Monthly Archives: July 2010

Silly ways to use the London Cycle Hire scheme

The London Cycle Hire scheme, supported by a well-known bank, is almost upon us.As it needs a nom de plume, how about Velondon?

The purpose of the scheme, to replace short taxi and tube rides with jaunts on bicycles that are heavy and ugly enough to be undesirable to thieves, is laudable in the extreme and it is to be hoped that eventually the scheme can echo the knock-on effects of Paris’ Velib – of creating an unbreakable case for better cycling infrastructure, separated lanes and world peace between those on two wheels and four. We can dream.

That’s all well and good, but what silly things could you do with the idea of picking up a bike in one part of London and dropping it off in another? Here are a few ideas for Cycle Hire-related japes that – hopefully – won’t get you into trouble with the rozzers.

1. See how far you can ride on in half an hour before returning it to the same place. The first thirty minutes are free. Can you make it outside Zone 2 and back again without incurring a fee?

2. Take a mate in the magazine rack on the front. This looks better if rider and passenger have got a hood on and are riding the wrong way up City Road in rush hour swaying from side to side. If they get stuck, you simply dock the bike and leave them there and hope the next punter doesn’t mind too much.

3. Leave random notes in the spokes of bikes for users to find. It could be a way of setting up a blind date or, through the gradual accumulation of answers to geography questions, identify the London Cycle Hire scheme capital cities quiz king.

4. Organise a flash mob style ride, where as many of the bikes as possible are undocked simultaneously and ridden around Regent’s Park, creating a kind of endless circle of riders.

5. Take one to Paris. Undock early in the morning, take on Eurostar and spend the day confusing the French by asking for directions to London landmarks. Take a photo for Boris.

6. (this one is quite a good idea I think) – create a way of logging the journeys each bike makes and invite riders to contribute stories of the adventures they had on them. To paraphrase Suede, after a few weeks all the love and poison of London will be worn into the grooves of these two-wheeled iron horses.

Anyone got any others?

Stereolab at the Powerhaus

Stereolab on stage – Laetitia Sadier and Tim Gane centre and right

For a band much-acclaimed for their eclectic and dynamic body of work, determined independence and massively collectible output, Stereolab are often overlooked on the list of great live acts. But this does them a disservice. For a time in the 1990s they were the best live band in Britain, and without them this period would have been a long, dull slog through the most dismal excesses of Britpop. Stereolab delivering us gig-goers from an unrelenting diet of Echobelly and Sleeper and this must be added to the list of reasons to hold them to the ears of our bosoms, or something.

Summer in 1993 was hot and concerts were sticky affairs. But my brother had picked up a copy of Peng!, Stereolab’s 1992 debut LP after a chance overhearing in a record shop and bought it home. He and I were quickly hooked by the way it rocked along in parts and grooved in others, intrigued by the French-English lyrics and, most of all, enthralled by the way the entire LP, like Stereolab’s entire output, relied only on one chord. The famous Chord X was employed throughout the bands career and across many excellent albums, but never in such a pure and sprightly way as it was on Peng! So when we spied their name in the small ads in NME a Friday night in Islington at the Powerhaus was in order.


Neither of us could rustle up any idiot friends so it was just the two of us, unusually. Maybe this is one of the reasons I remember it so fondly. The Powerhaus occupied a site now filled with a Halifax and an All Bar One, and was one of the last remnants of a time when now hugely bourgeois Upper Street was more like the southern part of Camden High Street. It’s actually on a street officially called Islington High Street, where it segues into Liverpool Road. Other landmarks are London’s biggest news-stand and an always incredibly busy traffic crossing from Angel tube.

As still is my wont, we arrived stupidly early, before the first support had even sound-checked. Three bands for six quid. As Rocket Monkeys, like the other support band, Herzfeld heard from neither before nor since, played their set Matt and I were able to sit and talk with two friendly types sitting cross-legged on the floor of the venue. This couple, it turned out, were Laetitia (Seaya) Sadier and Tim Gane, the singer and guitarist and songwriting team behind Stereolab. Kids these days who can Twitter and Face-party Will Young or whoever it is the hell you like won’t appreciate the simple thrill of sitting and talking in this way. It felt like a treat then and it does now.

Hollar's view of Islington - Powerhaus not built yet

As the room filled Matt and I met more unusual people. First up, an older couple, already in the know about Stereolab called Dave and Wendy who we bumped into at all the best gigs for years to come afterwards. A Belgian called ‘Boods’ who pointed out London indie scenester Miki from Lush and invited us to a free gig at the old Rough Trade store in Neal’s Yard the following day that he never turned up to. It was rubbish. I’ve met dozens of people who claim to have seen the Beastie Boys play a punk set down there in 1993 when there were skaters moshing in Slam City Skates upstairs, but never anyone who yawned and scratched through the Hair and Skin Trading Company. Some things are secret for a reason.

The temperature was rising too. The Powerhaus was sweaty at the best of times and this was a near-aqueous evening. Stereolab came on and proceeded to play an electrifying set. They were always slightly too clever to attract a moshing crowd but everyone was dancing. Tim Gane’s pogoing as he played Chord X all night with a beatific look on his face was unforgettable. Laetitia and the late Mary Hanson, as beguiling a chanteuse as her partner in crime next to her, with a near-identical singing voice.

The show finished on a massive high with an extended version of Stomach Worm (on the setlist as ‘Jealousy’). It was a crashing, bashing, chordant mess by the end, as were the crowd. The Islington night air was broken by the shouts of minicab touts, the laughter of happy drunks and the noise of sirens.

Stereolab avoided the over-hyped and under-talented guitar rock scene of the 1990s and kept their credibility intact to this day. They would do perverse things: release albums with the same song played a slightly different way twice (‘We’re not adult oriented’ from ‘The Groop played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music’) and appear on The Word playing French Disko and then shy away from the fevered hype around this marvellous song. It was good but they made many better and seemed to loathe the idea of having a hit. They virtually gave away fantastic songs on limited edition 7-inches at concerts which now sell for hundreds. But Stereolab were a fabulous band then and remain so now.

The evening has long been a benchmark for excellent evenings out and for sheer musical exhilaration has never been bettered before or since.

Water by Philip Larkin


If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

From Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings, Faber & Faber Ltd, 1964. Reproduced without permission.

The doomed ducks of the Tsiribinha River

This article originally appeared in Zine Magazine, translated into Norwegian.

Who would be a duck on a river safari in Madagascar?

Animal lovers, look away now.  The story I am about to tell you is a sad tale. As many of you will already know, once you get outside of Europe, North America and Australasia the world’s culinary tastes change quickly. Food becomes spicier and ingredients get more exotic. Unusual beasties get coated in batter and deep fried. Eating sometimes becomes less about fine dining and more about winning the battle of mind over stomach.

Not that any of this is usually a problem in Madagascar. Here you find the best possible colonial legacy: a fusion of French recipes combined with rich tropical flavours and a dash of Asian invention. The Malagasy people, after all, trace their roots to South-east Asia rather than Africa. Nowhere else on earth are fresh baguettes baked in straw-roofed huts in the shade of Baobab trees.

This wasn’t the only reason my wife and I had decided to come here on honeymoon. We’d long dreamed of visiting and with flights proving expensive and the world’s fourth largest island needing several weeks to see properly this seemed the perfect opportunity. While researching the trip we ended up, somewhat unusually for a honeymoon, throwing out any ideas of luxury resorts and opting to tackle one tough adventurous journey after another. My wife has yet to fully forgive me. A week in a five-star resort, however, would not have come close to being as memorable as what we ended up doing.

After a visit to the idyllic Ile aux Nattes, where during summer months you can stand on a golden beach and watch whales breaching from the shore, we flew back to the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo. We took a bus on to the country town of Antsirabe, and then another on to Miandrivazo, a quiet riverside town. From here three-day rafting trips down the Tsiribinha River begin, passing through seriously remote areas, rural villages and troops of lemurs drinking at the waterside. Which all sounds very idyllic. It was, unless you were a duck.

Our party numbered six, twelve if you count our guide, cook, two paddlers and two random ladies who’d been invited along for the ride. In this way, Madagascar was very much like Africa. Our rafts groaned with our backpacks, people and supplies, and the low water meant that we kept getting grounded. It didn’t matter much, cruising on the river was serene, camping on the beach at night under an incredibly starry sky was a wonder and there were lots of lemurs and the odd crocodile to look at.

Unfortunately it soon became apparent that our guide had never organised a river trip before and had underestimated how long it was going to take and how much food we’d need. This information had not been received well. On the third morning, when it had just been announced that it was not to be our last morning and there was nothing for breakfast, I noticed something moving in our boat. I poked the object with my paddle. A duck poked his head above the pile of bags it appeared to have been snoozing under since we left Miandrivazo. This nice duck was not long for the world. In a bid to soothe the anger of a group of tired tourists who had not washed for the best part of a week and had just been told that not only were they late, but that they would not see several of the promised sunset at Baobab Alley at the end of the expedition, he was unceremoniously cooked up that night and served in a Canard du Tsiribinha stew. And jolly nice he was too. Sorry, Donald.

Desole, Donald

A day and a half later we limped into Morondava, way behind schedule, and sat down to what was probably the best meal of my life: chicken in a coconut sauce served with very French pomme frites. The next day my wife was taken ill with food poisoning, as were several other people on the trip. The duck, or possibly the river water used to cook him, had his revenge. The trip then went from bad to worse: our guide had offered by way of compensation to pay for us all to stay at a fine hotel in Morondava, which we had accepted. He had then, it seemed, skipped town without paying the bill. On a search for medicine for my wife in the back-streets of the town I bumped into him, and marched him back to the hotel to settle up, which he did under protest.

Baobab Alley near Morondava

We spent a few more days in town and moved on to elsewhere in Madagascar. We ate some more fine meals, saw many more lemurs including the Indri, the biggest of the lot, and even stayed in a top-end hotel or two. Madagascar remains one of my favourite places, but I tend to pass on the duck cooked in river-water stew.

Total Eclipse in Australia, November 2012

Anyone who saw the footage of eclipse hunters on Easter Island on 11 July may be wondering where they can catch a piece of daytime darkness for themselves. Locals on Easter Island will be glad to be left to get on with fixing up their Moai for the next plane-load of Polynesian pilgrims.

The bad news is that there’s a bit of a wait until the next blast of totality. The good news is that seeing it offers a chance to get into a seriously wild part of Australia. On 13 November 2012, the skies above Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and Queensland’s Cape York peninsula will darken, before the path of totality whizzes south-east past the uninhabited Kermadec Islands (who knew where they were?) and across the international date line into 14 November.

Back a bit, Bush Tucker

Those familiar with Les Hiddins, better known as the immortal Bush Tucker Man will know all about Arnhem Land’s spectacular nature and vibrant Aboriginal culture. Bush Tucker Man, who bought the Top End of Australia’s culture and nature to millions worldwide  is very much alive, despite years of rumours of his untimely demise which seemed to emanate from the Australian community in London. After a few beers Les Hiddins was alleged by antipodean friends to have been eaten by crocodiles,  to have disappeared into Arnhem Land never to be seen again or (my favourite) to have toppled off an escarpment in the Macdonnell Ranges at the behest of a particularly zealous Director demanding that he should move back for a wide-angled shot. Les is happily still with us and enjoying his doutbless very unusual retirement.

Arnhem Land

Access is limited to many parts of Arnhem Land making visiting a challenge. Cape York is more accessible, being much beloved by 4×4 enthusiasts aiming for mainland Australia’s northernmost point. It should mean the tourist equivalent of a lottery win for the steamy country backwater of Cooktown and remote mining town of Weipa. This account of an overland trip to through Far North Queensland should whet your appetite. Bear in mind though that mi-November is the start of the wet season, and getting too far into the wild may be a challenge.

Cape York Peninsula in red

One cautionary note: us Londoners got massively excited by the 2000 Eclipse, only for a cloudy day to dull the spectacle. I watched from Parliament Hill in north London, where the disappointed crowd jeered the cloud cover. At least if you head for Cape York you’ll have something else to show for your efforts.