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.
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