Online social networking is the quiet, or not so quiet revolution going on at the moment. Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, chat rooms, online communities, customer reviews, followers, lobby groups, tags, affliliates, favourites. So why not try online networking for offline friendship?
I didn’t have a pen pal as a kid and I didn’t just want to develop a social network of online pen pals. People to discuss things with remotely. There was plenty of that at work. I didn’t want a passive, spoon-fed experience either. Instead, I wanted to share fun, real- world experiences in real time. Preferably with a regular group of people. New people I shared something in common with.
One website I came across offered all sorts of groups, sorted by interest, by age and by nationality. I took the plunge and put my name down for a Saturday event. It was a group set up for Londoners interested in photography.
We met at London Bridge at 9am. Of the five of us, two were English, one Kiwi, one Italian and one was Portugese. Forty percent were male. Average age about thirty. All of us worked in offices or clinics and lived somewhere in greater London or the Home Counties. Most of us were fairly new to the site.
After introductions, we wandered out of the tube station, across the road to explore Borough Market. We discovered nine thirty was a great time to visit. All the stalls were set up and beautifully laid out, but the crowds had yet to arrive. The combination of an overcast sky and uneven lighting gave the billboards and market stalls a sense of high drama. I didn’t have a flashgun or tripod with me, so it was going to be handheld pictures on high ISO’s with relatively low depth of field. The smell of mulled wine, fresh bread and mushrooms added atmosphere to the market. Some hanging game birds and rabbit (and some of the prices) added shock value.
I realised the market was a photographer’s dream location. Landscapes, portrait and colourful still life shots lay everywhere. Who needed a fancy studio when you had a setting and props this good! I was careful to ask the stall owners before taking any pictures. Most were relaxed and friendly about stall pictures being taken.
I wasn’t keen to take photos at the expense of friendship. I tried my best to juggle the two things, getting to know the group members as we walked. The foreigners amongst us contrasted London life with their home experiences. We agreed some grass always looked greener across the border, no matter where you lived and worked.
Soon it was time to find an indoor cafe for coffee, a sit down and a chance to warm up. There was still plenty to discuss. We were polite. Tolerant. Positive and reassuring even. I was left wondering if I should be surprised, or merely reassured. I figured I’d have to attend future events run by the website to find out whether all the groups were as compatible.
After coffee, there was a general consensus to explore the South Bank section of the Thames. We strolled back through Borough market and along the riverbank towards the Tate Modern. Past the Goldern Hinde replica, Vinopolis and The Globe theatre re-creation. There were just enough clouds to hold back the rain. I overheard at least five foreign languages being spoken by the passing tourists. Black dots going back and forth along Millennium bridge looked from a distance like so many ants, ferrying their cargoes back to the nest.
Several of the group wanted to see something of the Tate art displays. As we approached, the imposing brick frontage of the Tate looked to me like some kind of vast dam spillway. No one seemed short on time, so we explored a few of the galleries on floors above and below the Gauguin exhibition. The art styles didnt disappoint, they were diverse, bold and offered something for everyone, if only they made the effort to look for it.
We ended our Tate visit admiring the peaceful, rooftop view of North London from the floor to ceiling, seventh floor windows. At that height, the grey buildings masked all signs of Saturday traffic, other than that on the river or foot bridge. I knew it would be a whole different feeling over on Oxford Street, or on any of the arterial roads running through the Capital.
Beyond the Tate and riverfront shops, we spotted two buskers on the sandy riverbank below. They were constructing a human- sized sand-sofa (the sofa was set looking away from the river for some reason), as onlookers threw coins down to their bucket. Further on, four teenagers practised doing somersaults off the river wall, on to the sand below.
Four of our group still had time for lunch together. We chose Giraffe restaurant, a funky, bright orange eatery, nestled between the open air bookstalls and the London Eye. I was amused to see a collection of abandoned baby strollers. They were parked just inside the front door of the restaurant, almost screaming out its family-friendly approach to tribes of jaded parents.
We’d had a good five and half hours sampling some of the best variety and imagery London had to offer, in a human-friendly, budget-friendly kind of way. Food markets, riversides, art exhibits and tasty lunches. Conversation, contrasts, confidences and confessions. Lots of half-decent photos taken as well.
It was time to exchange email addresses and go our separate ways. Until next time.
On 18 December 2010, enough snow had fallen in the previous week for residents of Clapham Common in South London to come together in an impromptu snowman-building display.
What is it about novel weather that makes people set aside their Saturday routines to build snow creatures in London’s parks? It’s a bit like building elaborate sand castles on the beach. Lovingly crafted to stand proud, but knowing nature will quickly wear away the results.
The 18th was one of those cold, ghostly-grey days. The park cloaked in an off- white blanket. Slightly crunchy underfoot. Trees motionless. Still, apart from the faint dripping of melting snow.
My wife and I decided to walk around the rim of the park, as we often do. Only this time, minus the paths. Instead, we were guided around by the encircling roads and some old footprints made in the snow.
Snowmen stood sentry where ever we walked. As if their creators had marked out any space they could find. Far enough away from the other efforts not to draw a comparison.
First up, we came across a snow bear, short and squat. The bear wore a Kiwi flag, acting as its overcoat. Its creators stood nearby, taking photos. I stopped for a moment to chat with them and they confessed how far from the sunny home beaches of Coromandel, New Zealand they felt that day.
Next we walked past a snow couple, standing side by side. But not quite close enough to hug or hold hands. As if being chaperoned by the tree in the immediate background.
A sizeable snow matriarch perched on a park bench nearby, gazing towards the ice lake and alpine basketball court. As we walked beyond the ice lake, we spotted silhouettes of more snow men, scattered across the open landscape. Definitely time to warm up over a hot chocolate at the band rotunda cafe.
Afterwards, an unusual movement caught our eye – a man was Nordic skiing along an adjacent pathway. We wandered closer to investigate. Beyond the skier, the parkside mansions looked like fairytale toy buildings, set against the white of the snow.
We headed towards the north east section of the park and soon passed a fashionably dressed snow gent, with a carrot nose and copper coins for buttons. He looked straight off the pages of a old fashioned, kid’s story book. The kind illustrators love to put on the front cover of this year’s department store Christmas cards. A few minutes walk away were snow twins and an extra tall snowman, wearing cap and scarf.
By then, the afternoon temperature was reducing, almost as fast as the light. We made our final discovery of a delicately-sculptured ice maiden on the north east boundary, before heading for the twinkling Christmas tree lights and warmth of Clapham Common tube station.
Our spirits were definitely lifted by the demonstration of fleeting camaraderie and sculptural creativity from our park neighbours. Sometimes the best city entertainment can be the simplest – a familiar stroll with your partner in an unfamiliar, picture-postcard setting.