UK visit

I’m  sitting in the departure lounge at Gatwick Airport after a hectic ten days in London.

Family

I divided my time between Jude’s family at Bromar Road and Kate’s at Red Post Hill, starting at jude’s.

How lovely to see the girls, who grow taller and maturer every time I see them. My first day I went down to see years four and five at Belham  Primary perform a nativity production (written by teachers and children) . It was brilliant. I have never seen so many children perform with such energy and enthusiasm. They have an excellent music teacher (the benefit of being a newly created academy – much as I am against them). Ella, tall, serious and distinguished looking, was one of the three kings. She sang her solo beautifully  I’m sorry I missed Maddie’s show – I think she was the back end of a camel .

After three nights I moved on to Red Post Hill. In the following days I went to three shows with the grandchildren . First Grimms Fairy Tales with Kate’s family. When Otto, who was sitting next to me, said in a loud voice that he was bored and wanted to leave, I rather agreed with him.  I’m not keen on adults bounding around pretending to be children  but after the interval the tales got blacker – and better. Still, I was a bit disappointed, given the reputation of the company , Philip Pullman.

We then had lunch in Cote Brasserie, on the Thames Path, beside the river. I remember this area in the fifties when everything was derelict.  I used to step through bombsites to sing in a madrigal choir near Southwark Cathedral. Now this part of the south bank is dominated by luxury flats and restaurants. The place is buzzing with life.  I can see why this stretch of the south bank of the Thames has become a play and strolling area for Londoners and visitors. 

Then, while the Gillies and friends went home, I moved on to my next appointment: Rumpelstiltskin with the Bennion Pedley and friends. (This was my first visit to the Queen Elizabeth Hall complex. The architecture may be brute concrete 60s style but what a comfortable theatre to visit – modern bars, loos and open spaces and seats with leg room.)

The reviews of Rumpelstilskin have been a bit sniffy, but I loved it. It was completely bonkers, better appreciated by the grownups than the children maybe, full of fast moving wit and bizarre pantomime, wonderful modern lighting effects and excellent music.  The children seem to have enjoyed it, even  Maddie, sitting next to me seemed rapt.

On Christmas Eve I went with the Gillies to the East Dulwich cinema for an afternoon of popcorn and musical – Mary Poppins Returns. It was slickly produced, with some enjoyable cameo roles for Meryl Streep and Colin Firth, but to be honest I preferred the loony Rumpelstiltskin to Disney.

At last, at last, Christmas Day arrived.  I don’t think Otto in particular could have borne the suspense of much more anticipation. The BPs arrived and there was a morning of feverish present opening, excitement, frustration when things didn’t work (or parents had forgotten the batteries!) and pleasure at giving.  However, as I watched the feverish ripping open of a mountain of packages, I found it so difficult not to descend into censorious bah-humbug mode, remembering the smaller, more abstemious haul of our childhood. That did not stop me wearing my new clothes with great pleasure for the rest of the day!

Christmas lunch, cooked by Ed, was of course delicious.  A traditional affair, turkey breast and trimmings and a rich assortment of vegetables. And later, a superb Christmas cake. As usual, I ate too much….

For the two families the evening was somewhat blighted by the need to prepare for their departure, at the crack of dawn, for a sun and swimming mini-holiday in Tenerife. Sad for me, as I would have liked to see the children for longer. 

A day of technology

Kate, Jude and I had given Deb a much needed replacement iPad, a refurbished, two-year-old model (the same as mine). 

Bringing it into service and transferring all data from her old one proved a lengthy exercise. Deb had forgotten her Apple password, so trekked across London to hunt it down in her house.  First I had to bring her old iPad up to date, which required several mobile phone conversations with Deb, always a major challenge, complicated by her popping in and out of underground stations! In the end I decided to create a new password for her, and by the time she returned, her new iPad was up and running. Given that Deb has neither a truly operational phone nor a computer, the iPad is essential to her – and to us, as it is the only way to get in touch with her!

Old friends

The next day I went to Richmond to see my two oldest friends: Christine for lunch and Sally for tea. Both visits merit a blog post of their own, but suffice to say that these are two very special people for me. And happily I’m also fond of their spouses!

Christine has not been well, with a bad attack of shingles, and Roy beat me in the medical drama stakes, describing with gusto, his self diagnosis of a heart attack and the dramatic trip by taxi to the Royal Free, where he still an Important Person, in preference to an ambulance trip to Kingston hospital.

I even fitted in a trip to Finchley to have lunch with Deb and her friends Kay (who was at Oxford with her) and Alan and their daughters.  Nice food (Turkish restaurant) and good conversation.  But what I will remember was an extraordinary little exchange.

The woman at the next table came across and said, very apologetically, that she was sure she knew Kay from some time in their past. They eventually established that they had been to the same primary school in Hampstead. I fail to recognise people from last year, let alone from over 60 years ago!

Yesterday I continued my meeting up with old pals.  I had lunch in the Tate Modern with Mimi, who ran the information department of Citizens Advice for England when I was doing the same thing in Scotland.

She may be in her eighties now, but Mimi is still an astute, energetic and amusing friend.  The food in the Members’ Room was indifferent (Mimi is going to pursue this!) but we sat for hours nattering, and then wandered round some of this huge gallery and took the lift to the top to gaze (with mixed feelings) at the rapidly changing landscape of London.  We were somewhat baffled that people could have bought at huge prices the apartments beside the Tate. I wonder if they knew that the Blavatnik Building would give people a prime view of their sitting rooms. I’m not a fan of the architecture of the Tate Modern and many of its rooms leave me cold, but we whizzed through these and concentrated on a few with old favourites or new discoveries.

We talked of our love of travel.  I confessed to Mimi that, despite my daughters’ misgivings – health permitting – I wanted to visit Iran and visit beautiful towns like Shiraz and Yazd.  It seems a logical next step having loved the Islamic architecture of Rajasthan and Istanbul. “Ah yes,” said Mimi. “A good idea – I went there a couple of years ago”!  She has given me the contact details for her excellent guide, so maybe I will manage to set this up for the autumn of 2019.

Brexit and Uber

Like my last trip to London I indulged in several Uber trips, in an effort to conserve my energy.  I hit particularly lucky with the three drivers, from Bulgaria, Rumania and Poland, who were all interesting to talk to. All three said how much they enjoyed being Uber drivers, because of the flexibility in working hours and the people they met.

Inevitably conversation turned in all three cases to Brexit.  All three were Remainers, although interestingly the Bulgarian was the most diffident.  He had studied economics before coming to the UK he said, and if he found it difficult to understand the complexities of the Brexit possibilities, how could other people make informed decisions? So he was for leaving such decisions to elected representatives rather than referendums.

The Pole divided his time between being an Uber driver and builder. He would personally be OK, he said, as there became a shortage of Polish builders (he has the right to stay already), but he reckoned it was a complete and utter catastrophe for Britain.

Given the problems with the Gatwick Express, I took an airport minicab back to Gatwick.  This was not an Uber driver and unlike the others, he was not particularly friendly and drove too fast.

Whatever the wrongs to the Uber system, I have to confess that I do find using it greatly aids my  rushed visits and I enjoy my chats.

My habit of talking to strangers

I’m finishing this entry in the evening, after a very long day – the plane was held up for over an hour with a mechanical problem. Having opted for Special Assistance, I was in a warm bus beside the plane.  I felt sorry for other passengers possibly standing in an overcrowded departure lounge.

I was sitting beside a French couple who had been on my plane to Gatwick.  As usual I got into conversation with them… … Two of their children live here, so they have just had a complicated Christmas with some relatives who spoke spoke only English, others who spoke only – not quite sure which – Indian language, and her husband who speaks only French. We have exchanged contact details so I look forward to meeting up with them again.

 

Taxis in London

Given various aches and disabilities and a busy schedule, I spent a minor fortune on taxis during my week in London. Most of them were cars booked with the Uber app.

What, you say, you are using Uber?! – cars that are part of that irresponsible, global corporation, managed by bullies, ignoring employment laws and with inadequate driver background checks?  Yes, I suspect that a lot of that is true and that if I were a principled person perhaps I should stick to (unaffordable) black cabs when in London. I have friends who refuse to download the Uber app out of principle. That would certainly be the position of my sister, Deb, if she owned a smartphone.

Ironically I was in London when the furore broke out when TFL (Transport For London) said it was not going to renew Uber’s licence, which expires on Saturday. They are probably right, that Uber has been consistently ignoring or not complying with rules. That seems to be generally the view of Labour leaders such as Sadiq Khan and Corbyn. Oh dear, am I going to be on the side of Conservatives? I am hoping that TFL and Uber will talk and that Uber quickly reforms rather than lose its licence.

That was the view of the Uber drivers I used this week, including one who had been a manager in TFL for 20 years before taking early retirement three months ago and starting work as an Uber driver. They all said they valued their independence – the ability to choose when and where to drive. What about the lack of sickness pay or paid holidays, I asked. Well, that is the same for all self-employed people, was the reply. One driver added that uber had a reasonable scheme you could pay into to get cash if sick for more than a few days. They all acknowledged that the Uber corporation could do better, but were confident that concessions, such as better security checks by an organisation authenticated by TFL, could be made and that the licence would not be terminated.

I see no problem about forcing Uber to reform its security checks but I do not understand enough to know whether they are right in saying that drivers are employees rather than self-employed.

The fact of the matter is, with lots to do between grandchildren going to school in the morning and coming back in the afternoon, and a painful left foot and ankle, I needed to use cars to get around. Black cabs are not plentiful south of the river and are prohibitively expensive. To get a Uber car using the app on my phone is so simple. There was always one available a few minutes away, even in south London and, rather childishly, I enjoy watching the icon of the car on map gratifyingly approaching (well, with some exceptions!). The drivers were all polite, pleasant and usually sociable. It is so handy not having to find money; provided you have already have set up an uber account you simply click on confirm. Above all, it is so very much cheaper!

Being me, I chatted with the drivers. Yes, I know you are not surprised, son-in-law 🙂  There was a Sinhalese, several West Africans, and from Europe a Bulgarian, Greek and Pole.

I had a particularly aimable conversation with the Bulgarian about food.  He had taken a family group for a long weekend to Avignon and enthused about the way the French savoured what they were eating over leisurely meals, and loved the use of fresh ingredients.  He likened this to eating in Bulgaria. He then went on to talk about the history of Bulgaria, with some pride and affection.  When we reached my daughter’s house, he leapt out to help me from the car, shook my hand and thanked me for such an entertaining ride!

When the drivers heard I live in France the subject of Brexit invariably came up.  I was quite surprised that they had all voted Remain, unlike the Black Cab driver who dredged up all the usual accounts of immigrants wasting resources, telling me that 75% of births in an Essex hospital had been Polish births. No point telling him that other EU countries account for about 5% of births in NHS hospitals, though granted this figure may be higher in Essex.

The Sinhalese driver, for example, said quite calmly that it was his humble view that Europe contributed much in the way of human rights and social protection. Others talked with some horror of the potentially disastrous effect on the economy.

The Sierra Leonean driver came first to Europe as a political refugee in the nineties and was placed in Holland.  He spoke with admiration about the way the Dutch government set about integrating refugees and putting them on a fast track to learning the language.  He took out Dutch nationality with gratitude. Then he met and married an English woman.  They had one child but then moved to England to be nearer her family.  The two subsequent children already have British nationality, but now he is going to have to apply for it for himself and the first child.  I had not realised the cost has gone up to £1700.  I took a look at the online forms but they are so complex it is hard to establish without detailed study what the exact figures are, but I can imagine that whatever the exact figure this will hit hard for friends of the driver where all five members need to get dual nationality.

Now I am back in France and currently dealing with the fact that once again my English card has been blocked.  Not because of all these Uber trips, it turns out, but because I took a £45 black cab trip (using their app, mytaxi) from my daughter’s house to Gatwick Airport.

 

 

London visit

The past week has whizzed by in a hectic but satisfying series of events in London.

I came primarily to attend a party celebrating the launch of a book, but packed in shoe shopping, visiting an old friend and undertaking some fruitful family research.

And of course I was able to spend some time with my two families (and my sister, Deb). I managed to walk each child to school at least once.

Amazingly three of the four are, at least in theory, in new schools. Only Willow (nearly 6) has moved from Reception to year one in the same building. Otto (7) has moved to the nearby Dulwich Village Junior School – in essence a continuation of the infants school.

Ella (nearly 8) made the biggest move, from her local primary (which is struggling) to Belham Primary, a new school (opened 2015) nearer Peckham. Several of her friends have also moved, but she has already made new ones – one of the reasons for moving her. Ella’s and Otto’s schools are academies (in the same group, sharing the same head teacher)  I don’t approve of the move from direct local authority control to academies, but it does appear that these are two good, dynamic schools with enthusiastic staff and happy children

Maddie (4 last April) has also started primary school (hard to believe). There was not a place for her at Belham, but she is on the waiting list and with a sister now there should move up the list. Meanwhile,  rather than move her twice, Ed and Jude have kept her on at her excellent but private (so expensive!) nursery school, which has a small private infants school attached. What a luxury: to be in a class of 15, with lessons in French and swimming, excellent meals and lovely purpose-built buildings. What a shock when she finally moves to the state system with classes twice the size! But for the moment it really suits Maddie, who had been totally opposed to the idea of school and is anyhow very young to be starting. She loves it and gives breathless accounts of the day which seem to be cycles of play, tidy up time, bit of learning, more play …

What is nice is that all four are happy at school, have plenty of friends and are (on the whole) enjoying education. While I was staying with the Gillies (I divided my time between the two households)  Otto, who struggles with numbers, brought home a very grand certificate for perserverance in maths, presented in front of the school.  Bravo Otto, keep on trying.

Otto and Willow also have a busy week of activities: ballet, individual swimming lessons and taikwondo. I watched Otto’s taikwomdo class and was converted from sceptic to enthusiast – at least for Otto in these early stages. There is a lot of emphasis on qualities like concentration and balance

 

 

Battersea Park

A lovely Sunday in Battersea Park (which is unrecognisable from my childhood). The children weaved around, narrowly avoiding runners. They both learned to cycle young – Willow was scarcely three when she started. Then they took advantage of the relative calm (the fine weather had not been forecast) to take out a pedallo.

I the park is beautifully landscaped and we lunched at the Italian cafe, watching a young family of coots, whose nest was feet away from us. And to complete the menagerie, two scavenging storks landed on nearby cafe tables.

Horniman Museum

There was to be a combined Gillies and Bennion-Pedley trip to the Horniman Museum. Complicated by the fact that the two households operate on entirely different clocks: by 9am the Gillies have been up for several hours and this is the required hour for expeditions, while the Bennion-Pedleys normally get going an hour or two later. A further complication was that by now I was back in Bromar Road, while my scooter was still in Village Way.

Result: a preliminary walk by the Gillies, which meant that by the time they reached the museum (and Steve had rushed back to get my scooter), Ella and Ed had already done a museum tour and Jude (with Maddie) and I were ready for our second cup of coffee. So, it was decided that we would skip the museum this time and just tour the grounds.

I am not too disappointed by this. I have heard about the Horniman from both Deb and Jude and know I will be back to what is by all accounts a quirky but entertaining mixture of natural history and musical instruments. The gardens turned out to be delightful, even though the nature trail will be for another day as will be the animal collection, temporarily closed.

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The views across south east London are stunning.

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Scooting round London

My scooter has made a couple of successful local outings, notably to Goose Green children’ s play ground. It manages the up hills reasonably and a certain amount of appalling pavements. Perhaps it’s biggest challenge is navigating round the many trees which are cheerfully uprooting the pavements. No, actually the biggest challenge is scooting alongside Ella, who overtakes on her scooter at great speed.

Today it was put to the real test: I decided to combine visiting my friend Val in Shepherd’s Bush with clothes shopping in the vast Westfield shopping complex nearby.

The real eye opener was how incredibly eager everybody, especially railway staff, are to help. At Denmark Hill Station I tried to explain that I could in fact walk and if I couldn’t manage to lift it onto the train by myself I could ask for help. But oh no, they insisted on helping me into the lift and producing a ramp for me to ride up into the train. I felt an absolute fraud.

Thereafter fellow passengers rushed to help at every opportunity.  I have already observed when struggling up station stairs with my suit case that tall, black hoodies score higher than men in suits in their willingness to help out.

What would have been a nightmare on foot, searching for shops in vast ill signposted malls was almost a pleasure on wheels.

Up the Shard

Monday is Jude and Ella’s routine day with Charlie and her two children, Henry and Daisy. Today it was decided to go up the Shard – for my benefit. This turned out a real treat, despite the grey, miserable weather. I have always admired its slender spire, above London Bridge.

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Entering the Shard, with security to match that at Heathrow Airport, and then taking the super-rapid lifts was a bit surreal. Once at the top the views were breathtaking.

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At the same time it was sad to see landmarks like St Pauls dwarfed by the sea of mediocre at best but more often downright ugly piles. (I prefer it as I remember it from early childhood – surrounded by bomb sites.)

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Even the gherkin, one of the few modern buildings I like is in the process of being hidden by more recent growths.

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The Thames and the complex network of railways provided visual relief from the architectural desecration.

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We finished the outing with a drink at the magnificent seventeenth century Galleried George Inn in Southwark.

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2 Bromar Road

The completed extension to the house is magnificent nd eminently practical.I stayed in the pre-improvements house in January, visited in May when the family was camping above the building site and followed the ongoing trials, courtesy of the internet. Now it is a treat to see the transformation to this quirky Victorian house.

The sitting room remains a stylish reminder of the past, though much improved by newly restored bay window and greeny blue Farrow and Ball walls. But from the sitting room you are beckoned through the gleaming white kitchen to a large dining/family room and to the little back garden beyond.

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The dining table has become the centre of family life during the day. Ella sits painting and drawing, Maddie looks on benignly from her bouncy chair and Jude and I revel in the cosiness of a heated floor the stairs down to the basement are a real feature; they are reflected in the glass floor beside them.

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Downstairs, what will be another family/play room is still a stylish empty space. The children love this – plenty of room to run around yelling. And the bedroom where I will stay is still full of  unpacked boxes, boxes full of baby things waiting to be passed on, and a motley collection of wood and paint tins.

 

Very sensibly – though frustrating for them – Ed and Jude have called a halt to further work until their finances have recovered a bit.