Please stop harshing my Olympic buzz.

The day after London won the right to host the Olympics was the day of the 7/7 bombings, and I always felt we were cheated of a chance to enjoy the moment.

The news of the attacks rightly took precedence over pictures of Jacques Rogge opening an envelope. The violent deaths of ordinary Londoners, the grief, trauma and fear as well as the politics: those were more important.

But still, it was an immediate cold shower on what could have been a moment of optimism, joy and excitement. No one was in the mood to celebrate.

And ever since, I’ve been trying to hold on to the anticipation and enthusiasm that I felt when we first won the bid. It hasn’t always been easy.

There’s the logo which, despite all my best attempts, I have not come to love. There was the chaos of the ticketing. The hectoring posters telling people to stay at home during the Games to reduce pressure on the transport network. The aggressive brand management that’s too humourless to let local bakers make iced buns decorated with the Olympic rings. The Ministry of Defence turning up unannounced to mount anti-aircraft defences on peoples’ houses. The ludicrous corporate tie-ins: ‘official cereal snack bar supplier of London 2012’. The fact that the Olympic park is going to contain perhaps the most depressing-sounding building imaginable: the world’s largest McDonalds.

Above all, perhaps, there’s the sheer cost of the thing. Because the financial crash, the subsequent government cuts and the continuing crappy economy make it harder than ever to be glib about the idea of spending billions of pounds on a fortnight’s sport.

The thing is, though, that even though all those criticisms are fair — in fact, especially because those criticisms are fair — I just find myself wanting to say ‘Look, we’re committed to it now, it’s going to happen, please can you stop spoiling it for me. Please can you just let me enjoy it.’ And I’ve nearly unfollowed a couple of people on Twitter because whenever I’m scrolling through and I see their stern, hard-headed comments about the Olympics, it makes me die a little inside. Pathetic, I know.

Bread and circuses. Those Romans knew what they were doing.

» The picture of detritus in Trafalgar Square, from the celebration of London winning the bid on 6th July 2005, is © Ben Sutherland and used under a CC attribution licence.

The Thames path, Crayford Marshes to Charlton

Crayford Marshes is a patch of grazing marsh on the south bank of the Thames east of London — Dartford, roughly. I heard about it as a birding spot, and a few weeks ago I went to check it out.

But it’s quite a small site and quite a long way away, so I decided to combine it with walking a section of the Thames Path. When I was walking the Thames path a few years ago I walked east to west, starting at the Thames Barrier at Charlton and eventually getting as far as Teddington; this time I added a section to the beginning of that walk.

Crayford Marshes itself was nice enough: it’s basically a fragment of the landscape which would once have been typical of the whole area, and which, thanks to some strict environmental protections, is still found all along much of the north Kent coast. It’s not actually a natural landscape — it’s managed for livestock and there’s a whole system of drainage ditches and embankments to keep the sea out — but it certainly feels wilder than most of the space around London, and it’s important for wildlife.

Crayford Marshes is less impressive than some of the larger areas of marshland out in Kent, but has the advantage, for birders who like to keep lists, of being in London: i.e. anything you see there can be added to your London list. It’s within the modern boundaries of Greater London, as well as the more generous London Recording Area as defined by the London Natural History Society, which is within 20 miles of St Paul’s cathedral — a somewhat arbitrary area which thankfully includes several of my favourite birding spots which would not be included in a more sensible definition of London.

I didn’t get any very spectacular birds, but I did see my first swallow and whitethroat of the year, and lots of linnets, and green sandpiper, and the lapwings were calling, which is my favourite noise in the world. And I saw little egret, which is sort of my first for London.*

Just in the middle of the marshes there’s some light industry — a scrap metal yard and some yards that looked more like distribution centres than actual manufacturing. I was just taking pictures of rusty metal textures and a man from the Environment Agency come over to say “I’m not being funny, but you want to be careful taking pictures here” and explained that the owners of the scrap metal place had been quite aggressive and accused them of taking pictures when they hadn’t even been doing it, and that they seemed to be “a bit funny about photography”.

And of course, it’s not difficult to imagine why scrap metal dealers might not want people taking pictures of their premises; particularly people from government agencies. Perhaps I’m being unfair; perhaps they were paranoid nutters rather than criminals. Either way, I took the advice and was discreet with the camera for a bit.

Once you leave the marshes and go past Erith Yacht Club, it’s a mixture of industrial stuff and housing pretty much the whole way. Among the identifiable things are the familiar piles of gravel and sand waiting, presumably, to be turned into concrete somewhere; a big sewage treatment plant, and a site generating electricity from waste incineration.

The most striking thing, for me, was that when I walked west from Charlton originally, I was walking past a similar mix of housing and industry, and I had a sense of being out on the fringes of London. This walk reminded me that I was nowhere near the edge of London that time; there is miles and miles more of that stuff stretching out along the river.

The sewage treatment plant at Crossness is on the site of one of the Victorian pumping engines installed as part of Joseph Bazalgette’s great scheme to build sewers for London. There was one pumping station on each side of the river, and Crossness was responsible for pumping all the sewage of south London into the Thames. Apparently they didn’t actually treat the sewage in those days, they just timed the release into the river to coincide with the tide going out and let the tide sweep it out to sea. Which sounds pretty horrifying by modern standards, but was a huge step up from not having a citywide sewer system at all.

It’s fitting that the Thames Path goes past the old pumping station, because in central London, a lot of the route is directly above Bazalgette’s main sewer, which runs along under the Embankment.

Also at Crossness there is a little nature reserve that gets a few decent birds, but much of it is closed to non-members. I had a quick look but didn’t see much.

Most of the way, though, what you’re walking past is miles of big, modern, self-contained housing developments. These are generally pretty ugly, which is not really a surprise if you’ve spent any time in English suburbia. There is very little evidence, looking around Britain, of the building trade putting any emphasis on beauty when building mass-market residential property. And they are probably right about the commercial logic; compared to location, facilities and price, the physical beauty of the exterior of the property must come a long way down most buyers’ priorities. But the cumulative effect is pretty deadening.

There are a couple of bits of variety: the old Woolwich Arsenal has been converted into a rather more upmarket area of housing and offices, and at Woolwich itself, you at least go near a real town centre. It’s a pretty dismal town centre, but at least there’s some sign of the variety of human life, instead of the endless ranks of apartment blocks.

Incidentally, although the Thames Path represents an admirable modern effort to create a shared public space, it doesn’t aways feel very welcoming and communitarian. You spend a lot of your time walking along next to coils of razor wire, or outside eight foot concrete walls topped with downward-pointing spikes. It seems appropriate when you’re passing commercial properties, but it does feel hostile when you’re going past residential estates — although I appreciate that families don’t want their stuff nicked either.

The Thames Path was sent on a temporary detour at the end, so I didn’t actually get to walk along the river to the Thames Barrier where I started the first time. Which was a pity.

Anyway, you can see more photos from my day on Flickr, and pictures from the rest of the route as well. The other blog posts about the Thames Path are here.

* ‘sort of’ because, from memory, it’s my first in Greater London but not my first in the London Recording Area.

Voting system geekery: London mayoral edition

I’ve just been along to vote in the elections for mayor of London.

It’s a kind of alternative vote system; you can pick a first and second choice (but not a third and so on), and after the first round of counting, if no candidate has 50% of the votes, they eliminate all but the top two candidates and reassign votes according to people’s second preferences.

I think that’s clearly an improvement on a straight first-past-the-post system [FPTP], but I can’t see that it makes sense to fix it at only two rounds of counting — rather than, to take the simplest alternative, eliminating the candidates with the least votes one at a time, reassigning the votes, and doing it as many times as you need to.

Electing a mayor is a somewhat different situation to a general election; some of the problems that general election reform would attempt to fix simply don’t apply.

So for example, there’s the question of proportionality: the number of MPs each party has in the  Commons is often wildly different to the percentage of votes they won nationwide. But there’s only one mayor, so that’s irrelevant to a mayoral election.

Also, since the whole of London is one big constituency, everyone’s votes count exactly the same; there are no safe seats where the voters can have little influence, or marginal constituencies that attract wildly disproportionate attention from politicians.

So some of the specific issues don’t apply. But the overall problem with FPTP is that it deals very badly with anything other than a two party system, and tends to entrench a two party system by default.

Having an alternative voting system solves part of the problem. It reduces the potential of spoiler candidates; what could be called the Ross Perot problem, of a minority candidate having a disproportionate impact because they attract just enough votes to swing the election. And it removes some of the bias against minor parties and new parties, since if you know you have a second choice, you can at least vote for a minor party without feeling that your vote is wasted. If you feel that the Green manifesto actually represents your opinions most accurately, but you’d rather have Labour than Conservative, you can vote Green without feeling that you are mainly helping the Conservatives.

However, cutting straight to two parties for the second round of voting still helps entrench the two party system. You can feel free to vote for a minor party for your first choice, but the tactical element just comes back in for the second choice, since there’s a strong incentive to try and guess which two parties are going to make the cut and vote for one of them, so that your vote counts for something. If ‘everyone says’ that Labour and Conservative are the two favourites, and your preference is, say:

Green > Lib Dem > Labour > Conservative > UKIP > BNP

then there’s a strong incentive to vote 1) Green 2) Labour.

That doesn’t seem ideal, but I don’t actually think it’s a major problem as long as there are two clear front runners. Being pragmatic with your second choice isn’t an outrageous compromise. But if the votes are reasonably closely split between three or more main candidates, then the whole thing breaks down again. Let’s say the minor parties have 10% of the vote between them, and Tory, Lib Dem and Labour are running in the polls at about 30% each: well, a tiny swing between any two of those will decide who gets through to the second round of voting, so we’re back to a tactical voting situation again.

Our hypothetical voter now has a strong incentive to vote 1) Lib Dem 2) Labour, and now they are compromising on their first choice.

And if there were four strong candidates, then the outcome would become even more random and the cut off of the top two for the second round of voting would be even more arbitrary.

It’s one of those things which is annoying because it’s so unnecessary. Why go straight down to two candidates? Why not have as many rounds of counting as it takes?

Barnes

I popped along to the London Wetland Centre at Barnes and had a very pleasant day; it was chilly but, crucially, not raining for once. The most unexpected birds were a flock of at least fifteen yellow wagtails. It’s a very attractive bird, and a species which has declined dramatically over the past few decades, so I don’t see them very often. So that was nice.

The other particular treat was seeing a couple of lapwing chicks. As you can see from this link, like most baby waders they are seriously cute. They were a bit distant to fully appreciate the fluffiness, but it was still nice to see them.

Almost the best thing, though, after a horrible wet april which has been holding back the migrants, was that the whole place was absolutely swarming with swifts, swallows, house martins and sand martins. I could watch swifts and swallows all day.

Here’s a recording of one of the Cetti’s warblers that was singing away in their normal invisible way:

And here’s a picture of one of the nice tame red-breasted geese in the wildfowl collection.

It may not be real birdwatching, but what a cracking bird.

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