Monday, 13 October 2014

September in pictures


1. This is another belated monthly wrap up, as I spent the end of September just outside Stirling in Scotland, with family and friends celebrating the Accidental Mother's birthday. We rented a rambling house, with beautiful surrounding gardens and woods. It was the kind of place where you opened a door without being entirely sure what you might find on the other side - it was huge and confusing, but a great place for a party.

2. Another month, another cat in the office at Cats Protection's North London Adoption Centre. 'Augusto' was very friendly, although not conducive to getting much work done. We've been hard at work creating a campaign to recruit new volunteers to help support our South London Adoption Centre which will be opening in early 2015. The shiny new centre will rely on the hard work of an army of volunteers who will help to clean out and socialise the furry residents, offer them foster homes, take them to the vet and help them find new families. If you live in or near South London and are interested in finding out more about volunteering with Cats Protection, have a look for more details here and do drop us a line. The kitties need you!

3. Shakespeare's Globe is an extraordinary theatre, the home of Shakespeare in London. Recreated in the image of the original Globe Theatre - which stood on Maiden Lane, burnt down, was rebuilt, and finally closed in 1642 - the current Globe opened in 1997. But not many people know that within the grounds of this theatre is a whole other performance space - a theatre within a theatre. After getting the main space ready for the opening in 1997, everyone rather ran out of steam (and money!) to work on this second, smaller theatre. But with the Globe going from strength to strength, the creative team channelled their energies back towards this incomplete space, and with a little inspiration from various original Jacobean playhouse designs, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened last year. I went along to visit the space with its star-covered timber roof, and hear some fabulous music performed by candlelight. (A little surreal for a Monday morning but undeniably magical.) It is an enchanting space, at once small and intimate and limitless in potential: The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a TARDIS of a theatre.

4. Brixton Market is a funny place - a bastion of gentrification in the heart of a surrounding area which resolutely refuses to give up all of its glorious imperfections and submit fully to the hipsters and yummy mummies. Early last month, a friend introduced me to a great Japanese cafe, Okan, tucked in the heart of this market. It is a no-nonsense kind of place; no reservations, cash-only, and one star attraction on the menu. 'Okonomiyaki' is apparently Osaka's favourite streetfood - a kind of thick pancake stuffed with cabbage and all kinds of other goodies. Even noodles if that takes your fancy. After our tasty pancakes we needed a little caffeine so headed through the market to Federation Coffee for a couple of flat whites and a little cooing over a visiting puppy. My coffee came disguised as a swan.

5. From pancakes to popstars, across town a new statue was unveiled in another market. Commemorating the late, local singer and pub frequenter, Amy Winehouse, the statue that now stands in Camden Market courted its fair share of controversy even before its completion. But as soon as it was unveiled, the general response was 'huh?'. It's not the most convincing likeness...

6. I caught up with Charlotte of Best LDN Walks last month, to join a great new walking tour that she's just launched. The Hidden Secrets of London pub tour is an educational - and potentially boozy - walk around many of the city's oldest drinking establishments; including Charles Dickens' watering hole, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Armed with her amusing anecdotes and fascinating facts, Charlotte whisked us around Blackfriars, along Fleet Street, through tiny alleyways to meet green parrots and talking cat statues, and down into a dungeon beneath a pub. Oh, and also through a couple of very lengthy gin lists (Sorry about the headache the next morning, Muriel...!). 

7. A day before the exhibition closed, I finally dragged myself across town to see 'Sensational Butterflies' at the Natural History Museum. In a former life I collected butterflies for a zoological survey in an African forest, and have harboured a fascination with these little fairies every since. After several months in a purpose-built exhibition tent a few of the specimens at the NHM were looking a bit ragged and tired, but their brighter fellows fluttered from tree trunk to flower, occasionally pausing to rest awhile on one of the visitors who wandered beneath them. The steamy, lively exhibition took me right back to that forest.

8. I love a good crowd-funding success story. And I love a project that showcases this weird and wonderful city of mine. Earlier this month a new Kickstarter campaign was launched to produce 'London Symphony', a filmic journey through the city, its landmarks and its communities. The finished film will be a striking masterpiece of architectural and cultural record. But the campaign still needs help to get the film off the ground. If you'd like to learn more, or to get involved with helping make this dream come true for the film's creator, Alex Barrett, check out London Symphony's page on Kickstarter. Alex would love you forever.

9. With the end of the summer came the end of London's finest evenings. The kind of evenings you spend sitting out on pavements after work with an endless supply of cold, cold drinks. The kind of evenings that make you never want to go home. The kind of evenings you spend eating and chatting at Street Feast in Dalston. For the summer, Dalston Yard was coopted by lots of different street food outfits - from Pizza Pilgrims to Rainbo, and Yum Bun to the outstanding Bleecker Street Burgers. Every Friday and Saturday evening, the yard would fill up with hungry Londoners, catching up over cocktails and Czech beer, and eating way too much food. There was often an occasional dog, and there were a hell of a lot of hats (see: Dalston). As the autumn approached, there were braziers to huddle around, but there was no fighting the end of summer. The darker, colder evenings came on faster, and Street Feast finished up for the year. Sad times... 

Farewell summer, and farewell September!

Monday, 6 October 2014

The phantom railings

I usually walk around the city with a large pair of headphones clamped over my ears. Sometimes what plays within my little audiological cocoon is music, other times it is voices from a podcast or a radio programme. I like the sound of company on my solitary expeditions. But the other week I and my headphones were walking along near the British Museum, when I came across something that made me reach up and pull them down around my neck. There was something else I needed to hear.

There is a pretty walled garden behind Gower Street. It's one of those private gardens reserved solely for the enjoyment of the residents of a row of expensive terraced houses. The wall around the garden once had heavy iron railings around it, but these railings are long gone. During the war in Britain, such railings were often ripped out of their walls, and melted down to make arms and armour; reinvented as different tools for keeping people at a distance. Yet without the railings in place passersby can now peek over the wall, into the green garden within. 

The garden's entrance is guarded by a large metal gate, padlocked shut. This gate now also bore a sign that made me stop. "Phantom Railings" the sign proclaimed. Phantom what? I read on. A soundscape had been installed in place of the old metal railings, the sign continued; an invisible set of railings, that would appear audibly as someone walked along the pavement next to the wall. In place of a set of physical railings that one could trail a hand along, were a series of sensors and speakers. And as I began to walk beside them I heard a ghostly person appear next to me. The apparition held a stick, and with every step we took together I heard a hollow clang, as the stick met each invisible railing.

Ahead of me the small group of tourists that I'd followed from the museum looked around, turning to see where the noise they could suddenly hear was coming from. One broke his step, jogging backwards and forwards, playing with the ghost and the sounds it was creating. His laughter wove in and out of the clangs and clunks of the phantom railings. 

As I turned the corner and headed back onto Gower Street the sound of the invisible railings died. But looking back I saw the ghostly player of the railings had made some new friends, and was busily engaging and entertaining new pedestrians. From my silent spot, the phantom presence became entirely visible to me, in the smiles and puzzled looks on their faces as they stood before the railings that weren't there.

Friday, 26 September 2014

What's in my blogger's bag?

A while ago I came across the pretty illustrations of Kristina Hultkrantz, who designs under the brand Emma Kisstina. This self-confessed girly-girl covers posters, scarves, and make-up bags with her bold yet delicate designs, and despite not being the girliest of girls myself, the strong, solid colours of her designs hugely appealed to me. In checking out her blog I also discovered a fascinating series of illustrations, showing off the things that bloggers kept in their bags. And then I was hooked. 

I know what it takes to keep my own blogging show on the road - a lot of coffee, wine and chats with blogging pals mostly, but I don't keep those in my bag! - but what about other bloggers? Can you tell what kind of blogger someone is from the contents of their bag? Turns out, you can...The majority of the bloggers Kristina features in her series are glamorous fashion and lifestyle bloggers; their designer handbags groaning with beauty products and glittering jewellery. But I thought I'd drop Kristina a line and see if she was up for the challenge of featuring the bag of a rambling city blogger - with, as Kristina noted herself, not even so much as a lip balm in sight.

And the game Kristina rose to the challenge and tackled my well-travelled Manhattan Portage bag and its random contents. And I love the result...
Whilst my bag may not be as stylish as the bags Kristina normally draws, it might be the only one that's been to five continents! (Thanks to its outstanding quality however, you probably couldn't tell that by looking at it. That thing is worth every dollar I paid for it.) And as for the contents I like to think Kristina has captured my bare essentials, both for blogging and city living: 
  • my Oystercard for getting around London
  • my wallet and keys (because obviously!)
  • a little something to read on the Tube (from my collection of old Penguin paperbacks)
  • my camera and my iPhone for snapping photos of cool things I see
  • Field Notes notebooks and cheap Bic biros (for copious writing)
  • and coffee shop loyalty cards (I have a LOT of those about my person usually!)

Thank you, Kristina, for taking on a bag that's a little different from your usual inspiration and for creating something so pretty from my bag's inner recesses!

You can check out the rest of Kristina's series on bloggers bags here on Pinterest.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A little bit(e) of Mexico in London

Mexico. When you think of that particular Latin American country, what comes to mind? Mariachi bands and margaritas? Old ruins and beautiful beaches? As many tacos as your stomach can hold? (Just me then, ok...) These days, Mexico is becoming less of a dream and more of a viable holiday destination, with increasing numbers of flights whisking Brits from grey old England to Mexico's sparkling Caribbean coast. If you don't fancy hanging out on the beaches of Southern Spain surrounded by hundreds of lobster-coloured compatriots, you can book an all-inclusive deal to Mexico these days; even package holiday operators like First Choice have added Mexico to their itineraries. But if you live in London and fancy a little Mexicana in your life you actually don't have to travel at all.

London's high streets are ever-changing things. They are slaves to economic trends, but also to cultural and social ones. And right now, London seems to be hungry for Mexican food. You can see it in the shopfronts in front of you. But we don't want any old tired burrito eaten beneath plastic parrots and sad sombreros. Oh no. We want decent flavours and an environment that feels more Soho than Tijuana. And fortunately for us Londoners, this is what we're now getting.

Interestingly though, few restaurants seem to be coming directly to London from Mexico. Some of our best-known Mexican options are home-grown. One of the most familiar restaurants across London is street-food chain, Wahaca, started by British former MasterChef winner, Thomasina Miers. Plenty of British firms are run by individuals who have spent years living (or at least eating!) in the US, where Mexican food is plentiful and popular; such as California-inspired Tortilla, and Chilango, founded by a former Chicagoan.  When I was working in Fitzrovia, a colleague and I used to head to a nearby branch of Benito's Hat (inspired by its founder's time living in Texas) for a Friday treat of slow-roasted pork burritos, and maybe a cheeky margarita to get us through the last few hours of the week.

It's not only chains aimed at the hungry office worker's lunch-break that are popular with London diners however. Plenty of one-off, independent Mexican food spots have popped up too, many of them in some of the coolest corners of the capital. Some combine food with pretty decent cocktails too - such as Bodega Negra, which lurks beneath a sex shop storefront in Soho (and its sister spot, Casa Negra, near Old Street). Also in Shoreditch is Boho Mexica, a restaurant and lounge covered in Mexicana both old and new; from vintage film posters to modern art work. Several Mexican delicacies made an appearance at Dalston's Street Feast this summer too; from Killer Tomato's vegetarian tacos to shots of tequila with pickle juice chasers (not for me!) at the Breddo's Tacos stall.

Would you rather whip up your own Mexican feast? No problem. Alongside these various eateries are a growing number of Mexican food producers too, supplying restaurants and homes with locally-produced ingredients. Gringa Dairy on the Old Kent Road, for example, makes Mexican cheeses. And even the foodie-heaven, Borough Market, now boasts a branch of The Cool Chile Company, which sells all kinds of seasonings for Mexican home-cooking and cocktail-making. The Londoner's love affair with Mexico - or its food at least! - is clearly here to stay.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Camden's tribute to Amy Winehouse

On what would have been her 31st birthday last Saturday, a statue of the late British singer, Amy Winehouse, was unveiled in Camden's Stables Market. Her style was bluesy jazz and soul, and immensely popular. By the time she was 20 years old she had released an album - Frank - that was destined to go platinum and launch a truly stellar musical career. Sadly, she had a life as filled with pain as the soulful songs she sung, and Amy never made it past her 27th birthday, dying of alcohol poisoning in 2011, and joining the infamous '27 Club': a group of famous musical individuals who died at the age of 27. (Amy Winehouse shares this debatable honour with people like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain.)
While she was still alive however, topping charts and performing gigs, Amy was very definitely a Camden girl. Although it is probably fair to say she didn't spend her days hanging out amidst the foreign tourists who wander the market each day. But just opposite the market, beneath a railway bridge, stands the Hawley Arms: a classic English boozer, much frequented by famous people from the worlds of music, fashion and TV. According to the media, it was Amy's home away from home. When the pub went up in smoke in 2008 practically every article or broadcast on the fire made mention of Ms Winehouse's patronage of the place.

Amy Winehouse's actual home wasn't far away from the bustling centre of Camden though. Head on up the hill out of Camden towards Holloway, and you soon come to Camden Square; a large residential square with a sizeable central garden and huge white houses round its edges. Here, Winehouse purchased a mansion of her own, threw up high security fences and installed a recording studio. When she died, it was here her fans came to mourn. They tied flowers and letters to the trees opposite her house, set up vigils through the night, and left candles and bottles of whiskey all over the pavement. Camden Square is on one of my running routes, and even today - now the house has been sold and someone else lives there - you can see the odd note or red rose pinned to one of the nearby trees.

And now Amy has returned to Camden. I went to see her new statue at the market yesterday. At least I think it was supposed to be hers...

The sculptor, Scott Eaton, has recreated Amy with her trademark behive, a pout...and someone else's face. Those  Disney-princess eyes may be ringed with the same thick black eyeliner she loved, but they don't look much like hers. The statue is described as 'life-size', yet with tiny, spindly legs Winehouse looks more like Bambi than a young woman. (Of course she was notoriously teeny, but there is an oddly unreal quality to this depiction). I couldn't spot a single one of her famous tattoos anywhere on her new bronze skin.

The tourists in the market didn't seem to mind however. They queued up to pose with Amy's statue, copying her hand-on-hip stance, grinning at their companions behind cameras. By the statue's bronze heels lie hand-written notes and plastic-wrapped flowers from her fans, who now have a new place to visit their lost idol. She may not look exactly the way many of us remember her, but Camden's famous daughter has come home once more.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

A photographic treasure hunt in Shoreditch with Foto Ruta

It is rare to meet a blogger these days who is not also a photographer, or in the very least someone who takes photographs. If you blog about things that you see and places you visit - as I do - people often want to see for themselves what they look like. I'm not sure what that says about my descriptive ability or a reader's desire for visual verification, but these are the ways of the modern blogging world. And while many of us struggle along without a great deal of artistic talent, documenting rather than creating great art, plenty of bloggers, journalists and Londoners take stunning photos to accompany their written work. 

Despite being a girl who is really all about the words, I would love to do a better job of taking photos. And, after being given a rather nice camera for Christmas last year, I have finally started to learn about how to take photos, embracing exposure and aperture, and eschewing the basic point-and-clicking that has served me for the past 20 years or so. I now travel with a camera on me at all times, usually my decent manual camera as well as my trusty iPhone's little lens. And I certainly take more pictures, even if not perfect ones. So when Foto Ruta recently invited me along to one of their photography events, with the promise of a crash course in street photography, I was there with bells on.
Foto Ruta was started in Argentina, and is the brainchild of two photographers who were exasperated at the lack of creative ways through which tourists could see the city of Buenos Aires. They wanted to help visitors better explore BA, without the sterile tours or standard 'must-see' attractions. Clearly the tourists in Argentina agreed with them, and from their Latin American beginnings Foto Ruta are now running photography tours in four countries: Argentina, Chile, Spain and the UK. Oh, and they are eyeing world domination, with plans to be operating in twelve countries round the world very shortly. 

I was invited along to join a Foto Ruta Clue event in Shoreditch a couple of weekends ago, and so, with camera in-hand, off I went one sunny Sunday. As our group assembled in a very East London co-working space on Shoreditch High Street (think lots of exposed brick and large industrial windows), it became apparent that there was quite a variety of cameras between us. Some of us carried smartphones, some fancy SLRs. No problem, we were told. We were here to take photographs and explore the city, not produce a technical masterpiece.

Jess, from Foto Ruta London, whizzed us through an introduction to the afternoon's event, then showed us a selection of photos produced by earlier Foto Ruta events, carefully explaining why each was such a great photograph. She also gave us a number of classic rules of photography to bear in mind whilst creating our own images. Each of us was presented with a lanyard and set of notecards, containing a potted history of Foto Ruta, a reminder of many of the presentation's tips for good street photography, a map of the area, and, most crucially, our list of 'clues'. We all had the same eight clues - prompts or themes to inspire us - and in small groups we would shortly be sent off to create a set of photographs that responded to each prompt. Clues ranged from 'Pockets of light' to 'Sunday blues', and included the particularly tricky 'Dads are the original hipsters'; this one presented a creative dilemma or two for many of us - how do you set up or capture something as specific as that?!
Our submission for the clue 'Beyond retro'
Out we all went onto the streets, and out came our cameras. I headed around Shoreditch with the lovely Nishan, a film student who was in town on holiday from Singapore. We happily nattered and snapped photos, and wandered merrily off the map, and agonised over finding subjects to correspond to our eight clues. Shoreditch was the perfect pocket of the city for our clue hunt, filled as it is with ancient and modern urban elements, windy streets full of peculiarities, and a hugely rich street art culture. We even finally tracked down a 'hipster dad' (Although he later admitted he had no children. But then made a generous offer to, er, contribute to some hipster babies if we wanted some. We politely turned him down.)
'Food hunt'
Before we knew it, we were zooming back to Forge & Co., our HQ for the afternoon, with two hours of street photography behind us. Next came the process of scrolling through our many, many new photos, and selecting our final shots for our clues. Once each group had selected their photos, out came the wine, and, over a glass or two, Jess talked us through our images, giving us a (kindly positive) critique of each one. With six or seven different groups taking part, it was fascinating to see how each had interpreted the same set of clues so differently. (You can check out all the photos taken by our group on our afternoon exploring Shoreditch here.) And, Jess was right: it truly didn't matter what camera had been used, as the fun of the images was as much in the interpretation of clues and spotting of weird urban life, as it was in the light levels and framing. I certainly finished the day with a clutch of new photos of which I was rather proud! And I will try to remember my newfound tips and tricks...and to just keep snapping away at this city.

As a blogger, Foto Ruta offered me a complimentary ticket to their Foto Ruta Clue event. (Usually tickets to this event cost £24.00.) Any opinions expressed in the above post however are those of The Accidental Londoner alone. I do not endorse products or organisations that I don't or wouldn't use myself or recommend to a friend.
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