some people have said they’ll be making a regular donation each week or month which is fantastic.  I’ve learnt that there are many angels out there who have stepped in to help me – one example is the lady that’s just taken time out from her paying clients to design and build us a new website (breakfastinabag.co.uk) for free.’ And what else has BIAB taught her? ‘One of the more interesting things I’ve learnt is from when I went to collect a donation that came in via one of our Twitter followers:  you can fit 192 boxes of Kelloggs cornflakes into a standard sized car.  But only just!’homeless-pic

We may not give a second thought to our breakfast in the morning. We may grab a piece of toast or bowl of cereal before heading out the door, or pick up a coffee and croissant en route to the office. But for London’s many homeless, who don’t know where their next meal may be coming from, the promise of a healthy and substantial breakfast after a whole night exposed on the streets is invaluable. Instead of a pastry and coffee on your usual morning café run, if just one day you gave that £3 to BIAB, think of the difference it could make. If everyone in your office did that too, imagine the bags BIAB could provide.

Michelle is doing a fantastic job, but times are hard. ‘The number of rough sleepers in London has doubled in the last five years to an incredible 7.500 last year so it’s not surprising that all of the resources for the homeless are stretched.  I think we’re all just doing what we can to help some of the most vulnerable people in the community and to try and show them that they haven’t been completely abandoned by society.’

Come on London, let’s all chip in.

With thanks to BIAB and Michelle for the opportunity to talk with them about this amazing project.

Isn’t it Ironic? Chuggers, Health Food Shops and Homelessness

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There are many ironies in our big bad city. The Evening Standard, for example, have just run a huge campaign on tackling food waste, in a newspaper that must rack up mountains of rubbish as people flick through the news and discard of it. Or the fact that many of the adverts within the paper are promoting the organisations which the Standard are criticising, a simultaneous condemning and supporting of the offender. Of course, I am completely behind what the Evening Standard are trying to do – a thoroughly worthy cause and a no-brainer in terms of using waste products to the benefit or hundreds of people.

Recently, a number of other ironies have caught my eye whilst walking the streets of London. An employee, for instance, of a well-known and pretty pricey health food shop was at the store’s side door, obviously on a lunch break, chain smoking and drinking Red Bull. Naturally, I am not expecting everyone who works at this place to be nibbling on quinoa and sipping on a green juice before whizzing off to their lunch-time yoga session, but I did chuckle to myself at the juxtaposition of the wording on the uniform and the contents of the employee’s hands.

Perhaps, though, the most startling and disturbing ironies I witnessed last week was involving an individual known commonly, I believe, as a ‘Chugger’ – a charity mugger. These are the sort of people who hang around in the middle of the pavement with bibs blazing charities’ names, trying to get the public to sign up to regular donations to THE MOST worthy cause (much more than the guy’s on the other side of the road, they assure you). For starters, if I am going to support a charity, I am going to do it off my own back, not because some chirpy twenty-something in a sandwich board has grabbed me en route to the tube station, and won’t let me hop on the Central Line until I promise to direct debit £2 a month to change lives. Anyway, this is not a rant about the various methods that charities go to in order to obtain more donators.

This Chugger on this particular occasion was from a homeless charity, as his primary coloured bib, thrown on over the top of an expensive looking coat, informed me. ‘Can I ask you a quick question?’ he would ask passers-by. ‘Just a few pounds a month can give a homeless person a bed for the night’, he informs the incoming people. The irony here, though, was in the fact that this Chugger was completely oblivious to the homeless man sitting next to him at the side of the pavement, sleeping bag, sleeping dog, and a cardboard box to sit on.

I looked at the man, and looked at the Chugger, who was trying to get people to donate to a cause that aims to help those in need SUCH AS THIS HOMELESS MAN RIGHT BESIDE YOU. This was outside a Sainsbury’s, for goodness sake – a better way to help this cold, hungry and homeless man would be to grab him a sandwich, talk to him for a bit, and perhaps alert one of the various organisations within London, such as Street Link run by St. Mungos, who will send out someone as soon as they can to help. Rather than signing up to a charity that spends massive amounts on adverts and campaigns, the public, and the Chugger, should have opened their eyes to the problem right in front of them, which was being completely ignored.

But it was getting late – the Chugger was probably more interested in when he could go home, probably via the over-priced health food shop.

 

 

 

 

This is London: Change Gonna Come

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I’m going to say it plain and simple: I don’t like change. They say change is good, and maybe for certain people, at certain times, it is. But when something comes along and disrupts you just when you are feeling settled and comfortable, when things are safe and familiar, I just want change to buzz off.

Imagine my horror, my utter dread when I found out that change was going to happen – a change I had utterly no control over. This was a change governed by the Gods, the ever-powerful TFL.

When I discovered that ‘essential maintenance works’ were going to be carried out on Holborn station from August 2016 until late 2017 I applauded Transport for London’s recognition of the much-needed improvements. They were making an effort, I thought; they are trying to make our lives easier. Bravo. And then I read the signs properly, as in stopping, taking my headphones off, and absorbing the words.

Picture my well and truly gasted flabber when I realised that between 7:30 and 10 am, Monday to Friday, Holborn station would be exit only, with no Central and Piccadilly line interchange. ‘But how’, I asked the big red sign, as if it was the fountain of all knowledge, or at least half as clever as Siri, ‘how will I get to work?’

I did it people, I had to accept that there had to be change. Hard as it was, I properly changed my route: I had to venture into unknown territory and take different tubes, with different people, and different journey times. However, I have to say, not attempting to squeeze onto a Central Line train in rush hour was somewhat of a relief. Whereas my usual journey was choc-a-bloc with suited city workers, abounding with laptop bags and Costa coffees, my new changed one seems slightly calmer.

Taking the Piccadilly and Jubilee lines feels less ‘commuter scramble’ than my original Central and Northern combination. Getting a seat is almost guaranteed, and not once was I knocked by a wayward backpack, or did I find myself with a take-out latte spilling on my arm.

This change in route may actually be a good thing.

Sometimes, it seems, a change comes and hits you like a wet sponge, and you just have to take it: you never know, you may end up feeling suitably refreshed afterwards…

So maybe I am not completely opposed to change. But in future, I’d like my change to have an advance warning and a guaranteed refund policy should I wish to return it. Opportunity to exchange my change for a less changed change would be much appreciated.

London Tourists – and other Summer Holiday complaints

telephone boxSummer holidays mean one thing for us Londoners – hell. Why, we ask, are these swarms of people descending on our turf/tarmac? Maybe it’s time to escape the big smoke…

 

The ability to spot a tourist comes as second nature after living in London for a few years. If it’s not the tell-tale backpack (with optional front-pack) or the matching caps, it’s the M+M souvenirs or London hoody. If you spot a snaking line of confused looking individuals following a lady waving an umbrella in the air, these are no doubt also tourists. Likewise, chances are that anyone standing on the left side of the escalator is probably on holiday in the capital.

And then there are the children – taken on a day trip to London to visit a museum, see Big Ben, or generally get in the way. These are more easily spotted by looking for a frazzled Mum: key signs here are the frizzy hair from tube-induced heat; darting eyes attempting to keep track of all four children; or the look of shock that they have just spent a small fortune on sandwiches from Pret.

Why, when we Londoners are trying to get to work, or pick up a pint of milk, do these tourists and families make it harder for us, I hear you complain. I think we forget, living in this vibrant and cosmopolitan capital, that London is actually a pretty cool place. We take the Tower of London, the Southbank and the V&A for granted; we see the Shard as a piece of the furniture; and being able choose from twenty different cuisines on one street is frankly our right. Isn’t it? This is what London does to a person – we become blinkered. We see London as the norm and everything else as the exception, when in fact, London is a flippin’ special place.

So cut the visitors some slack. If they are struggling with their Google maps trying to find the British Museum, point them in the right direction. If they look fed up queuing in Starbucks, suggest a cheaper and quieter alternative round the corner. If they are walking on the right or standing on the left, mention the laws of the land.

And when you yourself are on a city break in Paris, Berlin, Milan, and the locals there are probably viewing you with the same annoying glances and frustration; or when you yourself are occupying the role of parent-on-edge, making sure that the kids are fed, watered, all accounted for, and that they haven’t stolen anything from the museum gift shop, you may think differently. It’s all a matter of perspective. But in the meantime, take a breather and accept that people just want to see our capital. Let’s share the awesomeness of our city, and think, hey, we are immensely lucky to call London our home.

Berlin Walls: Street Art in the German Capital

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You no longer have to be in a gallery to see incredible art, neither know about everything from the Renaissance to Pop Art to be deemed an art critic. The great thing about street art is that there is no arrow pointing to where you should look, or a piece of card explaining the artist, name of the work and the materials that were used. You have to look and find these things yourself; an art treasure hunt, if you will.

London is well-known for its street art and graffiti; it’s clear you’ve entered the hipster hub of Shoreditch when you start to see quirky drawings on the side of buildings, and provocative words sprayed onto breeze-block walls.

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Berlin, however, takes the whole street art phenomenon to new levels. The sheer quantity of stunning designs on every street corner is obvious as soon as you get off the train at the main station. It somehow makes the city seem instantly more laid back, and gives you the sense that the graffiti police are not so fussed about stray spray cans in Germany.

Like a lot of outdoor ‘art’, a fair amount of Berlin’s arguable vandalism is just that – I’m not pretending that every wall is adorned with next year’s Banksy – but there is an awful lot of impressive stuff out there.

For the ultimate experience of wall art, the East Side Gallery is a no-brainer. This is a remaining part of the Berlin Wall which is still standing, a harsh reminder of the former divided city. However, in contrast to its previous life as a grey, stark symbol of the partition between East and West Berlin, the wall here is now a giant canvas. This is the biggest, most impressive, varied mural you have seen.

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Interspersed with messages about climate change and thought-provoking statements are reactions to the fall of the wall, and the union of the country. Pictures evoking the persecution of the prior years alongside the promise of newfound freedom distil the 1989 Berlin Wall collapse into hard-hitting realities.

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For incredible art as well as an education about what divided Berlin meant for society, forget the traditional galleries and museums. This art experience is completely free: it is street art as you’ve never seen it before.

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http://www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/east-side-gallery

 

Coffee Encounters

 

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Just because London is a vast and busy city, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t meetings and conversations that are resonant of village life…

 

It was a Monday morning – generally, I reckon, the nation’s least favourite day. Especially, I would have thought, a Londoner’s least favourite; cultural endeavours and weekend lie ins are abruptly brought to an end by a commuter train full of Metro papers and backpacks in faces, and another working week is started.

My Monday morning, however, was spent drinking coffee and writing essays, a core part of student life. Caffeine and work goes hand in hand like the Hammersmith and City Line and delays– one without the other somehow seems absurd. So it was not unusual, not out of the ordinary, to be set up in a café with an open laptop, books on the table, and a caffeinated beverage in hand.

The disadvantage to this independent set-up, however, is that it is a rather solitary exercise. Of course, this is often conducive to a decent essay, but sometimes it is social, useful even, to have a co-worker to share coffee runs with, or mind your station when you need to make a toilet trip.

A coffee down, I found myself wishing I had someone to mind my bags and laptop whilst I could nip to the loo. To my right was a quiet middle-aged man, nose in a newspaper and a toastie on the table. His plain black turban seemed rather conservative in comparison to his brightly coloured patterned jumper, which looked like something an aunt may have knitted. Interrupting him from his run-down of the day’s news, I kindly asked him if he would mind keeping an eye on my things for 5 minutes, to which he said ‘of course’.

On returning, I thanked the man, who nodded at me and then absorbed himself once more in his newspaper, by this time nearing the back sport pages. He then folded up his paper and turned to me. ‘One question’, he said. ‘How did you know to trust me? I could have run off with your laptop, taken your bags… You don’t know me’.

‘True’, I replied. ‘I don’t know you. But somehow I felt that I could trust you – you seemed content, quiet, and have a friendly face. Of course it was a risk, but if we never take risks, we won’t get anywhere in life’.

‘I feel touched’, the man continued, ‘you have made my day. How lovely to know that I seem like a trustworthy person. In such a big and busy city, people in London always expect the worst – there is not enough trust. I am going to mention this on my chat show tomorrow, this meeting’.

After talking to the man, it turns out he is a chat show host on the Sikh Channel, and opens each episode with an anecdote, of which our encounter would be one of them. On leaving, he gave me his card, the newspaper he’d finished, and offered to buy me a coffee (to which I politely declined, thinking ahead that this would induce more toilet trips, and therefore finding more laptop-watchers).

‘Thank you for trusting me’, he said, ‘and have a splendid day’. Even in a place as bustling, dangerous and hectic as London, there are glimpses of humanity, instances of conversation, and encounters that may never happen again, yet add a certain smile to your day. This was one of them.