Sixteen going on seventeen going on about pizza

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This week was this blog’s sixteenth birthday, which in the UK brings a raft of new rights including changing your name (which in this case happened a little early, whoops), choosing a doctor, having sex outside of Northern Ireland, buying a lottery ticket and – famously – ordering alcohol with a meal in a restaurant. Congrats! Of course, most of these are off-limits during lockdown so it will just have to wait a little longer. And at the risk of adding insult to injury, I’m a little thin on the ground for blog content to celebrate with.

Archive image: the time Robert was self-isolated in a meeting room with a malfunctioning door
Archive image: the time Robert was self-isolated in a meeting room with a malfunctioning door

Last weekend we had a lovely catch-up with the Dietz family and Toggolyn, during which Portrait of a Lady on Fire was recommended as a good film to stream and I had to kick myself for missing the opening to joke about Robert’s age and personal experiences of eighteenth-century France. Nevertheless, Randi and I selected it for our semi-regular Friday pizza & movie night, and enjoyed it on three distinct levels:

  1. It’s a good film!
  2. It’s a French film, so there are plenty of gaps in the dialogue where the characters stare meaningfully at each other. I reckon this could make a decent drinking game.
  3. It enables anyone to practice their literary film criticism by using lots of unsubtle visual symbolism (“the flowers have wilted!”). (Pro-tip: this combines well with #2.)

Todd would not have enjoyed watching this film with us. But we’re still grateful for the recommendation.

Archive image: Metro Pizza
Archive image: Metro Pizza

Side-note: I’m so glad I found the local cheap-and-delicious pizza place before lockdown! It was thanks to Katie, actually, during one of our Doctor Who/Picard combo evenings when we took a chance on London Pizza – a place so unassuming they haven’t even bothered to create a logo for their JustEat page. And yet they have rocketed to the top of our pizza preference charts, partly because they always phone in advance to clarify our primadonna requests about leaving such-and-such on the left and such-and-such on the right. Truly this is a worthwhile successor to my beloved Metro Pizza of Holloway Road from years gone by, where they once nipped out to buy some missing topping. Local pizza places are the best.

We’re not much of a movie-watching household, whether self-isolating or otherwise. So it says something about the depth of Randi’s disinclination to continue watching the second of BBC Four’s back-to-back Top of the Pops episodes from the month I was born (despite featuring this engaging 1989 remix of Pop Musik) that she brightly suggested we watch a film instead, and I can therefore thank Robin Scott and his suit with “thousands of pounds worth of CDs” for the chance to finally rewatch The Usual Suspects. Note: if you don’t want spoilers for a film which came out 25 years ago, skip the next two paragraphs.

I can’t remember how old I was when I first watched The Usual Suspects, but I know that Daryl and Ermila were staying overnight with my parents and somehow we all ended up watching a VHS recording from Channel 4 with a couple of minutes missing from the middle which had accidentally been taped over with something else. (If you ever need to date someone, check whether that last sentence provokes bafflement or fond childhood nostalgia. Or, in a decade or so, sheer disbelief that friends ever visited each other in person.)

Anyway, like everyone else I thought the ending was cool and mindblowing and everything, but also I was tired and went straight to bed and it was only in the morning with Daryl that I discovered I had formed a completely wrong interpretation of what had actually happened. In my head, Inspector Kujan realises that all of the clues had been around him the whole time: Verbal’s story is all true, except for the fact that he’s also Keyser Söze, and it’s only an untidy office which saves him from getting caught. Daryl convinced me I was wrong – that the vast bulk of the film is all fabrication – and of course this makes much more sense given that the ‘clues’ in the office include the underside of a coffee mug and a manufacturer of office equipment. But it was enjoyable to go back and realise that my initial childhood interpretation hadn’t been totally crazy… after all, something had to have happened to place all the characters there in the first place. In truth, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either way, but it was good to get some closure on this mid-90s mystery.

Easter eggs!
Easter eggs!

This rare film screening kicked off a four-day Easter weekend which, despite being homebound, still managed to feel rather special and lovely. The highlight was waking up on Easter Sunday to find that Randi had hidden an impressive stash of chocolate around the flat to find, followed by a delicious brunch. We also did battle with two wasps and a giant bee (humans 2, insects 0), finally finished Season 4 of The West Wing, caught up with Robert/Bernie/Willow on a walk and played a gender-stratified game of Codenames with Catherine, AJ, Christian and Erika.

This post's obligatory Zoom shot
This post’s obligatory Zoom shot

But the real point of this post, and to commemorate that next week is my one-year anniversary of moving back to London, is to overshare some graphs! Specifically, graphs like this:

Not shown: number of contacts with coronavirus-infected people on these journeys
Not shown: number of contacts with coronavirus-infected people on these journeys

Yes, as you can see, the startling underlying conclusion from a year’s worth of my TfL travel history is that between June 2019 and March 2020 I used to commute to work. But more than just commuting, though, because the minimum Mon-Fri there-and-back commute would only require 10 train journeys, yet most weeks registered more. Very good, very social.

We took a lot of buses to a lot of houses in January
We took a lot of buses to a lot of houses in January

Weekends were a lot more varied, obviously, and a lot more bus-heavy. Note that none of this includes non-Oyster/contactless journeys, so forays to Hope / Stockport / St. Albans don’t count.

But the real purpose of these graphs is to celebrate Brixton station. In 2019, when TfL made yet-another-attempt to take over the forlorn rail franchises of South London, they said this about Brixton specifically:

Each day 33 double-deck bus loads of Londoners living within a 10 minute walk of West Norwood station use a bus to access Brixton Tube station instead of using their local rail service.

Strategic Case for Metroisation in south and south east London, TfL

Well, I am one of these Brixton-groupees. Look!

Special congrats to the DLR station sneaking into the Top 10
Special congrats to the DLR station sneaking into the Top 10

Brixton isn’t just my most-frequent starting station, it’s the clear soaraway winner. There’s no flattening that curve – a combination of a daily commute and the starting point for many weekend journeys too. Conversely, it’s only my third most popular exit station, because frequency and reliability don’t matter so much when you’re coming home.

And from my top 10 most popular bus routes from the past year, the top 5 all go via Brixton too:

Dashed lines all go to Brixton, while the dotted 68/468 pairing share some of their route
Dashed lines all go to Brixton, while the dotted 68/468 pairing share some of their route

Some people long to work from home forever, but I can’t wait to get back to the warm embrace of Brixton and its many buses.

I’m cobbling together a blog post, even though there’s obviously slim pickings to write about, because this is still a remarkable time to be alive and when I look back in future I don’t want to have completely forgotten what it was like.

It goes without saying that Randi and I have things comparatively very easy, with little sacrifice required. We’re both busy with work during the week, but have plenty of space to get work done from either end of our (miraculously extendable) dining table. Thanks to a prompt delivery the other week we’ve even been upgraded to a full monitor/keyboard/mouse set-up each, and of course there are no children or elders for us to be responsible for aside from the rota of elderly relatives to call which has been distributed around my family via Google Sheets. I sometimes think my Grandma wishes she could apply for a GDPR opt-out from these calls.

The real highlight of the weeks are the Thursday-night pub quizzes hosted by Katie and Kim which gather a decent audience over Zoom and are always really fun to play together, even if Randi and I (or team Hyper-Adipovid!) can only ever muster a middling-to-terrible result. And of course there is a pause at 8pm while everyone in the UK leans out of their windows to clap and cheer and bang pots and pans together for all of our amazing NHS workers and other carers on the frontline. It was pretty lovely the first time this happened as we looked up and down our street and suddenly saw everyone who lives on our road out together for the first time.

Katie and Kim's quiz in the middle of a hat-wearing speed round
Katie and Kim’s quiz in the middle of a hat-wearing speed round

My oddest lockdown experience was last Tuesday, when I had a blood donation appointment at the West End Blood Donor Centre near Oxford Street. Since this was legitimate medical travel (honest!) I thought I might enjoy the opportunity to ride the Tube in this twilight state but it just ended up being a bit paranoia-inducing. It’s obviously not possible to stay 2m away from anyone on a still decently busy London Underground carriage and if the last few weeks has taught me anything it’s how quickly I can become conditioned to react to any other nearby human as a potential mortal threat. Perhaps this is a window into the minds of those who have always hated busy cities…

Anyway, while the journey there-and-back was unsettling, it was totally worth it for the extended interactions once I got to the donor centre itself with – gasp – other real-life human beings! Great experience. Would recommend. Just not right now.

An almost-empty Oxford Circus
An almost-empty Oxford Circus
Stay at home. And kudos to TfL for sending a follow-up email to ask whether my journey was actually necessary.
Stay at home. And kudos to TfL for sending a follow-up email to ask whether my journey was actually necessary.

P.S. I do admire the attempt to stage a socially-distanced HIGNFY last night, but it did feel like watching the awkward few minutes of banter before a Zoom conference call…

If any future historians are reading this – and don’t worry, I know there aren’t actually any future historians reading this – please take note of the change in tone from last week’s post. Background levels of coronavirus conversation amid fun social activities have now been replaced by mass economic shutdown, with Randi and I now coming off our first week of working from home together in our hastily-assembled home office / bunker.

Thankfully my industry is already well-adjusted to home working and I’ve always worked with remote colleagues, but it was still a surreal moment to watch Monday afternoon’s Downing Street press conference from the office and realise that it might be quite some time before I set foot there again. I walked down the street to St Pancras with my desk monitor jammed halfway into a Tesco bag for life, boarded an emptier-than-usual Thameslink home and apologised to the guy sitting next to me when I sneezed.

I’m sure things will keep changing quickly, but at time of writing we aren’t living in quite the same extreme situation as the “lockdowns” and “shelter in place” orders elsewhere. This morning Randi and I went on a long walk – nowhere with public crowds – and there’s still lots of life around. But obviously we are sticking in the flat most of the time, indulging the pseudo-wartime vibe by migrating to the sofa for the government’s daily broadcast. (And yes, if there are any current historians reading this, I am aware that Skyping friends and family or playing group games on the Ticket to Ride mobile app* before popping out to the Co-Op for dinner does not qualify as WW2. Apart from anything else, during WW2 they probably didn’t keep making postmodern WW2 references.)

Fin de siècle
Fin de siècle

Anyway, none of this will be news to everyone else who’s all living the exact same thing. But it is an extended excuse for an upcoming dearth of content on this blog. It seems like such a long time ago that we joined Steve, Simon and Fleur for deep-dish dinner at Jape’s, but actually it was only last Thursday. I present this one photo of Steve and Randi arguing about the size and shape of pyramids you would need to construct a cube (yes, really) as an homage to a lost age.

On Sunday we walked our last Loop for a while (sniff) before the Great Pause officially began. So I guess my final meal out for a while was actually at The Full Monty café where I stockpiled a Full English in the most direct way possible. “Oh, that’s a rare thing – customers!” cried the guy behind the counter when we walked in. But the next time you find yourself around Coulsdon South – and it might be a while – you should follow our example.

So it turns out that 'Happy Valley' is actually a park in Croydon
So it turns out that ‘Happy Valley’ is actually a park in Croydon
The signs were appearing...
The signs were appearing…
When this is all over I might celebrate by coming back here
When this is all over I might celebrate by coming back here

*A group game which I actually won! So I think it’s important to share the message that you too can prosper by providing decent, hardworking Midwesterners the dedicated railway services they deserve:

Important historical artifact
Important historical artifact

Like many people, my reasons for not wanting to get the coronavirus are not life and death. Yes, I’m lucky that my job can be done from home, but working from home still gives me cabin fever in addition to any real fever I might be nurturing. More importantly, it would really mess up our US travel plans that we have been really looking forward to! So I am now taking precautions in the most unobtrusive and British of ways, like “looking awkward when shaking hands” and “not holding on to the escalator handrail at Brixton station”. If I’m found in a heap at the bottom of the escalator at Brixton station, you’ll know what happened.

Despite this global plague we’ve had a hodge podge of fun events over the last few weeks, starting with a personalised tour of Walthamstow courtesy of Randi’s colleague Vici on which we tucked into baked egg dishes, fell into the neon-lit black hole which is God’s Own Junkyard and discovered the world’s greatest Spar. Thanks, Vici! In return, as part of an ongoing virtual tour of South London, I want to show off the view from the platform at Addington Hills which Randi and I discovered last weekend as part of London LOOP section 4. It may not show up amazingly in the photo, but it’s an amazing panorama of the City of London, Canary Wharf (and, yeah, Croydon) which makes it look as if Canary Wharf is a completely different city somewhere in the American Midwest. Whisper it, but for sightseeing purposes it’s a better spot than Parliament Hill.

The view was totally worth all of the hills
The view was totally worth all of the hills

A few weeks ago Tash suggested we go to a special screening of The Personal History of David Copperfield, hosted by Amnesty International and featuring an incredible pre-film feast and an enjoyable post-film Q&A with director / legend Armando Iannucci. I was glad of the film choice as it’s not something I would have thought to see otherwise, and although I haven’t read the book I thought the movie was wonderfully done with some very nice cinematic touches. (And yes, I was very excited when Peter Capaldi turned up as Mr. Micawber. There aren’t many actors I recognise but obviously Doctors are an exception!) At home one evening, Randi and I also caught up on the Dick Cheney biopic Vice which (a) didn’t make either of us fall in love with Dick Cheney, (b) has a really excellent mid-credits scene.

Sweetcorn pancakes!
Sweetcorn pancakes!

Just two more things, and then I’ll let you go back to washing your hands and stocking up on toilet paper! Firstly, we celebrated Pancake Day with Matt and Laura and had a wonderful evening of chef Randi’s British pancake starters followed by a sweetcorn pancake main course. There was originally a pancake dessert scheduled, but we reached our limit. Secondly, I didn’t want the Doctor Who season finale to go by without making excited noises on this blog. I didn’t love everything they did (although I am persuadable!) but overall you could really see the plan for the Thirteenth Doctor coming together this series and I wear my TARDIS rainbow hoodie with pride.