Monday, 28 December 2009

A new year in London

So, as I prepare to head back to the big city from my countryside retreat/confinement, I confess to feeling a tiny bit daunted as well as very excited. Much as I now love living there, London can make mincemeat of you from time to time. Its frantic pace of life, its unforgiving speed and saturated job market. Its overinflated housing market, which would make you laugh if you weren't already weeping. Of late, the Accidental job has been sapping my strength bit by bit, and what's been left has been crunched up by the Masters degree. Juggling two different sets of uni friends with old school mates, with family and work friends is a calendar-filling nightmare!

All that said however I am cautiously optimistic about 2010, which will, if all goes to plan (and stay posted for when it inevitably doesn't!), be the Year of the Accidental Londoner. Ta-dah! Aiming to start 2010 on a higher note than I've ended 2009, I plan the following for my Accidentally London-based self:  I am going to surrender myself to this city more than ever before and invest in its very fabric. Yep, craziest idea of 2009 - I will buy a flat in 2010. This will require talking very nicely to mortgage people, and I will probably be forced to live off bread and water for the rest of my life, but if I have a place to call my own here (in which to eat my eternal meal) then it will be worth it.

In moving to this city I am all too aware that I have become someone different. No longer am I the wide-eyed student, filled with a desire to change the world and go out every night. My weekends are no longer deemed a success if I spend most of them in bed recovering from hangovers. (Oh my, am I growing up?!) Mad nights out are no longer mad, but merely give me a strong sense of deja vu; I have been to this place before with these people, we have screamed the same unintelligible and uninteresting things at each other above pounding music many times before. Boring though this may sound I would love something more to show for my time here in this city than a series of blurred photos. I would love a space which is mine and mine alone; it'll be just me and my city.

I do not long for the life of a hermit (a cosy cave to call my own!), a space of my own will not surgically remove my social life, but I will be able to entertain my friends in a space without my landlord's interesting taste in pleather sofas thrust upon me. A time has come though to strike out totally from family and flatmates, alone except for my chosen mortgage provider. A time to make my own home. I know the process will be long, and for a while I will have to rely heavily on those from whom I plan to strike out, but if I can make even the tiniest corner of this city my own I will be starting out down a path of being a thoroughly intentional Londoner!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Here's something I never thought I'd say...

...I miss London.

I really do. I have been back at the Accidental parents' place for three days and something feels very wrong. The village is oddly quiet. You can look out of the window for a good fifteen minutes without seeing a single person walk by. I have seen one bus in three days, and not a single cab. Christmas shopping is deeply limited, and requires a car, (and wave bye-bye to all those lovely things you intended to buy from Heals or Paperchase). All I have to blog about is how much I miss London, unless I tell you all about the shop-lifting incident I witnessed on Monday in the local WHSmith but even that was massively unexciting. So I won't.
Waiting for something to happen in Staffordshire
Transport links and decent shops aside, however, what I really miss is the pace of life, the well-worn daily patterns enacted at top speed. I can do twelve things in one day in London; up here I struggle to manage one productive achievement every 48 hours. Life in London is like a complicated jigsaw puzzle, slotting in odd shaped tasks around hundreds of others. Up in Staffordshire it feels like I'm doing one of those puzzles without an edge, no corners, no straight lines. Somedays up here I have no idea what the design I'm piecing together even depicts.

Writing from my desk in the room which was mine since birth, I glance up at reminders of the child I once was and realise I was never a "grown-up" here, never my own person, but someone's child. The city is mine, and I am my own when I am there. There I have my home, belonging to and created by me, rather than my parents. I feel like Bridget Jones, dragged back to her parents house in Grafton Underwood for the festive season, wheeled out for drinks parties and turkey curry buffets to be quizzed about her job in London and grilled on her depressing love-life.

Family friends who live locally have expressed great surprise to see me up in Staffordshire. "What are you doing here?" they enquire, somewhat startled that anyone who begins their own life elsewhere should ever return to this slow-motion place. I know what I am doing here - I am visiting my family, and celebrating Christmas. I am missing out on some most jolly icy, snowy fun down south, up here in the boringly merely-frosty-Midlands. I am fleeing my exciting London whirl to get some much needed Masters degree work done in a suitably quiet environment. But I am also biding my time until the day I can cart my most crucial belongings (laptop, iPod, grey knitted fedora from New York) back to the big city, and settle back into my own life once more. It's a good question. What am I doing here?!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Familial nearest may not necessarily mean dearest

Now that it is officially December I am feeling slightly less bah-humbug about the hideously commercial Christmas carry-on gripping our city. That said, I feel slightly ill when I realise that "the season to be jolly" is already well over one month old. Shops cashed in at the end of October, coffee retailers released their seasonal red take-away cups ages ago. Now, however, as we're all expected to have finished our Christmas present shoppping ("We've given you a month! How much more do you need?"), it is time for us to start enjoying the festive traditions and doing christmas-y things. For me, proper Christmas itself always takes place back up in Staffordshire with the Accidental family, yet since I've lived in London, I've had a whole separate London Christmas as well, celebrated this year on 12th December.

To paint a picture, once upon a time, in a land far away in the North East, 8 girls lived in a large former B&B/hotel together. They had many friends who would visit for tea, vodka and chocolate biscuits, some of whom spent so much time in their house everyone forgot they didn't actually live there. When these girlies were done being students they packed up their house and headed off to different places all over the country to start being proper working folk. But missing each other they met up frequently and, in manner of a dysfunctional, sort of non-related family, decided they would have their own Christmas each year; given that most of these girls lived in London by the time the festive season rolled round the first time, the great British capital would be the annual venue.

Arriving by train, or car, or bus or on stout-booted foot, us girlies from all over the country rendezvous on an always soggy December Saturday at Hyde Park, at the gluhwein bar nearest the tube station. After much hugging and shrieking, and catching up, our merry band of chums wanders about the muddy spectacle of Hyde Park's "Winter Wonderland". And this year it's bigger than ever before. My, but it was busy. I stood, attempting to locate the other girls, in a sea of people in coloured anoraks, all hurtling over my feet, feeling much as Moses might have done if the whole sea-parting thing had come unstuck; it was biblically panic-inducing. After my first styrofoam mug of hot vino however I was more charitably disposed towards my fellow Wonderland wanderers. (Not towards the ones with the buggies, with children flailing welly-booted feet at ankle-level though. They should be banned - the buggies and the children.)


We strolled (moving any faster would've been a challenge through the sea of bobble-hats, woollen scarves, and faces pink from cold and over-excitement), we drank more gluhwein, we munched the odd bratwurst. We marvelled (well, laughed in a superior we've-been-here-before-and-know-you're-being-ripped-off manner) at those stupid enough to pay a small fortune to ride on tilting, twirling rides, waving huge metal, flashing legs in the air, like giant tarantulas who'd got tangled in fairy lights. After a merry but chilly few hours, with all out-of-town girls arrived, we headed off to West Hampstead for a full turkey dinner, awful, yet unfortunately mandatory, Christmas music, and presents. Seven off us negotiated the Jubilee line without serious problems, collected two who'd got stuck in traffic then gone to the pub to get stuck into the gin, and a final tenth arrived in time to chop parsnips.

Armed with more wine, we chopped and peeled like Santa's elves on secondment to Delia Smith's kitchen. Finally, dressed for the occasion, we were all sat round a groaning table, on an interesting assembly of chairs, stools and stacked furniture. A toast was raised to Christmas and friends, the crackers snapped apart, the dreadful jokes shared and we all tucked in. Our head-chef did us proud - it was a fine feast! Two courses down, plus Christmas cake and mince pies, and the table was strewn with empty plates, torn wrapping paper, and, somewhat unwisely, winking tea-lights. (Only two blazing napkins were rushed to be extinguished in the sink however, so no serious calamities.) Silly games were played to the accompanyment of the kind of banter of people who know far too much about each other, and are rather well alcoholically lubricated. Just like a traditional family Christmas, except no enforced time with people you would otherwise never choose to see. In an age where one's familial nearest may not necessarily be one's dearest, the friend-family may well be the way forward!

Mariah Carey might only want you for Christmas, but we want our families AND our friends (and brandy butter and roast turkey and little sausages wrapped in bacon), and as long as one of our number has a house to comandeer in London, Christmas will likely continue to come twice a year for us lucky girls!

(P.S. - a disclaimer to all Accidental Family - no disparaging remarks about familial nearest apply to you. Obviously you're all fabulous - ignore the poetic licence and the overdose of gluhwein!)

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Capital Radio Jingle Bell Ball: A festive musical fandango

Millions of Londoners wake up to early morning radio shows. And which channel coaxes you awake says a great deal about who you are and where you live. Do you go local or national? Can you bear perky adverts at half 6 in the morning? Who are your nauseatingly perky broadcasters of choice? I am a Radio 1 girl of an early morn; no adverts for carpet or car insurance on the BBC, a marginally better playlist than local stations, and less idiotically oversimplified news. Yet, when an Accidental chum rang and said her boyfriend had got us tickets to an event hosted by rival London station Capital FM I quite happily jumped ship (for the evening at least). Capital's radio station is based in Leicester Square, its presenters are overly chipper and their inane interviews laden with obvious and unimaginative questions; I almost never listen to them. Each year, however, they lay on a vast gig called 'The Jingle Bell Ball' with endless performers, held this year at The O2 Arena (now heavily sponsored, in case no one can guess, by mobile phone company O2), probably now London's greatest large music venue. Pit passes for this, with Lady Gaga as the headline act, I could not turn down.

So the Accidental chum and I met up yesterday afternoon and headed out to south east London, to the bright and shiny North Greenwich tube station, within dashing distance of the O2 (and we were dashing as London's rainy season appears to be determined to see in 2010). Like a moth-eaten old phoenix the O2 has emerged from the cinders of the Millennium Dome, a surprisingly successful reinvention of a multi-million pound write-off. Having a couple of hours to kill until collecting our passes we wandered around the arena for a while.

And my, but there's a lot there! We found a Michael Jackson memorabilia exhibition, a cinema, and a full indoor fun-fair, twirling and flashing, and hurling screaming people through the air above our heads. There was a gastronomic market complete with garlic seller, waffle-maker and gluhwein, and various packed restaurants and bars with eager gig-goers queuing out of the doors. We treated ourselves to a hearty late lunch at one of these to fuel us through the next five hours. It wasn't the greatest meal - inattentive and untrained wait-staff, rather suspect levels of hygiene in the toilets - but it gave us a good look at our fellow music fans. Families with over-excited small children, the parents looking rather less thrilled to be spending their Saturday evening with 20,000 other people. Groups of school-girls in matching sparkly stetsons and single letter t-shirts spelling out words when stood in the correct order; amusingly rearranged to spell something quite different when they weren't careful. Couples on dates looking a little scared, and wondering if dinner at Pizza Express might've been a better idea.

Once tickets were collected they were swiftly whipped out of hands and fluorescent wristbands were fixed onto wrists; a different shade of neon for each area of the arena - floor seating, first level seating, corporate boxes, the pit right in front of the stage, even the nose-bleed seats barely visible from the floor with the naked eye. We wandered in to our designated area, approximately 2 or 3 metres from the front of the stage, looking nonchalant and like we never see a gig from anywhere else, but discretely turning to each other saying "Ohmygodcanyoubelievehowgreattheseticketsare?!". After a while we headed for the bar, as security checked our wrists and moved aside scaffolding to let us pass, feeling like seasoned music professionals.

5.30pm and the fun began. To give them their due, Capital FM put on a good show - 5 hours of live music, one act after another, with minimal infilling by irritating radio hosts. (There was a slightly weird interlude where I believe we broke some Guiness World Record for the largest human joystick or some such nonsense; I could've lived without that.) The acts were certainly enough. Mostly they were great, getting the whole audience on their feet, filling the stadium with screaming and singing. Some admittedly were so dire the Accidental chum and I promptly headed for the bar seconds into their set. We thus still have no idea why the girl in Ndubz is there, or why Miley Cyrus wasn't tucked up in bed rather than prancing her 17 year old-self around the stage in her bra and shorts. Tinchy Stryder was surprisingly good but, well, tinchy - a miniature rap-star with rhinestone chains larger than his head. Jedward appeared briefly enough for one of them to fall off the stage. Twice. The girls of the Sugababes and The Saturdays were sparkly and jolly. Middle-aged mothers in the audience went wild for Westlife, while their children looked on in boredom, clamouring for boy-band JLS, who unlike Westlife failed entirely to keep their clothes on during their set. Our headliner (pictured above with her "disco-stick") drew the show to a magnificent body-stocking-clad-dancer-and-confetti-shower close. She herself managed two costume changes, some fantastic piano-bashing and stunning vocals, as well as a wee rant about the people on X factor "with no vision" who vetoed her request for live lambs to support her set. The woman may be loopy but she puts on a great show!

Having stood up for 5 hours, and drunk enough cider to get us through the more painful acts, we promptly took ourselves out for another meal, to let the tube station calm down somewhat and avoid the scrum leaving. When we finally did head home around half 11pm, streams more O2 goers were entering the former Dome, for a night out at the venue's club and bars. And on Sunday they open up and start all over again. The site must pretty much never sleep! Not bad for a failed exhibition centre.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

London's very own North Star

"You should've just told us to aim for the BT Tower!" bemoaned friends who had just spent fifty minutes getting lost walking a fifteen minute route to find my office. They had a point; this would probably have been more helpful than my perfect detailed road names and wiggly route through the streets of Fitzrovia. The iconic BT Tower dominates the skyline of central London, as the closest equivalent to Manhattan's Empire State Building, outside of The City proper. Like the North Star, if you can find the BT Tower, you should be able to orientate yourself in central London.
Still referred to by many Londoners as the Post Office Tower, the 620 foot tall building has been owned by several major British companies and organisations over the years, but has always been a crucial British communications hub. Doughnut-shaped floors of switchboards and electrical engineering, are served by lifts hurtling through the middle of them like express elevator jam. Currently owned by telecommunications company British Telecom, the BT Tower is responsible for maintaining endless telephone and internet links in today's London.
An old switchboard within the tower, dead connections on a deserted floor.
Once upon a time at the very top of the tower was a restaurant famed for its rotation, giving diners a 360 degree view out over London; although one wonders if it didn't also make them feel slightly motion-sick and put them off their food. Following an IRA terror attack in the 1970s the restaurant closed almost 30 years ago, but with the 2012 Olympics looming the tower has announced it is to reopen the twirling eatery. To further mark the advent of the Games, which are set to ruin both the British economy and the average Londoner's life with the advent of biblical hoardes of sport-seeking tourists, the light blocks around the top of the tower have been replaced. In place of changing colours the tower now sports a headband of LED displays which project multi-coloured messages out into the night. Launched with the legend "1000 days" scrolling through the sky, currently this display is counting down the remaining days until London hosts the Olympics.

Since the first restaurant closed, the general public have been banned from the tower. Indeed the location of the tower was a government secret until the early 1990s - okay not exactly the most unobtrusive secret, a whopping great tower, but it was not plotted on maps or officially linked to its street address (60, Cleveland Street, for anyone keen to visit). I was able to gain access due to a work event I was organising earlier this year, and was lucky enough to have a brief tour; I was only allowed in however after passing through security checks a major international, over-cautious airport would be proud of.
The original restaurant is now used for private events (costing two thousand pounds merely to open), but it still rotates to order. The view from the top is undeniably amazing, yet the areas I found most fascinating in this building were the now disused switching rooms. Cardboard boxes, abandoned biros and half-complete log-sheets still rest on desks at which no one has sat for five or six years. Once-blinking light panels gather dust and hundreds of metres of valuable floor space in the heart of London remain empty.

Maybe this is a reflection of the ways in which modern society chooses to communicate in this day and age. Maybe it shows how far we have come since the days of Alexander Graham Bell. Maybe it shows how struggling infrastructure companies are having to throw money at external events and organisations to keep going, rather than internalise their investments. Whatever is held inside its tall body the BT Tower has become an iconic image of the city, as well as a point of orientation for any lost local or tourist. So next time you find yourself wandering central London, cast your eyes upwards and look for that familiar shape rising above rooftops. It will tell you where you need to head...and how many days there are until the London Olympic Games.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A lack of Underground etiquette

Generally I avoid the Tube like the plague; partly as I'm worried one stands a high chance of contracting the plague whilst travelling on it. I find the enforced close proximity to fellow Londoners, the stifling temperature of the carriages, regardless of the external weather, and the odd sensation of being trapped in a jerking, clanking train beneath the ground, deeply unappealing. I am an unashamed bus girl. They are much less uncomfortable, and benefit from more light and air. Who cares if they're slower? I don't feel like a veal calf in transit to an abattoir on a bus.
Although London's Underground system is not a particularly pleasant way to travel, it does offer an extraordinary snapshot of the city's inhabitants. Watching someone pass time on the Tube is both illuminating and rather concerning. Whilst the average Tube rider reads their neighbour's newspaper, or annoys the rest of the carriage by forcing on them their questionable music taste via overloud headphones, occasionally people do the oddest things.
Today, for example, on my way home from university lectures, a woman got on and sat down next to me. She pulled out a shopping list and a biro, and proceeded to colour in the entire piece of paper, all the way from Paddington to Fulham Broadway. Let's be clear - there was no design to the doodling, just slowly turning a white piece of paper to scribbly blue. Why?! Doing su doku or a crossword is pretty common, if you have the space in which to open a newspaper; although a shorter friend of mine has complained she was used as a convenient paper rest for someone doing a crossword once, which she did not appreciate.

People seem to forget whilst travelling that they are still in very public view. They will happily apply make-up, change their clothes, undertake an impromptu handbag or wallet inventory (thus exposing their souls to their follow passengers), even eat their supper. I watched a girl the other day demolish a large cheese and ham baguette, which she constructed herself on her lap between Kings Cross and High Street Kensington, unashamedly sprinkling herself and the carriage with crumbs. The unmistakeable aroma of take-away food wafting down a carriage when someone gets on with a MacDonald's bag, often encourages a mass movement to the opposite end of the car - no one wants to watch anyone pick gherkins out of their Big Mac or hear them slurp up the final dregs of their milkshake.

On the Piccadilly Line I had a particularly surreal experience. The train stopped and on got a man, dressed smartly in a suit, carrying a briefcase, a newspaper, and a two foot high stuffed rat wearing a jaunty hat. Now the train was pretty crowded, but this chap calmly took a seat, placed his rat on his lap, and proceeded to read his paper, around the rat, oblivious to those around him who stared on in incredulity. It was like he was staging a one man production of "Wind in the Underground Willows".

Based on my own experiences therefore I advise anyone who likes their commute undisturbed by drunken rantings (I once had an inebriate stranger give me a total character assassination based on the fact I wouldn't engage with his questions about my personal life), travelling rodents or on-the-go chefs, take the bus! Just watch out for the man on the early morning No. 14 who draws commuters on their way to work; it's like someone snapping your picture when you've just rolled out of bed. But I'll take him over the average Tube-rider any day.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Burlington Arcade, Mayfair

Remember that bit in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" where Lucy finds herself entering an old coat-cupboard and emerging into a totally different world? A perfect place (bar the psychotic winter-worshipping witch, of course) where all is beautiful and magic happens? Well, here in London there is a similar wardrobe to explore, where one can access a forgotten world of Victorian shopping, simply by stepping through a set of black shiny gates. No fauns or talking beavers, but monogrammed vanity cases made from real crocodile skin, and silver-backed hairbrushes.

Step into the Burlington Arcade and you are Lucy visiting Narnia for the first time. Entering Britain's oldest shopping arcade takes you back to a time when you needed to be wearing a bonnet to peruse the bow-fronted windows full of soft leather gloves. Smart men in green livery and top-hats stand guard either end of the arcade, ensuring no one disturbs the peace of this hallowed ground.

Open for business since 1819, many of the shops are home to some of the oldest retailers (with ancient Dickensian names, like Pickett and Bentley & Skinner) in the country, purveying items the majority of us have little need for, or the finances to afford; cowslip yellow cashmere twinsets, antique silver salt sellars in the shape of foxes, a hundred types of hand-picked tea. Behind carved wooden windows the wares of perfumer Penhaligon's, patissiere Ladurée, and clockmakers Lapport are displayed proudly in massed ranks on tiny velvet shelves and podiums. From time to time the outsides of the windows are dressed too - tiny silver butterflies recently appeared fluttering around Penhaligon's bottles to tie in with a new scent.
The long stone floor is kept pristine (apart from its current festive carpet), unlike the dark, chewing gum decorated pavement outside. Light streams down onto the shops, with their perfectly polished windows, from the high glass roof. The Burlington Arcade echoes a bygone, Primark-free shopping experience, where the goods are created with care and  finished with expense. No fighting with fellow Brits, or even tourists, over the last size 12 black cotton-mix cardigan here. Shopping returns to being a pleasurable experience, with attentive sales staff, goods one really yearns for, rather than needs, and an environment which makes the activity an enjoyable past-time (as practised by the bonnet-trim-buying Bennett girls in Jane Austen) rather than a chore.

Such an icon of British style, or what remains of it, is the Burlington Arcade, that this summer it was transformed into a film set for Woody Allen's latest movie. His secretively titled WASP (Woody Allen Summer Project) '09 was kept so quiet only a small board at either end of the arcade announced "Filming in Progress". Hence, one morning, walking through the arcade on my way to work I found myself in the middle of it, wondering why there were people with sound booms and cameras everywhere. It was only when I saw a small, distinctive man in a somewhat grubby-looking fishing hat that I realised what was going on and quite what I was wandering through (ok, so I'm not at my sharpest first thing in the morning).

Yet in the Burlington Arcade the glamour of movie-making was assimilated so smoothly into the glamour of the environment itself that no one really batted an eyelid. For nearly 200 years the arcade has stood for style and taste (and beautiful fripperies) and in these times of fast food and cheap electronics somehow it resolutely remains. Here's to the next few hundred years!

Friday, 6 November 2009

A city for all seasons

London doesn't do seasons the same as other places. In fact some seasons, i.e. autumn and spring, it doesn't seem to do at all. For most of the year London languishes in a soggy, temperate, sometimes surprisingly gusty, mono-climate. It could be October or it could be June, and you'd never know unless you consulted a calendar. Approximately two to three weeks, usually heralded by the start of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, are uncomfortably hot, signalling, and sometimes completely comprising, summer. A further unexpected week of snow or disappointing slush towards the end of January acts as winter. Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' would've been a whole lot different - and a whole lot shorter - if he'd composed them here in London.

Overnight the trees which line our streets have gone bald. In a matter of hours, leaves have chameleoned from bright green to yellow to orange and hurled themselves from their safe branches under the wheels of the city traffic; now they lie in the soggy gutters all the same shade of water-logged-mulch brown. A synchronised shift from summer to winter, without the tedious in-between of autumn.

On 3rd November this year, winter, nay Christmas, officially began in London. Christmas lights already strung high above Oxford Street and Regent Street for the past couple of weeks were officially turned on today by Colin Firth. Yep, that's right, Mr Darcy flipped the switch of the tackiest festive decorations our city centre has witnessed in some time; all tied in with his latest film, "A Christmas Carol" - Oxford Street, you sell-out! (And don't even get me started on you, Colin...). I love Regent Street's tasteful stars which have returned from last year, but the illuminated Jim Carreys atop the film's promotional title plug are rather commercial.

(Regent Street and its recently illuminated Christmas lights, apologies for the slight blur - that's the rain, so hard it looks like seasonal snow is falling from the sky.)

Shop windows (usually reliable seasonal barometers) are now all a-twinkle with fairy-lights and shiny baubles. All the manekins are wrapped up warm in winter coats and heavy knitwear, against freak in-store snow flurries. Starbucks have even introduced their festive red coffee cups, visible in the hands of fraught-looking commuters, who thought they had another few weeks before they had to start thinking about present-buying and turkey-stuffing but have been recently informed otherwise. Sod Halloween, that's old news. Bonfire Night? Pah! Christmas is coming, and we only have 7 weeks to prepare for it. You'd better get yourself down to Selfridges, where its Christmas Shop has been open since early August. Yep, when we were all still vainly waiting for British summertime to shuffle along they were already decking the halls down the other end of Oxford Street.

No wonder our poor city's seasons are so confused, retailers and councils are stretching holidays to suit their stock and schedules, regardless of calendar dates or what the rest of the country is doing. So, from London to the rest of the world, "Happy Holidays, everyone!". (Boy, am I going to be bored of Christmas by the time it finally arrives...)

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The down and out "In and Out", Piccadilly

For nearly the last two years my daily commute to work has sailed me along Piccadilly, from manic Hyde Park Corner to slightly seedy-looking Trocadero. (Barring unscheduled diversions via Park Lane and Victoria when the usually reliable buses fail me, of course.) Early on I noted that, among the vast club-houses and glossy shops, Piccadilly has its grottier, less-cared-for-looking buildings; some in clusters and others standing alone. After the first few trips one seemingly-abandoned building caught my eye in particular.

Set back from the tearing traffic, behind heavy black ironwork and a small, round gravel drive is No. 94 Piccadilly. Two high metal gates are accompanied by thick, grubby pillars, two displaying the word 'In' and two the word 'Out'. The windows are dark and empty, unlined by curtains or shutters. Occasionally a strip light was visible, glowing luminously, attached to a grimy wall inside. Once or twice I even saw a car in the drive - a heavy, black and blacked-out cruiser, the kind usually favoured by gang-members and professional footballers.

I imagined it was a London crash-pad for an absent Russian oligarch. A site for illegal gambling activities or a secret drinking club. Each day I could conjure up a new shadowy purpose for this mysterious building. Never did I see a living soul go in or out. Imagine then my disappointment when I discovered recently that the building was not the shady den of vice I had into which I had romanticised it.

Built in the eighteenth century for the 2nd Earl of Egremont, the Palladian-style building has a fascinating history, during which it has assumed many identities. First Egremont House, then Cholmondeley House, it remains today Cambridge House, named for the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Adolphus. Lord Palmerston took possession in 1855, and after his death The Naval & Military Club expanded into it. The Club bestowed on it the nickname 'The In & Out Club' due to the signposts at the gate, and took the nickname with it when it moved on to larger premises 13 years ago. In 1994 the original "In and Out Club" hosted the after-party for the premiere of Four Weddings and A Funeral, and was thus the site where Liz Hurley launched her infamous safety pin dress, and herself, on the world. And if that isn't slightly sinister, I don't know what is!

Now the palace is owned by a property magnate, Simon Halabi, who uses the place purely as a car-park for his hummer. Having abandoned plans to turn it into a 6 star hotel, he is now trying to sell it on. The credit crunch being a major reason behind this decision, I don't imagine it will be snapped up instantly - few of us have a spare £250 million down the side of the sofa these days. So for now the club will be frequented only by the ghostly political and royal formal inhabitants of No. 94, having the phantom party of the century, with weeds to welcome them up the drive, illuminated by flickering neon strip lighting inside the long-locked doors. And not one of the tourists and commuters passing the gates will ever know.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A high society birthday - Tatler is 300 years old

The windows of London's classier (i.e. pricier) shops are celebrating at the moment. Among several others, New Bond Street's shop fronts are hosting a 300th birthday party, for an iconic Londoner. This year Tatler magazine will have graced British (and increasingly foreign) newstands for 300 years, in one form or other. Manekins peer out past stacks of back issues, modelling outfits worn by celebrities such as Elle McPherson and Rachel Weiss on past covers. Gold and black letters spell out "Tatler - 300 years" and "1709-2009" on the window-glass. In Moschino on Maddox Street, copies of Tatler have come to life, and scamper about the shopfront with champagne flutes.

Whilst Vogue and Vanity Fair, and many similar glossies, have multiple versions worldwide, translated and contextualised, Tatler remains resolutely British, and totally untransferable from its London viewpoint. Although it may review 5 star eco-lodges in Tanzania or recommend the best bars in which to drink Mai Tais in Shanghai, the comments and analysis are resolutely British, and a very particular type of British at that. Whilst class issues and the role of the aristocracy in Britain may have shifted slightly towards "not particularly bothered" on the wider public opinion scale, within the pages of Tatler they stand firm at "ooh yes, we care deeply", not so far away from "well, we care as long as they sell magazines".

No other publication still glorifies the glamour and, let's face it, sheer cash, of the upper classes in quite the same way; ploughing on today despite the fact that the majority of the country shops at Primark and Somerfield, and would regard Chinawhite as something off of which you would eat Sunday dinner, rather than a recently revamped club. Society with a capital "s" in Britain resides in the South (with another capital "s") - London is the last bastion of moneyed, ancient families, regardless of where their draughty ancestral piles actually are. Wildly romantic though 23 bedrooms, rolling acres of ancient woodland, and a plumbing system dating back to times when Jane Austen first put quill to paper may be, practical for partying they are not. What's the point of having wealth and old English style in the middle of a field where there's no one around to see it?

Open the pages of Tatler and you will see scores of lithe English Roses (although nowadays elbowing the Euro-trash and celebrities out of the way to reclaim their once uncontested spot), raised in the back of beyond who've all made a bolt for London the minute finishing school had imparted its final lesson on napkin-folding. With Daddy supporting their handbag habits they are free to sleep until lunchtime, shop until tea, and drink and dance until dawn in bars and clubs with histories as intertwined with money, royalty and high class as their own. Rather like an over-lavish parish magazine or high school yearbook, for the top echelons Tatler is a glossy reminder of that night out at wherever, or whom darling Poppy has reinvented herself as this week. Every month the same faces appear, and thirty or forty years ago, so did those of their parents, the It boys and girls of the moment.

And for those of us never likely to grace its shiny pages Tatler provides a few hours of heavenly escapism, and occasional giggles when someone you DO know appears, pictured looking surprised at a book-launch between a luxury goods heiress and a shambolic yet critically-acclaimed artist. But while the cheap chain-stores and identikit celebrity-inspired lifestyles alter the face of the average Brit, it is nice to think that someone out there still keeps our diminishing reputation of class and glamour alive, wearing grandmama's pearls with Mummy's vintage Pucci, as they drink hundreds of pounds worth of champagne in exclusive members-only Mayfair clubs. Until they stumble out in the early hours of the morning, class and composure completely forgotten, echoing the alternative ASBO-laden side of our culture. But of course, those photos never make Tatler...

Sunday, 18 October 2009

A little learning...

Whilst at university I never envied friends who were students in London. I was an undergraduate student in a small cathedral city at the other end of the country, and I loved it. Three years of tramping along Durham's cobbled bailey to my college, under the shadow of the great, solid cathedral and the ancient castle, endowed me with a thoroughly charmed university experience. Durham was a wonderful place to be a student - small enough for my friends and I to own the city, and with Newcastle only fifteen minutes away when it got too claustrophobic.
Friends and I rented pretty terraced houses (ok, some with undeniable damp problems and vermin squatters) which didn't cost the equivalent of a month's wages, or force us to live in areas where we feared for our lives, miles from our lectures. We bought rounds of drinks for 8 people which cost less than a tenner. We lived among lovely, smiling Geordies rather than miserable, stressed Londoners.
When I would visit school friends who'd come to university down here I enjoyed their big city lives for a weekend, marveling at the wealth of fripperies on which to spend a student loan. But they would bemoan the fact it was hard to make friends on this huge city-wide campus, some made utterly miserable by feeling alone and tiny amid the millions of Londoners. Moving here after graduating myself I could entirely understand. I would have hated to have spent three years here, living in Camberwell, trailing miles across the city to attend lectures, sat next to people I would not recognise from one week to the next. University life in Durham was an educational idyll. One was systematically late for every lecture or seminar having bumped into at least 4 friends crossing the tiny city. You had chums with whom to giggle through every tedious discussion of etymology or philosophy. The library was a social club, an evening out in sticky-floored student club, Klute, was like a large house-party; with the added bonus that you weren't the ones cleaning it up in the morning.

Sad to leave friends (and a pretty cushy lifestyle), I was still very ready to finish my studies by the time I graduated. Whilst many of my friends plunged straight back into academic life, undertaking Masters or PhDs, I was determined I wanted to embrace real grown-up life instead. Which I did. For all of about 18 months. Then for reasons which still evade me if I'm totally honest, I decided to apply for a part-time MSc to accompany my busy job. Ten pages of application forms later, a few months of waiting and I was accepted into Bloomsbury-based Birkbeck College. A few more months and I was receiving my library card, perusing reading lists and turning down post-work drinks with "Sorry, I've got a lecture on post-colonial development that night."

And now I am officially (and definitely somewhat Accidentally) a London student, dashing chaotically from work meetings to seminars to friend's birthday parties. But by way of doing rather overambitious part-time studies I have at least avoided the isolation of being a full-time student in London. My job affords me a non-studenty flat in a nice area of London, as well as a more than adequate way to pass the time between assignments! I also have my old lecture-mates, now my housemates, who I slogged through three years of undergraduate studies with, to greet me when I finally drag my exhausted self through the front-door after 3 hour discussions on neo-liberalism.
Some days I wonder why on earth I thought it a good idea to cram so much into my little life, bemoaning leaving parties early to go home and work, giving up shopping trips to plough through weighty tomes on capitalism. A little voice inside my head (or outside it, provided by the Accidental family) reminds me it'll be worth it in the end. My last degree led me from Durham to London, so who knows where I'll fetch up after this one. The promise of a new place to explore and a new life to lead is enough incentive for me.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

You've NOT got mail

Everyone loves getting post. Not the boring bills or endless takeaway fliers, obviously. The proper stuff - thick, glossy catalogues for things you can never afford but can't resist torturing yourself with, parcels with surprises inside, proper letters and cards from friends, family, love-letters. Currently, however, not much is turning up on our doormats here in London, and invariably all that does are the bills and fliers. London, like several other regions in the country, has been suffering (and if press reports are to be believed will continue to suffer until Christmas) at the hands of the Royal Mail and its strikes.
Inconvenient as these disruptions may be to Londoners, our personal lives and our businesses, the strikes and their motivation herald a sad era and the potential loss of something which is very British. As thousands of postal workers prepare to strike in protest of job cuts, a once entirely national organisation founded in the seventeenth century, is close to collapse, taking with it much more than jobs.

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to visit Mount Pleasant, the Royal Mail's main sorting office; a visit I found both fascinating and rather saddening. Even then, before the industrial action really took off, the 7.5 acre site felt strangely eerie for a place through which 17 million letters pass a week.

The vast warehouse seemed to be running on standby power, lacking the full compliment of people to man the huge silver sorting machines. Nevertheless the main sorting office was an impressive sight, and we watched the post arrive fresh from the pillar box and make its way through the miles and miles of machines and sorters to be loaded back onto vans, and head off to the labelled addresses. The sorters we encountered were a jolly lot, tossing packages and letters into bins, like NBA stars slam-dunking basketballs. Huge silver drums and conveyors sifted letters quicker than the blink of an eye. Hand-sorting a misdirected letter can cost the Royal Mail up to £60 to return to sender - no wonder the company is in trouble!

Up above the main cavern of the sorting floor are endless offices, faith rooms, medical facilities, staff briefing rooms, and a huge canteen. This is so much more than an industrial processing site. It is a 24 hour community of workers committed to keeping our city connected, supporting companies and families. If we think the strikes are inconvenient, imagine what life would be without the Royal Mail completely.
For this is the future which awaits us, which I was told about over a cup of tea high atop Mount Pleasant. A senior Royal Mail employee, a postie himself for years, told me that in 3-5 years the company will be gone, its constituent parts sold off to entirely private competitors such as TNT or DHL. Sorting, distributing, collection, all part of one historic organisation will be cut apart and bought up by newer, foreign companies, and Mount Pleasant will change forever. No more bright red post-boxes or vans. The Royal Mail holds a trademark on their specific shade of red, a colour bestowed upon them by the nation's royalty, but this too will be lost with the company. The traditional letter boxes, icons of Britain invented by author, and former-postal employee, Anthony Trollope, will take on the colours of their new owners, and our streets will look very different without their jolly red presence.

So don't desert the Royal Mail, frustrating though it may be to lose your post for days or even weeks. This fabulous British institution needs our support in recognition for all their unsung hard work. Job cuts may be just the tip of the iceberg and there is certainly a whole lot more than just Christmas at stake.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Potential Energy - an exercise in post-modern publishing

The other day, as a colleague and I wandered back to the office from a much too brief lunchbreak, a flash of neon yellow caught my eye. At ankle-level, propped against a grubby, grey wall, set back from the pavement, was a bright book. It looked brand new, and carefully positioned against the wall, rather than tossed there. Printed across the top were thick black letters: "FREE BOOK Pick Me Up". And underneath a ball of black scrawl, over which was written "potential energy" and a web address. Being of a curious nature, how could I resist? We picked up the book and bore it back to the office, where we discovered that this was in fact, much more than a book. What we had found was a part of an experiment in publishing and promotion, a city-wide book-group project.
Turning the book over, as one usually does to determine a plot, we found an outline of the story within, and also a direction to the first few pages of the book, wherein there lay a story of a different kind.
Schist, the author of this book, entitled "Potential Energy", was unable, as so many budding novelists are, to find a publisher to give his oeuvre a chance. Having produced the full manuscript however he was reluctant to let this prevent people from reading it, so he devised a scheme to disseminate his work, through a sort of viral publishing method. He had 1000 copies printed and started to leave them at random points across London, and other cities. Obviously at least one was left outside university buildings on Fitzroy Street where I found a copy, and other Londoners have reported copies dropped in SoHo, Brick Lane, just off Oxford Street, as well as in the town of Marlow, outside the city.

The author encourages interaction between those who find, read and diseminate his work, which can be discussed on his blog, tracking the drop-offs and pick-ups. A reader register page at the front of the book lists the history of each individual copy, mapping the story beyond the book, as well as within it.

Now that the books are beginning to be found however, the real experiment begins. Will the city's keen-eyed book-enthusiasts do as the scheme demands and pass the book on? I already have a successor for mine, now all I have to do is finish reading it. I am currently a few chapters from the end of this tale of a 30 year old Londoner called Jon. Jon lives a very London-y life in the city, grappling with relationships and a job where he works hard all the while bound by a feeling that he's compromising his ideals, and even experiencing the frustrations of house-hunting in the city. The story itself is less remarkable however than the experiment surrounding its promotion and circulation; an inspired enterprise as the financially gloomy grip on our city continues. It is a scheme which serves as a hope within the city, reliant on the people of London to make something extraordinary happen. And who knows, they just might.

So keep your eyes peeled, and if you find a copy, read it and appreciate the imagination behind not only its story but the manner in which you come to hold it in your hand. Just remember to pass it on.

Visit www.potential-energy.us to find out more.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Berlin vs. London

Writing a blog on living in London, it has been suggested, means one should stick to writing about London, which of late I have strayed from doing a fair bit. Yet what I am really writing about is becoming and being a Londoner, and now wherever I travel beyond the city, I fear I view the outside world through a London-tinted filter. Other cities are mentally compared to London before I realise I am doing it, and so it was on a recent business trip to Berlin.
As I left Heathrow (strangely having cleared security twice, and coming back through Arrivals before completing Departures, thanks to a complicated incident involving my distracted colleague and a forgotten suit) I had no preconceived vision of Berlin, a city to which I have never been. Obviously I was aware of the city's tumultuous and sad past, and the immense hope with which the city has continued to change and redevelop. But as soon as I left Tegel airport (which reminded me of a Lego airport, so clip-together and tiny it was) I began to analyse the city; playing a mental game of City Top Trumps in my head, comparing it to London.

First I noticed the trees (which I'd even noted from the plane on the descent) - trees were everywhere throughout the city, green still as autumn has not quite reached Germany yet. But they were far newer, straighter, tidier trees than those we have here; old, bent, wiggly trees growing between the concrete. And here, no stereotype invocations intended, I noticed a staggering regularity to the whole city. If there had been a theme which city-planners were working to it would have been "squares of every size" or "the eternal glory of the platz"; everything is laid out and positioned just so. London's city shapers in contrast were clearly working with a plan drawn by a four year old with a box of crayons and a vivid imagination.

Understandably, much of the city's architecture lacks London's immediately evident centuries of history, and various newer buildings are not particularly stunning. Save elements, of course, such as the stunningly redesigned Reichstag, which has brought elements of transparency to the pillars of governance through architecture in an extraordinarily creative manner. Berlin, much alike London, could probably be reduced to a few iconic buildings and locations in the eyes of many visitors, yet the story which these may tell would doubtless be very different. As each significant government to control the city has stamped its mark on the city, Berlin has come to represent a very mixed history, culture and place today. I found it hard to get a feel of what Berlin really was, although my very fleeting visit of less than 24 hours (much of those at night) probably did not help this much.
The people, who are not called "Berliners" (JFK, take note - a "Berliner", as any fule kno, is a type of donut), are fabulously polite and speak excellent English. This is a great consolation to one whose brain contains merely a single German phrase after studying the language for 2 years at school; a single phrase concerned with locating the nearest open-air swimming pool, so not exactly of use on a business trip in Berlin.
I spied not a single threatening youth or drunken, slurring lout. This was a clean and civilised city for clean and civilised people. And all very nice it was too, but, as an occasionally uncivilised soul, I found myself missing the rambling chaos of disorganised London. The yelling, the dashing, the traffic systems not overseen by gloved and booted armed forces, the higgledy-piggledy architecture. I was almost glad to get stuck on a gridlocked, unpatrolled motorway before finally swooping back into London past the shambolic Hammersmith Flyover. And I'm sure very few people can ever claim a fondness for the Hammersmith Flyover; travel can do peculiar things to one!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Sleepless in Southwest London

Only once before I moved to London had I suffered from insomnia, in the weeks leading up to a long trip to Madagascar. Deeply unsure of what I had let myself in for, going to work as a research assistant on a project based in the middle of a forest, miles from civilisation, and with a brain mightily addled by pre-trip anti-malarials, I tossed and turned for weeks. My first night in Antananarivo, the wild island's capital, on a damp foam mattress shared with 3 other people, I slept like a baby. The following 2 months, on a deflating air-mattress, under nothing more than a sheet and a mosquito net, watched by orange-eyed lemurs and noisy night-chattering birds, I slept better than I could remember ever before.

Yet here, in a comfortable double bed, in a silent street in London, I am currently struggling. So I stop fighting and listen. London at night has a particular sound for me. When I was little my parents would bring me to the city to visit my grandparents, who lived right in the middle of the action, in a large house near the city centre. As the grown-ups dined downstairs, I remember being put to bed, at the very top of my grandparents terraced house. In an unfamiliar bed, and totally overexcited to be in the big city, I never wanted to go to sleep. As the faint sound of glassware tinkling and adults chattering wound up to the top floor, I would slide out of bed and creep to the window-seat, which was the perfect size for a small fidgety girl to perch on. Staring out I could see little, except dark night and the odd light behind shutters in a house opposite, so I would just listen.
I heard cars zoom by, the Kings Road finally unclogged by this time in the day, and buses swishing doors open and closed. Taxis stopped to pick up passengers from pavements and I heard them request destinations I could not make out (and frankly they would not have meant much to me if I had been able). I loved the thrum of airplanes criss-crossing the sky; I would doze to this sound, dreaming of glamorous people arriving back home from exotic holidays in the dead of night. Somewhere there was always the wail of an emergency services siren; a nippy police car or a heavy swaying ambulance. This response to a cry for help, to many cries across the city, should have made me fear this place - here was a city where people were being hurt or were in danger a lot, if the siren count was anything to go by. But for the 10 year old me it was a lullaby of city-music, weaving together voices, vehicles, and the odd bird's nighttime serenade.

Ask me to shut my eyes and play me those exact same sounds and I am right back in my grandparents house, and in my 10 year old self's London. As I lie in my own house now, no longer a wide-eyed child, I cannot hear the cars and the buses, the lorries or taxis - I live on a pedestrianised street, however, so I'm not suggesting a great sea-change in the late-night symphony of the city. I still hear the omnipresent sirens, signaling pain and wrong-doing somewhere near. The reminder of the hideous extremes of life within a city; the mixture of wealth and poverty, of danger and safety. I still hear the planes overhead (even nearer now that my slumbering-place is closer to Heathrow). When the weather is bad, and they descend to a lower altitude, our street could almost be part of the runway they sound so close. A keen plane-spotter could probably tell the time from their regular sky-high to-ings and fro-ings. I sometimes hear our local fox yelping; an immensely tame and jolly chap totally unfazed by late-night drunken residents crashing home or young people on bikes tearing through his patch. Once I swear I even heard an unlikely barn-owl.

Tossing and turning and listening, these sounds vocalise for me the 24 hour life of a city such as London. Across the streets and roads and parks and river there must be thousands of other people awake and hearing these sounds, gripped by insomnia or with a valid reason for such late night/early morning activity. But, as ever in the city, every individual is part of something bigger, a thought in which my frustrated sleepless self finds consolation, and even sometimes the peace to drift off again.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Smoke-machines, schnapps and the search for something more - A Majorcan holiday part II

Having made it halfway through my week in Palma Nova I began to settle into this deeply foreign (in so many senses of the word) way of holidaying. I lay on the beach in the day (although I read improving philosophical books to kid my brain into believing I wasn't giving it some major time off) and headed out to eat in the evening, before taking a short disco-nap, then braving the clubs of the Magaluf strip. By Wednesday I'd even got used to watching people drink beer with their full English breakfasts before 10am. Well, almost.
But before long my attention span (equivalent to that of a small, overexcited child at the best of times) demanded a change of scene. Dusting off my rusty Spanish I procured a bus timetable and one morning, with a friend also open to a little culture, effected my escape. The bus (refreshingly air-conditioned but Hispanic-ly late) rang with the Italian jokes and chatter, and British whinges about weather, food and public transport, as it wound through the hot, rocky landscape. Finally, it drew down to a bus station overlooking a bright blue sea, watched over by an ancient stone cathedral; this was more like it - we had found beautiful Palma de Mallorca.
In place of English pubs and high-rise hotels, we explored tiny, windy streets echoing the old Arabic roots of the city's development. Gaudi, a great architectural hero of mine, was even drafted in to work on the stunning cathedral, "La Seu", and his influence notable on other buildings around the city as well. Surrounded by phenomenal architecture and a fascinating heritage mixing ancient Arabic influences with contemporary Catalan culture, I could not comprehend how this could be so near the hideous, English-ified modernity of Magaluf.
We lunched on fabulous paella, cooked freshly to order, in a small bar hidden away from the shops and museums, and the city's tourists. I heard Spanish spoken everywhere, and watched locals go about their everyday lives, shopping for supper, running errands, walking their dogs - this was a real place, totally independent of the islands braying holiday-makers, who are visitors here rather than seasonal taste-makers as in Palma Nova; they do not dictate what is stocked in bars and shops, or force the locals to speak a foreign language in their home town, and nor do they shatter their peace with drunken expletive-riddled rants about beer, kebabs and "skirt" at 4am.

I returned to Palma Nova thinking far more positively about this Balearic isle. There was more than "lads on tour" style holidays and greasy spoon cafes; you just had to make the effort
to look for it. That night however we embraced the chavvier side of the island, and around midnight set out for the Magaluf strip. We drank scarily cheap cocktails, although with surprisingly little effect. The schnapps and orange juice tasted rather like the orange squash I used to have at Sunday school when I was little, thanks to the staggering amount of watering down in which the bar-owners were obviously indulging, maximising profits at the expense of stupid tourists. We danced like maniacs to thumping club tunes, in a fog produced by smoke-machines and sweaty dancers, as lasers and flashing lights spun overhead. We finally called it a night (or rather an early morning) at 5am, hyped up and giggly, eating chips overlooking the neon lights illuminating the still-reveling revelers, and the ex-revelers now recovering on handy curbsides.

With my faith in civilisation restored I had a fabulous night out, poles apart from my peaceful day wandering cobbled streets mere hours earlier. In the knowledge that these cobbles existed however, I was able to throw myself into the bright lights and the pounding noise, safe in the knowledge that there was something more than smoke-machines and watered-down schnapps. More on this one island, and more beyond. And in three days time, I'd be home in London, where, at least for now, I belong.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Sun, sea and soap operas - A Majorcan holiday, part I

Apologies for the Accidental Absence, however from time to time Londoners need to get away from the city, to have a change of scene and maybe realise what a fabulous place their home is. Together with 3 chums, I headed for Majorca, the largest of Spain's Balearic islands, for a week of sunshine, serious nights out and a much needed break from the office. Now, I will hold my hands up here and say that our destination of Palma Nova, a mere 30 minutes shambling stroll from the neon lights, late-night chip shops and lap-dancing clubs of Magaluf (yes, the same Magaluf where a British holiday-maker was recently battered with a baseball bat in a carpark), would not be my first choice of holiday-spot, however it was wonderously cheap, so off we flew.

Palma Nova was a juvenile settlement, not small but young (as the "nova" in its name suggests). The majority of its buildings cannot be more than 50 years old at most, although many look as if their first major face-lift is slightly overdue. It has soft, sandy beaches and a lovely warm sea, clear enough so you can see the odd small piece of plastic floating in it. Trees line a road running along the sea, clustered with bars and restaurants, and small shops selling cut-price perfume, leather handbags, cheap sunglasses, and even cheaper alcohol. High rise towers thrust up out of the rocks around the shore housing hundreds of other holiday-makers.
Settled into our self-catering apartment (the kitchen of which was used for no more culinary effort than the opening of a bottle of wine during our stay, however), it became apparent that here on this Spanish island we were surrounded by English people. Worse than that, English people on holiday. All geared up to make use of my A-level Spanish, I was met by Essex drawls everywhere I went. The British on holiday make shamefully little effort when they go abroad choosing to yell louder rather than attempt another language, and it seems the few locals who brave the Brits have surrendered and learned English.

Palma Nova (and Magaluf even more so) panders to these lazy, and resolutely uncompromising, Brits. Grocers stock Heinz baked beans and PG Tips tea-bags. There are bars named "The Willows" and "Kings Road Bar", even Irish theme pubs, and endless, greasy all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurants. Take a stroll along the sea-front in the evening and all the bars' flat-screens relay English soap operas, such as "Coronation Street", "Emmerdale" and "Eastenders", to the ex-pats. After which they all mysteriously switch to never-ending re-runs of "Only Fools & Horses", a quintessentially English (and awful) TV drama staring the quintessentially English (but less awful) David Jason. Surely the point of a holiday is to escape from one's daily routine at home - work, household chores, BBC television scheduling?

Strangely all this familiar Britishness did not make me feel at home. The juxtaposition of news-agents selling The Sun tabloid to tattooed Brits called Colin and Maureen and the bright, hot actual sun was just too confusing. Give global warming a few years to work on the British climate and this is how I imagine Blackpool or Weston-super-Mare will be. As a Midlands girl, and now an adopted Londoner, I had never felt more out of place. My parents (as I have previously complained about - never again!) used to take my brother and I to soggy Scotland to stay beside seas you would not want to have swum in wearing even a thermal wet-suit. Traveling further abroad I climbed Andean peaks, camped in Madagascan forests and pottered merrily around New York City, but this British enclave in the Balearics was entirely the most alien thing I have ever experienced. And all the more terrifying for the lack of locals; "What have they done with them all?" I wondered, wandering the streets in wishing to encounter someone named Jose rather than Jordan. For the first couple of days I was horrified by it all. The lobstery-red sun-bathers cooking on the beaches, the holiday-makers browsing shops in far too little clothing with the exact outline of yesterday's outfit picked out in sunburn (yeuch!), the screaming blonde children called Josh, Ruby and Hayley scrambling on climbing frames late into the night, when even I should have been in bed.

It appeared I had two choices. Turn and run, head back to the civilisation I knew at home, or stay, brave it and embrace a truly "British" holiday...

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Topshop, Oxford Street: The Not-So-Little Shop of Horrors



The retailers of Oxford Street have spoken - British summertime is officially over. A mere week away from the end of August and we've given up here in London. Nowhere can one buy a bikini, or any swimwear for that matter more suited to lying on a beach than competing in a triathlon. Now, I find this a little odd. Come March, driving rain and interminable grey skies, and one cannot move for suncream and flip-flops, but trying to buy holiday acoutrements in the holiday season...? Good luck! Taking a holiday towards the end of August is not particularly crazy, right? August is an easy month at work - no one is in the office; there's not much to do except drink endless cups of tea and gossip by the photo-copier. So why waste precious holiday allowance to miss that? Far better to go away just as everyone else gets back and chaos ensues as projects start up again and summer interns find themselves ousted from their 'hot-desks', as the rightful owners lay claim once more.

So, out I tripped one lunchtime in search of something to give me hideous tan-lines, and could I find such a garment anywhere? I searched all the obvious high street chains. Nothing. All the less obvious high street chains. Zilch. I resorted to the stalwart, mummy-favoured M&S. Zippo. Nada. Everywhere was all woollen coats and polo-necks, as if the new season's theme was "British summers suck, so lets pretend it's winter all year round with an easy to maintain single-season wardrobe". I didn't feel strong enough to brave La Senza, where all potential swimwear looked highly flammable (mental note: stay away from pool-side tiki torches in those, girls). Seeing no way out I took a deep breath and manned up - I headed to Topshop.

The Oxford Street Topshop is not so much a flag-ship store, as a store where one expects to find white surrender flags flying, as weary shoppers throw in the towel and vow to make their own clothes from used potato-sacks rather than do battle with this place ever again. Three whole floors (it feels like more) of crammed clothes racks, manic shoppers and assorted accessories. There are entire sections dedicated to denim, underwear, clothes for tall people, and clothes for small people. Harassed-looking shop assistants with crackling walkie-talkies scurry between the mainly female clientele, with armfuls of sparkly jackets and wet-look leggings. The shoppers themselves dart around with glassy-yet-focussed eyes, much like small children in a sweet-shop, not knowing whether to go for the sherbet dib-dabs or tackle the penny sweets first.

I manoeuvered my way through endless teenagers and young girls with big hair and panda eye make-up, stepping over the piles of clothes on the ground which had become separated from their hangers; the downed and fallen in this retail battlefield. The atmosphere is over-heated hysteria. It is impossible to look calm and collected in the Oxford Circus branch of Topshop, particularly in August with NO AIR CONDITIONING! What are the management thinking? Maybe they're hoping the heat, and the stress of searching for a size 12 black boyfriend blazer with rolled-up Miami Vice-esque sleeves, will floor all the shoppers, who'll head for the nearest reviving Starbucks and leave them in peace to rearrange the viscose-mix jerseys.

Well it worked with me. After locating the store's pitifully small and depressing swimwear display I cut my losses and headed for the escalators up to the ground floor, practically sprinting out into the light, trampling teens underfoot. And after the trauma of seeing so many high-waisted shorts in such a small space of time I didn't have the heart to continue my search. So I headed back to the office, where things weren't nearly so stressful.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

In praise of the London cabbie

Much as I may whinge about the dire state of London's public transport system, the city's infrastructure does boast one redeeming feature; its exemplary taxis. Nowhere in the world are there finer cabs in which to travel, driven by more outstanding chauffeurs. And I say this having travelled in my fair share of cabs elsewhere. Arriving in New York for my first trip to the city alone, I (little, non-New Yorker, me) had to provide full directions to my silent, and obviously clueless, taxi driver from JFK to my destination in Manhattan! In Barcelona, I couldn't get a word in edgeways to check we were going the right way, as the driver kept up a screaming telephone conversation in Spanish about his grandmother's knee operation until he dropped me on the curbside. Taxi rides in less Western cities have varied from a small rusty van stuffed with 20 people and several chickens, (all of whom hit their head on the roof every time the vehicle went over a bump), to a microscopic yellow Nissan driven by a man who thought traffic lights were merely decorative street art.
How fortunate we Londoners are, therefore, to have our black cabs, all sleek and shiny, waiting to whisk us home after a night out, or rescue us in a rainstorm when we're carrying heavy bags. Aesthetically pleasing as our taxis are (and always spotlessly clean, what a joy), and even despite their much acclaimed minute turning circle (allowing U-turns in the most teeny of alleyways), what makes them so utterly fabulous is their drivers. Gaining "The Knowledge", the perfect mental A-to-Z map in their heads by speeding around the city on mopeds, these people know backstreets and alternative routes enough to inform city-wide escape plans. London cabbies are courteous, friendly, well-informed and interested in their passengers. I also suspect many are telepathic, as once, when weighed down by bags, and without a free hailing-arm to raise, I even managed to summon a cab with a "help me" eye roll.

I have had numerous memorable conversations with cab-drivers in the city, entertaining me through many a traffic jam, including a surprising, totally unprompted, 15 minute rant about "disgraceful" Amy Winehouse - apparently it's all the fault of her parents (her father, interestingly, is a cabbie himself). I have learnt from cab drivers why Judaism encourages the use of two sinks in a Jewish kitchen, as well as debated the benefits of the British Empire. When asked, I have also helped select a first car for the twin daughters of a cabbie who drove me home early one morning after a rather messy night out in East London.
What I like most about London cab-drivers though is that they appear to care about their cargo. When being dropped home late at night they take great pains to ensure that a young new-to-the-city girl gets safely back to her front door. "Get your keys out now," I've been counselled, "and have your phone in one hand. Call your housemates and let them know you should be back in 5 minutes." As I climbed out of the taxi and shut the door behind me, my driver shook his head anxiously and bemoaned "God, it's like dropping my daughter off on a night out." We have guardian angels in our black (or otherwise sponsorship-coloured) cabs, scouring the streets for those of us in need. Our London cabbies are the patient parents of our city - their yellow "Taxi" signs always on when we need them, and with a wise word, ready to see us safe home.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Let's get physical!

In lieu of the warm summery temperatures which bypass the UK annually, Londoners have to find alternative, non-climate related ways of getting hot and sweaty. Working like Dolly Parton (from "9 to 5", people!) Londoners lead rather sedentary lives. We sit on the bus and tube (if we're lucky enough to get a seat), we sit in front of our computers or in meetings, we perch on those ridiculous high stools in bars and then spend the following day sitting on our sofas recovering. With creeping obesity stats, us city dwellers must embrace a bit of exercise. You would imagine the lack of open space might hamper this fitness drive, yet Londoners are surprisingly resourceful, turning even their morning commute into a full-length work-out.

Whilst most of us opt to doze on public transport on our way into work, London's roads are full of the nauseatingly keen, helmeted astride racing bikes or sprinting along the pavements, shouldering aerodynamic backpacks. They gather in lycra-clad clouds at every red light, pointlessly jogging on the spot or balancing against a lamp-post, then hurtle off into the distance at the first hint of a green light. They are so consumed with their battle against the heavy traffic, you wouldn't have a clue this was supposed to be an enjoyable pastime. Whilst the youth of the city merrily kick footballs around parks and scale climbing frames with cheery grins, London's serious, older runners and cyclists are grim-faced warriors and bus-cursing martyrs.

Then there are the gym goers. Can there be any form of personal humiliation more vile or more widespread than going to the gym? Forced to sweat in front of others in an over air-conditioned, mirror-lined space, constantly being judged for not knowing how to use an ergometer correctly? Crippling yourself lifting weights which in real life one would never normally be expected to raise without a forklift truck? No thanks. Many people seem to spend their lunch-breaks at the gym, returning to grace their fellow colleagues with their red faces and slightly damp clothes; making us feel guilty we've just been out for lunch and slightly repulsed by their moist appearance.

So in the spirit of exercise/torture regimes, and wary of the old caveat that one must suffer to be beautiful, I have embraced my own ferocious fitness fad; Bikram yoga (also known as hot yoga or, more dramatically "fire yoga"). I have never been much of a runner (mostly off-put by the looks of shear misery of the faces of other runners), and I will only consider riding a bike in this city when I truly feel I have nothing else to live for - it's like signing one's own death certificate. I also slightly resent those who feel the need to sweat on our streets; is it not more appropriate to do a sweaty, beetroot impression far from the madding crowd?

Hence I have signed up to this craze of doing 90 minutes of yoga within what is essentially a sauna, however it is at least a sauna with closed doors. The keen-to-be-bendy, and those brave enough to swallow Bikram's expensive session prices, take up their yoga mats and are talked through 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises, whilst sweating as if they are hiking through a tropical rainforest. Through a series of bends and stretches the body is realigned, sending rushes of fresh, oxygenated blood to every cell. And once you get over the initial dizziness and occasional nausea of exercising in this bizarre dripping studio, you do feel immensely good! Once those 90 minutes of pain and pressing legs straight, or into the floor, is over one emerges back out into the real world, glowing and exhausted, and ready to challenge the first speeding cyclist who cuts you up on the way home.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Taking the girl out of the country


My parents always scoff when I describe myself as a country girl. Despite being brought up in a little agricultural village in the Staffordshire countryside, they claim I fled for the thrilling bright lights as soon as I could and never looked back. Now this is not entirely true. For a surprising 3 month stint on my gap year I lived in a forest in Madagascar, without running water and electricity, on a diet solely based around the uninspiring culinary staples of rice and beans. Sure, I did move out of my room at my parents' house after university (which I am sure they were just as relieved about as I was) and moved to London to take advantage of its wealth of opportunities, but I have looked back many a time, and there are certain countryside-y things which London never quite manages to produce, and I do miss. Space, fresh air, a lack of lost teenage tourists, the sound of creatures rather than the sound of machines, just the natural occurrence of the colour green.
Come the summer, I miss these things more. Courtesy of the urban heat island effect the city is always hotter, and less tolerable, than the countryside as temperatures (well, those which the UK struggles to achieve) climb. The ubiquitous concrete surfaces, the throbbing traffic, the concentration of electrical appliances all make the city hotter and hotter, and an often unpleasant place to spend one's weekends. (During the week I am stuck in the office which is always horrid - both due to the fact offices are either always too hot or too cold and also that if you were not being paid to do so, you would never set foot through the door of your own will.) You meet friends in hot restaurants, travel on tube trains which resemble the inside of a pressure cooker, and pound slightly squishy pavements of melty tarmac; London life is fast, and speed is never particularly cooling.

Thus when one stumbles across a little peaceful, shady oasis in the city, it can provide the perfect antidote to the usual hot, sticky, busy city-ness, and here in London (or at least in certain areas) weary citizens have a range of verdant spots to pick from. From Lincoln's Inn Fields near Holborn (the reputed model for New York's Central Park) to sprawling Hyde Park there are public spaces waiting to be covered in picnics, frisbee games, canoodling couples and, well, the odd drunk passed out beneath a tree in some of the less salubrious locales.

Find a quieter spot, as I did today on Wimbledon Common (of wombling fame!), and you can have a whole leafy paradise to yourself. So used to the constant greyness and noise of the city, I was struck by how green the Common was, and, the further I got from the road, how quiet. No speeding cars, no clanking lorries or slow buses, no shoppers with buggies and whining children. The Common was alive with music made from the sound of grasshoppers clicking, a heron sploshing along the edge of a gravel pit and dogs crashing joyously through the undergrowth. Blackberries ripened away from the lead-filled petrol fumes and plants flourished with their feet in soil rather than concrete.

My feet didn't hurt from the pressure of stomping along hard pavements - they got grubby instead from the dusty, dry earth, and grass tangled in my flip-flops between my toes. After sitting on the bank of a pond, watching bright red dragonflies skim the water, my expensive going-out-for-lunch-in-nice-places jeans had persistent grass seeds stuck to them, but it didn't matter. I did not have to walk along set paths, following the crowds. In this green space the rules of the city do not apply; no looking both ways before you cross, no one-way systems, no 9 to 5 slog, no security checks and pass-cards. The city with its opportunities can give you one type of freedom but I have come to realise the open green space can give you another. The grass truly is always greener...!
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