Writing Portfolio



Professor Langdon’s back! This time he’s in Florence, although thanks to a bullet-wound in his head he has no idea why he’s there or what he’s been doing for the last couple of days. So begins Inferno, the third cinematic adventure (based on the fourth novel) of Dan Brown’s academic hero who’s played by Tom Hanks. If symbology were a real academic discipline, it would surely never have been this much fun.

Aided by a genius doctor called Sienna (Felicity Jones), Langdon has to deal with his temporary amnesiac state while deciphering clues about the work of the poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) while also running through Florence pursued by the bad guys, or perhaps they might actually be good guys (given that the World Health Organisation as depicted in this movie is armed and very dangerous, who knows what side they may be on?), and an assassin dressed as an Italian policewoman. This includes a trip through the Vasari Corridor, a tour of the various secret passages of the Palazzo Vecchio (from which Langdon has, it transpires, already nicked Dante’s death mask) and a spot of breaking and entering when it comes to the Baptistry next to the Duomo. The main villain (Ben Foster; the actor, not the former Watford goalkeeper) is already dead when the fun starts, and it’s his Dante-inspired trail that Langdon must follow through Florence, Venice and Istanbul in order to stop a deadly plague of the baddie’s devising from being released and killing most of the world’s population (this being his solution to the problem of global overpopulation).

Perhaps because it’s a Dan Brown adaptation, this movie has evidently got a lot of critics riled. Having thoroughly enjoyed myself watching this in the cinema, I can’t help but think that they’ve missed the point. This is a fun caper of a movie set in touristy locations – some of which I’ve visited (although the Vasari Corridor remains a part of Florence I have yet to experience), others which I would very much like to visit – that is rather reminiscent of the Roger Moore-era Bond films in its desire not to take itself too seriously.

This can also be seen in the books – remember when The Da Vinci Code came out? There was a lot of fuss back then over Dan Brown playing fast and loose with certain historical details and conspiracy theories even though that book was never marketed as anything other than a work of fiction (and by no means the first one to kick off with a set of ‘facts’ that weren’t actually real facts) but I must say that I loved it (quite literally couldn’t put it down, to the extent that I was up reading it until dawn the following morning). I liked the film too, and the follow-up Angels & Demons adaptation – although I still for the life of me cannot figure out what accent Ewan MacGregor was trying to do there. I read Inferno a year or so ago, and liked that too; I say this as someone who enjoys reading thrillers that make the reader think a bit. At one point, you have to turn the book (Inferno, that is) upside-down several times in order to read a cryptic poem written in the form of a spiral. To any observer, this makes you look faintly ridiculous. In a way, this sums up the appeal of Dan Brown books rather well – they don’t take themselves too seriously, and while they’re very engaging books you shouldn’t take them too seriously either (they’re perfect holiday, tea-break or commute reading, in other words), a point that Brown himself seems to acknowledge by giving Professor Langdon a Mickey Mouse watch to wear. This is meant to be a bit of fun.

As well as Felicity Jones, Hanks – on good form, as he usually is – has some strong support from Omar Sy and Sidse Babett Knudsen (quite the international cast, this) although the show is almost stolen by Irffan Khan (the man from The Lunchbox) who gets to play the well-dressed, knife-wielding head of a secretive organisation called The Consortium which is based on a boat in the Adriatic and which may or may not be gunning – literally so – for Langdon. Surely a role as the next Bond villain must be beckoning for him after this?

As a film, this is an entertaining couple of hours; I really enjoyed it, and I would therefore recommend it.


The Capital Ring: Richmond to Osterley Lock

To Richmond, to continue with my walk along the Capital Ring. A nice day for what promised to be a waterside walk, starting with the Thames and continuing with the Grand Union Canal. Around four miles in total.

As well as the prospect of hiring a rowing-boat, this part of the Thames also has a riverboat service which can take you to Hampton Court for £8:50, and that’s for a journey of one-and-three-quarter hours. Walking along the riverside in the opposite direction, I passed the site of Richmond Palace, another old Royal residence which I happen to know a bit about thanks to one of my Londonist articles – it used to be called Shene in the Middle Ages but was renamed Richmond by Henry VII when he rebuilt it (before beating Richard III at Bosworth Field, he’d been the Earl of Richmond; the Lancastrian claimant with a title relating to a Yorkshire town). A favourite residence of Elizabeth I, the palace survived until just after the Civil War, when it was demolished.

After passing the western edge of Old Deer Park (so-called due to its former use as a royal hunting-ground), I crossed the Thames at Richmond Lock. This dates back to the 1890s and was built to ensure a minimum depth of the River between Richmond and Teddington (the demolition of the Old London Bridge some six decades beforehand having resulted in greater tidal fluctuations upriver); the sluice-gates are closed unless there’s a high tide. There are toll-booths on the accompanying footbridge but tolls – one penny each – haven’t been charged since the Second World War.

At Isleworth, the path briefly diverted inland just as the Thames passed Isleworth Ait, one of the longest of the Thames islands. Back on the riverside, and going through the outdoor seating area of the Town Wharf pub, I crossed a small stone bridge over the Duke of Northumberland’s River and then passed a row of Georgian houses by the church, where I even got to wander along the shoreline (it was low tide) and see some birds – Black-headed Gulls mostly, but also Teals and Cormorants. before turning my back on the Thames for the last time on this walk and entering the Syon Park estate.

This is the London residence of the Duke of Northumberland – hence the name of the river I’d just crossed; the grounds were laid out by Capability Brown in the eighteenth century. After crossing the estate, I was in Brentford – the old county town of Middlesex and a place I last visited many years ago, when Watford had an away game at Griffin Park. My route through Brentford this time was to link with the Grand Union Canal at Brentford Lock (at this point, the Grand Union Canal and the River Brent are one and the same, the Brent having been canalised as part of the Grand Union downriver from Hanwell).

For the rest of the day’s walk, it was a simple enough job of following the towpath of the canal, through the frame of a disused warehouse, under a railway line and then under the A4, past a lock gate (Clitheroe’s Lock) then alongside the M4 and over to the other side of the canal at a footbridge called Gallows Bridge (this proclaims the canal to be the Grand Junction, the canal’s old name). 

I’ve done a fair amount of canalside walking in recent months, what with writing-up walks along the Regent’s Canal and the River Lea/Lee. Section 7 of the Capital Ring ends on the Grand Union just before Osterley Lock, not long after the canal passes under the M4; I called it a day there, half a mile from Boston Manor station, and got the Tube home.


London's market names

A few years ago, I used to help out occasionally on a stall at Broadway Market – the one where Dad sold the finest Cheshire cheese (made, of course, in Cheshire) to discerning consumers of traditional English cheeses. Days at the market involved early starts, much cheese-related talk, generous discounts at the stalls of fellow-traders and a slow journey back to North London afterwards if Arsenal happened to be playing at home on that particular Saturday.

Those days came to mind recently, along with thoughts of early-morning visits to Billingsgate and Smithfield, when I was working on my latest piece for Londonist – another instalment of its popular etymology series, this one on how London’s various markets got their names. Here’s the link:

As usual with tales of etymology, stories abound as origins can be found in the most unlikely places; here, we have appearances by the illegitimate son of James II and a naval hero associated with Horatio Hornblower, some Canadian content and a mythical pre-Roman British king. Plus some fantastic market photos taken by Allison!


Who haunts London?

London, it is said, is one of the most haunted cities in the world; hardly surprising, when you think about it, given its very long history (it is, after all, some 1,966 years since the Romans founded what was then called Londinium). Lists of haunted buildings in London are many, but we do not see very often is a list of who the ghosts are. Or rather, were – for the ones who are apparently doing the haunting were alive once.

What with one thing or another, I’ve been talking to a lot of people about ghosts recently (more on that in a later blog-post) and this has in turn impacted on my writing. Who are London’s ghosts? There are people, or rather the spirits of dead people, from all levels of London society: Royalty, criminals, bankers, bishops, actors and nurses have all been seen somewhere. Some of them are even in more than one place! More information about some of the best-known ones can be found on my latest article for Londonist, accessible via this link: