Friday, 24 December 2010

The Christmas Exodus

One of the joys of living in London is that one never actually NEEDS to go anywhere else.  Which means one is saved the tortuous task of trying to leave the city, and at no other time of year is this expedition more vile than at Christmas, when it snows.  And this is an event for which London is always entirely unprepared.  If it happened in July, fair play, we'd all be a bit surprised, but winter in the UK is supposed to be snowy, and even if it weren't going on the law of averages given the last few years climate history you'd think some weather bods would be scratching their chins right now and identifying some sort of pattern.  In winter, in London, it snows.  Message received? Now, please be so kind to tell the transport people, because I think this may come as quite a shock.

London's transport system has its shaky moments at the best of times but when it snows its default position is stationary.  It stops dead.  Planes are grounded.  Trains vanish.  Buses stay warm and cosy in the garage terminus.  Cars remain frozen to the kerbs, and the less used roads become impassable.  Tubes, to be fair, do generally continue to run, but it's not snowing under ground so they really have no excuse.  The horror stories we have all heard in the last week about Londoners desperately trying to make it home to families outside the city have reached new levels of absurdity.  Families taking £1000 cab rides to the Alps so little Jimmy could spend his Christmas on the slopes.  People hiring cars to drive to other bits of Europe, which can actually handle snow, to get flights from their un-paralysed airports back to the rest of the world.  Tales have flooded back into the centre from Heathrow and Gatwick of days and nights, sat on the floors of departure halls, eating old, limp sandwiches provided grudgingly by BAA, who cannot be said to have come out of this incident well.  Again.  (A little new year investment in customer service training maybe?)

As this week progressed these stories began to panic me slightly.  Would I be forced to spend my first Christmas in London, apart from the Accidental family who I had been planning to join up in the Midlands?  Trains heading up north have been endlessly cancelled, delayed and stopped this week, and I have watched online tracking services like a hawk, desperate for updates.  A sinking feeling set in.  Virgin Trains have screwed me over innumerable times these last few months, hence I had a ticket booked on a London Midland train which was set to crawl back towards the Accidental homestead on Thursday afternoon.  Several days ago London Midland announced industrial action and cancelled my train.  I raged and mentally composed a thoroughly irate letter to them.  Then it snowed again, and, displaying a degree of humanity rare to public transport providers, they called off the strike, and my train was back on.

In deep gloom about ever seeing the Accidental homestead again I packed on Wednesday night, taking with me extra layers, food, water, and enough to entertain myself for a full night stuck on an unmoving, icy train; a la the horror stories from the beginning of the month when such a fate befell commuters on a Southeastern train.  I trudged to Euston a good half hour before my train was due to depart, pre-paid tickets smugly in my bag, and was greeted by a departures board littered with cancellations and delays, and a main hall full of desperate travellers, their luggage, and confused-looking small dogs.  A trailer for the new film of Gullivers Travels played on repeat.  Solidly.  For an hour.  I now cannot bear to look at Jack Black.

"This is a passenger announcement for passengers expecting to travel on the 15:46 service to Crewe.  This train is delayed and we are awaiting confirmation of rolling stock.  We will inform you of the platform when it arrives." Not an auspicious start.  Half an hour later..."The delayed 15:46 train will now depart from Platform 11" - cue mass exodus from the main hall as everyone else at Euston is also dying to go to the Midlands.  We arrive at Platform 11 where a train to Birmingham awaits.  Er, no.  A hurried announcement over the tanoy: "The delayed 15:46 train will now depart from Platform 10".  We swivel 180 degrees.  There is an empty platform, nary a train to anywhere to be seen.  We wait.  And then wait some more.  A train arrives and regardless of destination we all form distinctly unhelpful throngs around each door, as baffled arrivals to Euston station find themselves unable to disembark, faced with hundreds of anxious emigrants, brandishing metre-long rolls of wrapping paper, barring their way.  We all sort ourselves out and the new passengers scramble for the newly-vacated, and alarmingly still warm, seats.  Then we sit there.  Finally an announcement informs us that London Euston is the final destination of the train and thanks us for travelling with London Midland and reminds us to take all our luggage as we depart the train.  We ignore it.  Ten minutes later the train finally moves off and everyone sighs in relief.

The journey is slow, and cold.  My carriage companions are mostly inoffensively peaceful yet one individual, uses the endless extra hours on the train to row with everyone in her phone directory, in between munching fruit gums and painting her nails a lurid shade of orange.  A miserable sluggish few hours later (after we had been stuck behind a train doing a regional tour of tiny, pointless stations) and the train pulls into a stop two before the one for which I had been aiming.  Unable to face more hours of glacial progress and glacial temperatures inside the carriages I hop off here, having rearranged the Accidental parental taxi service, at a portacabin on the edge of a snowy carpark.  Inside a mop and bucket have been discarded in the centre of the makeshift ticket office, where seven people huddled together for warmth.  I picked my way across the soggy floor, and trundled my suitcase out onto an ice-rink strewn with cars.  Only a brief car-ride back to the Accidental village, and I had made it home for Christmas.  I intend to spend the rest of the festive season recovering (by which I mean drinking) from the trauma of my trip out of London.  Merry Christmas!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Alexandra Palace: The palace of the north

In the 19th century, when it was cool to advertise all the questionable evils we were inflicting upon our colonies, Crystal Palace was built in south London to house The Great Exhibition - a collection of colonial artefacts, culture, and, alarmingly, the odd live subject.  The original building that housed the exhibition, an undoubtably stunning greenhouse of enormous proportions, moved out of Hyde Park to the area which soon became known as Crystal Palace.  A wee while later the building and its contents burnt down.  Worried that North London might feel left out, The Great Northern Palace Company set about creating a northern equivalent.  They shouldn't have bothered.  

Alexandra Palace stands high above Wood Green, looking down over Crouch End, and to the entire city beyond.  It is an odd Frankenstein of a building, with new additions bolted on to the old structure here and there.  Metal struts are grafted onto ancient stonework, and the monstrous antenna which broadcast some of the nation's earliest television signals is spliced onto the end of the building as if a space shuttle has had to make an emergency crash landing through the roof.
On a drizzly Saturday, metal crash-barriers from a gig the night before marked my approach to the palace.  A torn ticket for "Vampire Weekend plus special guests" poked up through the semi-frozen grass.  Up close the building felt like an old gothic railway station, with its cracked boards and high stone arches. Yet, on a Saturday afternoon, it lacked any of the energy and activity usually associated with a station.

The lugubrious bar, painted a virulent bright blue, could hardly have been said to be doing a roaring trade.  Through the faintly steamy windows a grim-faced barmaid rearranged glasses and glowered across the bar.  Disappointingly all of the sets of double doors into the main hall were chained shut with enormous padlocks.  Huge palm trees were visible through the glass windows in the doors, but the portico was as far as we were destined to make it.  Somewhat ironically, vast signs above extended warm welcomes to "The Peoples' Palace"; we were clearly not the right sort of people.  I was reliably informed that all that lay round the corner I had not yet explored were "a rather grim boating lake and a children's playground", so I gave those a miss.

The one thing which, on a day clearer than the one I chose for a visit, may redeem this strange and enormous folly is the stunning view it presents across London.  Even on the dreariest of afternoons the grey vista is still quite a sight to behold.  The nub of Canary Wharf blinked resolutely through the foggy rainclouds.  London lay down below the hill on which I stood, curled up like a cat in a basket.  I began my descent down the hill, mentally redesigning Alexandra Palace, and imagining it into the fabulous venue it could be...if only someone would invest the time and plentiful cash.

Friday, 10 December 2010

The morning after the protest before

London looks a little ropey today.  A little forlorn and rough around the edges.  Its benches sit blackened atop one another.  Its vast white stone walls sport newly daubed tattoes of paint and offensive slogans.  Metal crash barriers lie on the streets and pavements, twisted out of shape.  Lawns have been trampled by kettled students, muddy and littered with discarded placards; some of which display mispelt slogans which demonstrate just why their bearers are so desperately in need of higher education.  On the day that the government decreed that universities could change fees of up to £9000 per year, thousands of students took to the streets of London, and left their ugly mark.

These student (and I use that term loosely given the blatant hijacking of these protests by destructive vandals, acting in the name of anarchy) protests have got me angry.  Both as a student and as a Londoner.  Yes, it's expensive to go to university, because it is a privilege, not a right.  The precious skills we learn at university should stand us in good stead for a solid, financially secure future.  Why should we be given this gift for free?  It is an investment.  We are buying the skills and instructive words of academics and tutors, the access to world-class libraries and learning resources, accomodation and food.  Even with the new increased costs the UK remains one of the most financially competitive places to study.  Students in the US can expect to pay in a single year more than we could pay for a three year degree course.  I am fortunate that I can afford my own fees, which are not inconsiderable, but in order to do so I have to work a full-time job.  And it's tough.  Very tough.  (My social life has taken a colossal hit, and the least said about my sleep patterns the better!) 

I would hate for anyone to feel they could not pursue a dream simply due to financial restraints, but there are always methods to achieve one's deepest desires.  And they should not resort to the desecration of a city and violence against those who have no control over the protest issue.  Setting fire to a Christmas tree and defiling a monument to those who fought and died to allow us to live in peace, are protests against freedom and happiness, and an attack on a city desperately trying to fnd something to celebrate amidst the doom and gloom of the media, and our new-found Arctic weather.  What on earth will be achieved in graffiti-ing a statue of a former government leader, now long gone, and with absolutely no control over his political successors?

It saddens me, and other Londoners, to see our city violated in such a manner.  What harm has London ever done to students?  It has given them homes, and locations for learning.  Its inhabitants have given them lecturers and admin staff and fellow students.  Pity our local policemen and their poor bewildered horses (and yes ok, I know they were armed, and it got a bit six of one, half a dozen of the other regarding violent behaviour) who are also dealing with the effects of the government's cuts.  When the protesters and anarchists are safely back home a new army will be mobilised, to clean up the mess they made.  This army will set to work scrubbing stonework and sweeping rubbish and righting toppled street furniture.  And within weeks the city will look much as it did before the events of yesterday.  The vote has passed, fees will rise - what was really achieved yesterday? 

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Accidental Visits: London Zoo

When I was little, and on a trip to visit the Accidental grandparents, I remember being taken to London Zoo. It felt so huge I thought we'd never see everything. Animals prowled enclosures that looked lush and spacious; they could have been at home in their savannas for all I knew about zoological husbandry and habitats.  I remember the worry of not seeing it ALL, the smell of the reptile house and the desperation about not being able to see the penguins properly. 

This summer I happened to be walking through Regents Park, past the back of the zoo, and encountering a high wire fence around a dirt enclosure, I paused with my Accidental companion for a heated debate about the "nocturnal-ness" of an okapi.  He said they came out at night, I disagreed.  (In truth, I had no idea about an okapi's daily routine, and to be honest I was not 100% sure I could even pick one out of an animal line-up.  But I would defend my argument to the death.)  
Here is what an okapi looks like for those who need a memory-jog - bigger than you were thinking eh? 
(Courtesy of Kol Tregaskes) 
To settle the matter once and for all I booked us both tickets to the final London Zoo Lates event in August.  And yes, I know that seems like forever ago with ice and snow on the ground but cast your minds back if you can...imagine the balmy evenings, how late it was before it got dark, remember when it was nice to do things after work rather than dash home enveloped in a million layers of clothing.  Got it?
Ok, so one lovely warm evening after work I took my Accidental, and argumentative, companion down to hang out with the animals.  We saw gorillas and monkeys, hiding from the hoards of evening visitors beneath plastic sheeting and leaping about respectively; I idly contemplated stealing one of the smaller ones flying from tree to tree above our heads which would have fit perfectly in my handbag.  But I feared for my handbag.  Taking a break from primates, we sipped Pimms and watched the penguins (from a perfect vantage point my 9 year old self would have killed for), who were hungrily awaiting their supper.  A strange conversation between three women struck up behind us, as one relayed her last penguin encounter which involved some smelly fish, a small child and Gail Porter.  After about 3 minutes I realised my Accidental companion, who had gone strangely silent, was shaking with suppressed giggles, and we quickly removed ourselves in search of further refreshment.

In the original penguin pool in the centre of the zoo no one flapped or waddled; a stunning feat of architecture built to house birds who hated living there - the concrete slopes hurt their feet apparently.  Across from the empty pen a vast enclosure housed several solemn lions, pacing and watching, waiting wistfully for a small child to stick a juicy arm into their lair.  Before bringing myself down with thoughts of caged, depressed wild animals, we went to cheer ourselves up with some friendly llamas, some misplaced-looking donkeys, and a bathing hippo.  We played "Spot the Lizard" in the dark humidity of the reptile house (still as malodorous as I recalled) - my experience of forest-life in Madagascar giving me an easy edge - until my companion begged for daylight and fresh air, and a chance to settle the okapi debate once and for all.

By the time we got to their enclosure the okapis, a mother and her young offspring with matching stripey stockings, were receiving their nighttime feed and being shut up for the night.  Not nocturnal then - case closed.  It felt rude watching them as they readied themselves for bed, so we stepped out and left them to it.  We paused before three lanky giraffes who cantered a farewell lap around their paddock to the delight of their audience. Their bandy-legged gait seemed to have an slow motion filter, creating an effect similar to movement seen through a strobe light, which experienced outside of a nightclub makes one feel slightly drunk and dizzy.  As the tall doors closed behind the tall creatures we felt we too might be ready for a late night feed, so we left the animals to their beds and went in search of a nice bucket of water and a bale of hay.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Down with Starbucks! In support of independent coffee shops

London, like every other developed city in the world, is infested.  Spreading its caffeinated tentacles around the world is Starbucks, its branches identical the world over, stifling independent cafes in a bid to supply every global citizen with mediocre coffee in a branded paper cup.  I say all the branches are the same, with their small, round tables and comfy chairs and easy-listening playlists, but this is not strictly true.  They do vary slightly.  Behind the lust-worthy Christian Louboutin shop in Belgravia there is a very superior branch, full of gorgeous, Euro-cash lovelies (whom one would imagine could afford far more superior coffee, or even to fly off to Rome to drink it somewhere more fabulous), with a spiral staircase and gallery from which to people-spot.  Bloomsbury hosts the most understaffed branch I have found, where a lone barrista scuttles to and fro, between grinder and till, making beverages for students who have nothing better to do with their time than wait for him to serve them very, very slowly.  From the window of the Wimbledon Village Starbucks you can watch Kelly Brook go out for breakfast, and there's usually a tethered dog outside doing similar, dreaming about dropped blueberry muffin crumbs.  But I digress...

My new neighbourhood is uncontaminated, Starbucks-free.  I believe the nearest branch is down by Highbury & Islington tube station, which I am fortunately far too lazy to go anywhere near.  Instead the Holloway Road is littered with bright and busy greasy-spoon cafes, with names like "The Croissant d'Or".  They are cheap and unpretentious, and seem to do a roaring trade, but for me, with my journal articles and 3000 word assignments on the theoretical evidence for "new wars", they are not conducive to writing.  I don't know what it is - maybe the pervading smell of frying, or the blare of an advert-punctuated tinny radio next to the toaster?  I just need a little more quiet, and preferably a small well-lit table upon which to balance my laptop and a large bucket of coffee.

So imagine my delight when I chanced upon Tufnell Park's premier (and I believe sole) literary cafe - Rustique.  Inside is an eclectic mixture of tables, chairs, lamps and local readers and writers.  While the kind cafe staff fuel their creativity with coffee, cake and huge plates of salads, writers tap away on laptops and scribble in notebooks.  No useless tiny round tables which discourage work and long chats, as favoured by Starbucks.  Each writer or reader has plenty of space for their papers and writing technology, as well as an enormous mug of hot coffee.  No one furiously tidies around you or glowers at you as soon as you've drained the last dregs from your drink and fail to vacate your chair in the same breath.  A high table turnover rate is not a priority here - contented customers and good service seem far more important.  The place is busy from breakfast at 8am until the end of poetry reading evenings at 8pm. 

In cafes and restaurants today, it is refreshing to examine a menu and not know what to expect; in fact, it is refreshing to even need a menu, and not merely order from a large board above the cash register.  The small independent cafes of our city are holding down the fort in the fight against the giants of Starbucks, Nero and Costa - the coffee-purveying Davids to their bean-roasting Goliaths.  And they need our support.  Choose decent coffee and smiling staff.  Choose time to sit and freshly-baked cakes which originated in a kitchen rather than a warehouse.  Choose independent cafes!

Monday, 8 November 2010

Things people do not tell you about decorating a flat

Around this time last year a vague plan began to form in my brain.  My primary desire was simply a desk to write and work at, but a desk's gotta live somewhere, so, ah well, I thought, I'd better buy a flat.  But it was far less easy that that.  People do not lie when they say buying a flat is a supremely stressful thing to do, but what they don't warn you about is what comes afterwards, when you begin to turn that flat into a home you can actually live in.  And that process goes a little like this...

Receive keys to your first property.  Skip round with joy and then struggle for 15 minutes to open the door.  Have to have the old well-practised owner open it for you.  Make mental note to change the locks asap.  Curse former tenants for leaving hideous wobbly chair behind.  Discover world's vilest mug in cupboard, curse them again.  Actually move in, i.e. physically move self, toothbrush, radio, TV, DVD collection etc in.  Thank kind Accidental grandmother for cleaning kitchen.  Have Accidental parents come visit.  Ignore unhelpful suggestions from Accidental father, as well as disparaging remarks about my DIY skills.  One week later relent and ring Accidental father for DIY tips.

Realise should really buy some furniture after two weeks of living on an air mattress, and eating supper off a cardboard box.  Agonise over buying a bed for far longer than any sane person should.  Finally buy a bed - love it.  Regret buying cheap clothing rail that keeps collapsing.  Repair it for the second time.  Buy a small table.  Realise it makes horrible marks on the kitchen lino.  Buy a big table that doesn't leave marks anywhere.  Throw out cheap clothing rail and replace with an expensive one, after logistical nightmare of getting it, in a 2 metre-long box, home (discover such packages are not popular with cab drivers, but Addison Lee are a dream).

Paint potential wall colours in A4-sized swatches around the flat to check what they look like in different places.  Call painter to come look at the flat and advise just how financially ruinous it would be to have him tackle my ceiling roses and grubby woodwork.  Await quote with nerves of an 18 year old about to receive A-Level results.  Distract self by dreaming of alcove shelving.  Accidental father and brother offer to produce such shelving for birthday present.  Offer to throw dinner party in their honour as thanks.  Pick paint colour for walls.  Listen to everyone tell me what a disastrous shade it will be.  Obsess about potentially gloomy walls.  Panic-buy enough chairs to seat people for celebratory shelving dinner party.  Host said dinner party after the shelves go up, inaugurating dining table, and without giving anyone food poisoning.
Clear bedroom for painters to start.  Run out of clothes which aren't accessorised with a thin layer of plaster-dust.  Raise eyebrows with odd clothing ensemble at work.  Return home to discover chosen paint colour looks fabulous, and not in the least gloomy.  Feel smug at interior decorating vision, and generally being right.  Feel distinctly un-smug at having to move entire life's possessions back into bedroom to allow painter to start on sitting room.  Resolve to buy something apart from bed and metal dining chairs on which to sit to watch TV.  Get fed up with clearing shelves and write blog about hassles of decorating a flat instead.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Up on the Heath

I spent this weekend feeling somewhat smug. Without having to buy an overpriced shoe-box of a flat for the cost of a small private island I have found a lovely place to live which is a mere 20 minute stroll from Hampstead Heath. (Ok, so it's an uphill stroll but it's totally worth it!) I have done well; hurrah for my house-hunting skills! Hampstead and Highgate, with their desirable postcodes (where I do NOT live!), are some of the most sought after and expensive areas within London, in large part due to their proximity to this heath, one of the city's finest green spaces. No film set in London is complete without a shot of the hilly heath, or a poignant conversation on a wooden bench overlooking the iconic panorama stretching from Battersea Power Station to the Gerkin.
When sometimes claustrophobic concrete, steel and glass abound in cities, open skies and expanses of vegetation provide a wonderfully welcome sense of freedom. And so much more. Last Saturday morning the Heath was alive. A farmers' market had sprung up, selling vegetables, bread and gourmet sausages to the good people of North London. Keen tennis players bobbed up and down courts working up a weekend sweat. The odd loathsome jogger sprinted up and down a small stretch of hill, dodging flailing children on lethal scooters, as they hurtled past her, occasionally into a hedge with a surprised shriek.
Hampstead Heath is a favourite haunt for dog-walkers, and all manner of canine specimens caper around the fields, racing up to their less fortunate brothers and sisters constrained by leads, taunting them with their bouncing liberty. "Molly" heads purposefully towards Hampstead itself as her bellowing owner races along in her wake, chastising and summoning her to no avail; Molly, deeply embarrassed, pretends she does not know him and trots off.

Walking down Parliament Hill we encountered a group of people clutching woven baskets, clad in wellies and those vile garments, described as "cagoules" or (and I'm not sure which term makes my skin crawl more) "anoraks", rummaging suspciously in a large bush. A long-haired fellow, from the depths of a rooty tree, triumphantly enthused on a ragedy-looking weed he had clutched in his hand. Later we watched him leaping over a small fence by the lakes to find more vegetative treasures, his nylon-clad disciplines watching solemnly.
We paused by the water, balancing on a scaffolding-pole-esque fence, to watch not only the foragers but a lone man plunging bravely (or stupidly) into the icy waters of the swimming lakes, which are unsurprisingly far more popular in the summer months. A muddy golden retriever galumphs along the muddy shoreline before emerging back onto the path, shaking himself off vigorously and plodding back to his owner, leaving a trail of drips in his wake shining on the tarmac footpath.

London's seasons are changing, but you might not notice if you never tear your eyes from the perennial concrete greyness of the city. On the Heath you can see that autumn has fallen, as copper-leaved trees atop a hill frame the city beneath like a gilt picture-frame. In weeks or months the trees will be bare and the ground will harden. But the people will still come, the dogs and joggers will still run, and the craziest swimming enthusiasts will still risk hypothermia - just to enjoy their Heath.

Friday, 8 October 2010

'First Thursdays' in East London

For me, East London is a meeting place. It's where I meet friends who live outside London and need to get home from Liverpool Street station. It's where we go for curries and terrible wine, and Mexican food and excellent margaritas. It's a venue for gigs, and liquid picnics in the middle of Hoxton Square in the summertime. But it is also a major centre for art in the city. And the first Thursday of every month those of us who are as clueless as I about this aspect of the area can go and see for themselves; at an event which is astoundingly unimaginatively titled 'First Thursdays'. (You'd think a bunch of creatives could come up with a name more exciting than that!)

Every First Thursday a large number of the galleries and artists' studios stay open until 9pm, throwing their doors open to all, and supplying them with copious amounts of beer; maybe in an attempt to persuade them to part with the significant cash needed to procure many of their pieces. My first First Thursday I witnessed everything from strobe-light flashing installations inside battered garden sheds, to wall-high graphic designs of Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles doing some things they certainly never did in the original children's cartoons.

Vyner Street is the central hub, and even in the October chill the cobbles and pavements were thronged with beer-clutching arty-types, their brutal angular hairstyles drooping in the drizzle. My Accidental companion and I pottered in and out of studios, up and down stairs, perusing photos and sketches and undefinable daubings. I was very taken with several thousand pounds worth of charcoal crow, silhouetted before a wonky tower. The tiny naked people doing tiny naughty things only visible through wall-mounted magnifying glasses I was less keen on.

We ended our evening high up above Regents Canal, in a vast warehouse divided into artists studios and ateliers. Surrounded by sculptures and indefinable 'objets', we swigged free beer on worn and sagging, yet extremely welcome, sofas, by plate-glass windows rimmed with harsh steel, through which the lights and shadows of East London twinkled and glowered. The real East end art appreciators settled into their chosen galleries and studios, opened another beer and name-dropped the night away. We drank up and headed off in search of something that starving artists never need - supper.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A scary Scandinavian shopping trip

So it turns out Dante was wrong. There are not nine circles of hell; there are ten, and the one he missed is right here in London. A short trip along the North Circular (which could be in contention for the host of the eleventh circle during rush hour), out near sports mecca, Wembley Stadium, sits an enormous Ikea store; a vast blue warehouse, with those four yellow letters as high as a house climbing its side. Visiting any Ikea store should not be undertaken lightly. Such a trip requires the same level of preparation and dedication to the cause as a hike up Everest. You need to be fit, healthy, well-fed and single-minded in your quest. You stick to the mental list of things you needed when you entered, or divert from it at your peril.I mounted a tandem-assault on the budget homewares haven with an Accidental uni friend, with whom I exchanged shopping lists in order to keep each other on the straight and narrow; and prevent either of us ending up with a whole load of stuff we had neither need or desire for, but merely an awe-struck admiration for its sheer cheapness. After a recent house move my friend had a list far longer than I, although as I was in the market for a chest of drawers (obviously which I would purchase in flat-packed form) I anticipated a similar spend and need for vast unweildy trolleys. Steeling ourselves with an enormous pub lunch, the pair of us parked her little car in the middle of a mysterious large puddle in a cavernous multi-storey car park and descended to the land of plastic blue and yellow bags and tiny pencils.

Before long our trolley was filling with cutlery sorting drawers, plant pots, wicker baskets, pillow-cases and devices for arranging cupboards more tidily. We navigated our metal vehicle cautiously around whining children, and bickering couples; "Just lie on this bed and tell me if you like it!". The hoardes were out in force this Sunday, and dying to get their redecorating supplies bought by closing time at 5pm. By the time we reached the self-service warehouse, winding through the more traditionally shop-like sections (and their labyrinthine piles of rugs and displays of CD racks), it was carnage. Rows blazed, babies screamed, those who were awaiting a particularly heavy or special (or at least as special as anything can get at Ikea, where you're guaranteed that whatever you buy your neighbours will all have one too) item had set up camp in the final collection zone, picnic-ing on Swedish treats from the food shop cunningly placed the other side of the tills.

As we finally extracted ourselves, and our, by now, two groaning trolleys from this refugee camp of DIY-ers, we munched on Daim bars and Swedish sweeties to restore our much-diminished blood sugar levels, and packed an astounding amount of peculiarly named items into the Accidental pal's wee car. (We're still trying to work out what a "Bumerang" was...and why we bought two.) Driving back into London we passed the picture of misery at a Wembley bus-stop - a couple, no-longer even able to look at each other, clutching their blue plastic bags bulging uncomfortably with pine and plastic, awaiting a non-existent bus home. We felt deeply smug as we whizzed past, warm and cosy with our heavy load borne by automotive power rather than our own shoulders, on our way home. We had survived the experience, and also had lots of lovely new toys to play with at home. And once I'd ploughed through the 49 step assembly process, which called for most of my tool-kit and 2 days of screwing and banging (no crude jokes please!), I was surprisingly happy with my new chest of drawers. I was even staggered to note I did not get halfway through its construction and notice I'd been given the wrong materials, or was short of 3 crucial screws.

But I think it will be a long time before I'm brave enough to face Ikea again. The Accidental friend returned within days to buy a sofa-bed with her boyfriend. The trip, late on a Friday evening, took forever and was a nightmare. Returning home, and attempting to construct the thing at night they discovered the bed section was broken. And so it remains. I asked what they were going to do with their half-built furniture; "They can come and bring me the new bit, and take away the old one - I'm NOT going back to that place again!" was the response. Wise words, friend, wise words.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Going once, going twice...

My long-sought and much beloved flat still remains somewhat bereft of furniture. Not for want of trying, I might add. But it seems I, and my flat, are harder to please than I imagined. The agonies I have put myself through have been long and tedious. And occasionally they have been inflicted upon others too, like my poor mother whose decorating advice I have often sought, and the colleague with whom she shares an office, who after overhearing the details of one long text and email exchange apparently screamed "Oh, just tell her to buy the bloody bed!".

Slowly I have come to realise that I may not be able to decorate from the high street alone, and I'm going to have to look further afield in my quest for furnishings. I finally tracked down my dream dining table in a vintage and antique furniture store housed in an old converted cinema out near Turnham Green. Feeling even more adventurous recently I decided to go one step further, and to embrace auctioning. But to ease myself in, and so as not to break the bank, I braved an independent auction house in nice, safe Chelsea.

The auction house sits appropriately on Lots Road, a large warehouse-like building with a shop-like front. One registers as a buyer at a high desk where one is awarded a number to bid with, then chooses a set of sliding doors either side of the desk; one leading to the antique collection of lots, and one to the more modern and, tactfully-referred to, "traditional" lots. Both storage areas connect up via a small corridor, near which is an equally small organic cafe, selling wholesome refreshments to weary bidders. As I moved between frankly hideous zebra print chase longues and rather beautiful ancient wardrobes, I spied television newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky having her baby cooed over as she sipped her tea.

The auction itself took place at one end of the traditional and modern lot storage. Between the customers assembled on the floor and a desk so high the auctioneer could have been standing on a ladder behind it, bids were barked backwards and forward. The auctioner tossed in the odd joke from time to time, pausing the flow of numbers and making everyone smile and giggle. Each lot was indicated by two roaming auction-hands who yelled "Showinghere!" next to the lot under offer, making customers jump when they appeared behind them. Bidders lounged on the lots, perched on unwanted sofas and discarded dining chairs, drinking coffee, chatting and occasionally raising cards printed with their buyer number to get involved in the action. There were couples, perfectly preened Chelsea mummies, scruffier individuals who'd obviously dashed away from house-painting to view the lots, obvious dealers who greeted each other as regular attendees, and whole families examining the lots; one couple had brought their 5 children with them, all but the tiniest of which were clad identically in bright red cardigans and green trews.

Having firmly fixed in my mind my top limit for the sofa I, and my new flat, so needed, I was a little disappointed that online commission bids had already bumped up the bidding even before the real-time action had begun. The small sofa I had my eye on went, ironically, to a very large man, for a figure well outside its estimate, and I returned my buyer's number and left empty-handed. But I had been bitten by the bidding bug and have a strong feeling I will be back for flat-related accoutrements, or just the excellent people-watching, soon.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Kinky cupcakes

Soho has to be one of my favourite areas of London. Both seedy and stylish, it is home still to brothels and grotty shops selling joss sticks and tacky underwear of a highly flammable nature, yet up against the insalubrious are excellent restaurants, popular bars and expensive boutiques. When I lived in southwest London I would walk from my office down to Piccadilly through Soho's streets, wiggling along passages lined with adult cinemas and coffee shops, my eyes taking in a hundred things. If I felt like an early morning leg-stretch I would do my West End wander in reverse, pottering through Berwick Street as the market's stall-holders unpacked their vans, and arranged their bread, fruit, and handbags of suspect origin beneath their striped tarpaulins.

I miss this rambling, grubby place. My commute north rarely allows me down to Soho any more. But last week I found myself heading further south, back to one of my former residences, and, accompanied by the Accidental Ally with whom I have quaffed many a cocktail in Soho, my feet followed a familiar path. A while ago said Ally had forwarded me an article on Patrick Cox, the shoe designer, who has recently diversified, somewhat surprisingly, into baking. (Maybe these economically challenging times are hitting harder than we realised!)


And here in Soho this designer-cum-cake-decorator has set up shop, or rather bakery. But, aware of his surroundings, great care has been taken to ensure that any potentially incongruous twee-ness has been avoided. No checked tablecloths and fine china with kittens skipping merrily across it here.

The wares of Cox Cookies & Cake are displayed in the window more like the ladies of Amsterdam's red-light district than the patisserie of Paul's. Neon lights edge their cake-stands which guard the doorway to the black, shiny cave of cupcakes within.
Marilyn Monroe's red lips pout from atop one batch of glittering cakes. Next to her black sugar skulls, cushioned by a bed of equally black buttercream, glint evilly behind the glass counter. For those who like their confectionery a little more, well, Soho, there is an entire range of body part cupcakes - with names like Titty Cake, Bum Cake and Beef Cake I will allow your imaginations to describe those...

As old areas of our city are continually being done up and changed it is nice to know that some proud places are retaining their heritage, however seedy that heritage may be. And here in Britain, who doesn't like a little tea and cake...with a side order of naughtiness?

Cox Cookies & Cake on Urbanspoon

*** unfortuantely Cox Cookies & Cake has now closed ***

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The city that ALWAYS sleeps

As I have mentioned once before, a visit to another major world city always gets me thinking about London's unique urban characteristics. Why is it less glamourous than Paris? Why is it more freeform and natural-looking than Berlin? And why is it so much less exciting than New York? How can London even compare itself to a non-stop city like New York, when it shuts up shop while the night is yet young?

For an international city, London is surprisingly unsympathetic to visitors from foreign timezones and even its own citizens. Anyone with a standard 9am til 5.30pm job even struggles to get to the bank, as most branches close before the end of the working day. Shops in the most central of areas may just about manage to keep their doors, and tills, open until 7pm, but for the busy working Londoner this is not much of an allowance. Weekends, when one is usually not chained to one's desk, opening hours are even more minimal. Sometimes even obtaining a takeaway before the pubs have closed can be challenge. And late night travel across the city becomes a logistical nightmare after about half 11 at night, curtailing many an evening of revelry just when it is only just beginning.
Even building works continue through the night in New York City - no knocking off at 3pm there!

Who knows why this is? There is no doubt a complicated, and possibly outdated, legal reason, related to hours of trading. When a city is competing on today's global urban stage however it needs to make more of an effort. 24-hour establishments abound across South-East Asia, one can shop until one quite literally drops in numerous American cities. New cities in South America and Central Asia are springing up like all-night mushrooms.

As the Accidental Uncle, himself a citizen of New York - from which London might learn a thing or two - summed it up perfectly; "It's as if London likes the idea of being a proper 24 hour city that never sleeps but as the evening progresses, it glances at its watch and says 'Bloody hell, is that the time?' and goes to bed." When night comes there are few endless lights in buildings (at least we're probably our bit for carbon consumption!), little tearing traffic, and in the earliest hours scant inhabitants on the streets - they'll all safely tucked up in bed. If New York is the city that never sleeps, London is the city which believes in getting an early night...

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

London's beastly bendy buses

When I moved to North London one of the most enticing things about my new flat was my much reduced commuting time. No longer would I trail from one end of a bus route to the other early in the morning, watching the bus fill as it approached the centre of the city, then slowly empty as it grew closer to its terminus. People at work would proudly tell me how they commuted in from outside the city in less time than it took me to travel a few miles across London.

My new route to work was now an easy hop by bus, zooming down Camden Road to Fitzrovia, taking no more than 25 minutes on a bad day. I was giddy thinking of the time I would save, as well as the money, being dependent on buses rather than the more expensive Underground. But, alas, my new bus was not the lovely double-decker of the last few years' commute. I was unlikely to park myself next to the likes of British screen-legend Susan Hampshire on THIS bus! Oh no, my new bus, the number 29, is one of the cursed "bendy buses" of London. An introduction to the city's tranport system of former mayor Ken Livingston, they were so divisive that Boris Johnson ran his campaign for office using a removal of bendy buses from London's streets as a mjor selling point. He won and, surprising even himself, became mayor in 2008, yet these horrendous vehicles remain on our roads.As a passenger, the bendy bus is quite the least comfortable mode of transport on offer in the city; it combines the hideous proximity to one's fellow passengers of the Tube with none of the speed. Like a vehicular push-me-pull-you, travelling in a bendy bus gives one an odd sensation of not really being sure which way one is moving. This may be due to the somewhat haphazard placing of the seats, which are scattered around the floor of the jointed bus, facing forwards, backwards and sideways. But a vacant seat is a rare treasure by the time I brave the No. 29, so I usually end up standing, down the central gangway of the bus (annoying those who need to get off when the bus stops, and those whose heads I clout with my handbag when squashing myself in for the benefit of those disembarking), or in the bus's corrugated middle. This is a particularly disconcerting feeling as at times the rubbery folds seem to eat you up when rounding a corner, then spit you back out again when bending in the opposite direction.

The front of the bus contains the driver and a series of utterly useless luggage racks which are too small, and positioned so that loading and unloading them smashes shopping bags and (only the very smallest of) suitcases into the heads of those sat nearby. The driver is thus a long way - a good 18 metres in fact - from the other end of the vehicle of which he or she is in control. Concentrating on their front half, they have no regard for any other road users proximate to their back half, which swings round like a lashing tale, sending cyclists and cars flying across the nextdoor lanes of traffic.
On a traditional double-decker bus, passengers get on by the driver up front, swipe Oystercards or brandish travelcards, and then hop off at the back of the bus. Bendy buses have numerous sets of doors which allow both entry and exit, and in theory, travel payment. Having watched everyone hopping on and off the 29 however, I have no idea how these bendy beasts pay their way - they are vehicles which make it easy to travel, illegally, for free; to which, as a now fully financially responsible Londoner, I object! But then this may be a specific trait of the 29; the bus route proudly ranked 3rd most dangerous in the city in a thoroughly unreassuring report published by TfL in 2006. Yet how is a driver to police bus-stabbings and muggings when they are so far from the action? It would take a fair while to realise anything was amiss at the far end of the bus, let alone for anyone to get from the front ("Excuse me, sir. Sorry madam. Could you just move that buggy and six bags of shopping, please? Sorry, I need to intervene in that mugging on the back row of seats.") to the back. Crime rates in N7? I blame the buses.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Who's there?

As I waited on the platform for the next tube train to arrive I heard an incongruous sound. A telephone, ringing echoes around the circular tunnel. A proper old-fashioned ring too, not a bleeping electronic tone, easily confused with a half-hearted fire alarm. The tunnel amplified the sound, making the echoes sound eerily hopeless and desperate. No one along the platform batted an eyelid. Everyone stood, awaiting the train, plugged into iPods, lost in their own thoughts. Did anyone else wonder who was calling? Or who they were trying to contact?

There must be millions of phones in the city; landlines in homes and offices and shops, mobile phones in pockets and handbags, phoneboxes dotted along our streets. The older, large, red Tardis-like phoneboxes are London icons. I cannot count the number of foreign tourists I have seen gingerly posing with a filthy receiver to their ear amongst the colourful postcards of hookers and mini-cabs, while a friend snaps a souvenir photo. Some must ring a hundred times a day, while others may not have rung for years.
I have heard an ancient wall-mounted phone ring deep beneath the city in a disused Underground station, below Mayfair. There were only three of us down there, wandering through bunkrooms and typing pools once used by Churchill's Cabinet during World War II. We looked at one another - no one knew we were there, and we were not exactly expecting any calls underground. Expecting a misfiring call-centre, one of us answered with a surprised and bemused "Hello?". There was someone there, a real person on the end of the phone - and they seemed as surprised to have got hold of a disused Underground station as we were to have had our hushed exploration interrupted by that obtrusive ringing.

A couple of days ago I walked past a new phonebox; its glass door and windows were shattered all over the pavement. Inside the phone was ringing. Is someone trying to get hold of me? Following me around London by public phone? The plots of numerous thriller films fly through my paranoid, and overactive, imagination.

Returning home this evening to my original tube station, where I first heard the ghostly phone, I emerge into the ticket hall. The familiar sound of London rain greets me. As I rummage in my bag for my umbrella I hear a second sound. The phone is still ringing, now echoing out onto Caledonian Road, down to the bus-stop and across to Tesco. On and on the bell rings, over and over. I splosh out into the rain and head home. The caller keeps on ringing into the dark, soggy night...

Monday, 2 August 2010

Picnic blankets and Dancing Queens

One thing you simply cannot fault the British for is their determination to enjoy their pathetic summers. Regardless of the neverending drizzle, the constant cloud-cover and the sunshine which is only remarkable by its absence, they plough on with their outdoor activities on a mission to see the summer through. And give the impression that they are enjoying themselves as much as people in places where quality sunburn is a potential achievement.
Here in London we indulge in numerous outdoor activities in the summer months. We have chilly picnics in our lovely green parks. We drink outside our bars and pubs, cluttering up the pavements whilst the insides of such hostelries remain empty. Under umbrellas we watch open-air theatre and dance in the dirt at gigs and urban festivals.

Areas of the city host entire summer schedules of al fresco frolics, like the Earls Court Festival which closed last week, with an event which truly put the camp back in camping. On a Friday evening, after a week which seemed like it would never end, weary workers clutching well-earned bottles of wine, cushions and picnics filed into Nevern Square's central gardens behind the Earls Court Road. They scouted prime spots and laid down their blankets and set up their folding chairs in front of a vast blank screen. Every kind of picnic emerged, from the instant supermarket variety to the home-cooked, tupperware feast laid out on pop-up tables and benches. Clutching our own clinking bags, our own little group plumped for an optimal spot near the screen and waited for the action to start.

Once the evening truly began to fall, and dusk settled over the square the huge screen lit up. Lights in the huge houses around the square backlit residents watching both the picnicking audience and, after it was dark enough, the out-door screening of "Mamma Mia", the summery feel-good film based on the music of ABBA. As we pulled our cardigans closer about ourselves and huddled together for communal warmth under threatening clouds, a cast of tanned and far more skimpily-clad lovelies frivoled on a sun-drenched island. They sang, they danced, they dressed up and shoe-horned somewhat unlikely Swedish pop lyrics into the preparation of a Greek wedding.
Amanda Seyfried demanded to know whether the Scandinavian adventurer was her father and the square finally fell silent. But not for long. "Yes!" squeaked a tiny voice who knew the film too well, shattering the atmosphere and provoking uncontrollable giggles across the picnic rugs. Meryl Streep agonised and warbled away on her cliff-top, finally dashing up the mountainside leaving Pierce Brosnan looking surprised, and as if he were trying to remember the lyrics to his next number. The world's gayest picnic behind us went wild, and tossed their zebra-print cushions in the air.

By the time the closing strains of "Waterloo" rent the air the rugs and stools were abandoned as the now well-lubricated audience took to their feet to boogie away with the film's cast. Whilst we giggled over the last of our Pimms, one middle-aged woman swayed towards our camp and bemoaned our lack of dancing, imploring us to "give our souls to the music". We nervously laughed her away, yet after a week of giving our souls to work and study there could be no better way to spend a Friday night...

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Centre stage

Last Friday I was in a play. Not entirely intentionally. As part of the summer Watch This Space festival, the National Theatre staged a performance of Domini Public by Roger Bernat. Via a pair of headphones which each audience member is given as they arrive, a series of questions are asked, the answers moving "the cast" around the stage like chess-pieces, as the game or play unfolds. Beginning in giggling awkwardness the action unfolds to encompass death, rape, a group of prisoners (those who answered yes to the question "Were you born in London?") escaping incarceration and finishes with a somewhat strange gathering in a tent - like confused wedding guests piling into a marquee to watch a nauseating tribute video.

The idea of those who come to watch theatre becoming part of it, echoes the inclusion of new city-dwellers into the urban theatrical productions London stages. Each district, each borough, each street is a new performance space. Travelling through you join new casts and tread different boards. From my huge kitchen windows I have box seats for the never-ending production of "Holloway All Hours". Numerous actors swap on and off stage in order to keep the action flowing all day and all night.
After four days (and unpopular late nights) of sanding and painting the flat-in-renovation act of the play appears to be over. Evident mostly by their off-stage sounds, its protagonists have appeared from time to time to smoke in paint-spattered clothes on balconies or wielding paint-rollers. Somewhere an invisible yet repetitive scene of a table-tennis game recurs, breaking silence between acts. Faces appear at windows, lost in thought, clutching mugs of tea or their cat. Lights flick on and off, illuminating activities in kitchens, bedrooms, sitting rooms. Many actors are so involved in their television-watching and tea-brewing they give no indication of being aware of their audience. Feline thespians cross multiple scene sets, occasionally displaying their fight training, scrapping centre-stage over a small, fluffy prop.

But as I watch the windows opposite I realise there is a second play unfolding in parallel - the one in which my windows form part of the scenery and stage. Once again I am an unwitting actor, as the cast I watch becomes my audience. To the late-night DIY enthusiasts I am the girl who's appeared late in the play, who walks around a lot but doesn't seem to have many props. To the phantom ping-pong players my radio and cooking sounds provide equivalent off-stage sound effects. Shakespeare was only too right when he wrote of all the world being a stage. In a city there are so many acts to be enjoyed, and someone is always watching.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Pastures new

I write this lying on the floor. Somewhat uncomfortable, but it is my very own floor. In my new flat I have only one chair, which was here when I arrived. After less than a minute perched on its wobbly legs it is not hard to see why its previous owners left it behind. Almost devoid of any furniture at all, until I get myself organised to find some, I am grateful for the single wobbly chair. It will not be here long, but I hope I will. Here I finally am, in a flat of my own. Just me, yet I am not alone. My flat is a horizontal slice of a large terraced house, and above and below me are people and animals as independent as I yet sharing a front door, a roof and many, many bricks.
From windows at either end of my flat I can see life playing out. People walking along my new street; entering houses, leaving houses, chatting on front steps, driving cars, carrying shopping home, walking dogs and small children, even washing their cars whilst their pair of Staffordshire bull terriers dozed on the pavement. I spent my first morning in my flat cleaning, aided by the extremely kind Accidental grandmother, who tackled my new fridge-freezer, while I dealt with a locksmith and some slightly grubby skirting-boards. Hungry from our morning's slaving, we set off towards the Holloway Road for some lunch. We had only just turned out of my road however when our progress was brought to an abrupt halt.

Under the all-seeing eye of a serious-looking female vicar clad in full-length black robes, there came a procession which halted both road and pavement traffic. A couple of hundred people, wrapped in white muslin shawls, some covering their whole bodies, with varying coloured borders, came towards us; clapping, singing quietly and even ululating. In their midst swayed multicoloured, silk umbrellas, shading precious boxes and books, and a striking fellow in full gold robes. One man's bright yellow high visibility jacket glowed beneath his white shawl, an oddly incongruous turquoise plastic first aid kit clasped behind his back. (Interestingly it looked very similar to the one my father presented me with, as a cautionary accompaniment to my new tool kit, the following day. Quite how much injury one can inflict upon oneself with a small hacksaw, a Stanley knife and numerous screwdrivers remains to be seen, but at least I can cope with any accidents which might arise on a public march!)

From the yellow, red and green colours which recurred throughout the procession and the signs outside the church at the end of my street, which shares its space with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, we gathered they must all be Ethiopian. Posters in a script I could not begin to identify gave dates for some festivity I could not even guess at. As they filed towards the church, and strangely the performing arts school on the opposite side of the road, we were able to continue on our search for food. But the shawls appeared throughout the day, on numerous streets. Quiet song filled the air around the church for the rest of the weekend.

I felt hideously ignorant not to know what was being celebrated at the end of my new street. Hopefully in time I will learn my new area, and the locals with whom I will share it. But despite my newby status, I felt it had to be an auspicious sign that I had arrived amid celebrations. And so begins a new chapter...

Saturday, 10 July 2010

East vs. West: The Cold War of London

Usually one of the first questions a Londoner will ask another Londoner upon meeting them is "So, where do you live?". This is not merely part of the standard "And what do you do?"-type polite conversation at which most Brits excel. If you are a Londoner you can tell all you need to know about where the conversation is going from the answer to that question. Where does this new person call home? The instant that you reply to such a query, the asker's brain begins computing. East? West? North? South? Well-connected transport-wise? Safe and middle-class or cool and slightly dodgy? Do you prioritise shopping facilities or boozing establishments? If they know the area even vaguely they will follow up with a series of street-specific queries to glean even more information about whether they are likely to have anything in common with you.
The London Postcode Map (by South London Maps)
When the Pet Shop Boys sang about East End boys and West End girls in the 1980s, the likelihood of the twain meeting was purely lyrical. But their classic hit about inner city struggles and class divides still rings vaguely true in London today. An urban Cold War splits East and West London, although money is beginning to blur the lines. The west of our city is a harbour for old money, ancient families, the middle and upper classes. The streets of Notting Hill, Hammersmith, Fulham, Shepherds Bush, Richmond, Barnes and Wandsworth are pounded by the wheels of sporty buggies and Ugg-booted feet. Post-university, students of Nottingham, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and many other ancient cities of learning, flock to this area of London to recreate their student house-shares; but in finer houses, with higher rents, and usually greater proximity to a Waitrose.

The East's development is newer. As illustrated by the characters of the popular soap opera "Eastenders", lower class London typically has held these trenches, but the new instant wealth of the City has begun to drag the area into modernity. Expensive penthouses, all steel and glass, mushroom up within old warehouses. Edgy fashion designers run studios off Brick Lane, and send their angular models down catwalks though disused industrial buildings. Whilst Brick Lane itself holds firm as the city's premier venue for Indian cuisine, restaurants of a more exclusive and expensive nature have begun to spring up among the curry houses, catering to the rich bankers with fat wallets who make their millions around Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street. The old docks and water-front markets are undergoing regeneration, no area more so than Stratford; a long way out east, and the site of the upcoming 2012 Olympics. Billions of pounds of investment promise to improve infrastructure in the area, once reliant on heavy industry. Its industrial, and hence now somewhat stagnant, economy has left East London less developed and more impoverished than West. Crime rates are higher here, and the area contains many scenes of turf war and gang clashes, often between horrifyingly young children, which hold back economic investment and further development of the area.

Similar divisions differentiate North and South London too. Whilst those in the south may deem themselves more civilised than those in the north, many North Londoners (stereotypically music, film and arty types, more bohemian, although often no less wealthy, than the bankers and lawyers in the south) regard southern London as boring. Proper south - "Sarf of the river" - is for many North Londoners a hell-hole of sink estates and all that is wrong with British society. The irony is that every area of London now has its shiny, plush Starbucks, and also its dodgy alleys with discarded rubbish it is best not to look at too closely. Where one lives and feels an affinity to is entirely personal. Every Londoner thinks their area is best, safest, cleanest, the most fun for a night out, has the greatest pubs and the most reasonable rents.

But I am about to cross the divide. Having lived in South-West London since I moved to the city almost three years ago, I am going north. Leaving the safety of upper middle-class Putney, and decidedly upper-class/who-cares-about-class-when-you're-this-rich Chelsea, I am moving to North London. I relinquish my SW postcode for a simple N. (I have also relinquished, no doubt to their owners' immense relief, numerous Accidental Family spare bedrooms, for which I remain eternally grateful.) I gain a shorter commute to work, lots of trees, the Regents Canal, Hampstead Heath, and most importantly a place of my own. Just nobody crush my dreams by mentioning the word 'mortgage'.

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Sunday, 27 June 2010

Peter Jones: In which I take refuge from the World Cup

Whilst the majority of the British population were parking themselves in front of their televisions to watch England's much anticipated, yet still lamented, defeat by Germany in football's 2010 World Cup last weekend I sought sanctuary in a place I hoped would be empty and calm. London's shops have been a notable refuge during the football matches of late, whilst the pubs, bars and even electrical shops selling plasma screen TVs, have been filled with heaving masses of groaning and yelling. The minority of us uninterested in watching our national over-paid sportsmen chase a ball around a South African field have had easy access to mid-summer sales and peaceful browsing in usually packed shops. Last Sunday, in search of an air mattress to sleep on in my new flat until I could actually buy some proper furniture, I made for the mecca of all things homely and civilised - Peter Jones.
On a visit to this uber-department store I had once overheard an amusing exchange on the escalators. "Do you know Peter Jones?" said one man to another, as if at a cocktail party introducing his companion to President Obama. The companion replied that regretfully he did not. The first man gestured to the six open-plan floors of clothes, electronics, furniture and glassware and continued, "This is it. Well, it's like an up-market John Lewis." I stifled a giggle behind this confident knower of Peter Jones, for in one way he was right but in another very wrong. Up-market though it may be, Peter Jones IS actually a Jones Lewis store. Several years ago when all the other John Lewis stores across the country lost their individual names (farewell 'Jessops of Nottingham', adieu 'Cole Brothers' in Sheffield), to all be known as John Lewises Peter Jones retained its name; so iconic was the store in its own right. It has sat on Sloane Square since the late 19th century, and despite undergoing numerous cosmetic surgeries is still a significant part of the Chelsea landscape.

Each department, from lighting and ovens in the basement to the imaginatively named "Top Floor" restaurant on, er, the top floor, is staffed by polite, well-spoken 'partners'. Due to the partnership structure of the company, in which all employees are share-holders in the business, no one is referred to as a shop assistant here. Displays are clean, bold and unfussy, leading one to believe that a single, vast television with surround-sound and an ipod dock is really all one needs in one's life to be happy. I found my air mattress in a deserted bed department, and no sooner had I found exactly what I was after a partner appeared at my elbow to offer assistance and to relieve me of my money. Had I not had time to browse the other floors I could have left with what I came for in 10 minutes flat - now that really is a score of which to be proud.

A wander around Peter Jones, amongst the yummy Chelsea mummies and daddies and tweedy proper English ladies, is the perfect antidote to World Cup hysteria. High piles of thick towels, huge racks of shiny saucepans and clothing from ballgowns and Ascot-worthy hats to yoga pants and tennis whites. All so calm and quiet, and abundant. There really cannot be much one needs in life that cannot be purchased from Peter Jones. Except maybe a decent national football team.

All the fun of the fair

Every so often, the expensive and glossy area of Hampstead Heath is invaded by a somewhat less glossy phenomenon. Arriving in a convoy of lorries and trailers, Coggers Fun Fair appears each bank holiday, all shining metal, technicolour plastic and canvas covers. At night the covers remain in place, keeping warm and dry an array of steel plates and beams and unlit light bulbs, but during the day something else emerges, like a fairy ring of mushrooms popping up through the grass. Vast metal monsters, unfurling and whirling, flashing lights chase one another along the edges of trailers. Loud foreign voices boom and cajole, drawing in customers to ride and scream, to be tossed and bumped and spun.

(Image courtesy of hampsteadheath.net)
On the last bank holiday an Accidental friend, another friend of hers and I spent a merry afternoon of shrieking and giggling at the fair. We took a ride on the Sky-flier, lifted high in the air and twirled like a majorette's baton. We rode our favourite, the Waltzer, screaming as we spun round, our necks snapping back so fast as to give us minor whiplash. The Accidental friend's sunglasses hurtled off her head and onto the running board, on which the ride's operators balanced like surfers. "My sunglasses! My sunglaaaasez!" she shrieked like a banshee until one running board surfer kindly rescued them. We sat for endless minutes waiting for the Joker to start up and toss us high into the air like a juggler's props. When it finally did however the small child in the car behind us brought the ride to a somewhat unscheduled end as he sobbed miserably for the duration, wedged into the ride between his two oblivious and insensitively grinning parents. Until well into the evening, bumper cars clashed and tiny wooden child-sized vehicles drove round and round in eternal circles. Hoops were tossed over bottles and balls were thrown at targets, all for the sake of winning a suspiciously smelly soft toy or a blow-up dolphin with a perplexing pink appendage.

Behind the flashing lights however is a fascinating culture. The families who tour the country bringing these wild rides to this usually refined corner of our city are part of a long-standing community of British travellers, who proudly live their lives very separately from mainstream society. Their children do not attend mainstream schools, and although they may have more permanent winter quarters, their homes and lives are on the road, or encamped on their fairground sites. They speak their own languages cobbled from ancient tongues and traveller slang. Whilst this may seem a somewhat curious way to live in our extraordinarily interconnected modern world, society might learn something from this unique community. Familial ties are strong within traveller communities, and although they marry very young, and usually always within their small community, divorce is extremely rare.
Maybe if one's work consisted of watching sensible adults descend into hysterical children with the application of speed and plastic safety bars, it is entirely normal to experience a deep desire to flee it all and remove oneself from this strange mainstream society of ours! But for those "sensible adults" among us there can be few things more satisfyingly fun than a regression to childhood, and nothing provides that quite like a funfair.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Ex and the City

From the Staten Island ferry, surveying the isle of Manhattan, one woman turns to another and says, "Who woulda thought an island that tiny, would be big enough to hold all our ex-boyfriends?". The rhetorical question comes from Miranda and the woman who shrugs in agreement is Carrie - two of the central characters of the long-running TV and film series "Sex and the City". (And arguably, despite their fictional nature, some of the most famous city-dwellers ever.) Four impossibly glamorous and moneyed New York women have been searching for a bit more than sex in their city now for over ten years. Their fictional trials and adventures watched by similar girls around the world, have defined an age of dating, sex, relationships, and being female in a big city.

For some reason, London has never countered with its own version of the programme. The closest the BBC has ever got is "Mistresses"; working to a similar "four-women-many-men" formula, but set in the somewhat less glitzy city of, er, Bristol. But here in London we live our own girly dramas, with a vast cast of millions. Many Londoners identify with the lives and storylines of the ladies of Sex and the City. They share their hideous dating disasters, weep over lost loves and relay hilarious stories of their more amusing encounters. And us London girls too feel the claustrophobia of sharing our city with our ex-lovers, and even their friends.

Many a night out with one's own friends can be utterly wrecked by a chance encounter with an ex or one of their closest (and hence likely to report back to said ex) friends. Our own rounds of Cosmopolitans have morphed into hysterical blind panics when one of our number catches a glimpse of someone they had rather not have seen. "Ohmgod, there by the bar! It's James/Ed/Fred/Whoever! Has he seen me? Can he see us? Do I look hot enough he'll regret ever dumping me?"

I have recently had a spate of run-ins with ex-boyfriends' friends - old school chums, gap year travel buddies, former housemates. Wherever I have turned there has been a potential spy observing my every evening out, ready to relay details of how I looked and who I was with. The past month has even seen me creep around the theatre (in a ridiculous manner echoing the classic farce I was there to watch), dreading the intervals in fear of being spotted by an old university friend of a former Accidental boyfriend. Worse still, it later dawned on me, he might have seen me and reported back my peculiar behaviour; walking along staring at the walls or peering nervously around corridors from behind a programme.

London is not merely a playground for the young and single, but also a graveyard full of the ghosts of dead relationships. Any one of our ghosts may pop up when least expected or prepared for; usually when one looks tired and scruffy in the supermarket rather than when one is looking stunning on a night out - sod's law! This is a terrifying and somewhat depressing thought sometimes. Yet as the scriptwriters behind Sex and the City know only too well, occasionally such chance encounters can force us to confront and make peace with our ghosts and our past, and they may even heal longstanding hurts and help us move on. And for those painfully embarrassing incidents where one can see no hope of salvaging one's reputation or personal pride, there are usually a few friends you can round up to listen to your woes. And if they're really good friends they'll feed you enough gin to erase the memory altogether.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

You can never go home again

They say you can never go home again. But last weekend I did. After moving out of the Accidental flatshare three months ago I have not returned, despite keeping in touch and meeting up with the Accidental (ex)housemates. When the unseasonable rain ruined a birthday picnic on Saturday, the party was relocated to my old flat in Putney, and I stepped across the threshold once more. Banging on the door and waiting to be let in, rather than whipping out my keys felt a little odd, but I was saved from an awkward moment by the arrival of another guest.
Once I climbed the same stairs I must have climbed a thousand times, I emerged to be greeted by endless familiar faces, and they all had one question to ask; "Does it feel weird being back here?". My answer was honest and exactly the same each time; "No, not at all." And truly it didn't. Being back in that flat felt familiar and comfortable, but I never once felt that I still lived there, or should be living there once more.
Some people describe a feeling of deep connection to a single place; their "spiritual home". A wise and much loved Accidental great-aunt once told me that everyone eventually finds a place they call home, but it may not actually be a childhood house or even their first place they buy or live in by themselves. Such a place need not even be a dwelling place. It could be a city, a wilderness, a particular building. One will never find this place by searching but will just realise one day, probably when you are far away, that that place is where you belong.
Until I went to university my parents' house, the only one I had ever lived in excepting term-times spent at boarding school (where home was once a room shared intimately with 12 others), was certainly the place I called home. This home is still where my family lives, and will thus always be a type of home for me - a home for family occasions and holidays, a constant refuge where I can always escape frantic, frustrating everyday life. Loved ones make a house a home, wherever that house may be. Someone in love once told me that his home had been where his parents lived until he met his girlfriend - then it was wherever she was.

London as a city is not my true home; as cities go, I feel far more at home in New York, for some inexplicable reason. Maybe a future house or flat here in London could be though. In my current transient state however, living in someone else's flat, not knowing when I will be in my first owned property, home means something else. It is not bricks and mortar, nor is it somewhere which belongs to me legally. Right now home is where I leave from to go to work, and return to after a hard day at work to collapse in front of the TV. Home is where I do my laundry, where I bake; where I release my inner domestic goddess (she doesn't get out much!) Home is where I recharge my iPod, my constant companion in the city, and home is where I sleep off the horrid days and wake up ready to face the new ones. Maybe that is why you can never go home - because home comes with you just when you think you are leaving it.

Friday, 28 May 2010

A little late-night learning at the Science Museum

"Did you just invite me to this thing so I would write a blog on it and you'd get mentioned again?" I quizzed a friend, who has on occasion complained she is not mentioned enough in this blog. Of all my friends she has probably appeared the most, yet she remains without an Accidental name. So now came a challenge to name my dear, fame-whore friend. We batted a number of options back and forward - rejecting the more ridiculous, and frankly misleading. The Accidental Giggle Monster was vetoed instantly (I mean, seriously!). Finally I agreed, due to her Aberdonian heritage, she could be the Accidental Scot, and so from now on, that is what she will be.

So the other night the Accidental Scot and I went to hang out at the Science Museum - wild eh? Similarly to its South Kensington neighbour, the V&A, every Wednesday evening of each month the Museum reopens its doors an hour or so after its official closing time, for adults only; this is the XXX Science Museum experience. Sort of. The bliss of wandering around one of the city's top museums unaccompanied by thousands of screaming four-foot horrors makes the queue for entry worth the wait. One often forgets that museums were not originally designed for class-trips and school holidays, and grown-ups should occasionally get to play too.

Here at the Science Museum we watched fully-grown adults jabbing buttons and poring over touch-screens, even playing chicken with a strange, humming pole which electrocuted those brave, or stupid, enough to stick their fingers through its metal guard-bars. The Accidental Scot and I wandered through a multitude of galleries and exhibits - Medicine, Space, Energy, Agriculture (well, actually the Accidental Scot got lost there searching for me amid the dangling red panels which shroud Plastics). Tucked into several areas of blank floor space were a number of impromptu bars, named after prominent scientists, so the late night visitors could wander, beer-, wine-, or horrifyingly lurid cocktail-in-hand, through the vast halls.

But these "Lates" offer even more than free access to a wide array of clear perspex boxes full of fascinating things. The Museum lays on a number of exclusive talks on its greatest treasures, and explaining how an IQ is calculated, or how a genius is defined. For those in search of a more hedonistic cultural experience a silent disco provides an extraordinary dancefloor amid space shuttles and twirling planets. (And it also gives the rest of us visitors a good giggle, watching them flail and boogie away, huge headphones clamped over their ears, in the absence of any audible music.) The Accidental Scot and I took a ride on a 3D simulation of a space shuttle mission to the moon, which left us somewhat jolted and in need of supper after our evening of educative culture. So we left the museum and all the listening and learning, and dancing and drinking, and went to dinner. And from now on I shall only go to museums where one can drink and be merry, and where one never has to fight a 6 year old to press the buttons.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Messing about in boats

Over the course of my recent flat-hunt I have come across some slightly bizarre places to live. I have approached houses from dodgy alleyways and up rickety iron staircases. I have seen showers which open out directly into the bedroom - a bath-mat beside a bedside table. Early on however, the kind Accidental relative who is allowing me lodging in her spare room took me to see where she first lived in London. And there was not a single brick or tile in sight, for she lived on a floating houseboat, moored beneath Cheyne Walk.
When one thinks of houseboats in cities one often imagines the barges on the canals of Amsterdam, decks lined with terracotta pots full of tulips. Or even the whole floating micro-cities in crowded Asian slums along coasts and rivers. Here too in London, driven by a desire for novelty and a decreasing amount of ground space to develop, homes can be found on the city's waterways; from The City at Canary Wharf, across to the highly sought-after Little Venice, at the junction of the Regent's and Grand Union Canals.

Next to the hurtling motors of the Chelsea Embankment the River Thames sploshes slowly through Central London. Ducks and geese bob up and down on top of it, as do clusters of wooden and metal boats, ebbing and flowing on the tide. These clusters form tiny floating villages, each differently painted and shaped boat linked to the others via bouncy platforms and white steps and ladders. A furry face peers out of a window, watching the seabirds squawking by. A pot of tea sits on a metal table, atop an open book, while down on the lower deck a boat-dweller sunbathes amid plants. These boats are houses, and gardens, even home-offices, all on a neat and compact scale which would be agony for the chronically untidy.

Walking between them all one feels as if one is on an inflatable fairground attraction. The kind Accidental relative tells me that silent nights in her boat were often rent by sudden shrieks as girls brought back by her male neighbours missed a step up to a boat and crashed through the plastic decking into the icy water after a drunken night out. She spoke very fondly of the sense of community amongst the boat-owners, and professed that one was never alone on a houseboat.
Similar to addresses, boat names are passed from one resident to another; Puddleduck, Trafalgar, and Gypsy Princess. Inhabitants come and go, although not nearly so frequently as residents of traditional flats and houses. Once you have bought a houseboat you seem unable to part with it. Which probably explains why I will not be making one my first property - desirable as they are, their sale prices are somewhat steep. But for one of the most unique homes in London one can see why there are some who deem this a price worth paying.
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