Category Archives: New Malden

Confessions of a Snow Friend

In the summer of 2015 the local council called for volunteers to be ready to grit and clear pavements in case of a heavy snowfall in the coming winter. It sounded like a satisfyingly mindless yet civic-minded thing to do, and also something I could square in my mind with a natural reluctance to help a Tory-run council.

No local authority of any political persuasion had ever cleared snow from pavements as far as I know, so it wouldn’t be as if I was making it easier for the council to quietly stop doing something it had previously taken responsibility for. The only time I’ve seen a city employee clearing snow from pavements was in 1980’s West Berlin. It was early morning, just hours after heavy snow had started to fall, and a man was operating a sort of mechanical pavement plough. He wore no gloves, I recall. No wonder the German army was so close to defeating Russia in WW2.

Back to 2015 and a small band of volunteers – not one of us under 50 – met at Kingston council’s offices to receive instructions about when to grit, and to get taken through a few health and safety dos and don’ts. Then we were issued with warm gloves, anti-slip snow grippers, a big snow shovel and a hi-viz yellow tabard emblazoned with the Snow Friends logo. The grit caddies would be delivered later.

I made my way home in bright sunshine wearing shorts and sunnies and incongruously carrying a two-metre  snow shovel.

I waited for the worst the winter could throw at New Malden
It was a long wait. There was no snow in the winter of 2015/16 or again the following year. But then came 2018 and the warnings about the Beast from the East. My time had come. But where was the grit? I asked the council’s twitter feed and within a few days about 20 kilos of the stuff arrived in a big plastic container. The idea is to scoop out about two kilos at a time into a smaller caddy and use a small hand shovel to scatter it on the pavement as you slowly walk along. Then you go back and refill.

An email from the council provided a weather forecast but fell short of actually telling us when we should get to work, which I thought was a bit lame. So I kept listening to the BBC, checking Metcheck and asking Siri and Alexa until, on a cold day in late February, everyone agreed that snow was imminent. To the dressing-up box!

There was proper snow after the Beast from the East. This pic was taken a few weeks later, during the Least from the East.

First, I tried out my improvised pavement grit spreader, a repurposed garden tool designed for spreading grass seeds. I assembled the contraption, filled it with a handful of grit, gave it a little push and it seemed to work. My stroke of inspiration meant I wouldn’t have to keep going back for grit refills.

Gritspreader not fit to grit
However, my test drive in the garden wasn’t indicative of actual conditions out in the field, or rather the pavement. A full load of grit clogged the spreader’s outlets, resulting in only a few grains falling through as I pushed the thing forwards. So I tried a vigorous up-and-down shaking motion as I walked, looking like someone with Parkinson’s struggling to control an unruly garden implement. The technique lasted just a few steps before I inadvertently yanked the handle out of the hopper part. I picked up the pieces and took them home.

Clearly not designed for heavy-duty gritting work. Any fool can see that.

When two gritters meet
So it was back to the council-approved manual method. I started gritting the route I take when I’m walking to the railway station, which is to say the route most commuters, somewhat bizarrely, don’t. (A spatial phenomenon I bored blogged about here).  I’d only got half-way down the road when I spotted a council worker rapidly advancing towards me. He was gritting the pavement too, using a rugged hand-operated grit spreader that was clearly designed for the purpose, unlike my lightweight plastic effort. The grit was spraying out evenly in an impressive metre-wide arc. He ran while he gritted, which I thought was keen. He clattered past without a word, spreading grit more efficiently over where I’d just been with my laborious and now decidedly analogue scoop-and-scatter technique.

There was no point continuing, so I switched routes. Remembering my earlier commitment to civic-mindedness, I chose the route that people actually take as they head to the station, even though they’re clearly wrongheaded about this.

I devise a plan to prevent the problem of double-gritting
I reached about half way to the station before exhausting my supply of grit. Back home, I emailed the council requesting more. I also annotated a Google map showing where I’d been. Perhaps, I suggested, they might post an interactive version of the map on the council’s website so that volunteers could see where fellow Snow Friends had gritted, thus eliminating duplication.

They were so overwhelmed with the brilliance of my brainwave that they were rendered incapable of forming a coherent response, or indeed an incoherent one. My email went unheeded, my grit caddy was never replenished and, despite more snow falling and ice forming over the following days, my Snow Friend days appeared to be at an end. But if my efforts helped prevent just one child from slipping into the path of an out-of-control juggernaut, it will all have been worthwhile.

 

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OOH WHAT?!

I took a pop at a poster for breakfast cereal Shreddies a while back. If you think I spend a lot of time looking at posters, you’re right.

This one caught my eye today.


It’s a nice line. Well-played, TUI. Wait, is it an ad for TUI or London Gatwick? A bit of both, actually. Co-funded. They want you to book a TUI holiday and fly from Gatwick instead of choosing a competitor’s holiday and flying from somewhere else. Heathrow, maybe. But Heathrow isn’t hundreds of miles away, it’s about 12, or roughly half the distance of Gatwick. Heathrow is THE local airport as far as anyone reading this particular poster is concerned.

They must mean Luton and Stanstead, where competitors like RyanAir and EasyJet fly from. So I guess the ad is saying ‘Don’t fly from Luton or Stanstead, either of which involves a drive of hundreds of miles.’ (They’re basically ignoring LHR altogether. The two have history.) But if that’s the case they have a very shaky grasp of geography, because neither of those airports is much more than 50 miles away from this poster. A there-and-back trip to Stanstead clocks in at a shade over 104 miles. Does that qualify as ‘hundreds of miles’? I think not, the same as a man owning 15 books can’t be said to have a collection of ‘dozens’. So the headline is being disingenuous at best.

Hang on, you might think. The poster’s surely aimed at people who really do live hundreds of miles from an airport that isn’t Gatwick (or Heathrow). If so, why place it at this spot? This is where it gets a bit strange, because the poster isn’t 4 sheets of paper like in the old days. It’s digital, and an example of programmatic advertising. That means (if you didn’t already know) that its location and the time and duration of its appearance can be controlled remotely. So the media agency could have placed it in areas that are genuinely a hundred miles or more from Luton or Stanstead. Or maybe they just thought fuck it, let’s stick the ad everywhere and hope there aren’t too many people around who’ll, you know, read it.

For what it’s worth, I think Gatwick’s strapline ‘YOUR LONDON AIRPORT’ is easily on the same level as Tui’s ‘DISCOVER YOUR SMILE’ 😉

Here’s one for Specsavers:

I was going to criticise it as a poster (who he? why the silly photo-related name?), but then did a bit of rudimentary research and discovered that it’s part of a not-at-all bad campaign by Specsavers’ in-house team. Take a look here. The performances are a tad David Brent and perhaps could have been more subtle without losing anything, but it’s still a campaign I’d be happy to have been involved in. Although I’d have chosen a different surname.  ‘Shutter’ doesn’t help the idea.

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My daughters, then and now

The ‘now’ being December 2017, when they presented their mum with a calendar featuring 12 images from their past juxtaposed with contemporary recreations.

There were tears then, and I suspect in years to come there will be more.

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

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The evolution of an election campaign

Wednesday 7 June 2017, 21.45
There. It’s over. Apart from the actual voting part. But as far as campaigning for the 2017 general election goes, that’s about it. The last leaflet fell through our letterbox just an hour ago. Like the majority of other campaign comms, it was from the Liberal Democrats. The fact that I have a giant, unmissable LibDem diamond-shaped signboard nailed to a tree at the entrance to our house hasn’t deterred canvassers from thinking that maybe I might change my mind, or that I’m not that committed. Neither has the fact that I volunteered to help with their campaign. I’m ‘known’ to the local party, so one would have thought my property would be spared. But no. Nothing has stopped the deluge of letters, leaflets and newspapers from arriving almost every day.

In the beginning there was Brexit

A bit of background: New Malden is mostly within the Richmond Park constituency, which Sarah Olney (Liberal Democrat) snatched back from Zac Goldsmith in December 2016 when he resigned from the Tories on a matter of principle (he promised to go if the Tories backed a 3rd runway at Heathrow, which they did). He stood as an Indy and duly lost, but it was close. So it’s understandable that the Lib Dems want to hold on to their only London seat.

But the argument has moved on, at least as far as the Lib Dems’ early campaign literature is concerned. It’s all about Brexit now, and their initial door-drops talk about ‘stopping the hard Brexit’. Voters are urged to ‘change the direction of your country’ in the forthcoming ‘Brexit Election’. A few leaflets later and there’s a subtle change in the wording. The Lib Dems are now ‘challenging the hard Brexit’. (Does that definite article annoy you? It does me.) The next leaflet asks ‘What kind of future do you want for your country? That’s the choice facing people across the country on June 8th.’ That’s not a choice, it’s a question. The newspaper-style format gives them room to talk about ‘the’ hard Brexit as well as reprising the third runway issue and concerns about health and education.

Enter the SS

About this time in mid May, the first leaflet from the Conservatives appears, with its Union Flag border and multiple uses of SS (strong and stable). Vote for the Tories and Britain, it is claimed, will be the strongest country in Europe, although it doesn’t say by what measure.

Their next leaflet is from Zac, who’s standing again, back as a Tory this time, despite the Tories sticking resolutely to their 3rd runway policy. How does that work? A picture shows May and Goldsmith wandering about in a wood somewhere, Theresa hanging on his every word. His next leaflet features a quote from the prime minister, delivered outside No. 10. “On June 8th, every single vote for Zac Goldsmith is a vote for SS leadership in the national interest.” There’s no evidence she has actually said these words, and certainly didn’t deliver them in Downing Street.

Letters from leftfield

Back with the Lib Dems, all manner of election comms continues to pour through the letterbox. Some from Tim Farron, most from Sarah Olney, and a few from Mike, Clare and Edward. Who? Well, Mike Smithson runs a political betting website, and he doesn’t want to tell us who to vote for. “I’m not here to tell you who to vote for,” he says. But if Labour voters lend their vote to the LibDems, they could stop the Conservatives from winning locally. “Just saying,” he doesn’t say. Clare is Dr Clare Gereda, a local GP (and ex-Chair of the Royal College of GPs), who isn’t as squeamish as Mike about where we should put our Xs: “A vote for the LibDems is a vote of confidence in our NHS”. Then Edward’s letter arrives. His double-barrelled surname and title (‘Conservative Member of European Parliament 1984-2010’) make me think he’s been drafted in to help the Tories, but further reading reveals that he jumped ship in 2010 and joined the Liberal Democrats. “Like many pro-Europeans, I’m horrified with the direction Theresa May has been taking the country.”

Vote for one of us!

More stuff from the Tories. The copy is indistinguishable from something Ukip might say, and in fact did. A succession of leaflets asks us to ‘Vote Theresa May’, then to ‘Vote for Zac’, and then to ‘Vote Theresa May’ again. The whole presidential-style approach that the Tories have adopted for this election might come unstuck when stupid people – and there ARE stupid people – get to the polling booth and look in vain for Theresa May’s name.

Like the Lib Dems, the Tories don’t settle on a winning format for their canvassing. We get postcards, letters, roll-fold leaflets, pretend magazines, A3 newspapers, mailpacks delivered by Royal Mail, letters from Zac and another one from the Prime Minister. This one ditches the SS references in favour of ‘standing up’. It mentions ‘standing up’ for Britain no fewer than 18 times, a rate of repetition that would prompt a forest of tracked changes if presented by a copywriter to any normal client.

We also get a leaflet from Zac Goldsmith in which he attempts to explain and excuse his flip-flop, flimflam, weaselly and shamelessly opportunistic approach to local democracy. Hopefully it won’t fool anyone.

Brexit takes a back seat

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems continue their onslaught. ‘Changing the future of Britain’ somehow becomes changing the ‘future direction of Britain’. What other direction could we hope to affect? Hard Brexit gains a capital H, like Grassy Knoll did eventually, but overall the focus is gradually switched from Europe to education and the NHS. For the first time, campaign literature mentions an extra penny on income tax to pay for increased investment in the NHS, but the leaflets choose to portray this with a picture of a HUGE penny, rather than showing a tiny penny in someone’s palm.

Speaking of which, a Lib Dem leaflet turns up with something like an idea in it. Albeit an idea of the kind had by a child or by a particularly literal client. It carries the headline ‘It’s in your hands’ and shows an image of…and I think you know what’s coming…a pair of hands. Inside, there’s no mention at all of Brexit, and nobody thought to put anything on the back. 25% of the leaflet is wasted space.

Token missives from the rank outsiders

At some point during the campaign we get the one and only effort from the no-hope Labour candidate. His name is Laurie South, and he sound like a decent sort of chap, although we learn nothing of his lavatorial habits, unlike his predecessor. A leaflet from the local Ukip candidate turns up, showing a stern-looking bearded bloke who’s anti-human rights and who was, in an statement that will draw knowing nods from kids who were locked up for littering or loitering or looking a bit wrong, a serving magistrate. Neither of these guys has a snowball’s chance in hell of even coming second around here.

And still they come

More leaflets arrive. None appears to be printed on recycled paper or claims to come from sustainable sources, so we can only assume that trees are being sacrificed in the name of local democracy. The Tories’ final postcard states that the loss of just six seats would be enough to wrest power from them. The intention is clearly to prick complacent conservatives into voting, but could have a similar effect on Labour or Lib Dem voters who had been resigned to a Tory victory, but now felt stirred into action.

Door-drops from Lib Dems are now going hell for leather over the ‘heartless Tories” Dementia Tax. The last one I retrieve from the doormat plays the familiar two-horse-race angle, but while it shows a picture of Sarah Olney, Zac Goldsmith’s profile is greyed out. The Lib Dems clearly know how much his supposed good looks appeals to certain voters. (The ones we could do without, really.)

The final tally

In the closely-fought constituency of Richmond Park, the results of the 2017 general election junk mail campaign are as follows:

Labour: 1
Ukip: 1
Conservatives: 13
Liberal Democrats: 36
Total weight: Exactly 500g
Minds changed: Probably zero.

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Those pesky canvassers!

It’s Tuesday evening, around 36 hours before voting begins in the 2017 general election. Someone has just rung the buzzer of my house. Rather than answer the intercom and listen to dead air, I leg it down the path to the gate. If it’s kids messing about (again), I want to catch them, if not in the act, then at least shortly afterwards.

Not that I have any kind of plan in mind. I’ll probably make a sarcastic comment. Not a threat or warning or anything like that. Never threaten anyone who knows where you live. So I’m hoping it’s not kids or early evening drunks, but maybe a delivery guy or even friends passing by and seeing if we’re free for a drink. (This hasn’t happened in 20 years of living here, but you never know.)

It’s not kids or drunks or ASOS drivers, and of course it isn’t friends. I look left and right, and the only person in the vicinity is a middle aged man, and I shout ‘hello!’ to him as he rounds the next corner. He turns briefly to look at me before disappearing out of sight.

I open the gate and run after him. In my slippers. As I turn the corner he’s there with two other people, a woman and another man. I can tell from their badges and stickers that they are canvassing for the LibDems. Shame. I was hoping for God-botherers or Tories.

“Can I help you?”

“Did I knock on your door?”

“No, you rang the buzzer then ran away, like a child.” His colleagues snigger at this. I instantly feel slightly ashamed.

“Oh. I was just wondering if I could count on your support for the Liberal Democrats.”

“Yes, you can.”

“Oh. Thank you.”

I smile and walk back to my house, past the intercom button, past the huge and unmissable Liberal Democrats poster that’s right next to it, and wonder briefly whether I’m supporting the right party*.

*I am, of course. I live in Richmond Park. The only other viable candidate is that shameless opportunist Zac Goldsmith. Labour has zero chance here.

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The pub where ‘gastro’ leaves a nasty taste

The local boozer is having a refurb! This is good news. Like many pubs, the Royal Oak has been hit by falling trade and has also suffered a number of ‘incidents’ prompting visits from the local plod. Permanent closure and conversion into flats could have been the alternative, so any kind of determination to keep it open is a good sign.

Speaking of signs, there’s one on the wall announcing that the Royal Oak was an Evening Standard Pub of the Year back in the late ’70s. That probably meant you got an assortment of affable pipe-smoking gents who used the word ‘marvellous’ a lot.

‘Affable’ too, probably.

I hope the refurbishment plans allow for the retention of that dying institution, the separate public and saloon bars. Mind you, the distinction between the two was getting a bit blurred at the Royal Oak. The former used to show football on Sky and could get noisy, especially when Chelsea were playing. The saloon bar used to be somewhere you could escape football on Sky. Then the management adopted the retirement home model of reckoning that people needed to have TV on at all times, wherever they were. So they put up TVs in the saloon bar, and tuned them all to show football on Sky.

The pub served a range of traditional hearty pub fayre. You know the sort of thing. Burgers, steaks, pies and so on. All pretty good value and, thanks to weapons-grade microwaves, delivered to your table virtually before you’d finished placing your order.

But whatever else is changing, it looks like the food side of things will stay the same:

See that?

GASTRO PUB, NOT US!

Dubious grammar aside, I was struck by what these four words say about how the ‘gastro pub’ is perceived. Well, badly, obviously. Perhaps with a deep sense of distrust and suspicion. ‘We’ll be having none of your fancy London ways around here’ is the subtext. Or maybe it’s a veiled reference to the refurb carried out some years ago at another nearby pub, The Railway.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about drinking in pubs, it is to avoid any whose name contains the words ‘railway’, ‘station’ or ‘travellers’. Sure enough, The Railway was a seriously dodgy venue. After one disturbance too many, they shut the place down and reopened it months later with a new name, new decor, new prices and a new menu:

Does this shout ‘gastro pub’ to you? It doesn’t to me. But maybe the drinkers at the Royal Oak got terrified that their pub would reopen selling, not burgers, but black cod fillet in a Japanese tamari and manuka honey reduction, served with locally harvested micro greens.

Fair enough, but why so virulent in the denial? Why mention it at all? Is gastro food, whatever that might be, really such a terrible, terrible thing that you have to highlight the fact that customers needn’t entertain the slenderest fear of encountering any?

It’s like trying to reassure customers with signs saying things like:

SALMONELLA & BOTULISM? NOT HERE!
FILTHY CARPETS & STINKING BOGS? I DON’T THINK SO!
RISK OF UNPROVOKED GLASSING? NOT REALLY OUR STYLE!

To me, the sign is stating in a passive-aggressive way that the pub will under no circumstances serve the kind of food many people enjoy. They may as well have a sign reading:

CHEERFUL AMBIENCE? NOT US!
LOG FIRE IN WINTER? GET OUT OF HERE!
or
GOOD RANGE OF ALES? WHAT PLANET ARE YOU ON?!

I’ll give it a try when it reopens, though. Of course I will. It’s the local.

UPDATE 1: I visited The Royal Oak shortly after it reopened. Verdict: They’ve kept the good stuff (antique mirrors, unusual tiny wooden doorway through which one has to stoop to get from the public to the saloon bar, good range of beers, general layout,) and got rid of some the bad stuff (old fashioned furniture, heavily stained swirly carpet). All the TVs are still there, and they’re all showing football. There were plenty of unoccupied tables and chairs. But dim lighting made it impossible to read the paper, which has always been one of life’s pleasures, and a pair of children were allowed to run around and yell at the tops of their voices. THAT I could just about have coped with, but the constantly barking dog in the adjacent bar proved too much. Plus, the owner attempted to stop his dog barking by shouting at it. So I drained my pint and left.

UPDATE 2: Maybe I was unlucky, so I give the pub another try. This time I takeBounder (my cocker spaniel) and a backlit iPad. The place is just as empty as before. But the barman takes one look at Bounder and says that dogs are no longer allowed, except in the public bar. From there I can hear the barking dog above the sound of two teams battling it out on Sky 3 Plus Football Euro Extra, so I leave and strike the Royal Oak off of my list of locals. Shame.

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The mystery of the canopy towel

Some new neighbours arrived a while back. They immediately set about modernising and improving their 1950s semi-detached house. In the garden they repaved everything that wasn’t grass and returfed everything that wasn’t paved. They planted flowers in neat rows, sprayed the outside of the house with white paint and bought a staggering variety of primary-coloured outdoor toys and games for their two young sons.

I don’t know about inside the house, but outside everything is transformed. Their garden furniture is modern and comfortable looking. Everything is clean and contemporary. The little glass canopy they erected over their back door, for example. Nice.

It’s a bit like this. Or was.

Speaking as one with a patchy, lumpy lawn, a brick BBQ held up by gravity alone and  an old pub-type picnic table stained by bird shit, I look at what they’ve done with some envy.

And then one day in early summer I noticed that an old kitchen towel had somehow found its way to the top of their new canopy. I figured that maybe it had been dropped by someone while they’d been cleaning the upstairs windows. A towel to clean windows? Well, yes, MAYBE. Or maybe a workman had somehow contrived to accidentally throw it up there. Regardless, given the owners’ love of everything being clean and well-ordered, it would only be a matter of time before they got the ladders out and removed it.

But no. It stayed there throughout the summer, looking all grey and dirty and dishevelled. It’s well known that a good place to hide is up in a tree as people seldom examine the lofty altitudes. But surely they’d have noticed it by now. I started to wonder if it had been left there on purpose, but failed to come up with a single plausible reason.

Then a strange thing happened. Even stranger, I mean. The towel was joined by a friend.

This new adornment to the canopy is no kitchen towel. It looks more like a beach towel to me, although I don’t claim any expert credentials in this regard. If the first towel wasn’t spotted because it was camouflaged perfectly against the grey summer skies, that surely can’t be the reason nobody has noticed this colourful newcomer.

The two towels have been sitting there for more than a week now. It’s utterly baffling as to why they’re there. Any ideas? Have YOU ever placed a towel in an unusual spot? Tell me now, while I’m still interested.

UPDATE

The neighbours are having scaffolding erected. Not sure why. Something noisy and disruptive, no doubt. But the days of the towels’ presence on the canopy are now surely numbered. A scaffolder, roofer, painter, plumber, glazier, window-fitter or loft converter is bound to see the towels and remove them, isn’t he? (Or she?) I’ll keep you posted.

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