The annoyances of London: A whining blog post in 4 acts.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sometimes London really gets up my nose, you know?  Don’t get me wrong – I love the city and most of the time I feel happy and lucky to live here and all that palaver, but honestly sometimes it’s like the place is out to get you.

Take last Sunday for instance.  I had a lovely invitation from a visiting blog fan Phoebe and her husband John to meet for a stroll around Kew Gardens and a congenial pint.  Never one to turn down a gimme kind of blog topic like Kew and a beer in the bargain, I happily agreed.  I even set the alarm on a Sunday (which is practically criminal) so that I could get out there a bit early, do the guided tour, poke around on my own, have a picnic lunch and some quiet time with the crossword, and generally feel like I’d absorbed enough to be able to blog in my usual semi-coherent seat-of-the-pants fashion. 

And so it was that I set out early on my bike intending to collect a few bits for lunch and then cycle to Vauxhall and get the train from there.  It was a sunny day, and everything seemed right.  Then I got to the Sainsbury’s and encountered…

The Annoyances of London, Act 1 (Inadequate labeling of discount items and the perils of not paying attention):  They have this deal at Sainsbury’s (and Tesco and Marks & Spencer and blah blah blah) where you can get a sandwich, a bag of crisps and a drink for £3.

£3 deal
The £3 Deal, along with the fine print.
It’s a good deal, but because you can only choose certain things as part of the deal I’m forever arriving at the checkout with forbidden crisps or something because the labeling of what is and is not part of the £3 deal is often less-than-obvious.  And so it was that morning.  I ended up at the self check-out and watched everything tally up on the screen and trusted that my discount would be applied at some stage and only when I’d already seen my £5 note sucked into the machine did I realize it hadn’t been.  So I called over an employee to complain and she explained that I’d chosen the wrong kind of bottled drink (of course) and for some reason this aggravated me to the point where I actually made that gritted teeth “grrrrrrrrr” noise and then stomped back to the shelves to discover that the label on the drink I’d chosen was not only NOT for the £3 deal, it was for a 2 for £2 deal, so I’d therefore managed to benefit from neither discount.  I know I should have just considered the whole episode a £1.55 Not Paying Attention Tax, but it just really got under my skin and I left fuming and encountered:

The Annoyances of London, Act 2 (London Weather): Though I’d only been in the stupid Sainsbury’s for approximately 7.5 minutes, by the time I walked out the sky had turned from sunny and promising to completely grey and foreboding.  London weather.  Sigh.

The Annoyances of London, Act 3 (The need for an inconveniently extreme level of bicycle locking): I cycled to Vauxhall Station and managed to get sweaty and uncomfortable en route though it’s really a short, easy ride.  (How is it that I see business men every day on my commute riding bicycles in shirts and ties and looking perfectly cool and comfortable, yet I can’t get from Brixton to Vauxhall without looking like I’ve just completed a mountainous stage of the Tour de France?)  (To clarify: it’s the businessmen wearing the suits and ties, not the bicycles.)  And just getting to the right part of the station was a pain because it’s in the middle of a snarl of roads and rail lines and underpasses and one-ways and crap.  I finally got to the bike locking place under a railway arch (otherwise known as The Scene of the Crime), and commenced to locking up my bike. 

Scene of the crime
The Scene of the Crime
And here I have to explain something that has gradually become clear about my bike locks: they are a royal pain in the ass.  The first one (astute readers will remember there are two) is one of those rigid u-shaped ones.  I try to use it to lock the frame and front wheel to whatever immovable object I’ve chosen but the particular u-lock I bought seems to be precisely one millimeter too narrow and/or one millimeter too short to be useful in 98% of the locking situations I find myself in.  When I do find some scenario where it actually fits the two pieces have to be aligned so precisely in order to fit together that one wonders whether laser guides and micrometers are meant to be involved.  I’m not kidding, that lock has sometimes brought me close to tears and usually at least causes me to swear out loud.

The second lock is a heavy, enormous chunk of hardened chain covered in a nylon sheath.  It’s much more well-behaved in the locking/unlocking department, and being chain it’s much more flexible.  This lock’s downfall is the black nylon sheath that invisibly collects smudges of chain grease that are then transferred to my hands, face, clothing and belongings every time I handle it.  Every time.

But no matter.  After cursing for several more minutes I got everything secured satisfactorily and walked out of the bike-locking underpass towards the station entrance, sweaty and be-smudged.  Then the doubts started creeping in… I was, after all, leaving my new bike locked up in exactly the same place where the old one had been stolen.  But it was fine, right? I had two new (stupid) fancy (frustrating) expensive (heavy) locks.   Sure, the place was littered with lesser locks that had not withstood the test of Vauxhall Station, but my locks were better than those.  And there were TWO of them, so no worries right?  Then I spied exactly the same chain lock I’d just used on my bike lying forlornly on the pavement, still wrapped around the locking frame but certainly lacking the bike it might once have secured. 

Abandoned lock
Lonely lock.
F*ck.  So back I went to my bike, undid the stupid, frustrating, heavy, dirty locks, wheeled it out to a more public area, and sweated and cursed one more time until it was all secure again.  Then, and only then, did I proceed into the station for…

The Annoyances of London, Act 4 (The unreliable nature of public transit on weekends): I like Vauxhall Station mostly because it’s small and easy to navigate.  Big stations like Waterloo can have 15 or 20 different platforms and if you don’t get the same train to the same place from the same platform every day, you are required to stand in a huge crowd of people scanning 15 or 20 electronic signs to try and discover which platform your train will be leaving from.  This is further complicated if you’re not going to the terminus point of that train, because then you have to scan every stop listed on each of the 15 or 20 signs to try and spot your station as it scrolls past. 

Waterloo Info Boards
The information boards at Waterloo
This is complicated even further if you’re not supremely confident of the geography of southern England, since it means you can’t really safely eliminate many trains from contention.  Yes, I know Kew Gardens is not on the way to Edinburgh or Liverpool, but Portsmouth? Sutton? Guildford? Bognor Regis?  I have no idea.  It’s a stupid, frustrating, mostly non-functional system as far as I’m concerned.

That’s why I like Vauxhall; usually I can quickly scan the 3 or 4 signs in the corridor, figure out the right platform, and proceed apace.  Naturally, though, Kew does not appear on any signs at Vauxhall, and being in a somewhat fragile state of mind already I elected to simply ask a helpful employee on which platform one could expect the next train to Kew.  (I usually only have to resort to this tactic when facing the above-mentioned Bognor Regis Conundrum.)  So I waited politely behind someone else who was being served by an elderly gentleman who finished with that query and then proceeded to ignore me so patently that I was actually a bit incredulous.  He kept his head down so he wouldn’t have to acknowledge me and filled his time rooting around in the inside pockets of his jacket rearranging bits of paper in a decidedly leisurely fashion for such a length of time that you’d think he was employing the Dewey Decimal System.  I stood there for a long, awkward, annoyed moment, and then gave up and turned to his colleague who promptly told me that there was no train to Kew and I’d have to go to Barnes and get a bus from there.  “What? Is that normal? Or is that just today?” I said.  “Oh no, it’s just today.”  Of course.  And I’m honestly not exaggerating when I say this almost made me cry.  Yeah sure this sounds extreme, but keep in mind that my day had started out like an English Tourism brochure and in the space of about 25 minutes had degenerated into a sweaty, anxious, grease-smudged, increasingly time-sensitive blur.

Vauxhall Station, brighter
Vauxhall Station, looking deceptively innocent
So my choices were to get the train to Barnes and then get on the Rail Replacement Bus Service (four of the saddest words a train lover can hear) or give up on the train and get the tube, which would be slower and more annoying, but not as annoying as the bus.  The trouble was I’d already tapped my Oyster card at the gate to enter the train station, and if I left I’d be charged.  So I had to go downstairs to the ticket office to get my fare refunded, and then escaped to the tube, thus negating the whole point of riding my bike to Vauxhall in the first place since it would have been simpler to just get the tube from Brixton if I’d known there was no train, thus eliminating all of the stupid, sweaty anxious, grease-smudged bike locking episodes, and the utterly unsatisfying interaction with Mr. Paper-Shuffling-If-I-Don’t-See-You-You’re-Not-There.

So do you see what I mean about how London can sometimes really wind you up?  Luckily, by the time I actually got on the tube train things calmed down considerably, and I cooled off.  And Kew Gardens was quite nice, and Phoebe and John were lovely, and the sun even came out (eventually).  But now you have to wait until next week to hear about that, because after wading through 1,700 words worth of ranting and whining, you and I both deserve a break.

(Oh, except for this: I GOT A NEW JOB.  Yes, I know I only just got the job I’m in, but that was always likely to be short term, and this new new job is kind of a big deal and kind of the thing I came over here in the hopes of doing, so I’m kind of totally excited.  What’s the job?  Well, let’s just say there’s a certain major sporting event coming to town next summer, and there will be a little show or two involved in the opening and closing celebrations of said sporting event.  And I’m going to have a tiny part in putting those shows together.  And really, how cool is that?)

(And to answer your questions before you ask: No, I can’t get you tickets to the 100m Final, or the Beach Volleyball, or even the ceremonies themselves.  And no, I can’t tell you anything about the show.  There will, in fact, be a non-disclosure agreement, so just don’t bother.)



jst1203 said...

Congratulations on the new Job!!!

Laura C said...

PAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YAY!!!!! And now we get to teach the girls more about the Olympics via you, as if teaching them about the world wasn't enough! You're awesome!YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Heather Moore said...

Congrats on the job!

And I had no idea you could take the train *within* London. I thought you only took the train to leave London - kind of like the Greyhound buses here! *snort*

Colleen said...

Way to go, Pam! Delighted to hear that you are going to have another new job at this mysterious sporting event in London. Too bad you weren't able to get a job at the Olympics, which I believe is on at the same time. Wait a minute.... I think I'm getting a vision of five rings. Oh well, I'll figure it out later. Congratulations!!!! ck

Jess said...

I usually just read from my reader but came over here today to comment - congrats on the job - so fabulous!!!! (and loved the whining - that stuff would drive me crazy too!)

Kathryn said...

I believe I had almost that exact same day in Toronto this week! I spent most of my week back there jaw-dropped with very similar frustrations! Glad I'm not the only one!!

Nigel (of Nigel and Margaret) said...

Hey congrats! Just popped in for a fix after a long time away. It's somehow heartening to discover that all the UK's quirks are abnormal to people other than me. Visit Edinburgh sometime!

daphne said...

Congratulations on the new job - the Olympics - that is exciting for you, and for those of us who live vicariously thru your blog.

Unknown said...

"Every Time" LOL. I am now a mostly bicycle person too and share your perspectives on the trials and tribulations of the sport.
Congrats on the new job, and let us know how it goes. We all are rooting for you in everything you do over there. You are not just doing this for yourself, we are living vicariously through your adventures.
Your last blog had too many non-human photos - keep that in mind for future blog postings. Min. 50% of photos should have you or someone in the story in them. Humans are interesting to other humans. Fancy that!
Dinnerus Maximus coming up June 2012.

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