One hundred years ago today, at 6.52pm, the Brunner Mond munitions factory in the Silvertown district of east London blew up. It was an explosion heard as far afield as Cambridge, Salisbury and Southampton and killed at least 73 people.
My great-grandparents had a ships' laundry in Silvertown at the time, serving the Royal Docks. The blast blew in the windows and doors, my great-grandmother off her feet and my four-month old grandmother out of her cot and across the room.
I tell the story of the Silvertown Explosion and my mother's family in detail in Constance Street. It's not a particularly well-known disaster as wartime reporting restrictions kept the lid on details. It also didn't reflect particularly well on the government, having placed a munitions factory requiring trainloads of volatile TNT trundling in and out day and night at the heart of a dirt-poor urban community packed with people.
Even the casualty list is a little arbitrary with the figure of 73 deaths compiled by the newspapers rather than official sources. Indeed, my great-grandmother, having opened what was left of the laundry as a field hospital for walking wounded, ended up unofficially adopting two little girls who were never claimed having lost their parents in the blast, parents I've been unable to locate in the list of casualties.
73 deaths always seemed a low figure when you see the scale of the devastation; the real figure is almos .... Read more
When news broke on Tuesday evening that Bap Kennedy had died it was as if the world took a blow to the solar plexus.
It wasn’t entirely unexpected given the bleakness of his cancer diagnosis earlier this year, but the wave of grief that washed through social media alone showed just how far and wide his music had permeated.
Far, wide and deep: Bap’s fans around the world took it personally because Bap’s songs are so personal, expressing universal emotions that resonate with all of us. Not only that he did it with lyrics of such concision and precision he made Hemingway look like a windbag. If Bap Kennedy had written War And Peace it would have contained the same wide range of character, chronology, depth and emotion but it would have been about six pages long.
Genius lies in that simplicity, that richness out of sparseness: the sheer humanity and impact of Bap’s songs could be found in the spaces in between. It’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to pull off yet Bap did it year after year on album after album, drawing down the human condition with all its flaws, joys, frailties hopes, heartbreaks and dreams and distilling it into the delicate melodies of scantily-worded songs over basic chords that made the listener feel he was speaking to only them.
I was lucky enough to know Bap on and off for the best part of twenty-five years. More off than on, really, but despite being able to call him a friend I .... Read more
In 1992 I went interrailing with my friend Paul. We’d spent most of our money on the tickets so planned to save what little cash we had left by sleeping on overnight trains whenever we could. We soon developed a routine of arriving at a station in the evening, looking at the departures board and picking where we fancied waking up the next day. Poland? Bavaria? The south of France? It felt as if all of Europe was laid out in front of us. Probably because it was. And what a time to travel through Europe as new nations were born and strong bonds developed between old foes.
It took us a few neck-ricking nights upright to realise that the seats in the six-seat compartments pulled out and met in the middle, allowing us to stretch out lengthways and ensuring our slumber would be disturbed only by the slide of the compartment door for the countless passport and ticket checks that punctured our nocturnal rest.
The downside to this was that it didn’t take long before we, quite frankly, stank. Other than the odd splash in the bathroom of a branch of McDonald’s (always very clean right across Europe) we spent a total of four nights in hostels in the space of a month. That meant four showers. In a month. And don’t even start about our clothes.
On the final leg of the trip, a train from Rome to Paris, a woman joined us in our compartment and after a few moments stood up smiling politely and saying something in Italian abo .... Read more
Sixteen years ago today on the gloriously warm spring afternoon of April 29th 2000 Charlton Athletic collected the League Championship trophy in front of a capacity crowd at The Valley.
Sixteen years sounds like a long time ago but I’ve reached an age now where it doesn’t feel like it. The sensations of that day are still vivid; I can still feel the sunshine on my face and see the net making waves after Andy Hunt headed home John Robinson’s free-kick from six yards and ran towards us at the front of the Covered End. I can still feel myself wobbling about standing on my seat as the trophy was presented and the lap of honour began.
It turned into a long night; a bunch of us ended up taking over the Plume of Feathers in Greenwich, the landlord sending over bottles of champagne despite the Crystal Palace scarf and rosette that still hangs behind the bar there to this day.
It was a remarkable feeling. Charlton Athletic, our club, league champions by a mile and returning to the top flight thanks to a brilliant bunch of committed players marshalled by an inspiring manager approaching a decade in charge and backed by a boardroom hierarchy made up largely of lifelong supporters.
It was just eight years since we’d returned to a Valley with portacabins for dressing rooms, a capacity well under ten thousand and no money in the bank (three down in an FA Cup quarter-final a couple of years later to a Manchester United .... Read more
[caption id="attachment_1035" align="alignleft" width="682"] A runner, running.[/caption]I am aware I have been banging on about this half-marathon as if I’m the first person ever to have run one for far too long. In my defence it’s been in an attempt to distract you with bad jokes while picking your pocket for sponsorship cash. So before detailing the full extent of my suffering let’s deal with the sponsorship.
Thank you so much to everyone who’s sponsored me in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society. As I write this the total has crept up over £3,800 which is roughly an extra zero beyond what I thought we might be able to raise.
Seriously, I am absolutely overwhelmed and stunned by how brilliant you all are. Not too overwhelmed and stunned, however, to point out that sponsorship is still open, so read the following tale of woe and see if you enjoy my agony enough to part with some hard-earned, if you haven’t already.
Well, I got round all 13-and-a-bit miles around the ancient city of Bath. My ‘chip time’, as we top athletes call the official hours and minutes, was 2:45:03, about fifteen minutes slower than I’d hoped.
I have, as you might expect, an excuse for this.
It was a glorious, hazy, sunny spring morning, the sort of Sunday better spent in bed with toast and the papers and a vague intention of going out at some point than standing around a muddy field in Bath wearing shorts and trying to a .... Read more
[caption id="attachment_1022" align="alignleft" width="221"] I'm an experienced athlete. Some might point out that one star was the lowest you could score. They would be right. But screw those guys. [/caption]It's just days until the race now. I'd like to say I'm in tip-top condition and raring to go. I'd really, really like to say that. It would probably be the case, were it not for a running-induced bladder infection and a sore back, but whatsa guy to do, huh? Whatsa guy to do? You might think I'm just getting my excuses in early and, by jiminy, you'd be right. However, thanks to your generous sponsorship - still open, charity fans - I will get round that course by hook, crook or rook.
So before I depart for my secret training camp to commence preparatory shamanstic chanting and mind yoga with my guru, I'll leave you with a few things I've learned in my long, three-month experience as a runner. Eat your heart out, Haruki Murakami.
My running inferiority complex is in remission. I can now nod at and greet other runners as we pass. At least the ones coming towards me: I still unleash a flurry of v-signs at the ones who glide effortlessly past at speed as I continue my glacial trundle in their slipstream.
When you get jogger’s nipple on your moobs you have truly reached a watershed of lifestyle change. A proper sporting injury that! Am quite proud.
Subscribing to a running magazine instantly makes you physicall .... Read more
[caption id="attachment_1007" align="alignleft" width="225"] Action shot, circa nine miles. It's a wonder I'm even vaguely in focus given my incredible speed. [/caption]Last night I stripped down to my underpants and paid a man to rub me for an hour.
It’s something I haven’t done since that weekend in Hamburg whe… erm, it’s not something I’ve ever done before, but such is my dedication to getting round this half marathon with a serviceable pair of knees and as little swearing as possible, I took advice and booked a ‘sports massage’.
This consisted of me in my underwear laying on a couch while a man I’d never met before caressed and pummelled my legs from top to bottom, commiserating about the situation at Charlton Athletic these days as if this was the most normal thing in the world and he wasn’t a complete stranger with his oiled hands closer to my genitals that any man since my dad last changed my nappy.
I was told that this experience would benefit my training. Hence I expected to tackle this morning’s ten mile run, my last long run before the half marathon next Sunday, in the manner of a carb-loaded spring lamb, or maybe even a gazelle who’d just set about draining a lake of Lucozade.
But no. No, siree.
It was agony. Hence I type this from my bed whence I have returned after slathering my lower half in so much Deep Heat there’s a man outside in a radiation suit spooling out a r .... Read more
[caption id="attachment_996" align="alignright" width="256"] Sweaty and bewildered. [/caption]There are two weeks to go now before I tackle the Bath Half Marathon for the Alzheimer’s Society and I’ve just completed my third month of training. What have I learnt so far? Well, while the training itself can admittedly be agony, the rest of the time everything just really hurts! Hooray for the health-giving, life-affirming benefits of exercise!
There has been discernible progress among the soreness though. During the second week of January I set out to run two miles along Brighton seafront. Well, a mile there and a mile back, otherwise I’d have been two miles away from where I was staying, knackered, and in bright red shorts.
On that chilly, sunny day by the sea I’d gone barely half a mile before I had to stop because my lungs were actually climbing up my neck to strangle me.
With two months to go before I was due to run a shade over thirteen miles, I was concerned. At least I was once my colour vision had returned and I’d assured the man in the whelk stall that I didn’t need him to call an ambulance and that yes, my thighs really were meant to be this pink.
This morning I ran for ten miles. Ten miles. I didn’t stop once, either. I ran for the best part of two hours without stopping (I had to write this down so I could go back and read it again).
If my Brighton January self could have seen me he’ .... Read more
You can read the opening instalment of this sweaty saga here, and find out why I'm putting myself through this here.
[caption id="attachment_980" align="alignleft" width="249"]Half man, half endorphin[/caption]Look at that face. Yes, yes, I know, devilishly handsome and inexplicably youthful and all that, very kind of you to say so, but it’s also the face of a man who’s just completed another month of half marathon training. That’s sweat, that is. Honest, grafter’s sweat.
January began with a new pair of running shoes. They’re quite lairy – luminous greens and electric blues all criss-crossing in a manner that suggests streamlining and high performance rather than gasped swearwords and scattergun expectoration – and I feel a bit of an oul’ eejit in them, to be honest. You can’t beat a pair of plain white Woolworth’s plimsolls, in my book. My luminous footwear also cost an amount that had the world swimming slightly in front of my eyes when the man in the shop told me how much they would cost - put it this way, at that price I expect them not only to carry me around the course with no physical input from me whatsoever but also to furnish me with several large gin and tonics en route and have a pizza delivered to me at the finish line.
The man in the shop analysed my running style [sic] and had me running through a crowded shopping arcade with my jeans rolled up to my knees in the manner of a man .... Read more
[caption id="attachment_973" align="alignleft" width="225"] The face of a man who's just finished training month one. If you think his face is pink you should see his thighs. [/caption]As some of you will already know I’m running [sic] the Bath Half Marathon this year in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society. My brilliant dad is now permanently in a care home in Bath as a result of the disease and if I can raise a bit of cash to stop this happening to other brilliant people, then, well, hats in the air and a big brass band. You can read more (and, if you like, chuck a few coins in the cyber-collecting tin) here.
Half an hour ago I was sprinting up a hill in Greenwich Park in freezing, driving rain. I was clad in an idiosyncratic combination of sportswear and winter walking gear that would have struck onlookers as ridiculous had their attention not been snatched immediately by the luminous pinkness of my thighs.
It was only once I’d squelched home, rain and inventive swearwords running off me in equal torrents, that I realised I’d reached the end of my first month of serious half-marathon training.
So far, so good.
For my previous – and frankly disastrous - half-marathon, in Dublin in 2012, my training consisted purely of trying to run a little bit further along Clontarf seafront every time. A, ah, lackadaisical approach to this and a sore knee a month before the event contributed to a time so slow they were a .... Read more