Thirty Thousand Streets

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Summer 98 was hot. Seriously hot. Tenants in council blocks set up Zed-Beds on their balconies. An unscrupulous tour operator on the Victoria embankment bought a cheap job-lot of rowing boats, hand-painted a sign (“A Cooling Thames Tradition”) and hired them out to tourists as though this was something de riguer. Each boat would swing out into the current and glide smoothly and irresistibly down river towards the Isle of Dogs and the heavy shipping lanes beyond, no matter what direction the now pale-faced passengers were rowing in.

Meanwhile, fleets of medium-sized ice-making robots patrolled the streets, emblazoned with the GLA logo, doling out ice-cubes to anyone who wanted them. The idea was that you rubbed them on your wrists and forehead to bring your body temperature down, and were grateful for it. The staff at the Compton Arms just off Highbury Corner were fined thousands of pounds for catching one and imprisoning it in a back room for the amusement of customers. They were caught when the panicking robot lurched through a window in a bid to escape, careening out onto Canonbury Road and causing a nasty pile-up when a scaffolding truck swerved to avoid it.

After that there was a public awareness campaign about making proper use of council facilities. The jingle is still playing on loop ad nauseam in some tiny corner of my subconscious. The tune is hard to describe.

“The robots that your GLA provides
Eb and flow through the streets like metallic tides
Bestowing ice on weary supplicants just like you
Of which they make proper use - at least, the good ones do.
We leaven our instructions with some friendly winks
But please don’t trivialise the situation by putting the ice in your drinks.”

That last line was a problem, like the series of broken arpeggia at the end of De Profundis which are said to have driven Schoenberg mad. A musicologist friend tells me that it suddenly swerves from 4/4 time into a chiasmus of 16 beats - possibly the only jingle in history to have attempted something so ambitious. There was a great furore in the left-wing press about the use of the word “good” in the fourth line - good in what sense, asked Polly Toynbee - and then a back-lash in the right-wing press accusing the left-wingers of moral relativism. Lots of people, including me, didn’t understand what was wrong with putting the ice in your drinks in the first place. Eventually a council official had to go on the Today Programme to explain that the problem wasn’t putting ice in your drinks per se, but that they didn’t want the robots to encourage the consumption of alcohol, which could worsen dehydration. The whole thing became a bit of an embarrassment for them in the end.

The minimarket underneath my flat, Your Food City, was one of the few places on Essex Road with functioning air conditioning. I’d hang out in the aisles with Zoe and the rest of the Awkward Squad, trying to contrive reasons for our being there so that we wouldn’t be slung out by the zealous day-manager, Gedik. We’d pretend to be absorbed in conversation over the provenance of some terrifying processed meat product, or debate the relative virtues of various different brands of Tomato Water, while the Turk twirled his belaying pin.

The headlines in the papers were all about global warming. As August became September, the sky darkened and it started to rain incessantly. The temperature hardly jittered. It felt like a monsoon. The global warming headlines went from 18-point type to 20-point. A young woman rolled herself off Waterloo Bridge in a great papier mache effigy of a weeping planet Earth in a bid to become a climate-change martyr.

The globe floated beautifully, however, and she was picked up unhurt by the coast guard, taken into custody, and beaten into unconsciousness by a contingent of drunken detectives for wasting police time. The Sisterhood for a Greener Future started a poster campaign featuring her bruised face on billboards all over the city. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner resigned, was reinstated, resigned again.

The level of the river crept up. Engineers down at the Thames Barrier started looking shifty, comfort-eating, taking up smoking in droves. At the beginning of October, someone photographed a crab crawling out of a storm drain, and it ended up on the front page of the Standard, oversized claws covered in thick, bristling hairs, like mittens.

Before long they were surfacing all over city, from the drains and sewers to toilets in private bathrooms. The roads became a grim miscellany of smashed carapaces. I like to think I led a charge here. I’d gather the fuckers on my way back from university, throw them in a pan of boiling water until they turned from blue to shocked scarlet, and eat them smoking hot. Fantastic. By November the corner vendors had thrown their monkey nuts and caramel into the river and the streets were full of the sound of crabs tapping politely but insistently on the inside of heating metal urns.

The temperature plummetted mid December, and the crabs vanished. It actually snowed that Christmas, for the first time in a decade. Some kids made a snowman on the corner of Essex Road, just outside my front door, with bottletops for eyes and a jutting car exhaust pipe for a penis.

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