Layers Of London

I have walked past the building site down at Walbrook, near Cannon Street Station in London once or twice of late, and am always amazed by the change in the way a place looks when you erase a large ugly building from the landscape. Bucklersbury House, which once stood here, was one such ugly building. I noted that the hoardings they have erected around what was little more than a deepening hole in the ground, were pasted with the Museum of London logo as well as a number of pictures of various artefacts that had evidently been uncovered on the other side of these high fences.

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But then there was the announcement of the scale of the discovery down there and I got all excited, like I’d won something. We all had in a way, those of us nerdy enough to find this stuff interesting.

Down there at Walbrook – now a street running a short part of the course of the old, lost river of the same name – there had been some 10,000 objects of Roman London discovered, including writing tablets, pewter, coins and cow skulls. Here in the wet mud of the old waterway are preserved the timber foundations of buildings, shoulder high fencing and a complex drainage system. It was being referred to as the ’Pompeii of the North’.

This same spot was made famous after the Second World War following the discovery of a buried Temple of Mithras which people queued round the block to see. Those remains were preserved but moved and will be returned as part of wider plans for the site which will ultimately result in much that has been found here being on display to the public.

But it will be a couple of years at the very least until these archeological treasures will be available for the rest of us to view. This set me to thinking about some of the other relics of London’s long history that exist beneath our feet and which, more importantly, can still be seen.

With a little effort and application, anyone can find the following, and it shouldn’t cost you much, if anything.

Let’s start small. There’s a church that sits just north of the Tower of London, All Hallows’ by the Tower. Pop inside and head toward the back end. Through a little door you should be able to follow the signs to the museum located in the crypt, down a narrow, winding staircase. At the bottom of this, before you come across the eclectic mix of old parish registers and centuries old pottery (not to mention the crows nest from Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, but of course) is a patch of uneven mosaic tiling behind a low plastic screen. The small typed sign in front proclaims this to be a patch of Roman Pavement.

It’s barely more than a couple of square metres of surface area and to the more demanding sightseer is not much of a sight to see, but its a ROMAN PAVEMENT! A couple of thousand years old! Wow.

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Head up into the City toward Leadenhall Market and once you’ve stopped looking up to admire the spectacular interior look down. This spot is where the Basilica once stood and a remaining portion of which can still, apparently, be seen in the basement of the hairdressers on the corner of the market as it opens onto Gracechurch Street. I understand that you can get to see this Roman relic in their basement if you ask nicely, though I’ve not got round to it yet so you’ll have to let me know.

For the most comprehensive and impressive piece of Londinium, get yourself across to the Guildhall, where, down a couple of flights of stairs, you may visit the remnants of the old Amphitheatre. Discovered when they were working to extend their art gallery, the space has been given over entirely to a permanent display of this amazing structure. It’s not well known this one, or certainly it is not well attended, so you will likely get to enjoy it without the need to elbow your way through a crowd. On top of that, entry is free.

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There are other significant chunks of the London that the Romans left behind – the old city wall.

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Reckoned to have been built in the late 2nd to early 3rd century and running for almost 3 miles around the old city, it was constructed from 85,000 tons of Kentish ragstone and sections of this are visible above ground around Tower Hill, the Museum of London and the Barbican Estate and others are incorporated into modern buildings and only visible from within them. Behind a door in an underground Car Park lurks a hidden section of this magnificent and substantial feature of ancient London. Can you find it?

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In simple terms, any developer working on a site in London pays for the archeology in order to safeguard any finds uncovered in the construction process. This has given rise to the presence of some odd little spots amid the modern city.

Down a short flight of steps in Magpie Alley off Fleet Street a 14th century crypt from the Whitefriars priory that once occupied the site can be viewed behind glass, within the basement of an office block.

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Across the road, the lower reaches of the sprawling, gloomy charm of the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub are said to consist of the old vaulted cellars of a Carmelite Monastery. This may have been part of the same priory as the crypt in Magpie Alley – though I couldn’t say so with any authority – but I do know that neither will cost you anything to see (though the drinks in the pub will of course).

Across town at Spitalfields Market is an equally curious portion of preserved ruins behind glass right outside 1 Bishops Square, though this one is not so hidden away as the Magpie Alley crypt. The Charnel House here, formerly part of the priory of St Mary Spital has been carefully excavated and can be viewed not just from below street level (there is a lift as well as stairs) but from above through a glass floor which allows a fascinating and unique view.

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The last two on my list involve booze, that favourite pastime of Londoners.

First, down a very steep flight of stairs in a marvellous Victorian pub The Viaduct Tavern, and behind a nondescript door in the pub cellar, lie the extremely spooky cells leftover from the infamous Newgate Prison, which once stood on the site now occupied by the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey. The cells are dark, cramped and creepy and the small iron racks on the walls do not look like the sort of place a man would want to spend any kind of time. Ask the bar staff nicely enough and they’ll happily take you down for a peek.

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Further to the west, deep in the bowels of the Ministry of Defence along Whitehall can be found Henry VIII’s wine cellar, the only surviving remnant of the old Whitehall Palace, which was at one time the largest palace in Europe.

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Originally built by Cardinal Wolsey, Henry helped himself to the well-stocked cellar when that particular character fell out of favour and had his estates taken from him. It is, as I said, beneath the Ministry of a Defence, so you don’t just stroll in off the street, but can apparently visit by appointment. Add it to the list.

No doubt there are other such spots that have eluded me. Such places are by their very nature hidden by the city and hard to find. But until the ’Pompeii of the North’ is open for all to see, we’re going to have to make do…

Brainspasm

In around six weeks it will be a whole year since I went a bit mental and self published Gatecrasher. To mark that occasion, and frankly for a bit of naked promotion of my wares, I’m running a competition.

The question: What is the name of the British Government minister in the story?

The prize: a memory stick. (But of course).

If you’ve read it, you’ll know it, or can check back pretty easily. If you haven’t, download it for barely any money, or free if you catch one of those free days I do, then get settled right on the edge of your seat and read it. Then (having left a review on Amazon, just if you like, not conditional) send an email to me on robyoungwriter@gmail.com and tell me the answer. If you win, I’ll tell you, and get your postage details and you’ll have a memory stick courtesy of me and Daniel Campbell.

That is what you call a win win.

Bus blogger

It’s been months since I posted here. I’ve been busy changing my day job and working up the second draft of my new book, of which more later. I suppose that is a further extension of my wider quest to change my day job again, to one which just involves making stuff up for a living.

Anyway, in finishing my new one, working title Adrenaline, I’ve got entirely out of the habit of writing. Bad me. Partly that’s the distraction of work, partly the distraction of the social element of the new job which is also more fun than the last job, but also because in finishing Adrenaline and tangling with the awkward task of editing I’ve felt it necessary to disengage a little, to establish sufficient distance to facilitate perspective, the better to edit. Which is of course nonsense but I like a good excuse as much as the next procrastinator.

My 1,000 words a day discipline worked absolute wonders last year and the momentum and productivity it fostered in writing Adrenaline was the most and least fun I’ve had writing in years. I loved and hated it. I absolutely must start again. Say it with me: 1K a Day.

Finishing draft two of Adrenaline is a good reason to get cracking again. I cannot finish draft three until its been proof read (come on proof reading team!) which I am confident will be the final draft too as I really like what I’ve got and that’s not easy to say when you’re as self critical as I tend to be. But there’s some enthusiasm stoked by finishing that and being happy with it, enthusiasm which is further stoked by the happy accident of finding some more reviews of Gatecrasher I’d not seen before.

Confession time here: self-pubbed author got wife to do a review! And my Mum. Ok, I’m embarrassed. But I was new to it and it seemed like a good idea at the time. But then some people I’d never met before did reviews and gave me four and five stars and said nice things. Very nice things actually.

Then today, as I checked the page on amazon to see if the book was charting again (#69 as I write this in the free suspense thrillers chart) I noticed some more reviews. Both positive. Then I looked at at the amazon.com page and there was a new one there too. Very positive.

So this is, I think, the foot in the backside I’ve been seeking. A little line or two from someone somewhere who gave of their free time to read my book, then liked it so much that they logged on and wrote a review. Might not have taken a whole lot of effort, but it means an awful lot to me. So thanks to those people, I’m all revved up again.

Writing this on the bus home, I can’t wait to get back and get going.

The Gatecrasher sequel is 5,000 words in and my put-upon protagonist is about to find himself in a world of hurt.

He’s going to rue the day I got my mojo back…

Apocalypse No.

So the year that was supposed to end with The End, is ending with rather more of a whimper than a bang, though I myself will attempt to see it out with a little popping of corks instead.

But today is a good day to reflect, not just because it is the eve of a new year but also the occasion of my birthday. Thank you, I will have a happy one.

2012 was a heckins of a year for me. Not just the unbridled awesomeness of being in London for the greatest Olympics and Paralympics of all time ever (and also the most hyperbolised) or the fact that my eldest son started school but it marks the year when my embryonic writing ambitions sort of, well, hatched.

I have noted elsewhere how long it was from start to finish for Gatecrasher but the process that began with me figuring that the Kindle self-publishing tool was the best way of having my book see the light of day and actually get read by people other than friends and family, has ended with me finishing the first draft of my second book, and begin the writing of my third book, a sequel to Gatecrasher.

When I published Gatecrasher I had only modest ambitions for it (and for me) which have evolved over time – first just to get it ‘out there’, then once fifty or so copies had been downloaded it dawned on me that just publishing it was only the start of things, not the end. Then when the feedback started coming back positive and encouraging, I wanted to really push it. Next thing I know it had hit third spot in the free downloads chart on Amazon for suspense thrillers, one place above Bram Stokers Dracula, and here at the year end the total number of people that have downloaded it is in the thousands and in several countries.

All ambitions exceeded. Time to set some new ones. Happy New Year everyone.

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Indulging my inner nerd

I say inner, though in truth it’s hardly well-concealed.

I’m home alone this weekend and with hours to fill, I’m spoilt for choice. Often I’ll be paralysed by this choice and wind up wasting hours tied up in indecision: watch the football, a movie, go to the cinema, go to a museum?

But by happy coincidence this weekend I had a few things on the horizon that needed doing and with all this free time I can take a free run at doing them.

First, I have been writing my new book at some pace of late and the last 20,000 to 30,000 words have come in the space of about a month to six weeks. It’s all first draft stuff but nonetheless, it is a heckins of a work rate by my previous standards. So when I got home from work about 6 last night I decided to sit down and do some before I got gripped by channel surfing and staring into the fridge trying to decide what to eat. I popped open a cold beer and got typing and by 8.30 I was two more chapters along and ready to stick on a movie (Close Encounters) and chill out.

This morning I was up at a decent hour, another 1,000 words along by 9am and after a bit of sausage, egg and black pudding, got the cricket on in the background and as Pietersen and Cook put together a decent knock, I rattled off another 1,500 words.

That done, it was time for a different type of nerding and I donned my waterproof jacket and slung some London walks books in my bag and headed off.

I have mooched around an old church that should have been closed (some top Gatecrashing) found the church that was featured in Four Weddings, through a very old looking gatehouse (which it turns out is not that old, just very well restored), criss-crossed Smithfield Market and all the Dickensian streets and alleys from there to Clerkenwell and Farringdon and been thwarted in my attempt to find a Roman Baths near Temple, both access points to the secluded little alleyway locked and bolted.

Once I’ve finished here having a warming pint in a quiet cosy Fleet Street pub I’ll head home and watch some wilfully obscure foreign film just because I can and then tell my wife that I enjoyed it very much.

I love it. Sitting at a keyboard for hours. Walking around quiet wet streets in search of little London oddities in a relentless downpour until my camera phone packs up. Discovering in this last place not just a decent pint, or that the table I am sitting at used to be some sort of strange pedal based Singer sowing machine but also that it was here that Britain’s greatest post-war secret was very nearly exposed – the notebook of a careless/traitorous journalist left on the pub floor containing information about Eastcote, later to become GCHQ. Handed to the police by a sharp eyed barmaid.

I am cold and wet and sitting next to the fireplace, wishing that they would light the bloody thing.

What a ridiculous, marvellous way to spend a Saturday. Cheers.

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Teeth grinding fury

My train was late this morning. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

In fact, the train was cancelled, the next one was late and so not only was it effectively two trainloads of people (to make up for the cancelled one) on one train, plus anyone who turned up during the fifteen minutes before its late arrival. Except it was, when finally it arrived, not even a full length train. But inexplicably it was only half the usual number of carriages. Cue impotent fury and no outlet whatsoever to help right this awful wrong. Just getting to work a half hour late when I was actually, for a change, on course for getting in a smidge early.

What infuriated the most though was the reason for the cancellation. This was ‘due to an earlier broken down train’. Now then. An earlier broken down train. Nothing wrong with the train they cancelled. But an earlier one broke down so apparently the next one gets cancelled. But of course.

Fuming, I was left to ruminate on the other tiny injustices and irritations that plague me. Consider these horrors, if you will.

As something of a language/grammar nazi, I find I am most often affronted by odd words, or word usage. Expiration for example. When did that replace expiry? My credit card was doing just fine with an expiry date but the expiry date expired and got itself a fancy new extraneous syllable. Now it has an expiration date. Show off.

There exists a useful system for denoting times of day, a couple in fact. One is to specify with the word ‘morning’ or ‘afternoon’, for example. Or to use the 24 hour clock, if you believe yourself to be of a military persuasion. Then there is am or pm. If you tell me that something occurred at 3pm, I require no further specification. In particular I do not need to hear you say 3pm in the afternoon. Or 9am in the morning. You’ve already told me what I need to know. Stop repeating yourself.

Then the Olympics gave me a whole new one. Athletes did not win medals. Rather they were said to have ‘medaled’. Pundits discussed the prospects of competitors and their chances of ‘medalling’. And so a noun becomes a verb. At which point in fact, the word verb becomes a verb. The verb to verb. ‘I’m pleased that he medaled.’ ‘Yes, but I can’t believe that you just verbed.’

‘I could care less.’ This is I believe an Americanism. It’s strange because it is wholly illogical. The correct term is ‘I couldn’t care less.’ If you could care less, then by definition, you do care. Because you could care less than you do. It is really very simple and I really should care very much less about this than I do.

But just so you don’t think that I’m an awfully intolerant word-fascist who polices conversations, I’m also ridiculous about the way people walk. Specifically the way people in front of me walk. When I’m trying to walk. They’re slow, they zig zag in my way each time I try to get past, they read their text messages, they fail to know precisely the direction they are headed at all times, they chat with their friends, they walk through the ticket barrier or off the escalator and then they stop dead. How dare these people, all people, occupy the same public spaces that I am using at any given time, or walk the same thoroughfares? Who do they think they are, slowing me down a very small amount as I get from A to B, from train station to office, from office to pub?

Grrrrr.

My train was late this morning. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Movie night

First up, I’m horrified to realise that from my original list I omitted an absolute belter of a film. It’s number one here. Frankly the first ten weren’t necessarily my Top Ten, since the actual ranking of things like that is too subjective and changeable. So anyway, here’s ten more….

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The opening sequence, the way the Paramount logo morphs into an actual shot of a mountain. The hat, the whip. Nazis getting their faces melted off. Karen Allen. The truck chase. Shooting the sword guy. Faultless from start to finish.

2. Jurassic Park. I nearly put this in my Guilty Pleasures list but either way, it’s just more Spielberg gold. I can do without some of the schmaltzyness and it does look a tad dated here and there, but when it gets going, it’s marvellous. A little perturbed that our son’s nursery apparently let 3 year olds watch it one rainy afternoon mind you…

3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. OK, let’s get another Spielberg one of the way here. Some of the early scenes give a real sense of a building epic, but it becomes more of a personal journey with Richard Dreyfus’ character toward the end. The abduction sequence is terrifying, the final encounter is still exciting and kind of touching and the special effects still look good. I struggle to watch the mashed potato scene without thinking of the Homer Simpson version though.

4. Downfall. The story of the final days in Hitler’s bunker. You do get a sense of sympathy for some of the characters and the way everyone has been sucked into the madness. But only for a few, and not that much. More fascinating is the portrayal of the completeness of the dictators delusion and denial and the astonishing performance of Bruno Ganz in the lead role.

5. Hero. An amazing film on many levels. The aesthetics are extraordinary, the shifting and multi-layered story gripping, the action exceptional and the cast first rate. Epic.

6. Glengarry Glen Ross. CAST! Unimaginably good cast: Pacino, Spacey, Baldwin, Lemmon, Pryce, ‘Fuck you, that’s my name.’ A spin off character on the Simpsons. A phenomenally good film. ‘You see this watch?

7. Shaun of the Dead. Cornetto? Put Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright properly on the map after the stupendously good sitcom Spaced, from which a number of ideas are borrowed/expanded, not to mention cast members. A love letter to all manner of horror films and the extras and outtakes on the DVD are awesome.

8. The Thing. The John Carpenter one, with Kurt Russell. It’s a properly creepy, claustrophobic film with a mounting sense of isolation as everyone begins to realise that they really can trust no one. They also used a guy with no arms for one of the special effects scenes where a guy loses his arms. Keep your CGI.

9. Die Hard. Still a classic of the action genre, you cannot fail to enjoy a bit of John McClane. Well, possibly you can fail to enjoy the follow ups but the original is awesome. Proper blockbusting popcorn-munching, wisecracking, bad-guy shooting fun. And Alan Rickman nearly steals the show.

10. Goodfellas. There are plenty of mafia movies to choose from but I prefer this to The Godfather. There are some genuinely shocking moments of violence, and the central performances of Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro bristle with menace, but the sprawling story and the brilliant cast mean that you cannot take your eyes off this for a moment.