It's late now, early morning, but I took extensive notes at last night's TalkLondon meeting held at the Peel Centre, tucked away in the Metropolitan Police training college in Hendon. I will share a few impressions: I feel mugged.
TalkLondon was the inspiration of Boris Johnson, the London mayor. On the strength of this evening's performance it's hard to see this roadshow as anything more than providing publicity for the disarming, charming mayor. They say television puts a few pounds on the person being filmed. That might explain why in person Johnson seems slimmer and younger than on television.
In the flesh, he seems less of a bumbling buffoon and more of a patronising posh guy, with brilliant comic timing even though his jokes are thin. There were several points during the evening when you felt that he was riding his luck way too far.
The role of London mayor must be one of the cushiest politician's roles going. Johnson can appear to be all things to all people. He has no direct responsibility for many of the things that are annoying people, such as the rises in parking charges that Barnet council, but also other councils, are implementing. Yet he is a major figure in the Conservative Party whose government is making the cuts that are leading to the higher parking - and other - charges.
He can swan around the capital meeting and flattering the grassroots people who are doing the work in thousands of charities and community groups, such as the Words 4 Weapons charity, mentioned at the meeting tonight by one of the members of the public.
He has some pots of money to dip into in order to dispense largesee, such as the £417,000 from his Outer London Fund, found for Barnet town centre. More money was announced this evening for projects in Cricklewood and North Finchley. Abracadabra!
Gail Laser, who represents High Barnet traders - all the traders of Barnet, in fact, she claimed - was on the platform tonight, presumably because she was expected to say only good things about Boris. She has been part of the team that got the money for High Barnet from the Outer London Fund.
Laser seemed pretty 'onside' until finally one member of the audience, Fiona Rosen, got in to speak and mentioned 'the p word: parking. The ridiculous pay by mobile; how can we compete with Brent Cross?'
Laser agreed: though she accepts the inevitability of cashless parking, she thought the whole scheme was introduced badly, and the charges are too high. She accused the council of killing Barnet's high streets. This is pretty strong stuff, from someone who is supposed to be on the Tory council's side. At the end of the meeting, Coleman went to her and gave her a big kiss on each cheek.
Johnson had no answer to the anger among Barnet traders about the parking charge rises and the move to cashless parking. The whole premise of the meeting was to talk about investing in outer London. A theme of his speech was making London feel more villagey again, and boosting the high streets. Brian Coleman, chairing the meeting, who is the author of Barnet's disastrous parking policy, couldn't help himself saying from the rostrum: "I was at Brent Cross shopping centre recently and they had a very good Christmas!"
That's the point, Coleman: Brent Cross has free parking and Barnet's high streets lost custom to them.
"I'm so glad you came this evening," Johnson said, as Coleman dismissed the angry, muttering crowds and they began to disperse. "The fact that you came here tonight shows that you care about your businesses and your communities." Banality on banality! It clearly shows that people are losing their livelihoods and aren't prepared to put up with it.
You will be able, hopefully, to see all this for yourself as TalkLondon film their meetings - and hopefully do not edit out chunks. The Barnet Bugle blog says he has film as well.
To return to the theme of Boris Johnson's uniquely privileged political position. At the same time as he has hand-pressing personal contact with the grassroots but no actual political responsibility, he has nominal overall control of great swathes of policy that would probably go ahead without him whatever he did.
Thus, as he did tonight, he is able to waffle knowledgeably and grandly about the Olympics, transport infrastructure projects, etc, subjects which few of his audience are in much position to contradict him on, and appear slightly impressive.
I came away from the event feeling unclean and rather as though I had been mugged.
Some general observations: the venue was large and full. The audience was, I would say, predominantly middle-class. Many people who attended had an axe to grind. It was interesting to hear someone worried about the time it was taking to get step-free access at Harrow-on-the-hill station, for example. But, really, this sort of event is not much real use for getting things done or issues aired or questions answered. There isn't time. And it relies on people catching the chair's eye whether their concerns are addressed.
Brian Coleman's eye was quite good this evening, but he did despite his best efforts pick one or two people who put awkward questions. These included Austin Harney of Barnet trades council who asked whether the sort of cuts that Barnet council is carrying out, including cuts to transport services for disabled residents, are reasonable at the same time as big business evades vast quantities of tax.
And, of course, Fiona Rosen on the parking charges. But what would have happened had Coleman not picked her? Could we have got through the whole event without one of the most contentious issues in Barnet being aired? Quite easily.
Richard Cornelius, Barnet council leader, was also on the panel this evening. His performance seemed to be confined to expressing himself upset and confused about several issues, including the chaos of the stalled regeneration of West Hendon estate, the parking charges, the rabbit-hutch nature of much of the residential development going on in Barnet at the moment, etc. A supporter and representative of the Conservative Government and of all it stands for, he nevertheless seems to be upset by every concrete manifestation of it that he meets. Poor man, no wonder he is upset and baffled. Now imagine how we feel.
Before the meeting I distributed copies of Our Barnet to those queuing to go in, and met up with some of the bus drivers from Brent Cross who are receiving scandalous and bullying treatment from their Transport for London managers. The drivers were not called in the meeting and they were not allowed to present their petition of 300 drivers calling for, among other things, decent toilet facilities for drivers.
If I were them, I would be thinking of taking some sort of action that would make Coleman and his like sit up and take notice.