drink , eat , UK

Wig Wam Bam

Photo stolen from the official teepee website

Photo stolen from the official teepee website

“When,” I asked Emma this morning with some anxiety, “Did I become the sort of person who hangs out in a teepee in Hoxton?”

When indeed. The past year has, without a doubt, been one of upheaval and adventure. I moved countries, twice, moved continents in fact – again – leaving most of my belongings in my mother’s attic in Cambodia. I rode horses in paddy fields, stood naked on a balcony on Marina Bay, got a goddaughter, walked a red carpet, hula hooped in a Victorian hall, and danced the blues in a basement while dwarves played pool nearby. It has been a glorious, unfeasible, miraculous year, filled with laughter and joy and the sort of unreasonable, unyielding tackling of fears I must remember to be proud of.

But back to the teepee.

The teepee sits on the roof of the Queen of Hoxton. It is a pop up, and it is called “Wig Wam Bam”, two facts which would be sufficient to make it a thing of pure loathsomeness. But. The teepee is lit by fairy lights and the glowing coals of a cooking pit at the centre of it. Its floor is strewn with wood chips, the seats are sawn off logs, and it smells of bonfire. It is utterly lovely.

wigwambam2 wigwambam1

It is cosiness. The boozy drinks – hot fudge toddies, buttered rum and mulled cider – are a very reasonable £5, and every night there’s a different meal on offer: venison, wild boar sausage, leg of pork. If you hover by the spit, the cooks will offer you tastes of juicy, tender meat dunked in gravy. And if you ask veeeery nicely, you may very well get a giant slab of wood smoked crackling all to yourself.

Bring some friends to the teepee. Laugh, gossip, eat, drink, and be merry, and revel in all that was good and right with 2012.

Where: Queen of Hoxton, 1-5 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3JX

When: Monday – Saturday, 5-10 pm, until the end of March 2013

eat , UK

My Christmas

christmas-food

 

There’s a visible recoil when you tell someone you’re spending Christmas on your own. A barely perceptible intake of breath, eyebrows rising in suppressed horror, a softening of the eyes to indicate compassion. Christmas? On your own?

You’re welcome to come to my wife’s parents’. They take in strays every year.

said Jamie, my friend’s brother. This was the second time I’d met him.

The thing is, after two Christmases spent in the sweltering heat of Cambodia and the overbearing, sinister commercial mirth of Singapore, I’m looking forward to a Christmas on my terms. Quiet. Cosiness. A complete lack of stress, and guilt. This morning I walked down to Chatsworth Road market and stocked up for the next few days. Then I took a photo in homage to Trish Deseine, who’s had her share of Christmas trauma, and whose Parisian market sprees always leave me aching with longing. Tangerines, like Christmas crack, from the corner shop. Radishes to be eaten straight from the fridge, root and all. Tiny waxy potatoes to go with the tiny wild duck. Apple juice to warm and spice. Chestnuts for the open fire. Apple sausages and black pudding, hiding in the back, for a hearty breakfast on Christmas day before I set out on the bike to see how quiet London really is. And foie gras, of course, because some traditions are untouchable, and that beautiful sourdough loaf will need *something* spread onto it.

Happy Christmas. If you’re in the UK, do watch The Snowman and The Snowdog on Channel 4 at 8pm on Christmas eve. The loveliest, kindest, most talented people I’ve had the pleasure to work with made it, and it’s our little gift to you.

 

The small woman pulls open the accordion door of the lift.

“The lift has only broken down once in four years, ” she says, twice, and I notice something about her, the dense green sheen of her eyeshadow, or maybe the cheerfulness in her eyes. There’s a soft silence as we push our bodies into the small, metallic space, our eyes fixed on the strips of light and darkness as we move past the floors, towards the soft familiar sounds of old music.

It is dusk and the room is inviting, with its warm dim lights and wooden floorboards. On one side the city skyline stretches out through large and generous windows. It is dark purple and warm pink, at once imperious and gentle, pierced by the sharp lines of the Shard. It’s been a while since I last came to this swing class. A few weeks ago the days were longer, sun streamed through the windows, and I danced, eyes closed, wishing these blissful Sunday afternoons would never end.

The faces in the room are familiar, still. There’s Y, the smiling frenchman, and A with his quiffy mohawk and black piercings. His girlfriend Bug gives me a hug, her pretty round doll’s face framed by a green floral shirt and an inky scarf tied artfully in her short red hair. F is there, of course, with the pale skin and dark circles that have shadowed me from Shoreditch to Farringdon, Angel to Bethnal Green. E stands like a gauche praying mantis, all long limbs and open happy features, a small pork pie hat pushed back on his head.

After class we head for the pub across the road. The barmaid has bottle black hair and orange skin; her accent is thick and heavy.  On a stool by the bar sits a fat persian cat, his face screwed up in disdain as I stroke his grey and white fur.  “He’s a pedigree, he is. He never leaves the pub,” says the old man on the stool next to him. His eyes are glassy and his nose is bulbous and red.

We are tired and sweaty, and we sit with the awkwardness of strangers who have been in each other’s arms. I am fond of them, these familiar acquaintances, fond of their enthusiasm for dancing and laughing and things that are warm and bright. All around the room are portraits of dogs in military uniform. A lone rubber spider hangs by the side of the bar, a remnant of Halloween. Fairy lights have been strung around the window: red, green and blue – a blinking, colourful frame for the sickly potted plant and the greying man who sit beneath it. He is slumped in his seat in brown corduroy trousers. There are wisps of white hair on his chin and temples, and something in his face, something in the grey papery pallor of his skin and the sunken line of his lips tells me with certainty that he has months, maybe weeks to live. Red, green and blue. Blink, blink, blink.

The old man with the bulbous nose shuffles over to the jukebox and feeds it a few coins. He pokes at the buttons, leans back against the bar, opens his arms wide, and sings:

When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be pretty, will I be rich
Here’s what she said to me.

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.

 

UK

Summer notes

Forgive me, Fat Ponies.

It has been a month since my last confession. In my youth, this, the very prime of summer, the blessed month between the fireworks of the 14th of July and the  holiday klaxon of the 15th of August, would have been spent in a fug of carambars, Picsou Magazine, and Fort Boyard, stewing gently on the old leather sofa of our summer house in a slick of sweat. Instead I have been stewing, in the rolling heat, in an animation studio. Since news of the production ran in a few papers today I might as well link to it. The Snowman and the Snowdog! It’s the Snowman! Again! But with a dog. Made of snow. A snow dog.

What can I tell you about summer in London? Yes, there has been the small business of feats of athleticism, buoyant mayors and surreal ceremonies, but apart from a fairly entertaining opening night I took very little notice of the whole thing.

Which leaves me wondering… what exactly have I been doing with my time? I turn to foggy, fuzzy mobile phone pictures to jog my memory, a thing leaky and  broken by long hours of pressing computer keys in the manner of a Chinese virtual gold digging monkey.

Spying on the fox family

They are skinny, belligerent, and have taken up residence in the construction site next to my old flat. I love this picture. If they  ever released an album, this would be their cover.

Drinking cocktails from mason jars

Plus ça change etc.

Again at the damp cocktail bar.

Falling asleep at the theatre

Yes. I am officially 105 years old. I can no longer make it through a civilised evening without nodding off in that jerky commuter fashion, like an overworked Japanese mid level manager. I had to run away during the intermission, my cheeks burning with shame. SHAME, I TELL YOU. Mildly incontinent granny shame.

Eating Afghan food

Fried pastry triangles filled with pumpkin and leek and spiced lamb with lentils and dumpling things smothered in a sauce made of crushed halos topped with unicorn dust. YUM.

A bargainous treat at Ariana 2 in Kilburn, named after Ariana 1, in… Manhattan.

Getting a pho fix

… at this hole in the wall on Upper St.

Their banh mi has the works: roast pork, pâté, and pork floss, but at £5.50 it is exactly 18 times the price of the Phnom Penh version. OUCH.

Next up: flat hunting, something about polo ponies, and the joys of Hackney.

But not now. Granny needs her beauty sleep.

 

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?

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.

View Larger Map

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.