Wednesday, April 25, 2012

There are pubs, and pubs, and pubs

Or more specifically, there are brilliant pubs, gastro pubs, and rough pubs. For the uninitiated, it can be rather difficult to tell the difference. Don't get me wrong, sometimes a rough pub, or a good honest old man's boozer, is just what you want. But if you are looking for a pub serving gins other than Gordons, or beers that aren't on electric taps, then you need to be able to spot the wheat from the chaff.

TLOML says 'that looks like a good pub' at pretty much any pub we walk past. I then, rather condescendingly, set him straight.  I've been steeped in North London drinking culture for long enough to be able to interpret the decor clues. Allow me to share my condescenion with you.

Most pubs look fairly similar from the outside. Old, with a painted sign, maybe some window boxes, and a name like 'The Marquis of Granby' and 'The Red Lion'. The neighbourhood is no indicator of a pub's quality either: London is such a patchwork of social diversity, you're always within spitting distance of a Shameless-style estate, and a gentrified enclave.

Take, for example, these two pubs, which are a three minute walk apart:
The Southampton: a groovy little gem of a pub

The Old Oak: a pub where eyecontact is a form of aggression
One is a hip, independent pub full of mustachioed types in plaid shirts, and fresh-faced types who've just walked their dogs on the Heath. The other is rough.

The obvious clue is the St George's flags outside The Old Oak. Any pub which makes a thing about celebrating St George's Day is going to be rough. The less obvious clue is the handwriting on the chalkboard. If it's that kind of handwriting that all looks the same, it's a rough pub. If it looks like it was scrawled by someone French, or someone who is good at maths, it's a hipster independent pub.

Menus are also a good tip off. A chalkboard that suggests food from the four corners of the earth (chicken korma, Thai curry, fish and chips), is a worry. One that mentions provenance ('Glanrofan Farm pork'), is obviously going to be nice and upmarket. Mind you, that brings problems of its own: my former favourite local pub, The Bull & Last, is now so well known for its food it is impossible to drop in for a spontaneous drink and snack. The dark side of gastropub success I suppose. The Southampton, by contrast, is clearly determined not be known for its food. Their menu is basically four different types of pork pie, and a cheddar cheese plate. Nice.

The other big hint is that The Old Oak advertise the fact they have Sky Sports. That's a tricky one for Americans to understand, as even upmarket restaurants have TVs in the US. But here, pubs which show the football in a big way are generally a bit rough.

The exception is the neighbourhood local, where the neighbourhood is more middle class than Shameless. Take the self-styled 'community' pub, the Dartmouth Arms, for example. The food isn't posh enough to be gastro, the beer isn't artisan enough to be hipster, and the TV screens aren't big enough to dominate. During Arsenal games it gets a bit busy, but it is never rough.
On balance, it may just be the perfect pub. I hope they manage to keep that fact hidden...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fox Corner: Phase 1

At last, Phase 1 is complete.

This means not only that books are unpacked, and hooks and cabinets mounted. Nor that our lovely sofa arrived, and our new dining table and chairs. Cable TV and the interweb are finally wired in. And the rocking chair refurb is complete.

The art is hung, and that's huge. A long rumbling debate has been settled: can TLOML's taste and mine co-exist in harmony? I characterise his taste in home decor as being 'dark and Asian'. Whereas I favour a Skandiwegian look, blond wood and bright, light colours. Oh, and lots of pictures of Middlesbrough. We had talked, half seriously, about having a 'his and hers' approach to hanging our art. So he could have a room for all his exotic masks, and I'd have one for my pale blue pictures.

Happily it turns out not only can our stuff live together, it actually melds pretty well together.
His buddha, my vase

His masks, my Poole pottery

His blue lady, my blue sky
Perhaps the biggest improvement from Phase 1 was the clearing out of excess furniture. The landlady had left a couple of fairly substantial bits of furniture behind. As a result our dining room had a look reminiscent of Hoarders.
Just one sofa and one dining table too many, in my opinion
On Sunday she took them away. Now we have just the right amount of furniture.
A table you can walk around!
 At last, we can relax and feel at home at Fox Corner.

(As I type this, TLOML is doing a happy jig about having TiVo again. I suspect we may have a difference of opinion about what the best part of Phase 1 is).

Friday, April 20, 2012


TLOML stuck this up above my desk last week. It's the same map I showed you back when we started our flathunt in February. Only now the word 'DONE' is written in bold, right in the heart of the 'green zone'.
I thought it was kinda funny.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Now the heaving lifting of our move is done - mainly by TLOML, of course - I can turn my attention to some pressing wedmin.

Like writing to the Westminster Abbey Faculty Office (address: 1, The Sanctuary. Nice isn't it?), and telling them that we did finally secure that bloody visa they asked us to get. After all the kerfuffle I'm tempted to sign off with an angry, scawled 'happy now?!'. But we need their okay to get married in our Alma Mater so we'll keep it polite.
And finding someone who can control my hair, without making me look like a lunatic. Like these crazies who specialise in making hair look like a basket.

And spending half an hour in VV Rouleaux selecting the perfect shade of yellow grosgrain for the sashes on my flower girls' dresses.

After a trying-on session at NARS I am dreaming of eyeshadow. Literally. Like, long, involved dreams in which many and various shades of eyeshadow are displayed and discussed.

Pure bobbins! Absolute frivolity! And a very welcome break from hassling Virgin Media for an installation date this side of Christmas.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Oh I love a bit o' cultchya, me!

I used to be a culture vulture. I mean beyond the moving image, too. Nights at the theatre and afternoons spent in galleries were part of my regular diet.

Then I moved to LA, the home of popular culture. In 16 months there, I went to one gig. Oh, and we did see a production of Midsummer Night's Dream at the hippie fest that is Topanga Canyon's Theatricum Botanicum.We also tried to go to LACMA once but it was closed so we went to Nordstrom in The Grove and bought shoes instead.

New York was little better. In 10 months in Manhattan, I went to the opera, saw one musical, and made it to the Met a couple of times.

I'm pleased to say that as part of my return to London, I seem to have got my cultural groove back. I've been home for 10 weeks and already have made it to the Hockney exhibition, a brilliant Rob Cowen gig and a play at the Barbican (an outstanding Cate Blanchett in Big & Small).

Most cultural of all - and surprisingly so - was our recent visit to Saltburn. Saltburn is a quiet little surf town, with a nice old pier. It it very photogenic, has a great Nobu outpost, and Dick Van Dyke lives there. Oh, wait, that's Malibu. Well, barring the year round sunshine and celebrities, they are very similar. The last thing I expect to find there is destination (as in, worth travelling for) artwork.

But look what someone went and did on Saltburn pier:


The knitting bombers have created a tribute to the 2012 Olympics. It is a work of genius and visiting it is the cultural highlight, so far, of my return to Britain.

Hurrah for cultural consumption. How do you get yours?

Friday, April 13, 2012

A sonnet for TLOML

Lines on The Love of My Life, inspired by our first ten days in Fox Corner

When a wardrobe rail needs to be hung
Or a shelving unit to be built,
When a lampshade is ready to be strung,
He deserves to be praised to the hilt.
He battles with walls that demand a masonry bit,
And faffs with cables to traverse the bedroom floor,
And fixes things in my wake, like that plank I split,
Or that key that I broke by forcing it in the door.
I suppose I could do these jobs myself,
But the frustration of getting screws into wood can make me cry.
Nothing I put up is straight: not a hook, not a mirror, not a shelf.
Frankly, I’m bad at home improvement and just hate DIY.
TLOML is all man and that’s no platitude
For his handyman ways, I feel a deep gratitude.

Our first aid cabinet (courtesy of the closure of Borders, West Hollywood), which TLOML drilled through some kind of granite in order to mount

My hooks have never been hung so beautifully level before. (It's just my photo that is wonky).

He took a bare bulb and made this happen.

And a dodgy 80s spotlight became this pendant of great Skandiwegian beauty.
More perfectly level stuff hung up on a fiddly wall.
Meanwhile, I put the books in order...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The dead centre of North London

A trip to Highgate Cemetery is highly recommended to any visitor who escapes the more obvious charms of Covent Garden and makes it to the wilds of North London.

As reintroducees (is that a word? Let's make it so) to London, TLOML and I had a mooch around there ourselves. It's pretty close to Fox Corner, so I plan on making future visitors look around it too.
Sightseeing in a cemetery sounds a bit macabre, doesn't it? Not as ghoulish as taking the Titanic memorial cruise, perhaps. But a similar kind of tourism.

Still, if you find the rituals we use to make sense of death interesting, then it's worth a nosy. TLOML and I love a bit of macabre. Anything from La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, to Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One piques our interest.

If you like a bit of wanton gothism, you'll enjoy it too. Rampant with ivy, gravestones dislodged into a slump by the roots of ancient trees, angels with missing hands: it's a visual treat.

Highgate also has some good interesting historical figures buried there. Karl Marx is the obvious one but my personal favourite is that hero of light entertainment, famous prankster Jeremy 'Beadle's About!' Beadle.

And if you like a good gag,  it's almost worth a trip just for this gravestone:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The hunt for noodle gold

It might be too much to hope for that we will find a good Korean BBQ place in London. And as for establishing a relationship with a sushi chef - well, in 10 months in NY we didn't manage it, so it could take some time in London.

But we do need to get good Asian food here, if TLOML is to be able to happily call this city home. And no, Wagamamas won't cut it.

We struck a sort of fool's gold in our neighbourhood already. Nuraghe is, admittedly, Sardinian. But the night we ate there 75% of the other customers were of Asian descent. And as TLOML said, 'these people know where the good food is'. Salty, fishy, spicy: they were right.
Super fresh chilli squid at Nuraghe
Like the fools who were delighted with the shiny gilt they found, we were pretty thrilled with the not-quite-Asian-but-fulfills-the-same-craving Sardinian food.

Still, we want actual Asian food. Ramen, miso soup, or pho, it doesn't really matter. It just needs to be good, noodly, salty, soup that makes you sweat. And call me a lazy Londoner but I don't want to have to travel to Dalston's Kingsland Road for it either.

I think we found it. Pho is new to me, and I think relatively new to Soho. It's very good.

I hope this means that, as I've confidently been proclaiming to TLOML, 'the Asian food scene in London is great!' It's nice when my blind optimism is not misplaced.

Nuraghe will be seeing an awful lot of us if not...

Monday, April 9, 2012

Rocking chair update

In case you were wondering about that 'vintage' rocking chair that I was refurbishing, here's an update. And for those of you wondering if I will ever branch this blog out from general musings to crafts and home improvements, this may set your mind at rest. I am clearly not qualified.

So, the chair looked okay from a distance. But...
Up close it was a little scuzzy

And the madhead who sold it to me had 'fixed' the wobbly leg by hammering in some oversized screws
I had to make a multiple trips to Kentish Town's premier home improvement outlet, to get what I needed to fix the chair up. Some jaunty yellow paint, sandpaper and wire wool, screws, a roller and tray, and a brush: I spent almost as much as the chair cost...
B&S DIY: all manner of stuff  packed into a very small shop. Strangely brilliant.
On the first trip I used the stripes on my t-shirt to measure how long a screw I needed (three yellow and two grey stripes). I returned to get some longer ones.

That was a mistake. That dent right there? That's a too-long-screw poking through from the other side.

TLOML went back for some wider screws. He was there anyway for a sink strainer, a fuse, and some gardening gloves. Fox Corner is not exactly 'turnkey'.

The chair is still a bit wobbly. It needs another coat too. But we're so busy doing actual home improvements I suspect we might never get around to it.

So £90 (if you count the chair, the materials, and the cab to get it home), and several hours later, I have just saddled us with a wobbly, under-painted chair.
Still looks okay from a distance though, doesn't it?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Remember me?

As I re-establish the rhythms of my former life - albeit in a slighly new shape - I have some relationships to rebuild. Thanks to the wonders of email, skype, facebook and cheap flights, hanging out with my old friends is just as it ever was. Only now we can skip the obligatory 'so, what's new?' warm-up chat and go straight into 'did you see Gypsy Wedding last night?'.
The Sunday walk with chitchat. Blessedly unchanged.
The locals who made up the fabric of my NW5 life, however, have been harder to reconnect with. I don't recognise any of the bar staff at my old locals. The chaps who run Twin Peaks, my old corner shop (so-called after the twins who run it, or the hills of Hampstead and Highgate, depending on who you believe), didn't seem to recognise me at all. This saddened me since I was in there at least once a day for 7 years. Perhaps they didn't want to gush, and embarrass me.

I was cheered when the staff in Tips & Toes remembered me, and asked me how their pedicure compared with the American standard I had become used to. I lied and said theirs was better, even though it takes twice as long and costs 50% more. I just want to be back in their 'locals' gang again, that's all.

More important, of course, are my relationships with my lovely nieces, nephews, and goddaughters. Our recent trip to La Clusaz was shared with my younger sister and her family, so that was a good start. Her 16 month old twins need to know that their Aunt does not just exist on Skype. After a few days I think they came to know me as more than just 'that lady in the computer'.

A trip to my older sister in Cambridge last week, and Easter weekend weekend with my oldest sister and her 2 kids, means that all my nieces now know - or have been reminded - that there is a real person behind the 'I heart NY ' t-shirts, and American candy that arrive periodically in the post. They might be a bit disappinted when they realise that this is the tradeoff: in-person bedtime stories means no more marshmallows and toys in the post.

Let them do what they like on your iPad and the children will let you back in their life
My goddaughters took a little warming up. But once I let them put their sticky fingers all over my ipad, or jump on my bed with their muddy shoes on, they were won over. Children are so simple. Let them do what they want, and they will love you for it. Ah, the luxury of godparenting.

Unfortunately I can't indulge my cat in the same way. He will need to be disciplined and restrained to protect our nice new sofa. I'm hoping Jack is as easily bribed - with food - as he used to be.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


'Turnkey' is an American expression meaning a place is ready for occupation. So all you have to do is turn the key and walk in. Sure, you'll have to unpack your own boxes, but that's about it.

Fox Corner is pretty much the opposite of turnkey. This is the scene that greeted us when we took possession of the keys and our lease on Monday morning:
A man wiring the alarm and the builders' gubbins piled up in the kitchen
Fortunately our estate agent leapt into action and an emergency deep clean was ordered. Emergency seems a little like overstatement, but it did need doing, and fast. We moved the building materials into the shed, and a new oven was installed on Tuesday.

That only left us with window locks to fit, a towel rail to hang and several light fittings to update. Once the landlady removes her sofa and dining table (currently clogging up our dining room), and we get cable set up in mid April, we will finally feel at home. Only what, 2 and a half months after we left our last home...

If this sounds a bit miserable, it's really not. On Day Two we cooked a proper dinner. On Day Three our new sofa and TV arrived. Our clothes are all unpacked and hanging. As soon as those basics were in place, to be honest, I was pretty happy. The rest is just 'snagging'.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The coming together of all that clobber

This was my fourth move in two-and-a-half years. You'd think I'd be used to it by now. But I am still stunned - and stalled - by the sheer amount of stuff.

And this time, there's even more stuff than ever.

We started with the stuff from the squat.
Then we picked up some pieces of furniture that had been out on loan since I left London.
And the hardworking removal men cleared out my storage unit.
This filled our living room entirely.
The next day, a lorry the size of the Titanic delivered all our belongings from the Rabbit Hutch. We now have boxes stacked against every wall, in every room.

It's strange how the contents of 2 small 1 bedroom flats (my old London one and the Rabbit Hutch) don't seem to fit into a large 2 bedroom flat. It's as if we're trying to defy some fundamental law of physics.

Thank goodness the foxes cleared out of that cellar. I think we're going to need it...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Unpacking priorities

Yesterday we took delivery of my belongings from the storage unit. It is lovely to be reunited with all my books.
As I sort them out I'm glad I had the foresight to label the boxes carefully. Take this one (below): 'Auden, Waugh etc', and then, as more were added later, '+ some Steinbeck'.
The '+' is crucial, as clearly Steinbeck shouldn't live in the same box as Auden and Waugh. And the 'some' is also key because it means 'not all'. Obviously I don't want to empty that box and think 'that's all the Steinbeck done then'. That would throw my carefully planned library layout into pandemonium. I do like to unpack my books in chronological order, if possible.

Yes, I might be a little bit boundaried when it comes to the filing of books.

In other areas, however, I am a little more free and easy. Take this box, which TLOML roundly mocked:
The contents? A 1990s Dell laptop and assorted cables of mysterious purpose.

Just over 24 hours after we moved into Fox Corner, all the books are on shelves and in the right order (though I may need to take another look at the 'History & Philosophy' section). And the technology box, still full, is being used as an impromptu coffee table.