Sunday, 27 November 2011

The man on the platform

As I stepped off the Tube and headed for the exit I saw him.  A fifty or sixty-something man in a suit, carefully placing his belongings in a pile and then lying down beside them on the ground.  By the time I reached him there were only a handful of other people on the platform.  Plenty more had already walked past him, oblivious to this man sprawled on the floor, with his arms over his head, clearly in some pain and distress.

Two young women were hovering near the man, asking tentatively if he was ok. This was a question that did not need an answer.  'Should I call an ambulance?' one asked him.  He nodded weakly, his face white and sweaty.  I returned to the platform where a station attendant was changing the posters along the platform; 'Excuse me, there's a gentleman here who needs some medical help.'  He finished struggling with his papery task and headed over to join our little huddle on the now empty platform.  The two women dashed off to dial up the emergency services, whilst the attendant adopted a facial expression which indicated he had clearly seen this all before.  Getting down on the ground next to the man he established the man's name and the fact he had a heart condition, rearranged him into the recovery position, and radio-ed upstairs to alert the rest of the station's staff.
As the attendant spoke into his crackly radio and shortly departed for the ground level control room, I was left with the poor man, crouched on the cold, dusty station floor, trying to keep him in the recovery position as he rolled backwards and forwards clutching his chest.  I talked to him, trying to calm him down, explaining why he needed to try and stay still and why we could not do any more to alleviate his pain until the trained medical professionals arrived.  He told me where he had been and where he lived, gasping out his words as he fought for breath.  For several minutes we two people were alone on the platform, and then another train pulled in.  Blocking the exit as we were, numerous commuters hustled towards us, most of whom gave neither of us a second glance - this older gentleman in what now looked like severe pain, and this young girl who knelt by him probably looking rather terrified.  Someone asked if we'd called an ambulance or if we needed any help, but the majority of people swept past keen to get home to their warm houses, where no stranger in distress threatened their comfort.  

Time crept by as I and the man awaited the paramedics.  Another train-load of people passed us by, some trampling a little too close for my own personal safety, rubber-necking but unwilling to take any responsibility for what they saw before them.  Then silence again.  A minute or two later I heard a radio crackle, and two paramedics dressed in green arrived, all jolly and jokey.  'Hello!  Who have we got here? Is he your dad?' one asked me.  I admitted that until about twenty minutes ago I had never seen this chap before in my life.  Once the paramedics were there however I breathed a sigh of relief.  Here were people used to dealing with strangers in need, something I most certainly was not.  The tension in the tunnel dispersed, as the paramedics conducted tests, joked about the man's luck at being found by 'such a pretty good samaritan', extracted further information from the man and stabilised him.  Despite his protests that he would rather spend a couple more hours lying on the floor of the station, the paramedics, now aided by two more colleagues, hoisted the man into an e-vac chair and pushed him towards the elevator. They picked up their large crash bags and I gathered up the neat pile of belongings which he had deposited when he was first taken ill.  'Ooh thanks! You'd be amazed how many times things like that get left behind.' laughed the paramedics as I placed them in the back of the ambulance once we were above ground once more.

'Thank you' the man said as the doors of the ambulance closed on him.  Once he had got his breath back down in the station he had repeated it over and over.  'Don't worry about it. It's no problem!' I'd said, and smiled in what I hoped was a reassuring way, that didn't convey how unsettled I had been by the whole incident.  What I didn't say to the man was 'When we were alone in the tunnel I hoped you wouldn't die because I wouldn't know what to do.'  I didn't say the thing that haunted me afterwards as I walked home, which was 'One day that might be me on that floor'.  As a sufferer of migraines that leave me half blind and unable to speak properly, I have often worried about what would happen if one struck on the Underground.  And maybe that was partly why I stopped to help the man, in the hope that my actions might accrue some karma points that I might need to cash in sometime.  If I were to collapse in a subway station I would want someone to stop and find out what was wrong, to get me help and to stay with me. I would want someone to find out who I was.  I would want them to make sure my coat and handbag were not just abandoned on the platform, but came with me when I left.  I would want more than anything not to be alone.  And that was the main reason I could not just walk on by, because being alone somewhere in a city where there are hundreds and thousands of people all around you is somehow so much scarier than being alone in a place where you are truly on your own. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Accidental Eats: Pizza at Franco Manca in Brixton Market

A shortish post today (but who knows, maybe it could be the first in an Accidental series on city eateries...) on a rather lovely place to eat.  I am, a year on from my move into my first flat, a well-established North London gal.  I feel rather about Hampstead Heath as I once did the Thames when I lived in Putney, and cannot bear the thought of not having it within easy strolling distance whenever I chose.  So I am at a complete loss when I venture into certain South London areas.  Brixton, for example.  Brixton for me for a long time was simply the place one went to for gigs, at the slightly scummy but atmospheric Academy.  You took the tube to Brixton station, nipped through the streets to the Academy, watched a band or two, and hurtled home.  (Occasionally there might be an additional detour in which one repairs to Speedy Noodle for some post-gig take-away, however let me prevent anyone else making the mistake we did and assuming that their service as well as their Noodle was speedy...slowest chips in London.)  

When the Accidental Ex-boyfriend announced he was buying a flat in South London I had a hope that my ignorance of places 'sarf of tha river' was about to be rectified, and so it seems it was.  After a visit to what will become his new local cinema (the Brixton Ritzy, not too shabby but it's no Curzon), the Accidental Ex escorted my starving self to Franco Manca, in Brixton Market.  Whilst the rest of the market was all closed up, metal shutters padlocked down, and shop or stall lights all extinguished, a couple of small restaurants were still doing business as we wandered through the darkened, chilly space.  A tiny pizza place straddled the walkway through the market, with half its serving space and half its seating on either side, and a flurry of waitstaff hurtling between clusters of munching patrons.

We both ordered the special meat pizza of the day, which came loaded with pancetta and aubergines and perfectly salty mozarella.  Franco Manca's legendary sourdough base, which is much raved about among the London pizzeratti, was, I am happy to report, spectacularly tasty.  Service was speedy and efficient, and we were brought a wonderfully fresh and interesting salad to accompany our pizzas - no pre-packaged leaves here.  I ordered a homemade lemonade and was brought a large stoppered glass bottle full of cloudy, citrussy goodness, all to myself.  I was instantly restored by food (I am like a small child when it comes to feeding times - liable to sulk or strop if they do not happen regularly), and very content to sit outside in the eerie, empty market under the gratifyingly cosy heaters.  Franco Manca was the perfect post-cinema pizza place; although its not open every evening so check in advance or swing by for lunch rather than dinner.  If you ever find yourself peckish in Brixton, go!  (I'm afraid I was too hungry to spend time taking a photo of my delicious supper, so you'll just have to go and see what it looks like for yourself...)

Franco Manca
Unit 4, Market Row, Brixton, London, SW9 8LD

Franco Manca on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Accidental Visits: The Grant Museum of Zoology

I had a rare afternoon off work a week or two ago.  The weather was grey and grizzly otherwise I might have been tempted to stroll across town and do some damage to my bank account with a shopping spree.  Instead my desires leaned toward sitting on my sofa, with the central heating on, watching an undemanding film.  But no, I told myself, I should make more of this city in which I reside, and spend my spare time exploring its delights.  And so I seized upon the opportunity to do something I could never do at any other time.  As I had trudged to and fro from my college in Bloomsbury over the past two years in pursuit of my Masters I had noticed an enticing sign: Grant Museum of Zoology, open weekdays between 1 and 5pm.  I had longed for those two years to visit, but the opening hours were totally useless for anyone with a job.  But why my desperation to look at pickled things in jars?  

Between finishing at school and starting my undergraduate degree I took a gap year, like many of my friends.  But I eschewed the typical option of working in an orphanage or teaching English as a foreign language somewhere.  Full moon parties on the beaches of Thailand or backpacking across Europe held no appeal for me either.  Instead I headed for a large island in the Indian Ocean, to work as a research assistant on a species survey expedition, in a large forest along a river in southwest Madagascar.  Out there we were taught how to set traps, how to check them and how to identify and classify the creatures we found within them.  We were informed of the importance of taking specimens (one male and female from each species that we discovered), and thus taking two lives to be able to save hundreds or thousands more.  Even with the knowledge that we were acting for the greater good, taking specimens was not a comfortable experience.  Yet with practice it became easier and by the time we returned to the UK we had filled and meticulously labelled numerous jars of formalin with lizards, chameleons, mice, snakes and frogs.  We also had a bloody good laugh and my months spent in the forest hold many happy memories for me, yet it made me something of a specimen geek, hence my fascination for zoology museums.

So off I went, that grey afternoon.  The museum itself - with wonderful free admission - is housed in a single large room, and I initially thought I would probably be in and out within 20 minutes or so.  Yet once inside, and engaged in peering into the glass cabinets and surveying the exhibits within, I realised that one could easily lose oneself for quite some time in this place.  Behind the desk at the entrance a woman sketched a stuffed owl whilst, without looking up, she clicked in each visitor who arrived, counting those who had come to wander round this extraordinary place.
The museum - originally founded in 1827 by Robert Grant, a teacher of Charles Darwin - was recently relocated to its current spot, at 21 University Street, where it is now housed in a former medical library.  Many fixtures of the old library still remain, the shelves and cabinets provide wonderful storage facilities for the thousands of specimens in their glass jars and pots.  The library stretches over two floors as well - although the museum is only held on the ground floor - and the second floor is still lined with bookshelves, filled with bound books, and from whence a jaunty collection of large skeletons (one human) peer down on the visitors below.  In one corner, hidden behind the display cases, a small staff sits tapping away at computers, identifying, cataloguing and curating the collection.

The museum holds around 67,000 specimens from the many phyla of the animal kingdom.  There are fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and even corals.  An enormous rhinoceros skeleton may be the largest exhibit on display but in contrast on tiny glass slides you can also spy minute jellyfish the size of a newborn baby's little fingernail.  Some jars contain multiple specimens, like a large pot of starfish or a bottle of pickled pig embryos.  The shelves look like a peculiar sweet-shop, with the most grisly and intriguing of confectionery for sale.  I was particularly fascinated by a cross-section of a shark egg, with a tiny baby shark curled up inside, and a Suriname toad preserved in the process of giving birth to its babies, which peculiarly burst forth from its back and swim straight off into the water in which it chooses to spawn.  There were some slightly disturbing pickled cross-sections of the much loved family pets, Felis catus and Canis familiaris, and a sweet little otter whose silky fur floated around him as he snoozed in his glass jar.  There were plenty of taxidermy specimens alongside the pickled ones, my favourite being a rather over-stuffed platypus who was balding in patches like a much-loved soft toy. 
Above are a small sample from some of the marine and river-dweller cupboards.  On the left you have sea-mice (actually a kind of segmented worm, known as an annelid) with wonderful holographic bristles, which really do glow and shine as the photo suggests.  And you can, as the label on top of their jar indicates, adopt your favourite pickled friends.  It would make quite a Christmas present: "Oh, a preserved jar of sea cucumbers, just what I always wanted!"  Over on the right is a fishy fellow, who is either very jaunty and friendly-looking or deeply creepy; I'm not quite sure, but I think maybe creepy with that single scary, preserved beedy eye watching you.
Many of the specimens seem somewhat muted in colour as they float in pickled suspension.  Others have been treated with an alizarin preparation which renders soft tissue clear and stains hard organs red; examining these specimens of frogs or fish is like looking at them in an x-ray machine.  The museum also boasts a rare collection of glass models of snails and fish and other animals, which date back to the nineteenth century.  Anatomically accurate as well as rather pretty they are a nice reminder of the close relationship between science and art.  

I passed a happy hour marvelling at the wonders of our natural world, and I wondered where the specimens that I helped gather had ended up.  Our work in Madagascar was undertaken for several zoological partners, including the WWF, and many specimens may have ended up in sealed systems hidden miles away from the general public, but maybe a rare tuft-tailed mouse or a particularly fine skink might grace these wonderful shelves one day and inspire a new generation to spend their gap year living in a forest in the middle of nowhere gathering specimens to identify a new creature or two and to save many thousands more.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Wear and tear: London's appetite for my wardrobe

When I moved to London I anticipated I might have to make some sacrifices.  There would be no more driving around in my beloved car, no more living rent-free in my parents' large, comfortable house with its lovely, green garden.  Work hours would probably be longer and places I wanted to visit would be busier.  I would have to give up fresh air and clear skin, and make my peace with a string of colds (ooh and Swine Flu) caught on unhygienic public transport.  What I had not been prepared to sacrifice were my clothes.  

London is quite literally destroying my wardrobe.  Since I have lived in this city my poor clothes are being damaged, eaten up and worn out at a surprising speed.  No items are safe - tights, coats, jackets, jumpers, skirts.  This city, aided by some of its inhabitants, is slowly devouring them all. London's streets, buses and tubes, even bars and clubs, are site of sartorial sabotage. I know that one should expect a little wear and tear over time but it is not unknown for a brand new item of clothing to not even pass a single day unscathed in this city.
Hosiery has been my most vulnerable clothing category, and buses have been their Waterloo. Random screws sticking out of seats, the zips of other commuters' jackets, and worse of all exposed velcro have all claimed fresh deniers mere minutes after they had been worn out the front door. Wet, dripping, unfurled umbrellas are my poor leg-cladding's nemesis; so many spikey spokes.

Jackets and coats too have been similarly harassed by other people's errant accessories. I recently seethed for an entire afternoon, cursing the woman who could not be bothered to do up the flapping metal buckle on her handbag that caught my beloved boucle jacket, and pulled out a large woolly knot. I have stared down mothers of flailing children, cringeing away from their sticky fingers and carelessly flamboyant colouring-in (felt-tip pens have no place on a bus!) to protect my beloved black wool coat, purchased at mind-bending expense from Ted Baker with the express purpose of making me look well-groomed and sophisticated, not well-thumbed by jammy-fingered sprogs.

I cannot count the pairs of shoes which have succumbed to the city, soles worn through by the harsh, abrasive pavements. I have become intimately acquainted with an excellent cobbler who patiently repairs worn heels and scuffed toes. He is a resurrecting shoe-doctor, coaxing a few extra weeks or months of life out of my dying footwear.

Even at home, where due to my ongoing flat decoration scheme (current end-date expected: 2020), most of my clothes reside on a large, ugly metal frame rack, they are not safe. Lepidoptera are out to get my wardrobe too. A gorgeous Diane von Furstenburg jumper I picked up for a song at Bloomingdale's in New York was the one thing in my chest of drawers that moths munched their way through.  Expensive tastes, these moths.  Actually that's not quite true; they also seem to like the taste of my tea towels, but as I don't tend to wear those out and about very often this bothers me less.

Somedays - on the rare days I leave the house feeling rather well-dressed as opposed to not caring what I look like as I am late, late, late - I wish I could travel through the streets of the city in a protective bubble, bouncing away those people and items of street furniture which threaten my look.  A simple, private chaufer-driven car would be bliss...

Should I give in and succumb to a wardrobe of stains, tears and holes in beautiful clothing, or should I begin to shop with an eye for the functional and damage-proof?  Heart-breaking though it is to witness one's much loved items become eaten up by the city, I still cannot bring myself to give in and buy clothes that are so sensible and ugly that I don't even care whether they are destroyed or not.  But I must not to get too sentimental.  Clothes are of course just material things.  These days, with fast fashion, eBay and chain stores everywhere, even if a much-loved item is damaged you can usually find a replacement somewhere.  And that means an excuse to go shopping - every cloud has a silver lining! 

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Occupy London, St Paul's

There's a lot of occupying going on at the moment.  First Wall Street in Manhattan was invaded by those protesting at the staggeringly unequal societal distribution of wealth.  They identified themselves as 'the 99%', in contrast to the richest 1% of the American population who have continued to profit whilst the economic downturn has affected the majority of the nation.  The location of the first 'Occupy' site was chosen for its proximity to one of the global powerhouses of wealth generation, albeit for a handful of individuals.  Wall Street has been an icon of money and Western capitalism for years, and now has taken on a new symbolism as a site of resistance.

Watching the USA's protest, London (and many other locations across the world) desired to get in on the act, and on 15th October 2011, Occupy London was born.  The London movement claims it is protesting against the bank bail-out, ongoing cuts to government spending in the name of austerity, social inequality and unemployment.  Unable to camp directly on the doorsteps of the City offices in which work those whose economic activity so angers the protesters, tents were flung up on the square in front of St Paul's Cathedral, surprising tourists on holiday and bankers on their way to work alike.
And so they remain currently.  However, due to the lack of soft ground to peg the tents in to - concrete paving slabs must be mighty uncomfortable to sleep or sit on too - some of the tents have a slight list to them; rather as if they've passed a week anchored to a blowy mountainside, and a passing sheep has made off with the odd peg and guy-rope.

The Occupy protesters seemed to be mostly within their tents when an Accidental chum and I visited their encampment one evening after work.  We both instantly felt rather self-conscious in our work clothes, afraid our smart attire might suggest our sympathies lay with the loathed 1%.  Typical attire of the protesters was, appropriately, camping gear.  Those we could see were clad in fleeces, cagoules, walking boots and woolly hats.  On a plaintive sign asking for donations of camp supplies 'thick socks' featured near the top of the wanted items list.

Within seconds of our arrival at the site, both the Accidental chum and I were struck by how organised the whole exercise was.  This was not a campsite run by amateurs, but by those who were well-schooled and practiced in the art of demonstration.  (In fact I had a distinct feeling of being back on a school camping trip in the rainy Forest of Dean aged 13 as I looked around.  Now, where does one sign up for rock-climbing?)  There were posters tacked to huge stone pillars explaining why the occupiers were there; other hand-written treatises were strung on ropes fluttering above the camp, like angry, wordy washing on a line.  There were schedules for what was going on that day; meetings, talks, discussions and even music sessions.  A particularly roomy tent housed an upright piano around which protestors were jiggling up and down to a jolly sing-a-long.  There were signs on particular tents designating them as having a particular purpose within the camp.  There was a medical tent, a counseling and therapy tent, a general information tent, even a library tent jokingly named 'Starbooks', as a nod towards one of the evil multinational organisations against which protests in the face of capitalism and globalisation are constantly being held.  Starbucks however, a branch of which sits opposite the site, has taken the higher moral ground in allowing the earliest protestors to use its cafe's lavatories until a couple of blue and white portaloos were established among the tents.

One of the greatest controversies surrounding the Occupy protest has been the manner in which St Paul's Cathedral has become so much more than simply a backdrop to the camp.  As the number of tents and protestors grew they began to present an obstacle for tourists keen to visit the cathedral.  After a few days the decision was taken to close the doors of the cathedral, sealing it up against the encampment, and the tourists' entry fees, outside.  The response of the Church of England's clerics has been heavily scrutinised and criticised, despite many of them extending a thoroughly Christian hand towards those protesting, even sympathising with their struggle.  Senior Church of England clerics, including the Dean of St Paul's, have felt under pressure to resign their posts, which has created much debate amongst religious leaders, politicians, protestors and the public.  Whether this protest is really a matter in which religion should have become involved, by its choice of location St Paul's has been unwittingly dragged into a complex social debate.  And, even closed, this building - an icon of the city - looms strong and proud above the camp.  In the years since it was built, this cathedral has seen it all.  It can be closed and darkened, the people can be removed from within, yet, like the protestors beneath, it will not be moved.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

St Pancras International: A station reborn

When the Accidental Father was a small boy, many moons ago, he and a similarly be-shorted school-friend used to pass many happy days hopping between Kings Cross and St Pancras rail stations, trainspotting.  The two train stations are united by a common underground stop, with subways facilitating the transfer from one to another; providing a highspeed trainspotting transfer route, if you will.  However after the recent heavy redevelopment of both stations, trainspotters have become lesser spotted.  St Pancras station, redeveloped first, has becoming a surprising icon of the city, or if that's taking it too far, a rather popular location in the city, given that it is 'just' a train station.  A train station which has risen from the ashes more than once, avoiding demolition in the 1960s, and decrepitude in the years that followed.

On the completion of its £800 million refurbishment in 2007, St Pancras became home to the Eurostar train service, making it an international station, and allowing passage from London to the rest of Europe on a single train.  The new station is undeniably majestic.  A stunning, high barrel roof with hundreds of glass panes, allows in swathes of sunshine (when the city's weather sportingly obliges).  Two layers of trains contribute to the bustle and activity within the terminus. Were it not for the quiet and unsatisfyingly steam-free trains one could easily imagine billowing smoke, and glamorous strangers in trench coats and homburg hats with a folded newspaper tucked under their arms meeting for assignations and affairs.
The lower concourse of the station contains the sorts of shopping and eating venues that make you long for a delayed train, so that you have time to browse and graze.  There are civilised and charming (rather than simply the bland and ubiquitous Costa and Starbucks) places to drink coffee and eat cake.  Lunch need not be a limp sandwich and a bag of Walkers crisps here.  There are freshly-made salads and tartines to munch, or, if you're feeling flush, even oysters at the station's own champagne bar.  You can pick up the perfect gift for whoever you may be travelling to see, or re-buy whatever crucial piece of luggage you have left behind.  

The station is home to several pieces of artwork, some of which were loathed instantly on installation.  Paul Day's 9 foot high, bronze sculpture of an embracing couple was criticised endlessly, famously by Antony Gormley. It is not the most subtle of art pieces, and sadly it just does not do justice to this beautiful old space, which has otherwise effected its rebirth with great style. Less offensive is the bronze of Sir John Betjeman, who stands marvelling at the station's staggering roof. Suspended high above the station's trains, in anticipation of next year's sporting festival, currently dangles an enormous set of Olympic rings.  (At least they're better than the awful logo.)

And there is now of course also a suitably glamorous hotel for the secret assignations of the homburg hat-wearers, or just an excellent cocktail for the weary Londoner.  I took the Accidental Father here for supper one evening when he was in town, and lost him to his younger self.  I finally found him, snapping away with his camera-phone, at a series of brass plaques on the roof supports.  Forty or so years on he could tell me the date they bore without looking.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Drinks and drama at The W Hotel and the Harold Pinter Theatre

A serious joy of living in London is that there are so many utterly fabulous places a mere over-stuffed tube ride away from you.  One vows to spend evenings in glamourous bars and days pottering around educative art galleries, or take spontaeous trips to festivals or feted restaurants.  But then one gets a mortgage, faints on checking one's bank statement and never leaves the house.  I wander past gorgeous twinkly-lit windows inside which beautiful people sup champagne and think, I must go there some day.  Rarely do I ever get round to it.  Rarely, but not never.

The other night the Accidental Ally (remember her? She keeps me sane at work and is wonderfully up for accompanying me on many mad adventures...) and I went to the theatre, as we are occasionally wont to do.  We started out theatre-going with a trip to see 'The Little Dog Laughed' one night when there was nothing on at the cinema we fancied seeing.  (Bloody hilarious, Tamsin Greig was outstanding - a real show-stealer.)  And driven by a deep respect and awe for the utterly stylish and fabulous Kristen Scott-Thomas, we recently saw Betrayal which was also excellent.  Although on that occasion our last-minute sprint through Leicester Square, scattering gormless tourists, to make the first act did not ensure a particularly decorous start to that evening.

The other night however we had learnt our lesson, and thus pitched up with three-quarters of an hour to spare at the Harold Pinter Theatre.  The HPT was until recently called the Comedy Theatre, which we thought was a little prescriptive; probably wise to change the name to allow them to stage some totally unamusing plays as well.  As we skirted the eye-searingly bright M&M World (just what on earth can they cover 5 floors with?  And don't say M&Ms - I simply don't believe you can get that much mileage out of a tiny chocolate pebble), we caught sight of a large letter 'W' picked out in fat light bulbs which were slowly shifting colour.
'Ah, so that's where the W Hotel is.' said the Accidental Ally, 'Doesn't it look  pretty?'.  I murmured an assent before suggesting we add it to our ever-extending list of Things We Must Do.  'Well, do we have time to go now?  Quick glass of vino pre-theatre?'.  I needed no further encouragement.  We swept past the security guards - who actually smiled as they welcomed us, rather than curling their lip in the standard doorman reception - and entered a black, shiny lobby.  Save a sign towards a function room and a bank of lifts there was absolutely nothing in the hall.  No reception desk, no receptionist behind it, no 'How can I help you?'.  Apart from those which slide open to reveal a lift that looked like the inside of a padded cell decorated by Liberace, there were not even any discernible doors in the lobby.  We headed for a lift and rode up to the first floor, startled when the our elevator car shook, juddered, stalled then heaved itself upwards.  We were glad to emerge out into a silvery space, so mirrored it was hard to tell where the room actually ended.  A waterfall of disco-balls cascaded down from the ceiling directly in front of us.  We looked around ourselves and spotted an end to the mirrors.  Passing along a corridor with yet more mirrors on one side and low tables and chairs in front of shelves stuffed with pristine hardback books and plates with odd-looking faces on the other, we found ourselves in a glittering bar.

The clientele was decidedly moneyed, many of them of the Euro-smoothie persuasion.  Both business and pleasure seemed to be in full swing.  A thirty-something guy playing with his iPhone swivelled on a high stool up at the bar, a bottle of champagne and a single glass in front of him.  Suits clinked glasses of red wine, and tourists in jeans and jackets nudged their backpacks under their tables as their eyes scanned around the room.  The Ally and I took our own glasses of wine to one of the low tables and watched the black-clad wait-staff slide up and down the sleek corridors.  We gossiped about a certain A-list actor whom the Accidental Ally knew back in drama school, and she regaled me with tales from her own days of treading the boards.  When curtain up at the Harold Pinter Theatre was only ten minutes away we drained our glasses and I had a brief terrifying moment in the toilets, as the omnipresent mirrors struck yet again, transforming the washroom into a fun fair's House of Mirrors ride, trapping me within.  Fortunately the lift behaved itself on the way down, and we were soon back out in the whirl of Leicester Square, wishing our whistle-stop wine stop could have been longer.   

And then we went to the theatre to see 'Death And The Maiden'.  The play itself is a thought-provoking effort - a tale of human rights abuse in an anonymous Latin American country - and I left endlessly turning over what had really happened in my head.  The two male actors were splendid, even if I spent a large portion of the play trying to work out where I recognised them from (Doctor Who and Midsomer Murders apparently).  But Thandie Newton, making her West End debut...oh dear.  There were moments during the performance when I had to poke the Accidental Ally as Ms Newton's am-dram melodrama induced in her endless fits of inappropriate giggles.  Reviews have expressed a hope that Newton will grow into the role she plays as the performance continues its run, and maybe she will.  The disappointed (but much amused) Ally summed up as we headed home: "Tis a shame.  I was ready to be blown away by old Thandie but my own brother managed a better performance as a Scottish housewife in a school play aged 9."  We vowed that on our next theatre trip we would avoid the Hollywood A-listers...unless they happened to be hanging out in the W Hotel bar.  
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