Friday, 24 February 2012

Literary food for the soul: bars and restaurants with books in London

One of the things I love most about visiting America is the nation's supremely civilised culture of combining coffee shops with bookstores.  To browse the shelves then sit down to examine potential purchases over a cappuccino and a chocolate brownie is to spend one's time in the most pleasurable way.  And I have been delighted to witness this marriage of books and cafes filtering over here to London.  My favourite local cafe, Rustique, near my flat is a literary cafe, filled with secondhand books (all for sale) and people tapping away at laptops or scribbling in notepads.  Even chain coffee-shops such as Costa are getting into bed with bookshops, setting up cafes within Waterstones branches across the capital.

Some establishments are going a step further however, and in the last couple of weeks I have both wined and dined amongst books.  One of my favourite museums, the V&A, has recently established an outpost on the newly pedestrianised Exhibition Road, called the Reading Rooms.  The Reading Rooms is my idea of heaven.  It is a book shop, groaning with beautiful titles on everything from design to tiaras, and London to glassware, but it also has a bar.  Here one can peruse the papery merchandise with a cold glass of wine in one hand, or meet an Accidental Friend for a whole bottle, sat giggling amidst the stacks of books.
And if you want a three course meal surrounded by books, I have been introduced to the perfect place for that too.  Swan & Edgar occupies an old pub in Marylebone, in an odd quiet side-street on which one would not expect to find an upcycled restaurant.  Yet here is Swan & Edgar, where books feature even on the facade of the building in which the restaurant is housed, running in an exposed band beneath the swinging pub sign.  How do they survive the rain I wonder?
Inside the old pub has been cleanly and simply refurbished, with nary a hint of sticky floors or crisp-ground chairs, yet retaining a distinctly pub-y feel.  Solid wooden tables and benches are surrounded by chairs covered in pages torn from old newspapers and books, and candles twinkle in odd vintage tea-cups.  The restaurant covers two floors, the second being reached up a staggeringly steep, narrow staircase, that the experienced staff sprint up and down carrying trays of drinks and food.  The upstairs room is wall-papered in sheets of what looks like the Encyclopedia Britannica, and lined with stacks of books, lit by angle-poise lamps;  travel-writing, angling guides, paperback novels, autobiographies and collected works of poetry. 
Even the floor of the loos is covered in Scrabble tile lino, lest you forget that this place is really all about the printed word when you leave your table.  And the food is really rather good too.  Well done classic mains such as tasty rib-eye steak and rosti potatoes were followed by desserts which were too tempting to resist, like chocolate mousse-cake and bread and butter pudding.  Should you get bored as you wait for your food - although the service was excellent, so you may not have time to do so - you can simply pluck a book from the wall and entertain yourself for a while.  I could pass an entirely happy afternoon or even day in such a place.  And maybe I will when I next have a free weekend.  But not for a while alas...India here I come!

Swan & Edgar on Urbanspoon

*** alas, the Reading Rooms were only a temporary pop-up venture, and Swan & Edgar has also now closed ***

Sunday, 19 February 2012

An Accidental Londoner Abroad

After four years of pretty much exclusively London-based blogging, I'm pleased to announce a new Accidental series: An Accidental Londoner Abroad.  Since I've been in London, the city has become my base-camp for undertaking all manner of travels around the rest of the world.  And wherever I go my notebook comes too.  I am not a big fan of souvenir-buying when I visit a new place, instead I collect tickets, take photos and write about the things I have seen.  With a new job begun last year have come exceptional opportunities for exploring more of the world, so from time to time I will be publishing a few pieces about distinctly un-London-y things here.  I hope my readers will indulge me in this!   

To make it easier to separate out my non-London writing and thoughts from what will still remain the majority of my blog's content, I've recently added a new page - which I will keep updating as I write more - which pulls together much of my recent travel-writing.  It's a little different from the rest of the blog, but I hope it's still interesting for those who come across it.  And if you fancy checking it out (which I highly recommend you do!), you can find it here and in the pages list underneath my profile on the right-hand side of my homepage. 

http://theaccidentallondoner.blogspot.com/p/accidental-londoner-abroad.html

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Let's get quizzical!

I am not one of those lucky people with endless god-given talents.  I am completely rubbish at art.  I'm no dancer or hilariously amusing entertainer.  While I was at school it was politely suggested to my parents that they save their money and curtail the piano lessons which were clearly even more painful for my teacher than myself.  Alas, what I am best at is singularly random and useless as talents go.  Ask me who sang the 1992 hit 'Informer' or what the lyrics are to the second verse of pretty much anything from the ouevre of Lady Gaga and I can tell you in a heartbeat.  I can identify any 90s Old Skool dance hit or 80s rock smash within seconds of an introduction; sometimes merely a couple of guitar chords or a drum beat is enough for me to tell you who sang the song and when it was released.  My iPod hosts an eclectic selection of tracks that extensively covers the last 90 years or so of musical history.  And I recognise each track the moment it filters through my headphones.  But what good is such a (slightly alarmingly geeky) talent?  None what so ever, I had always thought, until one night a couple of years ago.

I was working late in the office when I bumped into a colleague in the kitchen.  'What're you still doing here?' she asked.  I said something about a last-minute deadline and an evening ahead of staring miserably at my computer screen.  My colleague made me a better offer; she was off to a nearby bar for a music quiz and their team was one man down - did I fancy joining them?  One look back at my desk and the piles of paperwork on it and I was grabbing my coat.  I bailed on the office and joined my colleague and her friends at Jerusalem Bar near Oxford Street, a dark basement bar filled with tables surrounded by keen quiz teams, clad in post-work attire, clutching pints of beer.  Initially I was unsure what was going on, and only shyly offered an answer when the rest of the team look stumped, but as the alcohol flowed and I began to realise that I was somewhat in my element I joined the rest of the bar in frantically screaming each new answer, thumping the tables and dancing along in my seat.  That night we claimed a spot in the top three teams, winning a free round of drinks, and, having demonstrated a surprising knowledge of hip-hop anthems which impressed my team-mates, I had a place on the team.  Two years on, the colleague who introduced me to it has since moved to Sydney but the 'Sounds Familiar' music quiz continues its tour of central London bars monthly.  And I am all too pleased to have found a forum in which to demonstrate my peculiar talent.
So, here's how the quiz normally goes down.  In an ill-lit basement bar, teams of six people (and often an illicit seventh!) gather around a table, armed with a biro and several blank answer sheets.  Each question is posed in the form of the first 30 seconds or so of a track being played throughout the bar, with the teams required to scribble down its title and artist.  The rounds change each month (classic rounds including 'I'm no fool, I know my Old Skool' and 'Does liking this record make me uncool?') and are usually punctuated by a 15 minute interval which allows the quiz-master, DJ Al, to tot up the half-time scores and also releases those who are gasping for a cigarette.  The evening usually begins with a mash-up round, in which teams have to identify multiple artists whose works have been mixed together.  This can be harder than it sounds, and much frustrated teeth-grinding and face-pulling often occurs during this round as people strain to place the familiar lyrics or guitar solos.  I have a theory that this round usually kicks off the entire quiz as it requires the most concentration; a couple more rounds in, and several more drinks down, everyone is far too pissed to recognise all but the most popular of cheesy mainstream hits.  Part of the appeal of the Sounds Familiar music quiz is that as the night progresses the atmosphere transforms from 'pub quiz night' into 'night out'.  By the final round the entire bar is singing along to the song snippets, clapping their hands and some people, ahem, have even been known to finish the evening dancing on the tables.  

Whilst the rounds change each week there are a number of regular characters who form the teams.  Each team usually has a pro; someone who knows 95% of the answers the second they hear the song.  They are usually in charge of filling in the answer sheets and generally looking smug.  Then there are the specialists.  These quizzers spend the vast majority of the night nodding along quietly and sinking pints of beer, but suddenly come into their own on the Motown round or display an unexpected expertise on Brit Pop or boybands.  Next up is the misguided guesser.  As everyone screws up their faces trying to remember who sang 'Tears of a Clown', they will 'helpfully' yell a list of incorrect answers at random - 'Elton John?  Rod Stewart?  The Beatles?!' - thoroughly confusing those who may be close to remembering the right answer.  And there is also the fact-checker.  Not a strong quizzer, the fact-checker doesn't actually know any of the answers, but they feel compelled to grab the answer sheets from the hands of those who do to read what they've written and nod in agreement, despite not having a clue what the correct answer is or actually being able to read what's been written due to the lugubriously dingy lighting in the bar.  And finally there are the no-hopers.  Each team seems to include someone who knows absolutely nothing about pop music but who seems to like hanging out with slightly drunk, shrieking people who do.  (The no-hoper is actually a great asset to a team, as they can be safely despatched to get the next round in, without any fear that the team will fail to answer a tricky question with one of its key players busy at the bar.)  And these wonderful people are really what makes the music quiz night out so much bloody fun!  You bond with colleagues, crack up with mates, scream along to Queen with complete strangers, and often feel like hell the next morning.  But you always want to go to the next one.

Now, if there was only some way I could monetise my random talent into paying dividends even better than free shots, CDs and plastic medals...

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Snow, revisited

And so I've come full circle.  When I began this blog three years ago I was inspired to put finger to keyboard by a day in which London was transformed; all usual activities were disrupted and the city's inhabitants began to behave rather oddly.  It was the day it snowed. (You can read the post where it all began here.)  And now exactly three years later I am still writing.  I have moved in and out of three homes, I have begun and completed a degree (losing a small amount of mental stability in the process), I have obtained a new job and a mortgage.  After two and a half years in South-West London, I have become a proud North Londoner.  So much has changed in my life, but each time it snows here in London it is three years ago, and I am back in Putney experiencing my first proper city snowfall.

Snow has a peculiar effect on a city in which it is unfamiliar.  Transport disruption and laughable  footwear aside, it has a pleasingly calming influence on the pace of life here in London.  As the snow sneakily fell while London was cosily indoors last night I peaked out into my street.  I felt the same thrill I have experienced since I was very young seeing the transformed scene outside.  The light was surprisingly bright for a wintery night, as the lamposts shone yellow through the falling flakes.
Snow has its most profound effect on the city's population.  For example, yesterday, instead of mooching around the neighbourhood in hoodies looking disreputable the local youth spend their Saturday night tossing snowballs at one another in the street; abandonning their attempts to look cool and dangerous to laugh and dance awkwardly out of the way of icy missiles.  Even animals are not immune to the influence of snow.  The kitten who lives downstairs was entirely bemused by what had happened to his garden, and spent a while poking at this odd stuff that carpeted the space where his lawn used to be.  (Indeed, he seemed to apply far more caution to strolling across his garden in the snow than he does any of his other actions; he spends most of his days falling sideways off a high trellis into the garden next door.  He is single-handedly- or single-pawedly, I suppose - working to dispel the myth that cats always land on their feet!)

I am unable to resist the allure of a crisp pavement full of snow and love a good stomp around in it.  However, simply leaving my flat to put out the rubbish this morning, I slipped on my top step and crashed unceremoniously down the short flight, landing without much grace on the pavement below, sodden and bruised.  I limped back up to my flat, changed out of my snowy garments, and grabbed my wellies.  I would not be put off by snow's more treacherous side!  Having made it safely down the steps finally, I headed to Hampstead Heath to see how the rest of North London was enjoying the weather.  And how they were enjoying themselves!
Parliament Hill was crawling with booted, bobble-hatted Londoners engaged in some serious sledging.  Flattened, and in some places bare, grooves were worn into the side of the hill, where all manner of sledging vehicles had traversed the snow.  Sledgers were leaving the Heath as I walked towards it, red-faced, rather damp children riding along the pavements on sledges dragged by cold-looking parents.  Some sledges were rather elegant wooden numbers, whilst others were thin gaudy-coloured plastic.  Plenty of people had eschewed traditional sledges in favour of a number of random objects they'd clearly found lying around the house.  Trays of varying shapes and sizes hurtled down the snow, the round ones spinning their riders in circles. I even saw a semi-inflated air matress being borne back down towards Kentish Town.  A large group of ill-clad students milled about at the foot of the Parliament Hill slope, each with a bottle of beer in one hand and a black recycling box lid in the other.  Clad in luminous snow-gear a pair of snow-boarders made their way slowly down the hill, looking disparagingly at the whooping sledgers who were taking things far less seriously, and ruining their ride.
Dodging the sporting Londoners I made my own way down the hill, spotting secondary activities such as snowman-building and igloo-carving in action.  Dogs bounced and snuffled in the drifts and the keenest of runners slipped and slid along the well-trodded pathways in their bright lycra.  Chilly swans and somewhat bemused-looking ducks waddled across Highgate Ponds which were frozen solid.  As the evening advanced the Heath seemed to blur around the edges, as a cold, vaguely pink haze settled over the city.  I sloshed my way home through the already melting snow and ice, smiling at the fun of kicking up snow with my feet cosy and dry inside my wellies.  Who knows how long the snow will last this time, but next year it will return and London will sledge and build snowmen and teeter on silly shoes in the slush and forget to be sensible and cool.  Snow brings out the city's collective inner child. I wonder how many Londoners will make their excuses and 'bunk off school' tomorrow to play in the snow some more.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

'Saved by the wedding bells?': Guest-blog for London Ladybird

The lovely Olivia (aka 'London Ladybird') writes a wonderfully amusing blog about love, life, and lots of other things befalling the 20-something lady.  She is a fellow Londoner, currently living out West, and was recently in search of some guest-bloggers.  I volunteered and am happy to announce I have now become one of her charmingly named 'Ladybird Lovies'.  Should you fancy reading what I wrote, on the subject of weddings, you can find it here.

Just a caveat for anyone expecting another piece on London, one of the lovely things about Olivia's kind offer of guest-blogging was that I get a chance to write about something slightly different in this post.  So, no commuting whinges or restaurant reviews...just a dash of youthful commitment phobia and wedding trauma.  (And if you do read it, before you all worry about me becoming a lonely old spinster, please view it in the light-hearted manner in which it was written!)

http://thelondonladybird.wordpress.com/ladybird-lovies/flora-tonking-saved-by-the-wedding-bells/
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