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.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Mary Mary Quite Contrary

It’s official. Summer is well and truly on its way. We’ve had two glorious Bank Holidays and, even though it’s been threatening to chuck it down for a little while, we haven’t had enough rain to stop us enjoying the Great Outdoors.
Of course, enjoying the Great Outdoors is a bit of a challenge in good old London Town. And I’m not just talking about the reported smog we had over Easter. I am talking space. Oh yes, it is at a premium, and even more so when the sun comes out to play. The parks become rammed with Londoners desperate to catch a few rays on their lunch break and the trains heading out overflow with city dwellers gasping for air.
But I have a confession to make. I am one of the lucky ones. Yes, I too like to escape once in a while and visits to friends and family out of town are welcome breaks from the madness. But I have my own little haven. My terrace. Okay, so it isn’t exactly Kew Gardens, but I love it. What’s even more amazing is that, even though I have what most estate agents would rub their hands at with glee, my rent is only ten quid a week more than what I paid for the flat upstairs before I moved nearly two years ago. And, you guessed it; it didn’t even have a balcony.
This Christmas I received a lot of garden-related gifts and last month I started to plant a variety of seeds, from salad to courgette to several herbs. I know I am not the most green fingered of people, but seeing my labours come to fruition gives me a real sense of satisfaction. Pottering outside, even if it is just watering my pots or picking out a few weeds, has become my favourite way to wind down after a day at work. Last week I decided to add to my collection and bought a Gerbera plant, some Heather and Sunflower seeds to add a bit of colour. On Friday I dug out my solar lights and dusted off the chimnea.
Needless to say I was more than a little bit pleased with myself when my friends came to stay this weekend. Sitting outside on Saturday evening with a glass of wine was a real treat and I kicked off the barbeque season on Sunday with a Moroccan feast of salad, couscous, chicken and lamb meatball kebabs.
Tonight I noticed the first flower on my strawberry plant as I filled up a potato grow bag with compost and nestled in half a dozen sprouting potatoes. My salad leaves are multiplying, my fig tree is looking even greener than last year and my seedlings are looking better every day. I can’t wait to sit down at my little mosaic table to my first home grown salad of the year, followed by fresh strawberries and cream.
Ah. Happy days!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Just Do It

I have a confession to make. Tonight I have been to college. No, not to improve my IT skills or to learn a new language, but to learn how to sing.
I have another confession to make. On Friday, I have a cycling lesson. Not to improve my technique and to make me safer on the roads, but to learn how to cycle. Nope, I never learned how to ride a bike as a kid. And yes, I am doing something about it at the grand old age of 31.
You see, recently I have come to the conclusion that it is about time that I get around to doing all the things that I really want to do, or think it is about time I got to grips with. I always loved singing at school, and although I know I will never win the X Factor, I would love to have the confidence to belt out a power ballad or two in a karaoke bar. So, a couple of months ago I searched the net and enrolled at the Working Men’s College in Camden. So far I am loving it, even if I seem to spend more time laughing than singing. As for the cycling, well, after over eight years of having the mickey taken out of me by Him Indoors, I decided it was about time I got myself in the saddle. Okay, so I doubt that I will start cycling around London to work every day, but at least I will be able to wobble around Centre Parcs when I go on my jollies. And the added bonus? My council are providing me with up to four hours of tuition absolutely gratis.
So, what has happened? Why have I suddenly started to do all these weird and wonderful things? Well, I think there are a lot of factors to it. One is suddenly finding myself in my thirties and in a job that makes me go “meh” rather than “WOOHOO!” Another is the wakeup call the possibility of redundancy gave me earlier this year. But mainly I think it has been the “sod it” attitude that I have developed over recent months.
You see, I have come to the conclusion that, if you don’t give it ago, you will never know. How will I know if I can sing or ride a bike unless I give it a try? Okay, so the ability to warble along to Celine Dion or wobble along a bridle path in the middle of the Cotswolds is not going to change my life. But learning how to set up my own business and attempting to write a novel? Well, who knows what could happen?
I can’t say that I have got to this state of mind completely on my own. About 18 months ago I went to my first “More To Life Than Shoes” meeting and, before I knew it, I had committed to writing 1,500 words of my “long piece” every week. Over a year later and I am now on my second edit. Slowly but surely, I am producing a piece of writing that, even if it doesn’t even get sniffed at by a publisher, I can be proud of and say, I did that.
It doesn’t stop there. In March I went to a London Business Link seminar about setting up your own business. You see, I dream of opening my own cafe one day and had come to the conclusion that it was about time I dip my toes into the business world. So I have decided I will try out the concept by selling some of my crafty work on the internet and at market stalls around London. I admit, I haven’t got far with it yet, but it is a work in progress. And, you never know, I might even sell something.
Full of enthusiasm I then turned to my old favourite – the “self help” book. I am in the throes of “Creating a Life Worth Living” with Carol Lloyd and have just finished “More To Life Than Shoes” by Nadia Finer and Emily Nash. Written by two of the founders of the support network, it explores how women have overcome various obstacles to get where they really want to be in life, whether that is as a speaker in the House of Commons, a fighter pilot or a novelist. And, even if you don’t fancy any of the career paths the 100 women interviewed for the book have followed, you will be inspired by how they got there, whether they had to fight sexism in the workplace, juggle their career with family commitments or overcome their greatest fear.
So, whatever you feel like doing, wish you had tried or have never got round to, just do it. Okay, I am not suggesting you jack in the day job just yet, but put the feelers out, do some research on the net, enrol on that college course, get inspired by others. In London alone there are dozens of colleges, social groups and life coaches who can give you the help that you need to try it out and say you gave it ago. And okay, so you might fall off your bike, but you can pick yourself up again and always try skateboarding instead.