I am in danger of falling in love.

It’s a strange thing, after all these years of avoiding moving to London, how swiftly I have embraced the city. Getting a job here has transformed my experience of it, and I have been swept away, grinning and willing, in the steady, oiled flow of London days, rocked by the rhythm of my daily commutes. There is a joy to being lost here, to finding small treasures in all the bustle and tourist hordes and transportation woes. I think back to the similar post I wrote, this time last year, about Singapore. I couldn’t help listing everything I hated about the place. How my life has changed, how I have changed! I come home, weary from a day at the studio and a long commute, and look forward to the next. I walk, endlessly, through forests and parks, and along the wide, placid Thames with its small shingled beaches and improbable bridges.  I watch people: shiny-eyed toffee-coloured children with hair like cotton candy, angular, dessicated women in worn ballet flats, the man in a camaieu of mustards and yellows rolling a cigarette on the tube. I smile, and I am soothed.

Each week end I try to fit in something new, but it’s hard, even in a city as rich and variegated as this, to resist the lure of routines. Here are 10 of my small London joys. Try them. Let me know if they did anything for you.

1. My bus ride through Peckham

The 363 makes its arthritic way from Crystal Palace to Elephant  Castle in just over half an hour. It is not the most picturesque of routes. It passes rows of suburban terraced houses, the grimness of Lidl, and a street called “Bird in Bush Road.” But passing through Peckham I can see rows of cassava neatly stacked, buxom African women in short skirts and elaborate hairdos, a pile of durian at the Chinese store. There’s the promising, inviting neon of Theatre Local, and when I get off the bus I’m often greeted by a fox who seems to welcome me back home.

2. Crystal Palace Park Dinosaurs

Large Victorian statues of anatomically incorrect dinosaurs. What’s not to love, really.

3. Rose and Pistachio cake

It is perfumed and nutty, gluten free, and topped with a layer of frosting like a cloud of cream. Found at the London Review Bookshop, who have great books and even better cake.

4. Urban foxes

Yes, I know, they are vermin and they root through bins and screech through the night and their shit is pungent (I should know, I unwittingly dragged some into an interview room a few days ago). But every time I see one I am transported to Le Petit Prince, and the fox who asks to be tamed.

5. Jacob’s Ladder burger

This one will need a post of its own. Succulent cow slab with roquette, a generous spread of raw stilton and mustard, served in a toasted sesame brioched bun. GOOD.

6. Sydenham Hill Forest

I am still baffled and delighted by this patch of forest outside my door step, a short 15 minute ride from Victoria station. There are fields of bluebells, twisting lanes that smell of earth and leaves and life, and escaped parokeets in the trees. On the other side lies Dulwich Park, with its outdoors exercise machines, enormously fat geese, and golden horses that canter powerfully along the dirt track. There are also children called Margo and people in those annoying reclining bikes, but you can ignore them.

7. Pain poilâne at Waitrose

This week’s grateful discovery. There’s a Ladurée and a Pierre Hermé too. Who needs Paris?

8. The morning commute

These days I get up at 6 to be in the studio by 8 am, so I can get an hour of writing done before the rambunctious crowds of animators arrive. I find, bizarrely, the hour’s commute restful. It’s a great time to write a few notes down, before my brain is completely clear of the night’s fog, or to just look out the window at the crowded, Victorian rows of Brixton, or the ungainly silhouette of the Shard. There are regulars – a thin, calm woman with a different head scarf tied around her head every day, or the small girl with corn rows with a distracted, blonde mother. I always get a seat.

9. Swing Patrol

Nothing has made me more deliriously happy than taking up swing dancing. I come home sweaty and full of love for humankind, possibly with delusions of being an extra in Swing Kids. I have step-step-kick-kicked my way through a couple of classes, trodden on feet and grimaced apologies at a social dance, and I want more, MORE. It’s like crack, innit. Happy swingy crack.

Last week we did this:

CRACK.

10. Cocktails

Well, some things never change. These guys, in a basement bar rife with girls in twee vintage clothing, make a fabulously pink lychee concoction. Just don’t go if you’re allergic to mould or new wallpaper “artfully” ripped off the walls.

What more can I add to this list?

Home made char siu chez maman. Oh yes.

In Asia it is everywhere: red and charred, hanging from hooks by the roadside. Marinated in lemongrass, chopped up bones and all and deep fried to a crisp. Simmered gently in caramel sauce.

Pork.

In Singapore, my friends’ eyes always lit up when we ordered it. The three layered pork was especially popular: meat, fat and rind, a perfect trio of melting porky goodness. It always reminds me of the most heartbreaking passage in François Bizot’s Le Portail (The Gate in English), a must read for anyone interested in Cambodia. The author finds himself a prisoner in a Khmer Rouge camp, kept away from his Cambodian assistants. They are reunited briefly before he is forced to leave them to their fate, and they share one last meal together. It’s roast pork his assistants dream of; they describe the sweet smokey flesh, the crispy skin, the dripping fat.

Eech, that’s all rather bleak, sorry. My point is: roast pork would definitely be my last meal, and I miss the convenience of finding it at every street corner in South East Asia.

Thankfully my local supermarket stocks pre-scored pork belly, which roasted over water gives tender flesh and the crispiest crackling, perfect for adding to a fresh pomelo salad or a noodle soup. Or just stuffing down your gob straight from the chopping board while it’s still hot enough to burn your fingers.

Chinese roast pork, from a Rick Stein recipe

1 pork belly

1 tablespoon sichuan peppercorns

1 teaspoon black peppercorns (ideally from kampot)

2 tablespoons maldon sea salt flakes

2 teaspoons five spice powder

2 teaspoons sugar

Roast the peppercorns in a pan until they are fragrant and grind them. Or just use normal pepper, it will still be delicious.Mix with the sea salt, five spice powder and sugar.

Pour a kettle of hot water over the skin and let it drain, then dry thoroughly. Rub the meat side of the pork belly with the spice mixture. Leave it in the fridge 8 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the pork skin side up on a roasting rack, on top of a tin full of water. Roast it for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 180C and cook for another 2 hours, topping up with water as needed.

Increase the temperature once more to 230C and roast for a final 15 minutes. Rest the meat a little before cutting it, if you can bear the wait.

 

I’m on my way back to Scotland for a few days. I was starved this morning and bought a bacon roll in desperation at King’s Cross – a thing dry and brittle like the desert.

I couldn’t help thinking about the best quick breakfast to have in Paris, at this celebrated bakery near the Canal St Martin. It’s a wonderfully pretty place, that smells of yeast, warm bread and butter even on Sundays when it is closed. They’re famous for their Pain des Amis (friendly bread? bread for friends?), large loaves cut up and perfect for sharing. But it’s the fresh croissants, crisp, buttery and salty, and petits pains filled with things like goat cheese and honeyed apples that I can’t resist.

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There are benches by the canal for picnicking, and when you’re done wiping the crumbs off yourself you can go visit the many outlet shops in the area for a Maje or Les Petites bargain. Bliss.

Where: Du Pain et des Idées, 34 rue Yves Toudic 75010 Paris (Métro Jacques Bonsergent)

Opening hours: Monday to Friday 6.45 am to 8 pm

Tip: It’s worth going in January for their very good galette des rois


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I am feeling delicate.
I sat at my computer yesterday morning, my hair coarse and untamed, pressing my fingers against my temples. I had not slept. I tried to explain this to my mother, who was looking at me disapprovingly and with a hint of concern from her side of the Skype call.

“It’s the peacock,” I said.

My feet were raw, bloated and blistered from stumbling home from Soho after too many small, sparkling glasses of Prosecco. I rubbed my toes gently against each other. It had tasted of summer.

When I first moved to this leafy South London suburb, I was excited about the peacock. “Peakie,” my flatmate calls him. He doesn’t seem to belong to anyone. I knew he was there, somewhere in the collection of neat, English gardens my flat looks down on; I could hear him cawing out from his hiding place whenever the rain eased for long enough. I first saw him on the roof of the little house next door, silhouetted against the creeping dusk, looking into our living room. He was improbable, with his shrunken head and strong, elegant claws. When he flew, briefly, over to the roof of our building I saw the soft blue green of his belly, and the heavy drag of his tail feathers fanned out in the air.

That evening I’d removed my shoes as I reached my street. It seemed like such a long walk from the night bus stop. I tread carefully, avoiding sharp twigs and anything that sparkled in the dark. The night smelled sweet: the rich, heavy scent of trees in bloom and warm air on bare skin.

That’s when I heard him – a long, strident scream bouncing off the empty roads. I rolled my eyes. Peakie is a bastard. He is like the neighbour who listens to loud dustep on quiet Sunday mornings, or bangs his door at 3 am. Working from home, I spend too much time in his loud, obnoxious company. He is needy, always cawing for this thing and that, always keen to make his presence known. “I am here,” he shouts. “I exist. I am a peacock.”

At home I dumped my shoes in the hall and filled a glass of water in the dark. I heard him again. It was shorter, more insistent this time. I lay in bed and closed my eyes against the nauseated feeling in my stomach, grateful to be home, waiting for the oblivion of sleep. Then he cawed again. It was pained, agonised. There was something wrong. I peered out the window in the gloom but there was nothing to see, just the lazy flap of tarpaulin at the construction site next door. By 5 am my nerves were frayed, electric, my eyes wide open in anguish. The cawing had gone on all night, in five minute intervals, tearing the night apart. I got dressed and stumbled down the stairs, still dizzy, blinking at the dawn. Was Peakie hurt? Trapped or locked somewhere, crying out in despair? I walked impotently round the back garden, trying to see where he was, shaken by each new piercing screech. I imagined him struck to the ground, a broken wing flapping senselessly, easy prey for a rogue fox or cruel child.There was nothing I could do.

Later that morning the cawing stopped. Sleep was elusive. I was listless. I dragged myself to the computer again, and googled.

Peacocks can be noisy; they have a very loud high-pitched meow like call. They call a lot during the mating season (early spring to early autumn). Dawn and late evening is a favourite time for this.

Peakie was just randy. Is he wild, domesticated? I doubt there are peahens in his life, or even other peacocks, should he be that way inclined.

So every now and then when I catch his cry, harsh and heartbreaking, I can’t help thinking of the anxiety of peacocks: to die alone, on a warm summer night, with only the sound of your own voice for company.

I’ve been looking for a quiet place to write away from the distractions of home (think snacks, endless wifi and a wild peacock so loud I’m quite certain he’s heralding the apocalypse).

Here’s a good list of quiet places to write in London, but my doctor flatmate alerted me to a little known gem perfect for this purpose.

Hidden behind this slightly forbidding façade is a lovely medical library, complete with wood-panelled walls, padded chairs and thick wooden tables.

The only sound you’re likely to hear is the soft tissue of medical students’ heads hitting those thick folders of notes in desperation. There are lots of power points and large tables in comfortable alcoves on two floors (possibly three, I was too scared to venture into the basement).

It’s centrally located, between the St Paul’s and Barbican stations, and unless you’re a medical student there’s no wifi access, so perfect if you lack discipline like me.

Just mumble something about proliferative retinopathy if someone asks you why you’re there.

Do you have a favourite writing space?

Where: St Barts Hospital, London. Walk into the central courtyard, then follow the signs to the Robin Brook centre. The library is to the right next to the entrance.

Opening times: Monday-Friday 9am to 9pm and Saturday 1pm to 8pm during term times. Opening times vary during the holidays.

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It’s sublime. Just go into another room and make pictures. It’s magic time. Where all your weaknesses of character and blemishes of personality and whatever else torments you fades away. Just doesn’t matter.

Maurice Sendak on making books and pictures. Video here.

I think I mentioned somewhere I’m currently taking the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course. It’s been a wonderful experience, if you are the sort of person who thinks stubbing your toe repeatedly against stray bed posts, strumming your face with a cheese grater or flushing your own head down the toilet is wonderful. It has been, I think, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, this daily facing of my own foibles and inadequacies, this constant fight against apathy and self-loathing.

This week, we were treated to a presentation by author Jojo Moyes, who recently won the popular vote of Richard and Judy’s book club for her novel Me Before You. She was an eloquent, funny, and inspiring speaker, and this, I think, was the gist of her message:

Just sit down and write the damn thing. And turn the stupid internet off.

She recommended Freedom, a piece of software that locks you out of the internet for your own good, but I am not brave enough for it yet. Besides, I need the internet for research. See the image above for proof – all of these searches were for the book, apart from maybe “carrot coconut cake Hummingbird” and (ahem) “Adam Brody”, which was entirely fellow CBC student Sarah’s fault.

If you’re after insight into writing and publishing, want some book recommendations, or simply like to shed little tears in pleasure at other people’s well deserved success, go check out Jojo’s blog. It is lovely.

NOW GET OFF THE STUPID INTERNET.

What a strange day I had yesterday. One minute I was enjoying exceedingly strong coffee at Workshop Coffee, the next I was doing this:

Sewing bunting. At Kensington Palace, no less.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a view of the fortified wall that protects Will and Kate’s private apartments. From the inside. Pretty grim, isn’t it. It’s crying out for the living wall treatment.

The bunting is the work of my friend Natalie Ryde, who was an artist in residence at the Palace in the run up to its reopening to the public earlier this year. She produced some beautiful, characteristically colourful work based around historic fragments of wallpaper revealed during renovation of the palace.

Doesn’t she look sweet? This is her “Stop taking pictures and get sewing bunting, punk!” smile.

Don’t know whether it was something in the coffee, but by the end of the day we’d finished two fat spindles of bias tape and worked our way through most of the giant piles of fabric triangles. I was ready for a nap on the very inviting Kensington Palace cushions, and wondered idly if I could maybe sneak one out.

The bunting, produced by local primary school children during workshops with Natalie, is destined for the “Jubilee – a view from the crowd” exhibition opening at the Palace on the 24th of May, exploring Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee of 1897.

Hand stamped vintage cutlery, perfect for the spoon thief in your life.

£7.50 from Goozeberry Hill’s etsy shop.

I also want the “Mrs and Mrs” forks and “Everything stops for tea” spoon.

 

I knew I had a better story for the World Nomads travel writing competition.

Last year I went to Koh Rong island. Ageing Korean buses through the Cambodian countryside. Sugar palm trees and paddy fields, thin cows and sleeping dogs on the road. Karaoke blasting over the air conditioning. Shared pineapple from a plastic bag. A moto ride winding through Sihanoukville hills. 3 hours on a rusty ferry. Tree houses swaying gently in the wind, sand like icing sugar. The great mass of a buffalo swimming towards me, in the encroaching dusk, the bulge of its eye as it strains against the rope, how quietly it moves through the warm, clear waters.

I’ll write it another day. But in the meantime I’ve made a little video – all filmed on 35mm on my Lomo Kino. Hope you like it.

 

There’s an old cherry tree in the Jardin des Plantes, stubby and gnarly like an old woman with its branches reaching all the way down to the ground. For a few weeks it blooms in the Spring. If I were 16 again I would skip class to go there and kiss boys and have not a care in the world.

 

“There’s an exhibition of neon at La Maison Rouge,” said my sister between two mouthfuls of chocolate cake.

This is how I found myself wandering through several rooms full of brightly lit sticks after a long, bracing walk along the Canal St Martin.* Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the invention of neon lighting, the exhibition features over 100 pieces from the 1940s to the present day. Here, a Camerounian hair shirt hangs limply in a halo of pink light. Turn a corner and you’ll find a broken up poem in a glass cabinet. In another room stands a chamber of red lights, receding away into nothingness.

Is it the odd layout or the (un)savoury fumes emanating from the pop-up Rose Bakery stand? For a medium that is so colourful and brash, the exhibition falls unfortunately flat, with a certain whiff of art school mixed-media brief about it. The standout piece was ‘Untitled’ by Jason Rhoades, a joyful and exuberant installation of neon words describing the female sex. Collected at the artist’s studio in LA during parties called “Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé”, the words are strung up on cables and electrical devices hanging from the ceiling.

Queef. Sushi Taco. Sagging bacon cones. Worth the price of admission alone.

If the bright lights get too much you can retreat to the comfort of the video projection area, and watch neon tubes falling one by one from the ceiling of a sordid empty room. Soothing.

*If this sounds delightfully Amélie-esque, let me redress your impression, reader. It is arguably the most shit-strewn stretch in Paris, and that is saying something. As an added bonus we were also followed by street cleaners intent on pressure hosing said doo-doos in our general direction. Non merci.

When: 17th February – 20th May 2012

Where: La Maison Rouge, 10 Boulevard de le Bastille, 75012 Paris

Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 11 am to 7pm, late-night Thursday until 9pm