Category Archives: London

Feral Youth: stripping away the stereotypes

Her novels cover misogyny in the City, sexism, racism, fame culture and now, in Feral Youth, the summer riots of 2011. So it continues to amaze me that Harper Collins chose to market Polly Courtney’s books as chick-lit. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised for we live in a world where, more often than not, it’s the marketing department that makes crucial decision such as the title and the design of a book’s cover; a world where a literary agent once told me that my mistake was writing books for readers, when I should be aiming them at publishers. Thankfully this last attitude is still pretty rare.

Nevertheless, the traditional publishing world is heavily stacked against authors, especially first time authors. But even established writers are feeling the pinch. In this climate, and given the struggle many writers have to find a publisher, Polly’s decision to sack the mighty HarperCollins took courage, spirit and self-belief. She has never looked back.

Not only is Polly even more successful than she was before, she has become a pathfinder. By daring to take on a mighty publishing house she has shown the rest of us that it can be done. That we can publish and market our own books. That we don’t have to accept what the traditional publishers tell us is best for us. And, if you are not sure of the process, I urge you to read her piece in the Huffington Post, in response to an article by John Green. It contains one of the most succinct descriptions I have seen of how the two worlds of traditional publishing and self-publishing actually work.

Feral Youth is her sixth novel and her first since leaving Harper Collins. Its genesis was indeed the London Riots of 2011, though in fact these take up only a part of the book. What it does do is explore the causes of the disaffection. In the months following the riots Polly was surprised that no one seemed to be looking at the underlying causes, instead they were, as usual, laying the blame on ‘gangs and bad parenting’. That, she felt, was not the answer, so she decided to find out for herself.

Already a mentor at Kids Company, Polly spent the next two years going into schools and youth groups, getting to know these marginalised children as individuals and not simply as the  ‘feral youths’ characterized by the tabloids and politicians. She wanted to discover what it would be like to be them. What, if anything, did they care about? What motivated them?

It wasn’t all straightforward. She had to contend with suspicion as to her own motives and how she was going to portray the youngsters in the book. It took time but gradually she was accepted. And once she was she found herself among a group of spirited, energetic, smart and positive young people. Youngsters who were light years away from the way they were portrayed in the media. But yes they were angry, for good reason. They were also, unexpectedly, political.

Feral Youth opens our eyes to a world that’s very different from the stereotypes we are so often presented with. It’s both moving and shocking. It grips from the first page, not simply because it’s a compelling read but because we are touched by the characters and in particular by 15-year old Alesha – ignored, confused, torn between two worlds. As we follow her story we are drawn in. Which one will she choose? Has she the strength to break with her past? Such is the power of the novel that we really mind.

Feral Youth is available in all good book shops from 26 June 2013, both paperback and e-book. It is priced at £8.99 / £1.99.

The launch party will be held in central London on 26 June 2013. For tickets and enquiries, please get in touch via the contact page.


What the reviewers say

“Courtney has an ability to breed empathy for an ethnic minority often subjected to negative stereotypes”Metro

“Feral Youth is as compelling as it is horrifying. It lifts the lid on the lives of marginalised young people that the media demonises and the rest of us prefer to ignore.” Fiona Bawdon

“Feral Youth deserves to be her breakthrough book, the one that marks her out as a serious writer.”Katy Guest, The Independent





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Who was ‘Lady Lee’?




London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, falling down,

London Bridge is falling down,

My fayre lady.


I wonder how many of the thousands of commuters who stream across London Bridge every day remember or even know the nursery rhyme? Of those who do, how many are aware that the words refer to real people and real events? And that there is an older version.


London Bridge is broken down,

Dance over my Lady Lee,

London Bridge is broken down,

With a gay ladye


There’s hardly a corner, an alleyway, a stone in London that isn’t steeped in history. London Bridge itself can be traced back to the first century, when the Romans built the original one out of wood and clay. This was replaced at various times using alternative materials, like those mentioned in the rhyme. Though I doubt it was ever built with silver and gold.

Both rhymes propose various ways to rebuild the bridge so it won’t fall down again. Starting with wood and clay that will be washed away, then bricks and mortar but ‘they will not stay’. Various other materials are mooted such as iron and steel, silver and gold and a watchman. Each suggestion is rejected in turn, as befits a rhyming game. To some extent the rhyme follows the actual fate of the bridge.

Over time the bridge was destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again. At one stage it was attacked by the Vikings: this resulted in a stronger replacement, complete with drawbridge. In the 12th century the first stone bridge, designed by Peter de Colechurch, superseded the then current bridge.  This took thirty-three years to build. Hardly surprising when you know that it featured twenty arches, each one sixty feet high and thirty feet wide. At various times during the fourteenth century it carried no less than 140 shops (some accounts put it at as many as 200). Hence the reference to silver and gold in the verse.

This bridge survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 though buildings with thatched roofs were banned in the metropolis from then on. Incidentally, it was another three hundred years before the ban was lifted to allow the building of the new Globe Theatre, in 1994. While the great fire it didn’t destroy the bridge, it weakened it. In consequence various changes were made in the ensuing years, such as strengthening the foundations, removing buildings and restricting traffic.

While the stone bridge lasted much longer than many others, it was eventually demolished in the 1820s and a new London Bridge was built on a site near the old one. This nineteenth century bridge was replaced in 1960s; it wasn’t destroyed but sold to the Americans, being dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt in Arizona, of all places.

So much for the physical bridge. But what of the people referred to in the rhyme? Who was the fayre or gay layde; who was Lady Lee? For the answers we have to go back to the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife. She is indeed the layde referred to. Lady Lee is Lady Margaret Lee, a close friend of Anne’s. She and Anne were childhood friends. When they grew up Margaret became Anne’s trusted lady in waiting and remained with her throughout the good times, even standing beside her on the scaffold.

Anne was hated by the common people who found her high and mighty. They also had a strong allegiance to Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Open criticism of Anne was officially approved of after her death. This situation continued during the remainder of Henry’s reign and subsequently that of Mary. However, when Elizabeth I ascended to the throne things changed. Elizabeth was Anne Boleyn’s daughter – the criticism could no longer be open, so it went underground.

The rhyme is an allegory, that is to say it describes one thing by means of something else. Thus the words of the rhyme describe the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. Lady Lee is mentioned to ensure that there will be no doubt that the ‘gay layde’ is Anne. Although the nursery rhyme associates the bridge with Anne’s death, she was in fact executed within the walls of the Tower of London. But London Bridge itself did indeed see plenty of gruesome sights. The severed heads of traitors, impaled on spikes and dipped in tar, were regularly displayed at its Southern Gatehouse.


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The Nose in Admiralty Arch and the Sad Story of the Traffic Light Tree

Image: Squirmelia

When travelling round London on the bus, I prefer to sit on the top deck but only if I can sit at the front. Not only do you get a great view of rooftops, but also, if you look carefully, the sight of hidden treasures – sculptures perched on the top of buildings, roof terraces and oddities like the lighthouse at Kings Cross.  Of course you don’t have to be on the top deck of a bus to see all these glories. Many are down in the streets – if you know where to look. There are so many odd, weird, fascinating and beautiful things to see in London it’s impossible to fit them into one blog post. Today I’m going to concentrate on statues and sculptures and for these and for future posts on this topic I am indebted principally to the Shady Old Lady website.

So rich is London in these delights it’s hard to know where to start. Should it be the New-born Baby sculpture in the porch at St Martin in the Fields, the Giant Plug and Socket on the side of an electricity sub-station in Ganton Street, Soho or the Neil’s Yard Water Clock in Covent Garden where water rises, bells sound the hour and flowers appear to grow. You also need to avoid a drenching by the figure of a child who tips her water onto the unwary below.

None of these sculptures are difficult to find. Others require a little work. Not that they are exactly hidden but some are not obvious and for others you will have to travel away from the centre. In the first category, there’s the nose inside Admiralty Arch at the top of the Mall. Did you know it was there? I didn’t.  Walk into the right hand arch, look up at the left side and you’ll see it. Apparently the horse guards touch it for luck as they ride through – being on horseback they can actually reach it. While in the locality, take a stroll to The Westminster City School in Palace Street and look up at the roof of the new building. There’s you’ll find the Dandelion Sculpture created by the pupils in 2010 out of re-used plastic fizzy drinks bottles. As it catches the wind it throws colour in every direction – beautiful and ethical!

Leaving the centre of London we’re going first to Wanstead, then on the Docklands Light Railway to Silvertown and finally to the Greenwich Peninsula. This may be the wrong way round but I haven’t looked it up on Journey Planner (though they do often give you some extremely weird and illogical routes.) In Wanstead you’ll find a plaque commemorating a stolen cherry pie, in Silvertown, on the wall of the Tate and Lyle factory a giant tin of Golden Syrup and on the Greenwich Peninsula Antony Gormley’s Cloud sculpture. Even taller than the Angel of the North it was commissioned for the opening of the Millennium Dome, now the O2.

On the way back from Greenwich visit the Traffic Light Tree at Canary Wharf.  Impossible to have a favourite among so many wonderful oddities but I must confess that I find this installation really endearing. A weird term to apply to such an object perhaps, but that’s how I feel about it. Designed by Pierre Vivant it has 75 sets of traffic lights and is supposed to reflect the energy of the area. Energy is not the word I’d apply to Canary Wharf but I do love this statue – it’s quirky, mad and fun and as such it’s as far removed from the atmosphere of Canary Wharf as it’s possible to get.

And having written that last sentence I went to take another look at the web pages to select the best image. And what do I find. The Traffic Light Sculpture has been removed – to make way for road improvements. How sad, how typical. Canary Wharf is the poorer for it (there’s more than one way of being poor just as there are different ways of being rich.) If anyone knows what happened to the statue, please let me know.

Posted in Art, Blog, London, Sculpture, Strange and Unusual Sculpture, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

More craziness …

This Crazy World We Live In

No 2 Four floors of madness

I could have subtitled this post ‘people with too much money to spend’ except that that would be neither accurate nor fair. But you do have to wonder. I certainly did when I stumbled across M&M World last Sunday. Now this is not an emporium I had visited before, indeed I was not even aware of its existence.  All I knew about M&Ms was that they are sugar coated chocolate or peanut sweets that resemble Smarties.

Four floors ....

I was also familiar with their somewhat grotesque ‘Red’ and ‘Yellow’ characters since they pop up every time I go to the movies. I’ve never been quite sure what they are advertising. I thought they were warning us to turn off our mobile phones but a quick Google tells me they are promoting film.  Hence FTRC – From The Red Carpet. I’m all for anything that gets people into cinemas but please, why does everything have to be reduced to initials?

That was the extent of my knowledge of M&Ms. Until last Sunday when I was on my way to a cinema in Leicester Square. I was far too early. It was pouring with rain. I could have sheltered in a cafe but I didn’t really want a coffee and on principle I balk at buying the stuff at inflated tourist prices. Most of the shops were shut.  And then I noticed that an enormous glass clad building near one corner of the square appeared to be open and doing a brisk trade.

Welcome to M&M World! How, I wondered, as I stepped inside, could you fill a shop with M&Ms? Let alone a whole building? I soon found out and should have guessed. Because of course it’s not just the little sweets they are selling. It’s merchandise.  What stupefies me is not simply the four floors of stuff all branded with the M&M logo, but that people are actually buying it.

The toys and shopping bags, t-shirts and sweatshirts came as no great surprise. But boxers, baby-grows, bibs, wellies, pyjamas? Mugs for home or office and even mouse mats – if you really have to.  But measuring cups, bowls, place mats, even salad servers? Dispensers are fun. I could even imagine why someone might buy one, though for my part I would never have enough M&Ms to fill one. It would be emptied so quickly there’d be no need for anything but hands. But I can’t see myself ever, ever wanting M&M earings. Or an M&M on a motorbike. Yikes!

Four floors of M&M branded merchandise! Call me naïve if you like, but I’m still reeling. (I will not use that horrible word that starts with gob and ends with smacked, though it does rather fit my reaction.) I’m surprised that I should be surprised, really. After all we have Disney and Warner Bros. merchandise. The Leicester Tigers and ManU all have shops. Everyone has shops. But they seem different somehow – based on much loved characters or sport or something. Not just candies, to use the American term, which is I suppose appropriate.

All the colours of a yummy rainbow

I have nothing against shops or merchandise. And I absolutely love sweets. My favourite bits of M&M were the floors lined with giant tubes filled with sweets in every colour imaginable, tastefully graded so that they changed from yellow to lime green to pea green to forest green to blues of every hue, then mauve, purple, red, orange, pink. I don’t know how I restrained myself. Maybe it was the anticipation of the popcorn that would inevitably accompany the film.

All around me people were filling little bags with the delectable colours and flavours. Which have gone way beyond chocolate and peanuts – there’s peanut butter, coconut, almond, ice cream cookie and much more. And that I could understand. What I don’t understand is how people can spend good money on this rubbish. Still I’m not the arbiter of taste and I’m sure some of the stuff I buy would raise a snigger or four. I must admit that the murals and framed ‘art’ around the place was so dreadful it was very nearly kitsch. But only very nearly.

Just look at the expression on the lion's face!

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It may be over for now …

… but the legacy lingers on.  Such good sports in very sense of the word!

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Hilariously Bonkers

Hard to believe that The Games are half way over.  Even harder for me to believe that I’ve done a 360°turnaround. From a refusenik to someone with moderate enthusiasm.  So, in celebration, and to mark the just-past-half-way point of the Olympic Olympics, as opposed to the splendid Paralympics, I’m posting a few quotes about the Opening Ceremony. And, inevitably, our Boris. With thanks to The Book of Olympic Quotes.

Tom Fordyce on Whispers had hinted that the start of the London Olympics might be a little eccentric, a touch more tongue-in-cheek than others we have witnessed. What no one expected was that it would be quite so gloriously daft, so cynicism-squashingly charming and – well, so much pinch-yourself fun.

Marina Hyde in The Guardian An architect of Beijing’s ceremony once said that event had served Chinese food for the foreign palate, but Danny Boyle’s banquet felt as deliciously indigestible to global tastes as Marmite or jellied eels. I loved it. We can’t be worrying about how it went down in Moscow or Madagascar. I’m still reeling that a country that can put on a show that hilariously bonkers is allowed nuclear weapons.

Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent (On the diverse soundtrack to the Opening Ceremony)It was as if a KTel music compilation had been given the biggest budget ever for a television ad. In the end though that didn’t really matter. If you can pull the Queen out of your sleeve you’ve won the game before it’s even halfway over.

Christian Radnedge (‏@CRadnedge_ATR) on Twitter One small thing – would’ve liked Chas & Dave playing “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner…” instead of Arctic Monkeys.

Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian This was the surely the most joke-filled Olympics opening ceremony ever staged. After all, what else can a former imperial power do in its more or less dignified decline than have the good grace to laugh at itself? The Queen herself colluded in the national sport of humorous self-deprecation, and not even the most hardened republican could deny that she did it beautifully.

David Owen on Fittingly it was left to a woman, Her Majesty the Queen, seemingly none the worse for her parachute glide, to declare the Games open.

Sarah Lyall in the New York Times With its hilariously quirky Olympic opening ceremony, a wild jumble of the celebratory and the fanciful; the conventional and the eccentric; and the frankly off-the-wall, Britain presented itself to the world Friday night as something it has often struggled to express even to itself: a nation secure in its own post-empire identity, whatever that actually is.

Dan Hodges in The Daily Telegraph David Beckham has achieved many things in his sporting career. But no last minute free kick for team GB could ever have matched the iconography of him escorting the Olympic flame by speedboat down the river Thames. Cool Britannia has never, and never will be, cooler.

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian Danny Boyle has just made the biggest, maddest, weirdest, most heartfelt and lovable dream sequence in British cinema history.

Danny Boyle‏ (@DannyBoyleFilm) on Twitter Thank you, everyone, for your kind words! Means the world to me. Proud to be British.

And of course, no set of London quotes would be the same without Boris.

On the rainy start to the Olympics in London…There are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalised by Canaletto. They are glistening like wet otters and the water is plashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers.

On the extra-curricular sexual activities in the London 2012 Olympic Village…“Inspire a generation” is our motto. Not necessarily “Create a generation” … which is what they sometimes get up to in the Olympic village.

On TeamGB’s slow start to its home Olympic Games…I think we are showing great natural restraint and politeness as host nation in not hoarding the medals more so far.

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Oh! Death where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?

I finally got to the Hayward Gallery to see David Shrigley’s first major show in London.  It was every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be. I’d love to cover everything here – but that would be impossible. There was so much to see and so much to think about. Many of the exhibits appear simple, childlike and quirky. And they are indeed simple, childlike and quirky, as well as being deep, a little disturbing and thought provoking. And witty and funny too.

You can’t escape death here, or life either. There’s a gravestone, for instance. It doesn’t say R.I.P.  It has no angel nor urn. No inscription states  ‘Beloved husband of ….’ or some such traditional phrase. Instead we get a shopping list, carved into the marble, picked out in gold leaf. In the midst of life we are in death. Indeed we are.  A little puppy holds up a placard stating ‘I’m dead’. There’s a dead rat, almost hidden under the skirting. A squirrel sits with its own head in its paws.

I don’t want to give the impression that this exhibition is gloomy. Far from it. It’s crazy, weird – in the nicest possible way – and fun. Death, however, has a habit of cropping up throughout, overtly or covertly.  Just as it does in the real world. The black and white cartoon of an aeroplane coming in to land has a text that reads ‘I find it hard to concentrate while performing important tasks.’ Yikes!  A bus driver states baldly ‘I can’t believe that they would let me drive a bus.’ Oops! It sets your mind spiralling off to dark and dangerous places.

This witty and wonderful artist made me think, smile and laugh out loud.  The big bad wolf in hospital, on a drip. A biscuit nailed above the lift with an unnecessarily large nail.  A bone serving as the hand of a clock.  A door, labelled ‘a door.’ A tiny little wee stick figure out on the enormous terrace.  A lost pigeon. A spy hole in the wall concealing a pinky-purple, satiny creature coiled around itself, like an intestinal worm or an elongated carrot. With a face.

If I wrote about everything I’d be here all night. As it was I took about two hours to go round, moving back and forwards, finding things I’d missed the first time. I was there so long I didn’t leave enough time for more than a sprint through the Deller exhibition, which was a pity. Even so, I’m glad I spent so much time at the Shrigley – it was well worth it. Thank you David Shrigley.

The pictures and photos reproduced here come either from the exhibition publicity or from a site, which I believe belongs to David Shrigley. I apologise if I have inadvertently infringed anybody’s copyright. Please let me know if this is the case.


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A Street Cat named Bob – a Star is Born


Copyright SinaEnglish-

The first time I met them, three or four years ago, my attention was caught by this tall man striding along the raised pavement on Upper Street, a ginger cat trotting along at his heels.  That was my first sight of James and Bob. I followed them and had a chat with James. I was a little concerned – Bob was so tiny among all those feet rushing headlong along the pavements. James reassured me. And of course there was absolutely no need to fear – James would never allow any harm to come to Bob.

I’d see them from time to time, in the following years, maybe on the bus, sometimes in the street, James playing his guitar, Bob sitting quietly at his feet.  Or draped around James’ neck. There was nearly always a small knot of people clustered round them. I’d stop for a quick word and to give Bob a stroke. Seeing them always made my day.

Copyright: SinaFiles

A while ago James mentioned something about a book. I remember thinking that I hoped he would get something out of it, that it would really make a difference to him and of course to Bob too. I’m delighted to say that the book is out and it really is going to make a difference. When I met them on the 38 bus, a few weeks ago, James handed me a flyer advertising his book signing saying he hoped I’d come along.  Try to keep me away! As soon as I got home I put it in my calendar and last Tuesday, in spite of a wonky foot, I took myself off to Waterstones on Islington Green.

I got there early but the press had already set up outside the store and I could see people being interviewed. I went in, bought the book and hung around chatting to others as we waited. More and more people arrived; before long the queue was out the door. A ripple of excitement. Bob and James appeared on the stairs and made their way down. Before the signing could get under way there was a paws – sorry – for photographs. Bob took it all in his stride, sitting on James’ shoulder, posing beside a pile of books, standing on his hind legs to nibble a treat.

Photo: Islington Gazette

James signed book after book, writing individual and personal messages. Bob, with a little help, added a paw print.  Half way through the evening the book was sold out, but there was a promise that they’d be back to sign the many other copies on order. I was one of the lucky ones who got my book signed. I only had time for a quick read during the week but this weekend I sat down and read it from cover to cover. It’s a great story and very moving. It really is true what James says that they rescued each other. I really hope it will help a lot of people be more understanding.

James, a street musician, writes honestly about the life he led when he was a recovering heroin addict, about the battles he’s had to fight, about the loneliness of life on the streets and about how meeting Bob helped him turn his life around. I have nothing but admiration for him – it takes guts to beat an addiction. It takes a special sort of bravery and determination to pull yourself back up when you are alone and down. When one dreary day  follows another, when it’s hard to see any future. If he hadn’t had such a big heart, if he hadn’t taken pity on the scruffy, sick street cat things might have been very different.

Copyright @streetcatbob

He wasn’t looking for any reward when he took Bob in, he couldn’t possibly have known what the future would bring. Now, because of his own act of kindness, James has hope and a new life. Man and cat had already rescued each other when agent Mary Pachnos approached them to suggest a book. It’s a lovely book, heartwarming, and they’ve got a great agent who will look after them and I wish them a very happy and contented future together, whatever they’d like it to be.

Post Script. I had talked about the book signing on twitter, and I’m sure many others had too. What I hadn’t expected was the reaction the following day – people were twittering from the USA, the Ukraine, Brazil – everywhere. The story was covered globally including by CBS news and China Today.  I’ve never seen anything literally go viral before – it was amazing. Well done to everyone who helped in any way.

This is the link to the lovely video. Word Press will not allow me to embed it …!

Catch up with James and Bob on: Twitter @streetcatbob  on Facebook and at his publishers Hodder & Stoughton

Buy the book at Waterstones and on Amazon

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Can a building ever be cuddly?

Copyright David Gardener-Flickr

They are made of steel and glass, of reinforced concrete and plastic, of bricks, mortar, marble and granite. They tower over London, they soar into New York skies, they arrest the eye in Beijing and defy gravity in Dubai.  Love them or hate them the world’s iconic buildings are works of art, extraordinary achievements or eyesores – depending on your point of view.

Magnificent, extraordinary, breath-taking, ridiculous, wasteful, ground breaking, stupid – whatever your opinion they are here to stay. Well for the moment anyway.  The architects of the brutal tower blocks and ugly egg boxes of the sixties and seventies can hardly have imagined they’d see their creations razed to the ground in their lifetimes.  And so it may be with the current crop. Though not for some time.

These edifices are variously stark, glittering, towering, monumental and inspirational. They are larger than life, not on a human scale.  Yet we persist in giving them cuddly, human nicknames. No sooner does the press get whiff of a new building than they slap on a pet name.  Of course some of these may have been coined from the grass roots, but in general I imagine they first appear in the media.  That said, it’s one thing to name a building and another to have the name stick. The fact that they are widely used is down to the fact that they fit and that people accept them. And the more they are used, the more they stick.

This didn’t happen so much in the past. Buildings like the Chrysler and the Empire state weren’t given nicknames although the latter has one of sorts since the Empire State was in fact a nickname for New York State itself. These skyscrapers were, in the main, the flagships of large corporations. And were built in a very different era from ours where corporate dignity would not contemplate such indignity – besides the names themselves were a form of publicity. One notable exception was the Flatiron building at 175 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. Indeed the whole district subsequently took the name.

Perhaps it’s a sign of our changing attitude to corporations – we are more cynical, less reverent and at the same time less compliant. The corporations and architects too are complicit – having your iconic building known by a popular and cuddly name is good marketing.  London currently has at least 10 of these buildings in varied and extraordinary shapes and sizes. The one thing they have in common is standout futuristic design and cuddly human scale nicknames.  With one exception.

Perhaps another reason is the way that their shapes virtually dictate their names. Thus we have the Gherkin at 30 St Mary Axe, soon to be joined by the Can of Ham nearby at numbers 60-70. In fact the City of London has quite a cluster of food and kitchen inspired names. There’s the Cheesegrater at 122 Leadenhall Street and the Pint at 20 Fenchurch Street, though the latter is more popularly known as the Walkie Talkie.  For more food inspired names you have to travel to City Hall on the South Bank, or the Onion, and to the Olympic Park where the Velodrome is known as the Pringle.  Although the Shard, at 32 London Bridge, is known by some folks as the Salt Cellar, the former is the name that has stuck. It’s an appropriate name for the tallest building in Western Europe and is the exception – there’s nothing cuddly about a shard of glass.

Some people loathe this anthropomorphising of buildings. Others decry what they see as the destruction of the London skyline. I like the names. And the buildings – they add interest and quirkiness, enlivening the surrounding areas. London Bridge, traffic nightmare that it is at present due to the construction work, is a case in point. The Razor, London’s newest high-rise apartment building with its built in wind turbines will, I hope, generate new life into Elephant and Castle. It would be difficult now to imagine London without its Eye. And the Helter Skelter, formerly known as Bishopsgate Tower, will continue the fairground theme. The names are fun, the buildings are beautiful and weird and strange. I defy anyone to catch a glimpse of the Eye shining electric blue at night or to see the Shard rising through the mist and not be moved.



The Onion

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Penguins that can’t fly and cockroaches that can’t pee … what a wonderful world we live in


Who would have thought that a festival titled Death could be so stimulating! Or such fun.  Well I would for a start, but then I rather like the strange, weird and offbeat. I’m cheating a bit mind you because that wasn’t the full title of the event. Its full title was Death: festival for the living and it was held at the South Bank last weekend.  And in case you might have thought it would be somewhat gloomy, macabre or even distasteful a glimpse at the jolly yellow programme cover with its lively horses and neon stencilled coffin would make you think twice.

Good luck with that …

There were all manner of things to see and do, most of them fun, all of them informative.  For me one of the highlights was ‘Before I Die’ part of an on-going international project by artist Candy Chang. Visitors were invited to share their dreams, ambitions and resolutions – on an enormous L-shaped chalkboard. The contributions ranged from the poignant ‘before I die I want to meet my gran’ to the wit who declared that they wanted ‘to get away with murder.’  There was endless variety – one individual wished to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, literally, including the resurrection, someone else longed to teach a penguin how to fly and another message said plaintively ‘before I die I want to have a puppy.’

Scattered around the foyers of the Royal Festival Hall, a variety of jolly coffins added to the general air of merriment.  These creative inventions are the work of the Paa Joe workshop in Ghana and Crazy Coffins in Nottingham. A few, such as the giant corkscrew coffin, were imaginative exercises, but for the most part they were commissioned by people who wanted to celebrate their life as well as their death in a truly unusual, and indeed a life-affirming way, if that’s not too much of a contradiction and I don’t believe it is.


Fly away home …!

Gives a whole new meaning to being eaten by a lion 

I love the crosses – nice touch!




For me, however, the true highlight was the Sandi Toksvig Memorial Lecture. Entitled ‘Die Laughing’ it certainly lived up to it’s billing except for the death bit. No one died, as far as I know, and if they had they would have gone out in the happiest way possible. I did bruise my thumb I clapped so much and got a sore throat from the community singing but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. What with some wonderful singing, a guest appearance from Jeremy Hardy, the unforgettable knowledge that a cockroach can’t pee and Sandi T herself, who must be one of the funniest persons on earth, I rolled out onto the South Bank with a grin from ear to ear and very happy to be alive.

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