Thursday, 29 December 2011

Cool Yule

Today is my first full day in London in over a week. It’s great to be back – but a Christmas break at my parents did me good too. After a manic month in London it was nice to take a step back from life – and, to some degree, in time. You see, where I come from, we do Christmas Old School, from real Christmas trees and holly to stockings and retro food.
It was a typical family Christmas. Christmas Eve was a hive of activity with a last minute trip into town and a frantic flurry of decorating and cleaning before the festivities kicked off with an “alcofrolic” and a game of Scrabble. Christmas Day started with croissants (a family tradition) and Bucks Fizz before I took up position by the Christmas tree to distribute the mountain of presents – a role that, as the youngest member of the family has been mine for time immemorial and one that I hold proudly, despite the hazardous pine needles.
As usual, we shunned turkey (my dad hates the stuff) and opted for good old fashioned Prawn Cocktail followed by Mushroom Swiss Steak. It was Retro Heaven, and went perfectly with my Eighties-inspired batwing top. After the Queen’s Speech (my mum needs to watch it to keep up with the Jones’) we returned to the board game cupboard and selected Monopoly - and I mean proper Old School Monopoly which my parents suspect was purchased before they were even married.
On Boxing Day we went for the obligatory mince pie-busting walk – and gave my mum a chance to use her Christmas Nordic walking poles (even though we bought them for her in September). Back indoors I settled down to my newest hobby, knitting and luckily my sister arrived before I made any more mistakes. She came without her man, who was suffering from an ear infection and feeling less than festive, leaving us as a family of four for the first time in several years. Needless to say, more present opening, games and eating ensued.
Yesterday I rounded up my Christmas with thank you notes to my relatives for the lovely gifts I had received. Letter writing is a lost art, but I like to think that it means more than a quick email or a text message – and, let’s face it, at this time of year it is a joy to receive anything in the post that doesn’t have a minimum payment on it. So, at the train station, I posted my letters before settling in my seat on a refreshingly quiet train.
Tomorrow I will be heading off once more for NYE with friends in Derbyshire. Along with their Christmas presents and a few leftovers from my mum’s bulging kitchen cupboards, I shall be keeping up the retro theme with Twister – and possibly dominoes too.
So, what is my message to you all, you may ask? Keep Yule Cool – go Old School!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Christmas Countdown

Well, there’s five more sleeps ‘til Christmas – and I am sat in my flat at a bit of a loss of what to do. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty I could be getting on with, but considering we are well and truly in the middle of the festive season, I am feeling decidedly calm and organised. All those essential pre-yuletide activities have been ticked off that oh-so daunting list and, with two days spare before I go up to my folks, I can’t help but think I must have forgotten to do something.
The last week has been a whirl of Christmas activity. Last Wednesday I met a couple of girlfriends at my favourite haunt, Drink Shop Do, for cake, cocktails and Christmas card making. The following day we had a Christmas “do” at work, so when I got home later that evening the kitchen became a hive of activity as I set about making sausage rolls, white chocolate and raspberry cheesecake and wrapping up my Secret Santa gift. The following day the fruits of my labours went down very well (someone told me to take my cheesecake recipe to Marks and Spencer’s!) and my Secret Santa recipient seemed quite taken with her pretty scarf – and a personalised map of Camden to stop her getting lost (and I thought my geography was bad). Chuffed with myself for throwing her off the scent by asking ignorant questions about the map (“What, someone got you an A to Z?”) I settled down to one too many beers, followed by some flirting, insulting my boss (“But saying you look like Patrick Stewart is a compliment!”) and getting a bit teary when a colleague started telling me how good I was at my job (cringe!) before tottering home. Needless to say, the following day was spent nursing my hangover and my ego.
On Saturday it was time for the obligatory Christmas visit to the hairdressers. Sadly, this was less than successful – the highlights are okay, but the over-zealous layers are NOT – and I have been left looking like I’ve just had a fight with Edward Scissorhands and in need of some very strategic hair clips. Needless to say I won’t be going back to that establishment. On Sunday my final Christmas delivery showed up (I shall save you from another rant about Amazon and Yodel) and after a lovely roast in the pub, I got down to making my flat looking Christmassy, with the help of a parcel from Mama Berry full of fairy lights and cute decorations.
Yesterday I wrapped things up - quite literally - with an hour in the queue at the Post Office, a trip up to Highgate to mop up the Christmas present shopping and cooking Beef Bourbignon for a relaxing pre-Christmas dinner with another chum. After she left I settled down to a movie and wrapped up the rest of my gifts, which are now artistically arranged on my lounge floor.
So, today and tomorrow I have nothing I need to do other than enjoy having a couple of days to relax. Then on Thursday I head up north for a Christmas surprise that evening courtesy of Mama Berry. On Friday it is the annual meet-up with the girls before the festivities get well and truly under way on Christmas Eve. Which reminds me – I need to pop out to get some mince pies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph. I knew there was something I’d forgotten...
Merry Christmas! :-)

Monday, 12 December 2011

Service with a Sting

Happy Monday everyone! Or rather, happy Monday evening – and congratulations on getting through the first day of the working week. The weekend seems like months ago already, and the fact that I was in picturesque Prague less than 36 hours ago feels like a fiction after a day at the office. But then, I did land in London with a bit of a bump.
My travel chum pre-booked a taxi to bring us home after our weekend of sightseeing, shopping and Staropramen. After our whirlwind tour of the decidedly touristy city, I was happy to fork out the extra few quid to return to north London in comfort.
After a bit of a debacle trying to find the taxi driver, we were on our way.
“The taxi company said it was £35?” My chum checked.
“Yes yes.” The driver confirmed. So, happy that we knew where we stood, we sat back and both settled down to a bit of texting to our loved ones. My chum asked how much it would be to drop me home too.
“Eight pounds extra.”
For a five minute journey. Max. We muttered a bit. My chum tried again.
“What about if we call it forty for the entire trip?”
“No. It is forty-three to Finsbury Park.”
We looked at each other. Somewhere between Stanstead and Walthamstow the fare had gone up eight pounds. My friend quibbled. That’s when things started to get hairy.
The driver pulled over.
“Give me my money now!”
“But we aren’t at our destination!”
“Give me my money now or I’ll go to the police!”
Sure enough, he set off again and stopped a few hundred yards further on outside a deserted police station. I tried to reason with him.
“Sorry, is that including the extra drop off or to Finsbury Park?”
“Finsbury Park! Give me my money!”
Well, after a call to the cab firm we established that the fare had gone up £8 because he had had to pay for parking – although there's a free pick up point – and 40 minutes waiting time. Despite the fact that we had arrived ten minutes earlier than arranged. In the end we paid up and off we went – with a heavy cloud over the conclusion of our weekend.
Nothing like service with a smile, eh? And, don’t worry, I shall be complaining.
I had already had a weekend of being blatantly – and cheekily - ripped off. The first time I didn’t let it bother me. After a lovely drink in the grand Cafe Louvre we settled our bill with the friendly waitress, who announced that she was keeping the change for her tip before we could argue. Never mind the fact that she settled for less than we would have given her, but the cheek! Anyway, we muttered under our breath a bit and got over it.
Until it happened again.
We were having a whale of a time over a couple of Kozels, but sadly it had to come to an end. We asked for the bill. It arrived, 153 kroner and correct, so we gave a 200 kroner bill to our waiter.
No change arrived.
“Er, excuse me, but we are waiting for our change?”
A big show ensued as our waiter searched for some change and gave us 20 kroner back.
“Sorry, but we are still short?”
He looked at his mate and walked off saying something about it being his tip. Er, hello? I thought we were supposed to give the tip based on the service we received? And yes, we would have tipped generously – BUT IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE THE CUSTOMER’S DECISION!
The final straw came when we decided to grab a corn on the cob on the way back to our hotel on Saturday night. I gave 60 kroners for a 50 kroner snack. My change was placed in front of me, but when I went to pick it up my hand was slapped away by the lady serving my midnight feast.
“That isn’t yours! You gave 50 kroner.”
“No, I gave you three 20’s.”
“It was 50.”
Unbelievable! Okay, so I am a tourist, but that doesn’t give locals the right to well and truly extract the pee. Okay, so a vast majority of people we came across were polite and respectful, but the handful who weren’t really tainted my view of such a beautiful and interesting city.
Sadly, I suspect I know where they might have got such a disregard for other people from. Especially if they have ever caught a cab in London.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Festive Freebies

Oh my word. I am knackered. I have just been out on my bike to test my new cycling helmet (yep, if definitely makes me look like a geek) and my thighs aren’t thanking me. You see, I can just about jog up hill, but cycle up one? Riding a bike clearly uses a set of muscles that I have neglected to use in the gym.
And, the best bit? I have just had a workout in the great outdoors – for free. A couple of months ago I cancelled my gym membership and decided to take a more thrifty approach to exercise. Okay, so you have to pay for a certain amount of equipment, but once you have it, you’re done. No pesky direct debits to worry about every month.
So, along with my new love of cycling, I have my running to keep up my cardio, and the Wii Fit I got for Christmas two years ago offers a range of muscle workouts – and gentler exercise if I don’t feel like venturing outdoors or getting too sweaty. And, if I’ve been a good girl, I might just get the Zumba game for Christmas too.
Maybe it’s my northernness or my recent change of circumstances, but I have recently embraced the thrifty life. More specifically, freebies. I have long sang the praises of being able to walk to work – okay, it takes 45 minutes, but so does the bus – which doesn’t burn any calories, is unkind to the environment and costs me £1.30 a pop. Okay, it’s not exactly a huge amount of money, but it all adds up. I have also started to take my flask to work if I am not at my usual office – much as I like a gingerbread latte, they don’t come cheap, and, well, no coffee means no workee.
Then there is Christmas shopping. 3 for 2 in Boots? Oh, yes please! Even better – make your own gifts. I have made three this year – my sister got some framed photographs I took of Highgate Cemetery for her December Birthday and two other friends will be receiving my handiwork on the 25th. Need some new Christmas decorations but can’t squeeze them into the budget? Try Freecycle. I’ve signed up to about 6 in North London, and, although I’ve not yet been quick enough to get anything, I’ve seen two Christmas trees posted on it already – not to mention loads of TVs, DVD players and furniture. It’s my new internet addiction.
Okay, so we have covered shopping and exercise, but what about having fun without splashing the cash? The other week I went to the V&A to see the Annie Lennox House exhibition and a display of entries to the Illustration awards – both free. Then, of course, we had the rest of the museum to get lost in. A perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Feeling peckish? Well, if you hang around a busy shopping street or station for long enough, you’re bound to see someone giving away free samples. Yesterday in Angel I was offered a free Miso soup and chocolate beans courtesy of Itsu. Needless to say, I didn’t say no. And then there’s my old favourite: Complaining. After getting stuck at Peterborough train station on Sunday evening for three hours on my way home from York, I was determind to get at least some of the £88.60 I had paid for the pleasure back. So, on Monday I got online and filled in the “Delay Repay” form. Yesterday I received the full amount back in vouchers. Result. Shame I’ve already booked my tickets home for Christmas...
And lastly, need something doing but can’t afford to pay a professional? Don’t forget your friends. A group of my chums have offered to help me out recently with a bit of a logistical nightmare that was looking like proving very expensive. Someone else has offered me a memory foam mattress cover to aid my achy back in exchange for dinner. Another chum has offered me her old DVD player to plug the hole in my movie watching capabilities that I really can’t afford to fill at the moment. This same friend is also a keen barterer – in the past I have bought her coffee and cake in exchange for a Twitter tutorial, and she has returned the favour in exchange for a homemade draught excluder for her mother in law. It might be old school, but it saves a lot of money – and lets you help each other out.
London is an expensive city to live in. You just need to look at it a bit differently and you can get a lot out of it for very little cash. A case of what you know – and who you know.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Life Beyond London...

Ladies and gentleman, I have a warning for you. More specifically, a warning to those of you who live in London. You are in danger. In fact, the longer you have lived in London, the greater the danger is. Those of you born and bred in the city are probably beyond help, as are those who never venture further than that insulating M25 boundary.
The danger? Becoming a snob. Not just any old snob, but a London snob. You find yourself pitying visitors to the capital who struggle to get to grips with the tube. You roll your eyes at your colleague who commutes in from their freehold in the middle of nowhere every day as they give you yet another update on their chickens’ egg production. Even I often find myself wrinkling my nose when I head up north as I quote Bridget Jones’ nemesis Natasha;
“Doesn’t anything work outside of London?”
Well, in case you were wondering, yes it does. Take the last week, for example. After a failed attempt to get pre-release tickets for Florence and the Machine, on Friday I tried my luck once more. I wasn’t hopeful – tickets went on sale at 9am, and my boss had scheduled my six month review for the same time. Asking him to postpone whilst I went online to buy tickets for a gig was not really an option. So, at 11.35, I rushed back to my computer and went straight to Ticketmaster. Of course, Ally Pally had sold out. My heart sank. I looked at the other venues to see if she was playing anywhere nearby on a weekend. A Sunday night gig at Cardiff just wasn’t going to work, and Bournemouth had nothing left either. But there were still tickets left for Nottingham. It was on a Tuesday, but a quick calculation convinced me that we could leave London at 5 and be in our seats before even the supporting act appeared on stage. Let’s face it – hundreds of people travel into London to see shows and events, so why couldn’t I do the reverse?
More than a little smug, I headed to Kings Cross and caught a train to meet my mum and sister in York. Sis had arranged for us to stay at her friend’s luxury flat over the weekend for a bit of girly bonding and a spot of Christmas shopping. Although it was certainly a welcome break, I didn’t have high hopes for my Christmas list – but was pleasantly surprised. The St Nicholas Market provided some beautiful gifts for a couple of girlfriends and something rather cool for my cousin’s son. The Shambles rustled up a rather specific – and had to find – foodie gift, and a little shop just around the corner from the flat ticked all the boxes for a fashion-loving chocoholic. The high street saw another friend crossed off the list and filled some gaps in my parent’s stockings. By the time I got the train home, my cotton shopping bag was bulging – and my Christmas list is looking much more manageable as we head into December.
The moral of the story? Londoners, there is life beyond Watford Junction. And it can provide you with a plethora of delights, from shopping and gigs to a little bit of peace on quiet. So, next time your colleague invites you over to her country retreat for a home grown, hand reared Sunday roast, take her up on it. You will be pleasantly surprised. Just make sure you take a good book with you – no, not because you’ll be bored, but in case your train gets stuck behind a broken down one just north of Huntingdon. I know, it’s a real inconvenience. And it would never happen in the city...

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Feeling the Pinch

This week I have developed a new policy about watching the news – in that I don’t, unless accompanied by a large bar of chocolate/glass of wine/blankey. Why? Because it’s bloody depressing, that’s why. The economy’s gone to pot, the Euro is about to go bust and there are no jobs. Happy days.
Let’s face it, we are all starting to feel the pinch. Even though I am lucky enough to have a reasonably well-paid, reasonably stable job, I have recently had to make some major adjustments to my spending. So, yesterday, I totted up my out-goings plus my monthly savings goal and took it away from my income. Although the figure didn’t have a negative in front of it, it was by no means huge.
Time to start tightening my belt.
Living in a city that is not renowned for its frugality, this was going to be a challenge. So I have decided to make a diary of my spending to keep tracks on it. Luckily I didn’t do this earlier in the week. Dinner and two glasses of wine at my More To Life Than Shoes meeting? At least £20. Life Coaching? Essential, but another £25. On Thursday I met a friend after work, and, bemoaning poverty, she suggested we just go for a drink and a nibble. So we headed to the BFI bar on the Southbank. Two pints of Belgian beer, a bag of crisps, cheese and olives? Over fifteen quid. We’d have been better off doing 2 for 1 at Strada.
But fear not, London – you can live in the city on the cheap. Take Friday, for example. I went on the London Ghost Bus Tour for half price, thanks to the lovely Living Social. Okay, so it was still £11, and I’m not sure what the “VIP” part was, but at least I didn’t pay full price for something I had agreed to do with my chum anyway. And our pizza beforehand? Saved a fiver on our bill, courtesy of You see? It’s not what you know, but which websites you browse on your lunch break.
After a particularly cheap Saturday (when I didn’t actually leave the flat other than to put the recycling out), I went out today to visit the V&A with my friend. A few weeks ago I had flicked through the Guardian’s Guide and spotted a couple of exhibitions there that I quite fancied – and, amazingly, both were gratis. And, after checking out the Illustration Awards and the Annie Lennox House (both small exhibits but well worth a look if that’s your cup of tea) we meandered around the rest of the museum. Our culture quota full, we had a quick look around the shop and headed to Cafe Concerto for a well deserved cuppa.
Okay, so I spent £3.50 in the shop on a rather cool stocking filler and succumbed to a banana muffin washed down with a pot of Bombay Chai, but that was pretty much all I spent – bar the £3.80 tube fare and two pints of milk. In my opinion, not bad for a fun filled afternoon. Besides, who needs to spend a small fortune when you have good company?
So, as the days go by and I continue to watch the pennies, I shall remember today. And the free bike ride I had on Friday afternoon – cheaper than the gym and a hell of a lot more fun. And the man who sold me two bowls of aubergines for a quid – half of which are now simmering on the hob before being whisked into a warming soup to last me through the week.
Yes, money talks. But I guess we don’t always have to listen to it.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Should I Stay (In) Or Go (Out)?

Guess what? This week it was my Birthday. Yes, another year older – but possibly not wiser. Anyway, as far as I am concerned, my birthday is an excuse to get my friends together and have some fun. But what to do? Go out on the town, or party at home? Well, why not do both?
Which is exactly what I decided to do. Some of my friends had decided we were overdue a night of dancing. My birthday was the perfect excuse. So, on Friday, six of us headed to Angel for a bit of a boogie. We started off with dinner at Sacre Coeur on Theberton Street – delicious French food in a cosy atmosphere at a reasonable price. Sadly they have taken their Sauvignon Blanc Touraine off the wine list, but my starter of goat’s cheese and figs followed by roast partridge with pureed root vegetables did not disappoint.
Fed and well lubricated, we headed out to find a bar - one with cocktails and a dance floor. It was perfect, albeit a small incident that ended with me on my arse with my friend on top of me. Classy...
We rounded off the night at Lucky Voice – a karaoke bar with private booths. It was an inspired choice – an hour of howling along to Bon Jovi, Salt ‘n’ Peppa and Abba with yet more cocktails, inflatable guitars and afro wigs. We had a great time – and seeing the video footage of our performances the following day lead to even more hilarity.
Sadly, a night out in London comes at a price. We spent nearly £20 on a taxi there and back (eek!), and although dinner was reasonably priced, cocktails in Islington don’t come cheap at around £8-£10 a pop. As for the karaoke bar – well, that came in at a tenner each for an hour. Yes, really. £50 between those of us who were still standing. I just wish I had come up with the business idea first...
Of course, as my chums and I get older, not all of us are up for such mayhem. So, on Saturday I decided to invite some friends over for some (slightly more) sophisticated fun – paella and party games. It was great – I love cooking for my friends and was after an excuse to try a paella. I also love party games, and seeing some of my friends trying to hum along to tunes in Hummbug, act out TV shows in Charades and describe a variety of words without using “sounds like” in Articulate was decidedly amusing.
Having said that, throwing a party at home comes with its own problems. Firstly, you have to be organised and make sure you have everything in for dinner and enough booze to keep everyone jolly. In London this extends further; making sure you have enough parking permits for those who are driving and figuring out how you are going to fit all your guests into your tiny flat are other important considerations. By the time you have done all that, it is easy to be too knackered to participate in Twister. My advice? Always keep it simple.
So although a night out always has its place in London, it can be pricey – and certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. And whilst being the hostess with the mostest is generally less expensive and a slightly more relaxed affair, be aware of its pitfalls – lots of washing up (unless you have friends as good as mine) and a heck of a lot of leftovers to hoover up over the following weeks – a disaster for any pre-Christmas diet.
At the end of the day, as long as my mates are with me, I don’t really mind what we do. And as long as the wine is flowing and the laughs are coming, who really cares if you are out on the town or entertaining in the comfort of your own home?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

East End Girl

Is it just me, or are the weekends not long enough? By the time I’ve caught up on my beauty sleep, done my cleaning, stuck in a load of laundry and phoned my mum, half of it has disappeared – and I haven’t even left the flat. Which brings about that usual quandary – what to do with those precious 24 hours that I have left before beginning another rotation of nine til five drudgery. Do I catch a bit of culture? Hit the shops? Or kick back with some mates over a beer and a curry?
This Saturday I managed to squeeze all three options into one afternoon – in one very small area of London: Brick Lane. It was perfect. I met my friends at 2pm outside the Whitechapel Gallery and, after a wander around Wilhelm Sasnal’s first solo UK exhibition and a coffee and cake, headed down into Bangla Town to catch street artist Sick Boy’s show. We managed to get hopelessly lost looking for it and only located it after we had given up and popped into another interesting looking gallery. It turned out that the one we were looking for was next door. In our defence, there was no sign outside and the windows were blacked out but, despite this hint of pretence, the show was actually quite good – think Dali for the 21st Century.
The good thing about getting lost is that we ended up walking through a fair few markets and by a range of boutiques. Spotting a rather pretty vintage cake stand in one second hand shop, I bit my lip and walked away, vowing to come back with a fellow shopaholic rather than a group of culture vultures.
Our quest complete, one of our party lead us to the Carpenter’s Arms, a proper pub that served real ales behind a traditional East End bar. I opted for a Truman’s Pale ale – very tasty and not too heavy for my usual lager-loving palate.
One pint in and several laughs later, we were getting hungry. There was no real question what we were going to have. We were accosted by the owner of the first restaurant we walked past. He tried to entice us in with a free beer. The singular male in our group attempted to haggle us up to a pint each, and managed to negotiate a pint for himself – and a glass of wine for us ladies. Despite our feminist tendencies, we were too amused (and hungry) to argue, and sat down to a very tasty curry.
Next on the list were fireworks. After some negotiation we pottered down the road to Weaver’s Park, where Tower Hamlets Council put on a free firework display for its residents to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night. Cans of Grolsch in hand, we danced to the cheesy countdown music and oohed and aaahed our way through the show.
By the time I sat on the bus with a box of Indian sweets and headed home, I was tired, but content. London had ticked all my boxes in one easy afternoon.
Or rather, Brick Lane had. I think I shall be back soon.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Pubs, Pumpkins... and Peace

As I type I am sat on a train heading north to Peterborough. One of my best friends is getting married next year and she has invited me and another buddy to help her choose her wedding dress. So, in true Sex and the City style, I have a bottle of frizzante and a box of Maltesers in my bag for a bit of girly bonding over fashion.
Naturally, I am a bit jealous. No, not because she and her fella are tying the knot, and not even because she gets to try of lots of pretty dresses without looking like the hard done-by heroine of Muriel’s Wedding. But because she has a house. A lovely house. And, believe it or not she has another one too that she is currently renting out until the housing market picks up again.
You know what though? I wouldn’t swap my rented one-bedroom shoebox for her three bed semi for all the vodka in Russia. Because, despite my whingeing, I would never swap London for Peterborough.
Don’t get me wrong – there is plenty about London that does my head in, and house prices are just one of them. But, my savings are slowly getting to the point where they might be able to act as a deposit on a property slightly further out, and a two bed flat in Walthamstow is no longer a million years away.
But it isn’t just that. It’s because, in London, you can do what you want, be who you want to be, and as long as you aren’t really doing anyone else any harm, nobody bats an eyelid.
Two examples. On Tuesday I went for a late afternoon tea and pumpkin carving at my new favourite haunt, Drink, Shop, Do. I am quietly confident that not many places in the UK offer pumpkin carving, finger sandwiches and cocktails all at the same time.
Then there was yesterday. In need of a bit of respite from the aforementioned shoebox, I went to the pub for a spot of lunch and spent a couple of hours sat undisturbed drawing some illustrations. There was a football match being shown at the other end of The Old Dairy, and a group of yummy mummies meeting for a bit of informal group therapy, but other than the occasional screaming child running past my table and roar of joy as Arsenal scored yet again, it was a very peaceful afternoon.
Now, I know for a fact that where I grew up, this would be unheard of. As would sitting on a bus with Bert the pumpkin cradled in your lap. But, in London it is okay. No-one cares – they’ve seen it all before and are too busy living their own lives to really take notice.
So, no, I don’t have my own house yet. But I still have my anonymity and freedom to be me without question. And that, as far as I am concerned, is priceless.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Ringing the Changes

Today, a rare thing happened. I had a bit of free time... and nothing pressing to fill it. I had done my editing, cleaning and illustrations, and had an afternoon free of prior engagements. At first I was at a bit of a loss. What is one to do in these situations? I racked my brain as I pottered about at a decidedly loose end for an hour before I came up with my master plan. I would go for a walk. Not some 8 mile hike around Hampstead Heath or anything, but a potter down Stroud Green Road. Last time I had been in the area, I had found a shop with a few potential Christmas gifts in stock, and it was en route to a rather lovely boulangerie and the Finsbury Park Cycling Shop – both establishments that I was keen to visit, even if for very different reasons.
So, I threw on my hoodie and set off. Sadly, the gift shop I had set my sites on was closed, as was my local bike shop, but, thankfully, I was able to purchase the slice of carrot cake I was really hankering after. Not fancying sitting in the cafe on my own, I headed over to the park and found a spot underneath an amber and gold-leafed tree to sit and enjoy my Sunday afternoon treat.
It was perfect. A drumming group provided the soundtrack from the nearby arts centre, squirrels provided me with an entertaining display of acrobatics and, despite my close proximity to Seven Sisters Road, the air was sweet with freshly cut grass. My cake wasn’t bad, either.
Wrapped up in my fleece-lined top, I was decidedly content. More content than I have felt for ages. Maybe I was just well overdue some good old-fashioned me-time, or maybe it was the brightness of a crisp autumn day that had left me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. You see, I love autumn. In fairness, at the beginning of every season I tend to say the same thing, but I really think autumn ticks all the right boxes. And this week, it was well and truly here.
On Wednesday, it started. First, my woolly hat made its first appearance for well over six months. Secondly, my first cold of the season hit before I even had a chance to get my flu jab. On Friday I was forced to admit defeat and picked my remaining green tomatoes and covered the strawberry plants on my terrace with old net curtains to protect them from the perils of the coming months.
Then there are the shops. I admit it, when I see a nice Christmas gift now, I buy it. Okay, so it’s only October, but I am desperate to be a bit more organised this year. More scarily though, is the realisation that Halloween, Guy Fawkes Night and (eek!) my birthday are all less than three weeks away. The surplus of pumpkins and display cabinets of rockets can no longer be sniffed at with contempt. Autumn is here. And winter is lurking just around the corner.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Lemsip to make, the heating to put on and birthday party to organise. Not to mention a Yuletide game-plan to work out. But the best thing about this turning point in the season? Yesterday, I had my first Gingerbread Latte of the year.
What’s not to like.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Beehives and Barnet(s)

I’m not going to lie to you; this week has been manic. Work was crazy from the moment I switched on my computer on Monday – so crazy, that by Wednesday night I was falling asleep in front of the telly by 8.30pm and tucked up in bed 45 minutes later. By Thursday, after four days of hard slog, I was in dire need of a little bit of relaxation, pampering and fun.
Luckily I had pre-arranged a night out with some of the girls from the office. We had booked a table at Drink, Shop, Do on Caledonian Road, just around the corner from Kings Cross, for cocktails, food... and a vintage make-over.
After a bit of window shopping (and some mental notes for Christmas presents) I settled down to an Amaretto Sour cocktail. The ambience was perfect – soft lighting, roaring forties music and friendly service – and the food was tasty too. I opted for the spinach and ricotta tart and my girls went for a pork pie and scotch egg, washed down with some cava. Perfect.
After filling our stomachs, we approached the make-over team for our transformations. Part-time hair and make-up artists Dolly and Rhonda transformed us from frazzled to fancy whilst helping us relax with their easy chatter and a bowl of boiled sweets. We emerged a Forties lovely, a Bridget Bardot lookalike and Sixties girl about town. I have never worn so much make-up in my life, but loved my beehive and cats eyes.
Several photos later, we retired to our table and ordered another round of drinks – and another. I joined in with the cava before trying another cocktail (the name escapes me but it included gin, elderflower and lime – lovely). We left at about ten, well lubricated and a lot happier than we had been four hours earlier. Needless to say we will be going back soon.
On Friday I continued the theme with a haircut and deep conditioning treatment at Rapunzel in Barnet. Needless to say, a Groupon voucher had lured me there but, even with a hand, head and shoulder massage thrown in, it didn’t feel anywhere near as pampering as the night before. Don’t get me wrong, it was perfectly pleasant and my haircut was good, but I did feel like I was on a conveyor belt of a standard service.
So, I probably won’t be heading up the northern line again anytime soon. But I will definitely be experimenting with eyeliner and hairspray. In fact, I feel a trip to my nearest cosmetic counter coming on...

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Crafty Chicks

It is Sunday evening and I am feeling very satisfied. I’m not just talking about the bumper chicken sandwich on posh bread I had for dinner either, although it was rather tasty – I’m talking about a decidedly wonderful weekend. A weekend where I have indulged in London’s ability to encourage and showcase the arts and crafts that its inhabitants have been producing quietly in their shoebox apartments and, more often than not, around hectic day jobs that do their best to sap us of our creativity.
On Saturday, I headed down to Wimbledon to visit a friend who is participating in the Merton Arts Trail. She has been working tirelessly in the evenings to polish up her portfolio to show the public in the comfort of her own home. I have to say, I was impressed – her walls were covered with an array of paintings and prints, and her table was covered with a range of collage greetings cards that she has started selling at a market in Wimbledon and a shop in Brixton. Great stuff.
I left with four of her cards in my handbag (and my eye on one of her paintings too) and headed over to South Lambeth Market. I had decided to check it out as a woman I met at a Business Link conference has a stall there, selling her papier mache creations, but unfortunately by the time I got there it was closing.
I was decidedly disappointed. However, a trip to Spitalfields Market today with one of my girlfriends soon made up for it. Awash with original clothing, accessories and homewares, it was as always a crafty chick’s paradise. It took a little while for me to warm up... but then I came across a stall of artwork created by Jenny Rose. I was spellbound by her collages and print work, and, after quizzing her about her technique, ended up buying two of them – for the bargainous price of £15 each. I also picked up a wonderful lavender-scented “armchair buddy” in the shape of Cyril the frog – hand-crafted in Scottish tweed and created on sight. A perfect Christmas present for my cousin and her family.
So, as I sit in front of the telly, I am feeling not only satisfied, but inspired. I can’t wait to get out my art box and have another go at a collage, and my dream of creating soft furnishings to sell at a market have been rejuvenated.
Now I just need to find the time to get crafty...

Friday, 30 September 2011

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

It has to be said that London is good for shopping. What with Oxford Street, two Westfields and a plethora of markets, it has something to suit all tastes. That is, unless you don’t like crowds. There’s no escaping them, not even when it comes to the weekly trip to the supermarket. Then there is the issue of not having a car. Quite frankly in a city as congested as London, I really don’t see the point. It is true, public transport is far from perfect but even with severe delays the tube moves more quickly than your average automobile.
Which is why I have turned to the internet. Okay, so I have to pay up to a fiver for my delivery, but it means that I get my groceries delivered to my door hassle free.
Or maybe not.
I am now on my third online grocery provider. Poor substitution choices (sorry, but baked beans do not resemble sun-dried tomatoes no matter how you look at it) and wild variations in fillet sizes (think the breast of a sparrow and that of an ostrich in the same pack and you get the idea) were becoming a regular occurrence. Then, items started to go missing. The last straw was when not only my milk was absent, but a pack of fruit and essential ingredients for a planned dinner party were nowhere to be seen either.
So far, provider number three is faring okay. Apart from the small incident of the electric toothbrush packaging that was delivered without the actual toothbrush. Mmm.
It doesn’t stop with groceries. Last week I ordered a bike from Halfords. I was disappointed when it didn’t arrive on the day I had requested. The next morning I called customer services. They were very apologetic and said it would be delivered that day. And I was also offered a reimbursement of the delivery charge. Result.
When I got home from work on Tuesday, a huge box awaited me. Like a kiddie at Christmas I ripped open the packaging and started to put it together. Noticing that one of the brakes wasn’t attached to the handlebars, I consulted the instructions and, still flummoxed, Him Indoors.
Yep, you guessed it. It was broken.
Decidedly begruntled, I called customer services again. They didn’t seem surprised – apparently mine wasn’t the first bike they had sold with faulty brakes. Already more than a little bit miffed, they then told me what my options were: either swap it at their nearest store, or have it collected and, once inspected back at the store, replaced.
There were two problems with these solutions. One, how the hell was I supposed to get the bike with no useable brakes to my nearest Halfords store without a car? And secondly, why should I have to wait so long to have it replaced, bearing in mind that I couldn’t guarantee someone would be in between the hours of 9 and five for the next seven days?
So, four days after my bike should have been delivered I am sat in my lounge with a bust bike behind my sofa and no way of getting it replaced for what looks like the best part of a whole week. I’m starting to think that I should have spent the extra fifty quid and got a bike from the independent shop over at Finsbury Park. Oh, well, you win some, you lose some.
It just goes to show, if you want something doing, you need to do it yourself. And it would appear that goes for getting your purchases through your front door in one piece, too.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Rural City

This evening I am relaxing in front of the telly after a weekend entertaining my parents. As always, it was a pleasure, but came with it the usual predicament – what do we do? Where do I take them that is easily accessible and not too manic? In London this is always a challenge – it doesn’t really do relaxing, and although the tube is great at getting you out and about, it comes with it a labyrinth of corridors and staircases.
So, after some deliberation I decided to take them to Kew. It’s nice and easy to get to – a bus to Caledonian Road tube station followed by a straight forward change onto the District Line at Barons Court (there are other stations you can change at but at Barons Court you literally just have to walk to the other side of the platform). And, once you have taken the short stroll to the Victoria Gate entrance, you can wander around the Royal Botanical Gardens at your leisure – or get the little bus that runs every half an hour to do the hard work for you.
The added bonus is that, even though it is popular, Kew is big enough not to get crowded. And apart from the aeroplanes flying overhead every 90 seconds (we timed them), it’s a lot more peaceful than a lot of the other attractions in London.
Today we caught a bus up for Hampstead for a wander around the Heath and a look at Kenwood House. Again it ticked all our boxes – easy to get to, somewhere for my dad to stretch his legs and a cafe for my mum to sit down and enjoy a cuppa. After a couple of hours we popped back down to Highgate for a spot of lunch. Unfortunately the Angel Inn was packed so we settled for the Rose and Crown. It was busy there too so we ended up outdoors once more – a quiet area at the back of the pub with high walls that sheltered us from the noise of traffic on Highgate Hill, if not the wasps who took a liking to my Pork Belly.
When we returned home, it struck us all how peaceful the weekend had been – apart from a busy tube journey, we could have been back home up north. So, next time my folks come down, we might head out of the City Centre again – maybe to Hampton Court or Richmond Park. Either way, it just goes to show that London does indeed cater for everyone – even those who don’t really do urban living.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Capital Karma

You know what? I’ve noticed something. In my recent blogs, I have been decidedly kind about London, praising local gems, the variety of different things to do and the sensory stimulation that keeps me interested, even after ten years.
London certainly has its good points. But sadly the pleasures of the capital are regularly tarnished by...well, Londoners.
Take last Sunday. My chum and I hit Finsbury Park with a couple of bikes. As a beginner, the plan was to practice signalling and the like in an attempt to get me ready for a trip to Cambridgeshire. It all went swimmingly well, even though the bike I was on was a little on the small side for me. Anyway, after a good ninety minutes of winding around the park’s paths, my chum had to head home to take our dinner out of the oven.
“I’ll just do another lap them follow you home.” I decided.
However, after an hour and a half of hard work (remember, I am new to this cycling malarkey) I was pretty tired. Halfway up my least favourite hill I could pedal no more. So, I had a little rest, then decided to get going again. Sadly, a hill start was a little bit beyond my amateurish skills and, after a bit of a wobble, I fell off.
About three joggers passed me as I sat on the floor, my legs tangled up with my wheels. And not one of them stopped to see if I was okay. No even an “are you alright.” Okay, so my injuries only consisted of a grazed hand and several bruises (including to my poor ego). But that isn’t the point.
A similar thing happened to me several years ago. I was running for the tube at Kentish Town and, desperate to get on the train, I dived through the closing doors. Unfortunately I managed to catch my shin on the step up from the platform and went sprawling across the carriage floor.
Not one person on that carriage asked if I was hurt.
There is a lesson to be learned by these examples – and no, not just that I am a right clump. The lesson? That a lot of Londoners don’t give a monkeys about anyone but themselves – or if they do, they are too scared/apathetic/tired to help out their fellow citizens when they are in need.
Evidence would suggest that it is the former. Take earlier this week on the bus. I climbed up to the top deck and took the only vacant seat next to a teenage lad in school uniform, his head clamped between an impressive set of headphones. His legs were liberally spread wide – and failed to move to make room for his fellow passenger. And, when we approached his stop, he didn’t bother to say “excuse me,” let alone “please”. Instead he just stood up and proceeded to push past me. I’m still cursing myself for moving out of his way rather than "accidentally" tripping him up with my cumbersome handbag.
It doesn’t stop there. The pedestrians who refuse to move out of your way, even when they are walking five abreast and you have no way of getting out of their way other than stepping onto the road. The theatre patrons who wouldn’t move their legs to one side, let alone stand up to let me past during the interval at “Losing It” last night.
Despite this, I still try my best to be as polite as possible to fellow commuters on the tube, supermarket shoppers and gym users. And, on the odd occasion that someone does show me manners, I say thank you – and I mean it. It does happen – the chap who held the door open for me today at the Welcome Collection, the shop owner who dodged out of my way as I jogged down Stroud Green Road the other morning. But it doesn’t happen enough.
Although I’m no Buddhist, I do believe to some degree in Karma. I’m not a Christian either, but think there is a lot of wisdom in the phrase, “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.” And I can’t help thinking that London would be a much nicer place if we all went along with these simple philosophies.
Let’s just be a bit nicer to each other, and make London not just great, but good too.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Love Local

Shopping. Love it or hate it, it’s a necessary evil. Even credit-phobes have to wander down to Marks and Sparks once in a while to buy a new pair of socks and a loaf of bread.
Even as someone who does actually enjoy shopping to a degree, there are times when I really don’t want to do it – especially when I know that the best place for me to go to get what I need is either Oxford Street or, at a push, the concrete horror of Brent Cross. Earlier this week I realised that such a date with my debit card was approaching. I bemoaned my fate at work and begged my colleagues to help me come up with a more palatable solution.
“Why don’t you just pop down to Holloway? Then get the bus to Angel if you need to afterwards?” My chum piped up. I looked at her with scorn. Holloway? For two Birthday presents, a Christening gift and a new pair of shoes?
“You can go to Selby’s. They have everything.” She smugly added before I could even speak.
She had a point. I pondered my shopping list. There was always Bedford’s on Holloway for gifts, Mothercare for baby clothes and Selby’s for the overnight bag I had been tasked with finding for my best mate. Priceless Shoes would meet my footwear needs and the local Argos and O2 shop ticked other items off my list. There was even Holloway Cycles for me to browse around in my quest for my first set of wheels.
So, when Him Indoors finally dragged his arse out of bed we headed out. Okay, so we ended up in Angel (Him Indoors needed a HSBC and Accessorize saved the day for my bag-hunt), but even so I got everything I needed within a half hour bus journey from home – no need to ride the C11 all the way to a shopping city in the ‘burbs or join the masses in the West End.
It doesn’t end with shopping. When I got back from the shops I popped out to my newest local find, Chaps and Dames, to get my fringe trimmed. Just around the corner from Stroud Green Road, it is on the outskirts of another local gem. Fancy a night out but don’t want to travel far? Well, I can always pop out for a pizza at Papagones, a pint at the Old Dairy and round off the night with bowling, pool and dancing at Rowans - all within walking distance of my front door.
So, next time I need to do some shopping, get my hair or nails done and plan a night out with my mates, I don’t think I’ll travel far. Besides, it’s nice to know that I am supporting the local economy rather than taking my money to places that don’t really need it. And I don’t need to suffer the tube or cough up for a taxi either.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Sense and Sensibility

It’s Saturday morning. Despite forecasts of 25 degrees in London, the air outside is cool and fresh. The occasional bus rumbles past the window, taking Saturday shoppers to their destination. The flat smells of the lemon essential oil I am burning. Saturday Kitchen is on the telly, inspiring me to get up and make something more exciting than the toast with apricot jam I have just devoured.
The buzzer goes, awakening me from my Zen-like calm. I run down the stairs to catch the post man who refuses to speak to me over the intercom, stubbing my toe on the way. The air that hits me as I open the door brings with it the stench of a passing waste disposal van. Back in the flat, Him Indoors gets up and starts to prance about in front of the telly, moaning already that the flat will be too hot again tonight. I haven’t even left the building and my senses have already been assaulted.
Ah, London. You tease us with your delights and then attack our senses, like a clown offering us a flower and then squirting us with water through its centre. I really should know better than to fall for your charms. However, day after day, I give you another chance, only to feel violated by the time I crawl into bed.
Last week I met some of the girls for a spot of food. We were all tired after a hard day at work, and, after being turned away by two Pizza Expresses (we had vouchers), finally collapsed around a table in Carluccio's. Three large glasses of wine were ordered in quick succession. As we waited for our food, the waitress brought us over some lemon and chilli oil to try with a hunk of focaccia. It was delicious, and quickly disappeared. Slowly, we started to relax. The tension slipped away and was soon lost among the scent of garlic and the sound of soft music.
We started chatting. Whinges about work were replaced with what we had been reading, music from our student days that we had rediscovered, exhibitions we had visited, theatre we had seen, shopping we had done. We decided that next time we met, we really needed to do cocktails at one of the funky new bars that had recently sprung up. And finally arrange that bus tour we fancied. Not to mention check out Matilda when it opened in the West End.
At the end of the meal I pottered over to my bus stop, a smile on my face. My senses had been pampered once more. Even the crazy guy shouting about his latest conspiracy theory didn’t spoil my mood. London and I were friends once more.
Whether it’s the views across London after a climb to the top of Monument, the scent of hundreds of curries being cooked in Tooting, the feel of ink rubbing onto your hands from yet another free newspaper, the taste of yet another amazing shish on Green Lanes or the sound of Big Ben chiming as you wander along the Southbank, London has something to delight all the senses. But there will always be something to taint that experience, whether it’s the drone of another drunk, the smell of rubbish dumped in the streets by yet another irresponsible business owner, the discomfort of cramming onto the tube, the taste of a crap coffee from that chain, or the sad sight of one more rough sleeper. But maybe that’s what makes it so exciting. You just don’t know what to expect when you step outside your front door.
One thing you can guarantee. Your senses will be challenged beyond their capabilities. And whichever way they are stretched, one thing is for sure: In London you will always have something to talk about when you meet your mates for dinner. But, will you gush or groan? Your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, 26 August 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different...

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m counting down the minutes until I can make a run for it. The good news is, I am up to date with all my work. The bad news is, that means I am utterly bored – always dangerous territory when you have the internet at your fingertips. I have already bought a random magnetic window cleaning gadget off eBay and am struggling to resist the temptation of a new dress – with 10% off. Luckily I have recently discovered that I can access Twitter at work, but even that has its limitations – especially when your boss is sat behind you. There’s only so many times you can argue that you are doing “research” when in fact you are tweeting about your most recent purchase.
One of my favourite pastimes when my to-do list has shrunk to a minimum is to browse the Time Out website for a bit of inspiration. It’s my bible to London living, with listings for theatre and the arts through to eating, drinking and beyond. Him Indoors and I had agreed to go out last weekend so this time last week I caught up with what was happening around town. I was not disappointed. On the South Bank there was free theatre, exhibitions and a farmer’s market. At Tate Britain they were showcasing the work of photojournalist Don McCullin and the recently deceased Lucien Freud. And, if we fancied a bit of shopping mixed in with our culture, there was always Covent Garden and the nearby “Gallery of Relationships” exhibiting relics from past partnerships. In the end we settled for my old favourite the National Portrait Gallery. We saw “Glamour of the Gods” – an exhibition of portraits from the Golden Age of cinema – and the BP Portrait Award, which never fails to amaze me. Okay, so not all the styles float my boat, but the ability of some artists to capture an individual’s essence on a flat piece of canvas is incredible. We rounded off the afternoon with a visit to Ed’s Diner on Old Compton Street – tasty burgers all round washed down with a peanut butter and banana malt – heaven.
That’s what I love about London – there is plenty to choose from, and an awful lot of it is free. Okay, so it might be a little bit grubby around the edges but it has something for everyone, come rain or shine. I mean, where else can you check out our Kate’s wedding dress down at Buckingham Palace?
The diversity within London’s entertainment options spreads to the evenings too. So, can’t decide between a night at the pub or a bit of theatre? Last week I killed two birds with one stone with a spot of opera at the King’s Head in Angel. La Boheme had been brought bang up to date with references to chavs, Dalston and illegal immigration, and, not only did the theatre at the back of the pub make for an intimate operatic experience, part of the opera was actually performed around the bar. At one point I was stood right next to one of the sopranos as she chastised her hapless Tenor partner, pint of cider in hand. You can’t get much closer to the action than that.
This weekend I’m afraid I am going for quite a conventional Bank Holiday – namely a barbeque, or, if the weather doesn’t improve, an indoor picnic. But I know what once all my guests have left come Monday there is plenty to keep me entertained. Not only do I have the leftovers from last weekend, but there are still so many museums and galleries that I haven’t got round to seeing yet. Not to mention restaurants, bars, shows, tourist attractions, wildlife parks, shops...
So, my challenge to you all – if you are in London this Bank Holiday go out there and do something different. No matter what your interests I can guarantee there will be something in the capital that you have never seen or done before that tickles your fancy. You just need to look for it.
Go on. You know you want to...

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Shiny Happy People

Today is a bad day. Not as bad as yesterday, but it still sucks. It sucks because it is raining. And two days ago I was in Turkey, swimming in the bluest sea I have ever seen, sitting in the warmest sun I have ever experienced, and having a jolly old time. Post Holiday Blues doesn’t even come close.
But it isn’t just the weather I miss, or the free bar, abundant fresh Turkish food and rocket fuel coffee. I miss the people. Cheesy as it may sound, but wherever I visited, I was greeted with warm hospitality, good service and a bit of friendly banter thrown in to boot. Okay, so a lot of that was down to proprietors trying to woo me into spending a little bit more money in their establishments, but there was no pressure to part with my cash. A bit of reverse psychology maybe, but certainly preferable to the hard sell.
Every night, without fail, I would end up in the all-night bar at our hotel for a cocktail and a bit of a chinwag with the bar man. Aided by his broken English we chatted about everything and anything; what we had been up to, the global economy, and, of course, the riots back home. He asked us what we did for a living, where we lived. We asked him where he went on holiday, about his job. With difficulty he calculated that the last time he had a holiday was seven years ago, in his home country With a shrug he cheerfully shared that he worked through the night, seven days a week. And no, he had to work over the winter too. But he was still posing for photos and taking delight in adding sparklers to our drinks. And, without fail, smiling.
Coming back to London was a bit of the shock to the system. Not only have I reluctantly had to accept that I can’t expect service with a smile anymore, but I’ve had to catch up on the news. The riots started over a week ago now, but the fallout has only just begun. We will no doubt be hearing about the reality those who chose to loot businesses, burn cars and terrorise their neighbours are now facing for some time, and the political debate about what should be done to stop this from happening again for even longer.
I have my opinions about how the people who took to the streets last week should be punished, and even more about what the authorities need to do to prevent future unrest. I have my theories about why it happened, why the young (and some supposedly mature) people of London felt that it was acceptable to behave in that manner. But as I hypothesise with my friends, my partner and to myself, I think about the bar man in Turkey, working every day for no doubt not a lot. Is he rioting? Looting shops? Setting fire to police stations? No, he isn’t. He might not have a lot, but he is content with it. He is grateful to have a job, to live in a free country and be able to walk down the street without fear. He counts his blessings.
Okay, so unemployment has reached a new peak, the economy is still decidedly shaky and the weather is crap. But, you know what London, maybe we need to start appreciating what we have too. Because it is a hell of a lot more than some people have. Rather than trying to destroy our already fractured society, why aren’t we celebrating it, helping each other through these difficult times and be thankful of the support the state offers while we still have it? Maybe we’ve had it good for so long we've forgotten what it’s like to live with uncertainty and how to help others and ourselves when the going gets tough. Instead we have had a societal temper tantrum.
Maybe we need a lesson in gratitude from some of our poorer neighbours. And, Mr Cameron, if you want someone to teach the nation how to look on the bright side of life, I know just the man.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Midsummer Madness

You know what? I’m getting a wee bit excited. No, not because England won the cricket and the football season is about to start (or has it already?), but because on Monday, my dear friends, I jet off to Turkey. With the added bonus is that my friend had the foresight to book it through Thomas Cook.
Of course, the excitement is accompanied with frantic preparation – finding my passport, de-fuzzing, sorting travel insurance and the like have kept me on my toes for weeks. My mate texted me yesterday and asked if I had sorted out my currency - a helpful reminder as it had completely slipped my mind.
So, last weekend the preparations started in earnest. First, I needed a haircut. A couple of weeks earlier I bought a Groupon voucher to get a haircut, blow dry and deep conditioning treatment for under £20 – bargain. Only problem was, when I called the salon they informed me that they were booked up until the day I was due to fly from East Midlands airport. Oh dear. The last two salons I have been to failed to impress me, which when you are paying close to £50 does tend to put one off. So, I decided to try somewhere new.
Whilst training for my run I had jogged past a little place called Chaps and Dames on Tollington Park. A small place with retro barber decor and vintage clothing in the window, I decided to investigate. I wasn’t disappointed – haircuts were a mere £25 with the added bonus that they have beer on their list of refreshments, and a piano in case the owner feels the need to perform as you wait for your highlights to take.
So last Friday I trotted along. The manager did my hair, and after some deliberation we decided to cut my fringe back in. I was very pleased with the results, and had a thoroughly nice chat with her whilst she did my hair. Needless to say I shall be going back, and have already recommended the place to friends in the Finsbury Park area. And, if you fancy a funky new dress to match your haircut, they have a selection of vintage clothing for sale too. Bonus.
On Saturday, my task was a little less pleasurable. It was the shopping trip. This meant one thing: Oxford Street. I needed sun cream, sun tops and a cover up top – and was in the market for a new tankini and sarong to boot. Unfortunately a lot of shops were a bit thin on the ground when it came to summer clothes (apparently it is autumn already) and although I found a lovely dress for the office, holiday essentials were proving a bit trickier to find. So I ended up in the retail version of Hell: Primark.
You have to go to the flagship store near Marble Arch to believe it; the word Bedlam springs to mind. I managed to elbow my way through the crowds to a couple of tables stacked precariously with t-shirts, cropped trousers and sun tops. I grabbed a selection and headed over to the changing room. My heart sank. The queue was nearly the length of the shop and moving very slowly. I took the matter into my own hands and set up a changing area in the nightwear section. Luckily I was wearing a sun top and mini skirt with leggings, so I was able to slip the tops on and wiggle into the trousers under my skirt without flashing my underwear. Mission accomplished, I joined the (slightly more reasonable) queue for the till. Two sun tops, two t-shirts and a belt for £12.50. Result.
Happily, buying sun cream was a breeze – I had already researched my best options for factor 50 protection and decided to opt for “super light” rather than all day protection – I’d rather have to re-apply every couple of hours than feel like a greasy chip all day. And, of course, all sun cream was BOGOF – and Soltan aftersun half price. Super.
At this point, I decided to give up on finding a sarong and tankini and put all my efforts into finding a nice cover up – an essential for my fair skin. I had already found one in Accessorise in the sale, but at £20 I wanted to see if Debenhams had a cheaper option. They did, but in true typical woman style, I decided that the one in Accessorise was worth the extra £5. I popped into the store opposite the department store and found the one that I wanted. Except it looked like a different colour. Convinced that the one in the other store was a paler shade of cream, I fought my way back up the street and bought the first one I had laid my eyes on. Him Indoors would have been proud.
By the time I got home I was exhausted. Luckily I had the foresight to pick up something quick and easy from Marks and Sparks and was soon slumped in front of the telly with a plateful of nosh.
The next day I was up early doors to catch a train to West Sussex. My parents were holidaying on the south coast and invited me down for the day. It was the perfect opportunity to get some sunbathing practice in – not to mention R and R. I returned to London covered in sand and a bit pink around the top of my arms – apparently I had missed a bit – but decidedly content in the knowledge that I would soon be leaving the madness behind and sat by a pool under a parasol with nothing to worry about other than whether to read my book for flick though a glossy first.
Oh, decisions, decisions.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Race For Life

I’m not going to lie to you. This week I am feeling rather smug. Why, you may ask? Well, on Saturday I did the Race For Life. And not the 5km version either. Oh no. I well and truly jumped in at the deep end and went for the 10km.
It was my mate who talked me into it. I was quite happily about to sign up for the 5k version when she convinced me otherwise.
“10k just says a bit more don’t you think? And you can already do 5k.” She argued. And, before I had time to think it through, we had both signed up. Within twenty minutes I was already regretting it, but it was too late. There was no turning back.
That was about eight weeks ago. Since then I have been getting up at 6.30am on a regular basis to meet my partner in crime for a training session in Finsbury Park, the lyrics of Blur’s Parklife running through my head. It hasn’t been easy, but we kept at it, and on Saturday we joined about 1,500 other women and set off.
My target was to finish the course without stopping. It was tricky (especially the last up-hill bit) but I did it. And I did it in one hour, six minutes and twenty seconds, a time that some may sniff at but I am immensely proud of. I also managed to raise over £500 for Cancer Research, which amazes me. Donations of mainly £5-£10 have added up and everyone’s generosity has been incredible.
I have to admit, this week has been a bit of an anti-climax. All that hard work paid off, but... well, what next? A half marathon? The London to Brighton Bike Ride (after a bit more cycling practise)? The Moonwalk? I don’t know. But I think I may have caught the bug. I need a new challenge, a new goal. And, let’s face it, a new reason to get off by backside and do some exercise. However, for now I am just going to bask in the glory of my latest achievement. There is always next year for my next sporting fundraiser.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to make myself a hot chocolate and go to bed. Because tomorrow I am going my first run since the big day. You know, for old time’s sake. Feel free to come along and join in. You never know, you might catch the bug too...

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The University of Life - in London

Those of you out there with keen observational skills will see it’s been well over a week since I last blogged. Apologies about that, but this weekend was pretty manic and I have spent the rest of this week catching up with myself. On Friday evening I saw my old favourite Derren Brown in his new show Svengali – as always a fascinating night, and thankfully I didn’t end up on stage this time. Then on Saturday I trained it up to Stoke-on-Trent to go to good old Keele University for its “Homecoming”. Needless to say, I had a good time – a “spooky” tour of the old hall, burger and chips in the Sneyd Arms, two hours of pool followed by a boogie on the dance floor. Needless to say a lot of alcohol was consumed by all but I am pleased to announce that it was I who was holding someone else’s hair back on this occasion.
It was just like old times. And good times, too.
Funnily enough I didn’t really see anyone who I hadn’t stayed in touch with, but at the end of the day it didn’t matter. Whilst sitting down after another game of pool (I haven’t lost it!) I chatted to a girl who lived in my halls in the first year. We had recently got in touch again over the medium of Facebook and were soon chatting about our fellow Freshers from all those years ago. She too had noticed not a lot of people had turned up. We mulled this one over as we nursed our pints and came to the conclusion that the people who had come back had not returned to brag about their £100,000 salary, penthouse on the Thames and beautiful beau. The people who came back were good time people. Okay, they might not have set the world alight (yet) but they were happy.
This naturally made me think about the past ten years since I graduated. I moved to London the weekend after the ceremony and haven’t left the city since. I look back at the 21 year old walking into her first full-time job and there are parts of her that I hardly recognise. She is so naive, almost timid and a little bit lost. She has little confidence and is still licking her wounds after the ending of some pretty painful relationships.
It may sound corny, but London has certainly shaped that young woman who, quite frankly, didn’t really have a clue. Moving to a city where she only knew a couple of people made her crawl out of her shell and rebuild her social life. She met new people from every walk of life and saw the world from dozens of new perspectives. Nurturing those relationships that were supportive and based on mutual respect and love enabled her to develop a supportive social network.
Working with vulnerable adults forced her to be strong, to be confident. Her work with those who have found themselves addicted, homeless or on the wrong side of the law has opened her eyes to a side of society that she had never seen before, only read about in the papers. And the buzz of London drew out her curiosity and her desire to learn.
So, has she set the world alight? Maybe not. She never did do that MA in Art Therapy and although her salary is respectable, she still isn’t on the property ladder or bought her first car. But she has been infected by the energy around her. She is exploring her creativity and grabbing any opportunities that come her way. She is still meeting new people and going to new places. Okay, so there have been rocky patches, but she is feeling optimistic. Her life isn’t perfect, but it is headed in the right direction.
And that’s enough to keep her dancing.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Food Glorious Food

It’s Saturday evening and I am sat in front of the telly feeling more than a little bit sorry for myself. No, not because I am stuck indoors rather than out on the town, nor because I have just watched the last in the present series of Desperate Housewives and don’t know when it will be on again. You see, yesterday I returned home after five days down in Devon with one of my girlfriends. Okay, not a particularly exotic location and not even a full week away from the insanity of the city. But enough of a break to leave me feeling refreshed and, sadly, with a touch of the holiday blues.
The thing is, I haven’t been on a proper holiday in quite some time and five days was just long enough to remind me how much good they do me – time to explore new places, read the book that has been sat on my bookshelf for three years, and eat what the hell I like without feeling guilty about it. When my friend and I decided to hit the South West, one of the first things I did was mentally make a list of all the things I would have to eat (and drink) whilst I was in the region. So, on Monday I squeezed in my locally made ice cream (ginger flavour to be exact) within my first two hours in Torquay. On Tuesday I had a Devonshire Cream Tea for lunch – and clotted cream fudge for afters. On Wednesday I got my Pasty in (okay, so they are Cornish, but we were close enough if you ask me) and went out for a fresh fish supper in the evening. As for drink, I not only sampled a Devonshire Red cider but also tried a Bays –and an Otter ale to boot. Phew. Thank God for the five and a half mile walk along the coast or I don’t think I would have fit in the train seat home.
Needless to say, food was not far from my mind for most of the holiday. Which got me thinking, if I was going to do a culinary tour of London, to what delights would it lead? And where would I go?
Whilst considering this quandary I decided it was important to distinguish between London and British grub. Roast dinners and fish and chips are both mouth-watering meals, but do they say London? Not really. For me, if you really want a taste of authentic London, you have to go east. I mean, where else in the world can you buy proper jellied eels? Not to everyone’s taste, but most definitely a London thing. Don’t fancy the look of the slippery sea serpents? Just head to your local pie and mash shop. For the full London experience, go for a beef pie and plenty of liquor. No, not the stuff you find in your dad’s drinks cabinet, but that funny coloured gravy you can only find within the M25.
The delights of the East End don’t stop there. For a unique eating out experience, I would always recommend Brick Lane, the centre of London’s Bangladeshi community – and a bit of a curry conundrum. Okay, so you can probably get a better quality balti elsewhere (Tooting is a popular rival), but nowhere else will you be chased down the street by seven different restaurateurs trying to tempt you with today’s special offer.
Right, so that’s the East End sorted. Anywhere else worth a visit? I’m sure there is, but for me you can’t beat it - apart from at one very well known market next to London Bridge. Borough Market. Oh yes, the place that Jamie Oliver apparently frequents (when he isn’t in Sainsbury’s, of course) to buy his pukka ingredients. And they are indeed pukka – if a little on the pricey side. Ostrich meat? No problem. Boulangerie bread and Parisian pastries? Plentiful. Wild Boar sausages? Exotic fair trade fruit? Oils, vinegars, pickles? Eat your heart out. Then wash it down with a bottle of organic wine.
So yes, I have the holiday blues, but I’ll get over it. And if I don’t, I’ll just hop on the Overground to Stratford for a quick roll mop and a pint of London Pride.
If that doesn’t sort me out, nothing will.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Gigging Gospel

Sat at my desk at work, I can confirm that summer is well and truly here. I know this for three reasons; it is cooler in the office than it is outside, my skin is ultra soft after days of slathering on sun cream and I have just witnessed my first proper thunder storm of the year – and welcomed it. Added to this list are all the other indicators – an increase in ice cream consumption being one of them and a move from indoor activities to outdoor pursuits being another. And I’m not just talking about the walking/running/cycling I was on about last week. I am talking less physically demanding recreation. More specifically, gigs.
Alas, this year I have yet again failed to get my arse in gear and land myself some tickets to a festival somewhere out in the country. But never mind – London has got a plethora of outdoor gigs right on my door step. Last week I spent Thursday afternoon braving the elements in Hyde Park in order to the see the mighty Kings Of Leon. Okay so I got a bit wet (and managed to catch the sun too – only in the UK is this possible in a 12 hour period) but it was well and truly worth it. There was a real festival atmosphere, with plenty of beer and burgers, and no less than four supporting acts. For six and a half hours of live music, I came to the conclusion that it was fifty quid well spent – especially considering one of the acts was Paul Weller, another was White Lies (who also played Glasto) and, out of the other two, only one was a bit on the dodgy side.
However, as usual, there were those in the crowd who, after one too many beers and a little bit of sun, lost the ability to conduct themselves in a manner that was respectful to those around them. Okay, so it is a concert, and we are all there to enjoy ourselves. And yes, it is permitted to dance and jump up and down a bit too. But if you do decide to show your appreciation of the music in this way, surely it is not too much to ask you to try and not jump on top of everyone else in the process? It is possible – I know I have perfected my technique for bopping in crowded places over the years quite successfully.
But that leads me on to my second gripe. You see, I know when I have drunk enough get me happily merry but not so much that I am unable to stand up without support – or to the point where I feel the need to pee into a pint glass and chuck it over the crowd (just plain gross, guys), have to push my way out of the crowd to vomit (not cool) or collapse on my way home (highly undignified). Alas, not everyone has yet to figure this out.
And then there are those who feel the need to moan and groan throughout the entire show. Okay, so I am tall and probably don’t appreciate how annoying it is to be at a gig and not be able to see something. But I don’t see why I should apologise for it either. I imagine there are lots of advantages to being short (being able to fit on buses, buy trousers, not have men stare at your chest all of the time), but gigging is clearly not one of them. So suck it up – and go and stand towards the back where everyone gets a clear view. Harsh, maybe, but that’s life. And, yes, it is annoying when people bump into you all of the time, but for God’s sake, please don’t start pushing back and get into a fight. You’ll only end up pissing everyone off even more.
So, next time you go to a gig, please remember my golden rules. Actually, make that the Gigging Gospel: Show a bit of respect, to yourself and to others. That way everyone can have a jolly good time.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Great Outdoors

A lot of people don’t get London. Some of my friends and family who live out in the sticks struggle to understand why I have stayed here so long. My sister often smugly tells me about her weekends spent pottering about the rolling dales of Yorkshire. During a country walk across the border, my Lancastrian cousin once asked me what us city dwellers do in our time off, seemingly bewildered that some people actually enjoy more urban activities.
The idea of not having an expanse of unspoilt space within a five minute walk of home is for some people a little too much to comprehend. Don’t get me wrong - I like a bit of greenery too and every now and then find myself fleeing to Hampstead Heath or the nearest train station in pursuit of real fresh air and the sight of a horizon unspoilt by tower blocks.
Having said that, this desire to escape the sprawling metropolis has been less apparent of late. And I think I know why. You see, since signing up for the Race For Life I have ditched the gym for the local park. Not only is it far more interesting than trudging along on the treadmill (think Blur’s Parklife and you get the idea) but I think it is doing my well being the world of good too. And it isn’t only us joggers (going round, and round, and round) who keep their fitness up outside. In Finsbury Park there is not only a basketball and tennis courts, but a range of gym equipment for those who like to go their resistance work somewhere other than a sweaty studio. My recent attempts to learn (at the grand old age of 31) to cycle have also let me indulge in a bit of otherwise unscheduled greenery. My sessions (which are going quite well, thank you) are held in Highbury Fields which is not only very pleasant, but has a conveniently placed café and ice cream van too – perfect for when I need a bit of a break from pedal power.
About a year ago I met some volunteers who run Green Gyms across London. No, this isn’t an eco-friendly version of Fitness First, but an opportunity for people to get outdoors and get fit whilst doing a bit of conservation work – something that I would definitely commit to if I was a lady of leisure. And, although the Urban Jungle isn’t as rich in flora as its name might suggest, if you feel the need to get out and about and stretch your legs, London is a great place to go walking. I’m a big fan of my Time Out London Walks book and have been on a couple of guided walks too – great exercise with a bit of local knowledge thrown in for good measure. What’s not to like?
So, as I quickly approach the date of my 10k race (EEK!), I am considering more and more seriously cancelling my gym membership and getting myself out there. Okay, so when the weather turns a jog around park might be less appealing, but at the same time the idea of wrapping up in my thermals and braving the great outdoors sounds quite invigorating, even a little romantic. And, at the end of the day, I always have my Wii if I really can’t face the elements. And it will save me a heap of cash.
In my book, outdoors is definitely back in.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Oh what a night

I have confession to make. Last Friday I went out with some colleagues and got a little bit tipsy. Well, a little bit more than tipsy perhaps. Let’s put it this way, I was glad that by the time the Sambuca made an appearance the only person left more senior than me was the one buying the drinks.
I was supposed to be going for a pint with an old friend I worked with in Days of Yore, but she cancelled at the last minute (sorry but I fail to see how childcare arrangements are more important than beer). So, not one to be deprived of my Friday night drink, I asked a colleague if she fancied a swift one. Within an hour half the office was traipsing down to Kings Cross to Caminos.
I think it is fair to say fun was had by all. The more responsible (and sensible) amongst us drifted off at around 6.30pm, leaving the hardcore to venture up the road to Lincoln Lounge – where the Sambuca made an appearance. It is not a bar I have been to before, but, from what I remember (and it starts to get a bit hazy here) it had a pretty cool vibe, comfy chairs and chilled music. Just my cup of tea.
After a couple more beverages, we were down to three. I don’t recall what time it was, but we were hungry for more. The question was, where to now? A quick curry? A bit of a boogie? Nah, way too mainstream. So what did we do? Well, we went bowling.
You see, this is where living in London becomes a real advantage. Not only were we able to get a bus to our next destination well after 11 (not that I recall the journey particularly well), we were able to go somewhere other than a night club or a brothel for our late night entertainment. Excellent! And then, after two games of bowling – in which I managed to get a STRIKE, thank you very much – we decided it was maybe time to line our stomachs with some food. At two in the morning.
But, for our old chum London, this was not a problem. We wobbled over to a cab and in less than a hiccup later, we were at Green Lanes, tucking into a mighty fine Shish Kebab with salad, harissa and rice. Beautiful! What more could a girl ask for?
Alas, the night had to end at some point. After stuffing our faces with Turkish delights, we started to flag. It was time to go home. So, once I had secured a doggie bag for my lunch the next day, we wandered out to find a cab. How much for a cab to Finsbury Park with two drop off points, we enquired? £7.50 each. As in 15 quid. For a ten minute journey. We tried to haggle (not easy in the circumstances) and got nowhere. So, begrudgingly, we agreed our fare and collapsed onto the back seat.
I crawled into bed next to a snoring Him Indoors at 3pm a happy bunny. It had been a good night. Beer, bowling and ‘babs, all within easy reach at unreasonable hours. God I love London sometimes.
I just wish the cabs weren’t so bloomin’ expensive...

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Deal or No Deal?

You know what? I like a bargain, me. Put it down to my frugal northern roots or that feminine intuition that kicks in around the 1st January (and again about 6 months later), but nothing gives me more satisfaction than getting something that I want for not a lot of money.
This doesn’t mean that I buy things just because they are cheap. I like to think that I am savvy enough to only part with my hard earned cash when it is in exchange for something that I really want, or need. Just because those canary yellow hot pants are only a pound does not make them an investment. And although it is tempting to snap up yet another five course meal followed by laser hair removal via Groupon on a daily basis, you can end up with more beauty deals and nights out than you can fit into your diary.
That isn’t to say that I am immune to the charms of Groupon. I have succumbed a few times, I admit. There’s been my bi-yearly mani/pedi, a team lunch in a local gastro pub, a massage and, most recently, a champagne afternoon tea with my friend.
Okay, so afternoon tea is not exactly a necessity, but after a stressful few months at work my chum and I felt the need for a little treat. And, at £12 a head it seemed more than reasonable. So, last Friday we headed over to the Rafayel Hotel on the Left Bank. We arrived full of high expectations – okay so champagne tastes good anywhere, but sandwiches, pastries and tea in a five-star hotel was sure to be a real delight, right?
Well, you’d think, anyway.
Alarm bells began to ring when our sandwiches arrived. It didn’t bother me too much that the staff didn’t tell us what was in them, even if it would have been quite nice to have been in the know rather than having to peel back the bread and sniff the various gooey fillings to find out. But... the bread was stale. Not massively stale, but it was quite clear these sandwiches had not just been rustled up for us and had in fact been hanging around for some time.
Slightly disappointed, we waited for our cake stand to arrive. I looked lovely, loaded with scones, berries, cakes, and... Hang on, what was that? Well, it was pink and gooey, but not necessarily in a good way. When our tea arrived I politely enquired as to that the said item actually was. The waiter looked a little confused and said he would find out for us. Sadly, when we called him over two minutes later (because, erm, our MILK WAS OFF), he hadn’t had a chance to find out. He did however make a valiant effort to convince us that he hadn’t brought us off milk, but it was in fact double cream. You know, that really thin smelly variety.
So, when a different member of staff reappeared with a fresh supply of milk I asked her to help us solve our mystery. She just shrugged and said she didn’t know. And we were expected to eat this unidentified object.
By this point we were finding the whole situation decidedly amusing. It became a game to see how many waiters would fob us off rather than actually admit that maybe there was something wrong with our refreshments. So I was a little bemused when the next chap I collared actually took away the offending object and replaced it with a really rather pretty raspberry macaroon.
I have to admit that we didn’t bother to complain – although we certainly would have done if we had paid the full £30 a head the Rafayel usually charges for this sloppy service. Needless to say we won’t be going back, though. It makes me wonder why businesses bother with such deals – surely the point is to get the punters in, impress them with your product and welcome them back in the future as customers who are willing to pay top whack? Or am I missing something?
Sadly this isn’t the only business I know of which has fallen into this trap. In fact, I don’t think I would go back to the spa where I had my massage even if it was on offer again. But that doesn’t mean that others don’t get it right. Later that same Friday I went to one of the London Zoo “Lates” – think an evening at the zoo with no kids but plenty of food, drink and a silent disco. It was great night – made even better by the fact that I get the tickets for better than half price on Living Social. A true bargain – and the same experience that I would have had if I'd paid the full 18 quid. Now that is what I call a good deal.
So, the moral of the story? Pick your special offers carefully. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some real gems out there. Just don’t expect too much – that way you won’t be disappointed. Or, even better, you might even be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

giggles, gigs and... gravestones

Ah, London. It has something for everyone. Or something for every mood, for that matter. Whether you feel like a good giggle, chilling out to the Blues or a mooch around one of London’s most atmospheric sites, it always manages to hit the spot.
However, don’t expect London to deliver its delights without a few setbacks. Oh, no. London is a feisty one at the best of times, and although it is full of delights, it often tests its inhabitants and visitors alike, offering its very best only to those who show real endurance. Something that I feel I possess. As for Him Indoors? Well, that’s another story.
Last week was a busy week. Being a sucker for a good night out, I had booked us tickets for a freebie at BBC television studios and a gig at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. Teamed with a Bank Holiday, I couldn’t resist but squeeze in a day out at the weekend too. Sadly, though, our escapades didn’t go without a hitch.
Last Monday, after a trip to Nando's for some Peri Peri chicken, Him Indoors and I headed over to the White City to indulge in a bit of audience participation with Claudia Winkleman in her new show, King Of. We got there nice and early and joined the queue. Him Indoors started to get twitchy within five minutes. He doesn’t do queues, you see. I guess it didn’t help when I volunteered information to an assistant about his experience of scuba diving. They were looking for people to talk to Claudia about under water creatures. On the telly. Funnily enough, he wasn’t impressed by my blabbering. Oops.
In the studio we ended up near the front due to my disclosure. The show was a real hoot – Claudia and her guests ad libbed about their favourite biscuits, dance moves and things to sit on for a good two hours. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Sadly, Him Indoors didn’t get to share his love of Sea Cucumbers with the nation, but he still managed to get the hump about having to clap too much. I tell you, there is no pleasing some people.
Then, on Thursday, we headed to Camden Town to see the mighty Seasick Steve. I had treated us for Him Indoor's Birthday, but yet again, the evening failed to hit the spot.
I met Him Indoors in Strada on Parkway. Admittedly I was a little damp after an afternoon of heavy showers. Him Indoors was soaked from the waist down. Unfortunately his cagoule was only effective to a point, and that point happened to hover just above his crotch. Oh dear. Doubled with the restaurant’s news that their pizza oven had broken, the evening did not get off to a good start. Fortunately, after a long wait, our favourite Blues singer saved the day and our evening ended on a high, despite some complaints on the bus home about ringing ears. Close, but no cigar.
Finally, this Monday, I felt it was time for us to indulge in some culture. Him Indoors suggested Highgate Cemetery – I had been banging on about visiting the resting place of some of London’s most celebrated since reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. It was a fascinating afternoon and my camera hardly took a break. But, again, Him Indoors had cause for complaint. You see, the cemetery is at the bottom of a hill that we had to walk down to get to – and walk up to get back to the bus stop. Needless to say, I was less than popular by the time we got to Tesco Metro to pick up our dinner.
The moral of the story? Well, if you want to enjoy London’s offerings, whether you want a giggle, a gig or some gothic gravestones, you have to take the rough with the smooth. The capital’s culture may be on your doorstep, but sometimes you have to compromise your comfort to get to appreciate its crown jewels. So put on your walking boots and your waterproofs and get ready to work for your recreation. Because London can be more than a little bit difficult when it wants to be. But that is part of its charm.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Grim Up North?

As a northerner, I can relate to Sting’s hit, An Englishman in New York. Not because, well, I am English and live in the Big Apple, but because here in the Big Smoke I just have to open my mouth and it is apparent I am an immigrant from beyond the limits of the M25. If I had a pound for every time someone asked me, “So, where in the north are you from?” I’d be quite few bob better off.
You see, Londoners are a little bit obsessed about the north/south divide. And I’m not just talking about the famous Watford Junction boundary. I am talking north or south of the river. Oh yes, it doesn’t matter if you are from Camden or Chelsea, you are united in your position above the Thames, in the same way Brixton and Battersea join forces on the opposite bank.
Maybe it’s because I am an outsider, but, dare I admit it, I think my loyalties are divided. Let me explain.
When I first moved to London I lived in Streatham, and, six months later, moved into zone two, five minutes from Oval. Okay, so I spent a lot of time heading over to the dark side to meet my chums, go shopping, hang out in Soho, but I was decidedly content. Brixton had some really cool bars, Camberwell (where I worked) was rapidly catching up, and my local, the Fentiman Arms, was a real joy.
Then, five years ago I got a new job in Camden and upped sticks to Islington – and my first ever sole tenancy. After a few false starts, I got used to not having to share the bathroom with some crazy gardener who was obsessed with sheds (no joke). But... well, I missed the south. Which is ironic, considering my wider geographical roots.
This weekend, I had the opportunity to indulge in a little nostalgia. Having arranged to meet friends in my old fave the Fentiman, I first met a friend in Brixton for a coffee. With half an hour to spare before my rendezvous at the pub, I had enough time to wander down my old street... and past my old flat. Bless it, it was still there, and its lovely new tenants had put some plants outside in terracotta pots and hanging baskets. I wondered if I would have done the same if I had stayed there.
The Fentiman was as lovely as ever. In fact, it has got even better – they now have a cocktail menu and blankets out in the beer garden in case your knees get a bit chilly. As for the food, my chicken burger and choc brownie with vanilla ice cream certainly hit the spot. Ah, happy days.
The following day, back in Holloway, I went to the cinema with Him Indoors to see Attack The Block. A movie about a group of hoodies who take on an alien invasion is not the kind of thing that usually makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but I couldn’t help but feel at home when I saw Oval tube station flash up on the screen within the first few minutes.
So, am I being disloyal to my new hosting borough? Maybe. But not completely. Living where I do now, I am a bus ride away from Camden and Spitalfields market, and the 91 bus not only gets me to Kings Cross within 30 minutes, it also drops me off by the British Museum and Trafalgar Square. You can’t get better than that.
Having said that, if I were to move again, I would probably cast my eye south of the river. Okay, so it is a little further out, but it is cheaper, it has personality. It is on the edge. And at the end of the day it isn’t that much further away from London’s epicentre. Not that it relies on the West End for anything. It has a magnetic personality of its own.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


It’s Wednesday evening, and I am already knackered. This would be more excusable if I had been at work all week, but after an extended four day weekend away with friends, I really should be in tip top condition. In fact I feel like I need another four days to recover. The sad thing is it wasn’t a weekend of hardcore partying, sex, drugs and rock and roll. It was a few very pleasant days in a self catering cottage in the Cotswolds. Oh well. I must be getting old.
I had a lovely time. Hanging out with six of my favourite people was a real hoot – think homemade food, plenty of Pimms and charades – and we went to some really cool places. My personal favourites were the Cotswolds Farm Park, where I had a cuddle with a little fluffy chick and an even fluffier bunny wabbit (sorry) and watched lambs being fed by a group of awe-struck kiddies - heart warming stuff – and Kelmscott Manor where William Morris and Dante Rossetti lived and ran the Arts and Crafts Movement – inspiring stuff. Okay, so I declined the opportunity to go parachuting, but managed to get the boys into crafts (apparently glass blowing is “manly wicker”) and was on the winning team of the music quiz – and no, I didn’t cheat. And, as usual, it was a welcome break from the city.
However, I’m afraid to say although the Cotswolds are beautiful and Bourton-on-the-Water was very cute... it wasn’t for me. It is a very pretty place, but it would struggle to hold my attention for much longer than a couple of days. There are only so many villages you can wander around before they all start to look the same – think stone cottages and gift shops selling exactly the same stuff as their neighbours – and the other activities are quite limited. Okay, so I could have quite easily have spent a few days longer there and explored the local brewery and headed to Bath for the day, but I certainly couldn’t live there.
I think what I am trying to say is that looks aren’t everything. Take London for example – parts of it are pretty ugly. But it is diverse, it is alive, it has a pulse and an energy. It has such a magnetic personality that it doesn’t need thatched roofs and rose gardens. It ain’t no supermodel, but it is well read, well travelled and witty. A bit like my chums, really.
At the end of the day, my weekend away was made by good company, way too much food and a fair bit of wine. And you can have that anywhere, whether you are in the heart of the city or the middle of nowhere. So next year, I don’t really mind where we go. As long as I get to play Dominoes in the pub again.