Tag Archives: London

My day with Michael Jackson

There only seems to be one story on the collective mind of America (and indeed the world) right now, and strangely it doesn’t appear to be the fact that I successfully got my green card yesterday. I feel bad that so much time and effort had been put into street parties and tribute concerts to welcome me into the lovingly litigious arms of the United States, only for a 50 year old man to die three thousand miles away forcing people to box up the champagne and take down the flags.

The strange thing is that this isn’t the first time that Michael Jackson has impacted my life. Although in all honesty, I suspect it may be the last.

When I first moved to London, I started my career in the capital as a showbiz journalist working for a wire agency whose chosen level of moral fibreer would have made Bernie Madoff look like a latter day saint. Nothing was too low for these people, and as a result it was probably one of the most endlessly fascinating jobs I’ve ever had. I left after a year, unable to take the scurrilousness of it anymore, but not before I’d stolen a fax with possible house purchases on it from Jarvis Cocker, doorstepped Emma Bunton (Baby Spice, for the benefit of my American readers) and inadvertently pimped out one of my female colleagues to Gene Simmons.

But the time that particularly stays in my mind is the day that I spent in the company of Michael Jackson, travelling around London for a photo-feature on The King Of Pop on the streets of the city.

Actually, I say ‘Michael Jackson’ but what I really meant was ‘one of the world’s leading Michael Jackson impersonators’, a guy called E Casanova. The agency figured that a newspaper would lap up a photo feature on a fake Jacko shocking tourists at various attractions, and duly managed to convince E Casanova to take part in return for the promise of untold riches and fame.

Another reporter and I were roped in as fake bodyguards for the occasion, and we managed to get a local company to loan us a stretch limo to complete the look of – ahem – a worldwide megastar taking an incognito tourist trip.

The day didn’t begin very well, when we turned up at the skanky hotel that ‘Michael’ was staying in, and the star wasn’t willing to take part unless we made various promises about the levels of fame and cash we would bring him. Duly perjured, we set off with him and his manager (a guy who had a second career – and I swear that I am not making this up – as a Lionel Richie lookalike).

And to be fair, this guy looked incredibly like Michael Jackson. If you got too close, you could tell the difference, but from anything more than a few yards away, it could have been the man himself. And as a result, anywhere we went, we were pretty mobbed by people wanting to get autographs or to have their picture taken. When we had ‘Jacko’ pose with a guard at Horse Guards Parade, you could desperately see the poor guy trying not to break his stiff uniformed stance while at the same time thinking ‘f**k me, that’s Michael Jackson standing next to me’.

Over the course of a few hours, we made our way around London taking pictures of Jackson in various locations – 10 Downing Street, Big Ben, by the Thames etc. ‘Jacko’ insisted on winding down the window of the limo when we were stuck at traffic lights, allowing fans to gaze in and try to grab his hand for a fleeting second.

While at Piccadilly Circus doing the compulsory Statue of Eros shot, Jackson noticed the then-Tower Records store across the road. He’d already been pretty unaccommodating during the day, and now he insisted that we go in there to do some record shopping.

I think it was at this point that the mystique behind the day began to fall away. After all, it’s difficult to maintain the illusion that you are with the real Michael Jackson when you’re at the Michael Jackson section of a record shop, with dozens of music fans all around you, flipping through the CDs to make sure that you’ve got them all. “Bad – got. Thriller – got. Off The Wall – got. Dangerous…have I got that? Oh yeah, I bought that in Paris. HIStory – got…”

Then Jacko and his manager insisted that they go for dinner, ahead of a ‘business meeting’ that they had set up at lapdancing club Stringfellows. We’d already reserved them a table at the Rock Garden in Covent Garden – a poor man’s Hard Rock Cafe, if you will. Having watched them change tables three times (“We want somewhere private. No, not that private – we want people to see him. What about this table in the very centre?”) we managed to make our excuses and leave.

We’d barely been back in the office for more than five minutes when the phone rang. The manager was complaining that people were gathering around them and they couldn’t eat their burgers. One chat to the manager later, and they were calmed. Ten minutes passed. Another call. Why hadn’t we paid the bill at the restaurant – now they were scrabbling around for cash so that they could go to their meeting.

Another ten minutes elapsed and the phone rang one more time. The limo driver had headed back to his base, leaving Jackson with no car to take him to Stringfellows. Given that it was only 400 metres or so away, they decided to walk. But the sight of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie casually strolling down Long Acre was too much for passers-by to take, and the pair were being mobbed by all-comers. They’d been forced to take refuge in an old fashioned red pay phone kiosk, and were calling in the hope that we would come to rescue them.

We didn’t answer the phone for a while after that. But in my darker moments, the thought of Jacko and Lionel running to Stringfellows with a baying mob behind them has always been enough to bring a smile to my face.

I’m bad. You know it.

Ten things you can learn about New York City from the subway

Newton’s little-known fourth law of motion states that all city dwellers shall complain about the transport system that gets them to work in the morning. Londoners have more reason than most to moan, with a Northern Line that resembles Calcutta on a bad day, and weekend engineering work that means any trip from Leicester Square to Covent Garden has to go via Cardiff.

But when it comes down to it, underground systems are a microcosm of the city above, and if you ask me, there’s plenty we can learn about the city above by taking a look at the teeming humanity below. Just one week on the subway in New York is enough to glean some valuable lessons about New York and its itinerant population:

1. New Yorkers have an attention span that is only marginally longer than the average gnat. As a result, the majority of the city’s residents believe that there is a danger of spontaneous combustion unless they are constantly stimulated. People used to prepare for their work day by reading a newspaper; now they watch Gossip Girl on their iPod.

2. The majority of New Yorkers take up at least 47% more space than they think they do. As a result, most commuters never believe that a train is full, even after seeing documented evidence that Norris McWhirter and his fellow Guinness Book of World Records cronies have declared the train the current holder of the award for most people crammed into a confined space in a subterranean environment.

3. Most New Yorkers are hard of hearing, and have to play music at volumes only previously heard in military noise torture tests, in camps that make the Guantanamo Bay experience seem like a day out in Disneyland.

4. At least one third of all the city’s residents are homeless, and are forced to carry around all their worldly possessions in rucksacksbackpacks the size of, say, Mongolia.

5. Aggravated bodily harm is not illegal once you are thirty feet underground. If you need to use an umbrella, a fist or a good old fashioned honest-to-goodness shoulder barge to get past people, that is perfectly acceptable. If you leave your victim cowering on the floor, all the better.

6. The credit crunch means that a lot of people can no longer afford paper. All notes have to be scratched onto the subway windows as a result.

7. 95% of New York men have never seen a pregnant woman. At least that’s why I assume no-one ever seems to give up their seat when they see a gestating female clinging grimly onto a subway pole. It’s either that, or every New York man has had their fingers burned offering their seat to a woman who turned out to be less pregnant, more a big fan of cakes.

8. In Salem, they identified witches by the onset of mysterious convulsions; in New York, the outsiders are the people you see on the subway who aren’t wearing a coat manufactured by The North Face. If you are not wearing a black coat at the very least, you will be chased out of town by men brandishing pitchforks. North Face-branded pitchforks, obviously.

9. The lack of public toilets in New York was made possible by the 1932 Subway Conveniences Act, which stated that at least one subway carriagecar on every train will be required to stink of piss. Any train found to be lacking such a stench is forced to find a homeless guy with a collection of four thousand shopping bags (none of which contain soap) and place him in a carriage as a deterrent to commuters.

10. From the age of 2, all New Yorkers are trained to seek out vacant subway seats by smell alone. It is physically impossible to beat a seasoned New Yorker to a seat, even if you are given a 10 yard start. And your opponent is on crutches.

Still, these sardine cans get me to work, so I can’t really complain. I mean, obviously I will complain. But until someone coughs up for a personal chauffeur for me, it looks like I’m stuck with it so I may as well make the most of it. Now, where’s my umbrella?

New York in three words

If you’re of a particularly nervous disposition, New York is one of those cities that can chew you up and spit you out. It’s a city that takes no prisoners, and you just have to dive in and hope for the best (or grab some armbandswater wings and get yourself into the shallow end). I’ve had to learn to develop a thick skin, not take things too seriously, and always be ready for every eventuality. And that’s just in my dealings with The Special One.

To be fair, when I first moved to London, I hated it with a level of passion that I had only previously managed to demonstrate when eating egg and beetroot salad. The fact that I lived with a curly haired freak who played the saxophone at all hours of the day, and that I was duly forced to retreat to my bedroom the size of a malnourished cloakroom to escape, didn’t help. Nor did working for a company that let me cut my teeth in journalism but at the same time managed to provide me with a healthy understanding of the standard of human rights for employees in, say, North Korea.

It took a year, and a change of employer, before I finally managed to feel like I belonged in the big smoke. And I’ve certainly settled into New York much more quickly than that. But having an insider guide me through the nuances and vagaries of New York life has certainly helped immeasurably.

Of course, not everybody is so fortunate. Particularly when English isn’t your first language. Not that English is necessarily the first language of New Yorkers either. I have it on good authority that the 2000 census found that the primary language of the city was Anger, with Impatiencism being the most-followed religion.

On the subway into work yesterday, a young Russian woman sat next to me, eagerly reading language flash cards in a bid to improve her vocabulary. Each card had one English word on the front, while the back featured the pronunciation and an explanation of the meaning of the word. In the short time I was sitting next to the woman, I saw her examine three individual words – three words that took her one (or three) steps closer to feeling like she truly belongs here.

So what were the words that flash card manufacturers decided were vital to include in their tools for people learning English for use in New York? ‘Cab’, ‘tip’ and ‘pizza’ perhaps? Or maybe ‘bagel’, ‘coffee’ and ‘liberty’?

Nope.

‘Vicious’, ‘unyielding’ and ‘wily’.

She may not be able to order breakfast, but if she ever fancies buying a used car in the city then she’s got everything she needs to know.

On song

You get a better class of crazy in this city, you know. Walking along a side street a few blocks from Times Square last night, I saw (and indeed heard) a dawdling dishevelled old man, singing at the absolute top of his voice. I’m guessing, but he looked like he was about 70 years old and almost certainly homeless, given his ragtag collection of battered plastic bags.

Nothing particularly odd in any of that – sometimes it feels like you’re part of a vast travelling choir in New York, such is the number of people who think that it’s perfectly acceptable to share their tone-deaf warblings with the rest of the world.

But how many 70 year old down-and-out guys in London would have Rihanna’s “Umbrella” as their song of choice, particularly given that it was about 75 degrees and blue skies at the time?

Actually, he didn’t have a bad voice when it came down to it. If Prince ever needs a slightly older frayed-around-the edges replacement, can I suggest he starts the search in the homeless shelters of Hell’s Kitchen?

London, England

Travelling to the airport on Monday, my taxi driver asked me whether I was from London. Distracted momentarily from a state of perpetual nausea caused by the constant stop-start motion of driving down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, I replied that although I was actually on my way to London, I actually originated from the North-West of England. The driver’s response? “Oh, so you’re from England, not London?”

I long ago accepted that the ‘Great’ has pretty much vanished from Britain, and that in many ways my home country is little more than a footnote in world history. Sure, we punch above our weight in certain things such as music, football and Branston Pickle production, but we’re not the force that we once were. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt that so many Americans have such a fundamental lack of geographical understanding of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as I believe it should be known.

When it comes down to it, many of the residents of my adopted country believe that the UK consists of two places – London and England. Wales is in England, “Ed-in-burrow” is in England, and the Cotswolds are probably somewhere between Big Ben and “that wheel thing”. Trying to explain where Chester is can be difficult enough when you’re talking to a Brit. But when you can’t even use Manchester and Liverpool (the UK’s third and seventh largest urban conurbations respectively) as reference points, you may as well as just give up and tell some Americans that you come from London.

I know that America is an immensely huge place, and that as a result it has cities far larger than anything that the UK can offer – other than London. Given that you can travel from one end of the UK to the other in about the same time it would take you to get from the bottom of New York State to the top, I guess it’s maybe like asking somebody from Colorado whether they’ve heard of Poughkeepsie. But even so, you’d struggle to find anybody in Britain who hadn’t heard of Seattle and Washington (the twenty-third and twenty-seventh largest cities in the US respectively).

Still, nothing’s as bad as Macy Gray proudly strutting on stage at the Glastonbury Festival a few years ago and shouting “Hello London” to a bemused crowd. After all, what’s 150 miles between friends?

Signed, sealed, delivered

When I was growing up in North Wales, fish and chips on a Friday night used to be a big treat. I say ‘fish and chips’, but generally I preferred fishcake – the little fried cakepatty that has almost certainly never been in the same room as a fish, let alone been made of it. Anyway, it was always really about the chips – deep fried nuggets of golden potato, crisp in places but at the same time deliciously moist from their time steaming in their paper packaging. And plenty of salt and lashings of brown sauce, obviously. Never vinegar though – acid belongs in batteries, not on your chips.

Our fish and chips generally came from Ted’s, a short walk around the corner from our house. Although for a time we used to drive a few minutes up the road to get them from another chip shop near the shopping centre. To be honest, calling it a shopping centre is similar to describing a fishpond in your garden as one of the Great Lakes – about ten small shops and a library doth not a shopping centre make.

The point is that whenever we wanted fast food, we had to go to get it. Actually there was only Chinese, Indian or chips to choose from, but once the choice had been made, we had to get in the car to get it – it wasn’t going to come to us. It’s the same in most non-metropolitan areas of the US, as far as I can make out, although given the sheer scale of this country, I guess that can on occasion mean making a 100 mile round journey just for a portion of chicken wings.

Moving to London was a culture shock, given that many more places would deliver pizza, curry or Thai food direct to your door. Indeed, I’ve built up many a good relationship with Chinese takeawayout places over the years – after all, even this keen cook has to have a night off every so often.

But even in London, there’s still plenty of places that refuse to deliver food and which either don’t allow takeaway, or else make you visit them to pick it up.

Yet in New York, it seems that any place that refuses to deliver would go out of business within approximately six hours. There is simply nothing that cannot be delivered, and at pretty much any time of the day. From sushi to Ethiopian and falafel to fettucine, all you have to do is pick up the phone and call, and whatever food you desire will be with you in an indecently short amount of time. They say in London that you’re never more than six feet away from a rat. In New York, you’re never more than six minutes away from a General Tso’s chicken. Coincidentally, the chicken may well actually be rat, but that’s another story.

I’m not sure whether it’s sheer weight of numbers that enables food delivery on such an incredible scale, or whether it’s the “I’m just too busy to cook” mentality that has forced food places into it. Probably a combination of the two. Even some restaurants that are reckoned to be relatively high end will still happily deliver items from their menu direct to your home. I might try ringing Gordon Ramsay’s at Claridges to ask for them to bring round some crispy Suffolk pork belly and fondant potatoes next time I’m in London, just to hear the reaction.

Still, I’m pleased to report that I haven’t found anywhere that will deliver fish and chips just yet. You can actually get great fish and chips in Brooklyn, but you just need to go to get it. Some traditions are worth keeping, it would seem.

Mushy peas, anyone?

Ready, steady….

There are many things I’ll miss about London life, but there’s one irrational and wholly inconsequential behavioural trait that I’ll be glad to kiss goodbye to – Oystercard Unreadiness Syndrome.

Maybe you’ve not heard of this disease that’s currently rampaging through our capital city, but you’ve almost certainly seen it. It predominates in women, although is not exclusively confined to them, and its frequency tends to increase on occasions when those around the victim are running late to get somewhere. There is a simple cure, but education is still necessary to ensure that we stamp out this terrible illness.

Picture the scene. You’re on the bus. You’re late for a job interview/first date/goddaughter’s birthday party. You’re making good progress through the busy London roads, and all is looking fine. And then it strikes when you’re least expecting it.

The bus stops to allow a fairly lengthy line of passengers to get on. From the size of the line, they’ve been waiting there for, ooh, fifteen minutes. During that time, each passenger has no doubt been consumed with their own thoughts – "What do I need to buy in Tesco’s?", "I wonder why he isn’t answering?" or "Man alive, look at the legs on her", maybe? But each member of the ever-lengthening queue knows one indisputable thing – once the bus finally arrives, they’re going to get on, pay the fare, and (hopefully) sit down. It’s quite simply the law of the (transportation) land.

Most people get on the bus as expected, the beep of the ticket machine registering the successful acceptance of the validity of their Oystercard payment. But then comes our poor OUS sufferer. Identification is generally possible by the handbag she’s swinging from her shoulder. If it’s conceivably large enough to conceal, say, Liechtenstein, then it’s probable that she’s at the very least a carrier of the disease. She makes the short step up onto the bus, and then, confronted with the familiar yellow glow of the Oystercard reader, she makes the grim realisation that she has to offer some form of payment for the journey. Does she have her Oystercard ready, having known for the last quarter of hour that she was going to need it? Sadly not.

No matter how many times they get on a bus, OUS victims are crippled by an inability to remember to have their payment out and ready to use. And not only is it not ready, it’s hidden within the murky depths of that handbag, no doubt nestling cosily beneath the severed heads of three ex-boyfriends and seventeen copies of the latest Harry Potter blockbuster.

And so the hunt begins. Our hapless victim rifles through the bag in search of the ticket she never even knew she needed. Her mission unearths all manner of treasures. Marlboro Lights (six packets)? Check. Picture of her and closest mate on the slopes at Val D’Isere? Check. Small surface-to-air missile (collapsible)? Check check check.

Only after a complete dismantling of the bag and the laying out of all its contents on the floor, does the victim find the means to pay. With a cheerful ignorance of the villainous stares of the disgruntled fellow passengers who’ve been kept waiting for ten minutes, she walks to an empty seat and settles down to listen to David Gray on her iPod.

Victims in advance stages of the disease can find that after taking every single item out of their bag, the Oystercard was actually in their pocket all along. Variants of the disease include Credit Card Ill-Preparedness Complex (generally witnessed in long supermarket queues) and Fast Food Indecisionitis (where the level of indecisiveness increases in direct inverse correlation to the number of items on the menu).

We need to act urgently if we are to banish this world of the terrifying impact of this degenerative disease. Please do give generously, and help those that are unable to help themselves. Thank you.

PS In the United States, I can only assume that if somebody waits until they get on the bus to get out their payment, security marshalls will operate on a shoot-to-kill basis. Zero tolerance – it’s the only way forward.