Sunday, 30 December 2012

An Accidental Christmas

Christmas in the Accidental Family happens much the same sort of way every year.  There are significant amounts of food and alcohol, plenty of people around, cats generally getting places they shouldn't be, family outings and the one obligatory church service of the year.  And it always takes place out of London, back in the Midlands.

The fun begins with my pilgrimage home, usually at the mercy of London Midland train services.  It is unutterably bloody and grim EVERY SINGLE YEAR.  So this December, gritting my teeth at the cost and the fact that I was supporting Mr Branson's efforts to take over the world, I instead booked a ticket for a Virgin Train, and along with hundreds of other Londoners, embarked at Euston station last Friday.  To my utter amazement, the journey was totally smooth and easy.  No random stops in Rugby to let everyone go to the loo as all the onboard toilets were broken.  No random stops in Rugby for no good reason at all.  No complete lack of luggage racks on which to shove heavy suitcases full of presents.  It was a dream.  (Not exactly a cheap dream, but sometimes one really just has to throw some money at the problem.)

Once home, I am usually handed a list of things that need baking or cooking.  I roll up my sleeves and produce a cake, although not one of the traditionally Christmas-y variety as a couple of members of the family habour deep hatred for both marzipan and fruit cake; we usually end up with a large ginger cake as a sort of festive compromise.  There will be mince pies to assemble, and often pastry to make.  This year's mince pie creation was somewhat thwarted by an exploding Magimix, which had a peculiar effect on my first batch of pastry which was, well, truly awful.  A second attempt (i.e. with no smoking Magimix) and we were back on track.  Salads were made, masses of onions were chopped and sauteed, and a special fancy batch of Italian biscuit mix was assembled, left to freeze for an hour as per the recipe, and completely forgotten about for several days - sorry, Mum! (They'll probably need about 15 minutes in the top oven until golden brown...)

And then there's the tree.  No plastic needles have ever been allowed to cross the threshold of the Accidental Homestead.  Oh no.  Living trees all the way for us.  And not the kind of living tree that was living until we picked it out from the tree farm, had it chopped down and borne home.  No, the kind of living tree that lives all year round (for many, many years) out on the terrace.  Each year it is manoeuvered in, complete with the enormous pot in which it resides, to shed its very real needles all over the carpet.  The cat goes nuts at this point as she realises that its Christmas, and that there will be lots of people to flirt with, lots of food to steal, ribbons to chase and wrapping paper to nest in, and TREES INSIDE!
This is the cat looking excited about being wrapped with a ribbon - she really is.  You just can't quite tell because of her permanently stern face.
The current tree, which shares a damp corner of the terrace with its predecessor which finally got too enormous to get into the house each year, is a somewhat sorry specimen of evergreen tree.  It has odd bald patches, missing not only the usual complement of needles but entire branches.  It takes a certain amount of tree-trimming expertise to disguise such gaps in a Christmas tree, but fortunately we managed it pretty well this year, thanks to a large number of glass icicles and an enormous bauble made out of something that looks - rather inexplicably - exactly like lichen.  (Why do we have this?! Where did it even come from?)
First however we have to decide on which lights to use, a process which usually goes like this:

'Oh God, the Christmas tree lights.  We've still not got any new ones.'

'So it's the same options as last year.  Either 40 white ones that don't reach the bottom of the tree or 80 purple ones. No, not those coloured ones; they're not long enough.'

'Well, why do we still have them then?'

Awkward silence.

'Purple again?'

Unconvinced silence.

'I suppose we could take the plastic snowflakes off the outdoor ones.  Then pretend they're just regular white ones.'

'Why have we never thought of that before?  I hate the snowflakes.  Why do we even have them?'

'We'll buy some more next year.' (Spoiler alert: we won't. This same conversation will happen until the end of time...)

So the tree is strung with lights, hung with baubles, and then the debate begins about who sits on top of it.  The main contenders are an ancient shiny angel without a face, a pheasant made of feathers and King Charles II (because, you know, he famously hid in a tree, and nothing says 'festive' like an old persecuted monarch/hilarious historical joke).  Yes, we Accidentals make our own rules at Christmas time.  Which is why this year, everyone won.  Except for poor old Charles.  Who had to hide lower down the tree, because the Parliamentarians would totally have found him if he'd been rocking out on the upper branches with an enormous pheasant and a foil angel.  Obviously.
And then Christmas is ready to happen.  Which it does.  And during Christmas the fridge is gradually stripped, the parcels beneath the tree are unwrapped, and the cat gently removes offending baubles from the lower branches of the Christmas tree like some sort of feline arbiter of tree-trimming taste.  The recycling bin clanks a merry 'Alcoholics Live Here' tune.  The entire family is astounded by not only the sheer number of episodes Coronation Street cranks out over the festive period but at the Accidental Father's dedication to watching them all.  We go on soggy walks across muddy fields and judge our neighbours' Christmas decorations.  We all watch 'The Holiday' and try to get out of doing the washing up.  

And then, whingeing once more about London Midland, I skip off back to London, and leave the poor Accidental Parents to de-Christmas-ify the house.  Oh, and to make those biscuits I left in the bottom of the freezer.  Happy Christmas, all!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Nothing like a nice cup of tea

Starbucks is a terrible place.  The coffee is poor, the decor is designed to actively discourage lingering, and the bloody company doesn't even pay its taxes.  Boo hiss.  But not many other chains - taxes aside, as far as we know - are much better.  Full of sofas that look comfy from a distance but are actually disconcertingly unyielding, they tend to be staffed by baristas who are either frazzled and unsmiling or so horrifyingly overfamiliar that if there wasn't a large plastic croissant-filled cabinet between you and them you'd be worrying for your personal safety.

And it's not as if London is without plenty of excellent independent coffee shops, all of which sell far better coffee than the chains, in spaces with much more ambiance and way fewer tourists.  But sometimes - being British - one wants a cup of tea instead of a paper cup full of frothy milk and ground beans.  And for that, I usually head to a small and select London-based tea chain; the pleasingly named, Yumchaa.  As a peaceful, calm cup of tea is to a hastily-grabbed take-away coffee, so Yumchaa is to the Neros and Starbucks of the city.
The interior of Yumchaa on Tottenham Street
A far cry from the crowded tiny tables and shrink-wrapped slivers of cake of the larger coffee chains, Yumchaa is a peaceful place to sit, drink several cups of tea, chat and work in peace.  Large wooden tables surrounded by mismatched chairs, positively encourage the spreading out of papers, whilst the free wifi acts as an efficient student-magnet.  Each branch stocks a vast range of teas which can be served steaming hot with silver strainers or whizzed up over ice on a hotter day (ok, maybe less what you might be feeling like in December).  And no cup of tea is complete with a decent piece of cake to keep it company.  (After some extensive personal research - you're welcome, by the way - I can highly recommend a wedge of Yumchaa's chocolate velvet loaf cake.)

Yumchaa has a very cosy little branch in Soho, and a few larger shops off the Tottenham Court Road, and in Camden; one on the Lock and one on Parkway.  On the nights when yet another trip to the pub sounds less than enticing - and there are rather a lot of them around now we're fully immersed in the Christmas party season of forced festive frivolity - Yumchaa has become a welcome alternative for my work chum, the Accidental Ally, and I, after office hours.  In a rarely civilised way for London, Yumchaa doesn't firmly close its doors at 6pm.  Joy!  Sipping our  teas shortly before 7 the other evening a cheery member of staff approached our table.  Thinking we were about to be politely asked to leave so that they could start cleaning up we readied our bags and murmured about just being on our way.  'No! No!' she reassured us, 'I was just coming to tell you we'll be closing up in an hour!'.  Relieved we slumped back into our chairs.  Maybe there'd be time for another wedge of chocolate velvet loaf cake...

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Bloggers Block, and why it never happens if you work at a certain online news site

What with not having spent much time in London over the past few months I've been struggling to get back into my former city blogging patterns.  Being frantically busy at work has not much helped either, thus every spare moment on the bus is taken up by worrying about programme reports and fieldwork data, not by devising fascinating blog topics.  Right now I am marooned in Copenhagen, amidst weather that can only be described as 'classic Danish crime thriller gloom', freaking out about tomorrow when I will have to run a day-long workshop with many, many people all a hell of a lot more competent and experienced than I.  All on my own.  And I've had no supper.  So I'm grumpy as well as stressed.

So naturally, rather than prepare my presentation slides I would rather apologise for my lack of blogging of late.  And proffer instead yet another thing I wasted time on several days ago when I was also NOT BLOGGING.  Because as I cursed my Bloggers Block I realised that there's one place where online writing is so, so easy and simple that the new content just keeps on coming.  (The site's name rhymes with GailyFail.com by the way.)  Sure, nothing on this site may feel entirely new, due to its ridiculously formulaic style, but the turnover of content is undeniably impressive.  Give me an article headline and I could write the whole thing with my eyes closed, recalling the mindlessly cliched choice phrases used over and over again.  It would be word perfect.  All you need is a handful of paparazzi shots and away you go.  Take one photo, young online journalist, and work your way through a simple question tree.  Et voila! Un blogpost...


Sunday, 4 November 2012

The pub on the corner

The pub sits beside a junction in Holloway, but there are plenty of seedy corners of London in which it would not look out of place.  From the outside it looks large and square and blank.  It feels oddly uninhabited, despite the business - which appears to be fully operational - housed within the building.  Its dirty walls, accessorised with red trim, were probably once painted cream.  Twisted brackets for hanging baskets screwed to the side of the building are entirely free of anything green or flowery.  Multiple British flags dangle limply outside, but this vexilloid show feels less like national pride and more like a threat or a warning to stay away if you're not a certain kind of person.  A sign running around the top of the pub invites patrons to 'Eat. Meet. Drink. Chat.'  Each time I pass the pub I mentally re-write this: 'Drink. Argue. Leer. Fight.'    

Once or twice I've heard music blaring out from the place (although some nights the pub is so quiet you would be forgiven for thinking it was closed), and through a fire door propped ajar I have caught a glimpse inside; peeling wallpaper, broken floorboards, bare walls, empty tables.  Through the blacked-out windows you can see nothing.  It is not the sort of place you would pop into for a cosy pint and a leisurely perusal of the Sunday papers.
A pathetic-looking 'beer garden' at the front of the pub features a collection of picnic benches, cracked concrete slabs and usually a huddle or two of smoking patrons.  I wonder whether these patrons are being created by way of a cloning machine in the back bar - there is only one kind of person who seems to frequent this pub.  He is male, white, with a close-cropped head, several days of stubble across his chin, and an 'England' tattoo on his arm.  Often he has a murderous-looking dog on a chain held in the hand that is not busy transferring a pint or a cigarette to his lips. 

Despite the fact that the pub sits on one of the more populated sections of my late-night walk home, I always feel uneasy walking alongside this building.  And not just because of the leering, tattooed men; none of whom is less than about forty, or capable of summoning up a better heckle than "Alright, darlin'?".  There is just something creepy about this place.  I quicken my pace and keep my head down as I walk on by.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

On Lucian time

Last night I lay in bed listening to a sound I've not heard for nearly ten years.  A riotous, jungly orchestra was chirping, clacking and scraping away outside the window, invisble to the naked eye but assaulting the ears.  One member of this insect cacophony sounded as if he were furiously sanding down a door.  Another seemed to be auditioning for a marachi band, waving his maracas frantically.  The last time I heard such a noise, produced at such a volume, I was living in the middle of a forest in Madagascar, and my bedroom was a stick and tarpaulin structure, shared with 14 others (including a large dog who would either be trying to squish his hot body against mine, through my mosquito net, in the still warm night, or attacking my feet if some loud shriek from the forest had spooked him).
But I am nowhere near Madagascar here, and certainly nowhere near London.  A second business trip in as many weeks has sent me this time to the Caribbean.  (I know, I know...as the manager at our hotel in Saint Lucia's capital/sole town, Castries, said, 'It's a dossy job you've got there!)  I have spent the last week or so trekking around communities across the island nation of Saint Lucia, asking people to show me their homes and their community facilities, and the mountains and rivers that threaten them.  I have spent my evenings in a series of sweltering, oven-like classrooms running workshops with patient Saint Lucians, many of whom I'm sure would rather have been installed in front of their flatscreens at home watching some American TV show.  But they have all been far too polite to say so.
Saint Lucia has provided a very beautiful 'office' for me for the past week.  (And the island's mosquitoes could not have made me feel more welcome and utterly desirable.)  And despite a busy schedule and plenty of work to do, the calm pace of Caribbean life has made the week far less stressful than an equivalent week back in London.  Maybe it is the heat.  Maybe it is just the laid-back attitude of the Saint Lucian.  But here there is a quiet confidence that all that needs to get done will get done.  So why rush at it?  Life here runs on Lucian time.  And so I'm afraid this has made my mind a little lazy, and I have neglected my writing again for a bit.  I have been busy with a good book and a beach full of black sand...oh, and a small blonde dog who has taken it upon herself to make sure I don't get lost during my last couple of days on her island. 
But I sort of wouldn't mind if I did...

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Normal service will resume shortly

I have to ask you to please bear with me, kind readers.  As you've probably noticed there's not been much about London on this blog of late.  Whilst I've made it safe back from the hills of Nepal, and grabbed a few days of regular London life since, tomorrow I shall be off again.  Work is flinging me from one side of the globe to another at the moment, and the Caribbean calls.  

But don't think I shall be slacking off. Oh no...no rum-filled cocktails on the beach for me, no rainforest exploration and no adrenaline-pinching water-sports. I shall be working hard, running community workshops and inspecting flood defences and disaster plans. It's all glamour! So 'til I'm back home once more, and normal service resumes, I shall leave you with a few photos from my last trip...
Mountains! With snow and everything!  (It had been so sticky and humid that it took us quite some time - and a massive storm to clear the air - to realise they were even there, veiled in sweaty mist.)
Mr Goat does not want to join the focus group discussion, thank you very much; he has an important bunch of foliage to attend to... 
Oh, but these guys did...and boy, do they look like they're enjoying themselves!
 
Sure, it might be destroyed by an earthquake at any minute, but don't you think Kathmandu looks rather nice? No?! Just me then...

Sunday, 7 October 2012

In which my return home to London goes not entirely to plan

The departure lounge at Kathmandu's Triphuvan International Airport was distinctly depressing, we agreed. Once through the security screening process - that had impressively managed to be both aggressive and dismissive - there was a single, sad newsagent-cum-coffee shop and a number of 'gates', divided by smeary glass walls that made it only half way towards the ceiling.  Banks of uncomfortable metal benches provided the only furniture for the weary-looking Nepali nationals and Western trekkers who made up the departing passengers.  Small flat-screens flashed up the wrong gate number every so often, and a general feeling of confusion was compounded by fuzzy announcements over an inaudible PA system.  It was all rather bleak. 
My colleague and I lamented the fact we had two whole hours to spend in this miserable place.  We passed the time trying to guess whether each announcement was being delivered in Nepali or English, and exchanging stories of other horrible airports we had known and loathed.  Had we been stars of a film this second activity would have been a clever, prophetic plot point.  But we were merely a pair of tired people returning from a two week business-trip, sleep-deprived and desperate to get home.  

Which is why we became more and more frustrated as our plane's departure time approached, and nothing seemed to be happening.  Sure, the gate was filling around us and a man who looked vaguely associated with the airport had torn some of our tickets in half as part of what a crackly announcement later grandly referred to as the 'pre-boarding process'.  But no one had begun to properly check tickets or to usher people out of the door towards the plane.  Rather worryingly we also noted that no planes seemed to have taken off from the airport for the past couple of hours.  In fact, passengers appeared to be disembarking back into the departure hall ('lounge' really does make the place sound far more relaxing that it was).

With our plane still stationary several minutes past its departure time, and not a single passenger on board, we began to get somewhat twitchy.  We'd been buoyed earlier by the sight of a member of the airline's ground-staff bustling through the hall to the desk by the door, however as the crackling PA struck up yet again she mysteriously vanished.  "We must inform passengers that no planes will be leaving Kathmandu airport for another two hours, due to a security problem."  Or, that was what it sounded like the announcement had said.  My colleague and I traded expletives and sighs, and offered up thanks at least for the tiny coffee shop.  But nothing doing there.  The sort-of airport official had barricaded us all into Gate #1, and no one was allowed in or out.  This was not a good sign.  

The airline lady reappeared and was promptly mobbed by a group of disgruntled Swedish climbers.  Slowly a few meagre details began to spread through the crowded passengers, like viral flu through an open-plan office.  The airport had received a bomb threat - possibly made by a member of staff, depending on who you spoke to - and all planes were being held until the airport was sure they were safe to fly.  The holds of each plane were to be unloaded and every passenger already on a plane and also waiting to board would have to disembark and troop out onto the tarmac to identify their checked baggage.  Those of us coraled in Gate #1 were finally released (very slowly) from our miserable holding pen and each given a further pat down by security.  Squashed onto buses we were then driven out to our waiting plane, all the doors of which were standing open, with the plane's contents being hauled back out onto the landing strip; it looked like the victim of an aeronautical disembowelling.   

We piled out of the buses and onto the dark runway.  All our suitcases and rucksacks lay in a line in front of us, guarded by a group of policemen with guns and sniffer dogs, and a gaggle of ground crew who looked somewhat bored by the whole affair.  We picked over the contents of the luggage hold,  confirming ownership of our bags which were then hauled back onto baggage carts.  The entire plane-load of passengers then stood back and watched, not quite far enough away from a potential bomb for my liking.  I took a couple more steps back, as a pair of yellow labradors scrambled sniffing over our luggage, trailed by their camouflaged handlers.  

A large plain black, unclaimed rucksack sat in the middle of the tarmac in front of us.  As my colleague called a colleague to consult her organisation's security service, I made a call to the Accidental Father to appraise him of the situation.  I rang off and told him I'd speak to him soon.  I really hoped I would.  The lone black bag was being thoroughly turned over.  A luggage label was located.  A Nepali voice yelled out what sounded like a British surname.  Several times.  We all looked around at each other, a couple of passengers yelling the surname at one another too.  The tension was finally broken as a scruffy looking student finally realised it was his name being called, and he shambled across the tarmac to witness his bag being unpacked to cheers from his fellow passengers.      

After a while longer on the tarmac our plane was declared clear.  We were finally allowed on board, but as we climbed the steps towards our seats we could see further huddles of passengers on the dark runway, in front of their own mounds of luggage.  A couple of hours late our plane finally taxied away from them and from Kathmandu, to the sound of a hundred sighs of relief.  But I didn't relax until I had made my connection in Doha, and was safely on my way home to London.  I have never been happier to see Heathrow Airport.     

Friday, 28 September 2012

Kathmandu: A city awaiting disaster

I had my latest blogpost all planned. It was going to be about how fascinated I used to be when I was little by the names of fantastical-sounding places like Timbuktu, Kathmandu, Ougadougou, and Limpopo. I would talk about how I'd assumed that they weren't real places at all, given their wild and wonderful nomenclature, but were instead literary creations like Narnia or Shangri-La. Then I would blither on about how I wanted to confirm their existence for myself to prove they were real by visiting them, and that's why I now find myself in Kathmandu. But that was before this morning.

This morning, while everyone back in London was still fast asleep, a little plane filled with British and Chinese tourists bound for the Himalayas, and staffed by Nepalese cabin crew, crashed mere minutes out of Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. Still to be confirmed, the likely cause was the collision of the plane with a large bird, possibly an eagle. Moments later the plane caught fire and the pilot attempted an emergency landing in an open patch of land by the Manohara River, not far from a slum area on the outskirts of the city. But by the time it hit the ground locals could do nothing more than watch in horror as the plane burnt in front of them. Fire crews took some time to arrive on the scene, and no one could approach the plane in the meanwhile due to the heat coming off the blaze. Everyone on board died.

And that is really why I am here. Not because the name of the place sounds exotic and magical, not even because I love to travel and explore new places. I am here in the city to work with humanitarian and development organisations trying to sure up this mountainous country; trying to make it more resilient to the disasters which happen all too often here and with all too grim effects. 

I knew very little of Nepal before I landed here. I knew there were mountains and temples and yaks and prayer flags.  I had been told it was rather similar to India. And it's true, it is quite similar. But over the past few days I have found myself more enchanted with Nepal than India. Even Kathmandu, described by the Nepali guy sat next to me as we descended into the city's international airport as 'not very nice, very dirty, many people', is oddly charming, despite the odd pong of raw sewage and terrifying traffic. Sure, the water here positively fizzes with evil bacterial energy and walking down the road is an exercise in human survival/stupidity.  And yes, electric wires hang like charged knots of spaghetti on groaning pylons or simply nailed to the side of a residential block covered in vast structural cracks.  But there are no ubiquitous skyscrapers, no branches of Starbucks.  The mid-rise buildings are painted jolly candy shades of blue, orange and pink.  Whilst there is clearly a tourist industry it feels less commercially exploitative; Nepal is a pretty cheap holiday destination.  The reception here is warm without the slightly threatening over-commitment to service I encountered in India earlier this year.  Hotel or restaurant staff do not look deeply affronted when you inform them that really, you don't need anything at all, you're just fine, thanks. 

Nepalis must be some of the smiliest people I have ever had the delight to meet. Which is remarkable when you think that they live in a country with appallingly low levels of healthcare, where women are still regarded as somewhat inferior to men, and where an enormous, destructive earthquake is many years overdue in the most populated region, a heaving concentration of poorly engineered buildings and infrastructure and human life.  This is a country waiting for 'the big one'.  Should an earthquake of a significant magnitude hit the Kathmandu Valley, the ensuing disaster could rival Haiti in terms of lives lost and damage caused.  And the country knows this. 

The government of Nepal - still in a state of limbo following the Maoist uprising that ended mere years ago, and a complete lack of a national parliament and constitution - is placing huge importance on disaster preparedness and risk reduction.  This week I had a meeting in a building that, ironically, looked deeply un-earthquake-proof, where the Ministry of Home Affairs outlined how it was not only creating policy (even if actually implementing it was rather a challenge) but actively supporting the development of practical actions, with a range of partners including numerous Red Cross societies, NGOs and UN agencies.  Nepal may not be entirely ready when disaster strikes but at least it is aware, and desperately trying to make itself safer.

This morning's plane crash was horrific - a tragic, pointless waste of 19 lives. Coming so soon after last week's avalanche on Mount Manaslu - another fatal event within the country - the crash marks a very sad week for Nepal's tourism industry, and the country's iconic mountains. But much as the vast snow-capped peaks loom over the country, so too does the threat of an even larger disaster. And the million or so people living in Nepal's capital city live daily with this uncomfortable spectre. Kathmandu may be the most dangerous place I've ever been. 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Tales from my neighbourhood - 'Born and Bred: Stories of Holloway Road'

I came to live in Holloway, rather as I did to London, by accident.  But now after two years in this North London area I realise I got lucky when I moved here.  I have the Heath within reach, a hundred and one handy little shops in which one can find anything from SCART leads to flower pots to mouse-traps, plenty of decent pubs and coffee shops.  But the thing that Holloway really has going for it is its people.  Despite being one of the smallest boroughs in the city, Islington is densely packed with a diverse population.  We residents comprise numerous ethnicities, ages, household structures, and income brackets.  Many of us are newcomers to the area, often first-time buyers who find their cash goes further in Holloway than in the neighbouring areas of Kentish Town, Camden and Highbury.      
But a large part of Holloway's population has spent most of its life along the Holloway Road; these people are true North Londoners.  They are Born and Bred, the subjects of a new book and exhibition launched recently by local arts charity, The Rowan Arts Project.  'Born and Bred: Stories of Holloway Road' is a collection of oral histories and photographs, telling the tales of 51 Holloway residents.  Whilst many of the project's participants were truly born and bred along the Road, a number were born in other London areas, but later relocated to Holloway.  Regardless of where their lives began, the participants display a real sense of attachment to this place, a fondness for the area where they run their businesses and make their homes.  Many speak of the remarkable people and the strong sense of community, which for me defines the area I call home.  
From market stall-holders to musicians, to estate agents and designers, Holloway emerges as a place of hard work, but also social strength and artistic inspiration.  The Born and Bred project illuminates the diversity of life along the buzzing Holloway Road, so frequently overlooked as a grotty thoroughfare with its dodgy-looking pubs and endless fried chicken purveyors.  It provides an insight into real inner city London life, where houses are not abandoned at weekends for holiday cottages on the coast, or vast swathes of office buildings stand empty when workers commute out to their suburban homes.  Here is London, 24/7, and these are the people who live it.
To find out more about exhibition and hear the interviews with the project's participants, visit Stories of Holloway Road for more details.  The Born and Bred exhibition is on display at The Old Fire Station, 84 Mayton Street, until the end of the year.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

'London Clock': A day in the life of a city, by the London Literary Project

I wrote a tiny something for the London Literary Project, the self-proclaimed 'Champions of Flash Fiction.'  Their latest initiative is called 'London Clock', and compiles a literary day in London, minute by minute, of short poems or snatches of prose by London-based writers or writers inspired by the city. The project is a very clever idea, and I'm delighted to be involved.
My piece is inspired by 08:11, Saturday morning, a time when the city is waking up.  It's small, maybe not exactly perfectly formed, but it's here.

http://londonlitproject.com/weekend-hampstead-heath/

Monday, 10 September 2012

The end of it all: The Paralympic closing ceremony, London 2012

It began with green and pleasant lands, and uplifting clashes of light and sound.  And it ended with fire and mighty machines, in the 'Festival of the Flame'.  Book-ending the London 2012 Olympic Games, was an extraordinary pair of ceremonies. After a fortnight that saw the world's 'super-humans' take to the Olympic stage, and the first sold-out Paralympic Games in its history, the Paralympic Closing Ceremony finally brought London 2012 to an end last night.

Yesterday's ceremony saw 'dreamers' blown, quite literally, out of the stadium, up into the sky by creepy-looking goblins on bikes with vast wind machines on the front, as fire streamed into the stadium.  As drums pounded and bodies teemed on the central stage, some of the athletes who had performed over the past two weeks displayed their strength and skill once more; dragging carts and scaling vast ladders.  The props of this closing ceremony were very steampunk chic - stripped back, artfully aged and mechanical artefacts that looked a little bit mystical.  Calling on the seasons and the power of the elements, amputee Corporal Rory Mackenzie, acting as MC for the Festival of the Flame, heralded into the stadium flame-throwers, fire-dancers and yet more fantastical machines. Armoured mega-beatles rolled around the stadium, stalked by glittering and menacing crows on stilts.  But what did they all mean?
A cyclist tows a fiery friend in the Festival of the Flame (courtesy: The Australian)
Artistic director, Kim Gavin, had instructed viewers not to look for too much meaning in the ceremony (a cunning get-out clause in the face of potential criticism, the cynic in me thought); there was no narrative.  Just troops of black-clad foot-soldiers, brandishing flaming torches, metal creatures ablaze, enormous cogs turning and turning, and a green tractor pulling the world's largest grasshopper.  Like a wild-looking figurehead on one trailer stood Vivienne Westwood, with a face-painted Clockwork Orange eye, red hair flying.  As all the crafts began to gather around the central stage, the stadium began to look like a parking lot for floats at a village fete.  

Alas, as this ceremony was being broadcast by Channel 4, proceedings were paused sporadically for advert breaks, no doubt costing the Olympic and Paralympic sponsors millions.  This gave the ceremony an oddly jerky quality that the seamless BBC Opening ceremony fortunately lacked.  We arrived back in the stadium after one such break right into the middle of an award ceremony, which was a little confusing; weren't we done with all the medals by now?  I was pleased to see that following these presentations due respect was also paid to the staggeringly positive and cheery volunteers - the Gamesmakers - who have been such a key part of the Games.

And then Coldplay appeared on the central stage, and I slightly lost the will to watch.  (With the sound on mute however it was bearable, and I rather liked Rihanna boarding the stage from the prow of a steampunk barge.)  More and more dancers flew up into the sky above the stage, grasping clusters of lights like human Chinese lanterns floating off into the night on their invisible wires.  The melancholy music of the British rock band did however serve to illustrate just how genuinely sad much of the city feels about the end of these extraordinary weeks.  These weeks of excitement and surprise, of feeling even a tiny part of 'our greatest team', Team GB.  Even those of us who struggle to be proud of our city at times cannot deny that London totally nailed the Olympics.  We are great at coordinating massive, televised sporting events.  We are brilliant at cheering for people as they face momentous challenges, of which most of us could never even conceive.  Most crucially, and hopefully for the future, we are open to be inspired, and we are always able to welcome a new hero.  I hope that when the Games are gone, and by the time the spotlight is on Rio, that this can be our Olympic legacy - an admiration of hard work and effort, and a recognition that it really is the taking part in something amazing that counts.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Accidental Eats: The perfect muso brunch, Made in Camden

Camden was buzzing as I picked my way between the tourists and teenagers, with their accompanying parents standing awkwardly in front of the stands of cannabis leaf t-shirts and platform boots covered in studs.  Shop-keepers lurked among their wares, ducking under awnings to keep out of the surprisingly strong September sunshine.  Higher than the awnings, a huge green dragon with LED-filled nostrils stuck onto the facade of one shop glared down at the crowds.  Up and over the bridge by the lock, I wriggled in and out between tiny shorts and sundresses, spying surely the hottest woman in London, dressed head to toe in black satin and lace, with copious petticoats and even a bustle; an ornate black lace parasol keeping the harmful rays off her carefully cultivated translucent complexion.

Once past the cluster of markets, I whisked along Camden High Street, heading up towards Chalk Farm and Camden's famous Roundhouse.  A former engine shed, this odd-shaped building is one of the finest music venues in the city.  For this month of September, the Roundhouse is hosting the iTunes festival, putting on free gigs by artists such as Emeli Sande, Noel Gallagher, Alicia Keyes and Muse.  As I reached the Roundhouse, a gaggle of slightly scruffy-looking music fans were already camped outside the building, coraled by metal fences awaiting the day's gig.

But my destination was no concert hall or intimate studio, instead I was headed for Made In Camden, the eatery on the ground floor of the Roundhouse.  I had been invited to an impromptu brunch with blogging chum, Cool on Demand, who confessed that since her review of the place, she'd been back 4 or 5 times.  Clearly this place had made an impression on her - this was somewhere I had to check out.  I will confess however, that once I arrived, there was not a lot of time for soaking up the atmosphere, as we merrily gabbled away about anything and everything, pausing only to draw breath to order our breakfasts.
As a first time diner, the menu provides quite the dilemma - what to have?  Made in Camden's brunch offerings provide a good balance of tempting sweet and savoury options, to cater to the pickiest of breakfasters.  I eventually plumped for the almond pancakes with apricot compote (compote that was actually three tastily preserved apricots, rather than compote per se), with a side of grill-fresh streaky bacon.  My companion, far more familiar with the menu than I, made a much swifter decision, opting for brioche french toast with berry compote and dollops of mascarpone, which she declared excellent.  However she did mournfully declare that the portion was only about 60% the size of her first taste of this favourite dish.  Alas, service was not with a dazzling smile or remarkably swift (with the exception of a woman at a table next to us who arrived very late for breakfast but received her balsamic mushrooms on toast within mere minutes of ordering), but this is London.  We're not a city known for our friendly service.  And yesterday morning, after a brutally hot early morning run for me and an equally sweaty Bikram yoga session for my fellow bruncher, it was simply enough that there were pancakes and french toast.

When my companion nipped to the loo I took a look around me.  The space itself feels not unpleasantly like a very upmarket canteen. A bar hugs one wall, and slightly 'educational establishment'-esque chairs and tables are ranked in neat lines, each topped with a tiny vase of fresh flowers.  Cutting through the centre of the space is a long wall, covered in a multi-coloured collage of gig posters.  There's no forgetting where you are here, or what's going on just next door.  Reappearing, my brunching companion reported that you could hear whoever was playing the Roundhouse later that day tuning up through the wall. But don't for one second think you could lurk by the toilets to hear a gig...a bouncer was apparently stationed down there to keep diners moving along. You've had your brunch now bugger off!    And so, feeling rather full, we did.  But I imagine we'll both be back...
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Monday, 3 September 2012

Savile Row: The Golden Mile of Tailoring

Last weekend I was having one of those slightly hungover, shattered Sundays, when, embracing my comfortable sofa and the entertaining charms of Youtube, I stumbled across a television series, about a very particular street in London.  I never saw 'Savile Row' when it was first broadcast back in 2009, but the three-part BBC documentary series explores the changing nature of this Mayfair address; the home of bespoke men's tailoring within the city.  Bear with me if you think that this doesn't sound particularly gripping.  The series follows a shift in the character of 'the golden mile of tailoring', and the tension between the long-established, thoroughly British firms such as Gieves & Hawkes and Chester Barrie, and the American jeanswear brand, Abercrombie & Fitch - they of the tanned and toned, half-naked doormen, designed to lure in shoppers in search of denim and y-shirts.  (Now you're more interested, aren't you?)

Savile Row, W1, formed part of my regular commute in to and out of work when I lived in South West London. Probably my favourite part, in fact.  Hopping off a bus on Piccadilly I would wind my way up through Mayfair to Soho, walking through a sleepy Burlington Arcade, to emerge into Mayfair, right next to the bottom end of Savile Row. Savile Row was then one of my possible routes up onto Regent Street, usually nicely empty by the time I reached it early in the morning, save for a few delivery-men wheeling trollies of plastic-wrapped clothes into the enormous shops waiting to open. Walking along the Row on these early mornings, I used to feel very much part of the old London, the London of vast Palladian mansions, and top hats and waistcoats worn because it was the done thing rather than because you were off to a fancy wedding.  From the pavement you can see up into show-rooms displaying suits, shirts and neckware, and down below into the workshops and ateliers where measurements are noted, cloth is marked and cut, and exquisite hand-made suits take shape.

With many of the tailors on the street having a 100+ year presence here, and others a royal warrant of appointment, the industry in this area is somewhat traditional, particularly in its approach to promotion and advertising, which appears to be kept to a minimum.  To shout about one's skills, or even simply what one does, is seen as vulgar along Savile Row. No Savile Row tailor would ever advertise their wares on the side of a bus. Perish the thought!  Unlike mass-producers of garments with their globally-distant factories (ahem, Abercrombie & Fitch), Savile Row tailors create and sell their wares within the close confines of this single street, often within a single building. Why then, did this giant American firm set up shop here, alongside this most traditional of apparel industries?  And what effect would it have upon the independent firms?

The documentary series examined the effect, highlighting worries about increasing rents, and the ejecting of the old firms from their sole premises.  Property freeholders amended leases to require that any tenants had to be practising tailors, desperately trying to protect this local industry.  There were concerns that the classy clientele might be put off by the crowds of teens queueing round the block to buy t-shirts.  I have witnessed the Abercombie fans for myself, and when walking through Mayfair have encountered foreign teenagers who barely spoke a word of English but who would nonetheless stop me in the street to demand 'Where Abercombie Fitch?'.

The financial crisis of the last few years has hit Savile Row as hard as it has hit other luxury goods manufacturers.  A two and a half thousand pound suit - the most modest of Row tailoring - is even more of an unaffordable nice-to-have now.  But last time I checked the tailors remained firmly established on Savile Row, dressing new generations of the same families it has dressed for many, many years.  But who knows how much longer they will be able to hold on...


Sunday, 26 August 2012

No telephone, no reservations

It's always the same.  You read a review of a fantastic new restaurant, resolve to go and try it for yourself, forget about it for a couple of weeks, finally try to make a reservation and back comes the reply: 'Sorry, no tables until [insert ridiculously far away date here].'  So you go eat somewhere else and two years later the hot new place changes hands and pops up in the review columns once more with a new name.  And then the whole frustrating cycle starts all over again.  These places are the scourge of spontaneity and have a knack of making one feel horribly disorganised and uncool, just because you can't be bothered to wait four months to be able say you've eaten at [insert hot restaurant of the moment here].

But London has another option for the disorganised diner in search of cool; the 'no reservation' restaurant.  Inspired by a trend in New York, these restaurants have no bookings lists on clipboards, no online reservation systems, some even proudly declare 'no telephone' on their advertising.  (Where are we, 1850?  Are these places just too cheap to pay the line rental?)  Rock up to any of these places, from Pix and Polpo, in Soho to the Albion Cafe in Shoreditch, and you will likely be forced to demonstrate your devotion to their menu by waiting awhile for a free table.  But that's ok, these restaurants will be delighted to serve you plenty of drinks while you wait.  (We all know the bar is where the average restaurant makes its profit.)  As a business plan, it's genius.  And I know I'm being taken for a bit of a ride in these places; I am paying for the gimmick, paying, essentially, to queue.  But I find myself falling for these places.  I'm falling for their usually pretty tiny but delicious portions of food that make you think you can finish (and pay for!) more dishes than you can.  I'm falling for their (mostly) charming staff, with their slightly pretentious facial hair and pork pie hats.  I fell long ago for the distressed woodwork, the exposed bricks and the chipped tin plates.  And in particular, I have fallen for the peanut butter and jelly 'sandwich' at Spuntino.  For that desert of wonder I would queue forever.   
From the outside you wouldn't even know that Spuntino is there on Rupert Street in Soho.  No telephone, no sign.  The whole existence of this place is so stealthy it's like the owners don't even want to feed you or take your money.  Once you've found you way in however the welcome is usually warm, and the drinks appear pretty swiftly.  The carefully weathered decor suggests the coolest of New York venues, Manhattan's LES.  Depending on what time you arrive your wait for a table can be mere minutes or rather longer - go earlier or much later to avoid a lengthy queue.  (The whole place can only seat about 20 odd people at once, it is pretty intimate!)  But as soon as you're seated around the central bar, a large metal mug of freshly popped popcorn will land in front of you, and you can begin the task of deciding what to eat.

The dishes - in reference to the eaterie's name, the Italian for 'snack' - are small, designed for tasting and sharing (and over-ordering!).  They are however big on flavour; oxtail rigatoni, mackerel with saffron, truffled egg on toast, alongside classic comfort-food favourites like macaroni cheese and tasty little burgers, sorry, 'sliders'.  Staff seem pretty relaxed about you sitting tight for an evening and ordering more and more, tapas-style, although the waiting diners' hungry eyes may guilt-trip you into feeling like you should probably eat up and relinquish your seats.  Just make sure you leave space for pudding...the PB&J shouldn't be passed over for anyone, however hungry they look.
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Saturday, 11 August 2012

Under the bridge

I am lurking, like a fairytale troll in wet running gear, beneath a bridge.  The rain pours down on either side of the arch, so hard it bounces back up off the surface of the canal.  As I watch, the towpath starts to flood in spectacular fashion.  I pause the app tracking my morning run on my iPhone and silence the pounding dance music that had been spurring me on for the past couple of miles.  Instead I listen to the sound of water on water, of water on gravel, of water on leaves.  I'm going to be stuck here beneath this bridge for some time it seems.
Two other runners shelter in the damp gloom with me, as does a tramp eating his breakfast.  We exchange friendly grimaces in recognition of our shared sogginess, and edge towards the centre of the underpass where the slicing rain cannot touch us.  On the canal next to us, a flotilla of tiny, beeping coots on a Sunday swim with mummy squeak to one another, huge raindrops plopping onto their neat little heads.  The odd hardened runner (looking like they're on the final leg of a triathlon, so wet are their clothes) powers through the bridge, making slow, splashy progress along the towpath.  White lycra plastered to one guy reveals a perfect Ken-doll six-pack beneath his shirt.  (Sadly he doesn't stop beneath my bridge to exchange training tips.)

The tramp, breakfast finished, is now making himself comfy, unfurling his sleeping mat and hunkering down beneath the dripping bricks.  Run-off swirls through the gutter running underneath the bridge, and the rain shows no sign of ceasing.  Beneath the next bridge along the canal - under which shelter more rain-soaked runners and Sunday morning walkers - a wide barge appears.  At the helm is  an elegantly clad amazon in a hooded oilskin and a brightly-striped maxi dress, beneath which pokes a pair of white DMs.  Between bridges her fellow bargee holds a large yellow umbrella up over her head, valiantly trying to keep the rain off her glasses as she mans the tiller.  As the pair pass beneath our bridge their greetings and pseudo-jolly comments about the weather echo around us off the curved walls.   

Windows up above the canal look blankly down, behind them more sensible, dry Londoners read Sunday papers and eat croissants.  As the pounding rain begins to slow a fraction I realise I am totally sodden, a few miles from home and suddenly slightly envious of the cosy croissant-eaters.  I should really start heading back.  So I strike out from my bridge, turning back the way I've come.  Moving very slowly and gingerly over the streaming cobbles, feeling the rainwater sloshing into my trainers.  Eyes on the ground judging the deepest parts of the puddles, occasionally ending up ankle-deep with a misplaced stride.  A enormous grin spreads across my face for some reason, I'm enjoying the novelty of this torrential run; it's me against the British weather, and whilst I can still run I'm winning.  

I make it back to Camden Lock in time for another particularly heavy deluge, and, surrendering my victory, duck in to a branch of Starbucks for shelter and something hot and liquid to warm my soaked self.  I loathe this particular caffeine-peddling chain; it is a reflection of just how bad the weather is that I am happy to seek refuge in here.  Both the service and coffee are decidedly substandard but the cappuccino holds off the sodden shivers until I begin to splosh my way home.  With the contents of a cloud held in my clothing.   

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Stratford's Olympic Park: the heart of the action of London 2012

A brand new postcode had to be created for Stratford's Olympic Park.  It's that big.  Covering two and a half square kilometres of East London, the Olympic Park has been several years and many, many millions of pounds in the making.  Whilst Olympic and Paralympic events are taking place not only in several locations across London but across many other parts of the UK, the Olympic Park is the focus of the action.  The site contains eight different purpose-built sporting venues, from Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre to the swooping, Pringle-shaped velodrome, and the peculiarly shrink-wrapped basketball arena to the enormous main Olympic Stadium, last seen as the backdrop for Danny Boyle's phenomenal opening ceremony.  It also contains the Orbit; a...well I'm not quite sure what it is...a scalable sculpture, a pointless folly, an expensive exercise in self-glorification undertaken by its designers?

Whilst many tickets to watch events within the Olympic venues have reportedly been selling for up
to thousands of pounds a seat, there is a cheaper option to soak up a little Olympic spirit.  For a mere ten pounds you can buy a ticket for access to the Olympic Park in Stratford, to potter round the place, sink a celebratory drink or two, and marvel at the extraordinary new architecture, even if you aren't allowed to take a peek inside.
The ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture
When you arrive into Stratford station the pink and purple-clad Olympics volunteers that have popped up all over the city (sometimes in the most unlikely, least Olympic-related places) are waiting to welcome visitors to the site, indicating which way to go with big foam fingers, booming at the crowds through megaphones from atop tall, lifeguard-style chairs.  Waves of visitors bustle towards the Stratford Gate entrance to the site, wrapped in their countries' flags, with patriotically-painted faces.  Yet more Olympic volunteers line the path, shepherding the ticket-clutching crowds into an encampment of white tents in which each park visitor is X-rayed and security-screened, somewhat unnervingly by seried ranks of members of the British Armed Forces.  But once cleared and allowed entry to the park, the cheerful hectoring lessens.
Visitors at 'Park Live', sitting on all the pretty, painstakingly-planted flowers
The Olympic Park is a surprisingly beautiful and green place.  The River Lea flows slowly through the middle of the site, wide, grey and patrolled by an emblazoned 'Rescue Team' in a life-boat should anyone attempt any impromptu water-sports.  In the middle of the river, towards the top of the park, is mounted a pair of vast screens, courtesy of some (one imagines) pretty sizable sponsorship from British Airways.  Here, at 'Park Live', those visitors without tickets to the venue events, or even those in possession of such tickets but with a break in their schedule, sit on two high grassy banks before these enormous television screens, watching the goings-on in park venues like the Copper Box or the Aquatics Centre, or even further afield out in Greenwich and across town in Earls Court.  Even three days in however the glorious banks of wildflowers planted around this area were looking a little squashed, as demand outweighed allocated lawn space.  Beer-sellers with cool-bags move between reclining groups, proffering the omni-present Heineken (spot the Olympic sponsor).  The whole thing has something of a relaxed, festival-ish atmosphere.  
Weirdly, located in a country where queuing is a pastime in which its people are unchallenged international champions, the Olympic Park had almost no queues at all when I visited.  Sure, there were thousands of people around but someone seemed to have done all the necessary sums so there were also adequate toilets, food outlets, programme-sellers and volunteers ready to point you in the right direction of anywhere you couldn't find.  The necessary number of benches, alas, was sadly severely under-estimated, maybe in a bid to keep the people flowing around the site.  Alongside a range of suitably international cuisine stands, sits the world's largest McDonald's (a proud achievement for London there), and a vast store rammed with London 2012 merchandise, featuring the ever-creepy Wenlock and Mandeville, the official mascots of the Games.  A stack of painted shipping containers props up a glass box in which BBC sports reporters discuss the medal table, the shock of a disqualified competitor, and the staggering achievements of US swimmer, Michael Phelps, against the backdrop of the impressive site.
And after an evening exploring the park with many thousands of other sports fans, you might expect a horrendous crush when leaving.  But amazingly, after being channelled out into the huge Westfield Stratford shopping centre, the crowds disperse.  As I headed back into the city sometime after 9pm on the night I visited the site I found off-duty athletes browsing the shops, their park identity passes slung around their necks.  Down at the grandly-named Stratford International station (claiming the 'International' from its direct line to St Pancras, and its Eurostar service to mainland Europe), I found an Javelin train waiting to whisk me back into Zone 1.  Within mere minutes there I was, spat out amid the chaos of nightlife in the middle of London, with the Olympic Park feeling like a whole other world.

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Saturday, 28 July 2012

Let the Games begin: The 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony

I sometimes struggle to be proud to be British.  Oddly, tonight was not such a time.  Danny Boyle - an occasionally controversial British film director and producer - has just made our small island nation seem like rather an awesome place.  And our capital, London, my home city, made rather a glorious stage for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games.  After several hours of build-up - well frankly, several years - and numerous pre-recorded montage spots of British Olympic hopefuls and live presenters blithering over each other, we were off!  Following numerous tantalising shots of the greenery-wrapped main stadium (and a cheeky spot of my blogging pal, Muriel, Tweeting frantically from Stratford) the opening ceremony cranked into action...

Whilst the Red Arrows zoomed overhead, the warm-up singers were ushered off the fake rural landscape that filled the brand-new stadium.  Ladies in bonnets milled around, there were some surprised looking sheep, a gaggle of geese, and a lone shire horse pulling a plough.  Large fluffy white clouds were moved around the stadium, controlled by people many feet below on the ground; gripping their strings like dog-walkers being dragged round a park by an out-of-control bloodhound.  And then the waiting was over, and the spectacular show began in earnest.

To the strains of children warbling 'Jerusalem', on strides Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, orchestrating some sort of pillaging of England's green and pleasant lands, by a load of dirty chaps who appear out of the middle of a mechanical tree.  Men in stove-pipe hats appear to be doing some sort of dance to the beat of 1,000 drummers.  The lush stage is stripped, like a tour set at the end of a gig, by roadies surprisingly dressed in period costume.  Huge chimneys rise up out of the ground as the rural idyll becomes Stoke-on-Trent. Ooh, and here come some suffragettes! Yay.  (And some more stove-pipe hats...not being worn by the suffragettes I should clarify.)

And now a field of poppies, and stationary, silent soliders remembering fallen comrades; the stove-pipe hats are doffed.  After the whirl of activity of the first section, there is a moment's stillness. A pause.  And then industry marches on as the ever-growing towers reach further skywards.  Confusingly there are now a whole load of men dressed up like The Beatles, and a nod the first West Indian immigrants to land in the UK.  After that random interlude we're back to the Industrial Revolution, as sparks fly from rivers of molten ore, running into a ring in the middle of the stadium.  A group of Chelsea Pensioners stride proudly through the industrial chaos, as Kenneth Branagh-Brunel looks proudly on.  Four other molten rings fly in from above to join the newly-'forged' one in the centre of the stage.  Up it rises to join its fellows in the sky over the stadium.  Five gold rings.  Music soars and crashes; drums and whistling and strings. It is a total cacophony but glorious.  
Photo: Sky News
And now a wee breather for another pre-recorded sequence while the stage in the stadium is reset. We have James Bond.  In Buckingham Palace.  With corgis. Obviously. OH MY GOD IT'S THE ACTUAL QUEEN. Wow.  The entire nation has just had its mind well and truly blown.  Back in the stadium the un-recorded Queen takes her place overlooking proceedings as servicemen and women walk in the Union Flag.  And I sort of want to cry.  Our national flag is raised high above the stadium, before a country watching with open mouths.  We all had preconceived notions of what this opening ceremony would be like but it wasn't this.  This is seriously impressive.  

Mike Oldfield and patients and staff of GOSH open the second section of the ceremony.  Erm, ok.  It's an odd choice - the music from the Exorcist and sick kids but moving swiftly along...there are dancing doctors and nurses, pajama-clad children bouncing on beds, swing music.  Spelling out 'NHS' in lights is another questionable move, but anyway...Ooh, light-up duvets!  JK Rowling reads us some Peter Pan.  Spooky black hooded creatures with green eyes (oddly reminding me of the perpetrators of last year's riots), and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's child-catcher's van rumbles by, as the stuff of nightmares abounds.  Beds fly, monsters appear high above the stadium; Cruella de Ville, Voldemort, and some weird dancing horses.  The formerly friendly nurses get a little Nurse Ratchett.  But it's ok, here are lots of Mary Poppinses, to shoo away the horrid ghouls, and put the little children back to bed.

Oh god, Simon Rattle's conducting 'Chariots of Fire'! Now I'm going to lose it...oh no wait, Mr Bean is going to ruin any emotional potential.  Phew.  As you were.  There's a crackly radio montage; the Archers, the weather forecast, some news, some Sugababes (who in Britain hasn't been in the Sugababes by this point in time?!).  On comes a house and some people with mobile phones, doing some dancing.  Weird luminous worms twirl beneath a montage of television clips, and then we're whirling through 40 years of musical history.  Hundreds of dancers conga around the stadium, as the aural years roll by.  Eric Clapton, The Who, The Beatles (again!), some reggae, A MAN WITH A JET PACK! MULTIPLE MEN WITH JETPACKS AND GLITTER. Queen. THE TARDIS NOISE!  Bouncing punks on springs, New Order, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Soul II Soul, and we've reached the 90s...the Happy Mondays, Eurythmics, Prodigy, punks bouncing about again.  A little Underworld now as a nod to Danny Boyle's best known ouevre, Trainspotting.  A little clip of 4 Weddings & A Funeral, then a cringey kissing montage.  Dizzee Rascal (and many mentions of him being from East London, you know, where the Olympics is), and we're up to date.  A snatch of Muse (Oh god, please don't play that crap official Olympic song they've done).  And to the strains of Emeli Sande's Heaven the house on stage lifts up to reveal inventor of the internet, TIM BERNERS-LEE!  FFS.  If Danny Boyle brought back Elvis right now the crowd would go wild.

Oh, hang on, we're going back to last time we hosted the Olympics, 1948. We did the Games on a serious budget back then apparently.  There's some torch recap action going on...David Beckham's on a boat, with a hot young bird who's holding the torch. They both play football, they share a knowing smile (I'd be worried if I was Posh).  Who will it be who lights the torch?!  God bless her, but if it's the Duchess of Cambridge I'm going to be a weeny bit disappointed...maybe this is the moment for the ressurection of Elvis. Wait, he's not British...erm, the Queen mum?! John Lennon...

Another more peaceful section of the ceremony now follows.  A huge yellow sun, some creepy-looking dancers, a stray child.  Expressive dance to the sound of a heartbeat.  Eurgh, Boyle, you're loosing me.  Oh hell, 'Abide with Me'.  Where are the tissues?  Wow, but sung by Emeli Sande - love her.  She gets peace and quiet to sing beautifully, totally unaccompanied.  The stadium calms down once again.  The small stray child gets a hug and the dancers stand still.

And here, at last, come the athletes...to the strains of the Chemical Brothers.  Now, who's wearing the crappest outfits?  (The poor Queen looks a bit sleepy, bless her.)  It all gets a bit Eurovision at this stage in the proceedings... L'Albanie! Dix points!  Oh dear, and now there's an awful lot of countries to get through...204 nations.  Brazil's trousers are hilarious. Or horribly offensively bright.  (I'm in two minds.)  The presenters stumble over the pronunciation of the capital of Burkina Faso.  Trevor Nelson says he loves this part of the ceremony...although he also says he loves it 'every year' so he may be mistaking it for something else.  Eurovision probably.  10.40pm and we've made it to countries beginning with 'C'.  The Czech Republic athletes are wearing some shiny blue wellies that make them look like they're off on a field trip.  I'm done with the countries by Denmark. You get the picture.  And many, many hours later, at midnight, here comes Team GB, looking a little bit like they're dressed as members of a huge, chavvy street-dance crew BUT THAT'S NOT THE POINT!  There are many fireworks and a serious light display, and for some reason, the Arctic Monkeys, who don't sing 100% in tune.  But sod them, because there are people riding bicycles with light-up wings!  And they are way better than a somewhat incompetent cover of 'Come Together'.  Particularly when one of them flies up into the sky, in a confusing ET homage, that's not very British but is extremely ace.  Sebastian Coe makes an unexciting, unimaginative speech, but the Olympics belongs to Danny Boyle now.  A knighthood is probably in the works.  

There is the official raising of the Olympic flag, carried by some outstandingly amazing people (all of whom could've given a more interesting and coherent speech than Lord Coe).  The lighting of the torch is done by up-and-coming athletic talent in a nice twist away from a single celebrity.  The torch sculpture assembles itself, lifting the flame high up into the centre of the stadium into a bouquet of copper flowers.  There are more fireworks, that I watch on a muted television so I can hear their boom across London, out of the stadium and in through my open window.  And then, because we're British and there's an open-air, public entertainment situation, Paul McCartney is wheeled on to sing 'Hey Jude'.  And we're all done; the Games are officially open.  It's been a long evening but I'm hugely proud right now (and only a little bit tired).  London, you're shining.  Britain, you are great.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Camden's new nightlife: the launch of Camden Lock Night Market

'So are you 'the Accidental Londoner'?'  Here was a greeting I'd never met before in real-life.  I'd been addressed as such via email or a comments box before, but never by an honest-to-God, actual human being.  It was rather surreal to admit that yes, I was, and that my online persona was the real invitee to the event I attended last week.  But such is the peculiarity of blogging, and also the joy.  My charming companion for the evening was fellow blogger, Cool on Demand, and, as our London blog alter-egos, we had been invited to witness the launch of a new event in Camden that seemed perfect for the warm July night.

I won't lie, even though I live within a fifteen minute walk of Camden, I usually avoid the area.  Camden, and the Lock Market area in particular, typically crawls with emo teenagers, all sweepy black fringes and restrictively-tight jeans, and older, more tattooed rockers in platforms and leather.  Once upon a time I too trawled Camden Lock Market for questionable clothing as I ate noodles out of a styrofoam container beside the canal.  (I should hastily add that I wasn't a goth; just a sartorially-challenged teenager let loose for a day or two in London...)  But the bustling crowds these days put me off.  I'm too old for doing battle with hundreds of pierced teenagers when I go shopping.

To tempt the older, more mainstream Londoner back to the area however, Camden Lock has launched a new weekly event; the Camden Lock Night Market.  Each Thursday, for the next six weeks at least, the bars and stalls that fill the Lock Market beside the canal will remain open late (well, until about 10pm) into the evening.  You can shop, catch a little live music, drink and eat from an impressively multi-cultural array of food choices, from Scottish to Peruvian, and Spanish to Turkish.  Munching on some seriously tasty Turkish fried beef wraps, Janet and I watched a great folky live set by Ryan O'Reilly (and his grandly named 'band' that looked rather like a mate with a guitar to me).  Over on the other side of the lock reggae tunes were being spun for those who preferred more of a boogie.  Making the most of the warm night - summer appears to finally be here! - drinkers lined the midnight blue canal that reflected back the lights of the bars and cafes normally firmly shut up by this 'late' hour.
Camden Lock Market by night has a very different atmosphere to its youth-rammed, day-time ambiance.  It becomes a place for meeting people for a few post-work drinks, or for those early first dates when having lots of things to stimulate conversation is a key requirement of an evening's activity.  It's a place for the summer, as long as it lasts.  (One wonders how the outdoor eateries and open-air shopping will fare in the dark, chilly winter; not well, sadly I suspect).  By night this little patch of North London is more civilised, more grown-up, less frantically charged with teenage hormones, but  the odd cobbled corner in which a pervading smell of weed lingers can still be found by those in search of the more traditional Camden experience.  Illuminated by twinkling lights and experienced with a margarita in hand, I rather like the lock by night.  Long may the new Night Market last...and here's hoping the rain stays away.                

Monday, 23 July 2012

Less than a week to go: The Olympic countdown

Ok, I can no longer ignore what's going on all around me in this city, much though the girl who's worried about how much slower her daily commute is about to get wishes that I could. Whilst the LED screen around the top of the BT Tower has been counting down the days until London's Olympic Games since the numbers were in the hundreds, with less than a week to go it all seems to have got more real suddenly. On Friday 27th July London will formally open the 2012 Olympic Games, with a show featuring an industrial mill, peasant-costumed actors and apparently 70 live sheep. (This can only go well.)  The action will already have kicked off in earnest a couple of days before however, and so the city is already witnessing an influx of tourists, sports fans and international athletes, who seem to have an amusing habit of getting lost on tour buses between Heathrow airport and the Olympic site out in East London.
There seem to be two different Olympic opinions shared by Londoners right now. The first is that the Olympics is going to be great, exciting, an opportunity to showcase our city at its brightest and best, a boon to tourism and the wider economy now and for years to come. The second is that the Olympics is a horrifying waste of money, and is about to bugger up the lives of millions of Londoners who are just desperately trying to continue their daily routines, only now they have an influx of a few hundred thousand lost tourists accompanying them on their regular Tube ride to work. Even the New York Times has picked up on the latter of these attitudes, recently publishing an article on the world-class bitching and whingeing of disgruntled Londoners. And another similar article published in the NYT back in March described our new Olympic host city as 'like a cranky father compelled to host a party for his teenage daughter — awkward, uncomfortable and simmering with barely concealed fury at the ghastly, noisy interlopers who insist on having a good time'.  Well may the American press smugly gloat and comment...were it not for us taking the financial bullet of hospitality, the 2012 Olympics might have been held in New York City.

But London won the bid and so here we are.  Three days to go.  And having solidly clung to the pessimism of an anticipated gridlocked city and a colossal expenditure for very little reward, I will admit that as the Games draw nearer I am feeling a little excited.  Maybe not excited actually, but I am enjoying the feeling of being in the midst of the action.  Working for a company that has been involved in turning a scrubby patch of Stratford into a shiny new Olympic Park, somehow, while I was busy groaning about it all, I have got caught up in the vastness of this project - something that I am unlikely to witness taking shape ever again.  So for now I am feeling expectant and hoping that my earlier fears will be unrealised.  Even the sunshine has finally put in an appearance as London appears before the world.  But will either the sunshine or my good mood dissipate over the next few weeks?  Watch this space... 

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Accidental Express Tour of Copenhagen

Last week I spent a day in Copenhagen.  Or at least I think I did.  One of the oddities of business travel is that you are often sent to exciting, new foreign places but that, tantalisingly, you're demanded home again before you have seen anything more than the inside of an office that looks surprisingly like the one you're normally stuck in back home.
So this is the best (well, only) photo of Copenhagen I have.  The departure lounge at Copenhagen Airport.  (Confusingly this is also Arrivals; the Danes are so organised they can manage both in- and out-flows of frazzled travellers in one space.)  Not that Copenhagen Airport is such a terrible place; as airports go it's a pretty nice one.  It's clean, shiny, glossy; the sort of place that you wouldn't entirely hate to spend a six-hour lay-over.  But I whizzed through the place on Tuesday night, desperate to make the most (or at least see a little) of the city while I had a couple of hours to do so.

But the city had other ideas however.  What the city wanted to share with me was its public transport system, engineering works and all.  So I saw a fair bit of the city's outskirts, with their wide streets, shuttered shops with apartment buildings up above, and remarkably few people.  There seemed to be more people about in the centre of town, but by half past nine at night the city was not exactly buzzing.  My trip had coincided with the start of the Danish summer holidays.  As the lights of the Tivoli Gardens amusement park twinkled away, the streets beneath its rollercoasters and towers were surprisingly empty.  Cyclists glided along the roads, many not bothering with helmets, such seemed to be the great respect that motorised vehicles showed these man-powered fellow road-users; it seemed quite the opposite situation to the daily battles in which cyclists and car or bus-drivers engage in London.  After two more buses (only one of which was going in completely the wrong direction) there was a wonderfully eccentric hotel (and a somewhat annoyed and awakened manager, but that's a story for another day).  Sadly however, there was no dinner out at a Danish restaurant.  By 10.30pm the city was officially tucked up at home in bed.  Which was probably just as well for a girl with important client meetings in the morning, even if she was ravenously hungry.

Even with an early start the next day I saw no more of the city.  The office in which I was to spend the day was a mere five minute walk from the hotel where I stayed.  I saw a small pedestrianised street, the back of a restaurant, a school and rather a lot of benches.  And then I passed the rest of my time in Copenhagen in a meeting room.  Ok, it had a rather Danish look - everything was covered in wood panelling - but, honestly, it could have been a meeting room just about anywhere on the planet.  By 5pm I was back at the nicest airport in Europe, having spent barely 24 hours in a new country.  So what's Copenhagen like?  I'd suggest you get yourself a travel guide.  All I can tell you is that the locals like their bikes.  And the airport's quite nice.
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