27.7.15

Boris on Churchill

It was with a strange combination of anticipation and trepidation that I picked up a copy of Boris Johnson's latest book, The Churchill Factor, which the Mayor of London has written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the wartime leader who was declared to be the Greatest Briton in a BBC poll several years ago. Anticipation because it sounded like a good read; trepidation because I wasn't entirely sure if there was a need for a new book about Winston Churchill.

More books have been written about Winston Churchill than any other British Prime Ministet (some by the man himself, who once quipped that he knew that history would be kind to him because he intended to write it), from multi-volume biographies to compendia of his speeches and one-liners. So why another? We do all know how this story goes, right?

A.J.P. Taylor once described Churchill as "the saviour of his country". But, great historian though he obviously was, A.J.P. Taylor wrote those words just 34 years after the fate of Britain hung in the balance in the summer of 1940. It is now 75 years since that summer, and with the passing of time and the dwindling number of Second World War veterans, memories of Britain's finest hour (to borrow a Churchillian phrase) are fading. Perhaps there is a need for the story to be retold, for someone to keep the fire going.

But does this metaphorical fire need more fuel? Places that were intimately associated with Churchill, like the Cabinet War Rooms (which has actually been renamed the Churchill War Rooms) and Chartwell (his country home in Kent) are both receiving ever-higher numbers of visitors each year, and in the case of the latter I bet they're not going for the architecture or the view over the Weald. That tells me that Churchill still has some sort of pull, that people who were born long after the war (or even long after he died) still want to remember what he did.

Going back to A.J.P. Taylor (do bear with me on this), he added that while memories were fading even as he wrote of Churchill as his country's saviour, he was hardly an unbiased observer. "Was Churchill's policy mistaken and his victory barren?" he asked. "Future generations may give a confident answer. One of the present generation cannot speak with detachment." Well, future generations are definitely having a go at answering that question, although I'm not so sure about detachment; when it comes to Winston Churchill, we are still in his shadow, and it is arguable that Taylor was understating the case; he was the saviour of more than his country. 

The latest person to have a go at writing about Winston Churchill is one of our more colourful contemporary politicians, one of very few who are recognisable by their first name alone and one of those who has somehow managed to carry on writing books while holding public office. That last point is of course something that his subject knew all about, although any thoughts of a comparison are obviously wide of the mark, or at least they should be; no-one comes close to emulating Churchill, a fact that the author apparently recognises with characteristic self-deprecation: "For those of us who have tried feebly to do just some of the things he did," Boris writes, "it can be a little crushing". No doubt Roy Jenkins, a war veteran who had (like Churchill) served as both Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, must have felt the same as he worked on his scholarly and much-acclaimed 2001 biography of the great man. 

By contrast, Boris's study of Churchill - as it takes a thematic rather than a chronological approach, one can't really call it a biography (for that, please refer to either Martin Gilbert - the single-volume version should suffice - or the afore-mentioned Roy Jenkins) - is written in very much the same vein as previous books like The Dream of Rome and Johnson's Life of London (both of which I'd enjoyed); much like Boris himself, his books are breezy and informal in tone, and wear their learning lightly.

He kicks off by outlining what he wants to do; after referring to one of those dubious surveys that says that young people today think of Churchill as the dog in the insurance advert, and acknowledging how he might not be the best-qualified person to have a go at telling the Churchill story ("I am not a professional historian, and as a politician I am not worthy to loose the latchet of his shoes..."), he argues that "we cannot take his reputation for granted ... I worry that we at in danger - through sheer vagueness - of forgetting the scale of what he did." Explanation/apologia done, off he goes with his take on Churchill.

This, by the way, is not the first time Boris has written about Churchill - there was a chapter on him in Johnson's Life of London and some of the points that were made in that book get a much more comprehensive outing here.

We start at the crucial point in Churchill's career; arguably the crucial point in British history: late May 1940. France is on the verge of collapse and the Dunkirk evacuation is under way. Churchill has been PM for a matter of weeks. The War Cabinet meets to discuss peace feelers sent out by Hitler, via his ally Mussolini; the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, is in favour of some sort of negotiated settlement. Fighting on - alone - is an option fraught with danger which will result in the deaths of thousands. But to the PM, agreeing to negotiate with Nazi Germany is tantamount to surrendering, and that will never do. Halifax is duly outflanked; Britain will continue with the war. It is hard to see this decision being reached had anyone other than Churchill, who had consistently opposed appeasement in the Thirties, been in charge. "He had," Boris summarises, "the vast and almost reckless moral courage to see that fighting on would be appalling, but that surrender would be even worse. He was right."

The appeal of the man has a lot to do with his wartime tenure as Prime Minister but there was more to him than politics alone (although, let's face it, over six decades in the House of Commons and a grand total - by my reckoning - of 27 years as a Cabinet minister including two spells as PM is more politics than most politicians have ever and will ever manage, and that's before you take into consideration the fact that he wrote his own speeches); he also had a prodigious literary output (more published words than Shakespeare and Dickens put together), got shot at on four different continents (three of those while wearing uniform), drew the map of the modern Middle East, knocked out over 500 paintings, had a go at flying at a time when it was considered an insanely dangerous pastime and he even managed to turn his hand to bricklaying - all while maintaining a booze and cigar intake that would floor most of us. 

Churchill's achievements are laid out for all to see - as well as the Second World War, there are also such things as devising the tank (the prototypes were developed by the Navy when he was First Lord of the Admiralty), creating the RAF (partly - one of its forbears, the Royal Naval Air Service, came into being on his watch) and laying the foundations of both the welfare state (with David Lloyd George, prior to the First World War) and the NHS (it was he who hired Beveridge to write his famous report).

The lows are chronicled as well as the highs - space is found for his role in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign (following which he ended up leading a battalion on the Western Front), his role in the Chanak crisis (which brought down the Lloyd George government), his at-times hysterical stance on India and his support for Edward VIII in the Abdication crisis, following which most people reckoned he was finished. Even the attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir gets several pages ("butchery, but it was necessary"). The conclusion Boris draws from these is that Churchill "had so many enterprises and initiatives that it is no surprise he had setbacks" before noting that, unlike most, he tried to change events - and his refusal to go with the flow was the cause not only of his cock-ups but also his triumphs.

There's even a chapter on Churchill and Europe which, given who the author is, can only be seen through the prism of present-day politics. Both Europhiles and Eurosceptics are as fond of quoting Churchill as they are irritated by the fact that the other side is also doing so. Boris looks over where the quotes come from (he seems to like looking into the various Churchill anecdotes, and is quite disappointed when his favourite ones turn out to have been mis-attributed), and he concludes that Churchill's outlook was remarkably consistent, seeing Britain as playing three distinct roles - European power, imperial power and member of the English-speaking world (that last bit explains the pro-American outlook that resulted in the Atlantic Charter); Boris comments that "the promiscuous internationalism of the approach seems ever more sensible today" - provided you substitute the bit about the Empire for something about the Commonwealth.

If it wasn't already obvious, Boris is a bit of a fan. He's also not averse to inserting himself into the narrative; he describes going to Blemheim Palace (where he gets to see the room in which Churchill was born), visits Chartwell at least twice and in one where's-he-going-with-this moment he cycles out to an East London cemetery in the rain while wearing a suit - a typically Boris self-deprecating moment, but there is a purpose to it. He's there to visit the grave of Mrs Everest - Churchill's nanny - and the reason is to provide evidence of the man's humanity; after she left the family's service, he (then a cadet at Sandhurst) supported her financially, and when she died he paid for the funeral and the gravestone. 

He also looks at what made the man 'tick' and turns his attention to his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, the man who "really moulded him - first by treating him abominably and then by dying prematurely". As well as inadvertently installing in his son a desire to succeed, Churchill senior (who was in turn inspired by Disraeli) was also responsible for much of his son's political outlook, most notably a somewhat lax approach to party loyalty, a taste for self-projection and a formula that he called 'Tory Democracy', a rather vague notion of being above the left/right distinctions - "Randolph campaigned for servants to be entitled to compensation for industrial accidents, and in the same spirit Winston is the author of important social reforms: bringing the pension age down to sixty-five, setting up Labour Exchanges ... while always remaining, on the whole, a steady defender of free markets." 

Boris comes across as a bit of a Disraeli fan too, describing a recent biography of the Victorian PM as "finger-wagging" and "unfair". In one easy-to-overlook passage, he notes that as well as social reform, "Disraeli and the Churchills also have in common the journalism (and in Winston's case, the novel), the love of show, the rhetorical flourishes, the sense of history ...  the slight air of camp and the inveterate opportunism." Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

There are a few typos; for example, fairly early on, Boris refers to the Second World War as having started on 1st September 1939, and later on HMS Belfast is described as a battle-cruiser armed with 12-inch guns, whereas it is in fact a cruiser armed with 6-inchers; I am usually of the opinion that such mistakes, while excusable for a first draft, should have been corrected by the time publication comes around (and should definitely have been corrected for the paperback). That they have not been is the joint responsibility of the author and his editor.

Boris finds that Churchill's character is somewhat akin to what we might see as characteristics of the (his?) ideal Briton: "Broadly humorous but occasionally bellicose; irreverent but traditionalist; steadfast but sentimental; rejoicing in language and wordplay of all kinds; keen to a fault on drink and food". But he has a more universal appeal: "He means something ... to a huge spread of humanity. He is there as a role model for anyone who wasn't much good at school ... He speaks for all those who have worried about living up to the expectations of their parents, anyone who has felt that they are a failure, anyone who has struggled with depression ... anyone who feels they must battle on against the odds." 

Boris goes on to describe Churchill as "the resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal forces." What Winston Churchill showed was that one person can make all the difference; he was perhaps the ultimate example of just how much of a difference one person can make.

To conclude, what we have here is a book that entertains as well as providing a narrative that interweaves the various strands of Churchill's long and impressive life, with (perhaps inevitably) a few bits about the author as well. These would irritate people who don't like Boris, in the unlikely event of their reading this book. 

Apparently his next book is going to be about William Shakespeare (who it so happens also got a chapter in the London book). He may be over-reaching himself here - there's hardly anything new that can be said on that subject, and there has already been one outwardly light and informal (but actually highly informative) study on Shakespeare that confounded the scholars in recent times - by Bill Bryson. Whether the Boris Factor can top that remains to be seen, but that won't stop him from trying.

24.7.15

Waterloo

When I was given a copy of Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell, I was surprised to learn that this book, written to coincide with the bicentenary of said battle, is his first work of non-fiction. 

Bernard Cornwell has been one of my favourite authors for many years; I started reading the Sharpe series as a teenager (around the same time as the TV series) and I went on to enjoy his novels set in the American Civil War, post-Roman Britain (this, the Warlord trilogy, is in my opinion his best work), the Hundred Years War and the struggle between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings (soon to be a TV series), among others.

He has, to date, written over 40 novels - a prodigious output by any standard (apparently he started writing when he moved to the United States and couldn't get a green card; his big idea was a series about the Peninsular War which he hoped would become a land war equivalent to C.S. Forester's Hornblower novels, of which he was a fan).

He's even done Waterloo before - Richard Sharpe, his most famous creation (forever associated with Sean Bean, who played him in the TV series) was inserted into various parts of the battle for the 1990 novel Sharpe's Waterloo which, like most of his books, had a highly informative 'historical notes' section at the back in which he outlined the true story behind his fiction. He wasn't the first historical novelist to do that (George MacDonald Fraser was already doing it with the Flashman novels), but a lot more novelists do it nowadays than they used to.

So what was Cornwell's first non-fictional work like? Well, my expectations were high as Cornwell is known (partly due to those historical notes) as a writer who strives for accuracy, he's always been at his best when describing battles and, as has been previously noted, he's covered this particular battle before. I knew before I started that we'd get plenty by way of eye-witness accounts, and that his emphasis would be on how the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies were working together; one thing I remembered from the novel was the point, constantly hammered home, that Wellington wouldn't have stood and fought on the ridge of Mont-Saint-Jean if he hadn't known that Blucher would march to his aid, and that Blucher wouldn't have marched unless he'd known that Wellington was going to stand and fight.

Waterloo was one of those era-defining battles; it brought to an end over two decades of war and ushered in an age of (relative) peace. 1815 is a cut-off date for period histories as a result. It was the only time that the two most famous generals of the age, the Emperor Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, faced each other in battle. Yet for much of that long June day two centuries ago, the result hung in the balance until the bitter end. It was also one of the bloodiest of pre-twentieth century battles; between them, the three armies that converged in that valley lost over 60,000 men, and it was in that almost-inconceivable aftermath that Wellington made his remark about the one thing being worse than a battle lost was a battle won. 

Alongside the nigh-on unbelievable acts of heroism (Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell's defence of Hougoument, Sergeant Ewart's capture of a French Eagle), occasional tales of military stupidity (Jerome Bonaparte, Prince William of Orange) and desperate hand-to-hand fighting while an outwardly unflappable Duke of Wellington cast furtive glances at his pocket-watch, there also lurks a major difficulty in writing about Waterloo: something that military historians call the fog of war.

Battles can be confusing; even the best-laid plans rarely survive the first contact with the enemy, and once the dust has settled accounts of those who survive tend to differ, often on minor details but sometimes on big things too. Wellington himself famously pointed out that it was impossible to tell the story of a battle because there were too many (differing) stories woven together, while Cornwell notes that "for some men it was a blur, a day of terror in which they saw little but smoke". For a long period of time on 18th June 1815, the British infantry endured a series of charges by French cavalry interspersed with artillery attacks which required a change of formation; afterwards, none of the survivors on either side could agree on just how many times the French cavalry had charged. At the battle's climax, the 1st Foot Guards believed they had fought off the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard and so were later renamed the Grenadier Guards; in fact, they'd beaten back the Chasseurs of the Guard.
 
What Cornwell has done is to unpick the various and varying strands of the campaign (Waterloo was preceded by other battles, at Ligny and Quatre-Bras, both of which took place on the same day and which are often overlooked because of what happened next - the book's full title is Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles) and use his expert knowledge to deliver a highly readable and detailed account that makes good use of eyewitness accounts by those who took part to give a sense of both pathos and authenticity. Cornwell, a master storyteller, really has delivered the goods in his first foray into telling a true story. The divergent accounts of this most decisive of battles are brought together to form a coherent and well-told narrative.

It so happened that I was working my way through this book when the actual anniversary of the battle came up. This just happened to be when Allison and I went to Paris - yes, I really did take a book called Waterloo with me to France. And it was worth it.

20.7.15

The Capital Ring: Woolwich to Falconwood

Resuming the Capital Ring from where I'd left off meant returning to Woolwich, a place described by the late archtecture critic Ian Nairn as "a provincial centre that has got embedded in London by mistake" (his classic work Nairn's London has recently been republished and I am very much enjoying it; another gem is his description of Hampstead as "a bit of a joke, though many of its inhabitants are deadly serious about it").

It was getting on for 2pm on a hot June Saturday by the time I disembarked at Woolwich Arsenal station, and I was in need of some lunch before commencing on the next section of the Capital Ring, a seven-mile walk to Falconwood (not a place of which I had previously heard; if nothing else, doing the Capital Ring is certainly increasing my knowledge of London!) which would, so my print-out from the TfL website informed me, take in a castle. 

When I'd finished the previous section at Woolwich (also on a Saturday), I'd noticed a Nepalese food-stall in the market-place next to the old Royal Arsenal gates and that, I thought, would be ideal for lunch. Sadly it was not there this time, and the only stalls at Woolwich Market on the occasion of my second visit were selling goods that couldn't be eaten - cheap clothing, cheap jewellery and mobile phone covers were the most popular items. A nearby sandwich bar looked promising but it was closed, and in the end I had no option but to make do with a kebab-shop; I got a battered sausage and a can of ginger beer to go, and with that I was on my way!

I needed to rejoin the path by the entrance to the foot tunnel, and my easiest route was along Powis Street, described by Nairn as "a commercial gold mine from end to end"; maybe that was the case in the Sixties, but what I saw was the usual contemporary high-street mixture of bookies, discount shoe-shops and charity-shops, with a couple of boarded-up establishments thrown in for good measure.



By the River, the Capital Ring was once again sharing path-space with the Thames Path (which, it seems, runs on both banks). I had views across to the Tate & Lyle processing plant on the north side, while my view upriver took in the Thames Barrier, the Dome and the tall buildings of Canary Wharf in the heart of the redeveloped Docklands.





My route took me through the old Royal Dockyard, now mostly long gone to make way for housing but there are a few remnants, most notably a pair of canons pointing out onto the River and a couple of small dry docks now being used as ponds. These were fenced off but that hadn't stopped several local boys from getting in for a spot of fishing (still the biggest sport in the country in terms of participation); I wasn't sure what they were hoping to catch, though, as the water looked fairly stagnant and had several items of rubbish floating in it. 



Elsewhere was a mosaic that had been created at ground level, presumably when the area was being redeveloped; I guessed that this had at the time been an admirable community project intended to install some sense of local people working together to improve the place where they lived, and maybe even foster some civic pride in a new housing development, but it was sadly in decay. 



Further along, a man was trying to teach his young daughter how to ride a bike; she did not appear to be enjoying the experience. Most of the flats had their windows open - it was a hot day - and the sound of a party emanated from one of them.

The path turned inland shortly before the Barrier, taking me through a quiet housing estate, past a disused factory and along the A206. A pub called Clancys claimed to offer Sky Sports and karaoke on Fridays but it was boarded-up (although some open first-floor windows told me that the building was still inhabited), while further along the White Horse (rebuilt 1897) had bingo, bed & breakfast and the advantage of being open; this pub also had a white ensign in the window with "RIP Lee Rigby" written on it; appropriate, really, as it was Armed Forces Day (and, of course, his brutal murder had happened in Woolwich, just outside the barracks).





Not long after this the path veered left, away from the road and into the first of a series of parks connected by a route called the Green Chain Walk on which the Capital Ring piggy-backs as it had previously done with the Parkland Walk, the Lea Valley Walk, the Greenway and the Thames Path; no doubt there will be others and why not? Part of the point of the Capital Ring was to connect green spaces. 



I passed some tennis courts and a circular patch of grassland on which a running-track had been marked out (briefly making me think of school sports days, long ago) before climbing a steep path through the surrounding woodland. The path reached a ridge on which a quiet road ran before descending into another park. 



This one, which was heavily wooded, had what I assumed (from the sound of a cockerel) to be an urban farm but which was in fact a small petting-zoo with a herd of fallow deer.

The route continued up a hill to another road and then another park, the Capital Ring living up to its billing as a connector between London's green spaces. This park, though, was of a completely different sort from its predecessor; no woods, hills or deer here but flat, open grassland, turning brown in the sun, cut short and with athletics markings painted on. A cafe stood next to a play area frequented by kids whose parents ranged from the burqa-clad to the scatily-clad, neither looking entirely comfortable in the heat. Two lads in football shirts and shorts kicked a ball around in desultory fashion (both West Ham fans, I couldn't help but notice), while elsewhere a young woman read a book under a tree and a cricket match was in full flow.



The route wound through a couple of suburban back-streets of post-war but pre-Sixties local authority housing before another park which looked almost deserted. It had what looked like a BMX track and a sign placed there by Greenwich Council advised me that that is what it was, "A 2012 legacy", so the sign proclaimed. But why, on such a lovely Saturday, was no-one using it? I had a BMX bike when I was a kid and if there had been a BMX track nearby I'd've been all over it. Crossing the next road, I saw a child on a bike heading towards the park and I hoped he was going to have a go on the track.



Next up was not so much suburban as almost rural as the route took me onto Woolwich Common. Any sense of peace and tranquility was short-lived, though, as on the other side was the junction of the South Circular and Shooter's Hill Road, the former the southern half of the inner London ring-road, the latter following the route of a road first built by the Romans.





I had encountered Shooter's Hill not so long ago when I had played in a cricket match in Greenwich Park. In the car on the way there, my team-mates and I had idly speculated where it had got its name from, and had reckoned that it must have had something to do with highwaymen. I'd looked it up out of curiosity after getting home, and had found that this was indeed the case, partly at least; this particular part of Watling Street had been known as a venue for archery in the Middle Ages but had become a notorious haunt for highwaymen by the 17th century and it was also the location of a gibbet, positioned there to deter others from a life of crime; the Restoration-era civil servant, man-about-town and (most importantly from an historical perspective) diarist Samuel Pepys describes riding "under the man that hangs on Shooters Hill, and a filthy sight it was to see how his flesh is shrunk to his bones" (a man of his time, Pepys was no stranger to public displays of violent death and the gore that went with it, having witnessed both the beheading of Charles I and the hanging, drawing and quartering of Major-General Harrison). Much later, Shooter's Hill once again lived up to its name as the location of an anti-aircraft battery during the Second World War.

I headed up Shooter's Hill but soon diverted across Eltham Common, into dense woodland through which an uphill path ran. The wood was Oxleas Wood, and my immediate target was the castle on the top of the hill, literally the high point of the day.



To call it a castle is a bit of an exaggeration. Severndroog Castle is in fact an 18th century Gothic folly, built by the widow of Sir William James, a naval officer who in 1755 had attacked and destroyed Suvarnadurg, an island fortress located between Bombay and Goa on the Indian coast (the name of the castle is an anglicisation of that of the fortress). Nowadays, having been saved from redevelopment, the main function of this three-storey triangular building is to serve as a tea-room in the woods. One thing I was particularly looking forward to was the view from the top; seven counties are supposed to be visible, and it is said that on a clear day you can see as far as Windsor Castle.

Alas, a sign advised that the public could only access the roof on Thursdays and Sundays (I was there on a Saturday) and no amount of persuasion could get the waiters to turn a blind eye and let me climb the stairs; deprived of a view of seven counties, I settled for a black coffee and a biscuit.

View-less, I continued, heading through a well laid-out rose garden occupied by a pair of picnickers and then through the woods (a gap in the trees giving me a glimpse of the Crystal Palace radio mast) until I emerged at the top of what was not so much a hill but a gentle, south-facing slope overlooking a field called Oxleas Meadow and, beyond that, south-east London and the North Downs.



A lovely vista (as somebody once said, there is nowhere lovelier than England in June) but I was still feeling cheated by my not having been able to look out from the top of Severndroog. People were scattered across the field, some walking dogs, some walking children, others relaxing. A solid-looking building at the top had the word 'cafe' painted on the roof and it looked so inviting I went in and asked for an ice-cream; I was offered a choice of six flavours and addressed as 'love' by the girl behind the counter.  



Outside, as well as the view, was the inevitable green sign which told me that the Capital Ring was still sharing a path with the Green Chain Walk. I had, according to the sign, come 4 3/4 miles from Woolwich, and I had 1 1/2 to go to Falconwood at the end of the stage. I made that a 6 1/4-mile walk for the day; wasn't it meant to have been seven? Where had the other three-quarters of a mile gone? 



Not for the first time, I wondered at the total distance of the Capital Ring which is officially given - on the TfL website and in the walking guide published by the Ordnance Survey - as 78 miles, although for the Woolwich-Falconwood section the two sources vary between seven and 6.2 respectively. That said, every section distance doesn't include the extra bits where you have to leave the official route to get to a station at the end, so maybe I'm over-thinking things.

Another wooded section, which brought me to the bottom of Oxleas Meadow, followed before I crossed a road to get to the final wood of the day (Shepherdleas Wood, this one). In this one I encountered a tree leaning at a 45-degree angle with half of its roots sticking out of the ground, and then I came to some open parkland where, finally, I got my view of Central London. Looking north-west over the roofs of some semi-detached houses, I took in a vista that included the Eye, Wembley Stadium, the Shard and the Post Office Tower.





After checking out the birds on the small lake (mallards going through their summer moult, and tufted ducks going for a dive), I trudged on towards a bridge that went over a railway line and the A2. The Capital Ring runs south across this bridge but I didn't take it. Instead, I carried on walking east to Falconwood station.

 

13.7.15

Adventures on public transport

A full-on Tube strike presented a dilemma; leaving the arguments of who's right or who's wrong aside, how on Earth was I supposed to get to work? Like many of my fellow-Londoners, I rely on the Tube on a daily basis; getting the Northern Line from East Finchley to Moorgate is my daily commute. Were there any viable alternatives?

There is a bus that goes from Highgate to Moorgate which I have taken before when the Northern Line's been out of action, but it takes an age to get there and would take even longer on a strike day when there would be more cars on the road.

I could always cycle to work. I used to do that when I worked in Hendon rather than the City, but one of the reasons why I chose not to was the reason why I don't cycle to work on a regular basis - it would involve going via Highgate, twice a day. I may occasionally challenge myself by going up Swain's Lane (to prove to myself that I still can more than anything else), but not on a daily basis. Bradley Wiggins I am not.

Boris bikes, those relatively recent additions to the London travel scene, were out too. What with there not being any docking-stations for those out in the suburbs, I'd still have to get to one of these by public transport and then I'd be faced with whether or not a bike would be available, and if so I'd need to ride it through a busier-than-usual metropolis. So no. One day I will give the Boris bikes a go but a strike day was not the day for that.

The TfL website told me that the quickest way to get to my place of work that didn't involve the Tube would be to take the 263 bus (Barnet to Highbury via, among other places, East Finchley) to Highbury & Islington station from whence I could travel to Moorgate by train. Again, no. I've seen those trains disgorge at Moorgate during the rush hour and they are jam-packed at the best of times. I didn't fancy that.

But wait; wasn't there another option from Highbury & Islington? Something called the Overground? while not going into the City, it does as least go very close to my place of work.

A combination of several suburban railway and ex-Tube lines, the London Overground is best described as an ever-expanding part of the National Rail network that is run by TfL and so has branding similar to the Tube (and, indeed, it features on Tube maps). In operation since 2007, it has incorporated the old East London Line and (in 2012) the South London Line so that it now forms a loop around Central London. The bit that interested me, though, was Shoreditch High Street - which is just as close to where I work (in terms of walking distance) as Moorgate. I'd used it for the odd journey before, but never as a serious commuting option.

When the East London Line was part of the Tube (it was originally part of the Metropolitan Line and didn't get its own colour until 1990), its northern terminus was Shoreditch, one of the least-used stations on the network which was actually closed a year before the rest of the line was closed for renovation and rebranding. When the line re-emerged as part of the Overground, Shoreditch (once part of a branch line connecting the East London Line with Liverpool Street) had been replaced by the all-new Shoreditch High Street, built on the site of the old Bishopsgate goods yard and part of a new stretch of track which links the East London Line with the Kingsland Viaduct, which in turn is the bit that connects with the North London Line (Richmond to Stratford; always a railway line rather than the Tube, and the first stretch of track to be rebranded as the Overground).

The Overground it would be, then, but I still had to get to Highbury & Islington first. Unfortunately, my clever plan to take the 263 bus was also an idea that had occurred to many other East Finchley residents, and indeed residents of suburbs through which the bus had to pass before it got to East Finchley. I'd got up earlier than usual to allow for the longer commute but the first 263 bus to get to my bus stop of choice would only let four people on as it was already full; I stood back to let the dozen or so commuters who'd made it to the bus stop before me sort things out before texting TfL's very useful when-is-the-next-bus-coming service to find out how long I'd have to wait.

The upshot was that, despite having started my journey to work earlier than usual, I was still in East Finchley at eight o'clock, the time at which I would normally expect to be getting on the Tube.

Things picked up after that. The second 263 bus of the day had more spaces, and after a mile or so of standing in a densely-packed group on the lower deck a few upper-deck passengers got off and those of us nearest the stairs surged upwards to claim their seats. 

By ten to nine we'd made it to the bottom of the Holloway Road, where I and just about everyone else disembarked for Highbury & Islington. Everyone else was more interested in the line to Moorgate so I was able to saunter onto the Overground train waiting at platform 1 and take my pick of the many available seats. One very calm train-ride later, I disembarked at Shoreditch High Street at five past nine, and was at my desk by quarter-past. Not bad at all.

There was, of course, still the commute home but I wasn't that worried, as I'd liked what I'd seen of the 'ginger line' (yes, it already has a nickname and it is the subject of that indefatigable London walker Iain Sinclair's latest book; its place in the life of London is therefore assured even though there is always the chance that it may eventually become a victim of its own success - rather like the city it serves). I also had a 'cheat' option for getting home - Allison, who'd done the sensible strike day thing and opted to work from home, had offered to come and pick me up from Gospel Oak station. Easy!

Shoreditch High Street at half past five on the afternoon was, I noted, a lot busier than it had been at five past nine in the morning. So busy that I couldn't get a seat on the train, which was only going as far as Dalston Junction. I did manage a seat on the one going from Dalston Junction to Highbury & Islington, and  it was when I got to the latter that things started to get messy.

I am no stranger to crowded trains. As a regular Tube passenger (despite what TfL says, I refuse to describe myself as a 'customer'), I am accustomed to getting up close and personal with complete strangers on a twice-daily basis, depending on how crowded things are, and I consider myself lucky if I get a seat (although I am in the habit of trying to improve my seat-getting odds by walking to the end of the platform on the assumption that the last carriage is the least crowded).

My desired platform at Highbury & Islington wasn't packed but there were tight knots of people in the places where the doors would open. As the westbound train came in, the shuffling for position began; a little brisk elbowing followed by the public transport equivalent of the parting of the Red Sea in order to allow people off (it's rather civilised that certain niceties are still observed even when things get to the point where 'every man for himself' could so easily become the way of things). Most people piled in after that but I held back; the interior of the train was packed and I thought I could wait for the next one, although no doubt that would be just as bad. 

But then the people who'd got on before me managed to shuffle in to create what looked like a space that was (just about) big enough for me, so I stepped on. The doors didn't move, and while the driver announced that if the doors didn't close after three attempts the train would not move for two minutes I leaned in. At the first attempt of the closing of the doors, two guys made a run for it; the first got on, barging into several people (myself included) as he did but the second got stuck in the doors, which failed to close as a result. Selfish bastards, I thought (but, this being London public transport, I did not utter this out loud; several 'tuts' - the highest form of criticism on British trains - were audible).

The doors closed at the second time of asking, and we were on our way; sweltering, of course (although not as bad as a Tube carriage below ground in a heatwave). I was able to grab a hand-rail but what with the press of humanity I doubt it would have made that much of a difference in the event of an emergency stop. 

Things got worse at Camden Road when the weird physics of train carriages asserted itself; despite no-one getting off, three heavy-looking Eastern European guys (to judge by the language) did manage to force themselves on. Somehow the crowd was able to absorb these extra additions - like I said, the physics of train carriages can be a bit weird. Just when you think no-one else can get on, some people manage to.

Luckily I was only on the train for a couple more stops. Despite the sheer volume of people, the magic words ('excuse me', preferably asserted with a degree of confidence which may not be entirely convincing in the mind of the speaker), worked and I was able to disembark. 

At the bottom of the stairs at Gospel Oak I saw something rarely seen at a suburban station; a line stretching a hundred yards along the street, marshalled by some attendants who let two or three people go through the barriers every minute or so. The station was operating a one out, one in policy. I turned and walked towards Highgate Road. 

Ten minutes later, I was in the car heading for home. The strike day commute was over.

6.7.15

Reading the woods and the water

A few years ago, I followed a blog written by a man called Nick Hunt. The blog was about a journey he was undertaking across Europe; this, though, was not just any journey but a walk, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, which he was doing as a result of having been inspired by the late, great Patrick Leigh Fermor, who had walked the same route as a young man and who later wrote about it in three books, A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road, the last of which he did not live to conplete and which was published posthumously.

After Nick completed his walk, it wasn't long before a publisher got in touch. The blog became a book, and last year (not long after the publication of The Broken Road, in fact), it hit the bookshops under the title Walking the Woods and the Water. Having enjoyed the blog, I was looking forward to the book and I am happy to report that I was not disappointed.

This book gives us what could be described as a behind-the-scenes view of modern-day Europe; the continent may appear to be somewhat homogenised nowadays, but the Europe that he walked through was anything but. He stayed with people he'd met online via a couch-surfing website, and later is amazed when people he stays with offer to call their friends in the next village to get them to offer him a bed for the next night; on an individual level, the people he encounters are for the most part generous and friendly.

Groups of people are perhaps less so; Slovaks are rude about Hungarians, Romanians are rude about Hungarians and Bulgarians, while Hungarians are rude about just about everyone who isn't Hungarian. These are old forces at work.

Indeed, we see in this book a continent still reeling from the ravages of history - not just the Second World War and the Cold War (which hang over Paddy's books like storm-clouds on the distant horizon) but centuries of it. The bit where he crosses the border between Austria and Slovakia is particularly good; once he's across, everything - even the smell - is different, for this is not only the old Cold War frontier but also the even older boundary between the Germanic and Slavic worlds.

Modernisation is there too, as shown with the Dutch and German cities that were flattened in the War and whose old medieval centres that Paddy saw are long gone, replaced by pedestrianised shopping-precincts. Elsewhere, the Danube has been tamed by the building of vast hydroelectric dams and the Bulgarian coast has become a line of concrete holiday-resorts. The author does not enjoy walking through seemingly endless suburbs either.

But that is only a part of the story. This, rather like a book I read a couple of years ago about another writer's walk between the 1066 battlefields, is about taking things at a slower pace than much of modern life allows, about allowing oneself to gradually absorb the changing atmosphere on the journey from place to place. It's not all pleasant but it can be vivid (his description of the aridity of the huge, empty horizons of the Great Hungarian Plain remained long in the memory after I'd finished the book) and it is never dull.

Being inspired by the journey someone else took decades previously, the concept itself is not original but that doesn't matter so much; many fine travel-books are all about following a journey first made by someone else. I once read somewhere that the age of discovery is never over when you are the discoverer, and I heard somewhere else that every journey is new to the person making it for the first time. Nick Hunt was fortunate to be in a position where he could walk in Paddy's footsteps, and we armchair travellers are just as fortunate to be able to read about his journey.