Monday, 28 March 2011

City Sights... For Sore Eyes

I often find myself saying to my harassed colleagues, my stressed sister and my frazzled friends, “Life just gets in the way, doesn’t it?” And although I might say it with a wry smile on my face, it’s true. I admit that my attempts at being Superwoman (trying to write a book, investigating setting up my own business, going to the gym, cooking for friends, keeping the flat decent etc) often mean that I neglect the part of me that likes to explore London, wander around the shops and poke about museums for no particular reason other than because, well, I fancy it. This weekend, however, I had an excuse to do just that. A friend from Up North came down for the weekend. Last week I spent a bit of time investigating what was happening around town and emailed her a few suggestions. So, when she arrived at Kings Cross we headed down to the Museum of London to see the popular London Street Photography exhibition. Luckily we only had to wait fifteen minutes to get in and had a good old chin wag about my friend’s ambition to study photography as we peered at the sepia prints. Our artistic needs met, we trotted down to Bank to meet a City Guide who took us on a “Spooktacular” tour of the area. Wandering through the narrow streets in the oldest part of London (and coming across some very peaceful and beautiful churchyards in the process) whilst listening to chilling tales of apparitions, devils and poltergeists made a refreshing change and reminded me how interesting the history of the city I live in actually is. The following day we headed down Holloway Road to mooch around a small craft market in a pub. Unfortunately the Horatia had been swamped with football fans having a swift pint or three before a friendly at Arsenal, so we didn’t see much nor stay for Sunday Lunch. However I made a mental note to pop down again soon and my Scotsman-loving friend got to eye up lots of young men in kilts. We jumped on the Piccadilly Line to South Kensington and made our way to the Natural History Museum. Although not really my cup of tea it was nice to wander around such an impressive old building and, although we both agreed that some of the exhibits we in dire need of updating, my teacher chum got some inspiration for her next topic at school. Our thirst for knowledge (well, childish desire to see dinosaurs anyway) satisfied, we walked to Kensington High Street for a bit of retail therapy. After a well deserved Chai Tea Latte and slice of Rocky Road we hit the shops. It was a joy to splash the cash in an area of London that I don’t visit very often – usually if I need the high street it is Oxford Street, just for its convenience rather than enjoyment. High Street Ken felt decidedly more civilised – even pleasant. By the time I waved my friend off on her train at Kings Cross I was knackered. Yet somehow, refreshed. The good weather was sure to have helped, but spending a weekend doing nothing but exploring the city and taking advantage of its free museums was certainly food for the soul. We have already decided that next time she comes down we are going to go to the Tower of London and I am going to investigate 2 for 1 offers. However, I know that I won’t be leaving it so long to enjoy London purely for the sake of it, whether it is finally getting up to Highgate Cemetery or wandering down Brick Lane on a Sunday afternoon. After all, it is all very well doing all these worthy things in my free time, but at the end of the day, there is more to life than keeping fit, cooking amazing meals and finally finishing “the novel.” Not that I am going to give up my pursuit for perfection, you understand. But every now and then I am going to give myself a day off and go explore. Just as soon as I have proof read this blog…

Monday, 21 March 2011

Nice Day for a White Wedding?

You know what? Despite my grumbling, there are things about London that I really love. Having grown up in a very small, white town (I think there was one black kid in my school of 1,000 pupils) that would give Midsomer Murders a run for its money, I have to say I really appreciate the capital’s diversity – and not just when it comes to our cultural backgrounds. Spirituality, sexuality, general philosophy… nowhere I have ever lived before has offered me such a wide range of views and beliefs when it comes to life, love and everything in between.
When I think about my girl pals I have in London, I see a wide range of women from all corners of the globe – Mauritius, Jamaica, France, Australia to name a few – who have very different ideas about what they want from life, and how they should live it. A lot of them are around my age, and many of them have been in relationships with their other halves for a long time. Which inevitably means that more than a handful of them are married – or planning a jaunt down the aisle in the very near future. And I am pleased to report that, in true London style, they all have very different ways of going about it.
I have mixed feelings about marriage. Firstly, I have seen way too many of my friends get divorced. Secondly, the thought of spending oodles of money to have everyone stare at me for 24 hours sends a shiver down my spine. Thirdly… well I don’t think I see the point in this day and age. Having said that, I still get excited when a friend flashes me a diamond on their finger and relish the idea of buying a posh frock and getting doled up for the day. But having spoken to three girls over the last couple of weeks about their experience of planning and actually going through the day in question, I am starting to feel more than a little apprehensive for anyone who tells me they have exciting news. And, quite honestly, even less inclined to consider it myself.
Take friend number one, a feisty Sheila from Down Under. She loves her fiancé to pieces and cannot wait to settle down with him and start a family. It has been tricky to arrange her own special day from the other side of the planet but, with the help of her girls back home and the wonders of the internet she is getting there. The only problem is her parent’s expectations. A couple of months back she got into an argument with her mother about not inviting a couple of her parent’s friends. It came to a head when her mum proceeded to tell her that she would not enjoy the wedding if my friend did not invite them. Ouch! Said friend is now hardly talking to her mother and has the prospect of getting married with a rift within the family hanging over her head.
Last week I had coffee with a lass I met last month who has recently moved to London from Up North. In passing I mentioned my friends’ predicament. She nodded sympathetically and told me that her mum was hardly speaking to her since they had a misunderstanding about bridesmaid dresses for her special day last year. Her parents had offered to get the dresses made, and when they went horribly wrong, told her they didn’t want to have anything to do with it anymore. So my girl went out and sorted the frocks out herself. Apparently on the day that she got hitched her parents weren’t even speaking to each other because of this. Her sister has since told her that it was all her fault for making them feel guilty about the whole debacle. Er, hello? What else was the poor girl supposed to do, have her bridesmaids walk down the aisle in a last minute purchase from Topshop?
Even more complicated than the guest list and dresses is the question of religion. Does one get married in a church or down the registry office? A good friend of mine who is part Spanish, part French and part English has just got engaged to her partner of 13 years after he returned home following a long period working abroad. She is clearly thrilled despite never being that bothered about marriage. Sadly her excitement has already been tarnished by her in-laws-to-be expectations. My friend is a spiritual woman but does not identify herself as a Christian. Her fiancé’s parents have already made it clear they expect her to marry their son in a church, or at least by a vicar. Naturally she is not comfortable with this and, by saying so, has already been accused by her other half of resisting the whole process. I suggested that they could compromise and have their marriage blessed (as one of my now-divorced friends did). My friend let out a sigh, relieved that there may be a solution after all. But, only weeks after saying yes, she is struggling to meet the wants of family around her, without even having time to think about what she wants from her big day.
So, if you are thinking about getting hitched, be prepared – it would appear to be even more complicated than it looks. And, if you have a pal who has just flashed you a giant rock on her hand, get ready to be there for her. Your friend might be about to get the shock of their life. So, before you go green with envy at their new-found happiness, just thank your lucky stars for being in the position to call yourself single. For the time being, anyway...

Monday, 14 March 2011

When Two Tribes Go To War...

I am sure I have mentioned it before, but this July I will have lived in London for ten years. That’s pretty much a third of my entire life, and my whole life outside of full time education. A significant chunk, to say the least.
But, although people (mainly those who live outside of the capital) often ask me if am one, this does not make me a Londoner. Oh, no. To be a Londoner you have to have been born and bred here, and even those who have migrated to the Big Smoke at a young age and live here until the day they die cannot give themselves this title. There’s no point even trying – Londoners can spot a foreigner a mile away. Even before I open my mouth and prompt the question, “So what part of the north are you from?”, my country ways give me away, whether it is saying “thank you” to the bus driver or “bless you” to the lady who sneezes next to me in the queue at Tesco’s.
It’s not that I am saying Londoners are rude, but that they have had it installed within them from birth to look after themselves and protect their personal space from the onslaught that is city life, in the same way that a farmer has become closely attuned to the weather in order to protect his livelihood.
But, what fascinates me most is that there are different tribes within London. Some of them are better known than others. The Sloane Square rich kids, dripping in Pringle as they drive daddy’s car to Polo practice. The Cockney market stall holders, selling their jellied eels and knock-off electrics in the East End. Camdenites who hang around the Lock, showcasing their green Mohicans and inked skin. The Angels, Blackberries clasped to their ears as they rush from board meeting to networking event to wine bar.
Interestingly, these tribes do not seem to mix well with outsiders. As always, I have examples.
First of all, there are the Hampsteadites. They are rich. Very rich. This gives them the freedom to dabble in the Arts, and, when the pursuit of fame and recognition fails to meet up to their expectations, they come up with an even worthier solution: To use their Craft to help the disadvantaged.
I have come across a few of these Hampsteadites in the last year. Don’t get me wrong, they are lovely people and in a way I envy their earnest desire to do good. Unfortunately they often don’t have a clue how the real world works. This can become problematic for them when they are dealing with the aforementioned underclass and those who work with them. The said youth are often even more cynical of the Hampsteadite than I am, but even if this hard outer shell is broken down, the Hampsteadite then has to deal with the professionals who work with London’s underground. And that means meeting targets, writing proposals and honouring contracts.
Luckily the Hampsteadite has been brought up to believe in themselves. They are not easily swayed by such red tape. They march on regardless, sure of themselves and their cause. Again very commendable, but more than a little tiresome for those who are bound by the system and are trying to secure their funding for the next financial year.
The Shoreditch Crowd are comparable to the Hampsteadites whilst at the same time being very different. They too are rich and choose to pursue the Arts over more conventional career choices. The main difference is that the Shoreditch Crowd aren’t put off by financial failure. They like to slum it and their artistic hunger feeds off London’s grit. They don’t give a damn what other people think of them and don’t care to mix with those who don't share their disdain for convention.
Last week I went to a pub quiz arranged by a group of literary feminists. As soon as I walked into the hosting establishment I realised I was entering into the realm of the Shoreditch Crowd. It is hard to describe their look beyond “edgy” – think blunt, boyish haircuts, mismatched charity shop clothes and a look of contempt for anyone who could be considered “mainstream”. The quiz itself only confirmed my fears – the music round was beyond obscure and the literature questions decidedly arthouse. Needless to say, dressed in my denim miniskirt and Topshop jumper, I didn’t fare too well.
So, if you are new to London (or are due a visit), look out for the numerous tribes that roam within the boundaries of the M25. They are numerous and often difficult to spot at first, but once you get attuned to their existence you will be able to pick them out without much difficulty and take appropriate measures to move through their territory without any harm coming to you.
And, if you already live in London or are indeed a Londoner? I’m sure that you recognise the London tribes as well as I do. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you have been indoctrinated into one already...

Monday, 7 March 2011

Things Can Only Get Better...

I’m not going to lie to you. I have been a really grumpy cow over the last couple of weeks. I admit it, not knowing if I still have a job or not did not suit my anxiety (or irritability) levels much at all. But things are looking up.
Today I found out that I have managed so secure employment – for the next 12 months, anyway. Okay, so it isn’t my dream job, but it pays well, and I can work on my exit strategy to something that really floats my boat whilst my savings build up over the coming months. Although not exactly excited, I am certainly relieved and very thankful that I am not going to be added to the already overflowing unemployment line.
But, you know what? That isn’t the only reason I am feeling good.
Yesterday I went out with Him Indoors to see a photography exhibition. One bad decision and a very long bus ride later we arrived to learn that they were not letting anyone else in for another two and a half hours. Him Indoors huffed and puffed. He didn’t want to hang around and didn’t fancy my suggestion of going for a wander and coming back later. With a heavy heart I gave up and negotiated a walk to Spitalfields market instead. Him Indoors reluctantly agreed.
By the time we got to our destination, both our moods had improved. Yes, we were absolutely freezing, but the sun was shining. Added to this was the enjoyment of our walk. You see, the City to me is a pocket of London that really feels, well, Londony. Yes, it has its ugly concrete tower blocks and corporate skyscrapers, but it also has its grand Victorian banking institutions and the odd centuries old church or industry cottage squatting among the grandeur. It is London at its best – eclectic, diverse, interesting, exciting.
By the time we got a (more direct) bus home, I was feeling tired, but satisfied. I had had a good mooch around the market and was feeling energised by the buzz – and the sun’s occasional appearance. When we got home I updated my playlist on my IPod to reflect my new feeling of optimism. The day before I had cleared out a lot of old junk and spent the afternoon online, not just playing about on Facebook but looking up college courses and building up my professional network. Things were starting to look up.
So, today I am looking forward to my walk home, not just because I can now justify that handbag from Topshop and a mini bottle of Cava. But because the sun is shining, and London has reminded me why I like it so much at a time when it was really needed. I might not be living the dream yet. But I am still living somewhere where dreams are nurtured and creativity welcomed. I just need to keep that in mind when I start my new job next month. Please don’t let me forget :-)