Wandering Through Designed Storytelling Environments (aka Exhibitions)

Issue 1 of my newsletter – subscribe here

I have friends who can’t imagine a worse punishment than visiting Disneyworld or sailing on a cruise. These lifeless environments are smeared with the fingerprints of designers desperate to part you with your money, whereas – I imagine them saying – nature demands no payment.

And I get that. It can be suffocating to be in a place where everything is trying to manipulate you against your will, like most malls, or, well, the internet. Exploring nature is a refreshing change; there’s no comparison between Yosemite, or the mountains of Kamikochi in Japan, and the Westfield Stratford mall.

But there’s something gloriously human about massive “immersive” environments that are designed, however imperfectly, around a story. If you’re going to sneer at Disneyworld, you might as well condemn readers for wasting their time in books, which are just as blemished with commercial and populist motives. Not that I hold up Disneyworld as the pinnacle of human creativity, but its delicate balance between imagination and profit and scale is, honestly, completely unique in human history.

I’m just as taken by immersive environments whose purpose is to inform and educate, like exhibitions in museums and galleries. Their curators have a very different balance to make – more constrained on budget, but less pressure to turn ever-increasing profits; less need to entertain, but more pressure to be accurate and truthful. Often, the end result is a monotone promenade through glass boxes, but lately museums like the V&A have mounted lavishly decorated and aching stylish exhibitions that are as atmospheric as any escape room or Punchdrunk show.

When I lived in London, my favourite thing to do on a slow weekend was to catch the latest exhibitions and galleries. I moved to Edinburgh a couple of years ago, and while it has its own fine museums, it can’t rival London’s blockbuster shows – I’m not sure that any other city in the world can, including New York. So I try to make the most of any extended stays in London, including the trip I made a couple of weeks ago, during which I mounted a multi-day cultural blitz across the city, armed with various memberships that allowed me easy access. And here’s a not-so-brief rundown of what I saw:

OK, this ended up being way, way longer than I expected, and I’ll try to keep things a bit less sprawling in future otherwise there’s no way I’m going to write something every week.

Only Human: Martin Parr at the National Gallery was a fun, kitschy celebration of Martin Parr’s portraits. Halfway through the exhibition, you encounter a fully-functioning cafe, complete with old CRT TVs, formica tables, teacakes, and exhibition-branded beer. Such experiential! So immersion.

The Wellcome Collection, near Euston and King’s Cross, is baffling place. As popular and as trendy as it is, I can’t help but be frustrated it isn’t better given that it has seemingly infinite funding from the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity with £26 billion of assets. See, the Wellcome Collection isn’t satisfied with just being a museum about health and medicine.

No, they want to be about the art of health and medicine. Which is fine as far as it goes, except I just don’t think there’s enough world-class art that qualifies, meaning their exhibitions invariably get filled with a bunch of mediocre art, or the exhibitions start testing the boundaries of what constitutes health and medicine – like the one I went to last week, Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic.

It was pretty good! Lots of neat old magic props accompanied by videos from psychologists explaining how misdirection and suggestion works. Some good staging. Actual live magicians giving performances. Not a lot of art, I guess, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The first highlight of the blitz was Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at the Design Museum. The Design Museum recently moved to a new location in Kensington and its building is the physical manifestation of its funding from private donors who want a space to have cool parties and don’t especially care about fripperies like well-designed permanent galleries. Those problems aside, the Kubrick exhibition was excellent, mostly because Kubrick’s work is excellent; if you’re at all interested in his movies, I encourage you to book tickets as soon as you can since tickets are selling out rapidly.

I especially liked a quote from Kubrick that went:

I really was in love with movies… I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t know anything about movies, but I’d seen so many movies that were bad, I thought, “Even though I don’t know anything, I can’t believe I can’t make a movie at least as good as this.” And that’s why I started, why I tried.

I wonder how many other artists feel the same – I know I do. Every time I get frustrated at the quality of my writing, I console myself with the fact that there are far worse published authors out there.

None of the exhibitions I’ve mentioned so far were particularly immersive – but Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the V&A Museum certainly was. The V&A narrowly beats The British Museum as my favourite museum in London, mostly because its exhibitions are the very best I’ve seen in the world, their atmosphere and attention to detail rivalling Punchdrunk. The Dior exhibition, remarkably, is already fully sold out for the remainder of its run to September, but V&A members can stroll in without regard for time.

Assorted thoughts:

  • At least 95% of the audience was women. Fellas, you’re missing out on a great exhibition!
  • This exhibition is in the V&A’s new underground space, which is effectively an enormous warehouse without pillars or walls. This makes it exceptionally versatile, but unless the exhibitions are very carefully designed – which to date they have not been – you feel like you’re walking through… a warehouse. The designers handily avoided this by putting in ceilings, many of which were covered in mirrors, creating a fantastic sense of boundless space.
  • The problem with exhibitions about living people and extant companies (like Dior) is that you invariably have to avoid upsetting them in order to secure important object loans. Hence the increasingly absurd hagiography of the company’s later work, culminating in the embarrassing omission of just why former Head Designer John Galliano, noted anti-semite, left Dior.
  • The final ballroom space had a very fine example of projection mapping that was, astonishingly, not completely over the top. The entire room’s lighting and projected ‘windows’ and ‘ceiling rose’ cycled through the day and night, which allowed you to see all the dresses in different conditions.

Since I was already there, I whipped around the Mary Quant exhibition, which was decent enough. A number of the dresses were crowdsourced from the public, complete with short stories about how the donors bought and wore them. I had to laugh when the exhibition ended with Mary Quant abruptly moving to Japan for reasons left unstated.

On the opposite side of London is the London Mithraeum, a small museum-like space dedicated to the Roman Temple of Mithras. It’s located on the new Bloomberg campus, and it is appropriately modern and shiny and designed by people who don’t quite understand how museums are meant to work. Who needs labels when you can get your visitors to hold unwieldy tablets? Why use words printed on a display when you can use a big touchscreen that only two people can read at a time?

The Mithraeum itself is impressive, and the Disney-style show that introduces it even moreso, complete with smoke and music and dialogue and curtains of light and pillars of darkness. It’s free to visit, and while booking online is essential, it’s not that busy any more.

Next, Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion and diane arbus: in the beginning at the Hayward Gallery in the Southbank Centre. I’m entirely unqualified to say whether a contemporary artist like Kader Attia is ‘good’ or not, but for my part I felt the exhibition was simultaneously too literal or too abstract in that the artist (or curator’s) explanation of the ‘point’ of a particular artwork made me think either, “Well yeah, obviously” or “OK, I get your point, but this artwork has nothing to do with that.” Whereas the display of Diane Arbus’ early photography was straightforwardly enchanting.

Imagine mounting an exhibition called “Movies” that attempts to capture everything about movies. Sounds a little… ambitious, right? The sort of thing that inevitably ends up as a superficial treatment of an enormous subject?

The curators at the British Library laugh at your doubts. Movies? How about all of writing? Hence Writing: Making Your Mark. It is as you would think – an interesting collection of ancient and old and modern objects and books that illustrate different bits and pieces of, uh, writing.

Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments – assuming you don’t die of frustration standing in the line snaking around the completely linear exhibition, formed of extremely polite, exceedingly dutiful, and very slow visitors. I call it the “museum train” and it haunts my nightmares.

The exhibition’s marketing promises that “…Finally, [you’ll] reflect on writing’s future and the role you’ll play in an increasingly digital world.” I don’t expect the British Library to get this right any more than I expect Facebook to understand how to conserve ancient books, but I did expect more than a video interview with random people opining about how it’ll be terrible when future generations can’t read any more(?!) or something something emojis.

Also at the British Library was a small free exhibition, Imaginary Cities. Here is the label from one of the artworks:

I found myself mentally composing a parody label:

This artwork’s physical ‘canvas’ is constructed from paper and cardboard encased in custom silver-gilded frames made by a woman in Guildford using hammer. A man using a Blackwing pencil and a Moleskine notebook composed the scene from a book containing an entire year (2018) of photographs that was printed by the publisher’s high volume printing press.

Look, I thought it was a bunch of bullshit dressed up in completely superfluous technical terms. Fight me.

OK, I’m almost as exhausted as you feel now. Three final stops at The British Museum:

Firstly, Edvard Munch: love and angst. It was pretty good! I’m not a Munch fan but this was well-designed, and I found myself lingering longer than I expected at the videos that tried to convey the atmosphere of pre-war Oslo, Berlin, and Paris. These weren’t the usual matter-of-fact unspooling of histories joined by Ken Burns effects and expert talking heads, but rather period photos of the cities combined with an actor reading from Munch’s diaries.

Second, Playing with Money: currency and games in the small Room 69a attached to the slowly-disintegrating Roman galleries. A charming little exhibition of money in board games and card games over history; of course, it has The Landlord’s Game, the progenitor of Monopoly.

Finally, not an exhibition but the new Islamic Gallery, an overwhelming space overflowing with objects and text – in a bad way. I mean, sure, it’s hard to encapsulate an entire religion and swathe of world culture in two (admittedly big) rooms, but I’m not convinced this was the way to do it.

Finally finally, I noticed this on The British Museum’s website:

Uh, WTF? If The British Museum can’t afford to put its collection online for visitors without the help of Google, who else will? This is a perfect example of where cultural institutions around the world need to work together to create a true non-profit set of online tools that can sit outside of Google’s orbit.

Thanks for reading – next week’s newsletter won’t have anything about museums, I promise!


Total Fail at the Kinect Galleries

Update 3rd Sept: Shortly after I made this post, I got a nice email from someone running the Kinect Galleries campaign telling me they took the problems very seriously and were working to make sure they didn’t happen again – from the comments on this post, it sounds like that’s happened! I also went to the galleries again, this time with an appointment, and found the staff to be much more helpful.

As for the Kinect itself, it’s certainly fun – just like an arcade game or the old PS2 Eyetoy games – but I experienced some worrying problems with navigating menus and the response time in games. At £130, I am not convinced that it’s great value for money given that you can buy a Wii bundle for the same price; time will tell though.


Yesterday, I went down to Covent Garden to check out the new Apple Store there (the largest in the world). About 300 people were queuing to pick up the iPhone 4, which is pretty astonishing given that it’s been out for a month now, but non-iPhone buyers could bypass the queue and go straight inside.

As we walked in to cheers and high-fives from a receiving line of Apple employees (who were mostly there to keep up the spirits of the iPhone queuers), we saw three floors of Apple products, all displayed with exceeding taste and set out in perfect proportion. MacBooks and iPads were set up just so, and if the crowds weren’t there, I think it’d be a very nice environment to test and buy Apple stuff. If you weren’t sure what you wanted, scores of staff were circulating in distinctive bright blue shirts were there to help.

The Covent Garden Apple Store, then, isn’t really much different from any other Apple Store in the rest of the world – it’s just bigger, and will print a proportionately bigger pile of cash.

Microsoft (Kinect)

On the way to Bloomsbury Square Garden, we passed by a nondescript building on Russell Street bearing some ‘KINECT GALLERIES’ banners. They didn’t look particularly Xbox 360-like, so I wasn’t sure if they had anything to do with the Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect addon, but a nice man at the door asked if we wanted to have a go on the new Kinect experience, so that confirmed things (for anyone walking right by him, at least).

Inside, we were drawn into a pretty large gallery space, all white bare walls with the occasional big screen TV and poster declaring how we do so much stuff with our bodies (e.g. our big toe holds half of our weight when walking, apparently). I didn’t immediately see any tell-tale signs of Kinect consoles around, so we walked down a long, long, long corridor to emerge into a strange basement divided up into three fake living rooms.


In each living room was a genuine Xbox Kinect setup – finally, what we were looking for! A couple of the rooms had one or two people having a go on various Kinect demos, like dancing or Kinect Sports, with various friends/parents/partners observing at a distance. We hung around a couple of the setups for five minutes, trying to catch the eye of the Kinect staffers, but they were busy chatting amongst themselves and surfing Wikipedia, and were definitely ignoring us (as seen below).


Eventually one of the demo rooms became free and I spent 30 seconds trying to navigate the menus of a dance game. A young staffer rapidly zoomed over and asked me if I’d made a booking; since this was the first time anyone had ever mentioned bookings, I said no. She told me that unfortunately people could only play if they had booked, and while they obviously had a no-show on this demo room, the next people might turn up soon, so I couldn’t play. Not even for a minute. But if I went upstairs reception, maybe I could make a booking there?

So we went all the way back along the long corridor, went upstairs, went to the reception that we’d walked past on the way in (not that there was anything or anyone telling us to stop by it) and unsuccessfully waited a couple of minutes for someone to become free to talk to us. In any case, I saw that the entire day was booked up, so the whole visit was pointless.

When we left, feeling pretty annoyed about Kinect and everything to do with it, we politely told the door guy about our troubles. He suggested that we try a go on the public demo unit in the main gallery; we told him that it didn’t look very public to us, and in any case it was very occupied by a couple of families. Oh well.

There are so many things wrong with the ‘KINECT GALLERIES’ experience that it’s pointless to mention them all. Microsoft clearly has no idea how to run a good show, they clearly have no-one who particularly cares (since it’d be easy to send in a mystery shopper or just spring a surprise visit) and god knows that the Kinect needs a good show.

The fact is, our experience was just fucking awful. I don’t swear on this blog a lot, but there you go – it was that bad. Sure, I’ve seen worse campaigns, but probably not ones that cost this much or are so important. You wonder if they even realised they’d opened up almost at the same time as the multimillion pound Apple Store right around the corner; an unfair comparison, I know, but an inevitable one.

I was given a postcard inviting me to ‘Come and play or book a place online’ for the KINECT GALLERIES on the way out, but I feel sufficiently pissed off at the whole experience that I’m not sure whether I want to go. Good one, Microsoft – and I say this as someone who likes the 360.

(Actually, I just checked out the Facebook page for booking a place online, and it is equally awful since it requires you to have or sign up for a Windows/Xbox Live ID before you get to do or see anything useful.)

Flatmate wanted in Clapham Common

My flatmate is moving out in a couple of months to go to new pastures, so it’s time for me to find another flatmate. I’m going to put an ad in various places shortly, but I figure it wouldn’t hurt to post something here as well – clearly anyone reading this blog will have good taste! (or something…)


Beginning early to mid-July.

How much:

£140 – £150 per week, excluding bills (which are pretty standard)


Clapham Common. The flat is thirty seconds a very nice Picturehouse cinema, one minute from the tube station and park, and three minutes from Sainsbury’s. I’m not exaggerating here – it really is that close. It’s also handily on a side street which means it isn’t too noisy either.


The flat has two bedrooms. The one that’s available currently fits a double bed, desk, wardrobe and bookcase, although it is a slight squeeze. I’m not entirely sure whether it’ll come furnished – we’d have to ask my flatmate. The living room is reasonably sized (I don’t know how else it put it, really), with TV, consoles, etc. The kitchen is small/medium, but it’s newly furnished with a nice oven and cupboards. The bathroom is OK – nothing great, but it’s got a bath and a shower.

There’s wooden flooring throughout the flat other than in the bedrooms and the bathroom. The neighbours are unassuming and relatively quiet, and the building (which has six flats, I think) is fairly secure and good-natured.


Ridiculously nice location, providing that you aren’t one of those deluded individuals who has never been south of the river. Clapham Common has plenty of nice restaurants and bars, and in any case is only 15-20 minutes from the centre of London. It’s a young area, sometimes irritatingly full of Australians and Kiwis, but they generally look pretty good, so that helps. I also treat the cinema across the road as an extension of the living room whenever I’m bored; it’s a novel experience to just pop over five minutes in advance when you want to see a film.

Unsurprisingly there’s already a good TV and various new consoles hooked up to it, should you enjoy that sort of thing. It goes without saying that plenty of wonderful conversation is available, whenever I’m in the mood for it.


I’m going to be straight-up; there’s currently a hole in the bathroom where the extractor fan should be. It may well have disappeared in a couple of months, but you never know. The nearby French restaurant can occasionally be noisy on weekends or during good weather. That’s about it, really.

Are you, or a friend, interested?

Email me at adrian@(NOSPAM)mssv.net (remove the NOSPAM bit, of course). Please do not bother asking me whether there is any leeway on the rent, because there isn’t (unless you want to pay more, of course). I am an equal-opportunities flatmate, so don’t worry if you are strange in some kind of way (unless you’re really strange).

The Longest Race of my Life

24 hour events have always attracted a certain fascination. By definition, they’re demonstrations of endurance, and when the world is transformed at night, what might be a common activity like walking through London turns into something that is slightly thrilling and illicit – and therefore, very attractive to a particular type of person.

In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be taking part in the Relay For Life event at Battersea Park, to raise money for Cancer Research UK. It’s not quite as exciting as the 197 mile relay race described in the New York Times – for one thing, it’s just around a running track, and for another, it’s not actually a race (more of an excursion) – but it’s still promises to be a lot of fun, and of course, it’s for a very good cause. Cancer is treatable, and it’s curable, but only if the research is funded.

If you can, please sponsor me; you can do it online using a credit card, and the money will go directly to Cancer Research UK. Even just a few pounds will be a real help. For those who are hesitating, I have something that might tip you over the edge (hopefully towards donating)…

£5 Limited Edition Special Offer

If you donate £5 or more, you will receive an exclusive online photo of me holding up a piece of paper with your name on it (or short message of choice) during the race. For sure, it’ll be a memento to show the grandchildren – you’ll be able to say, “Yes, I knew Adrian before he became El Presidente of the Martian Dominions.”

£10 Super-Incredible-Limited Edition Exclusive Offer

If you donate £10 or more, you’ll get something even better. I’m not sure what it is yet, but it’ll be very cool. Really, the suspense is worth it alone.

Fire Alert at Heathrow

I was sitting in the lounge area of Terminal 3 in Heathrow when the PA system came on.

“This is a security announcement. All passengers are reminded that baggage should-”

A sharp beeping interrupted the message. “A fire alarm has been activated in your area. Please go to the nearest emergency exit immediately. A fire alarm has been activated in your area. Please go to…”

People looked up quizzically; was this real? Most people decided not to take any chances and began to collect their bags and look around for the nearest green sign. This was hastened when shop staff started closing up. As I walked to the nearest exit to me (the one by Chez Gerard, heading into various gates) I noted with satisfaction that everyone was moving calmly but with seriousness; clearly the we’ve had bomb and terrorists drilled into our heads so much by popular culture that everyone knew what to do.

A stream of people were heading the same way as me. If you’ve been to Terminal 3, you’ll know that some of the walks to the far-off gates can take a while. 5 minutes for a fast walker, easily 10 minutes for a slow one. About halfway along, around when I was wondering why it was taking so long to get to an emergency exit that actually led outside the building, I spotted a green sign… that pointed back in the way I’d come. Brilliant.

Some people milled around it, paralysed by the competing signals, but most people just kept walking on. A little further on was another, more promising, green sign that hung above a double-set of fire doors. Some people were sitting around inside, looking bored, but the doors were locked. I shook my head.

When I’d come in to Heathrow earlier this morning, I was thinking about bombs. It was a nice day, and I wondered what would happen if someone set off a bomb in the airport. How long would it take to get back to normal? Would they still run some flights? I suppose I had this on my mind after watching a bunch of action movie trailers last night, most of which had some combination of huge explosions and nuclear bombs.

I knew that this fire alert probably wasn’t serious, but it all seemed very odd. Along with most other people, I kept on going until I almost reached the end gates. There, a small group had collared someone wearing a uniform – he wasn’t security or anything like that, he looked like a construction worker.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“There was a fire alarm back in the shops area. It told us to go to the nearest emergency exit, so here we are,” someone replied.

“Huh, I didn’t hear anything. All the tannoy systems are linked up together, so if there was a fire alarm back there, we should’ve heard it here.” All the same, he got on his phone to his supervisor, who evidently didn’t know any more.

“So what should we do?” we asked him.

“I don’t know. Like I said, if there was a real fire, we should be hearing it here.” He just seemed a bit bemused by the entire situation.

“Yes,” replied a woman, “but there was a fire alarm, and you said you didn’t hear it down here. So maybe it’s still going on. And there are some people going in the opposite direction now, back to the shops.”

He nodded. “That’s true. Well, all I can say is that you could just wait here, or you could go back and find out more.”

We all shook our heads, and headed back to the shops. No-one seemed particularly bothered, although I did hear someone say, “What if someone had fallen and hurt their knee?” What indeed.

After another five minute walk, I got back to the shops area. There was a small crowd hanging around, and a woman in uniform saying “You can go back now, it’s open!” So I went back, and on the way, saw some staff hanging around in Chez Gerard; they hadn’t even moved since the alarm.

I know that if there was a real fire, or a real bomb scare, everything would’ve moved a lot faster. But events like this just desensitive everyone. A fire alarm going off in a busy terminal is a big deal for the people in it, even if it isn’t for the staff. The fact that none of the staff know what’s going on, that the emergency exits signs point in the wrong direction, that it takes 5 minutes to get to the nearest exit – which is locked – is unbelievable.

They x-rayed my shoes when I came in. What’s the point? Security is only as strong as its weakest link.

Post Office

Try as some might to avoid the rest of humanity, there are two places where you’re obliged to spend time with them – post offices, and planes. Nice segue into a weblog post about both, eh?
(well, the one about planes might have to come a bit later)

I had to pick up a special delivery from the post office this morning. Since the sorting office is about one minute from my flat, you wouldn’t think this would bother me. On the contrary, receiving one of those ‘the postman visited and you weren’t in’ slips fills me with dread. See, the sorting office serves a reasonable chunk of Clapham, and given that Clapham is full of recent graduates and young professionals who like nothing better than ordering lots of stuff off the internet, there’s always a lot of mail.

Now, this wouldn’t automatically mean that the sorting office should be bad – just because there’s a lot of people using a service doesn’t mean it should be a bad experience… unless you have about twenty people all queuing up to collect parcels, and only one person serving them. After I’d been waiting in the queue for about fifteen minutes, someone asked one of the post office workers whether it would be possible to have more people working on the counter. “Sorry, already had staff cuts, we just can’t afford it,” was the answer.

Under such circumstances, you’d think that the response would be to work out an efficient sorting mechanism so that the one person at the counter would at least be able to serve people quickly. Unfortunately, judging by the highly variable search times for individual packages, I can only assume that they’re employing a serial, random search pattern (i.e. packages just chucked randomly onto a shelf).

All of this amounted to a 30 minute wait to pick up a letter. Multiply that by the number of people who use the sorting office, and you have dozens – maybe a hundred – hours wasted per day. Of course, I doubt the sorting office has any intention or real obligation to improve waiting times – not only does the post office have a monopoly on domestic mail, but they apparently have very little oversight.

In light of the recent protests over the closure of thousands of post offices in rural areas, many of which only received a few customers per week, my experience this morning highlights the fact that a one-size-fits-all policy cannot possibly work for mail delivery in the UK. I can understand, partly, the logic of post offices in metropolitan areas subsidising those in rural areas, but not when the result is chronically underfunded and inefficient post offices in those same metropolitan areas, which end up costing an awful lot of money to the economy.

Unless the government or the post office can improve its service, then the only answer is privatisation. I would willingly pay more in order to avoid wasting hours in queues, but only if that money goes to improving the services that I actually use.

Where’s Adrian? (The Sequel)

Next week, I’m speaking at a couple of conferences on Perplex City in London. Can you guess I didn’t get much notice? Anyway, if you happen to be going to either, please say hi!

Tuesday November 28th: BBC Audio Drama Festival. I’m speaking on the Gaming panel, which is at 9:30am and also repeated at 11:30am.

Friday December 1st: FutureMedia C21 Conference. I’ll be on the first ‘Case Studies from the Digital Frontier‘ panel at 9:50am.

I’m probably going to the London MetaFilter meetup on December 8th, and I’m going to be in Toronto from December 13th to 21st.

In other news, I’ve posted a rather long comment with further thoughts on religion and a ‘church without religion’, in response to Chris and Brooke’s interesting points. I’m talking to a lot of people about this (probably boring them to death) and doing a lot of thinking. It’s a very interesting subject.

London happenings

Two interesting developments have occurred in London in the past few days. The first is the Sultan’s Elephant. I haven’t been able to see the three-storey mechanical moving Elephant myself, since I’m in Oxford, but I intend to come back early on Sunday to see it off. The Sultan’s Elephant is performance art of the highest quality – a story told over three days by an expert theatrical company, where a time-travelling elephant is looking for a girl who crashlanded in a spaceship. It roves all across London, and makes absolutely no attempt to explain itself. It has no adverts and no visible sponsorship (although its website does list some). It’s just a part of London.

I’m not going to bother making the obvious ARG comparisons here. I will say that one of the reasons I love it is because it’s a piece of art and story that exists purely to inspire wonder and surprise, and change people’s lives a little bit. It invades our normal shared spaces and us out of our daily rhythm. It’s not for sale, it’s not promoting anything, it just is.

The other development is that the movie of 24 is going to be shot in London. 24 is one of my favourite shows at the moment and I get a lot of dramatic inspiration from it. I’m already concocting a plan to become an extra on the set…

(24 is a constant reminder to me of the inferior nature of British action dramas. There’s nothing in the UK that can even approach the quality of 24’s story and action, and it’s not just because we don’t have as much money as US dramas. It’s because commissioners don’t appreciate good writing and think that a bunch of guys sitting in an office looking moody constitutes good drama.)

How to get from Oxford to London

or more accurately, COACH WARS: Oxford Espress vs. Oxford Tube

For the past half year, I’ve been commuting back and forth from Oxford to London every week (not every day, though). In that time I’ve been able to make a thorough appraisal of the best way to make the journey.

Oxford is approximately 56 miles from London and according to my roadmap, it should take about 1:15 to make the journey by car. On the other hand, a train takes about 55 minutes and, in theory, is less variable. Both of these times are rather optimistic estimates. The car time assumes that you encounter little to no traffic, while the train time doesn’t factor in commuting times to the station or the not infrequent delays on the rail service.

It wouldn’t really be worth me writing about the value of taking a car instead of the train or vice versa because firstly, I don’t drive, and secondly, they’re such different forms of transport that I don’t think anything I say would really matter to anyone. Some people are rail travellers and some are drivers; the two groups are separated more by ideology than reason, much like Apple and Windows users.

However, Oxford is an anomaly among cities near London in that it has not one but two highly frequent coach services that run 24 hours a day. These coaches offer a real alternative to both car and train by virtue of being right in the middle of the two; they are reasonably quick, cheap, regular and make multiple stops in the centre of both cities. The only problem is that the two services are, on the surface, almost identical. Or are they? Frequent commuters will know how important it is to pick a good service early on in order to get season ticket savings, so here’s a guide to which service is best.

The Basics

Oxford is an anomaly for another reason. The two coaches are run by two bus companies – the Oxford Bus Company and Stagecoach. Both companies operate full and near identical local services in Oxford, with near identical pricing. The advantage of this is that Oxford has a very pervasive and frequent public transport system for such a small city. The disadvantage is that the two companies obviously do not take each others tickets and their route numbers are different, meaning customers often become confused. I don’t use local buses much but I haven’t been able to discern any real difference between the two companies.

The Oxford Espress, aside from having a horrible name, is run by the Oxford Bus Company. The coaches are normal single-deckers, whereas Stagecoach’s Oxford Tube service uses custom-made double-decker coaches.


You can find out the fare prices for both services from the links above. At the time of writing, on both services a single from Oxford to London (and vice versa) costs £10, while a return costs £12. There are discounts for concessions and students, and unsurprisingly, these are identically priced as well.

In fact, all the prices are identical. Occasionally one service might introduce a new fare, as the Oxford Tube did with its cut-price ‘Nightrider’ which offers discount return travel after 3pm, but within weeks the other service will copy the entire idea, right down to the name; the Oxford Espress isn’t fooling anybody with its ‘Night Owl’ service.

Result: Draw


Both services start at Gloucester Green bus station in Oxford and end at Victoria. They make near identical stops in Oxford and they also stop at Hillingdon (a tube station 30 minutes out from Victoria) but the similarities end there.

The Oxford Tube tends to make more stops in general. About 30 minutes out from Oxford, it stops at a place in the middle of nowhere called Lewknor Turn. It’s a dark little lay-by that presumably serves people living in nearby villages. In London, the coach stops at Shepherd’s Bush, Notting Hill Gate, Marble Arch before getting to Victoria. The more perceptive of you will realise this can involve an awful lot of traffic in rush hour.

The Oxford Espress shuns Lewknor Turn and instead of diving straight into London, it takes the flyover and goes directly to Baker Street. This saves a little on the traffic.

Clearly there’s not much to distinguish the services in terms of routes, and your choice will no doubt be influenced by the stops in London and how close they are to where you want to go. For my part, I always go to Victoria so it makes no difference to me.

Result: Draw


This is where it gets interesting. Since the Oxford Tube is a double-decker coach and generally attracts more passengers, it takes longer to load up and disembark at every stop. Furthermore, I find that its route, especially the Lewknor Turn stop, lengthens any given journey by approximately 10 to 20 minutes depending on the time of day.

The Oxford Espress’ route, with two fewer stops, combined with its smaller capacity, mean that it definitely wins on terms of speed. The quickest journey I’ve had from Oxford to London has been on the Espress and it took 1:15, while the Tube took slightly longer. In rush hour, both services can take up to 2:30.

Result: Espress wins


Both services run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. From Monday to Saturday they both run approximately every 10-15 minutes during the daytime and every 20 minutes in the early morning and late evening.

However, it’s at night when the differences emerge. The Oxford Tube runs coaches every 30 minutes during the wee hours from 2am to 4am on most days, while the Oxford Espress only manages a coach every hour. Both services run every hour from 4am to 6am or so. For most people this difference is really not an issue but if you go for any nights out in London, then the difference between waiting 30 minutes and an hour is very significant.

Result: Tube wins


In my experience, the Oxford Espress is slightly more reliable in terms of its coaches being spaced out evenly in time. This is probably due to the fact that it doesn’t take as long to load or have as many passengers. In terms of coaches breaking down, anecdotal reports indicate that the Tube suffers more, but that might be down to response bias. Still, I could well believe it since the Tube’s double-decker behemoths, though they may be brand new and well maintained, are inevitably more prone to breakdown than standard-issue single-deckers.

Result: Espress wins

Chances of getting a seat

Not the best of titles, but important nonetheless. Since the Espress, for some reason, has proportionately fewer passengers I find it easier to get a seat on board. I have never seen a full Espress coach while I often see full Tube coaches. This is very important for those people who place a high value on having two seats to themselves.

Result: Espress wins


For a long time, the Espress won this competition hands down by offering air-condition and power sockets where the Tube didn’t. With its recent fleet upgrade, the Tube now also offers air conditioning and power sockets for every two seats. All seats on both services recline (not a good thing in my opinion, I hate getting seats in my face).

While I haven’t actually measured the seating space (although I may do in the future), I am pretty sure that the Espress has about one or two inches more legroom. It also has leather headrests and the general state of cleanliness is higher. This is no doubt due in part to the higher passenger numbers on the Tube.

Result: Espress wins

Other passengers

Closely related to comfort are the type of passengers that travel on the services. Now you may think I’m being ridiculously picky and offensive by even including this section but no-one would choose to sit on a coach for two hours surrounded by noisy teenagers when they want to get some sleep if they could sit on a quieter coach.

Put basically, the Oxford Tube has every type of passenger, from tourists to students to workers. Generally people are well behaved although I have found that the Tube is occasionally host to people blasting out music or talking very loudly – in the night – for the entire journey.

The Tube’s passengers also span the full range in terms of how often the use the Tube. Some of them use it regularly and so don’t have to ask the driver about stops or fares and can whiz past using their fare cards. Others are less experienced and take longer. This contributes to longer boarding times.

In contrast, the Oxford Espress attracts what I would call ‘professional passengers’. I don’t mean that they they’re all workers – indeed, while the Espress is skewed more towards workers it’s still frequented by students and some tourists – I mean that they tend to know what they are doing. Either they’re regular passengers and know the stops and the fares, or they’re savvy tourists and they’ve taken the time to find these things out beforehand. This results in a quicker boarding process and makes for a profoundly peaceful journey.

Result: Espress wins


The Oxford Espress is definitely better than the Tube, in terms of speed, comfort, reliability and general experience. That doesn’t mean that the Tube is particularly bad, it’s just not as good. The Tube may still be better for you in terms of its stops but for most I would recommend the Espress.

The interesting question behind all of this is why, despite the Espress’ superiority, the Tube attracts more passengers. The simple answer is that the Tube has superior marketing and branding. It has a memorable name and colours and is generally more well known among the public. When people start using the Tube, it’s ‘good enough’ and so they don’t bother trying the Espress because they think it’s less frequent or more expensive (that’s what happened to me, anyway).

The reason the Espress hasn’t gone out of business is because it has built up a loyal following due to its quality. I have a few friends who won’t take the Tube any more and I suspect the same is true for many commuters. My advice to the Oxford Bus Company is to change the Espress’ name into something you can say aloud without feeling stupid, and to improve their branding and marketing. I don’t have any advice for the Tube aside from running more frequent coaches because it’s hard to see how they can change their demographic without changing their coach fleet again, and that’s not going to happen for some time now. I suppose they might want to consider missing off the Lewknor Turn stop.