Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Coral in New Cross Gate - place your bets...

Coral have applied to open a new betting shop in the former Barclay's bank building on the corner of New Cross Road (number 197), opposite the White Hart.

The building has been empty since September 2013 when the bank closed, and has been occupied by squatters at least twice. The dental surgery on the first floor - who own the freehold and would be leasing the ground floor to Coral - will continue to operate.

At a public meeting held at New Cross Learning last night, representatives from Coral explained that they planned to close the current branch slightly further down New Cross Road and open this new branch in order to provide a more modern and comfortable environment for their customers, and one that was more suited to modern betting techniques (such as fixed odds betting terminals - FOBTs).

The issue of betting shops in the area has been a hot topic, with claims that Deptford High Street's 10+ stores were starting to suffocate the community feel of the street and was leading to increased crime, antisocial behaviour and a desire for local people to avoid the area. As well as the current Coral branch in New Cross, there is a William Hill branch around two minutes' walk away.

The council and planning representatives present reported that they had received no letters of support but over 600 objections to the plans, and were aware of the level of local opposition to a large new gambling facility opening in a landmark site in a relatively poor area.

Discussions at the meeting consisted of:

- remarks that the council had failed to notify very many locals, even those within sight-line of the new shop, and that planning notices had been displayed late and for a very short time period: the planning officer confirmed that the timescale to object was extended, but it was generally felt that few people were aware of the proposal and would be shocked to see Coral taking over the building,

- whether it was appropriate to add blue plastic fascias and large format window posters to the front of a Victorian heritage (albeit not listed) building in a conservation district, and in particular one that many people driving into London from two directions would see,

- whether it was an appropriate use of such a key building on the high street and whether the council could have provided support to find a more suitable tenant to serve the local community; Coral and the council suggested that no other parties had shown interest in the property, and suggested it was not their responsibility to seek out occupants for vacant properties but simply to deal with received applications,

- whether the antisocial activity that had apparently plagued the area around the current branch - such as loitering, street drinking and public urination - would simply transfer to the vicinity of the new branch, in particular the large open space in front of the Post Office - and whether the branch would be suitably staffed to monitor and intervene in such activity,

- whether opening a large, visible and more 'attractive' store would simply encourage more people, particularly from local vulnerable groups - some of which are houses nearer the proposed new branch - to partake in gambling, which is known to be a highly addictive and expensive habit. The building is also close to several schools.

The Coral representatives continually asserted that anyone causing anti-social issues 'would not be their customer' and that their staff are properly trained to identify signs of gambling addiction and intervene as appropriate.

They suggested that the current store, which has been run by the company since 1984, was now inappropriate for modern gambling requirements and that this new location was the first to become available 'in 15 years' that was appropriate for their new store format.

They denied that moving to a larger, more visible location was purely about increasing footfall and therefore profit, but simply to provide better facilities for their existing clientele and the local community.

The store due to close still has an 11-year lease held by Coral and a standing gambling license; although Coral confirmed that the branch would close if the new one was approved, it was not clear if they would be interested in leasing the store to another organisation who could make use of the gambling license, or if the Coral branch would close in the event that permission for the new one was not granted because it was deemed unsuitable.

The Coral representatives suggested they could not be precise about the fate of the current store in that scenario because they had no idea what developments would take place in the coming three years in the gambling world. Surprising for a company that makes its money by predicting the most likely outcome.

The issue will now be voted upon at a planning meeting.

A petition has been launched objecting to the proposal.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Three days in Ljubljana

Ljubljana is the beautiful capital of Slovenia. We flew from London Luton with Wizz Air, which takes just under two hours. It's the perfect location for a long-weekend break to a city that's the perfect size to explore.

Day 1
We checked into our very central AirBnB apartment in the centre of town, right next to the Butcher's Bridge, just minutes from the daily outdoor food market.

We grabbed lunch at Pop's, where I experienced what I think may be the greatest burger I've ever had, complete with parmesan-sprinkled fries and a great view of the river and the famous Triple Bridge.

At 2pm we joined the Ljubljana Free Tour - a 2 hour 45 minute guide around the city, which was a great way of getting our bearings and learning about the history and context of the beautiful buildings in the compact city centre. It was a hot day so we started to flag after a couple of hours, but I'm glad we saw everything the tour had to offer.

After a brief break back at the apartment we headed out for a meal and drinks at Gostilna As - the food was decent but the atmosphere a little strange as a loud promotional event for a London gin company was taking place outside!

We ended the day with some drinks in two or three bars along the riverside. The drink of the season is Aperol Spritz, but we also sampled some great local beers.

Day 2
An early start and a short walk to the bus station (just outside the train station) to head off to Lake Bled. The buses leave roughly every hour but be warned that they fill up quickly - we had to book tickets for the following bus and wait for a while in a coffee shop.

The bus journey itself lasted around 1 hour 20 minutes and passed through some beautiful scenery. We eventually arrived in the small resort town of Bled and walked the short distance down to the stunning lake. Grabbing an ice cream, we hired a small rowing boat to row out to Bled Island. The boat owner suggested this would take about 15 minutes, but a combination of the heat and our general ineptitude meant it took closer to 45. On the island you have the chance to go into a small church, but we had a quick explore and a glass of crisp, white Slovenian wine before rowing back.

We ended our trip to Bled with a delicious, generous meal at Grajska Plaza, a restaurant and bar overlooking the lake. We managed to catch the 5.30pm express bus back to Ljubljana which only took around half an hour.

After a brief pit stop, we headed out into the medieval area of town via the weekly Open Kitchen food and drink market (different to the daily market, which is more about every day groceries), at which restaurants and bars from the region set up stall and sell delicious fare throughout the day and the evening. Definitely worth a visit. We sampled some delicious wine before heading to a restaurant called Robba, definitely my food highlight of the trip. The chicken pate starter was delicious and my main course of veal was even better - but the highlight was the nutella cheesecake with a cooling raspberry ice cream. So good, we returned for more cheesecake the next day. They have ever-changing daily specials so remember to ask what's available on top of the regular menu.

We rounded off the second day with more riverside drinks and people watching before a slow wander back to our apartment and a final Aperol Spritz at the bar just outside our building.

Day 3
We started the final day with a trip to the food market to pick up picnic supplies - delicious cheese, bread and ham - and then headed to Tivoli Park, a vast, green oasis in the middle of the city full of statues, play parks and cafes. We enjoyed our picnic lunch and a walk around the park, then headed back to the city centre via a few shops and a final walk around the streets and alley ways.

In the evening, we headed up in the funicular - a speedy glass cube that whisks visitors up the mountain to the imposing castle that looks over the town. After a look around, including a sweeping view of the city, we enjoyed a couple of drinks in the courtyard before a delicious meal in the Gostilna na gradu restaurant, which serves all kinds of traditional Slovenian food.

Heading back down in the funicular, we enjoyed a final slice of that delicious Robba cheesecake, a couple more local wines, then an early-ish night before our early flight back to London.

Ljubljana is a beautiful, compact city that can be easily explored in a weekend, but it's also worth the trip further afield to Lake Bled or other beautiful towns and attractions. The city is still relatively quiet and yet to be discovered by too many tourists, so it's easy to get around and to grab a table in the many up and coming riverside bars and restaurants. The town centre is pedestrianised and easy to navigate, and there are plenty of modern shops as well as traditional outlets to grab a souvenir.

I whole-heartedly recommend a trip!

Friday, 22 January 2016

I was a teenage X-Files addict.

For the first time in 13 years there's a new episode of The X-Files coming up and the only person who could possibly be more excited is 12-year old me.
12 year-old Christopher, who was proud that every inch of his bedroom walls was covered in X-Files posters - some bought from the Virgin Megastore, some begged from the CD & Video Department at Asda or Woolworths.

Books and videos (quite the audio-visual library - some recorded onto blank tapes bought in packs of three from HMV, some double-episode specials saved up for and bought for £15.99 a go) filled shelves and cupboards. Magazines and comics stacked carefully in the cupboard, the most precious and hard-to-find ones protected by plastic sleeves. Double copies purchased where possible so photos could be clipped, blu-tacked up, pritt-sticked on the cover of school books. Trying to persuade school mates this wasn't just about aliens and space and geeky stuff, that it was about people and drama and comedy and everything. We were the original bing watchers, the box set addicts, only we had to make do with 45-minute binges with week-long gaps in between, at the mercy of ruthless schedulers and roaming release dates.

Copies of Radio Times bearing the faces of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, an 'officiel' magazine in unreadable French procured on a school trip, copies of the US TV Guide with fold-out covers and glossy ads for upcoming episodes that came through the post, begged from Internet friends afar, exotic mustard-coloured envelopes with foreign stamps ripped open and their contents pored over.

Oh the Internet. In its infancy still, reachable only through the plinky-plonky modem and rationed by parents to an hour or two a day, at the weekend - except for those other times when I'd need to hurriedly disconnect if someone approached the phone to ring someone. Incomprehensible, really, when the world is a touch-screen away now. So while teenagers seemingly send each other naked selfies and stream high-res porn on multiple devices, 12-year old me was too busy frantically searching for spoilers at The Haven, grabbing at snippets of information for episodes not due to air in the UK for months, or attempting to download grainy scans of the latest American magazine interviews with my favourite dynamic duo.

This was before Youtube, before Reddit, before Twitter - where spoilers would drip on to message boards and newsgroups and patchy Geocities sites from faceless faraway fans with handles like 'XFan1013' and 'Queequeg' and 'DanaShipper'. 

Homemade photoshop collages of pensive promotional poses: Scully's large late 90s hairdo and pastel power suits competing with Mulder's gelled quiff and knowing smile. This was the show that grew up as the world wide web did, with fans swapping ICQ numbers and Yahoo Pager IDs, joining webrings, communicating in the X-Philean language of episode numbers (3x14) and brutally dividing ourselves into teams of shippers and NoRoMos. A language picked up over hours and hours of surfing sites with black backgrounds and neon green Times New Roman titles, the reward of dedication, the sense of community, the fandom.

And then we all grew up, and the VHS box sets grew dusty, and we took down the posters with their curling corners. All those teenage fans found real-life girls and boys and booze and jobs, their forum passwords forgotten, their avatars abandoned. 

It was the magazines I struggled to get rid of - collected and catalogued with pride, there's still a handful of my most prized ones in the drawer of my spare room, their cover dates - 1998, 1999, 2000 - impossibly long ago.

12-year old me - in my overwashed The Truth Is Out There t-shirt bought with Christmas gift vouchers from Our Price -  wouldn't comprehend that people not even born then would one day watch every episode on demand, without ads, pausing and rewinding, discovering this extraordinary story of trust and faith, of aliens and freaks, of love and betrayal, for the first time. 

Hundreds of hours of dialogue and glances and shadows and lights that we pored over, analysed, gasped at, reviewed - admired by millions, in glorious remastered high definition, a million miles from our grainy video tapes peppered with Sky One adverts. Mark Snow's six eerie whistling notes that re-defined a television genre and set the tone for an era of paranoia and shaky spaceship stories.

And none of us could have imagined that we'd be sitting down to watch fresh new episodes, two decades later, waiting to see what Mulder and Scully, Fox and Dana, would be running away from, creeping down shadowy corridors towards, shining their impossibly large torches at, analysing and bickering about in their stupidly garbled but weirdly comforting lexicon that reminds me of days happy and familiar.

The X-Files is back and I can't wait.