It’s a Dog’s Life

Brooklyn emerges triumphantly from the undergrowth, with yet another tennis ball clasped firmly in her jaws. This is the third one she has found today. The routine is familiar by now: she drops the drool-covered ball at my feet, I send it flying, she brings it back. Then, after the third throw or so, Brooklyn tears the ball into tiny slobbery pieces, before trotting off in search of her next felt-covered victim.

Tom Senior is Brooklyn’s dog-walker, and has been taking the Dalmatian-Pointer cross out for walkies – and watching her savage tennis balls – three times a week since the start of the summer. But in the cold November air, and with the grass wet under foot in London’s Primrose Hill, surely this is a day best spent inside, clutching a warm cup of tea.

Tom, and from left to right: Jasper, Brooklyn, Shoshy and Monty

As a dog-walker, though, Tom takes the weather in his stride. He is certainly well equipped, wearing layered hooded tops, waterproof trousers and heavy-duty hiking boots. “The dogs need to go out,” says Tom, “and they rely on you. Otherwise, they’d just be at home all day. No wind or rain will stop me getting there.”

Tom, still only 22 years old, joined the Lancashire Police part-time while studying at the University of Lancaster. He soon became the only Special Constable assigned to the county’s dog squad, spending his spare time going on drugs raids, searching for illegal weapons and responding to cross-county 999 calls at 130 miles per hour. By comparison, his current job is a walk in the park…

But when his long-term girlfriend was offered a teaching job at a primary school in Warwick Avenue, Tom decided to join her in making the move from Lancaster, even though it meant leaving the force.

When he arrived in London, his plan was to set up an online business selling tickets to events, and he only started walking dogs to make a bit of cash on the side. But he soon found himself earning far more from the dog-walking than he had anticipated. “I never really thought I’d be able to make it into a viable business, but I’m in a position now where I’m getting paid as much as, if not more, than some of my mates on graduate schemes.”

Tom belongs to a new breed of professionalised dog-walker. He is self-employed and runs his fledgling dog-walking company, City Pups, alone. New clients are given a pack containing a photocopy of his passport, a full set of references and details of his CRB check. And not content to collect babysitter-style cash-in-hand payments for the occasional walk, he is adamant that his business operates entirely above board. “I invoice at the end of every week, and I declare everything.”

He enjoys the same working hours as the dog-owners who seek out his services, and I do mean “enjoys” – it is as if the wind changed suddenly one day, leaving an expression of glee etched permanently onto his face.

His first walk of the day – a “bouncy” Golden Retriever called Winston – starts at 8.30am every weekday morning, and he drops his last dog home at 6.30pm. He currently walks around 10 dogs a day, and a maximum of four together at any one time.

“I know dog-walkers that walk up to nine dogs at a time, but if you have that many you just can’t give them all the attention they need.” To grow his business, he is looking to buy a van which, when fitted out with eight comfortable cages, will allow him to take on both more dogs and a second walker.

Tech-savvy Tom has adopted an online marketing strategy. “There are a lot of dog-walkers out there who just have a phone number and operate by word of mouth.” In contrast, Tom has created a website – ostensibly in collaboration with his four-month-old Australian Shepherd puppy, Roxy – and even keeps clients updated using Twitter.

“I post updates on the dogs I walk throughout the day so people who are sat at work can see that their dog is having a good time.” He might upload a picture of a dog playing with a toy, or hiding under some leaves, much to the owner’s delight. “People do feel connected with their dogs, so to see them on their computer at work is really nice for them.”

Seeing as he spends all day surrounded by dogs, I wonder whether Tom misses contact of the human variety. Not at all, he says, assuring me that the dog-walking world has its own social bubble: “I think dogs bring people together. You see the same people every day and you get to know them.” He pauses. “Well, I say that, you get to know the dogs. I speak to people that I’ve spoken to every day for the last two months and I don’t know their name, I just know their dog’s name!”

But that doesn’t seem to bother him. As the dogs potter along around us, sniffing the ground (and each other) as they go, Tom watches over them with that unfaltering smile, and says: “It’s amazing how many people I walk for, whether they’re traders in the City or they work in TV, who say to me: ‘I wish I had your job.’” And right now, I can’t say that I blame them.

Best thing about the job: “If it’s a sunny day, I stand in the park and go, ‘I’m walking 3 or 4 dogs, chucking tennis balls around, having the best time ever – and I’m getting paid for this!’”

Worst thing about the job: “The fact that people just cancel you at quite short notice. To them it’s just cancelling a walk – to you it’s your living. That, and picking up the poo.”

Tom lives in Queen’s Park with his girlfriend, and 4-month-old bundle of fluff Roxy. He currently walks in Primrose Hill, Regent’s Park, Green Park and Hampstead Heath. For more details about City Pups, or to get in touch with Tom, click here – or follow Tom on Twitter.

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Fortune Green 5-a-side

Silky skills, precision passing and sheer athleticism – none of these were on display this afternoon on a treacherously muddy pitch in Fortune Green, as 10 Twittering men  braved the entirely favourable weather conditions to put on what can best be described as a game of football.

There has been much talk of late on Twitter about setting up a West Hampstead 5-a-side team, or at least meeting up for a casual kick-about every now and then. I backed this idea the whole way, as I was convinced that it would come to nothing and I could at least claim to have feigned interest.

So you can imagine my dismay when it actually took off, and I was forced to peel myself away from the relative safety of my laptop screen and don a pair of shorts and tattered old boots.

I blame Thom Hoffman, aka @thomhoffman. It was he who managed to coax enough people out of their warm front rooms to play on a leaf-covered muddy patch of grass in Fortune Green at midday on a Saturday.

Back row: @maggot249, @nickhudgell, @thomhoffman, @domchrisite. Front row: @garymc, @timcheese, @SamWong1, @StareAtTheSky, Jamie(?)

We played for about 90 minutes in all, with several water breaks, and one extended time-out when @nickhudgell hoofed the ball into the adjoining – and locked – children’s playground.

Despite what I said earlier, there were some really good passages of play (interspersed with the more prominent tripping-over-our-own-feet parts): some inch-perfect long balls, several nut-megs, and even an audacious overhead kick.

If you’re interested in coming along to the next kick-about, keep your eyes peeled on Twitter/this blog, as it’s only a matter of time before today’s successful outing is repeated.

In the mean time, congratulations to Thom’s team for their 3-1 victory in the all-important final match.

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Enlightenment: A Review

The psychological thriller Enlightenment marks the start of Edward Hall’s first season as artistic director at the Hampstead Theatre.

When a boy goes missing during a round-the-world trip, it leaves his mother and step-father in a hell-ish limbo, at times full of hope that their son will return to them unscathed, at others fearing the grizzly worst.

Not dissimilar to how I felt watching this play. At times I was happily swept along by the plot’s dark twists and turns, pleased that the play appeared to be going somewhere. But at others, my heart sank as the actors tried to make the best of the bumbling dialogue, and we had to endure yet another clumsy passage on middle-class guilt or materialism or non-locality.

The acting, on the whole, was excellent, with particularly strong performances by Julie Graham as Lia and Richard Clothier as Nick, mother and step-father respectively of the missing boy. The staging too is fantastic, with a brilliant all-white set that becomes more and more barren as we delve deeper and darker into the family’s grief. In fact, the only thing that lets this play down, really, is Shelagh Stephenson’s script. Unfortunately, it seems that’s quite a key component in this whole theatre lark.

The play successfully explores the vulnerability which comes as a result of  grief, in this case Lia’s, and the way that others seek to exploit this. But there’s too much non-plot and filler, which slows the play right down and, as a result, subtlety is sacrificed. I can’t help but recall a line from Nick: “We keep coming back to everything – it’s Hell.”

There are moments when you are all too aware that you are watching a play, but the tension that builds up in the second act makes for some superbly uncomfortable viewing – it is a thriller after all.

There are far worse ways to spend an evening, but there are also better ways to spend your cash.

Enlightenment runs at the Hampstead Theatre until 30 October 2010. To buy tickets, click here.

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Kilburn: Plaque to the future

Look, we’ve all seen Mitchell and Webb sauntering up and down the High Road, lording over us with their fame and fortune and everything that goes with it. But did you know that other men- and women-of-note lived in our fair corner of London before them?

Well, you might have guessed. I mean, statistically it’s quite likely.

So you’ll be pleased to learn that there are people out there who want to celebrate this fact, by putting up plaques acknowledging that some pioneer or other once resided in what is now probably a pound-shop or maybe a bookies.

The first of these green plaques – green being the new blue – to go up in Kilburn is to commemorate the fact that AA Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, was born in Henley House.

Unfortunately, Henley House itself is no longer there, but Remsted House stands proudly in its place, and will bear [<— intentional] the plaque in Henley’s honour.

open plaque remsted house kilburn: aa milne

The grand unveiling of the new plaque will take place today, Monday October 11th, at 4pm. AA Milne’s grandaughter Clare will be in attendance, along with Michael Brown, chairman of the Pooh Properties Trust. If you can’t make it along today, then look out for it in future.

Remsted House is on the corner of Kilburn Priory and Mortimer Place.

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The Tricycle wears Prada

The Tricycle is a proud little arts centre, a beacon of quality off-West End theatre and independent cinema alike, and a real treasure that we’re lucky enough to have on our collective doorstep. In recent weeks, I’ve experienced a whole host of cultural delights there, including the films Agora, Four Lions and Clash of the Titans, and the “rock’n’roll Shakespeare” theatre production of Twelfth Night. Fortunately for me, I’ve been able to take advantage of the Tricycle’s many special offers: Monday night films for £5, Thursday and Friday matinees for £4 (including a free cup of tea!), and free theatre for under-26s.

I’m therefore sorry to have to inform you that the Tricycle is now selling its soul to the Devil – you know, that geezer with all the Prada. Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe, but believe you shall as you learn that from next Friday, May 28th, the main feature film on show will be Sex and the City 2: Carrie’s Revenge (working title). Not only this, but from the first showing of said cinematic abomination, the cinema’s prices are being hiked: the Friday matinee is going up to £5.50, and the regular price is going from £8 to a whopping £9.50.

I just hope that this is the Tricycle’s way of saying “serves you right” to those shameless people who will be attending screenings of SATC2, and that order will eventually be restored, both in terms of the cinema’s listings and its prices.

I should probably mention, for those of you who quite like the idea of 146 minutes of torture, that the Tricycle has organised a couple of special evenings in honour of the Dark Lord’s return. The first is a grand gala event that Satan himself, aka Kim Cattrall, shall be attending, on Friday 28th May. The price of £24 includes a complimentary cocktail, the movie itself and a Q+A session with Kim. The second is a Cocktails & Cupcakes night, on Wednesday 2nd June, which presumably does what it says on the tin, with the baking bit taken care of by the elves in the Bake-a-boo kitchens.

If you plan to go on any other night, I suggest you arrange to drink some cocktails beforehand anyway. Well, you wouldn’t want to watch the film sober now, would you?

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They think it’s all over… And they’re right, it was, like, a week ago

Almost a week has passed since the results for Hampstead & Kilburn came through. It’s taken about this long for the adrenaline to drain from my body and my internal clock to tick tock its way back into shape after pulling an election all-nighter, but I’ve finally processed what has happened, and as the new coalition Cabinet concludes its first formal meeting, I feel ready to reflect on last week’s events.

One undeniable fact is that our part of North West London offered some of the most exciting battles of anywhere in the country. The new constituency of Brent Central was the only seat contested by two standing MPs: Sarah Teather of the Lib Dems and Labour’s Dawn Butler. It was a close run thing, but it was the former who eventually won on the night – or the following morning, to be precise.

In Hampstead & Kilburn, despite all three major parties telling us that it was a two horse race between one or the other of them, it turned out to be the most exciting three-way election extravaganza of them all. Chances are, of course, that you already know the result, but just in case you’ve been visiting relatives on the planet Zorg – and I hear it’s nice this time of year – it was as follows: After some drama involving errant ballot boxes and an excruciating re-count in the wee hours of Friday morning, the nail-bitingly close result was that Glenda Jackson held her seat, defeating Tory challenger Chris Philp by a mere 42 votes. Ed Fordham ended up coming third, less than 900 votes off the pace which, in general election terms, is pretty darned close. So in the end, the bookies, the pundits – even the bloggers! – got it wrong. Alas! How I wish that I’d put a cheeky fiver on Glenda to win; I’d now be sipping mojitos on a beach in Cancun…

The irony is that whilst Glenda pipped Ed and Chris to the post here in Hampstead & Kilburn, it is these two whose parties now govern our green and pleasant land. (Forgive me, by the way, if that doesn’t seem ironic to you, but I attended the Alanis Morissette school of irony, you see).

So congratulations are in order to Glenda Jackson MP, but I’d like to extend these to all the candidates who stood here – except that BNP woman – for leading such vigorous and passionate campaigns. I’m sure this won’t be the last we hear of such historic figures as Chris, Ed, Tamsin, Bea et al. In politics terms they’re all still young’uns (ish), and I for one look forward to seeing what larks they get up to in the future.

Out with the old, in with the new

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Guest Blog: Why I’m voting for… (part 4)

The final word in this pre-election guest blog series goes to Nick Hudgell, 25, multi-national employee, sometime map-drawer, and Kilburn resident. Though a natural conservative (note the little ‘c’), Nick has been open minded about who to vote for on May 6th – until recently that is. Here he explains why he was won over by the Conservative Party.

Why I’m voting for… Chris Philp and the Conservatives.

There's something not quite right about this photo - can't quite put my finger on it...

I love The Wire. I have watched it from start to finish. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) is clearly the star of the show, with his American-Irish, system-hating, whiskey-downing rogueishness. I recently learnt that some years ago, Dominic West was once a love rival with David Cameron for the affection of one Samantha Sheffield (later to become ‘Sam Cam’). If Jimmy McNulty can be bested by the leader of the Tories, I’m voting Conservative.

Seriously though, it’s an important decision. So firstly, let’s look at the national scene, which is most important to me. In terms of big party politics, there is lots of manifesto spiel, but there are some distinctive stances which can separate the parties from each other. There isn’t time or space (or enough of your patience) to go through all of the policies and pick out the reasons why I think the Conservatives are better, but I do honestly think that it is time for change…

I agree with Conservative policy on immigration (the introduction of a Border Force), and crime (cutting paper work for police and increasing prison space). I also share their stance on ID cards: I don’t want to spend 80 odd quid on a piece of plastic, and probably neither do you.

They want to create a ‘big society’, increasing discipline in school, and trying to make sure that parents understand their responsibility at home. Tick from me. And something that I think is fairly radical is a pledge to debate a bill or motion in the Commons if 100,000 people vote for it. Definitely something I agree with and something that the Conservatives have in their manifesto.

Finally, health: the Conservatives have a great stance on cancer treatment. Having had a lot of family issues with cancer, this is close to my heart and I agree with their pledges. They would let your doctor decide what drug to prescribe you if you had cancer – including new cutting edge drugs that are available in Europe.

So why Conservative change, and not Lib Dem or an Independent change? Two reasons: 1) I agree with a lot of the Conservative policies and think they would form a stronger Government. 2) If I vote for Lib Dem, we will get a hung parliament, and I truly believe that a hung parliament would be bad for our economy. All parties have ideas on how to make our economy stronger, but the best way is to have a majority government. I do not want a run on GBP, and I do not want the country to lose it’s AAA credit rating (which would make our deficit harder to reduce). Therefore, change for me is Conservative.

Now back to the local scene. Gordon Brown once said this is not a popularity contest, and for once, I agree with Gordon. If it were, then Ed Fordham would get my vote. He seems like a truly nice guy, passionate about where he lives and willing to do everything he can to push action through. I think Chris is more like The Wire’s Mayor Carcetti, very much an ambitious young man, looking for a step up in national politics. But it’s not a contest based on looks and popularity, it’s based on substance and policies. And for me, the long-term national vote is much more important than the local view. So as much as I admire you Ed, I won’t be voting for you.

I can’t compete with some of the honest and heartfelt posts below; I just don’t love you that much Chris Philp. But I’m still voting for you.

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