Category Archives: Days and Nights Out

Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park, London

“What do you think of Winter Wonderland?” I ask The Other One.

“I hate it,” he replies.

As usual, he is wrong. Secretly he loves it. How do I know this? Because imagining someone who hates Winter Wonderland is as difficult for me as imagining someone who hates Christmas. Or holidays. Or cake.

Winter Wonderland, in Hyde Park, is the only fun fair where people look as ecstatic on the posters as they do in real life. The rides are bigger and better, and they’re not even the only thing there. Yes, they can be expensive, but you really only need to go on one or two. Any more and you might overdose on adrenaline and pass out in a vat of mulled wine or plunge face first into the wood-fired pizza oven. Basically, unless you hate joy, you will have a brilliant time.

In the absence of The Other One, my sister and I go on the Star Flyer; a giant version of a roundabout with hanging seats which lifts you up around 60-metres in the air. “Grown men should not be having this much fun,” she says as a group of queuing Hungarians jump up and down, shouting about how much they love Scotland, and we take off to a cacophony of Christmas hits, Take That and 1980s pop.

Every year I am tempted to buy an overpriced novelty fur hat only slightly different to the one I bought the previous year. AA Gill gave the food there one star in the Sunday Times a few years ago (and The Other One says the whole experience is “as much fun as food poisoning”), but there are some nice things to eat if you look around and like homemade pies, doughnuts and chocolate etc. The German market stalls also have some brilliantly bizarre items. Jurgen Huss, a company that makes tiny little handmade ovens, is one of my favourites. There is also someone selling fake snow. Who buys fake snow?!

Watching people getting off the massive, glittering rides is a real treat and also completely free. Seeing kids’ faces as they stumble from a slalom-themed carousel – which, before it grinds to a halt, goes faster than you could imagine and then faster again – is, I’m sure, more enjoyable than actually going on it. Stand underneath one of the biggest rides – ‘The Blizzard’ – look up, and watch the people on board come hurtling towards your head. Feel fear and dizziness without paying a penny.

Just when you think you know exactly what Winter Wonderland is about, it surprises you with something new and unexpected (“like a bucket of sick,” suggests The Other One). This year there are even more frozen sculptures in ‘The Magical Ice Kingdom.’  And a speigeltent resembling a dazzling 1920s dance hall. There’s even a daily live band – The Disco Flames – doing their own versions of Abba hits (among others) as if it’s Glastonbury, 1978.

Every year, I have high expectations for Winter Wonderland and, without fail, it always surpasses them. It’s impossible to leave without smiling, dancing and/ or singing. I would quite happily go every day. Just as well The Other One is so difficult to get there, otherwise between November and January 5th (when it, sadly, closes) I’d never do anything else.

Battersea Park Fireworks (Comin’ at ya. Bang!)

“Big up for Wandsworth Council” shouted the DJ/ compere at Battersea Park Fireworks on Saturday night. The 30-somethings who made up most of the crowd, wearing Hunter wellies and referring to Clapham Junction as “Clapham J,” did their best to ignore him, but it wasn’t easy. His amp was almost as loud as it was distorted and their earmuffs were only so thick. “Give me a scream if you’re at the hot dog stand,” he cried only to be met with shuffling apathy. A woman muttered that he was “shattering the ambiance.”

This year you had to buy tickets via Ticketmaster. In the past it was the council website or one of the various huts within the park. It also used to cost £5; now it’s £6-£10 and booking fees for the privilege of using a site that counts down how many minutes you have to enter your card details (2.31, 2.30. 2.29, oh my god, what’s my ‘verified by visa’ security code???) The American Embassy is coming, the Boris Bike stations are in place and you’re no longer allowed to bring your own sparklers. Battersea is changing. But you just need to look at house prices to know that.

In some ways, the Battersea fireworks display is morphing into a corporate machine where anyone coming to watch simply exists to keep the ferris wheel of fortune turning. Whether you’re queuing up to have your ticket stamped or to exchange pound notes for doughnuts, someone is shaking a charity bucket in your face (“it’s only a few pence. Don’t you have a few pence?”) or flyering you to join a £50 a month gym. But there’s still something magical about staring into the sky with a crowd of people doing the same and waiting for the lights rain down – even if it’s to the sound of a DJ shouting, “In a few minutes fireworks will be coming in ya face. Bang!”

This year’s theme for the display, which is always accompanied by music, was “Shrieks and Skulls,” which is pretty avant-garde compared to what we normally have. Indeed, I’m not even sure if there normally is a ‘theme.’ Last year, it might have been something to do with the Olympics and mainly involved a lot of R&B, perhaps in an effort to appeal to the audience the organisers would like to bring to the event rather than the one that actually comes.

However, whoever designed this year’s display achieved a remarkable feat: they made a mainstream council-organised piece of entertainment their own. I have an image of them in my head: a middle-aged man in a Metallica t-shirt and black jeans with a CD collection dating back to a former life as a suburban teenage goth in the early 1990s. “How can I get away with a soundtrack that solely consists of the likes of Meatloaf, The Specials and lesser-known tracks from The Rocky Horror Picture Show?” he may have pondered. “I know. I’ll fuse two distinct and, until now, entirely separate events together and tell them it’s ‘Halloween themed.’” And it worked! Good for him.

With skulls formed from flames – made all the more sinister by the fact one’s eyes didn’t properly light – some asymmetrical rockets and offbeat chrysanthemum bursts, at times it even felt a little bit punk; a stark contrast to orderly queues to buy overpriced produce going on elsewhere. Maybe they’ll let this mysterious maverick behind it all back again next year and ‘punk’ will be the theme. Catherine wheels will spin to the sound of “Anarchy in the UK.” It would, after all, fit in well with what Guy Fawkes, a man who tried to blow up parliament, was all about. Or perhaps they’ll just revert to the classic ‘Bonfire Night’ and bring back a proper sized fire? I’m not sure why the usual mountain of blazing wooden pallets had been replaced with something that had less heat that a single hob gas cooker, but suspect it had something to do with whoever decided to ban the sparklers.

Thatcher and Me (and a quiz)

Just in case there’s anyone who feels they haven’t read enough articles about Margaret Thatcher over the last few days, here’s another one for you (with a quiz). It’s not about Thatcher and the miners, pole tax or the backstabbing Cabinet, nor is it about her relationship with Europe, America or the Falklands, nor has it been hanging around in my desk since 2003. It’s written today and it’s about the time I met her in Battersea Park with Coco the dog.

It was two years ago and a sunny empty day in the park, made all the better by the fact that most people were at work and unable to mess it up with mystery meat hotdogs, sprawling picnics and an electric train that runs over dog walkers as children on board dribbling ice-cream laugh at their screams.

We were walking round the ponds, the best part of the park, and Coco ran up to a group of well-dressed people and jumped up at a lady wearing a tan woollen coat. It looked expensive and Coco looked muddy. As I tried to catch Coco, the lady took off her glasses, the same way a former prime minister used to in PMQs, and said “Is that a spaniel?” “No, it’s a shih tzu,” I replied, as those famous eyes locked on mine and I realised who it was. “We used to have spaniels,” she said.

Apparently Russell Brand also met Margaret Thatcher around this time. He describes her as a pale phantom, watering plants: a little old lady. Don’t believe him. He is clearly prejudiced against gardening. Even though we were in the park, even though we were talking about dogs, Margaret Thatcher was impressive, formidable and arresting – so much so that when I got home I was inspired to do something I’d never normally consider. I began to read The Downing Street Years. It took me so long I ran up a £25 library fine.

Despite costing us the price of a meal for two at a dog friendly pub, Coco and I have been hoping to bump into the Iron Lady again ever since. There have been reported sightings of her in the park over the past months, but it’s only today that I finally managed it – as she glided past in a union jack covered coffin during her funeral procession.

The Other One and I were packed into a crowd of people, many wearing tweed or the muted tones of classy work wear, outside the Royal Courts of Justice. As the coffin passed, a business man in a suit, clutching a flag and sitting on top of a red phone box shouted “We love you Maggie! Round of applause for the best prime minister ever.” And everyone either clapped or booed excitedly, depending on their preference.

A chap from the Northern Echo interviewed me about my opinions ‘as a Northerner’; a self-proclaimed Thatcher supporter got teary-eyed talking about inflation rates; and a frazzled looking woman told me off for being too cheerful. “Show some respect. It’s a funeral,” she said, clearly disappointed I wasn’t droning on about my taxes or singing “ding dong, the witch is dead.”

When I was a kid, growing up in the North East, pretty much everyone hated Thatcher. I’m not sure anyone hates anyone or anything as much as they did then. Maybe that’s why Thatcher’s death has inspired so much feeling in the last week, whether it’s anger, sadness or a mix of both. We’re nostalgic for an era of ‘toffs’ and ‘wet liberals’; a time when everyone knew which one they were and what they stood for and against.  Penguin biscuits were bigger, politics meant something, pop songs had a proper tunes and we were all young.

***

A Quiz: What kind of a Thatcherite are you?

David Cameron says “we are all Thatcherites now.” Answer the following questions to find out what kind you are:

1. What was your reaction when you heard that Thatcher was dead?

a). Quick, update the website!

b). As long as I’m alive, Thatcher will never die.

c). Sad, because she was an old woman. Annoyed, because she destroyed the industries

d). Who’s Thatcher?

2. What have you been up to the past week?

a). Carefully constructing elaborate effigies and burning them in the street.

b). Downloading our leader’s greatest speeches from YouTube and quoting them at work.

c). Feeling uncomfortable about people celebrating someone’s death. However, she did destroy the industries.

d). Eating crisps, going to the cinema, why – what’s happened?

3.  How did you mark Thatcher’s funeral today?

a). You woke up at 3am, made a banner saying that you’re unhappy for your taxes to pay for all this (not that you pay any), had a four hour journey into London (which you live-tweeted), and when the big moment came you turned your back on the coffin. That’ll show her.

b). You woke up at 3am, put on your best suit and pottered down to Fleet Street to ‘soak up the atmosphere.’ You made a banner saying that you’re happy for your taxes to pay for all this (not that you pay any), cracked open the champers, and when the big moment came you toasted The Lady as she passed. Chin chin!

c). Watched it on the BBC. Nothing like a bit of pomp and pageantry, whatever your political views, and nobody does this kind of thing better than the beeb. It almost makes up for the fact that you missed the Olympics Closing Ceremony due to work commitments. However, she did destroy the industries.

d). When was it again? I was probably asleep.

4. What key item of clothing would you be unable to do without on a day like this?

a). My ‘Kill the Rich’ t-shirt with badges on. I wear it to all of these things.

b). My ‘True Blue’ scarf. It’s been hidden in my gym locker since 1987.

c). A Union Jack hat left over from the jubilee. Might as well use it again.

d). Leggings. They’re more comfortable than jeans.

5. What do you miss most about the 1980s?

a). My job.

b). Everything.

c). Duran Duran.

d) Before my time.

Results

 Mostly As

You are as anti-Thatcher as it gets and have been waiting for this day since 1979. You had a website counting down the days to her death before websites were even invented. Your numerous blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates are all themed around how much you hate ‘that woman.’ However, despite making and burning more effigies than you can count, you now feel a strange sense of loss. What will you do tomorrow? It’s almost like someone’s just died.

Mostly Bs

You are an old skool Conservative who has been in the closet since 1992. This week you have been finally able to reveal your true (blue) colours. No longer do you need to feel guilty about drinking bottles of lovely fizzy stuff on a Friday and wearing ridiculously expensive shoes. You’re not alone. Other people own diamond cufflinks and they will accept you for who you are. It feels great!

Mostly Cs

You are what would have formerly been called a ‘wet liberal’. You are neither one thing, nor the other and you certainly don’t want to upset anyone by saying the wrong thing in the minefield of things that have been said this week. Obviously you never liked Thatcher, but you have to admit she was impressive – even though she did destroy the industries. But she was also a strong woman. But what about the miners? And the industries? She destroyed the industries.

Mostly Ds

You are too young to remember Thatcher. You don’t know or care who she was ‘cos all of that happened literally hundreds of years ago. The last thing you need is a history lesson. Why’s everyone so obsessed with the past? What’s the point of protesting against someone who is dead? They can’t do anything anymore. They’re dead, duh! What about tuition fees? Why’s no one talking about tuition fees?

Windsor Castle

Despite being quintessentially British, Windsor Castle contains surprisingly few British visitors on Saturday 17th November. Instead, it is mostly enthusiastic Americans wearing Oxford University baseball tops who frantically jostle along its stocky walls and red carpeted staircases desperately attempting to keep up with their audio guides. They gasp in delight when they learn that, today, the queen is in residence. We are also gasping – but mainly because we have spent five hours trapped without oxygen on the train getting here.

The English Rugby Team are about to take on Australia in Twickenham and their fans – a hoarding mass of overweight braying men – are keen to ensure anyone looking for a day of light history, cream teas and gift shops doesn’t get on the train. When The Other One and I finally squeeze aboard, they taunt us by singing of Jerusalem’s green and pleasant land as we hurtle through Clapham Junction, Britain’s Busiest Railway Station.

Like Wimbledon, Ascot and Working Title films, Windsor Castle is a fantasy land of sedate Britishness that exists far less in real life than it does in the minds of tourists and Conservative politicians. Despite being the residence of many a bloodthirsty monarch in the past, it now feels like a cosy collection of large cottages made of sugary stone. Guides dressed like toy soldiers from the Nutcracker ballet cheerily and inadvertently mix up diamond and golden jubilees – probably because they’re been working here since the 1970s.

Unlike many of Europe’s opulent but cold royal palaces – ghostly shells which haven’t been lived in since their residents had their heads chopped off – here, there is an amusing anecdote to accompany every object. From solid silver furniture made to annoy the French (who melted theirs down to pay their debts), to a dinner service shaped like pineapples, created over seven years in the 1800s by Yorkshire’s Rockingham Works.

The armory room is the only place that dwells upon some of the more sinister parts of our country’s past. Here, belongings collected (or stolen?) during the British Empire line the implausibly high walls – guns, pottery, caskets, a sad little gold mask. Rarely is there any mention of what happened to their owners.

The tone of the tour is predominantly upbeat and jovial – the antithesis of a probing critique of history. Queen Mary’s dolls house with its miniature furniture is a favourite with the crowds, as are anecdotes from the guides about Charles and Camilla’s wedding. In a sometimes tough and abrasive world, the castle manages to be as inoffensive and enjoyable as a fluffy scone.

The rooms we get to see are the state ones, rather than (somewhat disappointingly) Tupperware containers in backroom kitchens. The timelessly chic sets of china, including the Rockingham pineapple one, get less attention than they deserve, while the portraits of defiant nobles through the ages feel more lifelike than many of the visitors looking at them.

We keep being reminded that, through our tickets, we are all contributing to ‘the collection’ – made to feel as if we own it, even though we don’t. After we leave and are walking down the high street, I see a boy sitting in the window of one of the towers checking his mobile. I wave. He waves back. Maybe we’re not so different after all. Read more

Some people are desperate to live in a castle and marry a prince. I simply dream of being an international dignitary on a weekend break – preferably with a room in a tower and dinner on a plate shaped like a pineapple. Crammed into the train back home with the rugby lot tunelessly shouting out a song about a woman’s ‘saggy tits’ and ‘broken nose’, this fantasy quickly disappears into a wave of beer, sweat and near vomiting. It doesn’t matter that verse twenty drowns out the announcement for our station. It’s obvious – we’re home.