Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The town mouse and the country mouse

I have spent the last week at the Accidental Homestead, way up the country, in deepest, darkest Staffordshire. It's a pretty rural (read: isolated) spot, but for a few days at a time I can just about manage to hang out there without climbing the walls.  Home for the holidays, I am usually asked, by people who live in the countryside, how life is down in London. The phrase 'the big city' is even occasionally used. I tell them that city-life is great, that I'm busy and interested and constantly learning and exploring new things. I tell them about a brilliant exhibition of Israeli art currently on at the Tate Modern and a fascinating documentary I recently saw at my local independent cinema. Their brows furrow, and their eyes glaze slightly. They look baffled for a couple of seconds and then they change the subject to discuss the single film playing at the single cinema for 50 miles, confident that everyone will have seen it and that they will have something insightful to add to the conversation.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Sponsored post: Wishing London a very happy Christmas from the top of the BT Tower

Whoosh! So that was it, another year has just flown by. Everyone enjoy it? Great, cos here comes 2014! But of course there's the small matter of Christmas before we get there...

Ah, Christmas, that wonderful time of the year for celebrations and reflections, and families and friends and food, and mulled wine and eggnog and other improbable drinks you'd only ever drink when cold and desperate and attempting to feel festive. What is it that makes people come over all warm and fuzzy around the end of December?  Maybe it's all those aforementioned drinks.  But Christmas is certainly a time for sharing; not just enormous boxes of Quality Street but also thoughts, experiences, and a little bit of love too.  While most of us may be content to just share our messages with a single pal or a special someone, others - and yes I'm looking at you, loud man in a reindeer onesie on the Piccadilly Line - like to spread the love a little further.  Right across the whole city from the top of the BT Tower, for example.  And if you have something you want to share with London right now, that scrolling LED display board on that most iconic of London buildings is yours for the taking.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

An accidental witness in South Africa

There are a handful of moments in life which are always introduced by a discussion about where you were when they happened. Where were you when you heard about 9/11 and watched those two planes crash over and over into the World Trade Center? Where were you when you heard that Princess Diana had died? Where were you when your country declared itself at war? This week another such event surely happened, as one extraordinary man died, and a world united in sadness.  Where were you when you heard that Nelson Mandela had died?

I was (and still am) here, in South Africa, the country Mandela fought so hard to change. I am surrounded by those to whom he meant the most, and undoubtedly those who are feeling his loss most keenly. Asleep as Jacob Zuma announced Mandela's death to the awaiting news cameras, I awoke early yesterday to anguished sobbing coming from the hotel room next door; the kind of moaning, animal keening of public displays of grief, not the quiet weeping of personal trauma.  As I waited for the elevator a little while later, a South African with tears in his eyes shook his head, and simply said "This is a very sad day for South Africa. A very sad day."  By 9am across the city every flag was fluttering at half-mast. The city centre of Cape Town was peaceful, with people going about their daily lives as usual, but without making any unnecessary noise. A colleague reported driving past a group of road-repairers who were singing struggle songs as they worked. Our meetings for the day collapsed somewhat, as a cancellation was followed by a session entirely distracted by all that was going on. Later, back in the office, staff members gathered and wept before a presentation on Mandela, as Johnny Clegg played in the background. 

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Accidentally disorientated

Silence on this blog usually suggests one of two things. Either I am feeling a little uninspired by London – which typically only happens when I’m spending too much time in the office and not out exploring – or I’m overseas somewhere without a wifi signal strong enough to send a one-line email.  But the real reason for the lack of posts here of late is a sort of combination of the two. I’ve spent much of the past few weeks either in mid-air high above one continent or another (reason #2: no wifi) or whizzing from an interview to a meeting, or exploring a new community then dashing off to run a focus group (a variation of reason #1: being super-busy; but I certainly wasn't feeling uninspired).  But there has also been a new element,  a reason #3: the subject I wanted to blog about – the city I have been in for the past two weeks – was somewhat eluding me

Friday, 15 November 2013

Little City Observations at the Chance Gallery, Chelsea

One of the great perks of starting to blog is that one finds oneself a member of a new community.  Bloggers, on the whole, are a thoroughly nice bunch; supportive, encouraging, vicariously excited and sad for one another, committed to what they do and appreciate of anyone else who works hard to achieve the same, or at least similar, things.  In amongst your new community you can find interesting thoughts, helpful advice, inspiration and sometimes a damn good pal or two.  So when you see a fellow blogger seeking a little help, you want to do your bit - to cheer them along, to help them reach a particular milestone or to show off their brilliance a tiny bit.

So I couldn't have been more thrilled to support (in my own very tiny way) the opening of an exhibition of the work of Stephanie Sadler, aka Little London Observationist. Steph's was one of the first London blogs I stumbled across when I was getting The Accidental Londoner off the ground, and we have known about each other for several years, corresponded briefly from time to time, but never actually met.  A month or so ago, a new blogpost appeared on Steph's blog, excitedly sharing the news that she had been given the opportunity to exhibit some of her dramatic city photography, which she also shares on her blog.  The exhibition was to be held in the artist-run pop-gallery, The Chance Gallery, in Chelsea. As long as Steph could raise some funds to support it.  Oh, and here was a link to her Kickstarter funding plea.  I couldn't click through to her fundraising page fast enough!

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The last supper

Despite being bought up in a little village in the Midlands, London still figured in my childhood as a place for family gatherings and visits. With a pair of grandparents as well as an aunt and her family living in the capital, it was the natural location for festivities that brought together the various branches of our family. And for as long as I can remember should any of these festivities necessitate a meal out at a restaurant, there was but one place we would head: Choys.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

After the storm

The morning I first walked down the street that was to become mine, and visited the flat I was to buy, was a sunny one. Surprisingly sunny, in fact, for early April.  I can remember what I was wearing that particular day three years ago, and even which way I walked down the street. And I remember being struck by all the trees - old trees, some as tall as the three-storied houses themselves - that lined the pavements.  I met the estate agent by the biggest tree of them all, and she led me up what were to become the steps to my front door.

Each day since I moved in, descending those steps I have looked onto the wide trunk of the biggest tree of the street. I have swerved round it countless times as I headed out into the city, dragged my wheeled-suitcase over its uneven roots en route to airports, cursed the way those same roots have been pushing up the paving slabs. Just a few days ago I watch downstairs' cat almost get stuck up it chasing a vociferously protesting magpie.  On Sunday, with the news of the approaching St' Jude's day storm, the Accidental Father had looked at my tree and wondered how shallow its roots were, and whether it might come down in a strong wind. Not wanting to alarm me however, he had kept this thought to himself.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Mad about Bridget: A night with Helen Fielding in Primrose Hill

When an old uni pal - let's call her the Accidental Classicist (for I know no one more geeky about the Romans than she) asked whether I fancied coming along to hear writer, Helen Fielding, talk about her most famous literary creation - the hapless, 'hopeless' singleton, Bridget Jones - I told her to count me in.  The fictional Bridget, via Fielding's 'Bridget Jones' Diary' and its sequel 'The Edge of Reason', had seen me through some tough times as a teenager.  During my miserably soggy final expedition for my Duke of Edinburgh award, my copy of 'The Edge of Reason' was the only thing in my backpack that wasn't soaked through after three days trekking through the Lake District. (It had been carefully stowed deep beneath my clean socks, safely water-tight inside, not one, but two zip-lock bags.) High on a stormy mountaintop in a dripping tent, I sought solace by the light of my headtorch in reading about poor old Bridget's trials and tribulations; forgetting for a few blissful minutes where I was and how much I was wishing to be anywhere else.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Giving a new meaning to the phrase 'cat burglar'...

I have an intruder. Someone that has taken to sneaking into my flat on a regular basis. All it takes is an unguarded front door, or a window left carelessly open, and he is in. I enter rooms to find this unexpected stranger making himself well and truly at home, without so much as a "Do you mind if I come in?" or a "Hi friend, you free to hang out?".  

He has no shame about attending to his personal toilette in the middle of my sitting room floor, regardless of whatever I might be doing, or whoever I might currently be entertaining.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

An Accidental Facelift

Anyone reading this post in a blog reader could be forgiven for not noticing anything new about The Accidental Londoner. All posts look much the same through the lens of Bloglovin' or Feed.ly, or even the dearly departed Google Reader. But over here on the blog itself, things have had a bit of a refresh.  We all need one of those from time to time, eh?
Whilst much of the content is still exactly the same as it was - just a much shinier, neater version of its former self - there are some new pages on the site.  You can find these on the smart new menu bar at the top of the page.
  • Accidental Eats you may recognise as my collection of restaurant and bar reviews.
  • Accidental Travels contains all my tales from my travels - from Ghana to Nepal and even only up to the soggy West Coast of Scotland.
  • Accidental Visits brings together visits to museums, gigs, the theatre, green spaces and iconic buildings in London.
Do have a poke around and see what you can find, and let me know what you think!  Is there anything you'd like to see more or less of? Would love to hear your thoughts...
Massive thanks are due to the lovely Bobbi of Ready To Blog for all her hard work on the new design and her endless patience in dealing with my odd queries and notes! If anyone needs a blog (re)designing, she's your girl.

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Saturday, 5 October 2013

And then something amazing happened...

There are several moments in a blogger's life when they feel like they're finally getting the hang of the whole blogging malarkey, and maybe even doing this weird writing-oversharing-communication thing pretty well.  One such moment might be the day your analytics tell you thousands of people visited your site in a day, or a month, or a year. Another is the thrill you get when someone you admire leaves a kind and generous comment at the bottom of one of your posts.  You might be awarded an accolade or even get invited to speak at an event. Or, the ultimate joy, you might finally be able to jack in the day job and dedicate yourself to blogging as a career rather than a hobby.

But I'm some way off that alas. Which is why a little something that happened earlier this week blew my tiny blogging mind.  It was Wednesday, a day in the middle of a week that has been slowly eroding my energy and patience at an alarming rate. I was delighted to leave the office to catch up with a couple of people and a couple of margharitas.  Needing something to counteract the latter of those two things, we whisked down to the home of the city's most addictive burgers, Five Guys in Covent Garden. We did the standard loitering outside in a queue, we pored over the list of additions to our burgers, filled our cups with ludicrously flavoured soft drinks and finally collected our food and headed downstairs to find a place to perch and tuck in.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

The dream gig I never thought I'd see: Fleetwood Mac at the O2 Arena, Greenwich

I did not much enjoy being 18 years old. I was pale, freckled and not exactly supermodel-thin. I was rubbish at talking to boys. A holiday spent in the South of France, laying by and frolicking in pools and generally being cool was somewhat akin to torture for me at this age. But it was a far more beautiful place to feel awkward than the drizzly Midlands and so, when invited out to stay at a friend's chateau with friends and a group of only vaguely known boys, I went. I spent the week hidden behind a book, emerging for meals and taking pains to avoid any wearing of bikinis. Whatever we were doing there was usually music blaring from a mini-disc player (yes, we're talking the pre-iPod era here); trashy pop, pretentious indie, cringy, vaguely misogynistic rap. I can recall practically every over-played track that soundtracked that holiday. Including one song that seemed to me peculiarly short. In fact it was little more than an extended guitar solo. But what a riff it was; a strong throbbing bass, and the at first delicate, flickering drums over the top. It was played endlessly over the week and I never tired of those bass notes. Finally inquiring, and looking like a deeply uncultured idiot in the process no doubt, what it was I was told, somewhat condescendingly, that this was 'The Chain'. I didn't dare ask who the artist was.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

When in Rome...

Where do city-dwellers - accidental or otherwise - holiday? Since I left the dim lights of the rural Midlands for the allure of London I have found myself drawn to other cities for my vacations, unable to bear the thought of life (albeit life taken at a relaxed holiday pace) without a plethora of dining options, culture on tap and no need to hire a car and drive anywhere.  London has spoilt me.  Not for me are the package deals for two weeks spent in towering hotels that could house entire Eastern European national populations.  The thought of a pool surrounded by lumps of ever-reddening skin swigging free neon-coloured cocktails from the open bar brings me out in hives.  I once tried - and failed miserably - at doing a beach holiday. Sure, I could read a book on the sand for a couple of hours but then what?  More of that? Well ok then, I guess I could take it until lunchtime.  But when I discovered the plan was to repeat for a further six days, I had to give up.  I found myself a bus, and got the hell off the beach and into the nearest big town - where I found streets to wander, cafes to sit in, spaces to write and read that were blissfully free of sand. I was much happier. This was my kind of holiday.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

In defence of bloggers

Sometimes we get a bad press, us bloggers. Just this week the queen of shock-pop, Lady Gaga, slammed the apparently homogenous group of 'bloggers' after her latest unreleased single found its way into the hands of the public via the internet. Sure, she wasn't blaming our little group of keyboard-tappers for the leak itself. And what I think she was targetting one particular blogger who has been totally loathsome to many people over the years, rather than every person with a Wordpress account. But she joined a long list of journalists, writers, artists, reviewers and many others who have spoken out to renounce and diminish the value and skill of those who produce written and visual material on the web, self-publishing thoughts, new concepts, and a multitude of viewpoints and personal experiences.  

"What do bloggers know? They're just amateurs. Pah! They're just wannabe commentators and writers."  
"Bloggers are self-absorbed narcissists who think everything they say is of great importance. They're deluded." 
"Any idiot with a laptop can publicly comment on things they know nothing about these days." 
"Blogging is for socially inept losers and computer geeks with no friends."  

These criticisms have been around as long as the practice of blogging, and are probably familiar to most of us.  But, et tu, Gaga?

The Accidental Londoner on Instagram

I gave up on Facebook sometime ago.  I found myself wasting time flicking through the timelines of 'friends' I barely knew, and finding myself asking whether I truly needed to know whether an ex-colleague had a long day at work (frankly, who hadn't?!), and wondering why I still read the accounts of shopping trips relayed by someone with whom I went to school a hundred years ago which made me want to scream with boredom.  So I bailed and deactivated my account.  And guess what, I don't miss it at all.

But I do love a pretty picture.  And I don't really mind if people want to share a simple - SINGLE - photo of the cool thing that just arrived in the post or what they had for lunch...I just don't want a detailed description of each ingredient in your "OMG most amazing sandwich EVA!".

So the Accidental Londoner is now on Instagram, sharing photos of favourite London-y things and fun finds around the city.  And there may well be a few random shots from around the world too.  Come follow, and let's swap artfully sepia-ed but slightly blurry pictures of burgers and sunsets and cats!  Yes, there may be the odd snap of a feline lodger or two.  You have been warned...


Find me here: http://instagram.com/accidentallondoner

Instagram

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Accidental Visits: London's lesser-known museums

South Kensington is on the destination checklist of almost every tourist who wants to visit a museum in London. Even many of those of us who live in the city have a fondness for the area and its cluster of museums. The Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and, my personal favourite, the Victoria & Albert Museum line Cromwell and Exhibition Roads in Knightsbridge, providing education and cultural enlightenment mere yards from that equally-famed shrine to extortionate spending, Harrods. And whilst these museums may be some of the biggest and most popular, London has a whole host of smaller, lesser-known museums, which offer an equally fascinating way to pass an afternoon. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

So what brings you here?

I struggle to define my blog at the best of times. Does my content lean more towards 'lifestyle' or 'culture'?  Is it a travel blog? What is the Accidental Londoner actually about? Who is it written for? What can people learn from it? From time to time I check my site analytics, and discover just what search terms people were using when they stumbled upon the Accidental Londoner. And then I feel even more confused about which particular corner of the internet my blog occupies...

Monday, 29 July 2013

London's latest US import: Five Guys Burgers, Covent Garden

"So, when you're in America you have to go to Five Guys." I was firmly told by someone before I went to the States back in May this year. "Their burgers are just insane. Err-MAZ-ing!".  But in two weeks on the other side of the pond I never got round to visiting this fabled burger chain.  However, on my return to the UK, the same burger fan joyously informed me that he'd heard the exciting news that Five Guys was following me back home.  On the Fourth of July - a national holiday back in the USA - Five Guys opened its first British branch down in Covent Garden.

And I was ready for it.  The burger fanatic had made sure of that!  I had even made contact with the charming lady at Five Guys who was heading up the launch.  Dammit, they were even expecting me on the first day, and delightfully offered to shout me lunch.  But when I arrived - accompanied by my salivating Five Guys-loving pal obviously - we were informed that if we wanted to partake of luncheon at this establishment - which is, in basic truth, really just a standard counter-service takeaway joint with seating - we would have to wait for 45 minutes IN THE STREET before we could get anywhere near a some meat in a bun and a portion of chips.  [Note from the Five Guys expert: apparently the lunchtime queue on the opening day ended up with the most hardcore of burger fans waiting 2 hours for a bite to eat!] That was not going to happen. However great those burgers were reported to be.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Accidental Londoner takes the stage at The UN, Geneva

I was pleasantly surprised to have made it through security quicker than I had at Heathrow earlier that day. I had been warned of long queues and rigorous checks, as well as the considerable paperwork and pre-arrival forms I'd had to complete and bring with me. Of course they'd wanted to see my passport too.  In the sticky heat, with my attempting-to-look-older-than-I-am shift dress sticking to me, my bags and myself were scanned and scrutinised.  But after a mere fifteen minutes there I was swiping a recently-printed pass featuring a squashed, serious face that sort of looked like me onto a gate that slid open, admitting me to the UN's Palais de Nations. 

If you are an aspiring rockstar your dream is to play Wembley or Madison Square Gardens. You imagine the day your name appears in lights above the door, and people queue round the block clutching photos of you, screaming your name. Being hustled in through the stage door you are on your way. And when you step out onto the main stage, you have arrived.  Until that moment however you are forced to tour dive-bars anywhere that will give you a microphone and a fifteen minute slot, slogging away at your craft, feeling like the road to the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury or the O2 Arena is long and winding. And then you get a break. Someone comes down with laryngitis and scratches, and you find yourself on a stage far more high profile than you deserve. But you seize the opportunity and agree to fill their spot. You rehearse frantically, consider what you will wear to ensure no one exposes you for the talentless, inexperienced fraud that you are, rehearse some more, freak out a little bit. And then the day dawns. You show up, you find your spot, and you rock the hell out of that stage.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

'War Horse' at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, Covent Garden

Nothing hammers home just how British I am quite like my pathetic soppiness about animals.  Show me a tiny kitten and I will coo and fuss over it with the ridiculous show of borderline insanity most people reserve for newborn human babies.  Sneak a heart-rending RSCPA advert in between installments of Coronation Street and I will be a helpless, weeping mess by the time the theme tune rolls once more, pledging my annual salary to save a miserable-looking mongrel in a shed.

And this was the real reason that I hadn't, until this week, made it to see War Horse, the theatrical production that everyone else has been raving about since it opened at the National Theatre back in 2007.  I love London's West End as much as the next girl (hell, I've seen Phantom four or five times!), but from a mere scan of its plot I could see that this play was just asking for all kinds of emotional upset-related trouble. Adapted from a Michael Morpurgo novel, War Horse is the story of a boy and his horse (or a horse and his boy depending on whether you're more into animals than people), woven between rural Devon and war-torn France during the First World War.  So we've got animals, death, fear, uncertainty and families torn apart. Dangerous combination.  Even an article in the New Yorker about the show's transfer to Broadway back in 2011 made me blub on the bus.  Of the million horses that the British army took to the war, only 60,000 returned to their stables back home.  Roughly the same number of horses were killed as soldiers during WWI.  But the horses never agreed to make this ultimate sacrifice for their country.  Yep, War Horse was going to leave me in bits.  It would be crazy for me to go.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

London vs. New York City

When I was at university, trying to chose a topic for my dissertation, my research supervisor urged me to pick a subject within which I saw a fundamental unanswered question. Pick something you personally do not understand, she said, something you cannot get your head around. Since that day, numerous other instances have arisen in which I have been unable to fathom why people take a particular view. For a long time I tried to work out why it was that people thought that living in London was so great, for example. Particularly when there were so many other cities in the world to chose from. Awesome cities like New York, just, you know, off the top of my head. And so, wandering the streets of Manhattan the other day I developed another research study...asking myself the ridiculous question: why on earth might someone claim that London was a better city than New York City? And the results are a little something like this...

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Accidental Visits: The Shard - the tallest building in Europe

The view from the top of Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath is, to my mind, the finest in London; down below the hill full of kite-fliers and picnic-ers and dog-walkers lies the entire city.  Viewers orientate themselves by a familiar office building or a skyscraper, pointing out iconic buildings they recognise.  A couple of years ago the skyline changed forever, and the pointing fingers on Parliament Hill made out a new structure, which over the past months has crept slowly up towards the sky, closing in on, and finally dwarfing, the Gherkin, the BT Tower and the other multi-storied mega-buildings dotted across the blue-grey concrete landscape of London.  The tallest building in Europe was now London's, and 'The Shard' took its place in architectural history, right on top of London Bridge.

Designed by Renzo Piano, the Shard was to be a multi-purpose skyscraper; 72 floors of home, hotel, office, events space and tourist destination.  When it opened last year, it was also to become the workplace of an Accidental chum (and a real, proper Londoner at that), who now spends much of her week welcoming us average gawkers to the pointed glass tower, manning its super-sleek high-speed lifts and ensuring that no one gets lost and wanders where they shouldn't.  Knowing my fondness for exploring the city, said chum kindly invited me over to The Shard one afternoon, and gave me my own personal tour.  

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Top 5 city farms in London

May is flying by in a blur, and I have managed one solitary blogpost. Sad, unimpressive blogging times.  In place of more Accidental accounts I offer instead a little something written for Townfish, on one of my favourite London-y things - city farms.  You can read my article, containing my top 5 (oh yeah!) city farms worth a visit, here.
And if you're stuck for things to do in the city over this bank holiday weekend which approaches swiftly (thank God!) there are worse ways to pass an afternoon that chatting to chickens and meeting the odd alpaca...

http://www.townfish.com/blog/londons-city-farms/ 

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Accidental Eats: MEATliquor

I came somewhat late to the party on the 'no reservations' restaurants thing.  Partly because the thought of queuing to eat sounds like hell on earth to me; how good can one burger be? (Answer: not so good that it makes hanging out in a long queue with a hungry, snarky London blogger worth it.)  But also because I'm probably not quite cool enough for that kind of eatery.  So, months (nay, years in some cases) after the latest resto-de-jour opens its artfully distressed doors I may finally get round to eating there.  And so it was with MEATliquor, a bar and burger joint open since the end of 2011, which I finally dragged myself to last week.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

London below: the urban fantasy world of 'Neverwhere'

London Underground. No, sorry, I meant 'London under ground'. Add a single space and we're no longer talking about the city's track-based transport system, which frustrates locals and baffles foreigners.  We're talking about the city beneath our feet, below the pavements and roads and buildings on the surface.  A world of tunnels and tracks - not just those belonging to the Tube - and twisting stairs and jerking lifts, and tiles and bricks and hidden bunkers. For someone on a Tube train, rattling along in the dark, catching flashes of empty platforms and tired, waiting commuter faces, this London beneath London proper may seem rather dull and depressing.  But for someone with a little imagination this 'London Below' can become a whole new realm of magical possibilities.  
Turns out there was someone with such imagination.  Or rather a pair of someones.  'Neverwhere' was a 6-part dark fantasy drama first broadcast on television in 1996, created and written by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry.  It introduced another dimension to the city of London as its regular inhabitants knew it.  Our familiar London was 'The Up World', a place of deeply 90s power-suits and estate agents, but hidden beneath it was 'London Below', a shadowy, dripping mediaeval land filled with silent ladies clad in alarming amounts of crushed velvet, sneaky rat messengers and flamboyantly dressed marquises.  Rather like J.K.Rowling's muggles living in blissful ignorance about the wizarding community which coexists besides them, the up-worlders have no knowledge of London Below.

Pity then, Richard Mayhew, the protagonist of Neverwhere - an affable Scot with an awful (and somewhat unlikely) fiancee - who stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a pavement.  She turns out to be from London Below and life is never quite the same for poor old Richard.  The wounded girl, 'Door', is blessed with the magical power to, er, open things, and she's on the run from a pair of murderous henchmen, Croup and Vandemar.  ('Croup & Vandemar' actually sounds like one of those slightly pretentious East London basement speakeasies which are so popular right now...get working on that tie-in merch, BBC/Mr Gaiman.) 

In coming to Door's aid, Richard gives up his London and his unexciting life within it, finding himself in limbo, belonging to neither world as he explores 'London Below'.  He visits 'Earl's Court', an actual court overseen by an actual earl on a moving train.  He meets 'the angel, Islington' (Peter Capaldi doing sinister crazy long before Malcolm Tucker came along), a group of 'black friars' and 'Old Bailey', an ancient, crusty pigeon keeper.  The stations and iconic buildings which many of us hurtle through each day here in London are transformed by Gaiman and Henry into a mystical cast of characters who inhabit this parallel world.

Gaiman also turned the script of Neverwhere into a spin-off novel of the same name back in 1996. Almost 10 years later a DVD box-set of the original television series was released.  The script became a play in the US and then Ireland, before finally making its way back to the UK, but not quite London, last year.  Having been developed into almost every imaginable art-form, Neverwhere is one of London's most referenced and recognised fictional forms.  All that was left was a radio dramatisation, but the BBC recently remedied this, assembling a cast of the stalwart and stellar (including Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Okenedo, James McAvoy, Bernard Cribbins, hell, even Christopher Lee was on board!)  to record a radio version of the drama, broadcast over the past few weeks.   

In an interview given to the LA Times, Gaiman describes how the original concept of Neverwhere was developed from Lenny Henry's desire to make a television series that featured the homeless of London, those who dwell in the city's dark, marginal spaces.  Those who see a very different urban world to the average Londoner.  Isn't it said that fact is stranger than fiction?  Much like the probability that there is life on Mars, what is the likelihood that in these gloomy, transient spaces life goes on right under our noses in ways and places we might never imagine?  (Those of us who are not Neil Gaiman that is.)  Watch, read or listen to the spooky and intriguing Neverwhere, and then head down beneath London to hop on the Tube; it may never feel or look quite the same again...

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Going to the toilet...for coffee

Anyone who works in an office knows the feeling.  That mid-afternoon slump, where lunchtime seems like forever ago and the end of the working day feels far beyond your tiring brain's grasp.  Try as you might you just can't focus on your work, and the urge to fritter away the rest of the day watching amusing cat videos rises to uncontrollable levels.  So you go and make a cup of tea in the office kitchen or bother a co-worker or two, before returning to your desk to try and engage again.  But still I often find my mind drifting once more at this time of day.  And when that happens, there's only one thing for it - decent coffee.  Ok, two things; decent coffee and a breath of fresh air.  Oh fine, three things; decent coffee, fresh air, and someone to break out of the office with you.
My coffee missions are usually accompanied by a friend from work, someone who has on a previous occasion come over all shy when he was almost featured on this blog so let's just say he knows his americano from his espresso, is always up for ditching the office for a wee while and he is infinitely patient when I waste our fifteen minutes of freedom whingeing about the terrible day I'm having.  Some weeks he even puts up with this several days in a row; he's the perfect partner in caffeine-hunting crime.  One thing which neither he nor I is particularly good at however is making a decision about where to go to grab a skinny cappucino or two.  And as our office is in Fitzrovia, we're somewhat spoilt for choice in regards to decent bean-grinders and milk-frothers.

Two of the three branches of the wood-lined Tapped & Packed are within a ten minute 'Gah! why isn't it Friday yet?' stroll.  Slightly further away (with added 'Eurgh, I just can't seem to concentrate today.' moans) is the Antipodean Kaffeine, which makes a gloriously smooth flat white, and where I once had an embarassing moment involving a freshly brewed coffee, a slippery plastic lid and a messy spill that my Accidental Escapee pal has never let me forget.  (I still get twitchy around plastic lids when he's watching...something he exploits ruthlessly for his own seemingly never-ending amusement.)   Obviously there is also the usual smattering of Neros, Costas and sundry Pret a Mangers nearby as well, but we tend to shun those in favour of the independents who make far better coffee and don't aggressively demand 'You wanna cwa-sante, wiv that?', when if we did we'd have asked for one.

Currently however, we're not finding our afternoon coffee venue of choice such a dilemma.  A new player on the London coffee scene has popped up (or rather down) and we are a bit obsessed with it.  And only partly because our inner children love the novelty of being able to suggest 'Let's go get a coffee from the toilet!'.  Attendant has taken over a disused 19th century public lavatory beneath Foley Street, and transformed it (hopefully with the aid of a hell of a lot of disinfectant) into a surprisingly light and lovely new coffee shop.
Heading down Attendant's steps you vanish beneath the street, your way lined by those white bevelled tiles which scream 'public convenience' in a way that has become suprisingly popular in home decor of late.  (Honestly, you should see the Accidental Father's garage loo, which appears to have been decorated in homage to a Victorian railway lavatory.  And knowing him I think that's probably the exact look he was going for.)  But step off the bottom step and enter the main cafe and you are in a cosy, bright space that entirely belies the feeling of cold porcelain and drafts under cubicle walls that one might expect from a former public toilet.

Illuminated bulbs and preserved citrus fruit in large mason jars make a jolly backdrop for some seriously tempting looking cakes and biscuits.  The friendly staff happily fire up their enormous coffee machine and produce your caffeinated beverage of choice, using super-tasty Caravan coffee from the equally cool Caravan roastery across town.  You can take it away (in a paper cup stamped with an 'A' for Attendant), or enjoy a more relaxed coffee and a sandwich where once cisterns hung and Victorian gentlemen, er, yeah...maybe it's better if you don't think too much about what used to go on down here.  Just enjoy your thoroughly modern coffee from this secretive little cafe, and make the most of your precious minutes out of the office...    

The Attendant on Urbanspoon

Monday, 1 April 2013

A snowy Easter interlude

And so it is Easter. Which means a few days out of the office, and out of London. Which in turn means an encounter with my least favourite train provider, London Midland. In the past I have whinged so much about old London Midland that they now follow me on Twitter, checking in with a tweet or two whenever I rant about the lack of functioning toilets on my latest train or an unscheduled half an hour mystery stop at Rugby. 'Oh God,' I imagine them sighing, '@accidentalldr's on board again. Better see what she's berating us for this time...' (Sorry, guys!)  But my pre-Easter journey was only marred by a few unsavoury travelling companions, and I really don't think I can blame London Midland for them.

Fortunately, back at the Accidental Homestead things were a whole load more pleasant. Deepest, darkest Staffordshire is still looking pretty snowy after the past fortnight of extended wintery-ness the UK has experienced.  Sailing along the country roads, cosy inside a car, one could not feel further from London's drizzly grey streets, within their unique microclimate of 'perpetual end of autumn'. Fields are ornately frosted with persistant snow, with a few chilly sheep and their new lambs grazing on exposed green patches. Long icicles dangle from bare hedgerows, created by the splash thrown up from a thousand tires spinning through nearby iced puddles. Great carved paths snake through the patchwork fields where snow has been cleared but piled high by the roadside.
Reunited with the family, but a man down as the Accidental Brother was sadly absent, this Easter break was spent much like the Accidental Christmas; eating, drinking, cooking yet more tasty things to eat, teasing the Accidental Felines, and teaching the Accidental Mother how to use Twitter (oh, what have I done...).  On Easter Day we took a chilly but sunny walk through the remaining snow, throwing ourselves onto the great drifts that remained. They bore our post-chocolate-egg-indulgence weight with ease, the density of the packed snow explaining why even the warm Spring sunshine had not melted these great banks away. Walking through head-high snow walls, it's odd to think of London just a couple of hours back down South, miles from this Narnia-esque wonderland. It becomes a lot easier when you're warm inside, contemplating tea and Easter eggs though...

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The good, the bad and the unsettling

'Do Not Cross' proclaimed the blue and white tape being furled around a neighbour's house, by the policeman in the flak jacket.  The late Friday night was cold, dark, drizzly and silent.  The policeman and I were the only human beings out on the street.  There was probably a cat prowling around somewhere.  (There usually is on my street.)  The house stood at one end of the street, perpendicular to the parallel terraces, whose front windows and inhabitants look onto one another.

My street is a nice North London street.  Residents tend terracotta window boxes full of cyclamen and lavender plants.  Small children ride bikes and scooters up and down the pavements.  There is even a particularly keen family (possibly with some kind of insane death-wish) which plays badminton in the middle of the road in the summer.  The street is religious about its recycling and rages about dog-fouling.  Neighbours water each others' plants and feed each others' pets when they are away on holiday.  There are good schools, nice restaurants and pubs, and excellent transport links nearby.  Houses are not especially cheap here.  And despite some of our neighbours being the 500 or so inmates of HMP Holloway, we sit in a peculiar celebrity street triangle with Suggs on one side and Damian Lewis on the other.  Strange but true.

Yet alongside the gardening groups, the nearby farmers' market and the friendly cries of 'good morning!', I have witnessed some rather more unsettling things happening on my own doorstep over the past couple of years.  Walking along the road to the bus stop, or heading out to the Holloway Road for a bit of shopping, I have heard plenty of shocking things behind closed doors - a vicious slapping sound followed by quiet crying, blazing rows, spat insults.  I have seen badly behaved dogs reprimanded with a smack delivered with a level of force which didn't seem entirely necessary.  Small, confused children have been spoken to using words with which I wouldn't refer to my worst enemy.  But all of this local anger, hostility and sadness weaves in and out of daily life which also contains a great deal of kindness, amiability, and generosity.
Back last summer, one hot city night, as everyone on the street flung open their windows to coax in a minimal breeze, filthy screaming rent the street's customary 9pm-9am silence.  It awoke me at around two in the morning and at first I tossed and turned, hoping I was still bleary enough to block out the noise and fall asleep again.  But the yelling continued - a male and a female voice - and I was now very definitely wide awake.  The argument appeared to be over which of the two participants was the most selfish individual.  As more and more of the street awoke to listen in, general opinion appeared to be that this pair achieved a dead-heat in the selfishness stakes.  Angry expletives were hurled down from another flat, demanding the arguing pair shut up.  I dragged my sleepy self to the window and looked out.  A shoeless woman, clad in a dirty sun-dress, handbag on the pavement next to her bare feet, shrieked drunken slurs at a man in a doorway a few houses down.  "I've called the police!" contributed another annoyed neighbour, to the gratitude of the whole rudely awakened street. 

Ten minutes later and the road was filled with police cars and a riot van; their blue flashing lights illuminating darkened bedrooms all along the street.  Several policemen in shirt-sleeves hopped out and calmly approached the woman.  The door she had been screaming at had been slammed shut as the cops approached, and she was left alone in the formerly peaceful street.  As the police attempted to find out what the trouble was, the woman began to panic.  "I've not done anything wrong! I'm fine. It was him. He hit me!".  The police officers attempted to pacify her, clearly thinking "Oh great, another Saturday night drunk" and enquired politely as to the whereabouts of her shoes.  The woman, still shrieking, gestured towards the firmly shut door.  A few calm enquiries later and the shoes were retrieved.  The woman was sent off on her way and the police headed back to the station, looking reasonably relaxed about the whole thing.

A further half an hour and the screaming started up again however.  Having once more abandoned her shoes - and more worryingly given that she was still yelling in the middle of the street, her underwear - the drunk woman began pounding on the door of her debating partner.  Within minutes the police van had zoomed back into view, and the now somewhat fed-up-looking cops hopped back out and headed over to the cause of the street's sleepless night.  Playing a blinder, they suggested she might like a little sit-down in their nice, cosy van.  I fervently hoped they might offer her a nice, peaceful sleep back at their place (i.e. in a cell in Holloway Police Station).  As the woman climbed into the back of the van clutching her shoes to her summery dress she wept like a child, grubby and scruffy, chaperoned by several smartly uniformed policemen.  The incident which seemed like a minor annoyance when it began in the middle of the night now seemed rather sad and pathetic.  Who knows what had really gone on between this woman and the man behind the door, but imagining what might have transpired sent me back to bed feeling somewhat depressed rather than irritated.

The day after my neighbour's house was so publicly declared a crime scene I walked past it on my way into town.  The blue and white tape was gone.  So was the police officer.  The house looked just as it always did.  As I neared the front path I noticed a sticky puddle on the pavement.  It was red and shiny and could quite conceivably have been blood.  Whether the puddle was anything to do with the mystery of the previous night I had no way of knowing.  It could just as easily have been caused by a leaking bin-bag attacked by one of our bold, greedy urban foxes.

Here in the middle of our huge, multi-faceted, densely populated city either the wildest, most upsetting or tragic things can happen as frequently as the most dreary and mundane.  Good and bad things happen on the opposite side of town from each other, or right next door.  Maybe it is the concentration of life and people in a city which brings together the good and the bad of people in such close proximity.  But here in London is real life, writ large on even the smallest of scales.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

The 'glamour' of business travel

A baleful pair of eyes staring at me from the sink made me jump as I sat on the loo.  The large gecko continued to stare as I edged past him out of the door.  Sneaking a look at him, I noted he had an ominnously spiked tail, part of which had obviously been lost somewhere.  One of his feet was missing a toe.  He was a decidedly manky-looking specimen.  But as such he matched his surroundings perfectly.  The bathroom was sizeable, although in a we-couldn't-afford-enough-fixtures-to-fill-it kind of way rather than a wow-how-spacious-and-roomy kind of way.  Two further geckos appeared to live in it, alongside the chap in the sink; a tiny one who lived behind the waste pipe and a beast of a thing who tended to hang out on the ceiling beams above the leaky shower.  There was a mysterious plughole - complete with plug - right in the middle of the badly-tiled floor.  I could only assume, after careful examination of the curiously holey roof, that it was there to drain the bathroom when it rained.

When I tell people what I do for a living, they always remark on how lucky I am to travel the world for work, and how glamorous it must be jetting around from one place to another.  Lucky? Most definitely.  The 'glamorous' thing however I am beginning to take issue with. 

Saturday, 26 January 2013

19, Princelet Street: The secret museum of Spitalfields

From the outside 19, Princelet Street looks nothing like a museum.  The building's ground-level windows are hidden behind wooden shutters.  Upper panes looking down blackly on the Spitalfields street below.  A fine carved double wooden door - kept firmly shut - could do with a lick of paint.  In a favourable light the building looks like a slightly tired, battered 18th century townhouse.  If one were feeling less charitable, one might assume the facade concealled a squalid doss-house or just rooms and rooms of damp emptyness.  But 19, Princelet Street is home to London's Museum of Immigration; small, chilly, free to enter, and entirely amazing.

Spitalfields transformed in the 17th century, as its market gardens and fields were replaced by streets and houses with the arrival of families of French silk weavers.  The French protestant Huguenots fled persecution back home in France and, like many different nationalities to follow them, settled as immigrants in Spitalfields.  One such Huguenot family, the Ogiers, built their home and business at 19, Princelet Street.  Over the years as the ethnic make-up of the area evolved the inhabitants of the house changed too, and each new nationality left its own mark on the building, marks clear to see as you make your way around the museum which now occupies this building.

Due to the current condition of 19, Princelet Street, the Museum of Immigration cannot open for regular days or hours like many of the city's other museums.  The poor structural integrity of the old building means that the Museum of Immigration only opens a handful of times each year, and visitor numbers are carefully controlled to prevent wearing out the rickety stairs and stressing the old sloping floors.  At the start of 2013 however, the museum opened its doors twice within a fortnight, and one cold January afternoon, accompanied by eternal good sport, the Accidental Ally, I joined a queue of expectant visitors patiently waiting for a glimpse inside this most secretive of museums.  Sadly, due to an unsavoury encounter with a tabloid photo-journalist full of unscrupulous tales of woe about a dying grandmother (yes, really), no photographs are allowed to be taken inside.  So I'll just have to describe the extraordinary interior of this place you might so easily wander past without giving it a second look.   

Over the worn stone threshold and into the narrow hallway, the state of the building instantly explains why visitors cannot tramp freely around the building on a regular basis.  Large scaffolding poles prop up the ceiling, and old floorboards creak underfoot.  Visitors hunch into their coats, as the prevailing internal climate can only be described as frosty.  Moving through into what you assume is the main room on the ground floor you are greeted with a somewhat surprising sight.  Where a backyard might have been you have...a synagogue!  An entire, perfect synagogue, the contribution of the Jewish immigrants to whom 19, Princelet Street became home back in the mid 19th century.  Piles of ripped out pews are stacked at the back of the large open hall, topped by a colourful but cracked and patched glass roof.  The names of the congregation members who donated funds to the upkeep of the synagogue are painted on the balcony which circles the space, and provided somewhere for women to sit during services.  Up on this second floor it appears that bits of this balcony are crumbling away, and visitors are requested not to lean on the balustrade in case they send any woodwork falling down on anyone below.

The museum currently hosts two exhibitions; 'Suitcases and Sanctuary' and 'Leave to Remain', which explore themes of migration, home and displacement.  Spread over three floors of the building, 'Suitcases and Sanctuary' takes the form of multiple piles of luggage, cases filled with pictures, diary extracts and audio material.  Each suitcase, created by local schools, imagines how different nationals that wound up in Spitalfields might have felt about their new neighbourhood and their new country, and all that they left behind.  Tucked into a large alcove on the first floor, 'Leave to Remain' explores the flip-side of immigration, asking how a host country perceives those who seek a new life within the UK.  A series of vox pop interviews - which appear to have been conducted on a train, given the matching seats all the interviewees are sat on in their polaroid shots - asks Brits what they think about immigration in the UK.  Some of the responses are non-committal, uninformed, unconcerned.  Others border on xenophobic.  On the opposite wall is arranged a miserable bed-sit, with further derogatory comments made by an immigrant him or herself pinned to the mirror, the narrow bed, and a hooded sweatshirt.  It makes me feel horribly sad, and incredibly lucky to be so sure that I belong here as much as the next person.          

By the time the Ally and I headed back out into the street, the queue for the museum stretched to the end of the street, and right round the corner.  Passers-by scanned the assembled visitors, looking from the keen faces to the unassuming building and back again, wondering what was so worth the wintery cold wait.  But those of us who'd already sneaked a peak inside knew exactly what it was.  

The Museum of Immigration is opening its doors again in March 2013.  Details of visiting times can be found on the museum's website here.  I don't work for 19, Princelet Street, nor do I have any particular agenda in encouraging anyone else to support the museum, but this place is not only a museum; it's a piece of architectural heritage in its own right.  I would be very sad to see this place be lost forever.  But this will happen if funds aren't raised to keep the building safe and sound.  You can donate to the Spitalfields Centre charity online, to help the organisation reach their (to my mind!) thoroughly reasonable £3 million target to save 19, Princelet Street.


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Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Accidental Eats: Chicken Shop, Kentish Town

I had an encounter with an A-lister the other week. Well, a frontman from an internationally famous rock band elbowed me in the head as he and his equally A-list actress wife squeezed past me while I was finishing dinner. That counts, right?  I must have been ever so slightly star-struck (or maybe just very British) as I actually apologised to Chris Martin when he clonked me in the back of the head. But he was too busy zooming after Gwyneth Paltrow so I don't think he heard. Sigh. For the record, even on a dressed-down Friday night dinner in Kentish Town this pair was looking pretty stellar. In fact I'd only been alerted to the presence of these famous diners when I noted that my own dinner companion was distracted from our fascinating conversation by something over my right shoulder. 'Sorry,' she said when I asked what could be more appealing a sight than my own charming visage, 'but there's this really hot couple behind you. I mean, they're just both ridiculously beautiful and blonde. They're like poster-children for Hitler's perfect Aryan race.  Look!' And there they were.

We were in Chicken Shop, my new favourite eatery in the city; a place which has fast become the favourite eatery of many other Londoners since it opened in the Soho House Group's new Highgate Road development above Kentish Town last autumn.  Restaurant critic Giles Coren, former Blue Peter chap Richard Bacon, and obviously Chris and Gwyneth, are among this place's celebrity fans.  But given the queues awaiting tables on each of my recent visits to this new restaurant plenty of us normal people are rather loving Chicken Shop too.  
Yes, this is another of those 'too cool for reservations' places.  You enter through an unmarked door, wondering vaguely whether you're about to walk into someone's living room, and head down to a basement filled with the thump of classic 60s rock and roll tracks.  There is a slight element of the shed about Chicken Shop - lots of wooden panels and the odd pile of potato sacks.  But the place is far cleaner than your average shed, and with the rotisseries spinning merrily just the other side of a wide metal-topped bar, the restaurant certainly smells better too.  Once you've been greeted by the cheery serving staff you will be shown to a table - if you're lucky and the place is rarely quiet - or you will be told how long your wait for a table will be.  But even if you have a wait ahead of you it's rarely more than about 30 minutes, and the staff are happy to keep the drinks flowing so you don't get too bored.  Although after watching everyone else tucking in to their delicious-looking dinner you may be messily salivating by the time they finally seat you.

And then you're seated, and you order.  Which is a beautifully easy affair.  No messing about with menus here - simply request however much of a chicken you reckon you can eat without bursting, add a couple of sides, and you're all set.  Deciding which sides can present you with possibly your only dilemma of the evening.  Should you have the perfectly salty crinkly fries or the corn-on-the-cob?  Would a buttered lettuce and avocado salad accompany your tender chicken wing better than the fresh coleslaw.  Guys, I'll save you the agony of choice - order them all and thank me later.  Oh, and you can have another drink too obviously.  And if you're really still hungry after the tastiest chicken in town, you can always chase it with a slice of apple pie or a slab of chocolate brownie.  Don't feel bad about it.  Gwyneth had pudding too.

Chicken Shop is at 79 Highgate Road, London, NW5 1TL

Chicken Shop on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

TownFish: A new site for Londoners in search of the coolest things to do in the capital

A new year brings new things for everyone.  For many it can mean new jobs or new homes...perhaps a new city.  But even if you're staying firmly put in 2013 you may have made resolutions to explore your own backyard a bit more or to take up underwater zumba or something equally nuts that you will almost certainly have abandonned by mid-February.

But should you need just a wee bit of inspiration for the year ahead - particularly if you live in and around London - there's shiny new site just waiting for you.  TownFish - which calls itself a 'social discovery network' (we're talking more than just your average website here, people) - launched just before Christmas last year, and is dedicated to providing you with new ideas, new entertainment and even new people to hang out with.  The site also boasts an excellent blog, featuring the writing of some of the very finest London bloggers (*ahem*).  Yes, I'm delighted to have been asked to contribute to this blog, and to be part of this cool new site.
My first article up on the site is for those brave people who are seeking a new home in London in the coming months; the distillation of my own painful experience of the London rental market.  Read it here and learn from my mistakes!  Or don't come crying to me when that 'split-level mezzanine bedroom' you read about in the particulars of your potential dream home turns out to be a cupboard with a built-in bunk bed.  You have been warned...

So Londoners, go TownFish-ing and catch yourselves some ideas for a thoroughly new and exciting 2013!

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