Thursday, 25 February 2010

Finsbury Circus RIP

If you live or work in the City of London, be sure to visit Finsbury Circus this week. It will be your last chance to see it in its original state, and your last chance to enjoy it at all for at least seven years, as it will become a building site for Crossrail from 1 March.

Finsbury Circus is the oldest and largest open space in the City. A short distance between Moorgate and Liverpool Street station, it is unusually a square in London that is in fact elliptical, covering 2.2 hectares. The Circus was once part of the Finsbury Manor Estate but was enclosed in 1812 to form a garden later laid out by William Montague. It’s our minute version of Central Park.

Crucially, it is a refuge, a tranquil sanctuary in the middle of otherwise busy streets raging with traffic, away from the nearby busy pavements that are covered by masses of work-focused people stomping past to the next chapter of their busy lives. This open-air shelter of sorts a short distance away is remarkably serene. I look around at the others sitting here, many taking photos in the knowledge that this little paradise is being lost, and everyone has that look of calm that the Circus inspires, which they will no doubt lose when they walk a few yards to Moorgate or London Wall or wherever to fade into the crowds and return to their bustling, busy lives.

There are, of course, bigger green spaces in central London if you have time to travel way across London to a royal park, for instance. But none so accessible to us City folk. If you just want to see some lovely flowers and gorgeous old trees, or to hear the happy chirp of birds other than pigeons, it’s a Godsend. Already, the Camellia bush beside me is in bloom (I am typing this from a bench in a quiet and somewhat forlorn Finsbury Circus) and behind me are the first crocuses and snowbells I have seen this year, already in full flower as if Finsbury Circus has some special gulf stream or simply magic that's sprinkled on its green inhabitants. This tiny touch of joy truly stirs my heart, particularly on this otherwise miserable rainy grey day. The flowers have gone to the trouble of finally bursting through, subtly and delicately presenting their brand new beauty ahead of most of their cousins, and yet they will be heartlessly yanked up and put on a tip somewhere in a day or so.

The existence of the magnificent Finsbury Circus has been threatened before by railway development. Apparently, in 1862, when it was only 50 years old, plans by the Metropolitan Railway Company to demolish it were considered, but it was saved by Alfred Smee, who considered it to be one of the most beautiful London squares. Where is its saviour now, I wonder, as it surely retains that impressive status 150 years later. The elliptical square was acquired by the Corporation of London in 1900 for public use, and has been maintained by the City for that purpose ever since. Until now, when the battle has been lost.

I feel at such a loss because, even though I don’t get to take a break as often as I should, I cheer myself with the thought of coming here, and I will always go slightly out of my way to wander through it if I’m near. If I’m simply strolling from Moorgate or London Wall to Broadgate or Liverpool Street, I make sure I cut through Finsbury Circus, and even just that quick diversion leaves me feeling warmer and soothed as a result. If I find I have even just a few minutes, I will get a Chai Tea Latte from one of the nearby Starbucks and go sit on one of the many benches and have a bit of ‘time out’ from the stressful day, just watching the sparrows and looking up at the sky through the stretching arms of trees, which is something I can rarely do as a City dweller. People with more time and money to devote enjoy a meal at the Pavilion restaurant there, which has a fun clubhouse-shack look with tables overlooking the bowling green, all of which I imagine will also be destroyed.

While this Spring will be an exception, of course, usually, as soon as the weather is warm, the garden fills with people reading, chatting, enjoying their lunch, sitting on the many benches that line the circle of the square, or the low stone walls, or the deckchairs provided by the bandstand, or just stretched out on the lawn. People are everywhere, sharing the joy of the gardens. During the City of London Festival each summer, the bandstand delivers bright live music, and I have enjoyed many a delightful lunch break during the festival whilst being wowed by impressive jazz musicians in Finsbury Circus, when somehow I’m not fond of jazz elsewhere. The atmosphere sells it, the rapture of the others around me, perhaps what the Irish would call the craic.

The gazebo, in particular, means a great deal to me as a symbol of a carefree time. Back in 1989, when I was in the UK for only eight months, a friend who was a professional photographer took photographs of me with my new fiancĂ© and my future brother-in-law and his wife in front of the charming gazebo. Although I later, after an awful divorce, removed from the framed collages all the other photographs from that period containing the now ex-husband, I kept the ones from Finsbury Circus as they were always warm memories of a superb summer’s evening in a remarkable place.

In the centre of the Circus is a bowling green, and plaques citing former championship wins are posted on its edge. The bandstand is lined with plaques pronouncing the Square as having won awards as the best inner-city open space for some years. Or at least it was; I see those have been removed over the past few days given what feels like the impending apocalypse. There are palmettos beneath the surrounding canopy of beautiful plane trees, some of the oldest in the City (I hear the latter might be protected from the destruction; I certainly hope so). I understand the garden also contains the oldest specimen of the pagoda tree, Sophora japonica, so I pray that is also preserved. The Circus is surrounded by tall buildings with a Georgian feel that remind me of Bath’s Royal Crescent, and all sorts of little oddities pop up as you wander around, such as funny former drinking fountains from another century, benches installed decades ago in memory of 'old music hall artistes and song writers'. Everyone sitting in Finsbury Square seems to have an affinity with it, and we respect each other’s enjoyment of it.

So, get there while you can. There is barely any time left. Crossrail takes control of it from 1 March and will remove everything in the centre, although they will apparently in 2017 or so reinstate the little gazebo of which I am so fond and, I assume, the bandstand. They will presumably remove the Pavilion restaurant, the bowling green, the flowers, shrubs and many trees. They are storming in soon and I will have lost my refuge from the world, and I feel stressed already.

Ironically, I see that Transport for London have listed Finsbury Circus on its Open Garden Squares Weekend site, complete with a description of its marvellous attractions even though that weekend is in June 2010, long after this stunning sanctuary will be gone. I am offered as some insubstantial comfort the fact that Crossrail promises to reinstate Finsbury Circus when it is finished with it, at least seven years away. I am also told that we need this new railway, and I am not condemning progress. But I find myself devastated and depressed by the loss of this treasure, and totally lost as there will be nowhere to go so safe from the stresses of life with such amazing calming powers. I think on Friday, I may just cry, but I hope to race for one last glimpse and absorption of its gift of solace if I can manage it before an unmissable meeting. I’m already feeling dispirited to have to give up and leave now as it’s started to pour down rain, as predicted.

Go see Finsbury Circus now even if you’ve never been; it will warm your heart--if the bulldozers and diggers aren’t there yet. Nothing can replace it for me, my enchanted Shangri-La. I thank it for its many years of solace and diversion. RIP Finsbury Circus.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Alarming Stuff

The other weekend, for the first time in my life, I dialled 999 (the English equivalent of 911). I did so amidst the campaigns just launched about not troubling the emergency services for minor things as too many people do, and the news stories that the emergency services could not keep up with calls because of the relatively heavy snow that had been draped over the land for a week or so. Naturally that, of all the times in my 43 years when I might have chosen to summon the emergency services before, is when I elected to do so.

But not without a bit of persuasion, at least. First, there was the terrifying alarm that tried to persuade me. I had been dozily slipping into the land of nod against my intentions on the sofa that Saturday evening, when the combined smoke and carbon monoxide alarm above me left out a couple breathtakingly loud beeps so shrill that it must make dogs suicidal, followed by 'WARNING!! WARNING!! CARBON MONOXIDE!!', which it repeated incessantly. The authoritative female voice of the alarm made it that much scarier, as the scene was like one from a sci-fi film where the on-board computer broadcasts 'WARNING! THE PLANET WILL DESTRUCT IN 10 MINUTES. EVACUATE NOW!' Perhaps that is why I ended up physically shaking, its planet-destruction associations.

So, I asked myself with a scrambled head, what does one do in these circumstances, when there's no space-age hero or David Tennant or Christopher Eccleston (forget the new child; surely he's too young to save anyone) to take me to safety?

Well, what I did first, naturally, was to climb up to take the alarm down from the ceiling and remove the batteries to shut it up. I had no choice as it might have caused a heart attack otherwise (the neighbours' if not my own) and surely it was mistaken. After all, the alarm had never gone off before. (I like to think that some of this brainy behaviour can be attributed to having breathed in some of a poisonous gas). Then, a wee bit concerned about the small chance that it might not be lying after all, I opened some windows and shut off the boiler. The boiler had, after all, been appallingly fumy for some weeks, to the extent that I would only breathe out on my rare visits to my kitchen (I don't cook), and every day I meant to ring my plumber during my lunch hour to ask him to check it out, but I never got around to taking my lunch hour. Indeed, 'ring plumber' was firmly in my diary for the previous day.

However, it was terribly windy and snowy outside and it occurred to me after a mere few minutes of having the windows open and the boiler (and thus the central heating and hot water) switched off. So I decided a better plan would be to close the windows and switch the heat back on. In the interest of safety, though, I decided to adjust the boiler's timer so that, after it switched off tonight, it would come on in the morning an hour later than usual (6am rather than 5am) so that I wouldn't be asleep for too long if there were indeed a carbon monoxide leak from the it. ….Not asleep, no.

But I did pause again …..just what if there were something wrong? How stupid would I have to be to get a blaring, highly specific alarm like that and then decide to ignore it? I remembered the terrible story in the news of those small children being killed whilst on holiday in Corfu with their father because of a boiler that leaked carbon monoxide. And what if my plan to 'see what happened' tonight left me debilitated quicker than expected? I might nod off before I'd properly thought through a plan.

I was still determined to close the windows but thought I'd at least seek advice first. I went online to see that what was generally recommended was something American about notifying your service provider or, in some cases, getting in the fire brigade—without specifying which cases qualified for the latter. Feeling unenlightened and less street-wise than I always thought I was, I texted and emailed a few friends who I felt might have experienced something similar before. Fortunately, one of them rang immediately and insisted that I ring the fire brigade, as his father-in-law's friend had been killed by a boiler leaking carbon monoxide in his house, undetected. I kept saying how embarrassed I would feel and how busy they must be in the snow on a Saturday night with real emergencies, but he was adamant, which I figured meant it was at least not unheard of to trouble the fire brigade in these circumstances.

It was still odd to press those three 9s and wait for an answer; I still felt like I wasn't the sort of person in the right sort of circumstances to be troubling them. A female operator answered quickly and asked which emergency service I required, just like on television. I was tempted to say 'coast guard' and see what happened, but I said fire brigade, really wanting to add that I felt I shouldn't be bothering them and it was okay if she felt inclined to hang up on me. She immediately put me through to another woman who answered 'fire brigade,' and the first woman stayed on the line to tell the second that there was a call from – and she carefully and clearly read out my phone number and rung off.

That made me wonder…..does it mean that the 999 operators have better software at their disposal than the fire brigade, since the latter relies on the former for telephone number details, when even my unsophisticated phone at work had call display? And if my telephone settings blocked my number so that people couldn't dial 1471 to reveal who had rung them, does that mean my life is in more danger than if I didn't as the emergency services wouldn't know where I were ringing from unless there were time to tell them?

In any case, aware that the fire brigade operator, kind though she sounded, wouldn't want me to waste time with theories or long explanations, I just said 'my carbon monoxide alarm has gone off and my friend said I should ring the fire brigade.' She asked my address and said an engine would be with me shortly. Before I could help it, I heard myself saying, 'Oh no! You're sending a whole engine? But my close is full of snow and hard to manoeuvre, and it's probably a false alarm—I'd feel so silly.' Speaking in a soothing voice, she said I mustn't worry and I did the right thing by calling them; everything was fine and they were on their way.

So I waited. I must confess that, before I had even rung them, as I pondered my situation and then awaited friends' advice, I had had a bit of a tidy-up. I didn't quite get the Hoover out, though that was desperately needed, but the place was a shocking tip and I'd not been home long enough recently (when not working at home or dropping off to sleep immediately, which I've since been warned was, along with headaches and nausea that I'd ignored, a symptom of breathing in carbon monoxide to have a clearout. My house is a kingdom of clutter, like an untidy HMV warehouse with stacks of astonishing numbers of CDs, books, DVDs and even cupboards full of videos that I need to get rid of somehow. So, on top of the general embarrassment of having the fire brigade come round anyway, it was embarrassing to have anyone come round to see the place in this state.

So I quickly tried a few other futile attempts at improving the scene, crucially removing the more embarrassing bits of female laundry that were drying on the radiators and airers in the kitchen, and in a few minutes became aware of a flashing blue light coming through the front curtains. (I'd heard a siren beforehand but hadn't noticed it as I hear them all the time). I peaked out and, yes, there was my fire engine, just as I'd ordered.

Most of our dwellings look alike so I thought I'd better help them find mine, I opened the door and greeted them with a smile as they stumbled up my snowy path in all their fire-fighting gear. Yes, all their gear; they were dressed in those fluorescent yellow waterproof jackets and trousers, with helmets and lamps, big boots….. The only thing missing was axes and rushing towards me with a long hose spurting out gallons of foamy water. I guiltily thought how it seemed so absurd. I pictured them getting an alarm, interrupting their dinner, sliding down a pole (do they still do that?), rushing to get all their fire-fighting gear on, climbing aboard the engine, and speeding off at great risk in the snow to the address they'd been given…..where I greeted them with an open front door and a smile as if they were coming to my cocktail party.

As the five—count them, five—big firemen in all their gear climbed up the stairs into my flat, I was mortifyingly embarrassed. Let me count the ways….. I did warn them, not that they were about to behold the toughest fire they'd seen in years, but that they were entering an abode in a disastrously cluttered state like nothing they'd ever seen before. They all spread about, stomping off in different directions and looking in various rooms while I told the nicest looking one—by that, I mean he was smiley and had a kind face; none of them were young hunks that I recall but that really wasn't on my mind at the time, and who wants to be embarrassed in front of young hunks?—and the older one who seemed to be more of a thinker and took charge of things, including talking to the weird woman in the scarily overfilled flat. He must have been the Captain.

They were all enormously friendly and no one seemed angry at me for calling them out. Some of them made kissing noises at my terrified cats (one man in the house is rather unusual these days, never mind five big glowing loud ones); none of them were anything like gung-ho Kurt Russell or Sly Stallone in an action film, which I felt was a good thing. Some others seemed to remain outside with the engine, which still was flashing a brilliant blue light and which I'm sure every neighbour in the close was peering at through slight parts in their curtains.

Initially, The Men tinkered with my alarm, which lay disembowelled on my coffee table, and after they replaced the batteries and found it to no longer be shouting about the forthcoming apocalypse, the nice smiley one spoke into a radio on his giant fluorescent striped yellow jacket that it appeared to be a false alarm. I felt guilty and offended, a bit like I'd failed a test, 'til I realised that I would prefer to have no carbon monoxide filling the atmosphere and this all to be a result of the alarm-woman being bored or overly excitable. But the Captain guy pointed out that I'd had the windows open and the boiler off for a while so I might have cleared the problem before they got there, and they'd better switch on the boiler to test it.

As soon as they did, all these giants crowded into my teeny square kitchen (thank goodness I'd moved the laundry airers) immediately gasped and made loud enthusiastic exclamations just like groups of young men do when one of them, well, shall we say passes wind loudly and smellily. There was almost a delight in their suffering. The Captain chap said that he could smell that there was something wrong immediately and he even had a cold, and the nice smiley one nodded, looked nice and smiled at me. I feebly said that it had smelled that fumy for some weeks and I'd been meaning to get the plumber in, but I figured that as carbon monoxide didn't smell, smelling fumes meant it wasn't carbon monoxide. As I said it aloud, even I wanted to look at me like I was an idiot. But I guess it's nice for a group of giant life-saving men to feel even bigger around stupid women occasionally. Nice for them, anyway, and I guess I deserved it.

They played with the boiler for a bit longer and told each other (and me though they might as well have been saying blah blah blah blah-blah) technical things about various parts of the boiler, that the flame was burning yellow, and that since there was a pilot light blah blah blah, they couldn't just switch off the boiler's power but had to shut my gas off at the mains. This foiled my plans for using an ancient gas fire in the living room that was buried behind several dozen stacked DVDs, but they said everything in such a sweet, benevolent way, it all sounded a good idea. They still switched off the boiler's power at the electrical socket, and only some hours later did I notice that, in their enthusiasm to switch everything off, they'd also switched off my fridge. But perhaps it looked threatening or they figured I was too dumb to be trusted with any major appliance.

They stomped back into my living room and gave me useful advice about how long I needed to air my house out. It turns out that carbon monoxide leaves in a very short time—I think it was only an hour with the windows open—which was great. I then got to shut out the wind and snow, I just had no heating or hot water.

That was bearable as I managed to put on lots of layers and get into my warm bed, which has always been a bit of a cocoon as it has several blankets and a couple down duvets, and the next day I was able to pop out to Argos to get a small (they'd sold out of the large ones) energy efficient heater that provided a decent amount of heat if you were huddled next to it. The cats and I became very close—thank goodness they are Persians—as they found that I was the warmest thing in the room. I struggled through the next few days but fortunately my plumber came on the Tuesday. I had to ask a colleague to take an extremely important meeting for me, which I worried about for a while so I almost postponed the plumber, but as it was 42 degrees Fahrenheit in the warmest room when I got home on Monday night, I think I made the right decision. I wouldn't want to need the plumber even more because my pipes had frozen and burst.

It was decidedly uncomfortable, as was the worry that my ancient Potterton boiler, which is the size of a tall refrigerator, would need to be replaced at great expense. But fortunately the plumber seems to have been able to have fixed the problem. The boiler had just filled up with soot, causing the burning grill blah-blah-blah full of soot, and the pilot light blah-blah-blah as a result, and the flue had been completely blocked by soot so all the fumes that should have gone out the chimney were coming into the kitchen instead. Apparently, when one smells the fumes I was smelling, that's indicative of a boiler that is leaking carbon monoxide. He also was concerned that my alarm was so far away from the boiler that the amount of carbon monoxide that would have had to fill the house in order to set off the alarm meant he was surprised I was still standing. He made me go out that day to get another alarm to put right behind the boiler (I got one but apparently you shouldn't put them in the kitchen. He suggested that it must have been my fantasy come true to have all those burley firemen in my home, but that has never been my fantasy, and it was just mortifyingly embarrassing. ….Though I eventually had to admit to myself that there was something lovely about going from being very disoriented, scared, alone and unsure to having all these men arrive like superheroes with the sole mission of making you safe. I wouldn't recommend the former but it's sweet that the latter exists should you find yourself in that, or God forbid some much worse, position.

Since the long day my plumber spent working on the boiler, I've had to leave the kitchen window open whenever I'm home 'to protect us both,' he said, until he's sure that the system can cope with drawing out the bad stuff. He's coming back next week--and I so hope he will say I can start to close the window as it's so cold!!—to see if the remaining soot has burned off the chimney. Otherwise, I'll have to get a chimneysweep! I didn't know there were still chimneysweeps, and I can only picture either some filthy Dickensian child with a battered broom turning up, or Dick Van Dyke singing Chim-Chim Cheree in a dreadful English accent. But that might make it more fun and comfort me when he gives me the bill.

Anyway, despite everyone at work initially treating me like I was a dead woman walking, (the friend who'd rung me in my hour of need was a work colleague—my boss, in fact), I've been very chilled about this (with the window open, I've been very chilled) although I have been on a campaign to encourage everyone to get carbon monoxide alarms. A few have gone out and got one and put it up right away [you should do this, too!!], others just agree that they should get one and think about it. My own champion alarm that alerted me to all this, incidentally, had been a gift from my mother in the States some years ago. It was such a thoughtful alarm that it beeped in a certain pattern some months ago to let me know that it was dying and needed to be replaced. I didn't rush to do so as I couldn't find the same combi alarm, but eventually dear got in a consignment so I was able to replace the ailing alarm with an identical one. I should have treated it more urgently, but fortunately I got the new one up in time, and it told me what I needed.

Occasionally, I stop to think that I should pay more attention to the fact that, essentially, I got a second chance. I spend a lot of time going around grumbling that God hasn't let me win the lottery, or cursing the fact that my train was cancelled, when instead I should put those things in perspective and thank God (or whomever) for ensuring I didn't die that night.

Or the time not long ago where I started to step into the path of a speeding car but in that split second, my back shoe started to slide off so I paused. Or the time I had a huge gas leak thanks to the cooker installer sabotaging the job in hopes that I'd call him out again, but instead I breathed it in for three days and went around flicking light switches and even making toast beside the leak (and that, I did smell, but had been told by colleagues that one can expect a small smell of gas after a cooker has been installed, and I didn't realise what they meant by 'small smell'; I hear Transco prosecuted the guy.).

So the experience has made me realise that I need to appreciate life a bit more and moan a bit less. It has made me realise that, but not practice it so much. I'll work on it. The experience has also taught me something about myself. I learned that my response to a terrifyingly loud and jarring alarm indicating danger is to rush to silence it, convince myself that it was wrong, apply a twisted logic involving how long it would be safe for me to be asleep the next morning whilst inhaling poisonous gas, slowly polling friends and tidying up before ringing 999 in an emergency. Something else I should work on….

And get yourself a carbon monoxide alarm, now!