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...
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