Category Archives: things to do in London

Underexposed

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Great stories do not present us with anything new; they present us with what is familiar to us and then they make it unfamiliar and weird and crazy.

And fantastic.

Underexposed Theatre have come pretty close to achieving this in their recent run at The Old Red Lion in Angel, with a clutch of new plays that seek to force us to question and complicate our assumptions about, well, everybody, from the typical male sex drive to a long distance gay romance between London and Syria to the good intentions of a doctor who is judged for the strength of her convictions.

 

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Nick Skaugen and Charlotte Nice in ‘Native Tongues’ Photo from twitter @UNDEREXPOSEDthr

The evening begins with a delightful piece called Native Tongues, A Sci Fi Sex Romp, by Nick Myles, a story with a thoroughly preposterous premise of an estranged boyfriend and girlfriend with a thorny relationship meeting in a gym and being thrown in different directions in time, the corollary conceit that the former lovers can still talk to each other across millions of years. Charlotte Nice as Jen and Nick Skaugen as Oli have such a sweet and amiable chemistry on stage and genuinely push us beyond the self-centred egos and 90s sitcom cliched reasons for breaking up and into the nature of companionship and connections.

Gabrielle Curtis is as impressive as ever, penning and starring in three of the plays of the evening, all of which were delightful, one of which, Bonus of Contention, A Sexual Battle of Wills, was pure magic. Said battle pits Kara and Seb, having got together for a ‘closure chat’, against each other with Kara attempting to seduce her ex and Seb utilising all the force of his willpower and quite a lot of wit to resist the notoriously male inclination to jump at sex whenever it is presented. The air sizzles electrically with sexual tension in this confrontation and Curtis and her partner in this piece, Connor Mills, deliver scalpel sharp dialogue with contrapuntally perfect comic timing, bringing the intense chemistry between the two characters very quickly to a rolling riveting boil. Wonderful.

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Connor Mills and Gabrielle Curtis in ‘Bonus of Contention’, photo from timeout.com

Also by Nick Myles is the powerfully hard-hitting London-Damascus, A Transcontinental Gay Love Story. This is a story that both contrasts and unites what it is to be gay in both a country where homosexuality is illegal and punished with death and in a country where it is embraced and celebrated more than ever before. Sweet and funny at points, heartrenderingly moving at others, this piece is poignant without ever getting preachy and Freddie Wintrip and Reece Mahdi are magnificent as the long distance lovers.

There are points in the night that don’t work so well. Daisy Jo Lucas’ The Goblin King presents us with a potentially intriguing and contemporary problem, that maternal instincts do not come naturally and that sometimes mothers genuinely fear and even loathe the role and its implications. And I’m not against a magical realist turn, but the one that happens feels a bit clunky and undeveloped. I don’t find I care much about Daphne, the career woman and resistant mother. And there’s nothing wrong per se with throwing in a character from The Labyrinth. Danny Steele does well. Ish. But I can’t help feeling like there is too much that goes undeveloped and that perhaps this play could have done better with a Goblin Queen played by the obscenely talented and criminally under-utilised Emily Bell, who plays Daphne’s assistant Clara.

And the evening does sink when it gets too worthy. Laurence Vardaxoglou’s C’etait Ouf felt interminable and unfunny, with Sophia Flohr, likeably enough stringing out clunky metaphors and telling us things that we all do in offices that trot out the old ideas that we all climb onto the same treadmill every day and never question it. I probably didn’t get it, but I can’t have been the only one.

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Amy Quick and Nick Pearse in ‘Bones’ Photo from twitter @UNDEREXPOSEDthr

But the underplayed gem of the night was certainly Bones, a beautifully written and performed chance encounter between Dom, an affably, clumsy cliche-filled man and Clara, a card shop attendant with a past. To see the barrier of ice melt between these two characters, played with masterful timing and subtlety by Amy Quick and Nick Pearse, is a genuinely moving experience that punctures our complacent guardian-reading sensibilities and fills us with a sincere affection for these two individuals.

This collection of scenes, if you’ll permit me a tiny bit of drama in a theatre write up, captures that old familiar Kafkaism, wielding an axe on the frozen sea within our souls. They shake us. And stir us and I look forward to more challenges from Underexposed Theatre in future.

Keep informed about this fantastic company:

http://www.underexposedtheatre.com

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My American Writing Voice

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And what else I learned about the creative process from 28 Plays Later

‘The funny thing is… your plays have a very American tone to them. They sound very American. You can tell the characters are American and it just feels very American.’

So says my Irish wife about the plays I have written as part of the month long writing challenge we are taking part in known as ’29 Plays Later.’ Organised by my very clever friend, writer, director and choreographer, Sebastian Rex, ’29 Plays Later’ (so named because of the leap year this year) tasks us with writing a play a day throughout the month based on a prompt we’re sent the night before. Hell, you say? A pressure cooker for the mind, you scream? Yes, both, but you know what Churchill said about hell and actually, it’s felt fabulous to put that kind of mental pressure on myself every day consistently because it’s taught me an enormous amount about the creative process.

Like that I have a naturally American voice when I’m writing.

And maybe all our cultural voices come through when we put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and start to doodle our way into telling our stories. But I find this especially fascinating since my accent has become a new model hybrid, running on the energy of both American and Irish influence. As a consequence, no one outside of Ireland ever guesses that I am American right off the bat. I have not made an effort to lose my accent, but I have even on occasion fooled Irish people, one who thought I was a ‘stupid git who’d spent the summer in the states’ and was trying to pick up the accent. That I write with an American accent, or an American voice, that gritty, crackly quality of the amber waves of grain, despite setting one of my plays in space, one in a London classroom, and one in a Glasgow pub reassures me.

Do our accents change naturally? Do we naturally adapt our rhythms and inflections? I don’t know. They say that in the first six months of life you learn all the the sounds you need to speak your native language and that there will always be a learning curve, even if you move to another country at that age because a certain amount of muscle memory establishes itself. Does the same thing happen with narrative? Do we learn the rhythms of our own cultural narratives from the places we’re born? It stands to reason. If so, I’m proud to be telling American stories.

Two more things: 

If you write it, it will come. 

Writing a play a day is bloody difficult with a full time job, but one of the rules The Missus has abided by  that I was too scared to try until tonight was just to sit down and write and see what comes. There’s a wonderful, charmingly impromptu message to be taken from this: the brain loves to play and given a field to run around in, it will start to dig up that field and build its own creations. And the great thing about it is, the more you think about ideas every day, the more they come to you. Fantastically pretentious, non?

Not everything that you write, in fact, very little of what you write, will be literature, and that’s okay. 

I’ve written a lot this month. And just writing that sentence makes me feel more creatively accomplished than I have in years. The takeaway? To keep accomplishing that wonderful feeling of accomplishment, to paraphrase Dory, just keep writing. Some ideas are worth returning to while others are best left in that digital recycling bin in the sky, but the more momentum I’ve built, the better I’ve felt about the stories, or writing that comes close to being a story. Or something like a story if it had a plot and characters. You get the idea.

Now you go. WRITE!

Oh and speaking of plays, go see Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at The National Theatre. It’s simply amazing! My review of it will be appearing in The American very shortly.

The American Story

An Exhibition by Dallas Seitz

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I grew up a child of the Cold War, as (I imagine) did most of my generation and going back for the two generations before me. I believed from as far back as I can remember with an untraceably embedded conviction that Russians and everyone near that gigantic nation were bad, bad people. That communism, and all its associated corollaries and manifestations were patently evil and tantamount to satanism (I mean, hello? RED? Can’t be a coincidence).

I believed that Emperor Reagan was our saviour and that Bubble Gum Bush was his inheritor, that our fate was a constant war against the axis of evil. I was raised – and certainly not just by my parents – to believe that we lived in a nation of privilege in diametric opposition to oppression of the starving people of Russia, that we were blessed with the great fortune to live in a nation with the greatest living standards, and the best bestest of everything.

And that it was our superlative luck to have the freedom to shoot guns as often as we wanted, watch people on our cities’ streets starve as often as we liked and to aspire to be one of the good and the great and the rich that get to eat the poor for breakfast and then go to lunch on the dreams of the middle class. USA! U! S! A!

But, as with many such myths and fairytales, ‘when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ Maybe there was always an uneasiness. Maybe there were always questions there, but I didn’t get round to really asking questions about our own pretty little cultural fairytales until adolescence and perhaps it wasn’t brought home to me until a passionate Labour History Professor and something of a mentor in university delivered a lecture in which he talked about how sick it would make a person from Northern Europe to bring them to see the fine living standard to which we are accustomed to with the great privilege of working three jobs to make ends meet and dying of utterly treatable illnesses due to a lack of universal health coverage.

I digress. Do I? It seems poignant and right at a point in our nation’s history when we are potentially about to elect a socialist or a bigoted, venture capitalist dictator who seems to only truly believe in himself that we begin to question more. Of everything. Which brings me, in my charmingly circuitous way to the current show at The IMT Gallery in Bethnal Green, The American Story by the Canadian Dallas Sietz.

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From imagemusictext.com

A haunting series of images contemplating the after effects of The Cold War, photographed on forays into the Californian Desert, Arizona and Palm Springs, this exhibition presents us with questions about the conflict that threatened to end the world from late 1940s right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A telephone tower disguised as a palm tree reminds one of the empty, inorganic nature of a nation infatuated with its own technological innovation. A tunnel that leads to desolate rubble strewn nothingness brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s descriptions of the moon-like landscape of a firebombed and devastated Dresden in Slaughterhouse 5. These photographs seem a decontextualized lament for America and the hollowness of a belief in military might and an apparently vacuous culture, seething with a kind of life and inner tumult.

We live in interesting times, in which many are trying to simplify the essence of what it is to be American and where our future lies. Seitz warmly invites us to get lost in a rich labyrinthine complexity to see things as they are.

ImageMusicText Gallery is at Unit 2/210 Cambridge Heath Road London E2 9NQ UK (nearest tube Bethnal Green). The American Story runs until 6 March.

http://www.imagemusictext.com

 

 

Our Obsession with Voyeurism and Control: Game at The Almeida


Jodie McNee and Mike Noble in Game at The Almeida

Jodie McNee and Mike Noble in Game at The Almeida

One of the advantages of writing up a play for my blog is that this piece can be as long or as short as you want. Magazines dictate guidelines. 100, 450, 500 words. Here, I can keep on writing.

Or, I can be brief.

Which is a very good thing, because Game, currently on The Almeida in Islington, deserves to not be spoiled. It is a theatrical experience for which, if I told you much, I might be spoiling a little and that would be marring the whole experience I’m afraid.

Instead, I’m going to tell you these five things and hope that it entices you enough to be a part of a riveting and worthwhile theatrical experience.

1. There is a story. 

Unlike the last very experimental production I saw at The Almeida, Mr Burns, which, looking back on it now was frankly terrible, there is a narrative and there are characters for whom you feel sympathy, a very important thing for me in narrative.

2. It will make you uncomfortable. 

Don’t you love those kind of productions and hate them at the same time? Isn’t’ that what makes them worthwhile. Kafka said we should be reading the kind of writing that wounds or stabs us. Maybe the same is true for theatre because I am gladdest and fondest of the productions that make me feel the most intense passion and indignation, like Ibsen’s Ghosts, also in The Almeida, a couple years back.

Game at The Almeida

Game at The Almeida

3. It is immersive. 

No audience interaction. That would be cheesy, but you are as much a part of what’s going on as possible. And perhaps in this ultra mediated world in which every experience feels filtered, this is what we need in theatre, to tear down the fourth wall.

4. You will question your world.

Hopefully. I mean who am I to tell you what to do or to make assumptions, but this is definitely an experience that raises questions about our constant need to see everyone else’s lives and our need to use that voyeurism as a way to make ourselves feel superior. It will also force you to question your own enjoyment of it and the possible guilt you feel as a result.

5. It is frightfully clever.

Although there are points at which this feels like some of the metaphors and symbols are ever so slightly heavy handed, it errs just on the right side of intelligent. It is innovative, superbly acted, compelling theatre about surveillance, control, and the calloused way in which we as a society get off on violence, especially violence done to and among those less well off than ourselves.

Not enough yet?

It’s theatre in London. And it’s awesome.

Now, that should be enough.

Game is at The Almeida until 4 April.

Thornton’s Beautiful Masterpiece: Our Town in The Almeida

Our Town?

Sure. I think I saw that in high school. Think it was the school play in my freshman year or something. Generally pleasant production. Can’t remember a specific thing about it.

Okay. Forgettable then. I can’t imagine this new version being watchable, not even at The Almeida. It would have to be amazing.

But alas. So indelibly is Our Town associated in my mind with clichéd canonical American ‘taught texts’, school bells, homeroom, locker combos, and am dram, that it would need to be a damn fine overhaul for this play to impress in 2014. It would have to be like Tim Burton directing ‘The Pit and The Pendulum’, or Jim Jarmusch’s A Separate Peace or David Lynch’s The Scarlet Letter (actually that could really work) or Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby and no one wants that.

But this, David Cromer’s production of this American classic is something else entirely. As it turns out, it’s a bit more like Peter Brook directing… well… Thornton Wilder. And it works incredibly well.

Cromer’s touch on this gentle and slow-burning story is well-judged, subtle, and in the end, devastatingly masterful, the director himself taking the role of the narrator and of the ‘stage manager’ in this very postmodern work that plays freely with the dividing line between audience and actor. You can hear the crisp sycamore leaves crackling in the wind in Cromer’s nasally Chicagoan drawl when he addresses us directly, striding the parapet of the practically nonexistent fourth wall. An expatriate theatregoer in Islington will feel a warm sense of autumnal nostalgia for the homeland. Their British counterparts will feel the same transatlantic warmth drifting round them.

Cromer’s production has had a successful run and rave reviews in several cities back in America and we can see why, but clearly the decision for each actor to play their characters in very strong regional British accents is fascinating and ingenious. It universalizes the chronicling of provincial life in this play and somehow internalizes the existential yearning that each character endures. We imagine instead of this being a small town in New Hampshire that it is a small town in Wales, or England, or Scotland, that in fact these characters are everyman figures struggling to escape small town, everywhere.

The set is minimalist, as Wilder seems to have intended, but Cromer doesn’t even bother with the ‘half light’ specified in the original script, setting up the stage as though the actors are still in dress rehearsal. Characters enact their intimate confrontations with self and others amidst the audience, sometimes with members of that same audience participating.

Although this play is at its strongest with the ensemble working together, slicing apart a cross section of their community for us, Laura Ellsworthy’s portrayal of the young, naïve, and surprisingly complex character of Emily has such depth and evokes such a sense of sympathy that it would be hard hearted viewer who does not feel deeply moved by the time the lights go up.

Perhaps in the same way that George Bernard Shaw opined that youth is wasted on the young, Wilder is wasted on the high schools of America. Cromer has done for me what no teacher managed to do in four years of high school. He’s made me interested in Wilder again.

Our Town is in The Almeida until Sat 29 November. Bookings here. It’s awesome and worth it.

Expats and Explorers! Stay in Style!

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Generator X London, Super Chic hostels. Photo by Paula Hughes

When I first ventured abroad on a study abroad programme to a place in Ireland called Maynooth, I was enchanted by the spirit of adventure. I booked a flight that would arrive two days earlier than my semester abroad programme started so as to spend a couple of days experiencing all that Dublin, this capital city in foreign soil on which my feet had never tread, could offer. So I booked myself into Avalon House, a swanky hostel as far as hostels go, according to the Dublin Rough Guide in 1999, and probably still is today, I haven’t been back there in about 15 years. I do know from their website, they still seem to do a healthy business.

And it was a nice place. Sure, you still share rooms, but it was cosy and clean and had more in the way of amenities than my now better traveled self knows that some hostels have, which is not much, having stayed in hostels in other parts of Ireland and Spain since then. But the majority of you know what hostels are like. You’ve got to be careful in selecting them. This is where you rest your head for the night. This is where you go to seek respite from the hard day of globetrotting, of become more worldly wherever you are.

Which is all to say that I was ill prepared for a hostel as sleek, stylish and cool as the Generator Hostel here in London. I was fortunate enough to attend their relaunch party on Thursday evening and you can see that it was quite the happening atmosphere. If this is what hostels are like nowadays, I might have to revisit this mode of accommodation.

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Special cocktail created by Frank.

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It’s plainly labelled.

The night was buzzing with an atmosphere of bacchanalia and revelry. Bright young things lithely lounged in a comfy and welcoming atmosphere smoothly designed with an eye for detail. If Generator can make you feel this welcome on a launch night, think what they can do if you stay at their hostel.

Generator Launch Party

You will never find a more sumptuous hive of bloggers and villainy.

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The Gin and Fizz was excellent as well, Dahling.

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This is London after all.

Infused with a heavy rhythm provided by NTS Radio and Eglo records, the party was a sensory circus, complete with free photo booth, dance floor and chill out area.

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We are… here, which is where it’s at.

Generator London Launch

Oh, I’m such a poseur.

So, if you find yourself in this fine capital and need a base from which to explore, Generator is a great bet. Rooms are reasonable and stylish. Service is friendly and accommodating. And hey, does a party like this not suggest something of the spirit of their hospitality?

Generator has eight hostels throughout Europe including Copenhagen and Venice. I didn’t ask about loyalty cards, but this is definitely a brand that inspires return custom.

Book rooms now at Generator London. Enjoy!

Harry Potter and The American Londoner

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Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

I don’t tend to trust books that are ubiquitously  popular. It’s why I came very reluctantly and very late to Dan Brown (when I read Da Vinci Code, it only confirmed my worst suspicions: watered down Foucault’s Pendulum). It’s why one of my students had to recommend, pester and finally bully me into reading The Hunger Games. I somehow feel that if everyone’s reading it, there must be something wrong with it, as though there is some embedded message washing over us like waves of radiation as we read: we must read this book, we must read this book. When it comes to books that receive near universal approbation, I feel near enough to the same way that Henry Fielding felt about Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. 

It is for this reason that I came late the Harry Potter phenomenon. I just didn’t trust throngs of commuters furtively hiding a tattered, well thumbed copy of what was initially known as a children’s book obviously behind the cover of a shiny new copy of War and Peace. Or worse still, trying to dignify their choice of reading material with an ‘adult cover’ as they were later published.

But, we all come to a point in our lives when we need pure narrative, something just to envelope ourselves in and in which to pleasantly laze away our hours after a day, or say a university course that involves a pressure cooker of thought for months to years on end. My wife was at just such a point at the end of her degree when she picked up the JK Rowling saga. I scoffed dismissively for years, but you build up a curiosity. You run into a sort of domestic critical mass, you pick up the book one day and you start reading and you find you don’t want to leave a world in which magic exists. I wasn’t hooked from the start, but I was hooked when I finally started.

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Chocolate Feast in The Great Hall

I mean really hooked as well. All the midnight openings and launch parties, adult and child covers, and the whole magic hat full of the Potter universe. We once stood outside of The East Side Bookshop in Brick Lane with its shutters nearly closed at 2 am with our friend Aoife, driven to get Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, begging to be let in to pay our £10.99 to take home the volume and consume the latest in the saga.

Harry Potter Experience

Eh… Does anyone speak parseltongue?

And now, with a seven year old son of my own who is consuming the books quicker than you can down a pint of pumpkin juice at the start of the school year feast (he’s currently on The Order of The Phoenix), we find ourselves in close proximity to where the magic all happened in the film adaptation of these spellbinding tales. And as luck happens, our very good friend Vikki King, worked on the first three films, making the puppetry for house elves and owls and basilisks (Oh My!) and has a son who just happens to be our little American Londoner’s schoolmate.

Sirius Black's motorbike

‘Borrowed it, Professor Dumbledore, sir. Young Sirius Black lent it to me.’

So it was off to Watford in Northwest London and the Warner Brothers Studios where the films were made to immerse ourselves in movie magic, wander wide eyed through The Great Hall, stroll past Harry’s Gryffindor dormitory with its four poster beds and it’s prep school charm, take turns riding atop a broomstick in front of a green screen on which the good employees at The HP Experience could superimpose all manner of backgrounds to make it look as though you were flying right over the Thames, through a stormy quidditch match, or banking with the winding train line through the middle of the country speeding towards Hogwarts. I have to say, it was rather spectacular. Particular highlights include The Burrow, magically cleaning itself and doing its own ironing, vegetable chopping and folding, and of course, Diagon Alley, the immersive pleasure of passing by Flourish and Blotts unsure of what brand of quills to purchase, dreaming of owning the Firebolt and using it to ascend to new heights of quidditch mastery, or mulling over spending your last few galleons on a packet of puking pastilles from Fred and George’s joke shop.

Harry Potter Experience

‘You stand, Harry Potter, on the remains of my late father.’

Alas, that is one of this venue’s shortcomings, that all of the magic creates a skin deep illusion that cannot really be interacted with beyond a visual, sometimes tactile level. It was the deal breaker for the missus, who wondered, ‘why couldn’t you actually  go into any of the shops in Diagon Alley?’ That was a bit disappointing.’

To which my response was, ‘You want Florida. That’s the Harry Potter Experience where you can actually be a part of the whole thing.’

‘Oh. It’s finally happened hasn’t it? I’m just an American in search of a theme park, aren’t I?’

‘Yup.’

Harry Potter Experience

‘I remember every wand I’ve ever sold, Mr. Potter. Every single wand.’

I sympathize utterly though. It probably could have been a more interactive experience, as though the world of Harry Potter was living and breathing before you on a loop that allowed you to enter and take part at any point. My fellow expat blogger, Sunny In London, has written a useful comparison of the Watford Harry Potter Experience and the one in her native Florida. Enjoyable though Watford was, what I’ve read does make me want to check out the Floridian Islands of Adventure that include The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Harry Potter Experience

‘I’ve been thinking. I — I want to go to Godric’s Hollow.’

And as we’re speaking of shortcomings, if you do journey to Watford (which, again, is completely worth it so long as you know what to expect), bring your own food. The comestibles available on the backlot between the two halves of the tour were dire. Dry egg and ham sandwiches or hot dogs moistened with cold saccharine butter beer (all the internet recipes we’ve ever used involve warming the Hogsmeade bevvy in the microwave to help the butterscotch and the cream soda froth up and marry and it’s damn comforting on a cold and windy Halloween night in) were the orders of the day. There was a cafe at the front that didn’t look much more edible and it goes without saying, food prices were ludicrous. We were under what now seems to have been a misconception that BYO was prohibited. I saw people unwrapping pack lunches and digging in and no one was telling them off. It seemed a pretty poor tribute to a series of books so replete with such vivid descriptions of food that can wreak a frankly Pavlovian effect on the most detached of readers.

Harry Potter Experience

‘So The Daily Prophet exists to tell people what they want to hear, does it?’

Harry Potter Experience

‘Windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills, and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon…’

Harry Potter Experience

‘We’ll meet at Flourish and Blott’s in an hour to buy your schoolbooks.’

Harry Potter Experience

My friend worked on Harry Potter. My friend worked on Harry Potter!

One of the great bonuses of having a former employee of the movie franchise with us was that we were let in on the secret that in the wand room at the end of the tour, every wand box has a name of anyone who has worked on any of the films. And though it was like sifting through a mythical haystack for a magical needle, I’m quite proud to say that, in among all the writer’s and actor’s names, I found our friend Vikki’s wand box at which there was much rejoicing. I knew there was a use for my ability to sift through unconnnected symbols and make sense out of verbal chaos somewhere in the universe.

Harry Potter Experience

‘The Castle is a stronghold of ancient magic.’

I would heartily recommend the experience, though pick your times. Traffic was nonexistent first thing on a Sunday. It might well be a different story in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Aside from your pack lunches, you need only bring your imagination and your love of the magic of stories. Now, off to put in some more hours studying occlumency. And then an essay on blast-ended screwts for Monday. Cor Blimey!

Food > Everyfing Else: Eating My Way Through Brixton

Kaff Bar Brixton

Sizzling Hot Creole Sharing Platter at The Kaff Bar in Brixton

Alas, I was a marked man from the start.

“Now, you’re the vegetarian, aren’t you?” says our gracious and knowledgeable host, Penelope, as our tour of Foodie Brixton begins.

I look around, hoping she’s pointing to someone else and I can chime in with, “Oh, that’s me too, I’m veggie too!” in about 30 seconds.

Nope. It’s me she’s pointing at. I’m the only one.

“Yes… I’m vegetarian,” I concede.

“Do you eat fish?” says our other equally gracious and knowledgeable host, Lindsay, hopefully.

“Eh… no.” Sorry. The short tour, then?

“Perfect!” they both say, smiling congenially, assuring me, “there are plenty of veggie options!” while I wonder if the other tour participants are looking askance at me and wondering how such a creature can exist amidst a London so enthralled in the hipness of toe-to-tail chic.

Thankfully, and perhaps surprisingly, from this, somewhat inauspicious beginning, grew a culinarily magnificent experience walking and tasting south of the river on a splendidly soaking Saturday afternoon hosted by the superlative walking tours company, Fox And Squirrel Walks.

Elsa Ethiopian Coffee Brixton

An Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony hosted by Elsa

Founded by London enthusiast Penelope Sacorafou, Fox and Squirrel have been providing quirky, bespoke tours around the metropolis for three years now, garnering the acclaim of ‘best guided walks’ from The Guardian. High praise indeed. And deserving. Slight blips concerning herbivorous lifestyles aside, the walk is an awesome experience, one that left me feeling both full, amazed, well-informed, and a little politically engaged with the local goings on concerning this historic part of the capital, due in no small part to the fact that Fox and Squirrel have worked really hard to establish excellent rapport with the locals and newbie restauranteurs and other business owners of Brixton Market.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Frankincense, olfactorily enchanting…

Locals like Elsa and her husband Mo, who own The Shawl cafe and hold Ethiopian coffee ceremonies just across the way on Brixton Station Road. I felt like a bit of a cheat having taken part in this East African ritual before at Asmara of Coldharbour Lane, but felt refreshed with all the history surrounding it. The ginger in the coffee was a surprisingly beautiful flavour, warming the cockles amidst the cold, slate grey of the dullish morning on which the excursion took place.

Ethiopian coffee

Mmmm. Ethiopian coffee. Beats yer average tax-dodging chain any day of the week…

A sharing platter atop a bed of spongy injera bread followed the coffee. If you had asked me ten years ago if I would have guessed that the cuisine of Ethiopia could be mind-blowingly delicious, I would have scoffed heartily, but the beauty of being an expatriate is discovery and thanks to some delightful experiences on both sides of the pond, I now know the error of my ways. The joyfully tactile experience of tearing a swather of injera and scooping some moreishly berbere seasoned lamb, lentil or spinach, was bliss.

Ethiopian Food Brixton

Oh, injera.

A quick swill of some vino verde and down Pope Row to family owned Brixton institution Las Americas Cafeterias, where we were afforded the opportunity to sample the uniquely Colombian Lechona, a whole hog (no literally, and yes, I did enjoy just writing that), crisped and stuffed with vegetables, beans and meat and slow-cooked.

Lechona Colombia

Lechona con salsa

Lechona Colombia Brixton

More Lechona, with cracking crackling. Crisp, delish, perfection, a carnivorous paradise…

Impressive still were the time-consuming lengths to which Penelope and Food Journalist guide Lindsay Faller went to cater to my tastes, requesting an order of arepa, the cheesy, cornmealish Colombian cousin to the tortilla and tailor made to hold the cafe’s dynamite salsa. Latin American comfort food at its best.

Arepas Colombia Food Brixton

Arepas, tasty y vegetariano.

Imbibing was the next order of business from local newcomers to London’s handcrafted brew scene, The Brixton Brewery, where we were given an intriguing crash course in the brewing process before tasting libations that would give any of Hackney’s half-dozen microbreweries a serious run for their money. NB: Brixton Brewery names its beers for the local area and the design for their brand is taken from the African influence on Brixton. Ah how I wished to linger and continue, lotus-eater like to lazily sample more of the Effra Ale.

Brixton Brewery

One of the tiniest microbreweries in London, under the arches in Brixton

Brixton Brewery

Makes be hoppy. Electric Pale Ale, named so for the avenue of the same name.

On to the market proper and Brian Danclair’s Fish Wings and Tings, and a colourful palate of Trinidadian flavours in a lively corner of Brixton. One critic has called Paul’s exquisitely flavoured codfish fritters, ‘like a high five from Jesus,’ and his rotis were equally flavoured to perfection, one goat and one pumpkin, perfect parcels of glee-inducing yum.

Codfish Fritters

‘A high five from Jesus’ I Be-LIEVE!

Fish wings and tings

The surprisingly perfect accompaniment to Fish Wings and Tings food

Brixton Market

The warmth of the market hall on a cold wet day

Pumpkin Roti

Perfect Parcel of Pumpkin Roti

Goat Roti

And the goat roti, omnivorous feasting.

And for dessert? Gelato that injects new vim and vigour into the trendified flavour of salted caramel at Lab G.

Lab G Brixton Market

Pure Creamy euphoria… Lab G

Hustle and Bustle

Hustle and Bustle

Brixton Market

Fusion of Cultures

Brixton Market

Fruits and veg of the market

I can’t say enough good things about the Fox and Squirrel foodie tour. I’ve had enough fun and  built up enough of an appetite reliving it while writing this blog post. My fear is that I’ve said too much, but, as they say, the joy is in the eating. I will say though that it is a far more unique walking tour, its guides more frank in their opinions, wittier in their banter, and far more inclined to specially cater to the whims and requirements of a particular group  than your average London walking tour, making eating your way through Brixton with them well worth the time and the cover price. Easily the best walking tour of London I’ve been on, even if I’m pretty sure there was some shredded pork in that last quesadilla (I’m also quite sure the tenderness will delight the majority of readers).

Hot Ginger Beer from The Kaff Bar

Hot Ginger Beer from The Kaff Bar

London Ate My Pocketbook

Travel and Fashion Writer Evelyn Franklin takes a look at how to make the most out of this fantastic city without it taking the most out of your bank account

Expensive London

Image taken from london.tab.co.uk Photo by Alex Macnaughton / Rex Features

There are few experiences to rival the first few minutes spent in a city you’ve spent a lifetime reading about and watching on TV. In London, your first experience is likely to be one of sensory assault, especially if you arrive at one of the stations: the chaos of the crowds, the damp, musty, smell, the overwhelming grandeur of the architecture, the incomprehensible and garbled announcements. Take a moment, breathe it in, find your way to a coffee stand to protect yourself from the chaos with a shot of caffeine, and feel the next assault: the one on your pocketbook. London is likely rivalled only by New York in terms of sheer budget strain, with even other Brits grimacing at the cost of the basics here. Still, there are ways for visitors to the city to find their way around, even on a shoestring budget. Here are my recommendations.

Mark Noad Tube Map

A more ‘realistic’ take on the tube done by artist Mark Noad in 2011, from travelandleisure.com

1. Walk

The Tube map is not an accurate representation of the actual layout of the lines and stations, and there are plenty of places where various Underground stations are actually closer on foot than they are by train. Cut down on your travelling expenses by seeing more of the city above ground. Earn your pub meal by stacking up the miles, be kind to your pocket, and see more of the sights, all in one go.

2. Choose Your Accommodation Wisely

There are a few standard accommodation options, and most of them aren’t good ones. If you’re on a budget, chances are you’re looking for a hostel: don’t. You may get lucky, but in my experience, London hostels are still horrifically expensive, and many are seedy to boot. You may end up paying an exorbitant rate to be stuck in a damp, dark room with 20 strangers, twelve of whom snore like drains and three (yes, three) of whom are having sex. Unless you’d like to have bed bugs for the rest of your life, choose a hostel very, very carefully, or steer clear. The standard alternative – a large chain hotel, even a cheap one – is not likely to be much better overall: it’ll probably be cleaner, but will also probably break the bank significantly more. So what are your options? One good avenue to explore is to look for timeshare that’s going begging – this can be a better deal and greater comfort than a cramped hostel or dinky hotel. Another good bet is to look for self-catering accommodation, especially if you’re travelling in a group: if it’s just you, it may not work out cheaper, but if you can cram four people into a one-bedroom apartment with a sofa bed, you can split the costs of grocery shopping and save cash by eating at home. And finally, if you’re really broke, look into couch-surfing, which is a sure-fire way to meet excellent people (and a few wonderful weirdos), and end up with your own friendly traveller in future months.

South Bank Book Market

South Bank Book Market, one of my faves (image from visitlondon.com)

3. Head Away From The Crowds

Let’s face it: the best bits of any foreign city are not the ones that people flock to in droves. Save your precious London cash by avoiding the most garish of tourist attractions. A wander around Southbank is definitely worth your time, and you can admire Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament at your leisure, without having to elbow-wrestle with fourteen hundred other tourists to catch a glimpse of something interesting. If historical London really floats your boat, pick a few sites that you absolutely must check out, but don’t blindly go along with what every travel blog ever tells you that you “have to see”; read the reviews, do your research, and narrow it down. Chances are high that you’ll have more enchanting memories from an afternoon’s wander round Covent Garden or a spectacular evening in a pub than you will of the overpriced stampede at the Tower of London. Even those ten minutes you spent with your cheek flattened against the train window when you caught the Piccadilly line at half past five in the evening were probably more fun (and cheaper).

London Souvenir Stall

Yup. London Tat.

4. Don’t Fall Prey to the Souvenir Junk.

What do you think you’re going to do with that “Mind the Gap” t-shirt? It’s not original, or clever. Neither is your miniature London bus. It’s understandable to want to accumulate some mementos to take home with you, but try to make them unique or useful at the very least. Buy a fantastic piece of art at a little market, or a warm scarf that will remind you of London for years to come. If you must buy a standard souvenir, keep it small and cheap, like a fridge magnet or shot glass. That way you won’t weigh down your luggage with unnecessary junk, and when you get home and realise you don’t need it after all, it won’t be difficult to find a place to keep it. Plus, you’ll have saved yourself all the expense of loading yourself up with themed coasters and umbrellas.

What You Need To Know About London Before Packing Your Belongings!

The Glitz and The Glamour Oh My. Image taken from gatewaylondon.co.uk

The Glitz and The Glamour Oh My. Image taken from gatewaylondon.co.uk

Quite excited today for The American Londoner’s first guest post (I know. Hitting the big time!). This one comes from Chris Jerome at Refresh Accommodation, a superlative short term let service based here in London. Short term lets are just the sort of thing you will find handy if you are at all interested in leading a wilfully nomadic lifestyle or staying for longer than a vacation in order to get a real taste for somewhere. Enjoy! 

Having lived in London for the past eight years, I have come to understand the many pleasures and pitfalls of this truly amazing city. There are things which will surprise you, some which you learn to love, and others you never really come to understand at all.

Whether it’s the indecipherable vocabulary of East End cockney taxi drivers, hidden gems of pubs and cafes or extortionate prices of hotels and B&Bs, London really is a place you need to pack and prepare for.

Transport

The Routemaster, iconic London. Taken from guardian.co.uk.

The Routemaster, iconic London. Taken from guardian.co.uk.

What better place to start than with the peculiarities of London transport? Getting around London is relatively easy, with a wealth of black cabs and colourful cockney drivers. Whether you are looking for a tailor in Brick Lane or a curry house in Mayfair, they will find it, using their encyclopaedic ‘knowledge’ of the streets.

Some will ask probing questions like “Is that on the corner of Liverpool Street or the one next to Greenwich park mate?”, to which the answer is usually “I’m not entirely sure”; others will merely nod and begin on their way. To really enjoy this rich experience, make sure you pack your wit, as the ride will often provide an opportunity for banter.

The London Underground provides an amazing and extensive network of locations and stops, complete with a rainbow coloured map and ‘soft’ seating. The ‘Oyster’ card system allows you to get around without having to carry one of those questionable orange tickets, while being significantly cheaper for multiple trips. However, it can be a good idea to carry a map; I would often fall asleep and miss my stop, ending up somewhere like Barking; quite maddening.

However, unlike the cab drivers, I find it amazing that you can sit on a crowded tube and not engage in any form of conversation whatsoever; while Londoners are known for being socialites, they are uncannily shy in the company of fellow travellers, so make sure you pack a book to read; a venture across the Central Line from West Ruislip to Epping can take a while.

The Great Outdoors

Picnic London

Image from fluidlondon.co.uk.

While England is hardly admired for its sunshine, the months of spring, summer and autumn show the countryside in all its glory. London is blessed with a wonderful selection of parks and gardens, which I feel are best enjoyed in the autumn, when the tree leaves start to brown and fall to the floor. Take a leisurely walk around Hyde Park or Richmond Park, just be sure to pack your thermals, the winter soon starts to bite.

Accommodation

London at night

Stay in the middle of it all. Photo from trekearth.com.

If you are going to London for a short break, beware of hotel prices, which can be really expensive. Double guestrooms in areas like Paddington or Notting Hill can cost up to £250 a night, with the contents of the mini-bar usually costing the same. However, if you want to feel more at home, serviced accommodation can be a much more cost-effective alternative, with providers like Refresh Accommodation giving you access to an entire apartment, allowing you to stock up and drink from your own fridge!

 Where to Imbibe

The French House

Still one of my favo(u)rite watering holes in the capital. Samuel Beckett drank here. From sohopubs.com.

On the subject of drinking, London is by far one of the best drinking locations in the world. With so many cosy pubs and trendy cocktail bars, you will never go thirsty; just be prepared to spend £4 on a pint of lager and drink ales at room temperature. For the classier customer, ‘gastro’ pubs provide a wealth of fancy food and wines at somewhat inflated prices.

Above all, my advice is this: pack your common sense – enjoying your time in the capital shouldn’t mean paying through the roof; there are plenty of opportunities to find a bargain, you just have to look hard enough!

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