Monday, 26 July 2010

Alex Higgins: compulsive practicer, unforgettable champion

The journalist Bill Borrows once asked the great world snooker champion Alex Higgins if he had enjoyed his life. 

"I haven't really had all that much to do with my life," said Higgins. "All I've done is take part in it."
Many sincere - and some grudging tributes - have been paid to Higgins following his passing away, aged 61, in his Belfast hometown last Saturday. The BBC's clips reflect Alex's achievements and personality but, of all the tributes, I prefer Jim White's astonishing February 2010  video interview with Higgins and his final take on the 'Hurricane' in a Daily Telegraph article.
Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins, the most natural, charismatic and mesmeric player to have lifted a cue, once fired a 118 tournament break in two minutes and four seconds. In the film interview, White asks Higgins to explain his phenomenal speed at clearing balls from a snooker table.

"I was a compulsive practicer," replies Higgins. "I used to experiment with various shots, like a golfer on a driving range using different clubs."
His greatest achievement? "When my daughter was born, when I was 32," says Higgins. "I felt I'd become a man."
And his greatest snooker feat? Higgins replies: "It's alright winning but you can take a lot of pleasure out of how you behave when you lose...That's the thing about being a good sportsman."

Even when Higgins' playing powers declined, his clashes with snooker's stuffy establishment and puffed-up referees revealed his mental agility and quick-witted  intelligence. In a 1995 World Championship qualifier Higgins had already compiled a 110 break when he asked the senior and snooty referee John Williams to move out of his way. 
Williams, standing behind Higgins, said huffily: "But I'm not in your line of sight."
To which Higgins replied: "No, you're in my line of thought."

Clearly upset with Williams, Higgins still instinctively cleared the colours to complete a memorable 137 break. But what about "No, you're in my line of thought"; that's a poetical putdown, isn't it?
Even Sir Winston Churchill, the putdown king, might've chuckled at that one.
Paul Coleman, London, July 2010.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

The final break. A final tip of the hat.

The final break. 
That final tip of the hat.
Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins, a genius with a cue and cue ball.
The great entertainer.
The greatest snooker player.
The 'George Best' of snooker'.

George Best, like Alex, a genius, the most exciting footballer.
The great entertainer.
The 'Alex Higgins' of football.

Alex and George.
Belfast Boys.

Alex and George.
As Nat 'King' Cole once sang, 'Unforgettable, That's What You Are'.

Alex Higgins (18 March, 1949 - 24 July 2010).
George Best (22 May 1946 - 24 November 2005).
Nat 'King' Cole (17 March 1919 - 15 February, 1965). 
Brian Clough (21 March 1935 - 20 September 2004).
Bobby Moore (12 April 1941 - 24 February 1993).

Photos: BBC

Paul Coleman, London, July 2010.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Is this the final kick in the teeth for Walworth and the Elephant?

The younger children lashed and kicked at each other downstairs, their intensity earning the praise of their karate teacher. Upstairs, the flying verbals fired by 'older children' provoked a different tension. 

About 50 local Walworth residents sat beneath a peeling ceiling in the gloomy Heygate Tenants' Hall, just south of the Elephant and Castle. They swung questions about the phased demolition of the massive 1,212-home Heygate Estate towards a panel headed by Southwark councillor Martin Seaton.

Seaton tried to impersonate a chairman but his gaudy rainbow tie hindered his efforts to command respect. More impressive were Southwark's project officer Jon Abbott and Richard 'Dick' Davy, a demolition specialist for the developers, Lend Lease. 

Abbott reported hoardings, security guards and guard dogs are now installed on the first part of the Heygate to be demolished. One resident said she was worried that bringing down the vacant Wingrove and Rodney Road buildings might release a mini-plague of mice and rats into neighbouring residents' homes, gardens and streets. 

Doreen was one of several at the meeting who still lives on the Heygate amidst the 95% of empty flats plated with metal to stop squatters. She feared asbestos, noise and air pollution might permeate the local atmosphere. Another impressive speaker, a Mr Beadle, expressed anger that a host of mature trees could be lost forever. Others voiced worries the Victory Place children's playground would bite the dust...permanently.

Dick Davy didn't duck or dive the flak, earnestly trying to allay each fear. "We aren't demolishing the Heygate, we're deconstructing it," finessed Davy. "The Heygate was built like a pack of cards so we're reversing how it was built. There won't be any ball breakers or explosions."

"The council and Lend Lease should start talking about the plans for what's going to be built after demolition," said another resident, amidst cries of 'hear hear' from the back of the hall. Abbott, with Seaton at his shoulder, wouldn't be drawn onto that dangerous ground. "We are demolishing the buildings in advance of a planning application," was all Abbott would - or rather - could say. 

So far, Southwark and Lend Lease have only confirmed regeneration "will take at least fifteen years to complete". Demolition of the Wingrove and Rodney Road blocks should be "completed during Spring 2011". 

Astonishingly, the rest of the Heygate won't be demolished until 2015. That's led some of its former elderly and disabled residents to complain they were decanted and dispersed to poor quality homes elsewhere in the borough because Southwark simply didn't want to pay for the Heygate's maintenance.

I followed two local beat bobbies out of the hall into Walworth's sultry July evening heat. The mix of residents at the meeting had struck me. Tough-talking, sceptical long-term working class residents had sat beside wordy, well-intentioned middle class professional folk. 

I looked up at one of the estate's many blocks set for demolition -  or deconstruction, if you prefer the developer-speak. Behind the block rose the gleaming 43-storey Strata, complete with its wealthy new residents, some living in £2 million penthouses beneath the tower's motionless wind turbines and red bat ear aircraft warning beacons.

One local Elephant resident had described Strata (above) as "glaring over south London like Sauron over the land of Mordor" (erm..above). And I wondered...are Strata's affluent dwellers precursors of the type of folks who will  benefit from the new "thriving, exciting urban quarter" that Southwark and Lend Lease say will eventually emerge from the old Heygate? 

Local people are anxious that working class Elephant and Castle inhabitants will inevitably be priced out of the market, excluded even from the 25-35% of so-called 'affordable' apartments that Southwark and Lend Lease have privately agreed and publicly promised will arise across the development.

If local peoples' fears turn out to be true, some say it's worth remembering similar outcomes were once condemned as displacement and even branded as 'gerrymandering' in another place (below) just across the River Thames.

London film fact: The Heygate Estate, built in the 1970s, was a backdrop in the film Harry Brown (2009), starring Michael Caine (below). The emptying estate also became used in 2009 by the exponents of Parkour, the 'art of movement'.

(More on Sauron and Mordor, sorry Southwark and Lend Lease, in future postings).

The consultation meeting on the Rodney Road demolition took place on Tuesday, 20 July 2010.

Paul Coleman, London, July 2010

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Flushing out London's 'fatbergs'

Most of us enjoy a night out 'up West'. London's Theatreland around Leicester Square and Soho is a playground of clubs, pubs and eateries. 

Sadly, one of my favourite Soho restaurants recently fell foul of a recent cockroach incursion. Understandably, Westminster's food inspectors slapped a temporary closure order on the joint. We thought those anchovies tasted a bit funny!

But the problem of hygiene and sanitation scuttles far deeper than a few cockroaches. As you know, every now and again that vicious West End whiff whips up the nostrils, especially in hot summer weather. Much of this 21st Century big stink comes from the 'fatbergs' of congealed cooking fat clogging up the West End's sewers.

So, spare a thought for London's team of sewer flushers who are currently blasting the 'fatbergs' with powerful water jets. They aim to clear 1,000 tonnes of putrifying cooking fat blocking the sewers beneath Leicester Square (above photo).

For many years now, West End restaurants and residences have been callously chucking cooking oil and fat down their drains into London's Victorian sewers.

According to Thames Water's puff people, (I mean PR team) that's the equivalent of "nine double-decker bus loads" of solidifying, oxygen-eating and methane emitting sludge.

The flushers' 'lard' job is made even tougher by the wet wipes and sanitary products bunged down there too. (Sorry, lard-on the pun). Good luck guys!

There's only one group of Londoners who love this stinky stuff - the West End's rats - who 'dig' fat as a food source and dig into fatbergs for nightly warmth. In fact, you'll rarely see a rat in a fat free sewer. 

Now, sir, madam, would you like to see the dessert menu?

Photo: Thames Water

Paul Coleman, London, July 2010

Friday, 9 July 2010

Reboot camp helps London homeless to kick drugs

"C'mon then man, let's get on with it," Hussain chunters, limbering up on tiptoes.

"You'll start running but your mind will tell you to quit, well before your body needs to stop," bellows Ian McClelland, his drill sergeant's voice rasping with parade ground gravel. 

Pigeons then scatter into the Hyde Park air as Hussain and a small gaggle of London's homeless, many of them past and present crack and heroin users, scamper around a sandy track on a punishing 1km sprint. Their intensity and speed attracts the attention of passers-by strolling near the Serpentine lake. 

McClelland, a British Military Fitness instructor, has just put these lads through a severe yet fun army-style fitness test involving stretches, lunges, sprints, press-ups, star jumps and sit-ups (above). "It's not a boot camp but the guys really enjoy getting fit together," says the shaven-headed instructor.

"I'm clean of hard drugs now," says Hussain just a few minutes after romping home first past the post in the sprint. "I think I'd have died without this fitness programme. My health problems are behind me." 

Hussain started running with residents and workers at the King George's Hostel in Westminster shortly after switching from methadone to Subutex, part of his detox from heroin. (Listen to audio interview with Hussain).

"This is better than rehab, which costs thousands. I stopped going out robbing long ago," says Hussain, who still runs with the group. The BMF's fitness scheme for Westminster's homeless hostel residents, many of them current and past heroin and crack users, is now in its third year.

However, I'm told by a hostel worker many of Londoner's homeless crack users are endangered this summer by a growing menace - Tuberculosis (TB). A mobile health screening unit is busier than ever trying to test London's homeless people for TB.

"If you're coughing and spitting up in crack den, you think that's just the effect of the crack," says my source. "But the symptoms of crack not only help to spread TB but also mask TB symptoms." 

Paul Coleman, London, July 2010

Audio interview with Hussain: Paul Coleman. 

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Cloak and dagger, regeneration and gentrification?

Beryl Bainbridge, who died on 2nd July, apparently used to wander the streets of Camden late at night lugging a bone-handled carving knife under her cloak. The author's obituary writers say she carried the weapon to deter muggers. 

Perhaps Bainbridge, who passed away this month, was influenced by the isolated old man who concealed a dagger under his grotty coat as he trapsed through London's bustling Victorian streets in Edgar Allan Poe's psychologically chilling tale, The Man of the Crowd. 

Another formidable London streetwalker, Harold P. Clunn, carried a pen and notebook during the 25 walks he undertook before and after World War II to chart the capital's changing cityscape. In an early 1960s edition of his famous book, The Face of London, Clunn anticipated optimistic plans to transform Elephant and Castle into the 'Piccadilly Circus of south London'. 

"The new Elephant designed to become one of London's greatest centres," wrote Clunn, explaining more than six thousand homes bombed beyond repair during World War II air raids would be demolished. "Three housing estates to accommodate seven thousand families are to be built in this quarter," said Clunn.

Fifty years later, the Elephant and Castle never became a prestigious London quarter. Far from it, in fact, Londoners never really liked the smelly subways and traffic grunging around its two huge roundabouts (see above photo). In 2010, a great swathe of those 'new' estates are themselves to be demolished.

One of those great grey hopes is the Heygate Estate, a massive concrete warren (above). Incredibly, despite most of Heygate's 1100 homes being boarded up for demolition, a few residents still cling on inside their homes. 

Local politicians say the Heygate's demolition means the Elephant will be regenerated. Many local people argue demolition means gentrification. They ask who will benefit from the Elephant's transformation? Some say they're being mugged by property developers and politicians.

So, I'll be padding around the Elephant to gauge local feeling about  these mammoth* changes...a cloak and camera walkabout. As usual, I'll keep you posted.

Paul Coleman, London, July 2010 

* 'Mammoth' changes to the Elephant (!) Pun intended!

Photos:Paul Coleman  (Click on images to enlarge).