A Cognitive Bias, a Momentary Breeze from Elysium and a Perennial Philosophical Conundrum (11/80)

Wednesday 20 February – Blackwall (D8 in TfL’s Index to stations), Bond Street (C4), Borough (E5)   

It’s cold outside and a bleak shade of grey. I’d decided to stay indoors today but then saw that the BBC forecasts sun for later in the day. I desert Gingerbread Cottage, watching out for wolves and young girls in hoods, and I’m at Forest Hill at 11.20 am. I take the Overground north. The Metro headline today is: Taking le piste. It’s about those dastardly Frenchies telling our English ski instructors that they’re not qualified. Why? Because it may have health and safety implications. Health and safety implications! Whoever heard of that being used as an excuse? There’s a man opposite studying a Handel score.

My first visit is to Blackwall on the DLR. (Public Service Announcement. In answer to overwhelming demand I’m now grid-referencing all stations with their ‘square’ in TfL’s Index to stations on the back of the Tube map. Blackwall is in square D8.) The question is: should I go there via Shadwell? That’s clearly the most direct route but … 

the Tube map, the Holy Tube 2012 Map, shows Shadwell as two interlinked circles. Doubt assails me. Does that mean I will have to exit from the Overground onto the street (horrors!) on my way to the DLR? I have a fancy it does. In which case, following the rules of Tube for LOLs I would need to turn back and retrace my steps to Canada Water.

This would have repercussions. You see, I am a tiny bit hopeful I can visit five stations today, the last two being Boston Manor, a few stops from the western end of the Piccadilly, and Bounds Green ditto from the eastern end of the Piccadilly line. That’s 26 stops of prime reading time. I need reading time because some beastly member of the London Library has recalled The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, a wonderful book on extinct, threatened with extinction or merely fabulous creatures, by Caspar Henderson. It’s subtitled A 21st Century Bestiary and it’s organised from Axolototl to Zebra-Fish. No punking out at W for Caspar, no alphabetical amputation TfL-style for him. Indeed he goes one further – he slips in a second X after Xenoglaux, the Xenophyophore. And no, I’ve no idea what they are, I’m only on O for Octopus. You wouldn’t expect me to know what riches Ruislip Manor has in store for me.

(A snippet from Caspar: octopuses [the correct plural of octopus] are as intelligent as three to four year old humans, can figure out quickly which box their next meal is hiding behind – it’s the one with the symbol of a crab on its lid, stupid).

I opt for safety. I transfer on to the Jubilee and change at Canning Town, then cut back east to Blackwall. This is where Tower Hamlets meets the Isle of Dogs, where Essex swoops over on the way to London and the Blackwall Tunnel swoops under on its way out of London; where there is an indigestible smorgasbord of buildings domestic, commercial and, well, nondescript; where everyone pretends that they inhabit the same universe or, more likely, doesn’t even notice that they’re temporarily occupying different worlds. I try to make sense of it all. This would take some doing even on the balmiest of sunny summer days. Today, with the wind from the north-east honing its scythe, it is nigh on impossible. But, I have my calling.

I count then, and later, at least six different levels of road and rail and passage-way, looping and tangling over and under each other, and as many different architectural styles – I’m using ‘style’ loosely here.

From Blackwall Station platform: the lower half of the author reflected.

From Blackwall Station platform: the lower half of the author reflected.

I descend. There’s a sign pointing south-west to Billingsgate Market, but I had fish for supper yesterday. I decide to venture towards Mulberry Place Town Hall (via footpath). After passing four forlorn Boris bikes in their parking stations, a couple of windswept car-parking lots, an empty pub and two squarish four-storey brick tenement blocks wearing their age well, after skirting a massive wall looking like an embattlement around a castle – though it’s probably a Quinlan Terry-style job for the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) – I am comprehensively lost. I spot a black security guard in a high-visibility suit and mufflers. He points to a pathway breaching the wall.

Is this Venice? No, it's Mulberry Place Town Hall with the moat inside the town walls.

Is this Venice? No, it’s Mulberry Place Town Hall with the moat inside the town walls.

Inside there are strips of canals, footbridges, fountains, serried ranks of trees, hanging baskets by the basket-load, bollards and iron-work fences with life-belts attached and more bemufflered high-visibility security guards. (I realise later they are parking attendants.) I would like to think I am surrounded by a modern, albeit icy, vision of Venice, that these are stately pleasure domes around me, but clearly this is not the case. These are fake-monumental office blocks, trying but failing to impose their monumentalism on visitors. One of them is Tower Hamlets Council’s Mulberry Place Town Hall. I guess the building is about twenty years old. It’s looking its age.

Later, when I search the internet I find that it’s costing Tower Hamlets millions of pounds a year in rent, that there are plans for a new Town Hall, that it’s causing ructions, that politicians of all persuasions have been seen with steam coming out of their ears.

It’s only a quarter past twelve but I’m hungry. I make for Poplar High Street. Hopefully there’ll be some local eaterie there. I skirt round the side of the embattled Town Hall. I peer over a railing at the traffic crawling towards the Blackwall Tunnel, taking in two and a half lungsworth of soot, grime, dirt, diesel and particulates. I come across a sign directing me the wrong way to Mulberry Place (Town Hall) – and, yes, it was Mulberry Place Town Hall without the brackets on the sign by the station. I pass a mosque and an evangelical church in two adjacent Victorian warehouses.

As I am making my way to Poplar High Street, a middle-aged man with a shaven head passes by. He is talking to a younger woman. ‘As it stands, I’m finishing on the 28th,’ he says. I watch them go to the Tesco local. I walk up Poplar High Street. The few shops soon give way to housing. I turn back. I’ll find something at Bond Street or, failing that, at Borough.

Busy, busy, busy! Or not?

Busy, busy, busy! Or not?

I take the DLR east to Canning Town, then the Jubilee line west to Bond Street (Grid reference C4). It takes half-an-hour. When I surface, I find Oxford Street busy, though not nearly as busy as it gets on weekends and weekday late afternoons. But it’s much, much busier than Blackwall. In the 17 photos I took in Blackwall there were only 13 people. That’s including my reflection. There are about 25 in the photo above, really not that many for Bond Street.

I wonder if this is yet another example of one of the many unconscious cognitive biases we have: the recency bias. The recency bias means that we pay more attention to what has recently happened than what took place further back in the past. If my football team has strung together a few good results, I’ll be firmly of the opinion that silverware lies ahead. ‘Opinion’? Nonsense, it’s a yard-cloth of hard-headed, rational, evidence-based logic. (I must try and cut down on those hyphens. I’m a one man Hyphen-Preservation-Society.)

The recency bias is only one of tens of cognitive biases. For an entertaining read, go to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. At the moment, however, I may also be suffering from negativity bias – the tendency to give more weight to negative rather than positive experiences. Or it may be that I’m a little claustrophobic. Or that I’ve seen enough of Oxford Street to last a lifetime. I decide to head for where the money is. Or rather, where those with the money go to spend it: Mayfair.

You have to be a little single-minded if you’re on such a quest. You have to ignore the wonderfully-and-absurdly narrow Bosideng that separates South Molton Street and Davies Street. It’s only a clothes shop and, though it puts it about that it’s up-market and a world-wide brand, you can buy a shirt there for under a hundred pounds. Small potatoes! Ditto for the other shops on South Molton Street, your SpaceNKs, Ted Bakers, Karen Millers, Petit Bateaux and Kurt Geigers. It’s going to take you weeks, if not months, of serious shopping to offload that last million.

For serious spending you eschew the manufactured even if it is made from luxury fibres. You go for the one-off, you go for the aura of art. Your aim is to buy something that no-one else has, that no-one else can have. To do this you must stride south towards the antique shops and art galleries and estate agents and yacht brokers. Later you can buy a bottle of Chateau d’Yquiem 1811 at Hedonism Wines for a snitch over £100,000, then rest your weary head at Claridges.

Five minutes later I’m window-shopping at the International Yacht Brokerage. They have a model of a Sunseeker Predator 130. It’s aptly named. It’s as sleek and aerodynamic and soul-less and predatory as a shark. (Yes, I know that’s unfair to sharks and that there are more (human) deaths from falling coconuts than there are from shark-attacks, but you get the point.)  There’s no price attached but it must be a few million. A young guy comes up and stares through the window. ‘What do you think of it?’ I ask. ‘It’s lovely,’ he says. He’s almost sobbing with desire. He would be sobbing with desire except that he’s racked with grief, he’s overcome with the knowledge that the Sunseeker, for him, is unattainable. He rushes away unable to withstand the thought of a long lonely empty life ahead, one without a Sunseeker Predator 130.

I muse on. A family group – older man, older woman, two younger women – saunter past and are attracted like moths to the flame. ‘There’s your wedding present,’ cries the Dad to one of the younger women. ‘Look at it! That’s the 130! That’s lovely!’ ‘Just the one?’ I interject, indicating both his younger women. ‘Don’t be mean.’ He laughs. ‘You’re right. It’d be mean of me. You can’t have that,’ he says. They go off.

I move to the other window. There’s a second-hand 2011 vintage Manhattan 70 for £1,650,000. That’s excluding tax, of course. It’s only 70 feet long but it does have two 1,550 hp motors.

I walk on down Davies Street and chance on Gimpel Fils. Gimpel Fils is one of the most famous art dealers in London. I realise I’ve never been inside. So I walk in. This is not difficult because I can see the most marvellous painting inside. It’s Alan Davie’s The Horse that has Visions of Immortality No.3. It’s a large canvas, about seven feet tall and six feet wide, bursting with colour. It features a tall central arch framed in green, red and orange with a blue internal background embossed with a cross-like structure, something like a Russian icon, maybe with a playfulness suggesting a Christmas tree. Outside the arch are oblongs and splodges against a burnt yellow background. It’s joyful. It’s intriguing. It’s calming. I stand in front of it entranced. I wonder how it can be joyful, intriguing and calming all at the same time.

Alan Davie is a Scottish artist. His work has hints of Paul Klee and Joan Miro. He’s been influenced by Zen and there’s a religious aura and spontaneity to this work as to many of his others. It is ‘grand’, I think. The Wee Professor glosses this for you: ‘Grand’ is used in the Scottish sense of meaning ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ in an approving way, not ‘big’ or ‘important’, far less ‘self-important’.

In four words it makes my day. Gone is my latter-day skepticism, banished my cynicism. The Inner Curmudgeon sighs, lies down and curls his tail around his head. I am becalmed by this painting as though by a momentary breeze from Elysium and my heart is at ease.

I stand in front of the other art-works one by one, then go downstairs and look at the exhibition of Robert Adams. I find some of these fun but my attention isn’t really there. I go back upstairs and stand in front of the Alan Davie. I wonder a little about Elysium. This was the place the ancient Greeks thought you went after death provided you were chosen by the Gods. Elysium was also known as the Fortunate Isles. They were located in the west, perhaps the Canary Islands. The Inner Curmudgeon who is a romantic and a Scottish die-hard at heart takes up the cudgels for the Hebrides.

It’s two o’clock before I get to Borough (Grid reference: E5). It takes twenty minutes by Jubilee to London Bridge, then one stop south on the Northern line. I climb the narrow – very narrow – steps from the platform to the bottom of the white-tiled circular lift shaft. Londoners must have been thinner, more sprightly, a century ago. Glory be, the sun is still out though the wind is chill.

Borough, at least the part to the west of the station, remains a part of Dickens’ London. There’s the Marshalsea Road where the debtors’ prison used to be. There’s a Pickwick Street and a Quilp Street, but then there’s also a Disney Street and a Charles Dickens Primary School. The likelihood is that these square blocks of ex-warehousing and small manufacturing, the Peabody Estates tenements and the down-at-heel pubs hail from a later Victorian era. To the north and east of Borough, Guys Hospital and the Shard are reaching out their tentacles, new private housing schemes are appearing, outliers from the Borough Market are slowly colonising the upper reaches of Borough High Street. Surely it can’t be long before this neighbourhood is sanitized and Disneyfied and turned into a ‘visitor experience’? For the moment, though, the poor and in some cases the desperately poor cling on and call this their home.

Reminders of an older, poorer London

Reminders of an older, poorer London

I walk round the Borough, north towards London Bridge, then west along Tabard Lane past St George the Martyr church. I step into St George’s Churchyard Gardens, with its gravestones set back against its high brick wall (a proper aged Victorian wall, not a Quinlan Terry lookalike) and its majestic lime tree. Behind it, The Shard towers almost diaphonous while the working township which is Guy’s Hospital goes stolidly about its business. I experience another moment when my heart is at ease.

The author goes all poetic about gardens, tree and tower.

The author goes all poetic about gardens, tree and tower.

I walk on along Long Lane, through an ultra-modern private housing development and back along the other half of Tabard Street. I stop opposite the fine building of Harding & Sons Hardware Merchants which advertises its speciality: Japanners. Though it also came in reds, greens and blues, Japanning was usually a heavy black lacquer like enamel paint applied in layers then polished to a smooth glossy finish. It was all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries until tastes changed and other technical processes (e.g. tin-plating) took over.

Next door is a woodworker’s workshop. I peer through the window. His tools are laid out on his work-bench, his jacket is hung up over a peg to the side. He’s not in. I hope he’s only gone for lunch. I hope his trade hasn’t been overtaken by the Sunseekers of this world.

That reminds me and I walk back to Borough Station and go into the Café Riva next door. This is a bright modern but laid-back eaterie which advertises that its coffee comes from Monmouth Coffee Shop (by Borough Market) and that it sources much of its food (bacon, sausages, vegatables, salads and so on) from Borough Market. I have a Goats Cheese Melt for lunch (£6.25 or two and a half Becontree fish and chips.)

At the table next to me two women are lunching. From a few things they say, I guess they’re employed somewhere in the ‘creative industries’. They talk about the case of wine one has bought for her brother. At around £18 a bottle, it’s the most expensive wine she’s ever bought. It’s a present and a secret and she has to keep moving it around her flat, hiding it, so that her brother doesn’t chance upon it.

The new, I think, is elbowing out the old. The middle-classes are coming, the poor will need to move on. The financial and creative industries have already elbowed out manufacturing. I ponder the Perennial Philosophical Conundrum, only one of the many PPC’s first teased apart by the Greeks: the problem of the One and the Many.

Is this river I see before me the same river as I saw before me five minutes ago? (One) Or is it, in some essential way, different – and different from the river ten minutes ago (The Many)? Is this London that’s around me now the same London as the London of the seventies? Of the eighties? Of the nineties? Of the noughties? Am I the same Sandy Craig that passed this way thirty years ago? Is the Goats Cheese Melt that is now in my tummy still the one that was on the plate five minutes ago? Will I ever learn to eat slowly and chew each bite 32 times?

Time I think to be homeward bound. If you’re not careful, I think, you can spend too time thinking on the PPC of the One and the Many. Except is it the same me thinking about it now as the me a few moments ago …?

One thought on “A Cognitive Bias, a Momentary Breeze from Elysium and a Perennial Philosophical Conundrum (11/80)

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