Sunday, 28 March 2010

An encounter with a Booker Prize winner?

Last night I had a sureal encounter. The kind of encounter that one can only have on a London street. And because it happened there, I still am not sure whether it was real or not. After a night's girly frivololity with an Accidental Schoolfriend at Piano in High Street Kensington, bellowing out keyboard classics such as "Tiny Dancer" and "Piano Man", I had headed home around 1am. By half one I was pounding home down the Kings Road. Ahead of me a middle-aged man in wellies and a jacket more suited to hunting and fishing than central London plunged towards the road then back on to the pavement, several times. He was clutching something and lurching around in the manner of one who was pretty intoxicated but not yet anticipating how awful he would feel the next morning.

I drew level with him, concerned slightly that he might be about to be crushed beneath the wheels of a speeding car, passing not so far from his fumbling feet. His eyes fixed on me and he lurched towards me. He slurred a greeting and I slowed. "Hello," he said, then something unintelligible about "a lovely young lady". I paused (the man was smashed), "Are you doing alright?" I asked cautiously. We spoke together "I'm totally drunk!" said he. "You do seem a little the worse for wear" I countered. "You're so kind' he responded, to my slightly more delicate allusion to his state.

He clutched my arm and slurred (still grasping whatever it was he was grasping) "I'm trying to get to Putney". Now being a recent Putney emigrant I realised he was going the wrong way. I pointed this out. "I know" he told a spot approximately 6 inches to my left, although I wasn't convinced. "Shall we get you a cab?" I asked. He nodded, thanking me profusely and I began the London taxi cab eye scan, over his tweedy shoulder.

My iPod blared out from around my neck. "What are you listening to?" he asked, gesturing to the dangling ear-buds. I answered truthfully, "Something awful; it's on shuffle at the moment." This seemed to satisfy him. Out of nowhere, "I won the Booker Prize you know" he said. I raised both eyebrows. "Really?". "Yes, really." came back the sozzled reply. "1994...." and then what I remember as "James Kay". I mummured a reply which I hoped was impressed, yet at the same time (given his evidently totally inebriated state), slightly unconvinced. I promised to Google him tomorrow. My eye scan located a free cab. Despite my arm aloft it sailed by. (Although I wondered if its potential plastered passenger had served as a major deterrent.)

Another cab swiftly emerged in the correct direction ("I'm going to Putney, the Lower Richmond Road" - not so far from my own former residence), and I hailed it and gently pushed the gentleman towards it. "1994, Booker Prize...a book called The Life and Times of Michael K was appalling. South African". As he gave his destination to the driver I deemed it safe to head off down my road. I turned halfway down, to check he was safely ensconced, but he had reappeared. Chinos tucked into wellies, jacket flapping, lurching somewhat. Seeing me looking back he yelled something, but Girls Aloud were blaring through my headphones and I didn't hear it. I raised a hand to my head in a military salute to this self-proclaimed literary genius, and he matched my movement, as much as a completely drunk man can.

I got home and Googled the 1994 Booker Prize, which was won by a James Kelman (not so different from "James Kay"). J.M. Coetzee won the prize in 1983 for "The Life and Times of Michael K". The book was indeed South African, but evidently that year's judges did not think the novel appalling. The man I had met on the Kings Road looked nothing like the author's image in that book jacket. But my mystery man looked not entirely dissimilar to James Kelman. Just who had I encountered in the early hours of this morning? And was he truly a Booker Prize winner? Anywhere else I would have been sceptical, and written him off as a drunken wannabe...but here in London, you can never be sure just who you may have bumped into.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Upstairs, downstairs: Living above a restaurant

My new temporary home is not entirely new. Over two years ago, when I first found my freshly-graduated self in London, a kind Accidental Relative lent me a spare room, which I eventually left for the flat in Putney. Now I find myself returned to it, and to familiar host of unique sounds and features that a home above a restaurant brings. The lovely flat in which I am kindly afforded lodging (rent paid in light rewiring and window cleaning) occupies a couple of floors above a very good and widely renowned Italian restaurant. This is a classy establishment - no kebabs served til 4am or chips doing front crawl through pools of dirty grease here. Walls are covered in black and white photos of the rich and glamourous, tablecloths are perfectly flat-ironed and laid with shining silverware, breadsticks and olives. Both lunch and dinner times draw a sizeable crowd of diners who eat their Fegato alla Veneziana under the watchful eye of the bustling Italian staff.
You can set your watch by the noisy patterns of a restaurant. The sound of extractor fans and refrigeration equipment float upwards into the flat and punctuate my day with whirs and clunks. On they go around ten in the morning as the kitchen prepares for lunch, and off again when dessert is done. Then a brief few hours of peace until around half five when preparation for the evening supper shift begins. The Accidental Relative and I debate the reason for the pounding noise often heard mid-morning. Is chef tenderising the veal? Or crushing ice maybe? Beating the washer-uppers into submission? We may never know.
Fortunately sometime after eleven at night everything falls silent, as the final throbbing powers down with a last whir. The kitchen table in the flat no longer vibrates slightly. The windows rest unrattling in their frames. In the hallway, one can no longer here the muffled chink of silverware on china, or the sound of a chair scraping across a floor.

The activity of a restaurant flows, not just throughout the buildings which it shares with other residents, but out beyond its walls. Lorries delivering gourmet cheeses and crates of clinking beer bottles disgorge their freight onto the pavement under the restaurant's awning. Yells in Italian reverberate up the narrow street, as staff take deliveries and sweep the pavement. Huge hinged stainless steel bins beneath the windows hold the restaurant's beverage stock, including thousands of ice cubes, many of which end the evening dribbling towards the roadside, never fulfilling their destiny of floating in a gin and tonic, with a friendly slice of lime.

The noises one learns to live with - the restaurant is no neighbour from hell - but just occasionally its clients intrude upon my household peace. Generally this is not through any fault of their own it must be said; a somewhat secret doorway entrance to this otherwise prominent dining establishment confuses its patrons regularly. Hopping out of cabs they stand looking in at the windows, desperately wondering how to gain access to their three courses and fine wines. Occasionally they make the mistake of assuming the door to the flat is the restaurant entrance. Usually by the time I have opened the door to inform them of their error, they have already begun to realise it themselves. Most apologise profusely and are grateful to be redirected. One party however barged straight into the front hall, announcing their reservation. A large, somewhat forceful man was practically shrugging off his coat and barking his drinks order at me before, noticing the horror on my face, he paused and asked "Is this not the restaurant?". Had I had my wits about me I should really have slammed the door behind the man and his friends and held them captive, charging them hundreds of pounds for scrambled eggs on toast. But I simply shook my head and pointed round the corner, and they disappeared, leaving me in peace. Although it might seem, from all the bangs, clangs and judders, that I practically live in a restaurant, fortunately the sounds and occasional smell are usually all that make it up the stairs and into my tranquil flat.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Is summer finally a-coming in?

Fleetingly, and not a moment before the start of March, we Londoners are being given a tantalising taste of the end of winter. My, but this winter has dragged. It's been winter in London since last August! We Londoners have been swathed in layers of scarves, bulky coats and furry boots for many months; each of us only a four-dog husky team away from full Arctic-exploration chic.
But slowly there are hints of change. A distinct smell of new growth and damp, rather than frozen, soil. A quiet chirrup of birdsong in the mornings, on the marginally less painful commute to work. A rise in temperature which has ushered in the Spring-Summer wardrobes. For the first time in months I have braved a jacket rather than my long coat. My feet feel surprisingly dainty in my flat ballet pumps, released from my rarely-removed, clumpy sheepskin boots. I can feel the tips of my fingers for the first time in months.
We have reclaimed the evenings. Day now slowly transitions into night, by way of peaceful dusk, instead of the wintery shutter slamming shut on the day's business before 5pm, leaving the city in instant darkness. During the day long-forgotten sunshine creeps out of hibernation, changing the face of the city entirely. Like a misbehaving lover who crawls back for forgiveness, and who makes you forget all the anger and fury with sweet words, so too London bathed in sunlight after a prolonged dingy winter erases all memory of harsh cold and miserable greyness. A simple smile of sunlight and all transgressions are forgotten.

But I'm not getting too overexcited. Of an evening, there is still a nip in the air which causes one to tighten a scarf about one's neck, and bury hands deep in pockets. The evenings of alfresco drinking and dining, and Pimms and barbeques are still some way off. Sunglasses may not be entirely silly now (a sentiment not shared by the Accidental Chum who told me off for wearing them yesterday), but anyone caught wearing flip-flops (like the chap sauntering down my new road earlier as if he were on the Cote d'Azur) in March remains either mad, or struggling to let go of their gap year travels.

Who knows if it is my change of scene, a different side of the river, a new space in which to live, but change is in the air. I shall remain quietly welcoming of any sunshine which bravely ventures out into this crisp March, but not dust off my bikinis just yet, for fear I might scare it away. But if I wait, and make no sudden movements, I may just witness the seasons changing.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

New places, new faces

My temporary new home, in a new London borough is somewhat different from my flat in Putney. It's not the buildings which differ hugely, nor is there a varying range of entertainment. The river is still a walk away. My usual bus route to work is still accessible. What marks my change of scene are my new neighbours, and fellow pavement-pounders. Leaving English families with small children, Aussies and Kiwis, post-university first-timers in Wandsworth, I find myself in the realm of the Sloane, in the heart of Chelsea. Walking down the street there one is often more likely to hear Spanish, French or Russian spoken than English, but the Kings Road is still a stronghold for the dying breed of moneyed, young Brits.

So, a spotter's guide. Here come the girls. Appearance-wise they all look pretty much the same. Hair is worn too long, dried out from peroxide and straighteners, usually flopped over one over-kohled eye. Make-up is over-applied, to create an orange mask over pale English rose skin, with heavy lashings of black eye-liner - this is never removed, more is simply applied over existing coats, creating a smudged, just-rolled-out-of-bed effect. Younger versions are slightly podgy, the elder ones are scarily thin, courtesy of eating disorders. Differing figures however are usually drowned in their tactic of layering of vest tops, cashmere, cardigans, huge knits or hoodies. Their arms clatter with wristfuls of bracelets, from gap years in Thailand or birthday presents from Tiffany. Legs are clad in denim (mini-skirts, hotpants even in the winter, or skin-tight jeans) or tracksuit bottoms, with stare-inviting slogans across the buttocks. Sloaney feet are shod in flat ballet pumps in black, animal print or gold, or the ubiquitous Ugg boot in traditional tan. Huge sunglasses obscure half the face, and are warn at all times regardless of season or weather, outdoors or inside. Loud and brash, these girls rasp in haughty voices, gravelled from smoking since pre-GCSEs. They name drop loudly, and gossip about shopping, possessions and meeting Ed, Fred, Ted and Beaky later at Boujis.

The boys are less offensive, but still noticeable. More often dark where their female counterparts are blonde, many are somewhat beautiful in a chiseled or floppy-haired way. The drawback is that they are all too aware of their attractiveness. Those less gorgeous cultivate an alternative attribute with which to gain the attention of the girls, commonly an eccentric dress sense. Along the Kings Road, I have witnessed oversized yellow ski-goggles atop a flammable gel-spiked quiff, green tweed jackets lined with scarlet satin, silk ties worn over t-shirts, all ruffling the seas of traditional navy blue and pastel pinks.

As a social group they appear to have little regard for anyone else - particularly for those older, employed (and thus incapable of meeting for a three hour lunch mid-week), or capable of existing alone. They never appear solo in public, but sweep down pavements three or four abreast, knocking everyone else into the gutter. They may have money but without a Blackberry or iPhone to link them to their hoardes of acquaintances they are, in their eyes, poverty-stricken. What odd creatures! What strange jungle have I landed myself in? Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Putney any more...
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