Sunday, December 09, 2007

A long weekend with the family


High above London, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Been away from the blog for a while, spending the last few days with the family at Fiona’s house in west London. Fred and I were due to come over to see Marc Almond at the IndigO2, a concert hall at the Millennium Dome on Saturday. This gave Mum the idea of coming up to London to see us as we will not see each other for Christmas and Mum has not seen Fred for quite a while (since last Christmas, in fact). With all of us here, Diana decided to come down as well, with her two sons so we could all celebrate a sort-of early Christmas together. The fact that there were eight of us and only two beds in a cramped basement apartment was something we would have to sort out nearer the time.

As it happened, we decided we would go and see Lucy and David on Thursday evening, staying the night, before going over to Fiona’s on Friday. Mum would leave on Saturday, so it was only Friday which was to prove tricky. Hotels, at over 100 pounds a night, even around Paddington, was not really an option. So, this meant three people sharing one bed. Two another, James and myself on settees and Fred, valiantly, on the floor. Still, the money we saved on a hotel was much better used as a contribution to a very nice dinner we all had at the Bumpkin restaurant (English organic country foods) around the corner from Fiona’s house.

Before that, Mum had arranged for us to go to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, where we would go skating on an artificial ice rink and then go on a Big Wheel. On Thursday, it rained all day and this was the expectation for the whole weekend, so not the best prospects for skating in the outdoors. However, a storm came through on Thursday night, which kept us awake in Lucy’s converted loft, but this blew away the clouds and we had a lovely sunny day on Friday to enjoy the delights of London.

It was great fun getting onto the ice again, although Fred, Diana, Fiona and myself were a generation older than anyone else on the ice. Harry was going onto the ice for the first time, whereas James was an old hand, Thomas, brave but a bit uncertain. Mum was taking the photos from the side, some of which worked out very well. I remembered that as children for a special Christmas treat we would be taken up to London to go ice skating at the indoor rink at Queensway, the other side of Hyde Park. This must have been over 30 years ago now. I also remember quite well falling very heavily a couple fo times on the ice, bumping my head so badly that I was almost knocked out. Not such a happy memory. Still, Thomas and Harry were slipping up on their backsides without any problems, while we older ones skated safely enough not to risk a fall. Poor James managed to get himself a nose bleed without bumping into anyone or anything and I still don’t exactly know the reason why.

After the skating we walked around the German Christmas market (my third in just over a week after Birmingham and Stockholm), this time helping ourselves to a German hot dog (very long red or white sausages) whilst Harry went off to meet Father Christmas. The sun was getting lower in the sky by now, so a good time to get a ride in the big wheel, with high views across Hyde Park to the skyscrapers and landmarks across London, a big orange sun, shining across from the south west. Perfect. Despite the mild temperatures, our visit to Winter Wonderland, with the family really did impart a Christmas spirit. Very good.

Time then to enter Oxford Street at the northern end of Hyde Park to join in the Christmas shoppers in the annual scrum along England’s most famous, but almost always disappointing shopping street. James had walked around London on his own for most of the previous day and wanted to show us some of the things he would quite like to buy, including a very nice, but thin, fake leather jacket from Burtons. I thought that as he was due to go to Camden Market the next day, maybe he should wait with making a purchase. A pity because as it turned out, Camden Market was rubbish and when he went back to Burtons to buy this jacket, his size had already sold out. Typical.

We eventually made it down to Regent Street to see the famous and, again, disappointing lights, having a look at the shop window displays, where Selfridges and House of Fraser’s stood out as being by far the best. I am not sure I like the modern shop décor. There is a lot of black everywhere, offset by some purpley glitter and sparkle. What happened to the clean white lines and wooden floors of the 1990’s? The lighted paper chains criss-crossing Carnaby Street were joyful and original but, in general, the efforts were not very good. The 1970’s may have been dreadfully depressing times to live through, economically speaking, but at least they did Christmas well. None better, it seems, than 1973 when Slade were Number One with Merry Christmas Everybody and Wizzard hung at Number Four with I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. It has been a little bit downhill every year since then. And, now in 2007, we can routinely expect the winner of X-Factor to be the Christmas Number One, this having been the case the last 2-3 years, apparently.

So… that was Friday and now it is Sunday and I am on the Eurostar on its way from St Pancras International to Paris. I left at 17.30 and am due to be in Paris at 19.45 (UK time). Diana, James and Harry are on a train going the other way, to Sheffield. They can expect to arrive there at 21.15, a full one-and-a-half hours later than I get to Paris. This is aprtly because I am now on the very very fast high speed link to Paris, which was opened just about four weeks ago, whilst Diana and co have to make do with a ‘weekend’ timetable which has doubled the amount of time she would normally expect to take to travel between the two cities. Not that she always takes the train, she often drives, but with blocked motorways, the high price of petrol, family discounts on trains and the congestion charge have put her onto public transport. Great! Just a pity they can’t offer a better service.

Nothing to complain about my service here (traveling in Business Plus class) where I changed my ticket at the last minute, am on a ‘carbon-neutral’journey, where I am to be served locally-sourced, seasonal, organic meat and vegetables, to be followed by a Fairtrade tea or coffee. I will choose the roast chicken with bread sauce, cranberry ‘jus’, roast potatoes and winter root vegetables – pronounced ve-ge-ta-bels, in a very French way…

We left London so increadibly quickly, first through a tunnel, then through the north-eastern side of London, past the Dartford Bridge over the very wide Thames and now, after about half an hour we are already about to enter the channel tunnel. How wonderfully amazing! If only they had got their act together in Belgium and Holland with the link from Amsterdam to Brussels. Oh well… I have covered this enough times on this blog. I suppose the only gripe about the whole experience is to do with the silly airport style security measures one is subjected to before getting into the train.

And then there is St Pancras International station, opened recently by The Queen, restored to its former Victorian glory. As I mentioned to Diana, there was no money for this sort of thing in the 1970’s… They have done a really good job and renovating the old station, cleaning all its red brick walls and limestone arches and painting the vast iron struts supporting the impressive roof. But this would not be a blog if there was not a gripe and my gripe is that the vast open spaces of St Pancras have been crammed full with shops and commercial outlets, such that the public walkways are unnecessarily overcrowded. I am sure there are experts who advise on this sort of thing – the maximization of commercial exploitation of public spaces. No doubt this is how such restoration projects can be financed, but it is a pity that it so often seems to be overdone.

Anyway… dinner has arrived so I better turn my attention to the delicious meal which has just been presented to me…

… well that was dinner and very nice it was, too. Only not everything could have been locally grown seasonal food as that would not explain the delicious green peas and French beans in the salad. Oh well. We are now well into France and have just over a half an hour to go before arriving at Gare du Nord. We stopped at Calais, where a few passengers joined us, including a fey looking young man sitting diagonally opposite who is reading Proust’s Sodom et Gomorroah II... tres intellectuel… ooh la la!

So there we were at St Pancras, saying goodbye to Diana, James and Harry who were to catch their slow train to Sheffield from there, looking vat all the crowded thoroughfares on the ground floor. The place is not yet quite finished and they have done a great job there.

Before that, it was Saturday, a day when it rained cats and dogs all day. Fred was to accompany James to Camden Market, while I was to watch Thomas in his football trials. Mum was due to leave and Fiona was to work at her shop. She did, and despite it being one of the last shopping days before Christmas, hardly anyone (apart from family) came into the shop, let alone buy anything. I joined Fred and James as they set off along the Regent Canal from Golborne Road in the direction to Camden, getting as far as Little Venice and Maida Vale before turning back to catch a bus back to where I could watch Thomas. It poured with rain and I did not have an umbrella. I was well protected in my thick jacket but after a while it did become quite unpleasant. I eventually caught a couple of number 6 buses and a very delayed 316 bus to arrive almost outside Fiona’s shop, where Mum was standing outside under the covers having a fag. Thomas came back from his football practice, but then without his tracksuit bottoms and his mobile phone and, running a bit late for his football trials, I was dispatched to recover said valuables, which I did eventually after the intervention of a kindly football manager who had found Tom’s things and put them into safekeeping. How silly could Thomas be to leave these things behind, I was thinking to myself until I realized that this was also typical Charles behaviour.

I found Thomas at the park, playing for the yellow team against the reds, in the mud with the rain teeming down. Such are the conditions in which English youth frequently have to train and hone their footballing skills. However, given that the Wembley turf on which they recently lost 2-3 to Croatia looked so much like that on which Thomas was playing, there is even less reason to excuse that abject failure.

Thomas played well enough up front in attack but was often frustrated by the wily defenders who invariably took the ball from him. Tom was encouraged by his trainer to play the ball around to his fellow teammates a bit more. This was a higher standard of football than what he normally experiences and whereas in lower leagues he could often get past defenders using his skills, this will not be the case anymore as he progresses through the higher levels of the game. He came back very muddy.

In the meantime, I was told by the trainer that I should not, must not take photos of Thomas playing football. He had sent out parental consent forms to the parents of each child but had not received any replies and without those signed forms, he could be in trouble from any parent who objected to their son being photographed by anyone. N the meantime, you cannot walk down any street or alleyway in England without a security camera secretly filming you without your knowledge or permission.

Back at home later, we were treated to a delicious cheese soufflé by Diana, while watching Strictly Come Dancing, where Matt di Angelo went to pieces and Letitia Dean got far too many points for just trying. Alesha is suffering a bit for always being top-of-the-class and Gethin is taking advantage of that by being marked up more on his improvement than what he actually does. He is still a long way off the standard set last year by Mark Ramprakash, in my opinion. I am still rooting for Alesha.

Fred and I were in a bit of a hurry to get out of the house after the last dance as we had a date in the old Millennium Dome, namely with Marc Almond, performing his Christmas concert at the IndigO2, the very reason for being in London in the first place. The publicity had told us it was a 20 minute ride on the Jubilee line from Bond Street, and that was just four stops on from Notting Hill Gate and, sure enough, it was a very quick and easy journey, despite what Mum had read in the papers about access being very difficult. TAKE public transport, must be the answer.

The Jubilee line is very modern and efficient and it brought us to an icon of the new millennium, the great dome, with its lighted struts. The full wonder of the dome could not really be appreciated from the short distance from the tube exit to the front doors, but it was all very modern and architecturally wonderful. But as soon as we entered, it became like a modern shopping centre, with food halls and shops and crowded spaces. The IndigO2 space was off to the left and I collected my tickets, finding only one ticket to my amazement as I had obviously forgotten to order a ticket for Fred. A good thing Marc wasn’t sold out!!!

To be honest, it was not really a Marc Almond venue. When you have seen him in converted churches and old intimate theatres, music halls and Belgian squares, to find him in a high-tech venue such as this, one moreover which was built as an afterthought to the main concert arena (where Take That were playing last night) felt a bit off. No queues of fans waiting to be the first to get near the stage, little feeling of exclusiveness, it felt more like consumption, as if we were here for a big burger or a branded multi-national coffee or designer T shirts.

Oh well, we found our friends Dino and Paul and Yvonne and Ange and even Rosemary from myspace. There was Niall from Ireland, and the tall Germans, Eleanor, and Sharon from flickr and assorted other familiar faces from the world of Marc Almond. Eventually, we would run into the Brighton lesbians, Julia and so, which was nice as I could not easily understand why they would not be there.

And then there was Marc… the fabulous Marc Almond, dressed as ever in black, his hair now dyed black and always with those beady eyes and that cheeky smile. So reassuring that there is forever Marc, even more so since his motorcycle accident of three years ago. However cool one might be about seeing him yet again, it is always a wonderful moment when he takes to the stage, the small man in the bright lights and starts singing and the magic comes all over us once again.

Arrived in Paris, checked into Hotel St Quentin, near Gare du Nord, rady for an earlyish night before a 06.38 train journey to Grenoble tomorrow morning... more about Marc later...

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