Category Archives: incidents

Tango on the Edgware Road

Thursday night and I’m treating myself to a shawarma at Café Helen on the Edgware Road. The place is bustling, customers coming in for two or three shawarma at a time, the guy on duty slapping the flatbreads out, piling on the meat and rolling them up at a good clip. Outside, there’s the sound of sirens, and a few bad-looking boys running up and down the street. Yeah, I’m thinking, West London’s got edge. You don’t have to go east of the Fleet for that gritty urban vibe.

I eat it waiting for the number six, which takes its sweet time. Just as it rolls into view, I feel a sharp slap on the back of my head. Quick check: I’m not drunk, haven’t walked into anything. What the fuck just happened? I look around. There’s a shabby-looking old bloke standing next to me. Did you see anything, I ask? Did somebody just throw something at me? Yes, he gestures, from the flats, up above. From the flats? Two blokes sitting outside a shisha café seem to concur. I look up at the windows, down at the ground, try to see what hit me, but my bus is here and I get on.

Another man, already sitting on the bus, says to me it was him, he hit you. I look through the door of the bus and the old bloke’s still there, giving me the finger and mouthing obscenities. Safe from the possibility of hitting him in revenge, I give him the finger back and a few fuckyous too. The bus pulls away, I sit down at the front and a friend calls. He’s in a club and I can hardly hear him, but I try to explain what just happened, loudly and with several swearwords.

The bus pulls up at the lights and the driver turns round to me. It’s not personal, he says. Don’t let it affect your mind. He does that all the time. He’s banned from the buses. One time they arrested him up here, he was saying Saddam Hussein was going to blow us all up. They should keep him locked up for saying stuff like that (sure enough, Paddington Green is just around the corner). I’m relieved at least to know that it’s not personal, that getting tangoed on the Edgware Road is almost routine. Why does he do it? the driver asks. Maybe it’s the credit crunch, he says.

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Fly tipping in Maida Vale

We walk most of the way home, in stages, mostly owing to our incompetence in deciphering the actual effects of a bus strike. Halfway up Elgin Avenue, we’re surprised by a nervous, birdlike woman in glasses, crossing the road and leaving a black bin bag full of rubbish on the kerb. ‘It’s this rubbish,’ she says. ‘Someone keeps leaving bags of rubbish outside the front door. Do you live locally?’ At first I think she’s trying to get up some kind of local campaign against the rubbish. (‘er, yeah, further up the road, actually’) and then realise that she realises that she’s been caught in the act of transferring the rubbish from her own front doorstep to someone else’s.

‘There are these black [for one terrible moment we both think she’s going to say ‘people’] bins up the road you’re supposed to put them in,’ she says, but I’m not going up there at night.’ L looks at her and asks, ‘so you’re just going to leave that there, are you?’ ‘Well, what am I supposed to do?’ she asks, looking simultaneously embarrassed, arrogant and slightly resentful in the way that posh people in London often do, and we walk on, laughing.

Just over twenty fours hours later we’re in the Tandoori Centre, where a woman with similarly expensively-educated vowels is on a drunken loop, repeating questions to the very patient takeaway staff, asking them where they’re from. She says it’s nice that countries like India have their own beer. ‘Ten years I’ve been living here, just around the corner. Nearly ten years,’ she says again and again until she gets her takeway and leaves.

Bring back the flowers

A tiny recent delight in my life has been the window of the office at the top of the Bakerloo line escalators at Piccadilly Circus. All summer there has been a display of beautiful origami paper flowers made from pocket tube maps and other bits of underground paraphernalia, growing up from the windowsill and hanging down from the ceiling. Yesterday they were briefly replaced by a display of polar bears and penguins. Today: nothing. An empty window and a bald bloke hard at work behind it.

I asked someone on duty at the station (‘Do you work here?’ ‘I sometimes wish I didn’t.’) what that was all about then, and she said that it had been the station’s entry in the Underground in Bloom competition: a manager’s son had made all the flowers. The competition was won on Monday by typically suburban Sudbury Hill station.

I don’t suppose they dug the flowers up at any of the other losing stations. With Nils Norman‘s work also still on display all around Piccadilly Circus, one of the most typically tourist-busy stations on the tube was an understated oasis of amusing art.

J’ouvert

J’ouvert, from jour ouvert, the day’s opening, pronounced jouvé, as in youth. Six in the morning on Sunday, the very beginning of children’s day, a hundred or so people are loitering at the top of Ladbroke Grove, a small stall is doing a slow but steady business in coffees and roti, and a couple of floats are getting ready. Almost everyone but us is wearing paper boiler suits and cradling containers of liquid and bags of flour.

The floats trundle off down Ladbroke Grove at a carnival pace. One float has a full steel band, one little kid doing the simple rhythms, full of that musical concentration that borders on nerdiness. The second float is just drums: drums made out of bins and gas canisters. The players loop complex rhythms which comeback round to a unified triplet: doof – doof – doof, before flying off against each other again.

The crowd follow, coalesce and start covering each other in flour, talcum powder, washing up liquid and mud squirted from squeezy ketchup bottles. A few have eggs, some have (I hope water-based) paint. It’s all good-natured, childish fun, at least partly because it’s first thing in the morning, and no-one’s had enough to drink yet to turn nasty. Occasionally someone darts off out of the crowd in hot pursuit of another. Two kids slip and fall over in exactly the same place as one chases the other. This is the time to get caught in the crossfire. A kid in a pristine white muscle T and gold chain is laughing till he gets mud on his shirt and trainers. A bloke, clearly woken by the noise, emerges from his basement flat, looking with bleary eyes at the procession.

The Caribbean tradition of j’ouvert, the opening of the carnival with a messy, smeary food fight is the kind of phenomenon with multiple origins: a spiritual ceremony warding off the bad ones; a tradition borne of an identity-concealing rebellion in Port of Spain; or even an imported Indian ritual. This j’ouvert is a relatively recent addition to the Notting Hill Carnival, organised by CD Jam, a small collective of Carnival performers. Like all traditions, Carnival reinvents itself continually, adding new aspects as others are taken away. The procession itself used to go past the end of our street: alas no more, as it all gets corralled below the Harrow Road.

The CD Jam crew have a little truck laden with mud, water and flower, to replenish the revellers. Little clouds of flour smoke up explosively from around the steel pans. We leave them as they go under the Westway. Later, someone tells me that on the TV news they saw a policeman, with his uniform all covered in mud and flour. That’s gotta beat borrowing his helmet for a dance.

A blockage at the Elephant

Several things have already gone wrong with our journey by the time we surface at the Elephant & Castle looking for a bus. Unfortunately, the bus at the stop is decanting its entire cargo of bemused-looking passengers: a woman in an electric wheelchair has parked it right in front of two buses side by side, blocking the traffic back up to Kennington, in protest at not being allowed on a bus already jampacked with passengers and pushchairs.

‘You’re so selfish,’ they shout. ‘There’s thousands of disabled people in London,’ she shouts back, before plugging her headphones back in and remaining there, impervious, impassive. Someone tells her to fuck her mother, she tells them to fuck off. Someone suggests moving her. ‘Anyone touch me, and I’ll do you for assault,’ she shouts. Her face relaxes into an unhappy mask of defiance. ‘She’s an attention seeker, she’s done this before.’ A boy with a blingy bluetooth earpiece starts circling her. ‘If you’re going to assault me,’ he asks, ‘where’s your blade?’ shuffling his hands up and down in his pockets.

One of the buses backs up: she follows it, blocks it, and parks her wheel right back against the other one. It looks heavy, but it’s a nippy vehicle, a tight turner. Eventually, a bus comes along in the outside lane, the driver kicks some cones and barriers out of the way and establishes a third channel for buses and cars to sluggishly filter through.  We jump on a bus taking the third way. It’s only when we reach the New Kent Road that we hear the sound of sirens approaching, coppers to sort out another fucked-up Sunday in South London. It takes some balls to gridlock the Elephant. Who is she? Why is she so angry?

Off the list

Yesterday I was offered my column in Sight and Sound back. Nick James wrote:

Dear Danny

I’m glad to say that the position apropos your column has changed. I did over-react on this issue, but I want to take this opportunity to explain my reasoning.

Carefully argued criticism of the BFI is one thing, one-line uncontextualised personal sniping is another. It is the latter that is alien to Sight & Sound’s ethos, and that’s why we felt there was a problem of association.

However, you didn’t write the one-liner in Sight & Sound, and I agree that the issue of freedom of speech is too important to be affected by a one-line jibe, so I’m happy to offer you your column back, should you decide to accept it, along with a personal apology from me for the anxiety caused.

Nick

I won’t say much else except that the future of the BFI is indeed a matter for careful and serious, not to mention open and honest, argument.

Thank you to everyone who offered support, both publicly and privately, not just for me, but for S&S‘s editorial integrity. Sight and Sound‘s a great magazine and I’m delighted to still be writing for it.

On being blacklisted

I used to write a column called ‘Downloads’ for Sight and Sound, about online movies. It wasn’t a very big or important column, it was tucked away at the back of the magazine in the reviews section, but I enjoyed writing it, and some of the people who read it told me that they enjoyed reading it.

On Friday I got the following email from the editor, Nick James:

Dear Danny

I have some not good news for you, so I’ll get straight to business.

Since your call for Amanda to resign – something I’m sure you know she took very personally – your column, fine as it is, has become more trouble to me than it’s worth. To have someone who is on very public record of having called for her head as a regular contributor to S&S makes it look like we tacitly agree with you. We can’t do that.

The upshot is that we will pay you for the latest instalment, though it will not appear, and I’m afraid that will be that.

I’ll save any further obsequies for when I next see you.

Nick

My hurt feelings and anger aside, there are several things about this that are rather disturbing for anyone concerned about the general state of paranoia inside the BFI and the state of Sight and Sound itself.

The “very public” denunciation James is referring to is a jokey new year’s post I made on this blog at the beginning of this year. Now, I read the stats, so I know just how few people read what’s written here. Until today, the post that refers to Nevill has been read (rather pathetically) just 24 times. That’s a lot fewer people than I’ve personally had conversations in the pub with about Amanda Nevill (including Nick James) during the same time period. If you were to do the strictest, most suspicious Google search you could, that is, my name and Amanda Nevill’s name together, you wouldn’t find the post that James refers to. Contrary to her assertion in the Evening Standard, it seems that Nevill doesn’t have much of a sense of humour if two dozen other people have heard the joke.

I very much doubt that James, or even Nevill, found or read the post themselves: I suspect that someone has been on a fishing mission both inside and outside the BFI, and decided to make a point now of sacrificing someone. It seems likely when you consider the chronology. The post in question was published on the 3rd January this year. I was first asked to write the Downloads column a month later, in February 2007 for the April 2007 issue of Sight and Sound. Not once between February and now has James or any member of Sight and Sound staff indicated in any way to me that what I write on my personal blog might be an issue that affects the magazine. James’ letter on Friday afternoon (the BFI’s favourite time for delivering bad news) was the first I’d heard of it.

How does it feel to be blacklisted? Not big and important, because there are certainly people who have said more and worse about Nevill than me who continue to curate, write and programme for the BFI. Which is as it should be: an organisation with the BFI’s national importance, subject to inevitable controversy, should hardly be restricting its activities to working only with people who unequivocally personally support the director.

What I wrote about for Sight and Sound is completely unrelated to matters of the management of the BFI. I’ve probably got a few opinions about Romanian film that James wouldn’t like to condone, but they’re hardly relevant to a column that’s mostly about YouTube. What’s really worrying for anyone who cares about the BFI (as bizarrely enough I, and perhaps some of the twenty-four of you, still do) is the insane paranoia of the BFI’s current management and the very negative implications for the editorial independence and journalistic integrity of the seventy-five-year-old journal of record that is Sight and Sound.