They counted the votes!

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The moment Biden took the lead in Pennsylvania
The moment Biden took the lead in Pennsylvania

When Randi and I booked this week off work to follow the US election I didn’t actually think we’d need the whole week to get an official result, but it paid to be cautious. And I’m very glad we had the padding because between Tuesday night and Saturday afternoon it has felt like one long hazy day of watching CNN’s indefatigable John King plough on and on in front of his magic wall, with occasional breaks for me to nap, go on nice local walks, lose to Randi at Dominion (the margins were very close), read about 1970s North Korean kidnappings and watch episodes of romantic comedy Love Life. But now, finally, it’s done. Biden won. The Trump nightmare is over.

I have incredibly mixed emotions here. It’s really hard to convey, especially to British people, why it matters so much that Democrats likely won’t control the Senate. I think people over here treat this as a minor technical impediment or something akin to a weak parliamentary majority, but it’s much more fundamental. It doesn’t just make legislating next-to-impossible, it also sets up the inevitable backlash in two years if Biden is perceived as failing in the midst of a recession.

And even for Democrats in the US, it’s far too easy for people to fall back to blaming Mitch McConnell’s inevitable ‘obstructionism’ and ‘failure to compromise’ as the reason for gridlock, as if Republicans in the Senate should be expected to help them out. That’s wrong. The problem is not Mitch McConnell. The problem, as ever, is that the US has just held three different national elections (President, House, third of the Senate) with three different sets of rules and so, as usual, it has three different results. Be very wary of anyone who tells you that an elected House of Lords will fix British democracy, kids.

On the other hand, Biden is clearly the best choice for getting something done in these circumstances, and if that something is ‘only’ getting a grip on the pandemic then that will count for a lot. But more importantly, anyone who reads this but doesn’t care about the structural political blah blah blah and just wanted to see the back of Donald Trump also has a point. It matters, and it feels so, so good, that the power and status of the US Presidency will no longer be granted to someone so small, so ungracious and so unkind. It matters that a child who’s just forming lifelong opinions about what’s normal and what’s not sees Kamala Harris as Vice President. So it’s a good week. Much better than four years ago in Toledo.

I was amused by the intense local viciousness in this otherwise sympathetic note
I was amused by the intense local viciousness in this otherwise sympathetic note

Originally, we planned to watch the count from an Airbnb in Devon. But when the new national lockdown was announced on Saturday (commencing on Thursday) we did some emergency last-minute holiday replanning (special thanks to the guy in the Trainline call centre who was rooting for Biden from Mumbai) and travelled down to Seaford in Sussex on Monday night for a wonderful ‘last hurrah!’ pre-lockdown restaurant dinner which included cocktails, camembert and multiple desserts. The next morning we woke up early – hours before any polls opened in the US – and set off on an Election Day coastal walk along the Seven Sisters cliffs to Eastbourne. It was a beautiful day (after a short rainy burst) and the ideal way to pass the time if you’re not, y’know, voting.

Randi looks to her Old Fashioned for luck
Randi looks to her Old Fashioned for luck
The Seven Sisters (technically eight, according to Wikipedia)
The Seven Sisters (technically eight, according to Wikipedia)
Bit perplexed by the gating strategy here
Bit perplexed by the gating strategy here
At the sea
At the sea
The brief period where our plans seemed like a terrible mistake
The brief period where our plans seemed like a terrible mistake

On a totally non-election note, two weekends ago we were browsing for something to watch and alighted on Knives Out – a really fun murder mystery film starring Daniel Craig as an (implausible Southern) private detective trying to follow the clues to the catch the killer in a big ole’ country house.

It was an especially good watch on a dark and stormy night – lashes of wind and rain against the living room window – which set the perfect ambience. So if you’re looking for an entertaining escape, check it out on your next unforgiving winter’s evening!

We did it! About a year and a half after starting the London LOOP, yesterday we combined our final three sections together and after about 24km of walking our tired legs returned us to Hatch End Overground station where we first set out in April 2019. Hey, at least we’ve crossed off one thing this year.

Between us we also took a lot of photos along the way, so here is our actual route(ish) stitched together from 800+ geotags:

London is legitimately huge
London is legitimately huge
The real purpose of this exercise was to assemble a set of 24 selfies from each section's transport stop
The real purpose of this exercise was to assemble a set of 24 selfies from each section’s transport stop
At Denham Deep Lock - the deepest on the Grand Union Canal
At Denham Deep Lock – the deepest on the Grand Union Canal

The final walk was a medley of everything great and ridiculous about the Loop at the same time: canal towpaths to cross over and then back again, golf courses with stringent signs about keeping to the footpath, directions which became increasingly obsessed by electricity pylons, beautiful woods with occasional families on a day out, muddy farms with fields of horses, cows and (more curiously) swarms of ducks, patches of pure, undistilled suburbia (“this is a private road”) and border signs beside busy highways welcoming you to the Home Counties. Apparently Hertfordshire is the “county of opportunity” – who knew?

As we approached the corner of the muddy field where Section 14 officially ends I felt a little sad. Notwithstanding the six month lockdown break it has been a really lovely routine every few weekends to wake up early, grab a carefully-timed combination of trains to an obscure station and walk another portion of the city’s perimeter. And while I am excited about starting another of TfL’s Walk London routes (after coronavirus has calmed down again) I don’t think any of them will be as varied or as all-encompassing as the Loop, with the one constant of London’s central skyline forever popping in and out of view as a familiar but distant friend.

Just before we got to Hatch End station, Randi popped into a pub to use the loo and as I was waiting outside I could have sworn that her former boss – who I’ve only met a couple of times – walked by on the pavement. But I knew that she lived near us (making Hatch End about as far out of her way as possible) so I dismissed it as impossible until Randi texted her later to check and – indeed – she really was in Hatch End for the day. At one level it was just one of those weird, funny coincidences but, for me, it was also symbolic of the greatness of the city. Walking the Loop means walking through hundreds of small urban villages (and many not-so-urban villages), each with their own makeup and history and stories. But they are also connected, through all of London’s transport, so that it feels totally possible and reasonable to travel from one extreme to another without going ‘out of town’. I remember that feeling of possibility when I got my first Oyster card aged 16, and I still feel it now.

Fans of canals are often rewarded on the Loop
Fans of canals are often rewarded on the Loop
As are fans of woods!
As are fans of woods!
Clutching the very last sheet of directions
Clutching the very last sheet of directions

On Thursday night, with Tier 2 announced but not yet in force, we also had a last hurrah of indoor socialising with Amy, Adam and Paul at a pub comedy night in the Tulse Hill Hotel. On the one hand it was a very 2020 arrangement: try doing stand-up comedy from a spot in the middle of the pub while masked waiters duck and weave around you to direct incoming guests through the hand sanitiser / QR code / text confirmation shuffle. But it was also a fantastically fun, carefree and light-hearted night… like something from one of those olden times films when people went to social events with friends.

Over the last few weeks we’ve also started the new series of Bake Off, tried to be good citizens by getting our flu vaccines (although with stocks running low it was unclear whether we’d actually just made things worse for people who really need it) and visited Abbi, Paul and Jack in Chelmsford for all-you-can-eat pizza where new slices are continually brought to the table and offered around in a revelatory “wait, why isn’t all pizza served this way?!” arrangement. But the absolute highlight of recent times was this afternoon’s trip up to Kingsbury to meet newborn Cora. She is an amazing baby and we love everything about her. Especially her yawns.

By the Malden Manor Mosaic on the Loop Section 8
By the Malden Manor Mosaic on the Loop Section 8

I’m aware that in a couple of years this blog has gone from Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat to “country walks through fields skirting the Greater London boundary”. But it’s almost October, and we’re trying to avoid substituting our summertime picnics with warmer but coronavirus-friendly indoor gatherings, so long outdoor walks are the obvious fallback. Since my last post we’ve managed two more London LOOPs which really brought home the incredible diversity of styles and landscapes on the outskirts of the city.

This wasn’t so true walking from Ewell to Kingston, where the highest high was the genuinely amazing Malden Manor Mosaic under a railway bridge and the lowest low was an absurd street of semis where every single home had plumped for a custom name rather than, y’know, numbers. (I’m sorry, there’s nothing wrong with calling yourself “Rose Cottage” if you live between the Post Office and 12th century church in a quaint country village. But on a normal street it’s just silly.)

Direct from your fairytale book of choice
Direct from your fairytale book of choice

The next section, though – which runs from Kingston to Heathrow Airport Hatton Cross) – is quite the journey. The first half goes through the ginormous Bushy Park, which others have raved to me about and I had high expectations for. Expectations met. It’s a park where the path takes you past rutting stags facing off against each other in prime mating season before diverting into a second beautiful ‘Woodland Gardens’ park-within-a-park in case you’re sick of the first beautiful park by now – the spiritual opposite of running a motorway over another motorway. We’re already planning a trip back.

By the other end of the walk, however, you’re getting closer and closer to the huge ecosystem of Heathrow Airport so things get a little… weird. Hounslow Heath was the site of the first regular London airport a century ago, so now it just has an eerie “what if all the humans died off?” quality. No-one else was around. We were unnerved. One of the London LOOP markers had been replaced by a scrawled handwritten sign. We grew paranoid. After we passed into the adjacent wood we walked past a group of men laughing and drinking together by a campfire just off the path, like a cheerful troupe from the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven. We hurried on. And then we reached Hatton Cross on the outskirts of Heathrow, flanked by grounded aeroplanes (which now feels like a glimpse of another reality) and a sad, solitary horse looking on from a tiny field by the A30. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t find out about the venomous adders until we got home.

Reaching the Thames, last seen on the LOOP at Purfleet nine months earlier
Reaching the Thames, last seen on the LOOP at Purfleet nine months earlier
A resident of Bushy Park
A resident of Bushy Park
At Longford River, a 17th century canal through the park
At Longford River, a 17th century canal through the park
Archaeological site of London Heathrow, circa 2120
Archaeological site of London Heathrow, circa 2120
"It's a trap!"
“It’s a trap!”
This path was fine, but it's no Awkward Little Path
This path was fine, but it’s no Awkward Little Path

I know you’re sick of reading about walks at this point but I have just one more – and that’s last Sunday’s jaunt with Erin to Oxted, just outside of London, for the Oxted Circular Walk which Randi found. No post-apocalyptic vibe on this one, though, just a decent trek through fields of sheep, Peter Rabbit’s Post Office and the “awkward little path” we were warned about in the very detailed walking instructions, which we thought sounded like the name of an alternative rock band from the 90s.

My eternal thanks to the staff of the Lincoln Park branch of REI in Chicago back in 2017 for finding me decent walking shoes 😀

Brief summary of September when we haven’t been walking or working: finishing the BBC’s thought-provoking Manctopia series on housing development, land use and homelessness in Greater Manchester, starting the new series of Bake-Off and enjoying a virtual board game night powered by Board Game Arena (why did nobody tell me about this before?) with Katie and Kim. And yes, we’re still trying to buy a flat. Rest assured it’ll offer great access to walking routes.

Yes, Randi and I really did go into separate rooms so we didn't have to share the sofa
Yes, Randi and I really did go into separate rooms so we didn’t have to share the sofa
LOOPer
LOOPer

Yesterday we made a very exciting return to our London LOOP walks after a hiatus of over five months. We celebrated with a double bill by combining the short sections 6 and 7 into one, and although they are not the most majestic or visually spectacular pair – section 7 is basically just a walk through the ultra-suburban streets of Epsom and Ewell – the weather was perfect for an afternoon picnic and ice creams in Oaks Park. We’ve now completed 17/24 sections of the LOOP and I am hopeful that we can build up some momentum again without a pesky pandemic getting in the way.

Epsom and Ewell is a place with quiet significance. By rights (just look at a map) it should be part of Greater London, and indeed this was the plan when London was expanded in the 1960s. But the locals kicked up a stink on the basis of “civic pride” and “the standard of planting of roundabouts and flowerbeds” and – just perhaps – a reluctance to pay any council tax to London even if, as commuters, they relied on London services. The government relented and the borough was allowed to remain with Surrey.

In a spirit of ingratitude, the borough continues to agitate for its rail stations to be included in London’s Zone 6 (thus benefiting from cheaper fares) and elects Chris Grayling as the local MP. This is the very same Chris Grayling who – as Transport Secretary – blocked TfL’s takeover of London’s suburban railways on the basis that areas just across the border – like Epsom and Ewell! – wouldn’t have any democratic input into TfL because they can’t vote for London’s Mayor. Because they’re not in London. Because… they didn’t want to be. Sigh.

So I’m not well-disposed towards Epsom and Ewell. But – wait – there’s a “who are the real monsters?” twist coming! Because at least Epsom and Ewell is honest: they want all of the benefits of London services but don’t want to be part of London, thank you very much. Absurd, but straightforward. And it is on the border, it does feel more like Surrey than London, and drawing the line around the edge of the city is always going to be a little arbitrary and messy. In contrast, nobody could be confused about where I live, right? It’s Tulse Hill, in the London Borough of Lambeth. It’s Zone 3. Over 70% of households live in flats.

And yet, just a few streets away from me, local residents are busy opposing planning permission for a 7-storey apartment block on derelict land. Some choice quotes:

  • “This application is not exactly sympathetic to its Georgian and early Victorian neighbours […] This area has a certain charm about it that is historically linked. Our children and young people need to see the restoration is sympathetic to the original architecture.”
  • “Balconies that receive little light and are part of small plan area flats are likely to be used as storage areas which rapidly degrades the appearance of a building.”
  • “My greatest objections to this development is the lack of parking in an area with hardly any provision for parking. would underground parking provision be feesible [sic]?”

Guys: I love Victorian and Georgian homes too. But when the Victorians and Georgians built their homes they were also “not exactly sympathetic” with the surrounding area, i.e. the fields. And newly-built blocks are much greener and more energy-efficient than poorly-insulated terraces from a century ago, as well as providing more homes for more people on a much smaller land footprint. But beyond all that: your Victorian house is not going to disappear just because someone else is living in something new.

I am tired of anyone posturing that they “care deeply” about the environment / the cost of living / welcoming immigrants / protecting the countryside if – in practice – they always find some reason to object to building homes for people in dense, well-connected urban areas. The more sophisticated objectors will usually cloak these complaints under a superficial language of “affordability”, as if the affordability of a flat is built into the brickwork. Pick any progressive housing policy you want: none of them will work if there aren’t enough homes.

So maybe I’m too harsh on the good people of Epsom and Ewell. NIMBY nonsense knows no borders.

At certain times of the year this lavender field would be totally killing it on Instagram
At certain times of the year this lavender field would be totally killing it on Instagram
Ewell never forget your visit here
Ewell never forget your visit here

Anyway! Last weekend was the very welcome three-day Bank Holiday and we kicked it off on Friday night by watching the incredible My Cousin Vinny. Randi’s boss had been recommending it for ages and we immediately realised why: Mona Lisa Vito (the standout character in a crowded field of great characters) is basically Randi in a thick New York accent. Highly recommended.

Hermann the activity fox
Hermann the activity fox

The next day we set off on an epic journey to the North (…of London) starting with a delicious fancy breakfast with Cat and Matt at The Wolseley near Green Park to celebrate Cat’s birthday. (Non-food highlight: Randi getting her temperature checked on entry but having no frame of reference for normal body temperatures in celsius.)

We then wandered as a group to Regent’s Park before Randi and I took the canal route to Queen’s Park for novel in-person catch-ups with our respective colleagues Jess and Jill and their families. By the time we made it to my mum’s for dinner with Alix (and a really delicious fish pie) I was happy but regretting my lightweight choice of walking shoes.

The next day we visited my dad and then pushed on to the veritable extremes of northernness (i.e. Kingsbury) for a Bang Bang lunch delivery at Josh and Anna’s. They provided our next film selection (Waking Ned, which we also both loved) and in return we gifted them with their own incarnation of my favourite activity fox which joins their impressive collection of baby paraphernalia. I’m very excited about this baby and regard it as a deep and personal triumph that it will grow up on the Jubilee line rather than the Bakerloo.

Delicious fancy breakfasts at a safe body temperature
Delicious fancy breakfasts at a safe body temperature
In Regent's Park
In Regent’s Park
Raclette
Raclette

All in all, the Bank Holiday was a really lovely last hurrah of summer. This weekend, other than walking the LOOP and becoming furious at the comments on the council’s planning website, the social highlight was a more autumn-appropriate evening of melty Raclette from Katie and Kim’s authentically Swiss raclette grill. They also both demonstrated their much-trailed Rubix cube solving powers, fed us giant slices from Katie’s “I only have one baking dish!” chocolate cake, printed me receipts (because I was excited by Kim’s real-life payment terminal) and gifted us Pierre, a penguin teapot. We promise to take good care of Pierre.

At least this test is just pass/fail...
At least this test is just pass/fail…

This morning I ticked off another box in the i-SPY: Coronavirus book as I awkwardly swabbed my throat and nose (it’s the same swab, but someone has already done the thinking for you about the right order), struggled to assemble the cardboard container and then placed my test sample in the fridge ready for collection by courier. This test was delivered after I was “chosen at random from the NHS list of patients registered with a GP” rather than for any specific reason, so hopefully it doesn’t show up any asymptotic surprises. But I can sympathise with parents who find it impossible to swab their children correctly – it’s not as easy as it sounds!

In a more pleasant Covid rite of passage, Randi and I finally took advantage of the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme with a half-price dinner at the slightly-too-pricey-for-us Tulse Hill Hotel. I am keeping my photo of a receipt bearing the words “Government Discount” as a memento of this strange summer. And yes, I know that we are way behind those who have been patriotically filling every August Monday to Wednesday with subsidised meals, but to be honest we’re still a little full from our burst of eating out in Church Stretton.

That said, we have been able to ramp up the socialising last week which has been really, really lovely. Last Sunday we were joined by Caroline in Matt and Laura’s beautiful (and very apocalypse-ready) garden for a very British afternoon of pretending not to notice the on-again-off-again rain showers. I had to check my blog to confirm that it’s been a year since we were all together, but it appears that we are all naturally congregating in a relatively small patch of South East London so I hope it won’t be another year. We also had fish and chips with Amy and Adam in Brockwell Park and invited Erin round on Friday night for a Mamma Mia + Prosecco + cheese slumber party. It freaked us all out to realise that this film dates back to 2008.

And finally: after putting our flat-buying ambitions on hold at the start of the pandemic, we have picked things up again and (at time of writing, fingers crossed etc. etc. etc.) things are looking promising! So at some point this blog might shift into full-on homebuying mode…

Homage to the end of blackberry-picking season
Homage to the end of blackberry-picking season