From high in the sky to deep underground, including my first time riding 2 different modes of transport and my first London museum visit in ages, plus stand-up comedy, TV shows and music, there’s been a lot going on this month. London really is feeling alive and back to normal again, which is wonderful. So I’ve got a lot to get through here as usual, none of which is sponsored or gifted, and I hope you enjoy this latest roundup!
- Stonehenge Exhibition
This has certainly been a busy month for transport around London! And the major highlight for me, of course, is the helicopter ride over the city that I took with a couple of friends. We’d attempted it 3 times before the pandemic struck, but had been thwarted by the weather on each occasion. But finally, at the start of May, we managed to do it. And it was well worth the wait, the views were incredible! Check out my blog post and extensive video to find out more.
Elizabeth Line / Crossrail / Purple Train
Back on the ground, and often under it, the Elizabeth line is finally open, an impressive feat of engineering that significantly improves the capacity and accessibility of London’s rail network. Lots of train enthusiasts flocked to the line on its opening day, including Geoff Marshall, who has been posting a lot of excellent videos about the service, including an in-depth look at the step-free access and other features of the new stations.
But it’s also remained very popular since then, with over a million journeys recorded on the new central section in its first 5 days – and I was one of them.
I was going away for a weekend in Devon, 3 days after the Lizzie line opened, so it was the perfect opportunity to ride it from Whitechapel through to Paddington. Normally I would have got the Hammersmith & City line from my home station to Paddington, but changing at Whitechapel enabled me to get a faster service with fewer stops via the Elizabeth line instead, saving me a good 10-15 minutes I reckon. I definitely noticed the difference when I returned on Sunday, as the Elizabeth line isn’t running on Sundays yet, so I had to use the slower H&C line to get home.
And it’s not just the speed that’s impressive. The new Elizabeth line stations are absolutely huge, beautifully designed, very well-lit, and completely accessible thanks to all the lifts they’ve installed (including incline lifts that move diagonally alongside the escalators!). And the trains are comfortable, smooth and quiet, with the cool purple moquette pattern on the seats, and the usual spoken messages so you know where you are.
So it was easy to find my way around and to get where I needed to be, and I’ve already used the line a couple more times since then whilst going around London. Check out the clips I recorded during my first journey, which will give you a small sense of what it’s like. They are still doing more work on it – over the coming year all 3 sections of the line will be integrated so it’s one continuous network, plus Bond Street will open on the central section, and there will be a greater frequency of services. But in this first phase it’s already doing very well indeed. I’m delighted it’s finally here and that so many people are making good use of it already.
You can find out more about the construction of the railway in an update to the BBC’s documentary series The 15 Billion Pound Railway, which is coming up on BBC Two from 12 June, following repeats of a couple of earlier episodes on BBC Four on 6 & 7 June.
There isn’t much to say about my Devon trip, incidentally. I was there to meet work colleagues who I hadn’t seen in person for 2½ years, so we had a great Friday night out bowling, drinking and chatting together. And as Torquay was evacuated the following day due to the superyacht fire that made the news, I escaped to Totnes to see an old school friend there instead, which was lovely. It was great to have a little getaway and to see everyone at last!.I’ll be back in August for a slightly longer visit too , so I’m looking forward to that.
Bank Station Upgrade
Back to London though, and the new southbound platform and concourse for the Northern Line has opened at Bank, after the entire branch was closed for 17 weeks to allow for the refurbishment. Which may not sound like a big deal, but having changed to and from the Northern Line at that station on several occasions, including a trip I made during this month, I can attest to what a difference it’s made. There really is so much more room!
They’ve basically built an entirely new tunnel to accommodate a wider southbound platform, redirecting the track to do so. The old southbound tunnel has then been turned into a huge passenger corridor – so people on one side of the concourse are walking down the old platform, while people on the other side are walking on what used to be the old track, which has been filled so it’s all one level floor. There’s just a line down the middle of the corridor showing where the old platform edge used to be. The original stairs are still used to enter and exit this area, but a metal door next to them shuts off the old track tunnel. The northbound platform hasn’t been widened, as they didn’t have enough space available on that side, but the new wide concourse acts as a good overflow area to compensate for that.
You can see a few more of my photos over on Instagram. And Geoff Marshall’s made a good video about it if you want to find out more.
And this is just one phase of the Bank upgrade project, as there are still new corridors, escalators and moving walkways to be unveiled, that will make it a lot easier to change between lines at this hugely complex station, plus there will be a new entrance on Cannon Street. All of which will increase the passenger capacity of the station by 40% when it’s completed later this year. At such a busy central location, it really is an essential upgrade!
Secrets Of The London Underground
On TV, I’m really pleased that the fascinating documentary series Secrets Of the London Underground has returned on Yesterday, now with a run of 10 episodes, compared to 6 for the first series. Tim Dunn and Siddy Holloway have such genuine enthusiasm as they explore hidden areas of the TfL network, and dig through items at the London Transport Museum depot, revealing all sorts of hidden delights and historic secrets that you would never know about or have the chance to see otherwise. What could potentially be a dry, nerdy and dull subject matter in the wrong hands is really brought to life in an engaging and accessible way here.
It’s amazing to think that you’re often so close to lots of intriguing and important places without realising it, whether it’s walking past locked doors and gates in Tube stations, whizzing past secret areas whilst on the trains, or wandering around London in general when there are thrilling pockets of history just beneath your feet or in nearby buildings. So it’s wonderful to have a series like this that reveals them in such detail.
Those who want to dig even deeper into that kind of thing can also watch the Hidden London Hangouts series by the London Transport Museum on Youtube, featuring Siddy along with a few of her colleagues. They’ve also covered the Elizabeth Line and Bank upgrade recently. I did see the first series way back during the first lockdown, but didn’t continue after that, as it was a bit too in-depth and nerdy for a relatively casual transport fan like me, and I was more interested in watching other stuff. After all, there were a lot of online distractions during that period! But for people who are heavily into the history and operations of the transport network, there’s a huge amount to explore there too.
Disabled Persons Railcard
In terms of national journeys, I’ve also renewed my Disabled Persons Railcard for another 3 years, which gives me a third off rail fares for myself and a friend. I would have been happy to try a digital card on this occasion, but their website simply doesn’t work properly. The first time I tried, it authorised the payment from my account, but then crashed and didn’t complete the application, so I had to email them to get the transaction voided. I then left it for a week or so and tried again, only to keep getting an “unexpected issue” error message before I could even start filling in my details, no matter which browser or device I used, and clearing my caches didn’t help either. By all accounts that error has been plaguing users of the site for several months now – at least since October 2021 judging by social media, and it seems there were already other issues before that. I don’t understand why they haven’t been able to fix it in all that time – there is a disappointing irony in the fact that a website for disabled people is completely inaccessible!
So eventually I had to ring them on 0345 300 0250, which took a couple of attempts, as they keep you on hold for a long time. I gave up after about half an hour the first time, and I had to wait at least 20 minutes on the next day I tried. To be fair, the person who eventually answered was very kind and helpful, and I was able to order and pay for it successfully that way, and it came in the post a few days later. So it is all sorted at least. I could have emailed a photo to them while on the phone to get a digital card, but I couldn’t be bothered to mess around with that, especially as their digital system clearly can’t be trusted to work properly. So I was happy to settle for another plastic card instead, to get it out of the way. And thankfully I received it in time for my brief visit to Devon!
It’s been over 2 years since I last went to a museum in London, but this month I finally ended that dry spell by visiting The World of Stonehenge at the British Museum. They are actually doing an online audio described tour on 8 June for those who are interested, but I wanted to see it in person.
And it is certainly well worth it for what it contains. The construction of Stonehenge, including the movement of the massive stones, is an extraordinary feat in itself, so it was great to find out a little bit more about that, and the reasons for its existence and design. But the gallery goes well beyond that, providing a fascinating insight into civilisation at the time, including the relationships that the people had with the land, animals and the sun, their spiritual beliefs, the incredible tools and art that they created by hand, the international connections they started to develop, the impact of warfare, and so on.
And in terms of objects, it’s not just about looking at rocks – although there are naturally quite a few, some with nice drawings carved into them – but there’s also beautiful jewellery and other gold items, huge tridents next to a long wooden walkway, big shields used in battles, many examples of axes that they made, and much more. There’s a surprising and wonderful variety of things to look at.
The largest central exhibit is from Seahenge, an impressive semi-circle of big, thick pieces of timber, with an accompanying soundscape playing in the background to give some atmosphere. Another notable exhibit is the beautiful Nebra Sky Disc, the world’s oldest surviving map of the stars. But I was prohibited from taking a picture of that, with whoever it was that told me gesturing towards a sign that I still couldn’t see even after they’d pointed it out, so you’ll have to look at one of the countless photos that are already online instead.
Part of the reason I never saw that sign was the lighting, as it’s very dim in some areas of the exhibition. I assume that’s deliberate to preserve the objects, although they’re lit up quite well anyway, so I could see most of them clearly. But I had to be careful navigating between the various displays due to the low light. Just entering the dark exhibition entrance from the bright sunlit lobby of the museum was a huge contrast for starters, which took me a while to adjust to, in the very limited way that I can.
The other issue I had was figuring out the order to browse in. They have large print and plain English guides on their website (and in book form in the museum itself too), which is fantastic, so I downloaded the large print guide to my phone. And that did make it a lot easier to read the various signs and labels, especially as I was able to put in my earphones and have my phone speak the text to me as I went around. However, if you follow the large print guide in the order the items are presented, to keep track of what you’re reading, it bounces you from one side of the room to the other regularly, and its single-line descriptions are sometimes too vague as to where the next bit is. So I ended up hunting around sometimes to find things, hampered a bit by the lighting.
In addition, where the objects are numbered in order in display cases, they sometimes go from right to left, to reflect the natural order of travel through the gallery, especially on the right-hand side of the room. And that was alright much of the time. But in certain areas, particularly in the latter half of the exhibition, I found that following the intended right-to-left order actually took me against the natural flow of the other visitors, who were looking at objects from left to right, ignoring the numbering altogether. So the only way to properly look at those objects was to follow the public’s direction and read the large print guide backwards, which is fiddly when you’re trying to read things in order or want your phone to speak things to you.
That said, by that stage I wasn’t reading everything anyway. I had listened to a lot of the object labels in the first half of the exhibition, as I’d found myself getting quite absorbed in it. But when it became apparent just how much there was still left to see – as it’s not obvious how huge the exhibition is altogether when you’re in the first big room – I pulled back and focused on section introductions and the descriptions of the most eye-catching objects instead. It would have been too much to take everything in otherwise. It’s nice to be able to keep the large print guide anyway, so I can read it again at my leisure in the future – even without seeing all of the objects it’s referring to, the history aspect is still interesting.
Also in terms of reading things, there are some video screens dotted around the exhibition, illustrating the stories behind the exhibits with brief animations or films, each lasting a couple of minutes at most. But the screens are small and low down, with no audio, and the only information is provided by captions that appear. So I had to lean down very close to try and see what was happening and to read the text, which will have got in the way of a few visitors I’m sure. So I only tried a couple of those and bypassed the rest, as they were hard to see.
So it isn’t the most accessible exhibition by any means, but I’m glad I checked it out at least, given all the publicity and great reviews it’s had. It is a truly fascinating look at an important slice of history, with a lot of nice objects to look at, all of which have interesting stories and context behind them. The ingenuity and skills of the people of that time are really admirable. As well as the upcoming audio described tour on 8 June, you can also watch a 23-minute curator’s tour, other short curator’s videos, and an in-depth 1-hour curator’s talk, if you want to find out more about the exhibition.
I haven’t been to any theatres this month, but there is plenty of that to look forward to in June and July.
However, given their relevance, I would like to wish a Happy 25th Anniversary to the Extant group, who work to increase the representation of visually impaired people in the arts. I’ve written about them before, as I reviewed States of Mind last year, as well as interviewing a couple of people involved with it. Plus I saw an earlier production called Flight Paths in 2019, and attended a drama workshop they did in 2017.
They’ve marked the well-deserved milestone by announcing their plans for the next 3 years, which will see them, in their own words: “innovating the arts sector with new disabled talent, taking a proactive role in creating an answer to the under-representation of disabled leaders”. They are pledging to expand their research and “open source” their knowledge, in order to promote and improve inclusivity across different disciplines and sectors.
They’re also holding a special industry event called Extant Evolve on Friday 17th June in their new home at Carlton Mansions, part of Brixton House. They’ll be showcasing the work of up-and-coming visually impaired and blind practitioners who have taken part in their Pathways training and development programme, followed by a celebratory drinks reception.
So I hope that event goes well for them, and it’s great to hear that they’ll be working to increase disability representation in the arts yet further. You can find out more about their plans by reading this Theatre Weekly article.
Images supplied via a press contact, but Extant’s mention is not paid or sponsored.
Ricky Gervais Shows
Ricky Gervais released a new stand-up comedy special, SuperNature, on Netflix this month, which I really enjoyed, along with his previous shows on DVD and Netflix as well. I appreciate he’s not to everyone’s taste, as he can be quite rude and controversial, and some of his jokes get taken completely out of context when mentioned in the news or on social media. But his act is just that – an act – and I enjoy the escapism of it, he’s very funny.
And as his “round-headed buffoon” producer friend Karl Pilkington is mentioned regularly in those shows, and stars in many of the DVD extras, I couldn’t resist watching the hilarious animated series The Ricky Gervais Show on DVD yet again as well, which is based on the brilliant podcasts Ricky did with Karl Pilkington and Stephen Merchant. There are so many great moments in those episodes that make me laugh out loud, though not as loud as Ricky!
I’ve written detailed review posts for Ricky’s stand-up shows and the animated TV series, so do check those out if you want to know more.
It’s also worth noting that the second series of Stephen Merchant’s comedy-drama The Outlaws starts on TV on Sunday 5th June, so I’m looking forward to watching that too.
Jimmy Carr Interview
Meanwhile, Jimmy Carr has shared an hour-long interview with Stuart Goldsmith on Youtube, filmed at London’s Savoy Theatre in October 2021, to promote his new self-help book Before And Laughter.
Jimmy’s very frank and open as he talks about:
- Becoming a father for the first time and getting plastic surgery
- His relationship with his mother
- The profound impact of Sean Lock’s death
- Living with anxiety
- Coping with failure
- His tax avoidance scandal
- Writing jokes about Rachel Riley & Susie Dent
- Partying with royalty and celebrities
- His inner critic
- Test driving a Tesla
- Heckles and roast battles
So it’s really interesting and very funny, plus he answers a few questions from the audience. He shares a lot of good advice and wisdom along the way, explaining why it’s important to know what you like and want in life, and why disposition is more important than position (i.e. how you personally see the world is more important than what the world is). And people who suffer from anxiety will be able to relate to a lot of what he says about that aspect of his life I’m sure.
Jimmy also mentions a song that he found solace in after Sean Lock died, called Keep Me In Your Heart by Warren Zevon. Having only been familiar with Werewolves Of London up to now (which is a great song that I already have in my music collection), I decided to check this other track out as well, and it is indeed beautifully written and very moving. If you’ve ever lost someone dear to you, it will almost certainly have an impact.
And another nice song that he mentions is I Will Follow You Into The Dark by Death Cab For Cutie, which was recently used in Series 3 of the Ricky Gervais show After Life that I watched earlier this year.
Amongst my usual favourite shows, I’m still very much enjoying Series 13 of Taskmaster, which comes as no surprise, plus we’ve finally got some more new episodes of the extended QI XL, and there’s new series of Just A Minute on the radio. I’m also delighted that there are new episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? USA on Dave. That brings us up to date with their latest episodes, again hosted by Aisha Tyler, who’s joined by the usual regular performers Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie & Wayne Brady, along with familiar guest performers. I’ve written about my love of the show before, so I don’t need to say much here, but it’s still great.
I’m also enjoying Have I Got News For You as usual of course, and it was great to see blind comedian Chris McCausland as a guest on the show. He also had some very funny interaction with Lee Mack when they presented a BAFTA TV award this month. I didn’t bother watching the awards show itself, but the clip of their little double act is great, and there’s a nice little backstage interview too.
For once there isn’t anything majorly Queen-related to mention this month – although it’s great to see they’re back on tour with Adam Lambert, and they’re taking part in the Platinum Jubilee Concert, which I’ll be sharing a review of very soon.
However, I have bought a couple of new albums by other artists this month.
Def Leppard: Diamond Star Halos
This group haven’t lost their touch, as Diamond Star Halos is a very cool collection of new songs, mixing heavy rock with slower ballads. It’s impossible to avoid foot-tapping or head-bopping along with the catchier tracks, especially the opening bangers Take What You Want, Kick & Fire It Up, all of which I’ve been quite obsessed with, and they were issued as singles prior to the album’s release. There’s a behind-the-scenes look at the music video for Kick too, and they performed Take What You Want on Jimmy Kimmel Live. In terms of slower tracks, This Guitar, Goodbye For Good This Time and Angels (Can’t Help You Now) are nicely done as well.
The Rolling Stones: Live At The El Mocambo
This album commemorates their secret 1977 performances at Toronto’s El Mocambo Tavern, by providing the full set from 5 March 1977, plus 3 bonus tracks from the day before that you very rarely hear live versions of. Overall it’s nothing exceptional, relatively speaking – having heard lots of live albums by the Stones, it would need something really special indeed for one to seriously stand out – but it’s still an enjoyable set, they’re on great form as ever. And it’s well worth getting for tracks that I’ve never owned live versions of before, including Melody, Luxury and Hot Stuff (which has a riff that makes me think of Walk This Way). And they also play classics like Tumbling Dice and It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It) of course, among many others.
I also have the April Wine album that was recorded in the same venue on the same dates, as the Canadian band were the support act who opened the show for the Stones. They’re a pretty good group too. I’ve had several of their albums for quite a while now, including this one, and they give a decent performance here, including Teenage Love and Don’t Push Me Around.
And that’s it for another busy month, I hope you enjoyed looking through it all. There’s plenty more to come in June as well, including a few theatre visits, and there’s an update on my personal life that I’ll be sharing soon. But in the meantime, I hope you’ve been having a lovely time over the special holiday weekend for The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and I hope you enjoy the rest of June too!
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