Monday, 28 April 2008

Putting the fun back into run

Brockley had its first organised fun run yesterday, and what a great morning it was.

The weather, predicted to rain, ended up being mild and bright. Perfect conditions for the 300 or so runners, pram-pushers, kids and dog-walkers to race, amble or jog around the park.

But though the run was very accommodating for beginners, with a pre-race warm up and lots of friendly faces, the course was not so easy.

A figure of eight followed by a loop, up and down repeatedly over the spine of the park, its name – Hilly Fields – proved exhaustingly appropriate.

For those that regularly race, this meant it was not a course to set a personal best.

And given the hills, just getting round was something of an achievement for those that run less regularly.

This was particularly the case for all the children taking part, and their presence gave the event a proper community feel, as well as showing us how fast some of our local kids can run!

This is something I experienced first hand, as I was overtaken by someone half my age after the first kilometre, after which I spent the rest of the race trying to catch him, but to no avail.

I don't know if the results will be published, but I hope so and it would match the level of professionalism around the race – an unusual surprise given the small scale of the event. And well done to those that organised it – Erin at the Broca with the help of the BXAG group.

Those taking part also received a 'I love Brockley' T-shirt, so expect to see these in our streets in the future. As well as, hopefully, another equally successful event next year.

Friday, 25 April 2008

It was all fields in my day

It doesn’t take an archaeologist to recognise that London is a city of layers.

In the centre of the city, two thousand years of history stacks up, mixed together, a live interaction of old and new. This makes the City a fascinating place, full of historical clues and curiosities.

But the old city (with a small c) of London is very small, only a mile or so wide. Smithfield, which now seems so central, was until recent centuries outside the north boundary of the city (and was where cattle were drove ahead of market, hence the meat-market there).

Looking at historical maps of the city one sees a sudden expansion only in the late nineteenth century, a pattern replicated across many cities in the country. Trains, industrialisation and urbanisation swelled the nation's cities at an incredible pace.

The maps say it all. And what amazing places they show!

A look outside today, one looks at the terraces of London, the roads and cars, the high rises and the bleak urban spots.

But maps show that just over a hundred years ago much of what we call London was a place of small villages, market gardens, fields, quarries and canals.

Finding new maps on the internet is always exciting. Thanks to Transpontine I came across a map of London from 1862-1871. It is well worth a look, there are historical tales everywhere.

The town that I live in, Brockley, is at a really interesting stage during this time.

Most of the town is fields and market gardens. But in the north, bordering Deptford, builders are starting to put up big houses. The main road on which these houses were built – Wickham Road - ends in a field!

The main roads that we know now, around Brockley Cross, do not exist. Instead, there is Brockley Lane that meanders around, and a couple of footpaths.

Though villages, fields and footpaths sound a lot more pleasant than congested roads, and high-rise concrete blocks, a look at other parts of the city show that the Victorian era was also a place of dark industry. Chemical plants and gas works, tanners and foundries. These would have been dangerous and polluting places.

Now compare the map above with that of the map of the area in 1833. Very little of London has crept into the area. In those days it really was all fields. Note that the railway was once a canal, with many, many locks (which made it uneconomic).

And then look at a later map, from 1890, and much of what we know as Brockley today - particularly the northern end (Brockley Cross) has been laid out. We would recognise these streets, as this picture of Upper Brockley Road from 1905 demonstrates.

These maps – and there are others – help give us a real sense of history, of life as it was.

The past is a foreign country they say. However, a glance at these maps show both how near and far the past is.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Dinner table talk

As avid readers of this blog will be aware, there is a rather fine Brockley blog, just over there, over the way.

It’s one of the most successful local blogs I have seen, in that it attracts lots of comment and readers, and almost all of it is constructive and interesting.

There is, however, one part of the conversation that I find rather alienating – the parts about house prices. This is not the blog’s fault – Nick, who runs the site, barely talks about house prices – but that of the people on the site, who use Nick’s articles as a launch point to discuss what they wish.

And a number of them wish to discuss the price of houses. This is Рas the clich̩ goes Рa favourite middle-class pastime, and for Brockley Central, with its substantial middle-class readership, it is almost inevitable that such discussions will be commonplace.

But not only does such talk remind me of my biggest personal investment mistake – thinking that house price peaks of early 2004 were as high as prices would go – these conversations are full of basic (and soon to be painful) errors.

I won’t go into detail on all of these, but I will mention one: things can change. Just because house prices have been at a level does not mean they always will. As I found out in 2004, prices can rise when they ‘shouldn’t’; they can also fall further than they ‘should’. This is because the intellectual structures backing pricing decisions can change very suddenly.

House prices rose beyond their 2004 peaks mainly because of easier credit conditions – housing finance was offered in huge quantities. That easier credit is no longer available, and so is likely to mean we will see a fairly large drop in house prices.

However, unlike market professionals, normal people take a long time to change their minds, and adjust to new market realities. This means that house prices may not recover for some years to come.

Corbusier wanted to build homes that were machines for living. The home owners of this country wanted homes that were machines for profit. It would be nice, though naive, if homes could simply be places to live.

Thursday, 10 April 2008


A short break to Barcelona reminds me of the similarities and differences between cities, and also how much I have come to embrace London.

Barcelona is busy, quiet, scruffy and upmarket all at the same time. This was my first time there and my experience of it was largely of the scruffy, historic side of the city.

Given that, it made for an interesting contrast with London, which is often accused of being unkempt and lawless, but I found Barcelona much more so.

Behaviour that would not be tolerated in London – such as football fans drunkenly shouting and singing at 6am in the morning, drug-selling in the open and low-grade thieves roaming the streets at will – seemed to be quite normal in Barcelona.

It reminded me of Brighton back in the day!

It is not such a bad place, however. We just happened to be staying in quite a rough part. However, it did bring into contrast how much of a media panic London has experienced over crime.

I've lived in London for almost 30 years and have been a victim of a mugging or attempted mugging twice. (And I ain't never lived in a posh bit!) I went to Barcelona and someone tried it on within three days!

On returning to London, Britain's capital seemed slightly more drab, but certainly richer as well as more quirky. The centuries of accumulated wealth are easy to see, and the calmness and assuredness of a booming city is writ into people's faces.

Yes London has its problems, but it was a great thing to come back to town, sit in a pub and down a pint.

BTW One very (geeky) thing that I really liked about Barcelona: the subway train indicator boards give you a countdown, in seconds, of when the next train will arrive. Can we have this in London please?

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Four wheels bad

My first visit to a big supermarket in three months was something of a rude shock. It was bad timing for such a visit – Easter Saturday, in the afternoon – and not all supermarkets are as bad as the Tesco's in Lewisham, but I'm more determined than ever to stick to going to local shops as much as I can.

Sometimes I'm going to a Tesco Express around the corner from me. It's pretty basic, but it's quite cheap and I can get meat I can trust from there on a Sunday evening, which I can't do any other way.

This is what I was doing last Sunday, driving home from a long day out. We stopped off at the Express, and found that there is very little car parking provision for the store. Two places directly outside, and that's all.

This might be laudable if it were part of a plan to encourage other forms of transport, but as Richard George noted in the Guardian last week, most bigger supermarkets are designed almost entirely around car drivers. This means that pedestrian shoppers usually have to walk through a car park to get to the store.

As for cyclists ... this is the provision at my local Sainsbury's!

Back in Brockley, I woudn't be surprised if people living close to the store are becoming a little miffed by the constant flow of cars stopping off outside their homes.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Within walking distance

Is New Cross the new Camden? The Evening Standard asked the (rather lame) question at the end of last year when New Cross's Amersham Arms was relaunched by the same people as run Camden's The Lock Tavern.

I went there on Saturday night to see whether such claims might have a whiff of truth. The last time I went along it was to see the band Man Like Me literally bring the roof down on the old place as part of a rather shambolic but fun festival.

Anyway, the front bit of the Amersham Arms is now indeed rather like a pub you would find in Camden. Full of quite cool semi-scenesters winding themselves up for the night ahead.

Good place. Works well for a Saturday night. I'll check the back room one day soon, when I see a good gig to go to.

We stayed for a few in the Amersham Arms then moved on to another local pub, the Royal Albert, which has also been on the receiving end of a recent refurb.

It used to be known as the Paradise Bar for those with a longer memory. And the Six String Bar for those with an even longer one.

Now it is a nice place. A little bland but not in a bad way. It had a good range of beers, stayed open until after 12 and it is a 10 minute walk to my home.

The Amersham was more fun and did make me realise how New Cross does maintain a good number of quirky and interesting venues.

There are those that shudder at the memory of the Paradise Bar, while others remember it with fondness for its unusual and experimental nights.

Meanwhile, the Goldsmiths Tavern of old was a fairly crazy place if my addled memory serves me right. (It is the only place where I have seen a man thrown horizontally through a door onto the street, and by a much-pierced barman wearing a suit!)

There's a history to this: a glance at the culture section of the New Cross's Wikipedia entry shows how many alternative scenes have connections to the town, including some of the first house nights, Britpop and new rave. It was also where Vic Reeves first did a show with Bob Mortimer, which almost in itself makes it my spiritual home!

Getting people from outside the area to come for the evening remains a chore but maybe that is part of New Cross's charm. An evening there remains one for either the brave or the local, and that doesn't seem like such a bad thing.

Edited to add:

Coincidentally, fellow (and much more established) blogger Transpontine has written up a similar piece on New Cross on the back of a NME article, "New Cross is Reborn".

Hats off to the chap. And am particularly liking his Walking New Cross series.

Monday, 17 March 2008

I love Brockley

I have a T-shirt that was made for me that reads 'I love Penge', and it is one of the finest articles of clothing I have ever owned.

When wearing it I have been stopped in the street, talked to by random strangers, hugged and photographed.

The truth of the matter, however, is that I have barely stepped foot in Penge. The T-shirt was made for me because I had a plan to take advantage of people's aversion to the name Penge, buy a house there and then lead a campaign to change people's minds about the name. Hence profit.

But if I did ever love a place in London, it would have to be the town where I now live, Brockley.

I'm not so sure that it is really my heart's true desire, but it certainly is getting under my skin.

Some people that do love Brockley are the folk that run the local coffee shop, the Broca. They are organising a I Love Brockley Fun Run on 27 April.

Entry details are here. I'll be running. For Brockley!

Monday, 10 March 2008

Shopping and fetishes

Since I started writing this blog, around two months ago, I have changed my shopping habits. No longer do I rely on the once a fortnight trip to Sainsbury’s, filling the car up with the regular load.

Now I buy what I can, when I can, as long as it is from a shop within walking distance of my home. This is not because I loathe supermarkets, but because I wanted to see what would happen if I made the change. A very mild version of the film
Supersize Me, the story of Morgan Spurlock’s month eating only MacDonalds food.

However, I am in a much better place than Morgan Spurlock because my choice is wider. I live in a large city and am surrounded by lots of shops to choose from.

This blog began because four food shops opened within months of each other, all within walking distance of my home. Given this, I felt it hardly fair that I should get in the car and drive to a hypermarket and spend my money elsewhere.

The four shops range in character: there’s a French place, a general delicatessen, a wholefood shop and a Tesco Express, the smallest of the types of outlets run by the supermarket. These four shops join a number of locally-owned and run convenience stores, with two of the largest under the Costcutter banner.

It is interesting to compare the Tesco Express to the Costcutter shops, as well as the other larger convenience stores. Walking past two to get to the Tesco this evening, they seemed very empty and rather drab. By comparison, there were queues at Tesco, which was new, bright and inviting.

In Andrew Simms’ book Tescopoly, he describes a visit to a Tesco store as an intimidating experience, one that he cannot wait to end. My visits to my local Tesco, on the other hand, compare favourably with those to the similar-sized convenience stores.

The food offering is certainly more predictable, the quality is assured (or at least has a large brand behind it) and the presentation is better. In particular, the meat range is of a much higher quality, the aisles are wider and more logically laid out.

Overall, however, the differences between the experiences are small. The staff are roughly the same in attitude and background, the food is slightly different, but not much; the only clear advantage of Tesco is that its cash machine is free (Brockley’s only one), whereas those in the convenience stores make you pay.

The point that Simms makes repeatedly is that shopping in supermarkets is alienating for all concerned – grower, producer, shop assistant and customer. But I look at the staff and food offering in the local convenience stores and see little difference.

I know this is not Simms’ comparison – his is between supermarkets and specialist food retailers such as farmers’ markets, greengrocers, butcher etc – but often modern people are not so organised as to get all their weekly shopping on a Saturday morning, or at the farmers’ market on alternate Sunday mornings, so the convenience store is the better comparison.

Simms not only makes a false comparison – between time-consuming specialist stores and time-saving convenience-orientated supermarkets – but also implies that food shopping should become a larger part of people’s lives.

But while eating properly and healthily is important, sometimes the focus on the ‘authentic shopping experience’ seems built upon such people’s (understandable) need for identity support. They wish to buy into – literally – an identity, one of caring about food, or environmental awareness, or French rusticity, and shops emerge to cater to them, at a cost.

Basic supermarkets like Tesco’s, on the other hand, are focused on convenience. Fast and efficient shopping, for the products you want, or think you want. Identity support takes a second place.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Two local restaurants

Brockley is lucky enough to have two very fine restaurants.

One of them is called Meze Mangal, on Lewisham Way.

It is an Turkish restaurant, serving a range of mezes and kebabs in warm, large, wood-panelled space. It also does take away (to collect).

With the take-away you would miss the atmosphere, which is buzzy but not excessively loud. However, you would have a less smoky atmosphere, the only negative I could find with the place.

It is certainly popular. I went along on a Monday night, which would usually be a very quiet night for a local restaurant. However, it was full and people began to queue at around 8.30, on a Monday night!

One reason for this is surely the quality of the food. The mixed meze for two (£11) was superb, and enormous.

Not knowing the size of the starter, we also had mains. Lamb shish kebabs of different varieties, both were fine. Mains cost around £9-11. We went with the house red to drink, and that was perfectly adequate, and £2.50 a glass, £10 a bottle.

Given the size of the portions, it would be easy to fill up on mezes and another starter. Or just the kebabs. You see? I'm already planning my next visit ...

I'd better get there early!

Oh, and the other local restaurant? I'll get onto that shortly!

(More reviews of Meze Mangal here on the Brockley Central site. Posters there say the restaurant plans to open a patisserie next door.)

Monday, 25 February 2008

Named and shamed: Wates Residential

Outside the house two doors down from me is a very large sign. About 10 times the size of a usual estate agent board, it towers up on stilts, declaring how the house behind would be another successful new development for Wates Residential.

The house has now been developed, and its three flats are on the market for large sums of money. But just like the unsold flats, the sign remains, presumably because Wates has little incentive to remove such a large advertising hoarding, especially one that it concreted in the ground.

But after a year of having my house known as 'the one near The Biggest Sign in the World', I have had enough.

So I phoned Wates in the first week of February and leave a message on the voicemail of the Customer Service Team, London Area. I am polite and leave a message asking for them to contact me.

I receive no answer so on 19 February I send an email to them, detailing my concerns and asking for a response. I cc into the email my councillor, Dean Walton.

Dean replies on 23 February, saying he has passed on my concern to the council's casework officers.

From Wates, I continue to hear nothing (as of 25 February, close to a month after first getting in touch).

I check the company's website and its statements about its social responsibility ring rather hollow. From my experience this real estate developer has little interest in the communities in operates in.

I continue to look forward to a response from Wates, and will edit this post if and when I do.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Winners and losers

Democracy is not pretty. Messy and unplanned, different groups, often acting largely out of self-interest, conflict with each other, grinding out necessary (and unnecessary) compromises.

Politics at the centre might be ugly, but its attraction is power, as well as money.

But in local government there is none of the acquired glamour of the centre, none of the real power, only the messy business of politics. The locality is the arena for clashing egos and interest groups, residents’ associations and aspiring politicians, cynical bureaucrats and a disempowered public.

All of these elements were on display last week at a local meeting in Isleworth, West London, part of a consultation exercise as part of the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

The airport lies five miles to the west of Isleworth. The planes tend to land following a flight path taking them directly over the town, as well as many other areas of West London.

This means that any expansion to the airport, particularly one that will see an increase to the number of aircraft taking off and landing, will have a big effect on the residents.

As a result, the meeting on Thursday was well attended, with around 100 people turning up to the local working men’s club (a hangover, if you’ll forgive the pun, from the relatively recent time when Isleworth was the site of a large brewery).

The curious overlap of self-interested groups attending the meeting was clear from the start. To sit down, I had to move a leaflet from the Conservative Party; the local Conservative parliamentary candidate had organized the event, and she chaired the discussion.

Five people gave talks. Four were opposed while the industry representative was the lonely voice in favour. He declared that he was a local resident also, but still supported the expansion. His argument focused on the economic advantage to the country that the expansion would bring, and he downplayed any concerns about additional noise.

The other speakers varied in quality. The local council’s aviation representative Barbara Reid was superb: articulate, factual, witty and rousing.

John Stewart, representing the campaign group HACAN, was also on form, willing to go toe-to-toe on the economics argument presented by both the government and industry.

A Friends of the Earth campaigner – whose name I did not catch – gave the weakest speech. It was incoherent and unplanned; the archetypal environmental campaigner, I’m sorry to say. The fourth speaker, a local councillor from an Isleworth-only micro-party, said little to add to the other contributions.

There was a question and answer session afterwards, in which a few of the local residents asked questions. However, at least half the questions were posed by other local politicians – including the local London Assembly member and the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate – as the Conservative chair played safe when choosing who would have the floor.

In conclusion, it is hard to be optimistic about the campaign to oppose the expansion. The key point, put most forcefully by members of the public, was that the decision had effectively already been made to expand the airport, even though it was a plan opposed by most of the area’s residents.

They – understandably – wished to know what point there was in further opposition, other than to make the process slower and more awkward. Unsurprisingly, they received few answers.

Over the last 30 years West Londoners have been regularly informed that there would be no further expansion of the airport, only for this to be proved untrue. Now, all trust has gone, and the residents, and local council, are simply opposed to any expansion. It is hard not to sympathise – Heathrow makes a poor neighbour.

And the answer? The most obvious is a solution rejected in the 1970s: a full replacement airport outside of London. Heathrow is unusual in that it is such a large airport so close to residential areas.
Recent suggestions that this plan will end up coming to fruition one day, have the ring of truth about them.

Until that day it seems that West Londoners are going to be walked all over by national politicians who find the arguments of the aviation industry far more persuasive than the voices of locality.

But though their fight might ultimately prove fruitless, the experience and high public profile given to the aspiring local politicians fighting the cause may mean they are the biggest winners of them all.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Named and shamed: Steve Bullock

Edit: This post was edited on 22 February after I received a response from a representative of the Mayor. See below.

One of the main reasons why people do not act is because they do not expect their action to have an effect.

The police don't care about crime, and nor does the council care about the area; all politicians are only in it for themselves, and businesses are only interesting in exploiting people. They don't care about people like me or you.

And so a sullen oppositional mindset builds. Constructive engagement is pushed aside, with both sides of the equation expecting nothing from the other but a big waste of time.

People become alienated, driving them towards radical fantasists or cynical disengagement. Meanwhile, authorities and businesses become sloppy, uncaring and unresponsive.

Fortunately, there are ways in which such vicious circles can be stopped. And these actions do not all have to take a lot of time.

One way is just to start sending emails to people in decision-making roles, hassling them a bit about what they do.

It helps to have a bit of leverage when writing complaints. In some cases I mention this website and say that I will write about the situation.

The first email I sent was to my mayor, Steve Bullock. My council, Lewisham, is one of only 13 in England to have approved a recently-introduced system of having a directly-elected mayor. The idea behind the system is that the mayor has both the executive power and a direct link to voters.

So, six weeks after Mayor Bullock told a local newspaper he was taking a "personal interest" in a crime hotspot at the end of my road, I emailed him to ask what action he had taken. It was not a malicious or accusatory email. It was polite and enquiring.

Soon after, I received a response from someone called Andy Williams, who said he had received the email on the mayor's behalf and had forwarded my query to Geeta Subramanian, head of the council's crime reduction unit.

The first email was sent on 5 February. Today is 19 February and I've heard nothing further. So that's pretty poor.

I've emailed the mayor and Andy Williams again to let them know I am still waiting for a response. I'll update this blog when I do.


21 February: I received an email from Andy Williams informing me that he would chase up Geeta for a response.

22 February: I received an email from Khurram Sheikh on behalf of the Mayor, responding to my original request for information.

In a fairly long email, he states two concrete responses made:
- a number of arrests were made immediately after the incident and investigations are ongoing.
- that a drinking control zone (DCZ) has been agreed in the neighbourhood. "This will tackle the street drinking and the associated anti-social behaviour taking place across the ... neighbourhood." This should become effective in March 2008.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Turkish Delight?

In Turkey most people buy their food in markets, not supermarkets. Private equity company BC Partners hopes this will change, having just acquired Migros Turk, Turkey's largest supermarket chain.

Migros is the largest supermarket retailer in Turkey by some way, but because most Turks have yet to develop the habit of supermarket shopping, it is a relatively small company.

However, many believe that as Turkey becomes wealthier, it will develop European-style shopping habits, boosting supermarket sales at the expense of market stalls. Tesco already has a presence in the country, as does French giant Carrefour, which last week announced plans for a massive shopping centre on the outskirts of Istanbul.

In economics-speak, the "organised food sector" in Turkey is undeveloped, with supermarket penetration at low levels. Turkey has 17 supermarkets per million people compared with 150 in the European Union, according to accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The expectation amongst those retailers, banks and investors pouring into the country is that Turkey's economic growth will continue, and that the shape of this development will be along lines previously followed by other European states. If so, then betting on supermarket growth would seem to be a sensible move. Whether the Turks know what's coming is another question.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Green cities

Some time spent in the countryside offers the opportunity to return to the land, to eat freshly-grown food and turn away from the artifice of the city.

But however beautiful parts of the English landscape are, when talking to people that actually live there, it was surprising to hear how difficult it is for rural-dwellers to live a green lifestyle.

I was staying near Banbury, which is north of Oxford, and was struck by the enormous size of the Tesco in the town.

It is one of Tesco's new hangar-size outlets and curiously it is located opposite Kraft's biscuit factory, which looks (and smells) like some kind of heavy industry plant. In a way, the two make a good match: the industrial retail outlet selling the processed goods of the large-scale manufacturer. Big food.

And the size of the Tesco's in Banbury presumably reflects the area's dependence on it.

Completing the circle, those travelling to the store from outside of town must drive, unless they are lucky enough to be on a bus route.

To see why village residents must drive, here is an interesting set of maps drawn up by the enterprising people at MySociety. Note the small proportion of villages that the buses visit, and then compare this with the level of public transport access in London.

While city-dwellers might have visions of little shops in villages and farmers helpfully selling excess produce, these are rarely seen in reality. Many farmers are just as commercially-minded as the rest of us and have little time or incentive to sell locally.

And what of other environmentally-friendly services? The people I visited complained they do not have any doorstep recycling services, and so must drive to their local facility.

My conclusion: that city-dwellers have many advantages over those living in rural areas if they want to live the green lifestyle. We in the city can easily walk, cycle or get public transport to reach a wide range of shops and services. And because we live near many other people, we have on our doorsteps recycling and other services that become less practical outside of towns.

So maybe city life ain't all that bad.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008


The devil is in the detail they say, but for a true localist it is in the detail where virtue lies.

While others demand an end to global poverty, justice for the downtrodden and righteous violence against wrong-doers, the localist calls for something to be done about the cracks in the pavement and to sort out those dodgy-looking kids that hang around the local takeaway.

These are petty issues, but they stand at the top of the moral scale of the hardcore localist. If the apocalypse came, the localist would only begin to care when the streetlights went too long without repair and if nothing had been done about the graffiti problem.

This is obviously a caricature of the person interested in local issues. Most, I'm sure, have well-rounded lives and engage in politics and civil society at all levels. But while grand concerns have easy mass appeal, concern for local issues is easy to ignore or even mock.

For me, in recent months I've found my political bearings turned upside-down. Usually ensconced in debates over issues of global significance, now I am arguing with my neighbours online about the need for something to be done about the crime hotspot down my road.

And my local councillor now knows all about the three potholes in my road caused by the water leak the other day.

I almost want to apologise for how petty I have become. Sorry guys, I want to say, but though it is a tiny thing, I really am going to bother you about this.

But I don't apologise. And the reason? Because it is my road and so it is my responsibility to help take care of it.

And while my priorities will not be the same as those of my neighbours, better a clash of concerned active citizens than sullen apathy allowing a void to form.

There is a zero tolerance angle here. In the sense that if an area is well cared for, then this signifies to those that wish to commit crime that it is unlikely to go unnoticed. Virtous circles and vicious cycles abound.

But what difference can one person make? Isn't the world just too big and bad to stand up to? This is a question that has plagued philosophy for centuries.

The simplest answer to this is the story I heard of a boy walking along a beach after a massive storm. The storm had churned up the sea and flung huge numbers of fish and other sea creatures on to the shore where they lay dying, gasping for air. As the boy walked, he carefully threw each living creature back into the sea.

A man walking the other way, seeing the mammoth and impossible task ahead of the boy, said to him that he need not bother, for however many he rescued, many more would die.

The boy, dying fish in hand, turned to the man and said: "What matter are all those to me? This one will be saved."

Thursday, 31 January 2008

Trend spotting

To a journalist, a one-off event is an exceptional, anomalous moment. However, two such occurrences make an emerging trend.

So I was greatly interested to hear that my mother has also decided to give up supermarkets, and to try to rely solely on her local shops.

She does not live in Brockley, but in Isleworth, a south-west London suburb.

It was the arrival of a new fish shop in a nearby small-scale high street that triggered her Damascene conversion.

And at the moment she says she's doing well, feeling good about putting her money where her mouth is, as well as saving a little money.

"I went in and bought some mackerel the other day and it lasted for three or so meals," she says. "I hope that by shopping locally I'll not only be able to support local ventures but also save some money."

It's not without its other costs though.

"I know that people complain about going to the supermarket, but I do miss it a bit. The whole ritual of getting into the car, parking up and then choosing everything at once, there was something quite enjoyable about the whole thing."

She is – probably to her credit – less dogmatic than me, in that she will go to supermarkets if necessary. I, on the other hand, have not been to one for some three weeks now, and will not enter one again for as long as this experiment lasts.

It is a curious coincidence that we both chose to give up supermarkets at the same time. Obviously we share a cultural background, and so look at the world in much the same way, and that explains some of the coincidence.

However, I can't help but wonder whether this is part of something bigger, a wider reaction against fast-food culture, anonymous retailing and agro-business.

There is also the looming economic downturn. While the severity of this is unknown, the alarmist headlines in our newspapers will be focusing many peoples' attention on their spending habits, particularly coming just after Christmas. As a result, a new era of earnest engagement with the locality may be emerging.

It's possible. But it may just be me and my mum!

Friday, 25 January 2008

Hidden talent

Councillors do not have a particularly good reputation for changing the world.

It is difficult to remember reading any mainstream media discussing their work, unless it is conjunction with some sleazy scandal, often involving planning.

So their invisibility is a problem. People do not know what they do, how they do it or why they are there. And maybe sometimes the councillors get confused also, explaining why Private Eye can fill a page or more each edition with tales of dubious practice amongst councillors.

Local government is, I'm afraid, almost terminally unfashionable. When I studied British politics the local bit was always the dullest, the part that seemed most worthy, and so least interesting.

Radicalism tends towards the grandiose. I often see people reading Noam Chomsky's striking re-interpretations of world history on the train; rarely do I spy works written by leading localists such as Gerry Stoker.

I have only ever written to a councillor once. And that was last week (as recorded below).

I received a very positive response, I am glad to say. Councillor Sue Luxton, the lucky recipient of my email, sent me an informative response, as well as a message of good luck and a link to here from her blog. Can't say better than that!

In answer to my question, she said confirmed that objections to planning applications have to be specific and that it is worth checking here for more detail. She also notes that the grounds for objecting to an advertising board – the issue at hand – are more limited than for other applications (presumably because of their temporary nature?).

Finally, she noted that my local councillor is called Dean Walton, who is also a member of the Green Party and another blogger. He's my next port of call.

Dean's blog suggests that he has a say in some of the borough's planning decisions, so that is interesting to know. He might have something to say about the badly cut-down tree that so vexed me earlier in the week.

Again it is good to see the internet being used in such a positive way in the locality. All councillors should work to make their work more transparent, and I thoroughly support those that are taking even small steps towards doing so.

Two wheels good

I read about a survey that said cyclists were more community-minded than other groups in society. I do not know if it is true, but I can see why it might be so.

On a bike you get a sense of place that you do not have in a car. And unlike walking or running, you maintain a slightly separateness from your surroundings, and can travel longer distances.

Tonight I cycled east from the City. Through Wapping, Poplar, into Canning Town and then Beckton, before heading back around the docks to Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs, Greenwich, Deptford and New Cross.

Some people might describe Brockley, where I live now, as quite rough, but there are places I saw tonight that are much tougher, with large areas of deprivation.

The bike I ride around town is a single-speed track bike designed for a velodrome. In the summer I’ll be racing it again, but for the winter I have added brakes to it and have found a good gear that seems to work wherever I go.

It will just about get me up the short, steep hill that I have to climb from Deptford to Blackheath, though with some effort. But in exchange for that occasional extra work I have a fantastically light bike, stripped of cumbersome gears and weighty and unnecessary equipment.

I am certainly not the first to enjoy the freedom riding a single-speed bike allows. If you look for them, you’ll see many couriers and commuters also go without gears. So popular has riding single-speed bikes become, that it has spawned a variety of sub-cultures, offering the fashion-conscious cyclist a range of identities to decide between.

(Try a read of the fabulous NYC Bike Snob for a feel of the scene. London’s scenesters are a bit punkier, if the Hackney-types I’ve seen around are anything to go by. That said, there are some art boys into track bikes too, and they like their bikes absolutely perfect, and pink or yellow, or both.)

Deeply unfashionable it may be, but the core of my bike riding is the commute into town. And for this, both Brockley and the bike are pretty perfect. It’s a flat ride (if you skirt around Telegraph Hill) and just far enough – around five miles to St Pauls – to get a good ride in, but not too far as to tire yourself out too much before work.

In February, it will be exactly five years since I began cycling to work. Over those five years the freedom from the dreaded commute – which I did for the previous five – has allowed me to enjoy London so much more.

Not only does the bike provide a wonderful way of travelling to work, it locks me into the city that I live, as well as giving me the freedom to escape it. Not only that, but I have met many wonderful people through clubs, racing and other shared experiences.

Without the bike I wonder if I would stay in London at all.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The M&S test

If spending money locally is a virtue, then yesterday I was good.

The total amount I spent in Brockley shops was £21.64, split between three different food shops.

Yesterday evening I set Brockley’s shops the ‘M&S Test’, a crucial method to extricate well-off people’s money. I’ll explain what I mean.

There is an M&S store at London Bridge station, which sells tired commuters packaged evening meals. Either they are completely packaged, with one range of these labelled ‘gastropub’, or they are key meat cuts so that you need only add vegetables, which either the customer has at home or can buy at M&S.

For this form of convenience – the convenience of eating quickly, well and not getting a takeaway – M&S is able to charge high prices. Good cuts of meat or quality fish can easily cost more than £5, and I spent £7 on a pair of individual meat pies the other week.

This may sound expensive, but the total cost of that meal was substantially less than if I had ordered out for a take-away, or gone out for a meal.

But back to the test, of finding a premium, easy-to-cook meal locally, plus good-quality alcohol, without reverting to a supermarket or a take-away.

The alcohol part was easy. I got off the train at Crofton Park and went to Mr Lawrence's (review to follow) and bought a selection of real ales (the wine selection is even better, but again I was on a beer mission). Without wishing to pre-empt the review, if local shops are to be supported, then shops like Mr Lawrence's are the type that we should go to – quality products, good service and competitive prices.

Because it was late (7pm) I had more doubts about the food part but tried out Dandelion Blue. It worked out, and I bought some nice cheese, pasta and some sauce. M&S test passed. But only just, with some worries beforehand that the meal I was to cook would end up being newsagent cheese and that meal-equivalent stuff out of a tin.

This is one problem with local shops – unless you know them, and know their stock, then they can seem very off-putting. When I was in Dandelion Blue someone came up to the door, looking rather frightened, clearly not knowing if he should come in. Eventually he did come in, and ended up buying some ice cream.

But I recognised that man's doubt - I am yet to go into Dandelion Blue's near competitor Degustation for lack of knowing why I would want to go there. That said, I am an active local now, so must pluck up the courage.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Highly objectionable

I am lucky enough to live in a road lined with large trees. On both sides of road, there are trees in the front gardens. There is one in mine.

However, these trees are not an unalloyed good. They block the light into people's houses, as well as potentially undermining foundations.

But in the conservation area that I live in, you need planning permission to substantially alter trees.

Petty this may sound, but when one of my neighbours cut all the branches from a tree near my house it was clear why trees are seen as part of the area's character.

Curiously, after the tree was cut, a planning permission noticed appeared on the tree, backdated, informing that any attempt to alter the tree was against the law.

This made me – for the first time – investigate how you would find out about local planning decisions, and how you could try to object to them.

Pleasantly, I was able to find them on my local council's website, and I can even do a search using my road name.

Now, I see that local councillor Sue Luxton wants to deny planning permission for an advertising hoarding on Brockley Road. I have – for the first time – written an objection to the council (by email, nice and easy), and sent Sue an email asking if she has any tips for a successful objection letter.

I'll be interested to read her response.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Trawling for beer

It's 9pm and I needed some beer. Not normal beer, but interesting beer, local beer. Real ales, Kentish if possible.

There's two options, buy some in or go to the pub. I tried both.

So, where to buy real ale from a shop? The first idea was Mr Lawrence's wine place down in Crofton Park. It's about a mile away, so I jumped in the car. But it was closed.

There are a number of convenience stores in Crofton Park, as well as a Co-op, but I didn't know what they sold, so I drove on to likely target number 2: Degustation, the wine-selling deli near the station. Closed again!

That's one problem with many local places – they are open not at your convenience, but at the owners' convenience.

So I went to Mira Off Licence, on the parade of shops opposite the Barge. He had some ales! Brilliant. He had five or six different types of real ale, plus a good range of unusual lagers.

The guy on the till seemed genuinely pleased about my purchase, saying that the Ruddles Ale was particularly good.

But just as this life-enhancing local experience was getting going a teenage boy came in and came right into my private space, and asked me, with an implicit threat, to 'lend' him some money to buy his Rizlas! Is this the 'tax' that comes when you go local?

Maybe it is simply the product of the real-life exchanges – nasty and nice – that come with direct encounters with real people, rather than the avoidance that comes at the supermarkets. (Though I have had similar encounters at the New Cross Gate Sainsbury's, where local homeless people beg for the pound coin you put in your trolley.)

Next step was to check out the Wickham Arms, the pub on Upper Brockley Road. Despite it being only a few yards away from my house, I have only been to it twice in the three years I've lived there. So girlfriend and I went in on a mission to check out the local.

It was a Monday night, so a quiet one. A few blokes standing or sitting, we sat at the bar drinking our London Pride. The ale was good. After a while a bloke comes up to us and asks what we'd like to hear on the jukebox – sweet! He had paid for some credits, and was offering us a go. How welcoming can you get?

So, real ale mission accomplished. Have found a local place selling bottles of ale, and found my local pub also serves up a good pint. I also was reminded that with small, local places you do not know when they'll be open or what they will sell, until you go there.

The encounters with people along the way were interesting, both for good and bad. I was reminded that Brockley's still a tough place at times, and you have to prepared to stand up for yourself, but also it is a nicer place then I had sometimes imagined, where total strangers do you a favour for no cost or advantage.

Monday, 14 January 2008

First things first

Sometimes it is difficult to know what to write, while at other moments it is obvious. And at those times when things just seem to come together, and everything points the same way, it is usually best to give in to the inevitable and get on and write some words down.

And it was a series of such moments that brought me to start this blog.

The first was that after living in London for almost all my life the last year has seen my experience of the city change.

Suddenly, the things that I did, the places that I went and the people that I knew became increasingly local.

Instead of the city centre sports club I sporadically went to, I joined a local bike club, and started racing at a nearby velodrome. My social life changed also, with visits to other parts of London becoming less regular as I found friends with people in my locality and arranged evenings out within walking distance of where I lived.

And it was this context that two further things occurred, and these together spurred me to put pen to paper. The first of these was a book called Tescopoly.

Tescopoly was written by Andrew Simms, a policy director at a left-leaning thinktank called New Economics Foundation. He is also a board member of campaigning group Greenpeace. Hardly surprisingly, therefore, he is no great fan of Tesco.

And it is not just Tesco that Simms does not like, it is the entire system that Tesco represents, a form of big-business capitalism that he accuses of squeezing out the small and only rewarding remote and uncaring multinational corporates.

But writing a list – however long – of bad things does not an analysis make. Modern capitalism is more than simply a system designed by bad people to do evil things, as Simms repeatedly suggests, and understanding how our high streets have changed in recent years needs an explanation more complex than portraying supermarkets as scheming bad guys out to exploit the innocent consumer.

But despite my annoyance at Tescopoly’s dreary and unbalanced analysis, the book touched on a number of issues that did have some resonance.

While it might not have been the product of some evil scheme, our high streets have withered away, often being replaced by out-of-town shopping districts, which we travel to miserably along clogged roads. And because our visits to the high street and local shops have grown increasingly rare, we see less of the people that live near us than previous generations, making our communities feel less communal and a lot more threatening.

And I had this in mind when I happened across a rather wonderful thing. A blog that was all about my home town, Brockley. As I read through the posts, I felt so pleased that so many people were lavishing attention on the small part of the world that I lived in.

And this excitement was heightened because the Brockley blog isn’t just local, it is micro local. I knew the shops and restaurants reviewed, I had visited many of the shops listed, and the local issues discussed were often the same street-level concerns as those that I cared about.

Curiously, the internet, which is often thought of as a remote, unpersonal, globalised space, was drawing people from neighbouring streets together. The global was going local, and it was time for me to join in.

And so Going Local, the blog, will track my little adventure in localism, and look into the issues that are raised along the way.

It will initially look at some of the issues raised by Tescopoly. These are concerns not limited to where we shop and what we buy, but of the character of our towns and cities, where and how we work and the nature of our society as a whole.

Is Tescopoly right to claim that supermarkets have hollowed out our communities? Is it still possible to eat well at a good price and in a way that supports the community? And if our communities have been damaged is it possible to fix things? If so, how? And what would such a locality look like? And on the biggest scale, is it possible to be local in these globalised times?

I do not know the answers to these difficult questions. To my shame, I do not even know what the local shops sell. So that is my first task.