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.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

La vie Boheme

Old Compton Street struts its way through Soho, draped in rainbow flags, and bouncing to its own Euro-disco beat. A well-known gay mecca for Londoners, Old Compton Street never really sleeps. Even in the early hours of the morning, hyperactive energy still buzzes through the bars, gaming arcades, restaurants and clubs. On a corner, opposite the Prince Edward Theatre where Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons reprise their hits each night, sits a small bar and French bistro. Step inside and one leaves behind the camp craziness and enters an alternate Parisian universe, through the doors of the glamourous Café Boheme.
Refurbished a couple of years ago, the bar and restaurant rock a sort of French bistro chic look; pale tiles in a range of shapes and sizes, polished brass rails, and a high metal-topped bar, agleam with sparkling glassware. The bar itself is always popular, rammed with self-satisfied media types who take themselves a tiny bit too seriously. Anytime after 6pm, therefore, space (even sufficient elbow-room to raise a beautifully-shaped wine glass to one's lips) is hard to come by. If one is lucky however you can bag an old wooden pew outside the restaurant, where the dishes on the people-watching menu are second to none.
The wine list is extensive but exclusively French. Beer is more varied, and the cocktails swing from the classics to the Boheme house specials. The restaurant works longer hours than a City banker; producing croissants for breakfast, full lunches and dinners, and burgers and blinis until 2am for hungry post-night-out revelers. I usually meet the Accidental Cousin at Café Boheme expressly for the Steak-Frites, which comes accompanied by a close, and extremely welcome, friend; one of the best Bearnaise sauces in London.

Service is swift, if not exactly with a smile - this is a truly French restaurant, where waiting on tables is no joke. There is always a slight cloud over the freshly-laundered tablecloth however, as one is usually granted a table with the caveat that it is yours for two hours, and not a minute more. I always imagine a row of little stopclocks behind the bar; "Alors, Marie! Ze couple next to ze weendow have unly deux minutes more. Prepare ze leetle table scraper and ze clean wine glasses!"

I never regret either a meal or a single glass of post-work wine at Café Boheme, but if one wants to eat I advise reserving a table in person or over the phone. A recent online booking I made was denied existence with the ferocity of a Frenchman defending the honour of his cheese against an upstart English dairy-farmer. Such shrugging and eye-rolling is rarely seen outside of a Parisian tabac. And with such truly French touches as these, Café Boheme has created a wonderfully unique corner for itself within a very British city - Viva la vie Boheme!

Cafe Boheme on Urbanspoon

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Elephant Parade

When I was at primary school I was taught that there were two types of elephant; the Indian (small ears) and the African (big ears). My teachers were wrong - they lied. Or they'd just never been to London. Here we have hundreds of different types. In the past week our streets have been invaded by psychedelic pachyderms. They skulk in parks, watch the traffic go by from the pavements, and sit in shadows of office buildings, overseeing courier deliveries and cigarette breaks.

They are here for the 2010 London Elephant Parade, all 250 plus of them. Both a public awareness drive and a citywide art project, these fibreglass creatures are here to raise money for the endangered Asian elephant; within 30 years these noble, beautiful animals could all be gone if the conservation effort to save them fails. So numerous artists and celebrities have jumped on the environmentalist bandwagon and doodled, designed and decorated for an ultimate charity auction.
This is "Boogie Woo", who lives in the garden in the middle of SoHo Square. With her pigtales and patchwork sketches, she is an elephantine drawing board, covered in fantasy castles and cobalt kingfishers. The braincalf of artist Nandita Chaudhuri parks her bottom amid the parrot tulips and carefully-tended turf, and watches the tourists and shoppers of Oxford Street stream down to the West End.
Some elephants shelter from our inclement May indoors. Jack Vettriano's "The Singing Butler Rides Again" rides again through the Burlington Arcade, with Vettriano's signature scrawled on his white behind like a graffiti tag on a park bench. Down the far end of the Arcade stands his Swarovskvi-encrusted friend named "Manasuna", twinkling away under her sparkling blue eyelashes.
And my favourite so far, the nearest to my flat, "Gaia Elephant", smiling eyes hiding behind Eurasia. When I see him I am almost home, but he is miles from where he belongs. Dislocated beasts from a world far, far away from this city. And whilst their fibreglass friends tramp the Southbank savanna, over in New York City the real deal have been staging their own parade. Don't believe me? Truly, I'm not kidding. Who knew that the wildlife in our Western cities could be so wild?

Sunday, 2 May 2010


I'm having a few Accidental connection issues at the moment, hence my latest post may not make it up for a week or so. In its absence however, I direct all fans of London, and city blogging to LandingPad London; a brilliant new site for both Londoners and visitors to the city who don't wish to look like tourists.

After the editorial team featured a link to one of my posts recently, they kindly asked if I would like to contribute to their site, and so, if you take a look you will find the odd Accidental article at this location from time to time. I hope this makes up for my temporary Accidental absence...!
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