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Reviews: Rainshader Umbrella

As a British person, certain problems obsess me. One is the weather: there are few truer steretotypes than the idea that the Briton is continually preoccupied with meterology. Explanations to the effect that our weather is robustly changeable have been tendered. Personally I think the complete lack of decent heating makes me reluctant to be caught in the rain, but the fact stands: I’ve spent a dog’s age trying to find a umbrella that meets with my requirements.

  1. I can carry it about, while not in use, without my hands. There is no point in having a brolly which incapacitates me, especially one which I will almost inevitably leave on a bus or on the tube when I need it most.
  2. It doesn’t immediately slow me down by acting as a bloody sail and turning itself inside-out constantly. I’ve missed trains before through trying to struggle to the station without becoming a solid collection of waterlogged clothes, as my arsehole of an umbrella celebrated every intersection by trying to escape my clutches and dance off down the street. A lot of brollies bill themselves as windproof, but few actually are.
  3. City-dweller special: in the name of all that’s holy, I need to be able to both see where I’m going and not jab people in the eyeballs with a selection of metal spikes.
  4. I’ve owned a clear plastic dome umbrella before so my further requirement is that any prospective umbrella does not tear, bend, puncture itself, or render itself unusuable as quickly as possible.

This does seem like quite a reach. I’ve looked at all kinds of peculiar geometry, pocket umbrellas, the Nubrella in which one  just encases one’s head and shoulders in a bloody bubble for the hands-free carrying experience… I’ve had a Fulton Dome knock-off that punctured itself, a light-up handle one like out of Bladerunner which almost instantly went out of alignment, a clear orange one which melted by a radiator, a pocket one which got kicked the length of Kings Cross Station and abandoned after its persistent shenanigans made me miss the train home after work… umbrellas and their bitchy attitudes, losability, and failure to umbrell have been the bane of my pedestrian existence, in short.

Enter Rainshader, a British umbrella company who specialise in umbrellas for festivals and sporting events.

The Panoramic Model

They’re dome-shaped, allowing others nearby to exist in harmony with their eyeballs still in their sockets, reducing the lip under which the wind can intrude, and channelling rain and wind abruptly downward.

They’re clear at the front, meaning I can see where the goddamn hell I’m going, and to the side just by rotating the umbrella a little in my hand, even when I’ve pulled the thing down low over my head. As an added bonus, as I discovered while trying to wrestle with my phone at the Kyoto Garden at Holland Park, you can also balance them on your head and stay dry, which is more than can be said for the conventional umbrella.

They’re vented, meaning that wind that does get under the canopy gets out again without causing strife, and have a handle fitted to your hand so that the likelihood of being divested of your brolly in a gust is dramatically reduced.

They come in a sheath that has an adjustable strap, allowing you to wear it across your back like a flipping sword, and meaning you can combine hands-free with active badassery.

On the downsides, my stupendously massive rucksack sticks out the back of the tidy circumference of the brolly and gets wet, and the scooped-out front means that wind occasionally blows rain directly into my legs. Delightful Boyfriend complains that he feels like Michael Keaton in the Batsuit when turning his head at road crossings, but overall Rainshader, at twenty-five quid, is at the perfect intersection between utility and affordability.

ALL HAIL THE BROLLY OVERLORDS.

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Tiny Product Reviews

Things have been busy. I passed my probation at work, which is nice, so here is some of the stuff I’ve been spending my money on:

Blender Bottle Go Stak Starter Pack

As part of my mission to hunt down the most convenient and least space-consuming equivalent of a bento box, I acquired these. Enormously useful: one helping of yogurt will fit into the second-largest pot a little TOO exactly. So far so good: easy to clean, easy to transport, leakproof, easy to dismantle.

gostak
Bubi bottle

Roll-up silicone bottle with clip and retainer. So far okay. It doesn’t retain fizz in carbonated drinks and imparts a slightly weird taste, and has leaked a couple of times presumably due to the weight of liquid pulling the bottle out of the closure ring: I have yet to test claims that it is a) microwaveable, b) flame-resistant, c) great as a cold or hot compress, d) good for waterproofing electronics. I would be more confident doing that had the aforementioned leaking not occurred. On the plus side, it rolls up when empty to take up almost no space and the 400ml one, which I have, fits in a pocket in that state.

Compleat Foodbag

A massive disappointment. It might very well be a great, waterproof way of transporting your food which packs down small and doesn’t let things get crushed. I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been able to get the strap around the to to remain closed over the fold when there is anything inside it whatsoever, thus rendering it pretty much useless.


Skorpion Skates.

I have Quadline Street Skates, as mentioned in this brief update, and I am increasingly pleased with them as I get better at using them. The suspension leads to a weird noise, and they do take some getting used to, particularly if you’re used to skates with a toe stop; but so far they’ve been durable, comfortable, not too hard to get the hang of, and easy to put on and remove. Sooner or later I plan on using them to get to and from the station on my way to work, but that’s definitely going to have to wait until I’ve figured out hill stops and am not so stymied by uneven paving slabs.

Skorpion Skates

 

Aromhuset drinks flavours, coffee flavours, sweetener.

The answer to my perennial and evolving question: how can I make drinks taste better without consuming any extra calories? Elderflower and sucralose added to sparkling water gives me elderflower presse as sweet or not-sweet as I want it and is pleasantly portable; the range of coffee flavours works just as well in tea or hot chocolate. The coffee flavours come with a pipette; the entire business fits into a tiny kitchen drawer and causes no further bother. Exactly what I was looking for.

Lekue Cooking Bag

Lekue? Yes, I’m sorry, I’m middle-class and occasionally that fact refuses to remain as discreetly hidden as it ought. We shall not dwell upon what horrors I have acquired in the tiny kitchen my flat is equipped with, but this is not the only Lekue item I own.

It isn’t bad: the primary use so far as been to marinade fish, which could be easily achieved in a bowl, I suppose. Also to cook fish after marinading them in, in the microwave, for which it is very convenient. I rather hear it’s good for freezing things as well, giving rise to the possibility of removing something from the freezer, defrosting it, and cooking it (and probably eating it) all from the same silicone bag. Not so bad.

Nothing But… (fig and apple)

I’d already tried their savoury snacks – the sweetcorn and pea, the peapod and red pepper, and found them a conscience-salving alternative to crisps, even if the sweetporn and pea packs were somewhat difficult to eat at times. Freeze-dried vegetables are all very well, but freeze-dried fruit struck me as a lightweight way to satisfy a sweet craving and potentially just story fruit until I was ready to eat it.

I was right about that: this is delicious, weighs less than a bag of crisps, and in combination with a GoStak section full of yogurt and a couple of hours in the fridge at work the fruit rehydrates as if fresh and I have a tasty, healthy snack. Strongly recommended. I shall report back on the beetroot and parsnip chips when I have the opportunity to try them.

Bear Fruit Yoyos

I discovered recently that the name for the stuff these are made out of is “fruit leather”, which is a wildly unappetising term for what is in fact a wholly delicious substance. It basically tastes of highly concentrated fruit, because that it what it’s made of, and has a chewy, tacky texture. It comes in rolls – like the old-style liquorice “Catherine Wheels”, and keeps me both entertained and fed on 2-mile walk back to the station at around 6am after work. Frankly, I could ask for little more, but apparently one packet also constitutes one of your 5-a-day and frankly I could very easily eat five packets a day of these.

Kid-Stop Adult Strap On Heelys

Easy to resize, easy to put on, fun to look at, FLASHING LIGHTS. Downside: they are going to take a lot of practice to get used to – heel skating is something I have no experience with and unlike conventional skates there is no axle give so you can’t really steer by throwing your weight around.

Obviously as someone who loves throwing their weight around, this presents rather a challenge!

EatWater Slim Pasta Penne

I love pasta. Loved pasta, I should say, since I basically never get to eat it now except in witheringly tiny quantities. It’s a staple food for a lot of reasons and one of those is that it imparts a lot of energy, which is great if you’re working in a field all day and less great if you a sedentary PR monkey who spends their life either swearing at the news or finding new ways to avoid movement. EatWater doesn’t sound like a very appetising brand and when I first tipped these out of a packet I’d bought from Holland & Barrett my initial response was “slugs”.

However. They cut down on the cooking time of ordinary pasta-and-sauce significantly, and mean that I can have a much more tasty sauce than I would ordinarily be able to (pro-tip: add a Knorr stock pot to pasta sauce while you’re cooking it), and when thoroughly cooked in the sauce – well, the texture isn’t too dissimilar to well-cooked pasta. Granted, I prefer pasta more al dente, but I liked it enough to buy another five packets.


Other products I should be able to review soon include the Tube Vault, the Charge Card, and maybe even the DL58 bluetooth printer if I can ever get the stupid thing to cooperate with any of my devices. If you’ve a strong desire to see me review something in particular and help me out at the same time my Amazon wishlist is here and here and here. If you have products you’d like me to review (in more depth) then get in contact at [myname]@gmail.com

 

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BurgerBurger, A Concept Brought To You By Insomnia

Everyone is, I assume, already aware of the bitter burger battles. Waged between ones’ friends, the apparently ceaseless and bemusing as hell wrangle over In ‘N Out vs Habit burger joints has spilled out of California where it belongs and spread to encompass Five Guys, as typified by a spread in A Popular Marvel Comics Title which had Clint Barton and Spider-man squabbling about the relative burger benefits. Even a Kiwi friend of mine has pitched in, blurting that Murder Burger is the best selection of additions to a patty of minced meat that the planet can offer.

I’m growing kind of tired of burger chains. Years ago I was briefly excited by the first Byron Burger place, because the burgers were genuinely a cut above the usual glurge, and Hache’s gourmet burgers are worthwhile, but since then everything has either been “okay” or “why are you wasting my time with this rubbish”, and nothing has lived up to the hysterical Twitter hype.

Recent months have seen the aforementioned spat movement into comics, a disappointing visit to the much-lauded Shakeshack in Covent Garden, and a report from Delightful Boyfriend that Five Guys was “nothing to write home about”. I’ve quizzed the sparring Californians (North vs South, of course) and the Kiwi and the other burger noisemakers and much to my perennial disgust have discovered that none of them are even arguing about the burgers.

They’re arguing about the “fixings”. The accoutrements. About Animal Style. About beetroot. About sauces. About, in short, Not-Burger. Personally when I’m squandering precious calories on burger, what I care about is the burger, but this kind of meat puritanism is, I am assured, the province of Beard Hipsters With Stupid Tattoos Who Care Too Much About Cow Lineage.

This suits me, as but for the shocking lack of testosterone and agricultural college qualifications, I am a Beard Hipster With Stupid Tattoos Who Cares Too Much About Cow Lineage.

Tuesday night my brain/melatonin levels hadn’t quite recovered from the rigours of a week on night shift being disappointed by the national press in exchange for coins, and I was awake between the hours of 1am and 5am inclusive, pondering the nature of existence and, repeatedly, burgers.

Pop Up London

A thing has happened in recent years, to my city.

The rents have turned into the kind of deranged joke that boggles the fucking mind and which ought to be left on April Fool’s along with ideas like “UKIP Majority”; it’s murdering Chinatown, done away with Food For Thought (a forty-year-old vegetarian restaurant in Seven Dials), and will probably hasten the end of Soho if property developers and Crossrail don’t nail the coffin shut first.

Because the denizens of this rat hole are historically enterprising and inventive people, we’ve gotten around the impossibility of renting a permanent food-making space without being an actual nation with our own GDPs each, and done it by acquiring an unceasing flow of pop-up eateries.

Here one day, gone in about three months, they rock up in warehouse spaces and converted double-decker buses, in food stalls and markets, out of the back of cars, on scooters. The foodie militia. The concept corps. They’ve come and they’ve pushed Gloucester Old Spot sausages with silly names and vegan brownies that you can only find once a month and everything has a tie-in blog and half of them have an app and all of it requires more organisation than someone like me can muster.

On the one hand, I applaud wholeheartedly the response to the rent bullshit and the problem of money in this city (the problem being almost all of it is in the hands of complete pricks); there’s an adventurous feeling in blundering through rows of stalls in an alleyway in search of comestibles new, a victorious pioneer sensation in uncovering some new delicious vendor. However – and I realise this is very fuddy and non East-London of me (because I don’t live in East London) – sometimes I want to eat the same thing twice.

I’d like to be able to take a leisurely approach to eating, or take an occasional visitor to the metropolis out for dinner to somewhere I know is good and have it still be there. Leisurely is, now, expensive. Haste is cheap. Well, cheaper. This is, after all, one of the most expensive places on earth.

Frustrating though the pop-up scourge occasionally is, it is exactly the right low-risk climate for what I have in mind regarding burgers. Maybe the space in Granary Square that recently hosted the Winter Sun bar.

Mongolian Barbecue, Tiger Lil’s, Have It Your Own Bloody Way

It seems to have gone out of fashion now, but about ten years ago there was a time-slot approach to all-you-can-eat buffet cooking. You took your bowl, you dumped whatever you wanted from a vast line of options into it, and you left it with a cook, who either shovelled it across a hot plate with massive flat knives at the Mongolian Barbecue, or pranged it about a wok at Tiger Lil’s. You gorged yourself, and you went back for more as many times as you physically could in your two-hour time slot.

The possibilities were endless. Customisability at its height, the choice economy in glorious food formation. I think I put on about three stone in one evening.

BurgerBurger; Hipster Pop-up Meat Heaven

The background laid, here is the brief:

I want a fully-customisable, assembly-line burger place that focusses on the meat. I want to be able to go in and make my selection from a variety of bowls of naked mince (lean, fatty, extra lean), of different meats (beef, pork, ostrich, kangaroo, llama), of different breeds (longhorn, Hereford, Highland), to different amounts (small, medium, large, custom-charged-by-weight). To be able to set how much egg is used to bind it (or what egg substitute), what is added to the patty (onions, capers, chives, spices, chopped garlic), then select how I want it cooked (rare, medium, well done, basically-steak-tartare, cinderblock, no-thanks-just-bag-it-i’ll-cook-it-myself-at-home), then a bun (plain white, wholemeal, granary, ciabatta, brioche, gluten-free, tortilla, no thanks), then hot toppings (egg, bacon, portabello mushroom), then cold toppings (salad leaves of several types, tomato, gherkin, cheese of several types, beetroot, pineapple, cucumber, whatever). Then take the damn paid-for construction to a sauce table for eating-in (ketchup, relish, mustard, mayonnaise, djionnaise, that disgusting liquid cheese people like, ranch, salad cream, hoisin) or squirted in before it’s dumped in a bag.

I mean you can go somewhere else for fries. Get your stupid can of Coke from the fridge. But I think it is a bit weird that there’s all these Exciting Burger Chains that are fixated on fixings, crazy about chips, mental over their milkshakes, and not one of these fuckers that I’ve seen has taken the obvious, sensible route of ensuring their burger is brilliant before they start plastering it in everything else. Where is my red-centred tennis-ball of Special Cow Parts?

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A Little Tootle On My Own Trumpet

I’m sure it is gauche to link to one’s own reviews but I am equally sure that I don’t get many reviews and this one is lovely:

Brown Bread, Boys, reviewed by Laura Munro.

Brown Bread, Boys is available to buy on Lulu.com and Amazon.

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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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Tiny Product Reviews

Interim post while I try to get my head around a more complex post. Here are some new things I tried recently and what I thought of them, etc.

Tragically I have lost the packaging for this drink but it’s for the best

Something or other “Buzz”. Came in a small bottle, free, from a man at Wimbledon station who was handing them out to disinterested passersby, and to me, who bounded over shouting “FREE STUFF?”, as two years of working near Liverpool Street station conditioned me into accepting any promotional food or drink as Bonus Breakfast.

Appearance: dark brown liquid. Energy effects: Who cares, this stuff was remarkably horrid.

I mean that. I won’t say I’m a connoisseur of energy drinks, but I’ve done a lot of very boring jobs in my time and consumed a wide variety of caffeine-based fluids in order to prevent myself from snoozing on my keyboard, not to mention my years as a club casualty, and this is objectively the worst-tasting caffeinated beverage I have ever put in my mouth.

Taste: initially I thought it was like flat cola, which would have been fine I guess since that’s basically what Fentiman’s Cola is, but no. No, after a second cautious sip it produced a burning sensation as well. I think on reflection the best way to describe the taste is “highly concentrated cola syrup mixed with bleach, with a soupçon of God’s wrath and the overwhelming sensation of regret”.

Verdict: please love yourself and don’t touch this shit.

EDIT: A put-upon friend who received the same freebie but luckily didn’t drink it informs me the brand is “Buzz Shot”, although Amazon claims this is actually a beer pong game.

Baxters Meal Pots

In my eternal mission to find hot food that will keep me alive in my trek through the wastelands of high-volume night work without causing me to bloat up into an angry sphere of lard, scorch my taste buds off with salt, or lead to me wishing that they had due to the unspeakable vileness of the product, I am profoundly grateful to have run across these.

Pros: they’re incredibly compact and will fit in my bag. They take about 2 minutes to microwave and the design is such that there’s no opportunity for spattering the inside of the microwave with crap. They’re pretty conservative on the calorie front, which means I can also alleviate my paid torment with crisps and not become a pork balloon.

Oh, and they taste pretty nice too.

Cons: I am persistently terrified that the metal can lid keeping the contents fresh will spring up and either cut me or cover me in goo when I open them. When heated in the microwave the pot is just hot enough that carrying it back to my desk becomes an exciting challenge. And at around £2.50 a pot they’re somewhat pricy compared to the alternatives.

The site show four flavours (Italian Style Sausage and Beans, Malaysian Inspired Chicken Laksa, Mixed Mixed Bean Chicken and Quinoa, and Vegetarian Three Bean and Chipotle Pepper), all of which I’ve tried. The Malaysian “Inspired” Chicken Laksa, so-called I suspect because if it was merely called Laksa the entire nation of Malaysia would rightfully rise up as one person and call bullshit on it, is a welcome change from the more tomato-based dishes and full both of tiny noodles and little slices of baby corn, in addition to the usual. I’m not a huge fan of quinoa but the stuff doesn’t actually ruin the one it’s in either.

Verdict: surprisingly nice for canned lunches, low-calorie, robust packaging, would prefer it if they were about 50p cheaper but we can’t have everything. Looking forward to seeing how/if they expand the line.

Realm & Empire (T E Lawrence Sweater)

This is I admit a bit of a swizz because the specific product I’m talking about is sold out pretty much everywhere, but I’m going to take the quality of this as an indicator of the rest of their products.

I’ll also be honest and say I bought this from eBay for £29 as opposed to the recommended price of £75 and probably wouldn’t spend £75 on a sweater unless I’d won the bleeding Lottery, but some of the rest of the people on the internet have rather higher incomes than me.

Print quality: pretty good. I’ve grown used to sublimated prints recently thanks to their popularity in high street clothing, so it’s noticeable when something is a surface print now.
Clothing quality: good. Really good. It’s so soft and warm and thick and the stitching is really robust and excuse me I will just hide inside this forever.

In an ideal world the Realm & Empire badge on the yoke wouldn’t be there as it looks out of place and detracts from the rest of the garment but on the whole: Fantastic.

It’s not a good picture but you get the idea.

And now I shall return to grappling with the less frivolous post. Adieu!

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What on earth have I been doing?

Well, I finished writing the first draft of another book, which took up a lot of my brain power if not strictly speaking all of my time (and which I may have used as an excuse not to do a great deal else).

I’ve had a collaborative work published, by someone who isn’t me, at a place where people can read it for free rather than having to pay out their hard-won beer tokens to judge me.

I’ve finally seen 2001: A Space Odyssey at the BFI’s NFT1 (for the acronym-allergic: the British Film Institute’s National Film Theatre 1 – there are three at the Southbank arm of the Institute). I have to say I’m not overly impressed. It was very pretty, but I think I’d have enjoyed it more if more of popular culture hadn’t gone in with the idea that it is in some way a narrative rather than three arthouse movies stitched together for no discernible reason. The movies in question: Tapirs In Africa (Yeah Okay Then); Space Travel Is So Boring Even Computers Go Mad (With Preceding Conspiracy Drivel That Goes Nowhere); and finally I Took Acid Let Me Tell You About It For An Inexcusably Long Time (The Universe Is A Baby I’m Deep).

However, it was not an entirely wasted trip – the view on the walk to the BFI from King’s Cross was beautiful, and the BFI Riverfront bar have brought back their exemplary Hot Apple Pie cocktail.

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Pride: There Is Power In The Union

Ordinarily, the more I like a current release, the less I want to write about it. Not through superstition or a kind of hipster snobbery – “no one else should be into this thing because they’ll only like it wrong” is stupid, and with small films actively damaging – but through a kind of fear that, should I express enthusiasm for the thing, ten thousand people will descend at once to explain to me that I am wrong, bad, and On Some Kind of List for having liked it.

However, I feel that the only people likely to be pissed off by Pride are the kind of people I should relish pissing off.

Pride, 2014

Set almost exactly thirty years ago, Pride tells the story of L.G.S.M; “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners”, the 84-85 miner’s strike, and the power of the union; not the miner’s union but the union between two groups of people persecuted by the red-tops and Thatcher’s government.

In some ways it reminds me a little of The Full Monty, which I rewatched recently and which I discovered still has the power it had when it was released, to lift my spirits and provide a sense of warm, familiar welcome in a canon of film dominated by American releases and aspirations that enter the realms of the delusionally glossy. It relates to the UK’s lost industries, too, and to the ability of unusual friendships and activities to raise people from the gloom and horror of external/financial depression.

Because the subject matter is very hard – the attempt by the privileged and wealthy to break the backbone of the hard-working and supposedly powerless – and because of when it is set – right at the first peak of the AIDS crisis – there are some terribly bleak and sad moments in this comedy. There are some terribly dignified and heartwarming ones too, amid the laughter, and the acknowledgement that fear brings out the best in some people and the worst in others.

A slew of familiar locations, character types, and class coding, as well as the very faint and nascent memories of the time, formed in an extremely young mind, made this feel as if the film had been made especially for me. As the Resident Australian commented: “It’s about queer history and socialism, it’s like they wanted you to come and see it”.

I don’t think I’ve been made this happy by a film in a long, long time: it has a perfect blend of established talent and new stars, it has the perfect mix of triumphs and bitter failures, it has humour and kindness and warmth by the bucketload, and it has a great deal of pride in the union between working men cast down by their callous government, and queer men and women cast out, in many cases, by their families.

Definitely worth watching more than once.

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Layout and Panels: How To Do An Exhibition

PAGE ONE:

Begin with the exterior of the British Library, establishing location. People outside, sunny day. Billboards advertising the Library’s new exhibition on comics and graphic novels stand outside. Don’t bother showing the intrepid blogger buying tickets or anything because that’s boring, just go straight to the entrance of the exhibition.

It begins with some quotes about comics, both hagiographic and condemnatory, designed to show the polarising nature of comics and give an overview of the divisive cultural impact to be outlined.

Or to try and convince people the artform is relevant. It’s an uphill struggle.

PAGE TWO:

A mirrored archway and a neat line-up of cut-out images make for a comic introduction with a sense of three dimensions rendered from two. Get it? Like comicsThrow in some creepy mannequins dressed up as members of Anonymous for reasons that you don’t need to explain until we get to the politics section.

Begin with Mr Punch.

PAGE THREE:

A curved walk through history.

Someone has clearly gone to some trouble with regards to ensuring a good review from the noisier sections of Tumblr, determined to make note of the prejudice and gaps in representation in the earlier history of comics, incorporating the cross-media appeal of comics characters as early as the 1880s along with product endorsement and music hall songs… confronting at least ugly prejudice in small glass cases.

At this point our story is remarkable in content but not presentation.

PAGE FOUR:

Guy Fawkes-masked mannequins loom out of the semi-darkness and the font becomes enormous. We’re about to be introduced to the political overspill of comics’ influence, and their reflection of social issues, and place at the forefront of satire. This is good because I recently watched Dr Lucy Worsley talking to Michael Rosen about the history of satirical free comment in Britain and was able to give a whispered lecture to the Resident Australian about how our noble and ancient tradition of freedom of the press to criticise their “social betters” came about by an accident of poor parliamentary scheduling and inability to go back on a mistake without looking silly, i.e. the most British way of achieving it possible.

So many creepy masked mannequins.

Does this page deal with both satire and propaganda? Yes. Does it show politicised responses to changing social situations both from the far right and the far left? Yes. Does it have a slight left bias? Probably yes but I’m a disgusting woolly-jumper-wearing liberal socialist hippy c**t so this merely affirms my sense that I am right. Does it thankfully break out of the traditional ghetto of politicised comics in order to talk about not only fascism and anti-fascism during the 1980s but also pro- and anti-suffrage comics, historical perspectives on past movements, and raw and sad satire on the slow struggle of queer rights/gay liberation in the 20th century? Yes.

Was I more excited about the fact there is a page of original artwork from V for Vendetta?

Absolutely yes.

This page is also the time to show that the thought process behind the layout of this exhibition has been impeccable. I wouldn’t talk about the flow of visitors through a space under ordinary circumstances, but this was good enough to merit notice: at no point was I forced to back up or head in a contrary direction in order to see all of the exhibits. No one got in anyone’s way except by lingering too long, and most people didn’t linger too long.

Of course I would expect an exhibition about comics to be sensitive to being readable and easy to move through, because that’s at the nuts and bolts level of successful comics. I am just used to being disappointed in my expectations. Especially where mainstream interest in sequential art comes in.

PAGE FIVE:

Another example of clever design. This bulge contains the process of comics, and it is at the core of the exhibition, the way the process is at the core of comics: there is a drawing table, and it is occupied by some fresh sketches and the materials to make more. There is a large video screen. There is a wall covered in the process sketches, scripts, thumbnails, pencils, inks, and ideas of several teams of creators, who collaborate in different ways and to different degrees to produce startlingly different works.

Kieron Gillen’s script, incidentally, reads the way he talks, only a lot slower and less sidetracked.

The genius of this page is not immediately apparent, but it offers escapes to each section of the exhibition more or less directly: the creator’s mind must be able to travel where it pleases.

PAGE SIX:

Racy. This sexy page is sealed away in a side-stream, a veiled bubble of hidden desires gently segregated from the main, which both represents its position in comics (since I suppose they couldn’t have dug an extra underground to be more explicit about it) and gives people an easy out if they decide they don’t want to look at sex in comics/it isn’t appropriate for their age group.

Which again, is good exhibition design. One goes in a loop: in past Aubrey Beardsley and early erotic comics including a hilarious work satirically advocating “rights for sodomites” from the French Revolution which apparently became (this is the funny part) pornographically popular in Britain. “Ooh, bumming,” said late 18th-Century Britain. “Political content? Nah mate, that’s three men doing some botty-spearing. Nothin’ political there.”

The sex bubble contains a variety of approaches to sex in comics, from the sardonic (Steven Bell’s middle class orgy) to the personal (sad stories of masturbation) to the deliberately provocative (the Oz obscenity trial) and, justly and fairly, the pornographic. As is the case in almost any discussion of sexuality as part of a larger debate, when “gay sex” comes up it’s exclusively male, but otherwise a fascinating view onto a subject usually treated as not fit for discussion.

Side note: Obviously this is an area I am interested in, having hauled myself through museums of erotica both in Amsterdam and Paris, and it’s always interesting to see what’s going on stylistically in people’s sex: Peter van Straaten’s Lust has been on my shelf for nearly 7 years with its newspaper cartoon/book illustration feel bringing a sense of nostalgia and whimsy to orgies and covert sex, while works on display at the British Library are more rooted in the aesthetic of the 60s underground, and a style which looks quite specifically British.

PAGE SEVEN:

Back on the agenda, we head from the initial curve of history, politics, and sex through to the straight-and-narrow: the gallery becomes a long oblong, and we’re discussing heroism. Another great mirror between content and form, because that’s what successful comics are.

Here you have the choice of moving straight down a large glass case or examining displays hidden in a children’s nursery/playroom/classroom/artist’s studio, which is a change from the swift, directed readability of before. I could say something trite about “examining both sides of the issue” but I don’t recall the content being laid out that way.

Amid collectable statuettes and Karl Urban’s Judge Dredd helmet, the history of British comics heroes (Dan DareJudge Dredd, the preference for anti-heroes beginning with The Ride To York) is briefly contrasted against the American yearning for untouchable supermen (there’s even a tentative explanation raised for the USA preference for the mighty and unassailable – these fantasies were born of the Depression and the sufferings therein), and while the difference in the heroic character cycle (British comics heroes blossom and die, American ones are eternally recycled) is illuminated and subverted with the reincarnation of Archie the robot as an acid raver, there’s also a lengthy piece celebrating the British Invasion: the influx of British writers into American comics which is unfortunately probably to blame for the grimdark obsession people keep complaining about, what with UK writers’s apparent preference for the mortal and fallible.

It’s also probably responsible for the number of comics in the mainstream which got weird about chaos magic, and that’s where the exhibition is headed next:

PAGE EIGHT:

Appropriately for a page entitled the breakdown of comics, this is where the tidy structure of case by case, panel by panel reading goes instead into chaos. The surprising number of practising magus in a certain generation of comics writers, and the ways in which people have explored both the limits of the comics format and the limits of the known and imagined universe within comics are on display, backed against the walls, dangling in the centre of the room in glass pillars. William Burroughs of course makes an appearance: there’s a haunted house to stick your head into, there’s a huge screen showcasing something Hewlett-related that I was too tired hang around and watch.

An afternote, here: there are two computers which are apparently allow one to browse more comics, just as there were a dizzying proliferation of tablets on stalks throughout allowing one to do the background reading there and then, leafing through this comic or that comic (Judge Dredd: America is one title I recall). I did not make my acquaintance with the last computers because some French tourists had commandeered the seats in order to have a conversation. Nothing’s perfect, I guess.

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Gaywyck by Vincent Virga: Shit Book Liveblog Chapters 1 to 3.

This was all Amy Macabre’s fault and I want her to be held responsible when I inevitably die of horror at this.

To briefly expand on that: Amy posted a picture of the cover of this book along with some discussion about it being a Proper Gothic Gay Novel, and confirmed for the previous commenters that they could look forwards to a whole mess of description of the drapes and the grounds and absolutely none of gay sex. She also mentioned that it was a colossal turd of a book. Now: I have read the odd Gothic novel in my time and found them tedious in the extreme, but I am aware of the genre tropes and tics and this book rolls around in them to a degree that verges on, but has not so far entered, the realm of parody. I am also not usually given to spite-reading books which have been recommended to me as shit because frankly life is short and shit books are many – it’s much harder to find a genuinely good book and enjoy it than it is to find a genuinely terrible book and snicker at it. For a start, shit books are filling out the heads of various sales list at any point in history.

However, the book was 57p on Amazon and sometimes I have really bad ideas.

This is the cover I have.

This is the cover I have.

This book opens with the line “I resemble my mother physically.” and continues into a lengthy garbage paragraph about the looks of the protagonist because apparently Virga’s editor just threw up his or her hands and shouted “FUCK IT I CAN’T DO ANYTHING WITH IT”.

Maybe he didn’t have an editor. That would explain the next few pages, which amount to: ALLOW ME TO SPEND ENTIRELY TOO LONG ON MY BACKSTORY IN FIRST PERSON AND DESCRIBE LITERALLY EVERYONE IN EXCRUCIATING PHYSICAL DETAIL and tell you all about ALL THE ROOMS IN MY HOUSE.

Vincent Virga fearlessly breaking every possible fiction-writing rule. Not for him the constraints of “make something actually fucking happen on the first page”. No, in Gaywyck it’s full Gothic Novel, complete with a sickly, bookish protagonist, and EVERYTHING DESCRIBED WITHIN AN INCH OF THE LIMITS OF MY PATIENCE.

At the very end of the first chapter everything happens in a rush: the second chapter details, fairly pointlessly, the journey to the titular house on Long Island. I’m pretty much exactly sure that the second chapter exists because Virga wants people to know he did research, that he could write A Variety Of Characters (100% of whom exist to say something pointless to the protagonist and then vanish), and that he cannot write dialogue and I’m going to die of this book. This is Brick Bin dialogue that would get thrown out of a Brick Bin* movie for not propelling the fucking plot.

Chapter 3 of Gaywyck is all about the family history of the romantic interest it is incredible WHY DO I NEED TO KNOW THE EXACT STORY OF HOW HIS GRANDPARENTS MET AND ALSO HIS PARENTS. why do I need to hear about what a delicate opera-loving innocent flower his mother was? Whyyyyyyy.

Oh good grief this chapter is still going it’s still going apparently I need to know about every single circumstance of his tragic weirdo family background THIS HAD BETTER HAVE SOME BEARING ON THE STORY —

— the pacing just did the same thing it did in the first chapter, where it’s all background and then the actual Thing That Happened is crammed into a brief summary at the end of the chapter. This is like a first draft NaNoWriMo novel: “Right, I’ve hit the word count, fling the plot point in and go to the pub.” I could really, maybe, slightly, forgive the gloopy Gothic tropes and the gratuitous authorwanking about all the careful character background he’s come up with, were it not for the fact that the pacing is so bad, and the dialogue almost artistically wooden.

Also by the love of all that’s squashy and fragrant, this tragic dead twin had better be a Chekov’s sibling or something or I am going to resent the entire existence of this chapter as well. If this is just here for TRAGIQUE BACKSTORY reasons …

Genuinely so far the first three chapters could have been dispensed with in a paragraph. For reference (SPOILERS) the plot so far is: “Bookish, beautiful, slightly effeminate young man has sought solitude all his life. After the ~tragique~ death of his mother due to some sort of depression-induced physical stress which came out of nowhere and didn’t get anything like as much description as all the individual books that the protagonist has read, he is charitably given a job as a librarian at the estate of a wealthy recluse. The wealthy recluse also has a ~tragique~ background, as his twin brother died trying to save his father from an unexplained and undescribed (unlike everything fucking else in this book) house fire. Robert the Protagonist has arrived in New York but not yet made it to the house he will be a librarian at.”

My mistake. One paragraph. The background stuff does not need to be shovelled in at the front of the book. I don’t care about the conventions of Gothic literature, it’s still perfectly possible to have the intensity and fragility and all the other hideous narrative tropes without subjecting your readers to an uphill slog through endless LISTS OF BOOKS before anything actually fucking happens.


Brick Bin: any piece of media where the dialogue is so heavily composed of cliches from other media that it is as if instead of writing a script they just jotted down a cliche onto a brick for several bricks, and hurled them at a wastepaper bin, with the idea that any brick that goes in the bin goes in the script.

Afternote: I see Mr Virga has a website and therefore possibly an internet presence? Dear sir, if you have come across this liveblog just dismiss it as the bitter ramblings of someone who clearly isn’t refined enough to appreciate the genre, and don’t let it spoil your day.

Filed under: books, content: review, , , , , , , , ,

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