Category Archives: Uncategorisable Experiences

Now, We Fight Back

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Photo by @pollyjohughes (dissembledesign.com)

7/7. The Opening Ceremony of The Olympics. Marching in The Women’s March on Saturday. Recalled moments in which I have felt a welling sense of pride in my adopted city.

They say that the arts thrive in times of intense uncertainty and pressure. I believe it true of progressivism as well. That we will become stronger through having our beliefs tested to the utter limits over the next four years I do not doubt. Though unwelcome, I wonder if the left perhaps needs this in order to sort ourselves out and pick more exciting candidates that act as beacons of moral leadership.

Whatever the sinister circumstances that brought us together over the weekend, let us not let it break us apart in the trying times ahead. Let us counter every one of Trump’s utterances of moral depravity with fierce, fierce love and unity. Let us counter his cynical, insidious narrative, every time.

Highlights of the day: a dog walking around with a sign on its back that said: ‘Even I wouldn’t grab a pussy,’ having to explain the course connotations of the word ‘pussy’ to my ten year old (Thanks, Mr President!) because it just became inevitable, and the eloquence of those present on the day, including Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, whose speech was moving and who spoke with conviction about the murdered Pro EU MP Jo Cox:

“We are marching because a talented woman MP was murdered by a far-right extremist and we need to call it out as the terrorism it is. And we are not just marching – we’re … standing up to the misogynists, the bullies and the haters who try to intimidate and silence people online, just as for years they tried to intimidate or silence women on the street.

“We are here because we want to take a stand against Donald Trump. Millions of American women and men voted for him. Marching isn’t enough – we need to persuade, to win arguments, to challenge the causes of division and to build a future in common. For the sake of our children and grandchildren … we are here because we will not let the clock be turned back.” (Reprinted from guardian.co.uk)

Thank you, London, as so many of the placards on Saturday said, we shall overcomb.

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Election Night 2016: The Nightmare

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‘History is a Nightmare from which I am trying to  awake.’

So says Stephan Daedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, in a moment in which he refuses to be politicized by the history of 800 years of British oppression of Ireland.

It puts things in perspective.

Election night. My fellow registered Democrats and I stand in a bar in Central London watching the results roll in. We have been working for weeks, and in fact most of my fellow Democrats for several months leading up to the election. We have regularly sat around a table littered at various points with laptops, bowls of potato chips, takeout coffees and sugary snacks, high up in a building let to the Democrats Abroad near Covent Garden, phonebanking our fellow Americans in order to get out the vote. Some of us — not me personally — have made thousands of calls. This is a massive global juggernaut of a campaign in which we have taken part. It has reached out to millions of compatriots worldwide.

Perched atop our liberal London eyrie, we steadfastly believe that our candidate is about to spread her flawed but moderately progressive wings and fly into history, heroically heralding in great swooping strides four to eight more years of Democratic residency in the White House.

Even as results roll in and we stand holding our collective breath, fingers crossed double behind backs, sugar plu, Joe Bidens dancing in our heads, even when we see the blue states crash blood red, even then we believe all is not lost, though our hearts are not as buoyant as they were when the evening started. Even as I leave my second party of the evening, the one I have got to after 2 am, the one where all the guests have already left in despair and the host ruefully sips wine and says ‘hath no man here a dagger for me?’ with his eyes, even then I think that the unions of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in my home state of Pennsylvania, which has not gone red for a generation, I feel even now most in our hour of need, the treacherous rednecks of Bucks, Monroe, Lackawanna and Susquehanna counties won’t betray us. Surely not now.

Only bleary eyed, in the cold, harsh political hangover of the next day after several precious but fitful hours of sleep the Ipad unusually laying beside me open to the BBC’s all night coverage, only then do I find that history is indeed a nightmare from which I am trying to awake all day long, and the corrosive politics of my country will once again away at itself and the world at large for a sustained and unpredictable amount of time.

Our eagle has flapped and fallen and we’ve all come tumbling down. Like the destruction of some intergalactic world, defenseless and full of reasonably progressive politics, it is as though a thousand leftist voices cry out in pain and then stop, disturbing the galactic balance of the force.

Well… the voices don’t stop for a good few weeks. They still haven’t.

Much to the displeasure of Trump voters and gloaters including my own Republican parents.

And well those voices shouldn’t stop.

The easiest path in the universe would be to throw in the towel, lie down and characterize your fellow citizens inbred piles of chewed up tobacco for brains as I did just six paragraphs ago, like the smug liberal piss ant than I am.

But we know what we have to do.

No. It’s not to rally together and bond, ‘healing wounds’ in some saccharine crusted patchwork quilt. Cauterize maybe. but not heal. Some wounds are worth keeping. Some pain is worth remembering.

We need to do what we did not do during the entire campaign. We must tell a compelling story about the terrible risk and the horrible threat that our own commander-in-chief poses to us as Americans. We need to keep raising our voices as loudly and clamorously as possible.

We need to keep on waking each other up from this nightmare of history, keep waking each other up every day and stay as woke as we can.

 

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

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.

Trump’s America

You don’t have to look far to find this strange and delusional man’s vision for the country

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From Deadspin.com, 1990, The Tour De Trump

I have an abiding memory of Donald Trump that seems illustrative.

I am 12 years old. It is 1990. I am laying lazily on my grandmother’s sofa sheltering from the summer heat. The TV is on. I haven’t put it on, haven’t tuned in, haven’t consciously looked for a particular show. It’s just on. And I am vaguely aware, from my almost supine position on my grandmother’s sofa after spending all day at the beach near Point Pleasant, New Jersey and then collapsed from sheer, childish exhaustion, that there are sports commentators narrating the events of whatever I’m watching. I’m furthermore vaguely aware that there are athletes in spandex shorts and oblong helmets and brightly colored shirts  and muscles rippling beneath spandex, that are pelting down asphalt, sweating their hearts out, determination and hope in their eyes.

I look up to my uncle, who has just walked in from the kitchen, probably with a sandwich in his hands. He takes one look at the TV and says to me what is perhaps one of the most politically perceptive insights I have ever had imparted to me.

‘Ah. The Tour de Trump. I think he must have been very insecure as a child. He seems to have a compulsive need to name everything after himself.’

My uncle then plops himself down on the couch and proceeds to finish his sandwich while watching the race. Nothing more that I know of was said about it, certainly not in the vast stores of my memory banks. But the more I reflect on it as I see that the Republican Party has given in to is baser urges and finally taken complete leave of its senses, shifting the responsibility of steering the thing to those who have a compulsive need to take a hard right towards the next rocky outcropping, the wiser my Uncle’s insight seems.

Because Trump did name everything after himself back then including his galactic failure of a cycling event. Trump Tower, Trump Marina, Taj Ma Trump… no wait a minute… the Trump mahal… hang on a sec. The point is, for a time in the 80s, before Trump decided to upend the monopoly board with everyone else’s pieces on it, declare bankruptcy, and start buying the world and charging us double the rent for living in it all over again, Atlantic City became Trump World, an idealistic utopian space into which we walked when we wanted to each perfect venture capitalist paradise.

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From business insider.com

So, if actions are indeed stronger than words and if we take Trump’s purchase and branding of  a whole city as his model for his vision of America, what do we learn, boys and girls? Well, do we want an America in which retirees gamble away their pension plans, trust funds and retirement savings on slim chances in which there are no real winners? Do we want an America that looks shiny from a certain angle, say, coming at us from the Eastern side of The Atlantic only to find that the sheen we project is only as substantial as the glass front of a seaside hotel and beyond that, we are nothing but hypnotised obese, complacent automatons, waddling or scooting to the next billboard without questioning whether our lives belong to a higher purpose? A homeland where beyond that sheen, our poor, our starving, and our huddled masses continue to huddle and continue to reach out their hands in supplication lumped together with the degenerates, the undesirables, and anyone else whose lifestyles or beliefs are alien to the interests of the United States, leaving The Great Gamesmaster in his great tower, the great big insecure child presiding over, and branding us all, from his little fiefdom on the Jersey shore to his great inward looking fiefdom smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic?

Oh, Republicans, my fellow Americans, my moderate peeps, where are you? I used to number among you. With his latest call to boycott Apple for their cowardly call to stand up for civil liberties, Trump turns my stomach. If I was still a young conservative, he would certainly have turned me liberal. 

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

 

 

What to Know About Heathrow: A Survival Guide

Heathrow Airport

Taken from heathrowterminal5.com

Travel and Fashion Writer Evelyn Franklin gives us the low down this week on one of the world’s busiest airports, and how to navigate its complex organised chaos 

It can be an oasis in the desert or your worst nightmare but, at some point, you will likely encounter Heathrow Airport. It is the world’s busiest international airport serving more than 90 airlines and over 70 million passengers annually. It is also a major gateway to Europe, the United Kingdom, and of course, London. But depending which terminal you are funneled through, your experience could range from bearable to utterly tedious or even just plain ridiculous. For any that have used it, it should come as no surprise why it’s often rated one of the world’s most hated airports.

With horribly long walks to boarding gates and lengthy lines at security and border control, passengers might just find themselves taking a longer time to navigate their way out of Heathrow than it would take to fly to Spain.  The airport suffers from a chronic inability to cope with the masses of travelers. The city of London is served by four other major airports including Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, and London City. But if you find yourself on a flight bound for Heathrow from one of the more than 180 destinations in 90 countries that is directly connected to the airport, we’ve got a few tips for you to help suppress any notions of air rage.

Understanding Heathrow: Know Your Terminals

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Must. Get. To. Connecting. Flight. (taken from telegraph.co.uk)

Heathrow Airport is practically a city unto itself with four different terminals and a fifth on the way scheduled to open this June. Because of its vast size, security requirements, and that development has failed to keep pace with growth, the airport has earned a reputation for being overcrowded, inefficient, and full of delays. The airport operates at 99 percent capacity on a daily basis with a take-off or landing every forty-five seconds. The airlines at Heathrow seem to enjoy playing a constant game of “musical terminals” as they continuously shift operations from one terminal to another. As a passenger, you are advised to check the Heathrow website for the latest terminal updates and information. The long-term plan is to dedicate a specific terminal to each of the airline alliances in order to minimize the number of connecting passengers that will need to change terminals. The airport has uniformed volunteers in pink attire to assist travelers navigating the airport.

Top Travel Tips for Heathrow Airport

  • Family-Friendly Travel: If you are travelling with children, Heathrow offers special security lanes with staff that are specially trained to work with less experienced flyers and able to accommodate families with strollers as indicated by the rainbow symbol above the detectors.
  • Power Naps: If your connecting flight is delayed or you have a long layover and need a couple of hours of sleep, Heathrow offers a couple of options for travelers that need a few hours of shut-eye. Single bedrooms can be rented at the No. 1 Traveller and Yotel for a modest amount.
  • Central London in a Rush: If you need to reach the city center in a hurry, the Heathrow Express train can get you to Paddington Station in just fifteen minutes for about £25. It’s an express train with no stops along the way.
  • Save Cash on the Tube: It will take nearly an hour to reach central London on the Underground but it is one of the best deals in town at just £6 off-peak to anywhere in London that is served on the network. The biggest battle will be the lack of space for luggage.
  • Stay Charged: All travelers like to keep their mobile phones and laptops fully charged for the journey ahead but few airports were built with that in mind. If you find yourself in a part of Heathrow that lacks power sockets, search for any sockets hidden in the floor that are typically used by cleaning staff. Alternatively, you could also bring along an adapter that converts one socket into two so that you can share outlets with other passengers.
  • Beat the Security Lines: Unlike in the United States, you don’t need to present a boarding pass while passing through the metal detectors. You also don’t need to remove your laptop but be prepared to place all loose items in a tray and don’t travel with liquids.
  • Eat Before You Go: Depending which terminal you are in, Heathrow offers a wide range of dining options. However, they also come at a price. You would be much better to pick up a sandwich for a pound or two at a convenience store to eat on the way.

Getting Through Passport Control

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Bring a good book and plenty of patience (taken from the guardian.com).

The long lines to cross the UK Border can often give passengers additional time to finish those last few chapters on their Kindle that they couldn’t finish on the flight. Frequent flyers to London know that this is to be expected as immigration officers grill passengers with five to ten questions about their intentions in the UK.  If you want this process to go smoothly and quickly, there are a few things that you should know:

  • Always carry proof of a return flight out of the country as you may be asked to produce one by the officer. If you do not have one ready, you may need to go through the tedious process of getting your airline to do it for you which will mean proceeding through security and into the long passport line for a second time.
  • Know where you are staying as it must be written onto your entry form and the border officers may ask you where you plan to reside while in the United Kingdom. That means you should not head to London without a hotel booking. Memorize the name and the street of the hotel or carry a copy of your hotel reservation with you.
  • Be able to converse in English because if you are unable to competently answer the questions posed by the immigration officer, you could be automatically diverted to another line for additional questioning and potential rejection.

Flying Out of Heathrow

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Taken from your.heathrow.com

If you are headed to the airport to board your return flight out of Heathrow or if you are one of the lucky folks that managed to grab a hot last minute deal on a cheap flight from London, you should be prepared to navigate Heathrow if you want your journey to get off to a seamless start. As Heathrow is an incredibly large airport, it is important to know your terminal before you depart and to allow sufficient time to check-in, get through security, and travel to your boarding gate. The recommended check-in time is typically at least three hours prior to departure. However, some passengers have reported waiting in line for up to 1.5 hours just to receive boarding cards. If you would like to save time, try to check-in online and print your own boarding card if your airline offers this service. You will also want to ensure that you are wearing comfortable walking shoes for the lengthy journey ahead.

If you are a foreign tourist and planning to take advantage of the VAT Refund, you will need to present your goods purchased and the necessary forms to UK Customs prior to checking in your luggage. You should consider whether it is worth it prior to jumping in line as some queues can take over an hour. Once you have cleared check-in and security, you can proceed to the departure lounge. It is here that you will find the majority of shops and dining outlets. You can purchase items here to bring on the aircraft with you. Take note that there are few if any shops near the boarding gates so you will want to ensure that you complete your shopping before leaving the departure lounge to avoid a lengthy walk back and forth. Some gates can take as much as forty minutes to reach and boarding commonly starts forty-five minutes prior to departure so you will need to allow yourself plenty of time otherwise you risk being left behind. Be prepared for one last line to check your boarding card before being permitted entry into the boarding lounge.

Additional Gateways to London

Heathrow’s central location makes it a convenient airport for many travelers. But if you have the opportunity to use one of London’s alternate airports, it may be a worthwhile choice that can save you a lot of time, hassle, and even money depending where you are headed in the United Kingdom. Gatwick and Stansted Airport are not nearly as busy as Heathrow and are home to less expensive charter flights. In addition, you will enjoy less congestion, shorter walks, and faster security lines. While the number of connections to London aren’t as abundant, there is always a direct link by train to the city.

Harry Potter and The American Londoner

Hogwarts The Harry Potter Experience

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.

Harry Potter Experience

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

Londoners: This is How We Move

At some point in your London life, if you are here for any medium to long term period of time, you will have it: the property conversation. It won’t happen at first of course. You’ll have too many cool things to do and see, but eventually, you will start to peruse realtors’ estate agents’ windows with something approaching avarice in your eyes. You will find yourself in the pub on Friday night with your friends saying things like, “I mean, we can’t rent forever. That’s no good, is it?” and “On average? £300k for a 2 bed! That’s exactly why we’re looking in that area!”

It doesn’t happen everywhere. There are plenty of places in the world — in fact in the rest of Europe — where people are quite happy to rent an apartment all their lives, but there is an Anglo-Irish obsession with owning a space and declaring it their own. If I speak in disparaging tones, they are also self-deprecating ones. I feel like my beloved and I are always thinking about where we can get more space, whether we can keep our place and buy another, how we can work the variables. With this in mind, I give you this intriguing study from our friends at reallymoving.com, based on 34,000 Londoners who used the site between January 2012 and August 2013. It’s pretty fascinating and a little bit surprising, especially for Londoners with an almost instinctual eye on the property market. Love to hear your thoughts on it. Enjoy and Happy Monday!

\reallymoving.com London Moving Trends Infographic

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