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.