Monday, 28 July 2008


I am sitting in Victoria Embankment Gardens. I wandered here accidentally but have decided to stay. There is a free concert on. Multicoloured deckchairs of blue, red and green are lined up roughly in front of a tiny green stage. Populating the deckchairs are many white-haired men and women, reclining at angles that could make even the most alert of people look three seconds away from a sunny snooze. A bald man in a blue shirt squints as he bites his nails. Behind me a girl is discussing her English lessons in a Spanish accent: her teacher says her grammar needs work. The sun is out, and along the brim of the receding hairline in front of me I see sweat beads glittering. A girl gets up, leaving behind an empty bottle of Iced-tea. Pigeons bob and weave between the legs of the deckchairs, pecking at muffin wrappers. Over the fence is the rumbling of traffic – the sharp squeak of brakes, the honking of boats, the gravelly groan of buses accelerating. People suck on frappuccinos through green straws, tap messages into black phones, click on red lighters to start their cigarettes. I hear a woman’s high-pitched laugh, chairs scraping on the pavement, a group of school kids speaking in German. On Villiers street a group of men are singing ‘I Love You Baby’ as they walk to the tube station. When they finish, people cheer.

The concert never starts, but I am glad I came here.

Friday, 18 July 2008

J'aime Beaujolais

Who cares for paid pleasures or pre-organised festivities? Give me spontaneity and unexpected revelries.

Unfortunately my friend Jean-Marc has beaten me to the punch writing about the pub/bistro in Covent Garden that we are destined to frequent. Unfortunately he has also written about said pub/bistro in a way much more eloquent than I, but I won’t let that stop me. Now we will just have two different versions of the same tale.

After an early evening exchanging bad jokes and consolations in a pub near Seven Dials, our stomachs turned us out onto the Covent Garden streets in search of a menu offering something other than steak, steak with a side salad or steak with a side steak. Weaving around the mish-mash of streets that used to confuse me, we stopped in front of a tiny, dimly-lit bistro. There were raised eyebrows from my companion, and one look at the ceiling densely packed with glass beer steins, multicoloured neck-ties, gnarled brown branches and lampshades made out of faded yellow wine labels was enough to convince us both to step inside.

It was a French bistro/pub called Beaujolais. I’ve never had a ‘local’ before, but now I understand the drive to spend as many nights as possible in a place where the surroundings are warm, the music unobtrusive and the owners shake hands with you when you leave. And, of course, where all the signage is in French and the waiters speak to you earnestly in the language before realising you only understood the words ‘fromage’ and ‘aujourd’hui’.

It was a blessing in disguise that there were no tables left so we had to sit at the bar. After divvying up our plat de fromage we found ourselves the targets of a lumbering, loud (and a little bit lewd) local from Brittany. He’d had his bar stool ‘stolen’ from him and, after many a glare at his blonde-haired usurper, and many French curses that went over my head, he spent the rest of the evening standing half-behind, half-beside the bar, joking loudly with us, insulting my Swiss companion and confusing all the hopeful bill-payers when he refused to take their money.

On the bar between my elbows was a silver plaque: “Honestly, I’d rather be at Beaujolais – Tony Hogan”. It turns out it was a year to that very day that Tony Hogan – a British writer who had spent almost every night at Beaujolais for 20 years – had passed away. Our Jack Daniels-scented bar-fellow and then the owner of Beaujolais and some of the barmen each took time to tell us about this man. By all accounts, he was the very model of an English gentleman. An encyclopaedic knowledge of French history, a willingness to sit down with a glass of wine and discuss any confusions, and never a harsh word to anybody.

Up on the wall was an In/Out members board with locals names scrawled in white chalk. Tony’s name was right at the top, marked as ‘Always In’. From the looks on the barmen’s faces when they described the last day they saw him, it was obvious that this was a man well deserving of their reverence. Their loss was great. The owner looked at our demolished plate of cheeses, then met my eye, shrugged and said: ‘C’est la vie’.

Between the bellowing Frenchmen, the insistence on wine over water, the animated stories and the little French signs everywhere saying things like ‘If you are drinking to forget, please pay before drinking’, I honestly would rather be at Beaujolais than many other places, too. Here I cannot help but quote my partner in Beaujolais revelry to finish:

“Jean-Yves waves regally at his clientèle and turns towards me. 'This wine bar has been here for 30 years and there are only locals here.' he whispers, his salt and pepper (avec hint of Brie) beard rustling and bustling nervously as he leans towards me and continues 'You will be locals, I know it...'.”

Let us drink to Tony.

The Music Edition

Thom the Pied-Piper of Victoria Park

Thanks to a generous Canadian couchsurfer named Elias, last month I found myself in the enviable position of being able to say ‘I have a free ticket to Radiohead!’ to anyone who would listen. Apparently Elias chose me not for my groundbreaking insights into Wittgenstein’s ladder or even my abiding love for Mr Yorke’s voice, but because he discovered from my CS profile that we had one very important thing in common: a shared passion for those dangerously addictive devils in a blue packet: crispy M&Ms.

They were playing on Tuesday and Wednesday (24th and 25th June) in Victoria Park and our tickets were for the Wednesday. BUT on Tuesday night, I was standing in my kitchen, dropping another tablespoon of chilli into my dhal when I suddenly realised I could HEAR the Pyramid Song. I could HEAR Thom’s voice from my stupid little under-stocked kitchen. He was serenading me as I chopped my coriander.

Like a rat lured by pipes, like a dopey forest animal transfixed by Orpheus’s lyre, I was drawn to the music. I wolfed down my dinner, recruited my flatmate Kyle to be my partner in stolen sounds, and ran down to the park, looking like a right plonker with my hands stretched out trying to catch the notes echoing between buildings, rumbling off the parked cars in the street and generally dervish dancing around in bejewelled ballet slippers.

We made it there just as Jigsaw Falling into Place began, and joined the other sound thieves on a hill just outside the concert walls. People had brought tartan picnic blankets, bottles of wine and tea-lights, and every now and then I’d meet someone’s eye who was just as deliriously appreciative as I was to be there. I had only ever heard Radiohead recorded. Live, Thom’s voice remains painfully personal. Even for the thousands of ears who had paid to be there, it was as if we were all behind the fence. He was singing to himself, and we were all just fortunate eavesdroppers.

The next night was obviously brilliant as well – they played Paranoid Android, which satisfied my Year 8 self on the school bus listening to it over and over again on my walkman – but that first night was just so spontaneous and unexpected: like getting home and finding a chocolate ganache cake with a big fuchsia bow on it in the middle of your bed (on a plate, of course).

Mighty Boosh vs. Hop Farm = Fluoro Spandex vs. Oatmeal Windbreakers

The Mighty Boosh festival and Hop Farm Festival were both held in the same field in Kent, but there the similarities end. The headliners of each festival drew significantly different crowds. The Mighty Boosh, for those of you whose lives are blighted by your wilful ignorance of this show, consists mainly of the British comedy duo Julian Barratt (Howard Moon) and Noel Fielding (Vince Noir): the former a jazz-loving ‘straight-man’ with a penchant for tweed and intellectual self-delusion, and the latter a cheeky androgynous electro-boy with a penchant for sequins and Mick Jagger (oh, and a phenomenal hair-do).

Contrast that with the headliner of Hop Farm – Neil Young – and you will get an indication of the crowd-pulling differences of these two festivals. Of course Neil Young is still amazing, it’s just in a slightly ‘older’ way…

On the Boosh festival day I was carried along on a magical dragon-boat of glam-rock ski-suits, sequined cowboy hats, gold spandex, fluoro yellow tutus, purple robes, afro-wigs and men dressed as the pink tentacled head of Tony Harrison. On the Hop Farm day I stood in a sensible field of navy windbreakers, beige trousers, plastic ponchos, and fold-up chairs with bags hanging off them to collect the mandarin skins and cheese wrappers from pre-prepared picnic lunches.

Spot the difference. Exhibit (a) Boosh Festival

Exhibit (b) Hop Farm

Highlights of both days included chasing down American comedian Arj Barker for a photo, chasing down anybody dressed in a costume for a photo, sneaking in a bottle of vodka in the middle of a rolled up sleeping bag (thanks for that tip, Mum and Dad!), the Mighty Boosh’s soup-song remix, Jim James from My Morning Jacket wailing the glittering notes of Gideon in his blue cape, Gary Numan in general, discovering the lesser-known double-function of Oyster cards as Grade-A avocado slicers, and wearing slices of Edam cheese on my ankles. Unfortunately, that last point is not a joke. But at least it wasn’t my idea…