Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The post that will go unread

I have been struggling to write my latest post.  I have toyed with sentences and paragraphs, typing and deleting, scrapping everything and staring at a blank screen.  This post marks an end to something.  It is unlike each of the other 150 plus posts I've written over the last few years.  It is a strange feeling, typing away, and knowing that these words will never to be read by someone who read every single word of each earlier post; my writing's keenest supporter, my blog's biggest fan.  

My grandfather was the first person who told me I should write, and with such solid encouragement that I truly believed I was withholding Pulitzer Prize-winning material from the world if I didn't.  He patiently read - and genuinely seemed to enjoy - everything I ever wrote, from blogposts on house-boats to journal accounts of trekking Peru's Cordillera Blanca, even the less than exciting corporate literature I produced in my professional life.  And when I began this blog he was one of The Accidental Londoner's first readers and most ardent champions.  With a drink in hand, during visits to my grandparents' house, we would dissect my latest post - him approving of an angle taken or cautioning against antagonising an author whose work I had reviewed.  He read each post on hard copy print-outs rather than online, before filing them away in the enormous lever-arches in which he archived his descendants' outputs and achievements, or photocopying them to send proudly round the world to his friends.  I know that my last post on farmers' markets lies next to his ancient, now dormant, computer as I type.  It was the last writing of mine that he ever read.     

Last week my grandfather, Colin McIntyre, died.  Within a life spent travelling the world in the armed forces, gaining degrees and Jitterbug-ing titles, playing rugby, writing books and poetry, undertaking press postings to the UN, and launching two new Doctor Whos at the BBC, my grandfather's greatest source of pride was his family.  He was a truly excellent grandfather; generous and thoroughly indulgent of his grandchildren, endlessly supportive and encouraging, embarrassingly proud and wonderfully entertaining.  He plied me with bottles of gin and armfuls of the Sunday newspaper style magazines that he knew I loved.  He sent me proper letters - always a nice surprise to find on the doormat in the era of quick-and-easy email - signed in emerald green ink, and enclosing articles on subjects in which he thought I might be interested; travel pieces, reviews of places I would enjoy visiting, ideas about writing, suggestions for blogposts. 
But he was much more than the Accidental Grandfather.  For one who always remained cautiously unconvinced about the opportunities of the blogosphere and Twitter, he has appeared as something of  an inspiration amongst those who use these media platforms.  After the BBC published an article on him - amongst the many impressive things he achieved in his life he was the founding editor of Ceefax - I watched amazed as Twitter feeds lengthened with messages from people who never knew him, but recognised him as having created something wonderful in Ceefax.  'Sad how often I only find out about interesting people when they die' remarked someone.  Well @toddmgreen, he was even more interesting than you know, and those who did know him are extremely proud of him. 

Yes, one day the ex-editor in him might have driven me completely nuts as I strived to develop my own writing voice and direction.  And his constant twitching and warnings about my flitting round the world to 'dangerous' places merited many an eye-roll.  But in the last week this city has lost one of my favourite things within it, and the person who gave me the confidence to do something I have grown to love more than anything else is gone.  I never told him how much of my desire to write stemmed from his support and unwavering faith in my abilities, and I'm not sure he would have believed me if I had.  Should this writing lark ever come to anything however, and I manage to produce a handful of published articles or even a book, I am sure that he wouldn't have been remotely surprised.  He would have simply been delighted.  And so I will keep on trying; because he believed I could do it.  And I'd love to prove him right.     

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The freshest food in town - London's farmers' markets

I first encountered farmers' markets in New York City, maybe ten years ago.  As the rebuild of the World Trade Center began, one of the first acts of resilience within the city was the return of the WTC greenmarket (as such markets are called in the States) to the site, and the continuation of life as New Yorkers knew it.  When I revisited this particular market I found something slightly surreal, yet wonderfully defiant, about the greenmarket existing right next to the high metal fence that surrounded the world's most famous building site.  Fat, shiny capiscum peppers lay in mounds next to heaps of radishes, carrots and apples, and behind them tourists from all over the world peered through the chain-link and stared up at the boards bearing the names of those who lost their lives on 11th September 2001.
Over the last few years, London too has witnessed the mushrooming of its own crop of farmers' markets, from Alexandra Palace to Oval, and Pimlico to Islington.  Available playgrounds, carparks or squares - pretty much any flat, spare space - are now abloom with gazebos and stalls.  (For a handy map of London's farmers' markets have a look here.)  There is even a wonderfully tiny one outside my local pub in Tufnell Park on a Saturday, which valiantly persists in selling ice cream even in the depths of winter.  Most farmers' markets in the city are weekend phenomena, when the average Londoner has time for more than a frantic dash around the nearest soul-less Tesco Metro.  And they sell all that the epicurean  food shopper could desire; fresh bread, homemade pies, fruit, cheese, glorious cakes and biscuits, fish lounging on piles of chipped ice, fat bunches of herbs, and even gyoza dumplings to nibble as you wander between the stalls.  Neat labels declare products as 'organic', 'home-made' or 'gluten-free'.  But don't let that put you off.  Visiting these markets is as much about eating then and there as it is stocking up one's kitchen.  Alongside the odd individual shopper, farmers' markets are usually full of couples and families, meeting up with each other for hot sausage rolls and freshly-ground coffee, and a peruse of the wares on sale.  Small children hurtle from stall to stall, snaffling free samples of chutney blobbed on top of oatcakes, and dogs on leads strain desperately in the direction of the van selling bacon sandwiches.
Oval farmers' market, held in the grounds of St Mark's Church, just across the road from Oval tube station, is particularly wonderful.  Aside from the stall that sells the best (read 'highest calorie content') cookies and another peddling excellent sausage rolls, the true fun to be had at this particular market is to be found when you come to sit down to munch on your purchases, and find that there is a wedding taking place at the church.  Guests arrive in their fancy frocks and hats, groomsmen mill about savouring a last cigarette, and bridesmaids wobble from cars bedecked with ribbons to the church in heels and floor-length gowns.  Dinner - well, usually more like lunch - and a show!

Farmers' markets are not exactly a cheap way to shop in the city however.  Catering for the monied folks of North London, the market held beneath Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath is the most eye-watering in terms of price that I have discovered.  And it's not much fun if you're a dog either, as this particular market has a designated dog-creche, where the canines of Hampstead are tethered whilst their owners peruse over-priced spelt loaves.  But a mid-morning potter around a farmers' market is certainly more pleasurable than the average weekend slog around Morrisons or Sainsbury's, doing battle with thousands of other shoppers and their screaming children.  The process of browsing open-air stalls, groaning under mounds of reassuringly muddy potatoes and shiny tomatoes, sure is a lot more pleasurable than shoving a wonky-wheeled trolley around a dozen aisles of freezer cabinets and misery.      At least as long as the sun shines.

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Tuesday, 8 May 2012

'Ultimate Power': A whole lot of leather, leopard print and (Meat)loaf

Life in the small village in the Midlands where I grew up was not very rock and roll.  Not counting the five village pubs, nightlife options were a bit thin on the ground.  Fortunately by the time I was old enough to be interested in such things as bars and nightclubs I was at school or university in sizeable towns or cities which could usually stump up an appropriate place to throw some shapes of a late evening.   But from the age I was old enough to operate a record player (probably making a godawful scratchy mess of my parents' LPs, sorry guys!) I was hooked on music.  An Accidental Family anecdote details my first attempt at swearing, when I was not yet three years old, on being denied music to listen to in the car on a family holiday.  I would spend afternoons flicking through my parents' record collection, flicking over most of it (having little interest in Gilbert and Sullivan or Olivia Newton-John; what was she doing in there, parents?!) but playing to death a handful of vinyl.  There were two ABBA albums which got a pretty thorough listening, but my favourite of the lot was a black-covered album, with bright yellow lettering spelling out the name: Life in the Fast Lane - 16 Classic Rock Tracks.  And my, but they were classic!

From the minute the claps pounded out of my parents' old B&O speakers and John Farnham began to sing 'You're The Voice', I was blissfully happy.  REO Speedwagon, Heart, John Parr, Bon Jovi, Huey Lewis & The News; the gang was all there.  I would dance like a maniac to Kenny Loggins' 'Footloose', my favourite track on the album, right in front of the record player so that I could reset the needle the second the music stopped.  And even when I grew up, left home and I moved to London, my love for American power rock persisted.  Whitesnake thrashed through the headphones of my iPod as I commuted.  Billy Idol became the soundtrack to my runs through Regents Park.  One of the Flouffes (the ex-Accidental housemates) and I used to enjoy flat-cleaning sessions - glass of wine in hand - to the strains of Celine Dion's fiercest power ballads.  And many of these nights spent hoovering and scrubbing to Celine were as much fun as some of our nights out spent boogieing to Eurotrash dance beats.

Recently lamenting a lack of rock and roll in our nights out (and frankly our lack of nights out in general of late) my ex-housemate and I resolved to remedy this sad, sad situation.  And so off we went to 'Ultimate Power' at Camden's Electric Ballroom - London's remedy for the power ballad deprived.  Having booked our tickets horribly early - the event sells out swiftly - we then spent two whole months planning our outfits.  Unlike many venues or events in London, Ultimate Power positively encourages the donning of ridiculous costumes; the bigger the inflatable instrument, the higher the hair, the blonder the mullet wig, the better!  We stocked up on neon, faux leather and hair-spray.  We donned leopard-print and leggings, and applied lashings of eye-liner.  We were ready to rock.  As were our fellow Ultimate Power goers.  Rock band t-shirts abounded (although I wondered how many Rolling Stones songs many of those claiming allegiance to the band could actually name), rhinestones glittered, and ludicrously skin-tight clothing hugged the bodies of the crowd that filled the Electric Ballroom.
On our way to Camden, an Accidental friend had confessed she was worried she wouldn't recognise all of the songs that would feature during the night ahead.  But once inside, as she instantly recognised the familiar strains of 'Love Is A Battlefield', such fears were allayed.  On a raised stage at one end of the Ballroom, DJs cranked out rock anthem after rock anthem, each new song being greeted with a crazed scream of 'Ohmygodilovethissong!'.  Either side of the decks scruffy guys in t-shirts and jeans air-guitared and head-banged furiously to Queen, Foreigner, Alice Cooper and Meatloaf, whilst a third hurled inflatable microphones and guitars into the bouncing crowd yelling along below.  Within an hour we were stationed right in front of the stage, hot and sweaty from busting our best rock moves, sticky from spilled drinks, and loving it!  Confetti canons were wheeled out and fired at strategic key changes, and smoke machines shrouded us in so much atmospheric fog we might have been in a Bonnie Tyler music video.

We rocked until 3am, but could easily have gone for more.  As most of the Accidental friends headed back to their homes in South-West London, I alone headed up the road towards North London.  Home was a mere ten minutes away and as I attempted to hail a cab, my ears ringing from dancing a little too close to the speakers, I looked around me at Camden; the streets I travel through every day, the places I do my shopping, my part of London.  In my shiny leggings, with my vast, fluorescent earrings and heavy make-up, I did not look all that out of place amidst the late-night revellers and goths who wander the streets whatever time of day it is here.  For a rock fan there are few places better to be in this city than Camden.  And then I did the most rock and roll thing ever; I hopped on the night-bus, with the drunk and those who work night-shifts, and rode home.

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