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...!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Legends of London's West End theatres

Last week I went to the theatre. It is probably one of my favourite things to do in the city - better than television or the cinema. Real people in real time telling real stories of love and heartache, of fighting, winning and losing. And last night it was a tale of fear and sadness. Whilst I was at school there was a GCSE drama trip to see 'The Woman in Black', and almost ten years later some Accidental school-chums and I revisited the dramatisation of Susan Hill's chilling novel. The theatre jumped and screamed as one as empty chairs rocked, ghostly carriages were swallowed by marshes and a desperate old man shared a chilling secret with a rapt, and at times terrified, audience.

There is something so magical about the theatre, which a film simply fails to match. No special effects, no CGI; what you see is really happening before your eyes. There is one take - it must be perfect first time. Stage actors cannot mess up a line in front of an audience who have paid to see them perform word-perfect. World class performance venues such as the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre are famed icons of the city, as well as much loved public places and tourist destinations, the most popular and commercial being the West End. The West End is London's Broadway. In its approximately 40 theatres, it holds the greatest volume of stage make-up, frilly costumes, velvet-covered seats and tiny tubs of over-priced ice cream in the whole city. Theatres have been a part of London's architecture since the sixteenth century, and the city is proudly home to the world's longest running show, Agatha Christie's 'The Mousetrap' which has been performed constantly since 1952, and is famed for the twist ending and the cryptic manner in which the audience is instructed not to tell anyone outside the theatre what they have seen.

The theatrical twists and legends of the West End are what make this theatreland such a unique and fascinating place, and a necessary stop on any tourist schedule; books have been written about them, and real-life and fiction merge in and out of each other on the stage and behind it. The Fortune Theatre playing home to the Woman in Black is reputed to be haunted by a similar real-life ghost, also, somewhat surprisingly (or commercially convenient for the more sceptical) a woman in black. She has been sighted most frequently by the actors on stage, standing apart from the oblivious audience, watching the play. She is also reputed to hang around in the hospitality bar. We were slightly late for the production and were held in said bar (until the play reached a convenient spot for us to crash in to our seats, ruining the atmosphere for the already installed watchers) but she was nowhere to be seen...
Former actors or stage managers who couldn't leave their beloved theatres despite leaving their mortal bodies, stage-hands injured or killed in scenery shifting accidents and even a famous clog-dancer (who knew there even was one?!), still clacking away, are an everyday part of theatrical life in the West End; unwelcome visitors or lucky charms, they prove unlikely to ever be removed from their haunts.

Maybe a new plan by the actors' union Equity will rid the theatres of unwanted beings? Cats are to be reintroduced as crucial staff members in London theatres, in order to keep down mice and rats, and perhaps offer a little comfort to nervy actors before they tread the boards. First brought into theatres by ex-sailors who took to stage work on their return from sea, stage moggies were once almost as famous as the actors themselves. 'Beerbohm' lived at the Gielgud Theatre, until he retired to Kent with the stage carpenter, and was such a character he was even celebrated by an obituary in The Stage. Princess Margaret's bouquet was famously eaten during a gala performance by the imaginatively named 'Boy Cat' who lived at The Albery, with his feline friend, called, equally imaginatively, 'Girl Cat'. Maybe these furry souls will chase out the restless ones haunting London's theatres. More likely, they will continue to create their own legends and perpetuate the myths of the West End, ensuring its appeal for years to come.
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