The day the IRA bombed my office

The Baltic Exchange war memorial stained glass: NMM, Brian Mawdsley

Walking around the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Saturday, I was transported back in time by the sight of this stained glass display. It reminded me of the day the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombed my office in London 30 years ago this week.

The glass was part of the Baltic Exchange’s memorial to 60 members of the exchange who were killed in the Great War. The exchange building in St Mary Axe took the brunt of the explosion and was later demolished; the Gherkin now stands on the site. My office, a short walk along St Mary Axe, was badly damaged. I never worked there again.

I walked past the Baltic Exchange every day from 1990 to 1992 on my way to my office. I seem to remember a doorman stationed at the entrance, and metal gates used to block the entrance when it was closed. Or is my memory playing tricks?

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HS2: broken Tory promises

What a surprise. After countless promises to build a high speed rail line to Yorkshire, Boris Johnson confirmed that the Tory government was cancelling the eastern leg of the HS2 line to Leeds and Bradford.

It just shows you can never trust UK governments – especially Tory ones – to invest outside South East England.

If there had been any justice, construction of HS2 would have started in the north rather than London. The English capital gets a staggering £864 per person in transport spending compared with a pittance of £349 in the north of England. But when the government wanted to save money, it was the north that paid the sacrifice. Not the ever-spoilt money pit of the south east.

HS2 works, Chalfont St Giles, 2020

Yes, many in the south protested against HS2. But rather than cancelling the project, the Conservatives blew extra billions on a tunnel for HS2 under the Chilterns, including our village of Chalfont St Giles.

Leeds and Bradford are rightly outraged. (Bradford has the worst rail services of any major English city.) But spare a thought for Wales. Despite HS2 being billed as Britain’s railway, it will go nowhere near Wales, or Scotland. A cynical Tory move led to HS2 being treated as an ‘England and Wales’ project. So no extra money will flow to Wales under the Barnett formula.

Work begins, Chalfont St Giles, August 2020

There’s a sensible debate to be had about how to invest in green transport for the 21st century. HS2 may not be the right, or only, answer. But why is Britain, the country that invented railways, the nation with the fewest miles of high speed railways in western Europe? As I blogged when HS2 was first proposed, Britain’s Victorian rail network is hopelessly ill-suited to high speed trains. British Railways conceived the tilting Advanced Passenger Train in the 1970s to overcome the limitations of the West Coast Mainline, built in the 1830s and 1840s. By contrast BR chose Brunel’s Great Western mainline for its InterCity 125 high speed services because it was so level and straight, unlike its rivals.

The moral of the saga of HS2’s cancelled easter leg is that London politicians – especially one as cynical as Boris Johnson – will always favour the south east. Talk of levelling up is all bullshit. They simply don’t care about the north, Wales or Scotland. But as long as English voters keep reelecting London-biased governments, nothing will change. The case for Welsh and Scottish independence just grew stronger. Perhaps a Yorkshire National Party will follow…

PS: I reported on the HS2 works in Chalfont St Giles in August 2020 here.

The day I met Michael Heseltine

Me and Michael Heseltine

It was a tumultuous time in British politics. Prime minister John Major had just resigned as leader of the Conservative party in a desperate attempt to get his critics to put up or shut up.

All eyes were on Michael Heseltine, whose challenge to Margaret Thatcher in 1990 destroyed the Iron Lady’s premiership. Major’s fate appeared to be in Hezza’s hands. Would he slay another Tory prime minister? No – days later, he affirmed his loyalty to Major, who made him deputy prime minister.

The night I met him, he was in good spirits. The occasion was a reception at B.A.T Industries, the owner of Eagle Star, the insurance company I worked for. We had something in common: when he returned to government under Major as environment secretary he set up a competition called City Challenge. Inner city areas had to bid for funding by partnering with the private sector. I was seconded by B.A.T Industries to Lambeth Council to bid for funding for Brixton. Hezza had reportedly told Lambeth not to bother as jt had no chance. (The Tories had long memories of Lambeth’s left wing leadership in the 1980s under Red Ted Knight.) It seemed a daunting assignment.

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London calling: to St Paul’s

St Paul’s dome

It was an odd feeling, stepping onto a London train for the first time in 19 months. This was my life for many years, yet old habits ended when the pandemic gripped Britain in March 2020.

We were heading into London for Merchant Taylors’ School’s triennial service at St Paul’s Cathedral. Our son Owen is in the Merchant Taylors’ choir and chamber choir, so we were lucky enough to be given seats under the dome. It was very moving to hear the voices from so many traditions and cultures resonating in this historic cathedral.

The choir at St Paul’s. Photo: Merchant Taylors’ School

The service reflects Merchant Taylors’ School’s heritage. It was formed by the Merchant Taylors’ Company, one of the City of London’s 12 historic livery companies. The school moved out of the City of London to Northwood between the two world wars but still cherishes its City roots.

St Paul’s Covid memorial

This triennial service should have been held a year ago but was delayed, like so many events, by the Covid pandemic. It was moving to see the cathedral’s memorial to those who lost their lives in the greatest healthcare crisis in a century.

After the service, I told Owen the remarkable story of how St Paul’s survived the Blitz during the second world war. I dug out a book I bought over 30 years ago: London Before the Blitz, by Richard Trench. The author described the cathedral as a fireman’s nightmare. There are actually two domes: inner and outer structures. The fear was a fire in the gap between the two, which could spread undetected until the whole structure collapsed.

St Paul’s survives the Blitz. Photo: Herbert Mason, IWM

The fear almost came true on the terrible night of 29 December 1940. The Germans planned their aerial assault with brutal efficiency. It was the greatest bombing raid ever at that time. In the lull between Christmas and new year, the City was empty of people. There was a very low tide to impede fire fighting efforts.

At 6.40pm the call went out: St Paul’s dome was on fire. An incendiary bomb had pierced the lead covering the outer dome. It looked like Wren’s masterpiece was ablaze. American broadcaster Ed Murrow told the world that ‘The church that means most to Londoners is gone. St Paul’s cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren, her great dome towering over the capital of the Empire, is burning to the ground as I talk to you now’. Happily, as he broadcast the incendiary burnt through the timbers and fell onto the floor of the great church where it fizzled out. Herbert Mason’s iconic photo caught St Paul’s in its moment of crisis. Richard Trench’s book graphically illustrates how miraculous the survival of St Paul’s was: almost the whole of the City around the cathedral was in ruins.

Merchant Taylors’ pupils and staff at St Paul’s

After the moving service, we headed back to Marylebone, following our old footsteps along Wigmore Street and Marylebone Lane, popping briefly into Daunt Books, the most beautiful bookshop in London.

Rush hour, 2021

We took our seats on the 1724 from London Marylebone to Gerrards Cross. The train was earily quiet for a rush hour – even on a Friday. I reflected that I’d once have struggled to reach for my bag from the overhead rack amidst the rush hour passengers. It made a much more enjoyable trip, but I do fear for the economics of rail travel when the climate crisis should be making railways the obvious means of transport into our great cities.

We relished our return to London. We shall be back.

Fifty years on: converting to North Sea gas

From town gas to North Sea Gas

Back to the Seventies. That has been a theme of the past few weeks as a fuel crisis looms, with rocketing prices and supply problems in Britain.

Few people will remember, but the early 1970s also saw one of the biggest changes in British domestic and industrial history. The discovery of gas in the North Sea in 1965 led the nation to switch from town gas, which was produced by heating coal. As a result, around 40 million gas appliances in Britain had to be converted to burn natural rather than town gas. Britain used to have over a thousand local gas works, but North Sea gas made these manufacturing sites redundant, with gas now being stored rather than made locally.

Our family was very unusual as our gas cooker was converted not once but three times. We were living in Whitton, Twickenham when London converted from North Thames town gas to North Sea gas. But soon after, we moved back to Wales – which had not yet switched. So we had to convert the cooker back to run on town gas, before switching yet again when Cardiff converted. The change had another legacy: a huge banner advert for High Speed Gas across the front of Cardiff Central station, which hid the legend ‘Great Western Railway’. (On display again since 1985.)

It wasn’t our only big fuel switch. When we moved into our house in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside, in 1971, we inherited a coal burning central heating boiler. I remember a frightening drama soon after. The pressure gauge on the boiler was moving into the danger zone, and Mum and my sister were getting worried it was going to blow up. (Dad was in Japan at the time on a coveted Winston Churchill fellowship.) My uncle Bert came to the rescue, and I think they poured water over the furnace to put the boiler out and end the crisis. Soon after, we switched to gas central heating, and the coal shed became a storage room.

The Oval gasholder. Photo: JGUK via Wikimedia Commons

Gasholders like the famous one behind the Oval cricket ground in London were a familiar part of the urban landscape for years. Originally they were part of a town’s gas works, storing the gas produced there. For the past 50 years they have stored gas from the North Sea, but from the 1990s onwards they were condemned as unnecessary and few now survive. How ironic that Britain’s acute lack of gas storage capacity is such a feature of the growing fuel crisis. (The country has storage for just four or five days’ winter demand; Germany has 16 times as much.) The government’s decision allow the closure of the Rough storage facility in the North Sea in 2017 now looks like an act of self harm. Maybe we shouldn’t have pulled down all those iconic gasholders.

PS: I played a very minor part in the privatisation of British Gas in 1986. I was a management trainee for Nationwide in Newport, Wales, and gave a presentation to British Gas employees in Cardiff explaining the sharesave account used for the staff share purchase scheme.

PPS: we even had a gas fridge when I was very young, but got rid of it before gas conversion.

In praise of Terence Conran

A Conran legacy

I was a big fan of Habitat in my twenties and thirties. I loved the clean design of the furniture, kitchen wear and dinner sets. I’m typing this blogpost on the 23 year old Habital dining table (now my working from home desk) seen in the photo, while drinking from the pictured 31 year old coffee cup from the store. Somewhere I still have a Habitat fondue set and towel rail.

It’s all thanks to Terence Conran, who has died aged 88. Conran was one of the entrepreneurs who changed the face of Britain, bringing fresh, modern design to the high street and the home.

“It is hard to overstate how uninteresting London was then,” Conran later said. “You could go along a terrace of houses, and every living room you looked in was the exactly the same, with the same extremely dreary furniture.” (You can see a glimpse of that world even today in many chintzy guesthouses.) Design was a hugely under appreciated discipline, as a glance at almost any household product would show. Conran opened the first Habitat store in 1964, and the stores quickly became a symbol of the Sixties. Over time, Habitat made the duvet (or continental quilt as my parents and grandparents called them), beanbag, wok and fondue part of everyday life.

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On the trail of Shaun the Sheep in London

A Capital View: Shaun the Sheep by St Paul's

A Capital View: Shaun the Sheep by St Paul’s

We had a terrific day in London yesterday on the trail of Shaun the Sheep. Shaun in the City has created 120 sheep sculptures celebrating the Aardman Animations character and raising money for children in hospitals.

There’s a great app for Android and iPhone that helps you follow the four trails and tells you about each sculpture. They’re spread around the City, South Bank and West End, so you get a great tour of London as you tick off each sheep.

We started at Barbican (should that be Baaaah-bican?) before trailing through the City, over the Millennium Bridge and on to the South Bank. (We needed a break – and highly recommend the PizzaExpress opposite the Royal Festival Hall.) We then headed via the BFI and Waterloo Bridge to Covent Garden and Leicester Square. A favourite was Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom inside Hamley’s toy shop. We wondered if Gaston the ladybird would feature – and he did! Continue reading

London remembers Britain’s latest Afghan war

It was a shock to see armed police at Marylebone station yesterday. It was so out of the ordinary. But then I saw this:

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

This Austin 1973 police car was parked on Horse Guards Road, opposite HM Treasury. It was one of a series of police vehicles along the road, with soldiers also present. Shortly afterward a police lorry went by. What on earth was going on?

Police in force in Horse Guards

Police in force in Horse Guards

Later, I found out that the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and political leaders were taking part in a commemoration at St Paul’s marking the end of Britain’s participation in the Afghanistan war. I saw the end of the flypast marking the event:

Flypast marking end of Britain's latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Flypast marking end of Britain’s latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Britain’s latest entanglement in Afghanistan was an extraordinary development. In 1978, I learned about our disastrous 19th century Afghan wars during O level history. A year later, the Soviet Union invaded that country, with equally ill-fated results. I never imagined I’d see Britain repeating these disasters. George W Bush and Tony Blair were mad to embark on another Afghan adventure. How sad that 453 British troops (not to mention countless Afghans and Americans) lost their lives as a result.

Richmond’s high water mark, 1928

High water mark Richmond January 1927

When Richmond flooded, 1928

Anyone working or living in Richmond, Surrey, is used to the river Thames lapping over the riverside roads and paths. The White Cross pub even has a sign showing the high tide entrance. Yet few high tides have ever come close to January 1928.

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John Snow, Soho and the battle to defeat cholera

The replica of the Broad Street, Soho cholera pump

The (replica) Soho water pump that killed hundreds from cholera

Thousands of tourists pass through London’s Soho every day. Few glance at this Broadwick Street water pump. Yet it tells the amazing story of how Dr John Snow solved the mystery of why thousands of Londoners were dying of cholera in Victorian London.

Snow rejected the accepted view that cholera was spread by polluted air. That view was disastrously influencing government policy. In the 1848/49 cholera epidemic, poor law commissioner Edwin Chadwick ordered that sewers be flushed into the Thames to clean the air in poor areas. Yet large areas of London took drinking water from the river – so Chadwick’s policy condemned thousands to death by cholera.

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