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Places to Eat in London: Around the World in Three Meals

Welcome back to my continuing mission to be the unpaid tourism board for my city.

Central London has a baffling amount of places to ingest food, most of which are good, none of which are cheap, the majority of which appear these days to be in Kingly Court at the expense of, variously, the Soho Book Exchange and any kind of shop.

Yesterday I plunged into the waters of London Cuisine to bring you a report on places to eat on the fringes of Soho: covering Japan, Mexico, and India, with a small detour into Anglo-French; looking at the deli, the chain take-away, the tea room, and the informal/haute restaurant. All of the following places are within easy walking distance of both each other and the tube. No main dish will cost you more than £20, and most of them cost less than £10.

1. The Deli: The Japan Centre, Shaftesbury Avenue.

Closest Underground Station: Piccadilly Circus is less than a minute away from the entrance.
Price range: Most dishes are under £5

Photo courtesy of Deserted World, click on image for their post

Photo courtesy of Deserted World, click on image for their post

The Japan Centre is fundamentally a deli counter and tiny food court in the middle of an import supermarket. It is accessed via a mirror-lined escalator which is just wide enough for one person, through a kind of straits between two take-away stands selling takotaki and and buns, and a row of shelves threatening you with cheap donburi bowls and cat-glazed sake cups.

Your options on arrival are to either browse the cold shelves for pre-prepared sushi, sashimi, donburi bowls, assembled throwaway bento boxes, etc, or to go up to the deli counter and ask for food from the array there, which can be heated on request. You pay at the tills, along with the people buying from the supermarket section, and get red tape on your eat-in purchases to assure staff you’re not just arbitrarily eating things off the shelves without paying for them.

As this is a food hall, don’t expect much in the way of lavish comfort. As this is a deli, also don’t expect to pay a fortune – I took a chicken katsu onigiri from the fridges, a piece of pork tempura, and a shiso salmon stick from the counter for my brunch and the whole thing came to less than ten pounds. The onigiri wasn’t even £2. You come here for food which is quick-to-immediate, very affordable, and excellent value: everything I bought was straight-up delicious and exactly the way I wanted to start my day.

Given that you’re in the middle of a supermarket there’s also pretty much an endless array of choice if you want to supplement your hot & cold purchases with packet desserts or cold puddings: the dessert fridge contains a huge selection of fresh cheesecake pots, individual mochi, and just next to it is a freezer full of tiny ice cream tubs.

Definitely the place to go for cheap Japanese food: don’t waste time and energy trying to find a branch of Yo!Sushi (similar price range) when you can come here and have something a hundred times better and spend, often, less.

2. The Take-away Chain: Chipotle, Charing Cross Road

Closest Underground Station: Mid-way between Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road
Price Range: A standard burrito is about £6.50, with guac around £8.70 (who eats burrito without guac anyway)

Photo courtesy of FluidLondon, click on image for their information/reviews

Photo courtesy of FluidLondon, click on image for their information/reviews

A warning to visitors from North America (Americans, Mexicans, Canadians): this is probably not what you’re expecting when you suffer from a burrito craving and decide to go and avail yourself of one. “It costs more than two dollars!” you cry, angrily, outside the grey frontage. “Where’s the limitless soda pump? Why isn’t this fifteen tonnes of grease and corn syrup? I QUIT.”

The elements which make this Not A Real Burrito Ugh Omg according to my American informants are however the elements that make me enjoy it.The brand here appear to be committed to fresh ingredients: the lettuce certainly is crisp and the steak chunks came to me fresh out of the fryer because the servers didn’t like the look of the ones that were already waiting in the basket. The servers: not me. Another blow for the culture of complaint! Similarly, the whole thing isn’t swimming in relentless grease, doesn’t taste of HFCS, has normal rice in it, and in general looks fairly wholesome both in its assembly and consumption. Also: is a sizeable meal for the hungry without being a watermelon-sized monstrosity. For the sake of completion I’m letting these two paragraphs stand: I was given the impression by a loud, disgusted complaint of being unimpressed as we passed the TCR branch that said American was talking about the UK iteration of the US chain (as regional variants are pretty common in chain eateries), and based on my own sad experiences of American food I filled in the gaps: she’s since explained that actually it’s Chipotle in general that fails to fuel her fire. For all I know, there’s no difference at all. There’s always Wahacca!

An ethos of fresh/vaguely healthy food isn’t for everyone – indeed, if you’re suffering from the acute need for something dirty and satisfying Chipotle probably isn’t the place for you, but there is fortunately a greasy pizza stand every three metres in this part of London so you shouldn’t despair. As to the rest of us: sit down on one of the squashy-topped stools at the brushed steel counters or stroll out onto the street with your fat burrito baby and enjoy a hot meal.

2.5 The Tea House: Camellia’s Tea House, Kingly Court

Closest Underground: Oxford Circus
Price range: a pot of tea or hot chocolate will set you back £3.50, afternoon tea is more.

In terms of ambience and cheerful, friendly service Camellia’s is a solid winner, tucked away on the top floor of Kingly Court and stuffed to the rafters with pretty tea ware, attractive cakes, tins of different teas, and helpful staff. A clear winner with the Afternoon Tea crowd, we spotted two tables of separate groups of young ladies Instagramming their towers of cake and sandwiches: as well they might, because the array was highly attractive.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of going to a speciality tea house and ordering a hot chocolate, which arrived watery and badly-mixed, with the chocolate grounds lurking malignantly in the bottom of the cup no matter how hard I stirred. This was unfortunate, as the pistachio macron I ordered with it was an exercise in restrained heaven. Caveat emptor, then, and stick to what they’re good at: tea. Though I heard no complaints about the coffee, either.

Instagramming our own tea adventure.

3. The Restaurant: Cinnamon Soho, Kingly Street

Closest Underground: Oxford Circus
Price range: around £20 maximum for a main, £8-10 for a cocktail, under £10 for a starter.

Image courtesy of the restaurant's website

Image courtesy of the restaurant’s website

No flies on Cinnamon Soho. Part of a brand which includes far more upmarket and haute cuisine offerings from the subcontinent, the Soho branch is significantly more relaxed and informal without compromising on décor (slick, black, minimal, comfortable, and intimate) or, importantly, taste.

Being somewhat full after a day of tramping around London consuming chocolate and doriyaki every three steps, the restrained portion sizes at Cinnamon were distinctly welcome, as was the unexpected two-for-ten-pounds offer on the cocktails. I opened with tandoori salmon (tender, thoroughly-cooked, crisply-spiced, served with pea purée), moved on to spinach dumplings made with paneer, in a tomato & fenugreek sauce and served with rice (crisp and delicious, with just the right amount of sauce to keep the dumplings and rice moistened but not enough to swamp them: a scientific proportion I am sure has been worked out carefully through experimentation), and finished with an excellently-poached peer served with rice kheer (which I haven’t had since I lived in the country 25+ years ago but apparently still miss) and cinnamon ice-cream, plus the mandatory smears of coulis which I can’t bring myself to mock because they genuinely did add to the flavour.

Accompanied by a long, cool Garden Martini (elderflower and cucumber, as I vainly try to guilt summer into happening), the only snag was that I’d ordered Masala mash and didn’t receive – although as by that point I didn’t have room for it and we weren’t billed for it I’d say that wasn’t as much of a problem as it could have been, and certainly not worth complaining over. Great service, from affable and unintimidating waiters (certainly compared to our last dining-out experience at Wilton’s, which was frankly too frightening to write about!), and a timely and unhurried meal was just right to wrap up a long day savouring the delights of Soho.

Save Soho

On a sadder note, a day in Soho has made it all the clearer that the area is being blasted into nothingness. There are already gaping holes in a once-familiar skyline, blank shutters on Berwick Street, and nothing new or similar to replace the emptiness. Many moons ago, ahead of the curve, The Correspondents lamented, “Oh, no, what’s happened to Soho… oh no, where did all the reprobates go?” and now the rest of the arts fraternity have caught up:

Save Soho

Don’t let a unique and important part of London turn into yet another slew of luxury investment flats for people who fail to so much as live in them.

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The Sound & Value of Silence

A little under five years ago I launched myself into a year of studying for an HNC in Music Production; almost immediately after I’d finished I got a persistent ear infection which a) continues to this day and b) has definitely robbed me of my higher-frequency hearing, basically the opposite of what you want if you’re trying to work as a sound engineer.

Both before and since then I’ve worked in a number of offices, in which I’ve worn a variety of headphones (before settling, post-HNC, on AKG K271 Mkii – ironically I have been stopped several times by sound engineers because of these headphones, as they’re apparently favoured by live sound people), for the purpose of shutting out the sounds of an office and letting me concentrate.

The coal-face of employment

Typical complaints from friends in office jobs have been that they’re too quiet and no one talks to each other.

Allow me to present my counter-argument:

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to work accurately and with speed when everyone around you is gabbling meaninglessly about what they watched on TV last night?

People bellow things to each other that could be emailed. People ask inane questions for the sake of making a noise. Phones ring. Doors slam. At my last workplace, which was a university (in which for some mad reason we were required to work in the same buildings the students despite having nothing to do with them, and to work with our office door open), the fire door continually slammed; people wandered in to yell at us about where their lectures were. Four years of intermittently working at various universities will grind down your goodwill towards seekers of further education in a way that no amount of drunken rag week incursions into evening life will ever manage.

There was a window, brief and glorious, into what work could be like: I spent a month in a basement of a research and teaching hospital, archiving their samples for shipment to a less asbestos-filled, out-of-the-way location. I worked with one other person, who sat in a different room to me: my supervisor came down once a day to check if we had enough boxes. Twice a day we crawled up the stairs to a staff kitchen where we sat in silence with tea and looked out of the window at daylight.

I am sure to the kind of people who complain of offices where no one ever talks to each other, this sounds like hell, but we did also manage to discuss perfume-making, 1980s queer literature, how to learn Spanish, and the relative merits of different types of dust mask. We just didn’t do it constantly.

Now, this year, I’ve begun another job: it is in a large, open-plan office, and there are a lot of people working on the same shift. One would expect a lot of noise, barring two things:

  1. It’s at night, and
  2. The workload is heavy.

This means that in practice, the place is more-or-less silent. People wear headphones, or they don’t, but no one starts up endless idle chit-chat. No one lurks around your desk when you’re trying to concentrate and asks meaninglessly jovial questions about your personal life. People work, and then they go home.

Cathedrals and Temple

One of the real purposes of places of worship being open between ceremonies of worship, so that any old mug can wander in, I am sure, is so that said mug can enjoy for a moment the quiet and seclusion of a place removed from daily life and from continual conversation. There is a general social agreement that we don’t raise our voices inside large stone buildings; less so in museums and art galleries, where a normal level of conversation is permissible, but in cathedrals and churches the requirements of non-disturbance hold sway. Wandering into St Lawrence Jewry out of the rain drags the wanderer out of the noise of the city (although admittedly the the City tends to be as silent as a grave on the weekends, part of its Saturday and Sunday appeal) and into hoped-for contemplation.

Meditation rooms are characterised by their silence; prayer chapels ask that we respectfully allow others to exist without being continually reminded that everyone around them has thoughts and opinions. Libraries, the highest form of temple, preserve a quiet study room into which cheerfully chatting weekday mums and excited children armed with the latest child fantasy franchise do not enter: I agree with the consensus of librarians in this country that libraries are not for miserable silence, but I applaud the decision to allow one secluded area for those of us who don’t find silence miserable at all, too.

And so on a recent history walk out of this book, I dragged my willing accomplice through the four Inns of Court and the no-longer extant former Inns of Chancery, and discovered that there are patches of silence waiting in busy, noisy London, wherever you go.

The Inns of Court seem like tiny fiefdoms, lawyerish enclaves removed from the rest of the city by enclosing buildings and roads which frequently have large wooden or metal doors drawn across them to prevent traffic from entering. They boast some of the oldest buildings in the city, and have some of the longest continuous use of any area of the city, having begun their legal trading well before the Tudor period.

At Lincoln’s Inn you may find Old Hall and its chapel (only open on weekday lunchtimes), with beautiful vaults:

Old Hall

To the South of Lincoln’s Inn and New Hall there is a bizarre and elderly pub called the Seven Stars, with a window display of satirical taxidermy, a phrase I have fallen in love with and wish to have more opportunities to abuse:

The Cabinet of Largesse

 

South again, on the Strand, there is the bewildering and ostentatious lobby of a Lloyd’s Bank, intended only as a space to hold a couple of ATMs:

Often when I’ve gone to withdraw money I’ve thought “I wish this place had a fountain and pillars and mirrors and mosaics”. Petition for more unnecessarily fancy ATM lobbies!

But it is with the Inns of Court of Inner, Middle, and Outer Temple that I wish to concern myself, because those are the places in which the whole presence of the city shrinks to the glimpse you catch on the far side of the river, and the slow indignant traffic crawling along Embankment towards and from Blackfriars. In Middle Temple lies Fountain Court, where there is:

A fountain, which is illuminated at night.

And a fascinating Tudor hall replete with the requisite garish stained glass windows and massive red and white roses: having grown up a stone’s throw from Buckland Abbey (assuming you can throw a stone about five miles, and have terrific aim), which boasts an excellent quantity of Tudor remnants, the presence of Middle Temple’s hall is quietly comforting.  When night falls, if you stand with your back to the fountain and face the river, the blue lights strung in the branches of the trees at Gabriel’s Wharf are visible as an icy fuzz below the Oxo tower.

Temple Church, a late 12th-century edifice built by the Knights Templar and restored after significant damage in WWII (a phrase you will get fucking sick of as soon as you start looking into the history of London with any interest: “significant damage in WWII”), presides over another nearby courtyard. In Pump Court, glimpsed here on Google Street View between the pillars of Pump Court Cloisters, from a vantage point beside Temple Church, red-berried trees rise from the paving slabs. It is blissfully,  perfectly silent, especially after the sun goes down.

Pump Court Cloisters, Middle Temple

Pump Court Cloisters, Middle Temple

There is something to be said for the privilege and power accrued by hundreds of generations of lawyers beavering over precedents in the same spot: it makes for elegant, undisturbed premises ripe for clearing your head.

The merit

I’ve waxed wrath and often on the topic of requiring a comforting blanket of aggressive sound to cover up the aggressive sounds of the world: the AKG K271s are a security blanket preserving the mind from unnecessary interruptions and unwanted conversation as much as they are the delivery mechanism for iPod-borne pace-setters. Noise, particularly the rhythmic and repetitive kind, has a profound neurological importance.

But constantly looking for meaning in every bang, bump, misheard mumble and distance rumble isn’t a blueprint for problem-solving, nor for planning, nor for peace of mind. Sometimes it’s necessary for whatever lies in place of a soul or a basic sense of being individually human, to have the attendant thumps and crunches of existence whittled away to bird song, or the vacant silence of an empty stone hall.

Soon it will be spring, and time for spring cleaning both home and head, and I look forward to approaching the latter in one of London’s many silent spaces.

 

 

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Small Mystery

On Sunday night, the night of what turned out to be the supermoon, the Resident Australian and I went looking for blackberries. At dusk, because obviously the best way to gather small black fruit is to wait until it’s nearly dark and then not bring a torch.

While on our largely unsuccessful mission to the nature walk, we encountered this:

What is it? We just don’t know. Is this bowl of apples, pears, grapes, and loose grain an offering to some kind of forest god? Is it some misguided and patronising attempt at feeding the homeless? Or has it been put out for the deer by someone who doesn’t know that the deer park is at the other side of the hill? What does it mean?

Filed under: content: real life, ,

Links Post May

Things Other People Have Done

  • A helpful round-up of ten comics dealing with mental illness. After visiting the comics exhibition at the British Library earlier in the month, I’ve found my interest in comics from roughly ten years ago is slowly rekindling and crawling out from the blanket of general disinterest in everything and dislike of the medium, being gently reminded that although I’m surrounded by people who consume comics solely as a superhero narrative medium, there are other uses, styles, and forms the medium takes. It is good to be reminded that sequential art has functions beyond the fannish.
  • Compiled some of London’s most celebrated independent publishers, so that I can harangue them about how much they really really want to publish me. I suspect that’s not what they intended when they made this list but that’s what it’s for now.
  • Put up a collection of photographs taken by T. E. Lawrence during the Arab Revolt so that I can stare and stare and stare at them.

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Two Brunels and a flood of sewage

This bank holiday I took the Resident Australian and her very expensive camera, and went to explore the first tunnel built under the Thames with a group of other nosy buggers, care of the London Transport Museum and, in my case, a friend who’d bought tickets and couldn’t use them.

Suited up in the same blue latex gloves I used to wear when my day day job was cataloguing dusty boxes of brain samples in a windowless basement, this time to prevent Weill’s disease from the omnipresent smattering of rat whizz, we descended undramatically down the escalators, and off the platforms onto the track.

Photos as always by J. Reilly

The tunnel runs from Rotherhithe to Wapping (or Wapping to Rotherhithe, if you prefer), and was finished in 1843 to great acclaim and a visit from approximately 50% of London’s then 2 million-strong populous. It was originally built as a goods tunnel, intended to relieve the pressure on the bridges and the ceaseless river traffic, but was only used as a pedestrian tunnel (with archways that quickly turned into the shagging grounds of London’s tireless hookers) before being sold to the railways, who extended it and ran the East London Line through it. Then the East London Line was incorporated into the London Underground, and later transformed into the London Overground. 

Interior of the Thames Foot Tunnel, mid-19th century

It took 18 years to build, thanks to a series of disasters including: a ship that dropped anchor through the roof and drowned several workers (and nearly did in Isambard Kingdom Brunel, son of the tunnel’s creator Sir Marc, and future celebrated engineer and inventor himself); running out of money (which was resolved by holding a banquet in the half-finished tunnel to raise more cash, which at my estimation after having been down there seems like a tight squeeze!); and digging time being limited by a lack of air and pockets of methane created by seepage from the sewage-choked Thames above. We were informed that a new “super sewer” was even then being built beneath our feet, carrying water below the tunnel below the river.

Just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of London you discover there’s more London underneath it.

Photo by J. Reilly

Most of this fascinating story I’d already had thanks to a book called London Under London (which I cannot recommend enough: the front cover even features the aforementioned banquet), and to Horrible Histories, but there is something to be said for hearing it all over again, especially from a cheerful and proud man with more than a little of the late Bob Hoskins about him, down an echoing hole under the river. There were six metres of mud above our heads, he said, and the tarpaulin Sir Marc used to plug the anchor-made hole in the roof so the tunnel could be pumped was, as far as he knew, still embedded in it.

London, which in the annuls of ancient cities isn’t even very old, still has so much history in it that you could waste a pleasurable lifetime studying it even without going into much detail.

J. Reilly (c)

One thing I hadn’t heard about was this: when the Royal Family – at this point consisting of Albert and Victoria – came to investigate this marvel of civil engineering, the ladies of negotiable virtue hadn’t yet moved into the archways you can just see above. Those little glimpses between the twin tunnels were instead reserved for traders, sellers of knick-knacks, gew-gaws, and general “tourist tat”. Given that the tunnel was also appallingly muddy, the seller of handkerchiefs was in luck when Queen Vic slid down to the tunnel: they were all purchased to lay in front of her royal footsies.

As our guide told it: the seller was then out of handkerchiefs and needed more stock. Being an enterprising fella, he gathered up the used hankies and began selling them as souvenirs – “as trodden on by the Queen” – a trade he kept up right until someone noticed that the muddy footprint on later hankies was that of a size 10 men’s boot.

“So there was entrepreneurship, and a little bit of fraud, too,” said Not Hoskins, with some pride. Absolutely the spirit of London, both Victorian and modern.

J. Reilly

The tunnel you see is not finished the way it was at first. The tunnel is, after all, more than 150 years old, and needs protection against wear and tear on its bricks. The story goes that the Underground surveyed the tunnel in the 00s (of the 21st, not 20th) and found it in desperate need of support. The day before a £23 million project intended to clad the tunnel in concrete was due to begin, Heritage in Parliament had the place listed as a Grade II historical building, and the whole process was set back.

The tunnel walk is a regular occurrence. This photo was taken in 2010 by Lars Plougmann.

What you can see is a compromise. The tunnel is clad, but the concrete conforms to the original shape of the tunnel. At the Rotherhithe end, the four arches that protrude out from under the river have been left as they were: blackened by coal smuts, crumbling like diseased wood, with a gas canister for the old lighting system still rusting in its alcove.

The history of London’s civil engineering advances is often a bittersweet one. Men died building this tunnel, and with the labour practices of Victorian England being what they were, I imagine their families were not well-compensated for it. The conditions were incredibly dangerous – even without the threat of drowning in the notoriously foul water of the 19th century Thames, the gas build-up in the later stages was so great that diggers had to be dragged out unconscious by their relieving shift.

Diagram of the tunnelling shield used to construct the Thames Tunnel, London. Contemporary image (19th century), probably from the Illustrated London News.

The tunnelling shield developed by Sir Marc and Thomas Cochrane made this enterprise possible at all – several attempts had already been made to tunnel the Thames and not succeeded – and was later improved by Peter W. Barlow and James Henry Greathead; the basic idea is still in use today, with tunnel boring machines replacing the labourers. The invention of the tunnelling shield in this project is almost certainly one of the developments that allowed the Underground Railway and its imitators around the world to be created.

We returned to the platform and then to the entrance hall of Rotherhithe station where, true to form, there were souvenirs on sale – as well as some hand sanitizer, for any inadvertent contact with the rats.  Both a recollection of the past, and a nice reminder of all the progress that has been made since the tunnel was built.

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Book Launch: Brown Bread Boys, A Tragedy

The time has come to let this particular manuscript into the wild! I’m very fond of this one (I’m fond of all my books, but don’t tell anyone – I hear that kind of thing comes off as arrogance in the wrong circles), and it was pretty much incredibly good fun to write from start to finish.

Hopefully it’ll be good fun to read from start to finish, too: a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar without the politics but with a chilling, ancient blood magic and feuding London gangs, replete with a diverse cast of characters and familiar places.

Cover photo by J Reilly

The King is dead: long live the King. Or so the echoes suggest. But Craig Williamson has barely murdered his way to total dominance of his London crime family when already his lieutenants are plotting against him: not greedy, just concerned. Or so they say.

One thing is for sure: whoever wins, it’s bad news for the police, who still don’t know how to prosecute or even properly investigate the gruesome, ancient blood magic used by the gun…

…even the gang themselves don’t fully understand it.

Brown Bread, Boys is available to buy in print from Amazon or Lulu, as a variety of eBook formats from Lulu (and a few other places), and as a Kindle .mobi from Amazon (UK | US) – there’s almost no end of ways you can pick up and devour this story. Except by literally picking it up and eating it, because that is a bad way to read a book.


Other books I’ve written are listed here.

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As busy as a bee

Still rather too snowed under with work to have much in the way of flashy projects to show off, or indeed time to turn idle musings into fully-fledged blog posts (for reference: a documentary about Elgar declaiming that he “wasn’t all Edwardian bombast” and the indignant questioning of “bombast” as an inherently undesirable element in classical music; a chipper documentary about the endocrine system and the history of transplants leading to the question “if you can transplant a testicle into the body of someone who’s had one removed, and it grows its own blood supply and gets back to making testosterone, what’s stopping you from putting a testicle into the body of someone who never grew one?” … apart I suppose from medical ethics; the idea that all modern epidemics and pandemics must be viewed not only as matters of microbiology and advancement of vaccines and cures but also as issues of public health and prejudice; and rather more pertinently to my life, at what point does avarice become overshadowed by indolence – i.e. does being paid for overtime necessarily reimburse the loss of hours of my life?). Also too busy to talk about the avalanche of pleasant cultural experiences I’ve managed to squeeze into the rest of my life: no time to talk about the National Theatre Live Cast of Coriolanus and challenges of watching live theatre from a cinema about ten miles away from it; no time to talk about investigating the BFI’s mediateque and watching Beautiful Thing (apparently all 20th Century queer-contemporary British films with positive endings and “Beautiful” in the title feel that beauty occurs in South East London: Beautiful Thing is set in Thamesmead, while My Beautiful Laundrette takes place largely in Lewisham), with its familiarly mid-nineties trappings and familiar landscape provoking a sense of strange, fairytale nostalgia for someone else’s adolescence; no time to talk about the progression of watching Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane, from DVD screening in 2002 to ICA in 2005/6-ish on a screen marginally larger than a big-screen TV, to February’s floor-to-ceiling screen at the BFI NFT3 (and the fact that somewhere, without intending to, I have learnt to identify Lindsay Kemp by his gait, regardless of how much make-up and how little clothing he is wearing); no time to talk about Only Lovers Left Alive, a slow and beautiful shaggy-dog story about gorgeous, disaffected vampires, that pokes gentle fun at itself and showcases the decaying beauty of Detroit and the livelier attractions of Tangier, along with my inaugural visit to the exhausting palace of staircases that is the Hackey Picturehouse; no time to mention a fantastic dinner at The Frontline Club in Paddington or their adorably-named cocktails (“That Gentleman Is Wearing Pink”); no time to mention an earlier visit to the Whisky Society and a fabulous afternoon being pretentious about spirits; no time to discuss the curious biopic of William Burroughs I accidentally bought at the ICA and blundered through in a kind of fascinated delirium; no time to talk of dragging a confused friend around London in pursuit of cocktails and finding as well badge-making kits at the Wellcome Collection, t-shirts in Soho that cost nearly £300, and that Balans Cafe will happily put the liquor of your choice in your hot chocolate without batting an eyelid… it’s a busy spring, so far, and there’s more ahead (tea parties, Edward II by the celebrated Jarman once more at the BFI, Titus Andronicus at the Globe in the summer).

I do promise that at some point in this whirlwind of actually leaving my house there will be some proper content here.

In recompense for being very dull until about, oh, April at least, here is a clipping my boyfriend took out of (possibly) The Economist, which I thought was rather cute:

bee music

Enjoy your Sunday.

 

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For Some Reason the London Tourism Board Still Don’t Pay Me: Places To Eat, Drink, and Better Yourself in London

As you might expect from someone who has an entire book case full of books about London, and has written so far two novels (one available, the other wobbling around agencies like a lost lamb) and one poetry collection (also available) about the city, I have a lot of time for the various attractions of the lands within the M25 (and usually very little time for anything that happens outside of it, my apologies to Cambridge, Oxford, Brighton, and Edinburgh, which I quite like, and absolutely no apologies to the post-apocalyptic hell-hole of Plymouth, where I grew up).

Tragically impoverished by my own decision to be an occasional data jockey and full-time fiction-pusher rather than, oh, a stock-broker or a corporate lawyer or even a nanny (I hear £32k plus living expenses is not unheard-of for baby-wranglers), I can’t always haul myself to the wonders of my city and let the glorious jewel of the South East rain down its entertainments on me, making reading Londonist.com a nightmare of temptation.

But I do leave my lair occasionally, and I like to share, so: Eat, Drink, and Better Yourself with me.

Just three recommendations, one from each category, but hopefully I’ll be able to come back and make more posts on this theme.

EAT

Have you just hurtled into Kings Cross with a moderately empty wallet and are you absolutely starving and do you definitely not want to walk ten million miles and do you like tapas? If you can fulfil the criteria “I like tapas”, you will like Camino. If you cannot for definite fulfil that criteria, Camino is probably a good place to find out if you like tapas.

I have been to the Kings Cross branch twice, and both times spent my time sheltering from the rain (welcome to England, this is our speciality) and enjoying pleasant morsels of serious flavours under a sodding big glass dome, getting friendly service, and not coming away wishing that I had some sort of private banking collective backing me for lunch.

There are however bead curtains across the toilet doors which are possibly designed to trap you in there forever.

DRINK

Have you been indulging in the weird mixture of architectural styles in the vicinity of Barbican? Do you now desperately need to sit down and have a drink and wait for your brain to process 20th Century visions of the vanished future butting up against medieval churches? Do you like gin? Most important: do you like gin?

You do like gin. Fantastic! I fucking love gin, and the Gin Joint in the Barbican Centre likes to provide gin. It has a range of exciting cocktails, most of which I hadn’t tried before, a huge array of gins, a slightly frightening price list that’s not too unusual for Central London, and unfortunately quite frosty service. If you, however, do not show up with about 20 people and a face full of piercings, the staff may be a little more forthcoming.

As an added bonus, it’s about thirty seconds away from a panoply of plays and exhibitions in the rest of the Barbican Centre, so if you feel yourself overcome with the sudden need to enjoy the arts, they’re right there.

BETTER YOURSELF

How dare you, you’re thinking. I am already a completely flawless member of the human race. You may well be an excellent specimen of Homo sapiens, but do you know anything about the history of Haringey? Do you know about the inventors, the war heroes, the artists? What about the vast organ and Prisoner of War camp at Alexandra Palace? The construction of the New River (which is neither new, nor strictly speaking a river)? Do you know about the history of Roman occupation?

If you already do then still visit Bruce Castle Museum, because it’s free, in a very sweet little building, and jammed with tiny rooms full of sudden surprises and fragments of the borough’s past that might take you very much by surprise. Worth it entirely for the hellish racket of the Jazz Bagpipe Organ alone.

Bruce Castle Museum is also right next to Tottenham Cemetery, which contains a broad slew of different mortuary styles from different eras, and a rather nice lake.

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Expectations Falling

It does my heart no good to have to give a bad review of a book, especially a book which has annoyed me by having profoundly decent ideas to go alongside its unsatisfactory execution. It does it even less good to have to compare it to books by another writer, especially when that writer is a friend of the book’s author and quoted on the cover of the book I am reviewing, praising it. However, it would be utterly short-sighted not to draw a parallel between the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell and the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Ben Aaronovitch. And I have to deal with the frustration of this book which had so much in it so poorly-presented, when it could have been brilliant.

Available from all good bookstores and several bad ones.

Indeed, in description London Falling (currently a respectable 59p on the Kindle store) sounds like exactly the sort of thing I profess to enjoy, which just goes to show that trying to describe what one enjoys reading by means of characteristics is no more useful than saying “I like steak” when one means one likes grass-fed, correctly-aged steak of a particular cut and probably only served in the right way in about five restaurants overall. The difference is, I suppose, that while one can handle mediocre steak, because it is so common, this is rather more like finding a rare dish of a specific recipe and having it made by someone whose tastebuds aren’t aligned the way yours are.

For further disclosure, I found Paul Cornell’s two-parter on Doctor Who – Human Nature and The Family of Blood – almost the strongest of that season and certainly some of the better stories told since the return of that show to British screens in 2005. But he is out of kilter with my reading preferences, and I am about to explain why, with a certain number of spoilers, and comparisons to Ben Aaronovitch and Neil Gaiman which the author (who shouldn’t be reading this anyway) and his fans may find annoying and/or insulting.

The book follows the progression of a case through a series of established policemen, beginning in media res. That is to say, there’s no jumping-in point, no hand-holding, and no introduction, which I normally quite enjoy. There is, however, also no handle to be got on any of the protagonists, which makes it a little harder to like.

James Quill, the head of the operation, has a series of characteristics apparently pulled from the “honest copper” bin of clichés and nothing that differentiates him as a person, even after he gains “the Sight” and an unexplained and frequently dangerous insight into the malignant, magical city that lies below/beyond/through the physical one. Lisa Ross, the data analyst and eventual sacrificial hero, driven by a fairly standard-issue need for vengeance for her father (you will note no heroic woman ever wants to avenge her mother), has no other characteristics, no other desires, and like Quill no personality. They barely even have voices: with the attributions removed, I can’t tell one character from another for most of the book.

Tony Costain, the requisite reluctant hero/bad boy, similarly has no real personality aside from a desire for self-preservation and an ego which apparently vanish for most of the book in order to further the plot; Kev Sefton, the knight in shining armour and token nod to the existence of queer characters, goes on the hero’s quest for enlightenment, dumps a lot of exposition, and gets into a relationship in which he confides almost immediately every feature of his case in a dude he picked up in a bar. Sefton is described as having a posh accent that he slips into, of which there is no actual sign in the text.

I read stories for their characters first and foremost. A strong set of character voices is imperative in forming an emotional connection with the characters and in London Falling it is almost entirely absent. This is frustrating as all hell because there are some excellent ideas and some very solid world-building in here, but the overall tone of the book is cold. By comparison, the Rivers of London series provides a human warmth, set of weaknesses, and easy handle on all the human characters, and even the strange and esoteric creatures which pass through the world have glitches and points of interest.

There are other problems with the book, which ordinarily would have been nagging problems but not major ones: combined with the lack of character warmth and connectivity they became gaping. For example: in the Rivers of London books and Neverwhere, the fantastical London which lies within and through the London in which most people dwell is primarily neutral. It has its own laws, it can be extremely dangerous to those ignorant of them, but it is not malignant. In London Falling, the world which lies across ours is not fairyland, but Hell. The adversary of the overall arc of the Rivers of London books – and this is one of the things that really connected for me – is not a demon, not The Devil, but a human being who has become greedy for power. Something mundane, a form of evil with which we are all familiar, and which instead of excusing the greed and evil of mortal men by providing something bigger only underscores how rotten it is.

However, I can take fiction where the adversary is not mortal: in Neverwhere, Door and Richard Mayhew face a fallen angel, which is a pretty clear code for The Adversary in anyone’s eyes. In another of my favourite and not-exactly-well-written supernatural detective series, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, the adversary is again the lord of Hell: but the humanity of all its characters – including the grotesques – and the broadness and mundanity of the world, are preserved.

London Falling takes elements of traditional London storytelling: old Hob, a wicked witch, football legends, ghost stories, the power of the city, a hero’s vision quest, and the eternal copper. It lines them up together in a plot which makes good narrative sense and which hits all the major points at the right pace: but it feels both slow and rushed at the same time. The characters don’t speak from the heart, but are vehicles for the story, rather than driving it. There are times in which the narrative appears to be trying too hard to elicit a feeling that it doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary to instil; moments in which the reader feels more like the jaded coppers standing outside the horror with no connection than perhaps they ought.

Most of all, this doesn’t seem to have any love for the city in it. Rivers of London and Neverwhere, Memoirs of a Master Forger (William Heaney), among others, fairly throb with affection for the metropolis in which they’re set. The story has been coalesced from the sense of unreality and history and Something Bigger which I think affects almost anyone who spends much time here, looking at the past poking through the present in unexpected places and in incongruous ways. It is natural as breathing for any writer to look at London and think of the mystical past affecting the rational present. But Paul Cornell’s writing doesn’t betray any kind of love for his subject matter, and that I think is what really affects the tone of the book more than anything else.

The alternative London captured in his pages is Hell; the London Sefton enters via a number 7 with a London Charon is empty; the Londoners of our reality are aggressive and stupid and moved only by tabloid thinking; there is nothing but contempt and anger, and if that’s real sum of London I’d be surprised.

There are other ways to make a horrific story boil out of a city than by failing to appreciate the picture that its uglinesses and beauties give rise to, and I don’t think I’ll be expending money or energy on the sequels to this book.

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What happens to this book is up to you

I now have a complete/final draft of my most recent finished novel, Brown Bread, Boys. It’s a retelling of Julius Caesar, with some fairly major alterations: it’s set in contemporary London, in the power struggle of an organised crime family seeking to control, among other things, the gory trigger sites of a poorly-understood form of powerful magic.

There are three options for this manuscript.

  1. The usual: I make it available for purchase on Lulu.com (and therefore eventually Amazon, the iBook store, etc) and the various Amazon Kindle sites. Very few people find out about it this way, because word-of-mouth marketing doesn’t work for me; I risk nothing, but gain a small amount.
  2. The print run: I do a subscriber run, and if fifty people put money up front they get special editions of the book. I then have a few over to put into shops who take books from independent publishers, and hopefully a few more people get to see the book. (I also put it up on Lulu etc some time later, but it will cost more than the print run copies will).
  3. The traditional: I write a query letter and start shopping the book to publishers. This means no one will be able to buy it for a while (until it either gets publisher or I get sick of it and go for option 1 or 2), but, as with any real gamble, stands a very very very slim chance that someone will see potential in what I think is a pretty good book, and then lots of people will hopefully get to read it.

So, what do you think? Which option should I gravitate towards? How much potential does the book I’ve just described have?

Filed under: content: publishing, , , , , , ,

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