Are You Being Served?

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

The photo above, which I took in 1981, shows Bloomsbury Square, London, following a seasonal snowfall. At the time that I took the photo, I was working part-time at Selfridges, a well-known department store on nearby Oxford Street.

In previous posts, I’ve described how I moved to London in October 1981, to begin my studies for an Electronic Engineering degree at Imperial College.

In Britain, each undergraduate academic year is divided into three terms: Autumn, Spring and Summer. There’s a short Christmas break between the Autumn and Spring terms, and another Easter break between the Spring and Summer terms. Typically, during the short breaks, young students return home to their parents, and take the time off.

My family situation, however, was somewhat different. My father had died in 1979, and my mother was struggling to support herself, so I did not feel that I could just go back and expect her to support me as well. Instead, I decided that I would try to stay in London and obtain temporary work during the short breaks. I found that it was possible to stay in my student accommodations during the breaks if I paid additional rent.

Finding suitable work turned out to be relatively easy, but, in retrospect, I have come to doubt that the job choices I made were for the best.

The Scarborough Pattern

During my schooldays, I had become accustomed to seeking work in menial jobs during the school holidays. In a seaside resort like Scarborough, that usually meant working as a waiter in a hotel or café, or perhaps as a shop assistant. Even if I had had the skills to do more sophisticated work at that age, such work was probably not available in that town anyway.

Thus, when I found myself becoming a student again, this time in London, I fell into the mindset of seeking out types of temporary work that were similar to those that I’d done in Scarborough.

That was a mistake; I should have searched for jobs that would have made better use of my special skills, and would probably have paid better. I was in the very unusual situation of having just worked fulltime in accounting for 2 years prior to starting my studies. Surely, in a world financial center such as London, I could have obtained some temporary work in that field!

The only good aspect of these menial jobs was that the experiences have left me with a cache of anecdotes about the events that occurred.

Mister Selfridge

Prior to the Christmas break for my first academic year in London, I applied to Selfridges Department Store for a sales assistant position, and was accepted.

As a teenager growing up during the 1970s, I was very familiar with the popular (but low-brow) situation comedy series Are You Being Served?, which actually ran on the BBC from 1972 through 1985. The show was set in a fictitious London store called Grace Brothers, but, as I was to discover, the staff uniform of Grace Brothers was strangely similar to that of Selfridges.

More recently, Selfridges has gained worldwide fame as a result of the television series Mister Selfridge, which portrays the early history of the business. Although the TV series used specially-built sets to depict the store, many of these seemed very accurate, and reminded me of the rooms and corridors within the huge building.

The illustration below is an advertisement that Selfridges ran in a 1964 book about London boroughs.

Advertisement for Selfridges, 1964

Advertisement for Selfridges, 1964

There are many stories to tell of surprising and amusing incidents that I experienced while working at Selfridges (and also at Harrods, during one break), or in some cases heard about from other employees, but there isn’t room to tell all of them in this article. Between Christmas 1981 and Spring 1983, I worked in several different Selfridges departments, including luggage, gifts, and finally electronics.

The Electronics Department

In this article, I’ll jump ahead to what turned out to be my final stint as a part-time employee at Selfridges. During the Spring of 1983, I worked Saturdays-only in the Electronics Department in the Oxford Street store.

Now, surely, this department was ideal for me. After all, I was an undergraduate EE student, so now I would be able to bring that knowledge directly to bear in helping Selfridges’ customers. While that turned out to be true, I discovered later that my special skills were not received in a similar light by the department’s regular staff. Although the store hired many students as part-time workers, there was also a substantial staff of full-time employees, whose entire career was wrapped up in their work there.

One Saturday, I was standing at the counter in the Electronics Department when I was approached by an apparently exasperated customer. He explained to me that he wanted to power an item of equipment from a 12V car battery. He knew the maximum current that the battery could supply, but didn’t know whether the battery could supply sufficient power for the equipment.

I explained to him the simple equation relating electrical power to voltage and current (W = VI) that I’d learned during my O-level Physics classes at school. We were able to determine that his battery would be able to supply more than sufficient power for the equipment.

After we’d finished performing the calculation, the customer had a question for me:

“How come I’ve asked this question of every assistant in this department, and you’re the only one who could tell me?”

I responded, truthfully, that it was probably because I was the only undergraduate electrical engineering student working in the department.

I thought nothing more of the incident, which seemed at the time to be just another of the usual daily problems that arose, and which I had successfully handled. My Saturdays-only employment terminated by mutual consent, and as far as I was aware, there was nothing but goodwill between myself and my employer.

The Assistant Who Knew Too Much

When I subsequently applied for re-employment during Christmas 1983, I received the following surprising and mystifying response:

Rejection!

Rejection!

I can only believe that, unbeknown to me until then, my unusual expertise in electronics had ruffled some feathers somewhere among the store’s fulltime staff. The content of the letter is strangely brusque and unhelpful; it’s obviously a form letter, personalized with my name and address, but not the date!

Unfortunately, there are no photos of me working at Selfridges (or at any of the other London locations where I did temporary work). However, the photo below was taken at about the same time that I was doing those Saturday stints at Selfridges, and just after I had produced a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard at the Imperial College TV Studio.

Me (left) following a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard

Me (left) following a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard, 1983

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

In retrospect, then, I have come to believe that working in those menial jobs was a mistake, and I recommend others in a similar situation to think very seriously before committing to such work.

The issue isn’t simply that you’ll be wasting your time and skills, and perhaps accepting lower compensation than necessary in return. There’s also the problem that your superior skills are likely to cause resentment among others, who in some cases may go to considerable lengths to combat what they see as your “unfair advantage”.

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Do We Need A White Christmas?

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

The photo above was taken by my father during the severe winter of 1962-63, and shows me using our coal shovel to “help” clear snow from our front garden in Scarborough. Today marks the Winter Solstice here, so it seems like a good moment to reflect on something that many people seem to hope for at this time of year.

As the photo above demonstrates, some of my earliest memories of this time of year were associated with snow. This was largely because the winter depicted in the image was the coldest in Britain since 1895, a record which has still not been broken in the part of the country in which I was living.

As a result of that experience, as I grew up, I tended to assume that Christmases should be snowy, and I was most disappointed in later years when there was not only no snow on Christmas Day, but it was actually even sunny!

As I grew more mature, of course, I realized that my expectation was not particularly reasonable, and that it had in fact been instilled by episodes of weather that were anomalous, coupled with myths about what Christmas was supposed to be like.

Last weekend, I attended a “Holiday Soundtracks” concert by Michael Berkowitz at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa where we heard, once again and as we do every year, melodies proclaiming the desirability of a “White Christmas”. The photo below shows a view of the concert.

LutherBurbankCenterXmasSoundtracks1

Holiday Soundtracks, Santa Rosa

In a pre-show discussion, Berkowitz himself pointed out the irony of a “Christmas” show being presented by a Jewish conductor, and indeed several of the writers of those famous songs were also Jewish.

The origin of my own childhood views about snowy holidays are obvious to me, but the concert led me once again to consider why so many other people should also want this end-of-year festival to be “white”, that is, to have snow on the ground.

A Northern European Tradition

Presumably the source of the association of the Yuletide festival with snow was that most of its traditions originated in Northern Europe, where there was usually snow at this time of year.

Later, in North America, many of the regions that were settled earliest by European peoples also experienced snowy winters, so those traditions continued.

In the Southern Hemisphere, of course, it’s Summer at this time of year, so the idea of a “White Christmas” makes little sense in many places. However, even in Australia, there are high-altitude ski resorts where you can experience snow in mid-summer if you really want to, as described in this article.

Maintaining the Myths

Many blame the media for propagating the myth of the desirability of a snowy holiday, as in this Boston Globe article. There is also the ever-popular Santa Claus myth, which includes the idea of his living at the North Pole.

When I discovered the truth about “Father Christmas”, after my mother admitted it to me when I was about 8 years old, I was actually quite angry that she had conspired with my father to deceive me for so long!

Snow in London

After leaving my home town, I attended university in London, and lived there for several years. The climate in London is only slightly milder than that in Northern England, so of course it also snows in London during the winter.

I took the photo below, of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, during my first winter as a London student.

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Albert Memorial, London, in Snow, 1981

There’s no question that it’s a pretty scene, but getting around in the city after a snowstorm wasn’t necessarily any fun. The snow quickly turned to dirty slush, which would often then refreeze overnight, creating black ice the following morning. Travel became unusually difficult and dangerous.

As I’ve said so many times since then, it’s great to be able to look at a snowy landscape, as long as you don’t have to go anywhere in it!

Snow in California

If anyone had asked me before I came here whether it snows in California, I may well have replied “No”, but I’d have been very wrong. At the higher elevations in the state, such as the Sierra Nevada, it snows every winter. In the lowland elevations where I live, however, it almost never snows. For example, I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula for about 20 years, and during that time it only snowed once at our house (and only very lightly), although we could sometimes see snow on the surrounding peaks.

The elevation of land in California ranges from sea level to about 14,000 feet above sea level, so the state has a corresponding variety of climates. Contrast that with the highest elevation in Britain, at about 4,400 feet, which is the peak of a mountain (Ben Nevis), while the whole of Lake Tahoe in California lies at 6,225 feet.

Thus, if I were to decide now that I would like a “White Christmas”, all I have to do is to get in my car and drive up to the Sierras. It’s nice to feel that, although I don’t need snow for the holiday, I have the option of it if I choose!

The photo below shows a typical local California view, taken near Cotati, on the occasion of the Winter Solstice in 2014. There’s mist over the hills, but no snow anywhere nearby.

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Let It Go

If you happen to live somewhere that does not have snow at this time of year, then perhaps it will help to realize that its desirability is actually just a myth, and that there are actually definite benefits to a holiday without such weather!

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

London’s Post Office Tower: My First & Only Visit

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971

At the age of eleven, I produced the illustration above for the cover of a “London Study” that we were required to write and illustrate at school. The study was created in connection with our school visit to the capital city, which had taken place in May 1971, just before I drew the cover.

As you may expect (given my interests), my cover drawing emphasized modes of transport. Additionally, I chose as the centerpiece a striking modern building to which we had paid a surprise visit during the trip, and which had substantially impressed me. Little did I know at that time that it would probably be my only opportunity ever to visit that iconic building.

The building in my drawing was the recently-built Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower). Even before that first visit to London, I was well aware of the existence of that structure, which was feted as a prime example of Britain’s dedication to the anticipated “White Heat of Technology”. In addition to its role as an elevated mount for microwave antennas, the Tower offered public viewing galleries providing spectacular views over Central London. There was also the famous revolving restaurant, leased to Butlin’s, the famous operator of down-market holiday camps.

The Tower and its restaurant began to feature prominently in the pop culture of the time. An early “starring” role was in the comedy movie Smashing Time, where, during a party in the revolving restaurant, the rotation mechanism supposedly goes out of control, resulting in a power blackout all over London.

In the more mundane reality of 1971, our school class arrived in London and settled into a rather seedy hotel in Russell Square. One evening, our teacher surprised us by announcing an addition to our itinerary. We would be visiting the public viewing galleries of the Post Office Tower, to watch the sun go down over London, and the lights come on! Needless to say, we were thrilled, even though we had no inkling that that would be our only-ever chance to do that.

There were actually several public viewing gallery floors, some of which featured glazing, while others were exposed to the elements, except for metal safety grilles. Fortunately, the weather during the evening that we visited was not exceptionally windy!

Concretopia

I’m currently reading the book Concretopia, by John Grindrod, which provides a fascinating history of Britain’s postwar architectural projects, both public and private.

Cover of Concretopia Book

One chapter of the book is dedicated to what was originally called the Museum Radio Tower (referring to the nearby British Museum). It provides detailed descriptions of the decisions that led to the construction of the tower, and reveals that at least one floor is still filled with the original 1960s-era communications technology.

Due to subsequent changes both in communications technology and British government policies regarding state involvement in such industries, much of the original function for which the Tower was built has now been rendered obsolete or moved elsewhere, leaving the building as something of a huge museum piece (ironically, in view of its original name).

The Once-and-Only Visit

In October 1971, a few months after my school class visit, a bomb exploded in the roof of the men’s toilets at the Top of the Tower Restaurant. Initially it was assumed that the IRA was responsible, but in fact the attack was accomplished by an anarchist group.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt in the incident, but it drew attention to the security vulnerabilities created by allowing public access to the Tower. The result was that the public viewing galleries were immediately closed down, never to be reopened, and Butlins’ Top of the Tower restaurant was informed that its lease would not be renewed after that expired in 1980.

Nonetheless, the Tower continued to appear in the media as an instantly recognizable icon. At around the same time, it was supposedly attacked by a particularly unlikely monster—Kitten Kong [link plays video]—in the British TV comedy series The Goodies.

My younger brother took the same school trip to London two years after me, but it was already too late; the Tower’s public viewing galleries were closed, so he never got to see the London twilight from that unique vantage point.

The Unexpected Technologist

On that first visit to London in 1971, I had no notion that I personally would ever be a participant in the kind of exciting technological innovation signified by the Tower. In my family’s view, such advances were just something that “people like us” observed and marveled at, from a remote state of consumer ignorance.

I never anticipated, therefore, that I would return to London as an adult only ten years later, to begin my Electronics degree studies at Imperial College, University of London. I had to visit the University’s administration buildings in Bloomsbury to obtain my ID and other information, and there was that familiar building again, still looming over the area. (The University Senate House is also famous for its architectural style, but I’ll discuss that in a future post!)

My 1982 photo below, taken during my undergraduate days, offers an ancient-and-modern architectural contrast, showing the top of the Tower from a point near the Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury.

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

The Museum Tower

The photo below shows the Tower again, during a visit in 2010, now with its “BT” logo prominently on display. Externally, the tower looks little different from its appearance as built, and, given that it’s now a “listed building”, that is unlikely to change much in future.

BT Tower, 2010

BT Tower, 2010

For me, the Post Office Tower stands as a memorial to the optimistic aspirations of Britain’s forays into the “White Heat of Technology”. It seems that, unfortunately, the country’s “Natural Luddites” (which C P Snow claimed were dominant in the social and political elite) won the day after all.

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971

A Californian in Manchester (or a Mancunian in California)

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

I took the photo above in August 1981, showing a “Californian” in Manchester, England. It’s not really Californian—of course—it’s just a “California style” tram that used to be operated by Manchester Corporation Tramways. Manchester abandoned its electric tramway system even earlier than most British cities, and this preserved car is the only surviving Manchester electric tram.

At the time of my photograph, the restoration of Car 765 had recently been completed, and it was giving rides to the public on a special track in Heaton Park. When riding that ancient tram, during a long-ago summer Sunday, I never even guessed that, within 10 years, I’d be riding modern trams (albeit called trolley cars) in the real California!

I described in a previous post how I accepted an offer of an apprenticeship in Electronic Engineering from Ferranti, in Manchester, and so moved there to start working for them in July 1981.

For all its (deserved) reputation as a grim Northern industrial city, Manchester nonetheless has a fascinating history, having been the cradle of an Industrial Revolution that massively changed the world. The city not only features many world-famous industrial landmarks, but was also the source of early reactions to the industrialization of society. For example, the German philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote his master work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, in the city in 1842-44. Engels met Karl Marx a few years later, and together they went on to promote Communism, which of course has had a substantial effect on the subsequent course of world history.

One among many “world’s firsts” located in Manchester is the oldest surviving purpose-built railway station; Liverpool Road Station, built in 1830 for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, and shown below in my 1983 photo.

Liverpool Road Station, Manchester

Liverpool Road Station, Manchester

Things to Come

In those days, Manchester was still in the process of shedding its industrial past (as fabulized later in the TV series Life on Mars). Despite the fascination of its history, Manchester for me couldn’t compare with the opportunity to live in London (to where I moved when I began my studies at Imperial College that Autumn). I lived and worked in Manchester for three summers, and I look back on those days now as a boldly-taken but rather shaky stepping-stone on the way to everything that has happened to me since.

I admit that the title of this post is stretching the truth a little, because I’m not really “Mancunian” (someone from Manchester), but I did live there for a while, during an interesting part of my life!

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Return to Croydon Airport

Croydon Airport on a Rainy Day, 2001

Croydon Airport on a Rainy Day, 2001

The photo above, which I took in 2001, shows a unique building that still survives today, and was, at one time, perhaps among the most familiar structures in the world.

It is the terminal building and control tower of London Airport; the famous Croydon Airport that was the location of so much newsreel footage prior to the Second World War.

The Control Tower at Croydon, built in 1928, was the first at any airport in the world, and Air Traffic Control systems were pioneered there.

The photo below shows a model of Croydon Airport in its pre-WWII heyday, complete with passengers boarding an iconic H.P.42 Heracles class airliner.

Model of Croydon Airport during the 1930s

Model of Croydon Airport during the 1930s

Almost inevitably, the area around Croydon Airport, which had been open fields when the airfield was first opened in 1915, soon became covered with urban development. As a result, postwar expansion of the airport became impossible, so the decision was made to move operations to Heathrow instead. Heathrow replaced Croydon as London Airport in 1946, and then Croydon was gradually run down, finally closing in 1959. The runways at Croydon were all built over, and, in my ignorance, I thought that nothing was left.

Oblivious to the History around Me

During the mid-1980s, I worked for a while as a Technical Sales Engineer for an electronics distributor. An important aspect of my job was to liaise with the company’s Sales Representative for Surrey, and in order to do that, I would arrange to meet with her at a place called the “The Aerodrome” on Purley Way. The building containing the café is shown below, as it appeared during my 2001 revisit.

The Aerodrome Hotel in 2001

The Aerodrome Hotel in 2001

As I recall, my colleague’s primary reason for choosing that café was her enthusiasm for their garlic mushroom appetizer!

It wasn’t until decades later that I realized that this had been the Aerodrome Hotel, purpose-built in 1928 as prestige accommodation for London Airport. In my photo of the model above, you can see the hotel building at the top left.

As the hotel’s own web site shows, since 2001 the building has been renovated, and now proudly shows off the aviation heritage that seemed largely forgotten during the 1980s.

I Should have Looked Round the Back

Next to the building containing the café, there was what appeared to be a nondescript office block, and it never even occurred to me to take the opportunity to look around the back of that structure. Had I done so, I would have immediately recognized the famous apron of the airport.

Control Tower and Former Apron of Croydon Airport

Control Tower and Former Apron of Croydon Airport

(Since I took the photo above, replicas of the control tower’s masts have been added.)

By 2001, the terminal building had been renovated as the Airport House International Business Centre, so I was able to go inside and eat lunch at the Rayon d’Or Brasserie.

The lobby of the renovated building displayed fascinating relics of its history, as shown below. Several of the items that are visible are original features, such as the “Winged World” sculpture.

Lobby of Airport Terminal, in 2001

Lobby of Airport Terminal, in 2001

The display above included the model of the airport in its heyday, as shown in my photo. The Rayon d’Or Brasserie is in the background on the right.

At that time, the aviation memorabilia display was still under construction, as shown by the view below of the rudder of a Swissair DC-3, a model of an SE5a hanging from the ceiling, a Sabena logo, and some period luggage (without wheels, of course).

Aviation Memorabilia in 2001

Aviation Memorabilia in 2001

Unfortunately, my visit didn’t occur on the first Sunday of the month, so I wasn’t able to avail myself of the tour of the old Control Tower. If you’re in the vicinity on the appropriate day, you may be interested in taking that tour. Full details can be found here, and this is the latest Google Streetview of the location.

A Modern Museum

It’s great to see that efforts are being made to preserve what is left of Croydon Airport. I hope to be able to visit the site again, next time I’m in the area.

Ally Pally

IMG0012Cright

Alexandra Palace, London, 1982

I took the photo above, of the remains of Alexandra Palace (colloquially known as “Ally Pally”), while I was a student in London in 1982. I’d seen the Palace from a distance many times before I actually visited it, but eventually I was prompted to go there, partly by a connection to my intended future career.

This immense building in North London is hardly a major tourist attraction, having had a rather unfortunate history and a wide variety of uses since it was built in 1873 (ostensibly as a counterpoint to South London’s Crystal Palace). Nonetheless, the structure remains usable to some extent, and there are currently plans for a major renovation.

The reason that I’d seen Ally Pally so many times before is because it stands prominently on a hilltop, where it can be seen from the East Coast Main (Railway) Line. When traveling between York and London by train, I frequently caught a glimpse of the structure through the carriage window.

I mentioned that the Palace has had a rather chequered past, having burned down on at least two occasions. In fact, there had been a major fire in 1980, just before the visits during which I took these photos. Despite the partial dereliction of the building itself, the grounds are still worth visiting, because of the spectacular views they offer over much of Central London.

The World’s First HDTV Transmitter

Thanks (presumably) to the building’s prominent position, it was chosen in 1935 by the BBC as the site of their first television transmitter. Studios were inserted into the building immediately below the transmitter tower. When the television service first began in 1936, there were alternate transmissions of Logie Baird’s 240-line system and the Marconi-EMI 405-line “High Definition” system.

At the time of my photograph above, the rooms below the transmitter mast were still in use for the broadcasting of Open University programs. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I was studying Electronic Engineering in London because I wanted to get a job with the BBC (which I eventually did), hence my interest in the history of Ally Pally.

Public Events at the Palace

On another occasion when I visited the Palace in 1982, a public festival was underway, and several historic buses from the London Transport collection were ferrying visitors between the Palace and the nearest railway station.

London Transport RT 1 at Alexandra Palace, 1982

London Transport RT 1 at Alexandra Palace, 1982

One notable vehicle that was operating that day was RT 1 (shown above), which was the prototype of the highly-successful AEC RT class of London buses that preceded the famous Routemaster. RT 1 was built in 1939, and was the forerunner of what eventually were 4674 buses of that class, some of which continued in service until 1979.

RT 1 waiting for Custom, Alexandra Palace, 1982

RT 1 waiting for Custom, Alexandra Palace, 1982

RT 1 is seen again here, hemmed in by cars, and earning its keep by shuttling visitors to the nearest railway station. The TV transmitter and studios are visible in the background.

Rails to the Palace

In earlier days, there had been a much closer railway station. To coincide with the opening of the Palace, a railway branch was built from Highgate to the site, which terminated in a station just north of the palace building. The station building still exists today as a community centre, but should not be confused with the modern Alexandra Palace station on the main line.

The line was built by the Muswell Hill Railway, which was eventually taken over by the Great Northern Railway and finally became part of the London & North Eastern Railway group.

Tubes to the Northern Heights

During the late 1930s, London Transport developed major plans to extend its tube railway services in North London, as the so-called “Northern Heights” extensions  of the Northern Line.

Some portions of these lines were to be entirely new, while others were to be electrified sections of existing steam-operated lines. The Alexandra Palace branch became part of the plan, and work to electrify the line began in 1939.

This excerpt from the published 1937 London Underground diagram shows the planned Northern Line extensions, including the branch from Highgate to Alexandra Palace. The line from Edgware to Elstree was to be entirely new, and I mentioned my visit to the “Arches Field” that formed part of the works for that line in an earlier post.

Excerpt from 1937 London Underground map

Excerpt from 1937 London Underground map

Unfortunately, the start of World War II intervened, bringing to a halt all work on the extensions.

After the war, development priorities in Greater London had changed, and it was eventually decided not to complete some of the extensions. British Railways, which had taken over the LNER’s lines, continued to operate passenger trains from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace until 1954, when the service ceased.

Ghost Trains of Highgate

The London Transport station at Highgate has its own unusual history. As shown below, due to the cancellation of the Northern Heights extensions, part of Highgate Station ended up as a “ghost” which is still standing unused today.

Things to Come... But they Never Did. Abandoned Highgate Station, 1982

Things to Come… But they Never Did. Abandoned Highgate Station, 1982

The surface-level station was rebuilt in Art Deco style at the same time as the new tube station was constructed beneath it. The tube station remains in use today, which accounts for the bizarre survival of the disused platforms above it.

At the time of my visit to the “ghost” station, it was little known, and was extremely overgrown as shown in my picture, but it has now become quite famous as a “Hidden London” site.

Christmases of Yore

Natural History Museum, London, at Christmas, 1981

Natural History Museum, London, at Christmas, 1981

This rather dark and blurry photo may look like the interior of some European cathedral, but in fact it’s the foyer of the Natural History Museum in London. I took the photo during my first Christmas in London, while a student there in 1981.

On the right, you can just see the dark outline of part of the huge Diplodocus skeleton (Dippy) that was a permanent fixture in the museum’s foyer in those days. You would be unlikely to see such a thing in any church!

Unlike most students, I didn’t go home to my family during the Christmas break from university, but instead stayed in the student dorms (paying rent, of course), and worked as a Sales Assistant at Selfridges on Oxford Street. (During Christmas of 1982, I worked at Harrods, but I found Selfridges to be the better employer.)

I knew that, if I were to go back to my home town of Scarborough for the Christmas break, my only employment opportunity was likely to be as a waiter at one of the town’s hotels. While still at Scarborough Sixth Form College, and then after returning from my first term at Warwick University, I’d worked as a waiter at the Red Lea Hotel over Christmas, and that was not pleasant work. The pay was very low and the hours were unsociable. Not only that, but, since I didn’t own a car, I had to walk there and back, or wait in the cold for infrequent buses. Working in London, at Selfridges, was considerably pleasanter, and I was able to take the relatively cozy London Underground tube between my lodgings and my work.

Piccadilly Night Ride

At that age, I really enjoyed spending the Christmas holiday in bustling London, where it felt like it was “all happening”. In retrospect, I must admit that I just remember the place as being noisy, dirty, cold, and dangerous, but I didn’t mind all that at the time.

It really was quite dangerous. There was always the threat of an IRA bomb (which did actually happen outside Harrods in December 1983). Apart from that, simply negotiating the traffic could be hazardous, as I discovered one evening when leaving Selfridges. As I was crossing Oxford Street, the heel of one of my shoes broke, causing me to fall backwards. My head landed only about six inches from the wheel of a passing taxi.

I also took the photo below during Christmas 1981, showing traffic crawling along near Piccadilly Circus.

Traffic in Piccadilly, London, Christmas 1981

Traffic in Piccadilly, London, Christmas 1981

Looking at this photo again now, I can almost hear the noise and smell the diesel fumes!

My reflections in this article should not be mistaken for nostalgia. Although I preferred Christmas in London to Christmas in Scarborough, I don’t miss those days! The Yuletide season for me now, here in California, is much happier than it ever was in Britain.

Natural History Museum, London, at Christmas, 1981

Natural History Museum, London, at Christmas, 1981