Wednesday, 23 February 2011

David Liddle plays the Alexandra Palace Organ

I went up the hill to Alexandra Palace tonight to see -  no - let me get this right - to listen to David Aprahamian Liddle, play Bach, Rheinberger and one of his own dark and strident Armenian compositions on Alexandra Palace's long-suffering, towering organ.
   I paused outside the 'People's Palace'. I recalled Winifred Edith, my grandmother, talking about her childhood days in the 1920s when she'd look up at the massive building hulked on the hill above her Tottenham home. "Ally Pally always looked spooky to me," Grandma Win would often say.
   I can remember my own shock and awe when I saw huge flames and belching smoke devour Ally Pally in 1980, the second catastrophic fire in the often unfortunate history of the so-called 'People's Palace'.
Nerves began jangling again tonight minutes before David Liddle's recital. Fire-fighters evacuated us from the Grand Hall. Apparently, a motor driving the shutters on a tea bar in the hall had over-heated, setting off a flashing fire alarm (above).
   The fire crew gave us the all clear after a short delay. We sat inside the Grand Hall, surrounded by its vast empty expanses and towered over by the organ pipes. The lights were cut. We were lost in the Grand Hall's darkness. 
   Liddle (top photo), educated at Worcester College for the Blind, wasn't troubled by any of these distractions. Liddle amazed us with his control of the organ's obvious power and demonstrated its surprisingly subtle capabilities. I'd half-expected to be blasted into some fearful state - the organ conjuring up images of The Hunchbank of Notre Dame with Ally Pally reminiscent of the Stanley Hotel in The Shining.
Happily, no such spooky thoughts arose. One large screen showed Liddle's fingers flying over the four-level keyboard. The other screen focused on his socked feet dancing over the foot pedals, drawing our attention to his incredible musically-driven co-ordination between mind, hands and feet. Liddle frequently toed pedals 1,2 and 3 but I wondered - in my woeful ignorance of organ organisms - if Ally Pally's reported structural weaknesses explained why he only hovered close to the pedal labelled 'Crescendo' but never tapped it.
   Liddle played with co-ordinated heart and soul too. His recital covered A Song of Sunshine, composed by Victorian musician, Alfred Hollins, who was also blind. Liddle even sent us off home with a short, quirky rendition of Handel's Departure of the Queen of Sheba
  Liddle brought honour and dignity to the organ which, like Ally Pally itself, has suffered a history of heaped misfortune and indignities. Henry Willis' original organ was completely destroyed by Ally Pally's first fire in 1873. British soldiers vandalised the re-built organ in 1918. Restored in 1929, one of Hitler's flying V2 bombs caused serious damage to the organ in 1944. 
It didn't end there either; that terrible fire of 1980 destroyed the organ's shell. But not its soul. Liddle himself enjoyed the merited distinction of giving the first recital on the partly restored organ in 1990. 
   The Alexandra Palace Organ Appeal, led by a determined corps of men and women, aim to ensure the organ is completely restored. They deserve much credit and ongoing support. 
   At the end, David Liddle fully deserved our hearty applause as it rattled around inside the Grand Hall. I wondered too if the sounds of Liddle's playing had echoed further around Ally Pally's maze of darkened halls, courts, corridors and nooks and crannies. I didn't dwell on that thought for too long.

Paul Coleman, London, February 2011

Photos: Paul Coleman (not to be re-used without permission).

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Olivia Bazlinton & Charlotte Thompson: ORR re-opens its Elsenham level crossing investigation

The Office of Rail Regulation, the UK's rail industry watchdog, has re-opened its investigation into the deaths of Charlotte Thompson, aged 13, and Olivia Bazlinton, 14, at the Elsenham level crossing in December 2005.

For more on this story, see a piece I've written for Rail Professional magazine.

Paul Coleman, London, February 2011

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Vital information revealed about deaths at Elsenham level crossing

"It was the kind of morning that teenagers really enjoy - a Saturday morning. Olivia Bazlinton, aged 14, and Charlotte Thompson, 13, set out for Cambridge, eager to go shopping. They walked down the road to catch a train at the railway station that sits on the fringe of the quiet village of Elsenham.
   It's believed they crossed the 'protected' level crossing and bought their tickets on the upline platform for their downline, Cambridge-bound train that was already waiting at the platform. It was just after 10.40am on Saturday, 3 December 2005.
    It seems the girls tried to cross from the upline platform back over the manned, gated, road level crossing that sits between the staggered platforms at Elsenham. They were hit by an upline through-train, a Class 158 Super Sprinter, operated by Central Trains, on its way from Birmingham New Street to Stansted Airport.
   "They are likely to have died almost instantly," said a spokesman for the Essex Ambulance Service. They had to be identified by DNA...
   "...Did Olivia and Charlotte think that a red light and an audible warning related to their downline train that was already standing at the station, not the approaching upline train that took their lives? Probably, although it's likely we will never know."
   "...Chris Bazlinton, Olivia's adamant that Olivia (above, top) and Charlotte (above, belowwould still be alive if the manned, gated level crossing at Elsenham had been equipped with a pedestrian gate that locks, either manually or automatically, when a train approaches.
   I investigated and wrote this story back in May 2006 for Rail Professional magazine, commissioned by Chris Randall, the magazine's editor at that time. I found the crossing highly dangerous. It was easy to see and understand why Olivia and Charlotte logically concluded they could cross back over the tracks. The girls were not reckless but rather the victims of an old level crossing that Network Rail - nor its predecessor Railtrack, for that matter - had modernised to render safe in an era of high speed rail services. (Click on link to read the original story)
   Since then Network Rail, who are still responsible for the level crossing at Elsenham, eventually responded to a determined campaign by the girls' families by building a footbridge over the tracks at the station and by installing locking pedestrian gates. Common sense seemed to have finally prevailed, albeit too late for Olivia, Charlotte and their family and friends.
   However, earlier this week I learnt new information was coming to light that would show  Network Rail could possibly have prevented the deaths of Olivia and Charlotte. Sure enough, today (Saturday, 12 February), The Times ran Philip Pank's piece, headlined, 'Rail blunder allowed girls to die at level crossing', along with a comment piece, 'Network Failure'. The Press Association's headline is blunter; 'Network Rail accused of 'cover-up'. 
  The Times received leaked information about a Network Rail risk assessment report that recommended Elsenham's set of pedestrian wicket gates should lock automatically when a train approaches. 
   The report's key paragraph states: "Consideration should given to the practicality of incorporating the Wicket Gates into the inter-locking of Elsenham crossing controls and effectively lock them closed when trains are approaching."
  The key aspect is that this report was written in 2002, three years before the girls died. Had Network Rail implemented this recommendation, the girls would not have had access to cross back over the tracks. 
  Critically, Network Rail did not emphasise the recommendation to the two official rail industry inquiries into the disaster and, crucially, did not raise the 2002 risk assessment during the Essex Coroner's inquest in 2007. The coroner's jury was directed by Beasley-Murray to return a verdict of 'accidental death'.
  Chris Bazlinton tells me he firmly believes Network Rail deliberately withheld the information. Had the information come to light at the time, the inquiries and the outcome of the week-long inquest at Chelmsford might have been different. "I believe this goes very close to the top," says Bazlinton. "I believe it's a cover-up, absolutely."
  Network Rail deny withholding the assessment. A spokesman told Pank Network Rail would have supplied any information requested by the coroner, Caroline Beasley-Murray.     
   Of course, that begs the question, how can anyone request a piece of information if they're not told of its existence? Also, if an important piece of information is slipped into a bundle of papers without reference to its importance, does that amount to effectively withholding vital information and hence constitute a cover-up? 
  Pank's excellent piece of investigative journalism in The Times comes hard on the heels of his other story about Network Rail's other woes. It's an organisation - confirmed much by my own sources - that is deeply troubled and faces much upheaval over the next year. 
   Pank's article sheds light on Elsenham, which is perhaps the murkiest episode in Network Rail's relatively short reign as the body responsible for our railways. "Yet if there were ever an organisation that might benefit from the disinfectant of sunlight, Network Rail is surely it," says The Times editorial.
   Hopefully, Olivia and Charlotte are in a better place. Meanwhile, The Times' latest Network Rail story shows that we live in a place where accountability, integrity, respect for the rule of law and sheer common sense seems to have evaporated long ago. 
    As The Times says: "...there is now also no question that there should be a full inquiry into Network Rail's risk assessment and its handling of the accident at Elsenham in which two girls died. Justice and compassion demand no less."

Photo of Charlotte: PA via BBC News

Paul Coleman, London, February 2011.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Ward's Corner: Just smile and say cheese

White balloons went up in Tottenham, north London, last night. Emblazoned with the slogans, 'No demolition, No Dereliction' and 'Plan for the Community', the balloons helped to inflate the raucous nature of a meeting between developers Grainger and Tottenham residents and market traders. 

The meeting, held inside the local further education college, was called by Haringey Council to consider Grainger's controversial plans to demolish Ward's Corner, a popular Tottenham landmark that houses a thriving market run mainly by Latin American, African, Caribbean and Indian traders. 

Grainger want to replace Ward's Corner with a gleaming shopping centre and 197 solely private apartments built on a site that straddles four tube tunnels at Seven Sisters, a busy Victoria Line station.

The stakes are high. Paranoia levels rose higher than the balloons. Roy, a member of the Ward's Corner Coalition that bitterly opposes Grainger's plans, told me Haringey officers were refusing to allow coalition members to display their colourful posters depicting their alternative, 'community friendly' re-development scheme for Ward's Corner. 

Just as Roy and I spoke, a Grainger ranger, clad in an open shirt and sports jacket, breezed in to the meeting carrying a plastic box that housed a smart model of Grainger's planned development.

"How are my leaflets going to harm that model?" asked a coalition member when she tried to put her wad of leaflets next to the model sat on a table inside the meeting hall. "I'll fetch you something else to put your leaflets on," replied a Haringey officer.

Worse was yet to come. Paul Smith, the council's Development Manager, apologised for the late start and explained the purpose of the meeting wasn't to make a decision but to ask questions about Grainger's plannning application. He requested a "courteous level of behaviour" but then discourteously demanded that "no photographs be taken during the meeting without permission".

Smith even asked a freelance photographer why he was taking photos. "I'm an interested freelance photographer," replied the snapper, who lives in Tottenham. "I'm a member of the National Union of Journalists and a bona fide news-gatherer."

Smith also took umbrage at the sight of a film camera operated by campaigners against Grainger's development. "I would say that you probably can't film this meeting," said Smith, provoking an enormous clamour inside the room.

"Nobody has asked us for permission to film," added Marc Dorfman, the council's assistant planning director. "Normal process would be for any requests to go to the Council's communications unit."

I tried to ask Smith if anyone from the communications unit was on duty at this very public meeting. Smith waved me away before he and Dorfman entered into a prolonged, huddled whisper with Grainger's development director, David Walters. 
"Grainger aren't happy with the meeting being filmed. It could be doctored," said Smith to Dorfman. 
"It could be manipulated," I heard Walters complain.

Wasted time passed slowly. Valuable discussion about the nitty gritty of Grainger's interesting proposals was delayed even further. The meeting descended into a meeting about taking photographs. During the ensuing hub-bub, I was told nobody from the communications unit was present. 

Finally, Walters ploughed through Grainger's presentation. "We're not entirely comfortable (about being filmed) but we're entirely committed to talking to you this evening," said Walters. "I hope that any photographs or videos will be used in the spirit in which this presentation is made."  

On the morning after the meeting, a Haringey spokeswoman told me: "The development management forum is a public meeting and we would expect some media to be present."

If Grainger are genuinely trying to win Tottenham hearts and minds over their Ward's Corner plans, this camera-shy episode didn't help them. 

As for Haringey's council officers, their knee-jerk reaction to initially try to stop film-makers, photographers and journalists from going about their honest business shows how press freedoms can be fragile even at the local level.

More postings about Grainger's Ward's Corner planning application HGY/2008/0303 will follow soon. 
The Development Management Forum meeting took place in Tottenham on Tuesday, 2nd February, 2011.

Paul Coleman, London, February 2011.