Friday, 26 November 2010

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue......

It was the best of was the worst of gigs....

I was invited to spend the weekend at the home of a much loved, mildly eccentric, very dear friend who, pre-empting the rush for tartan blankets, has bought a house in Worthing.

'It's called the Dylan Project,' he said, 'In Shorham, we've got tickets, you must come down, it'll be great.'

And why not...... I bought my ticket to the gig online and, in order to avoid the vast sums demanded at stations, I bought my train tickets ahead of time too. Then my dear friend announced he was sick and being a bloke he wasn't just ordinary sick he was super-sized-dying-almost-dead-sick.

And so it was, I found myself alighting at the railway station in Shorham-by-sea. Alone and in the dark, I trundled my weekend-away sized wheely case down the deserted road. We weren't in Kansas anymore. Despite it only being 6.30 I was panicked on the streets of Shorham. Freezing cold, I found a pub and, resisting the urge to shout, 'I'm from London, I'm just visiting', to the six locals who'd tuned as one to stare, I ordered a whiskey and ginger ale, for medicinal purposes, the price of which would barely buy you a coke back home. Result. And waited for my dear friend's lovely girlfriend to rescue me.

And she did, whisking me away from the hinterland and into downtown Shoreham's heady nightlife. If not by the sea exactly we were definitely near water and the strip was buzzing, they even have a shop which sells fine chocolates and fancy clothes. Together. In the same place. An interesting and bold move I thought. They have a wine bar, and a woodeny-looking gastro pub and a lighting store that sells giant disco balls. We ate delicious crispy whitebait and triple-cooked chips in 'Chambers', housed in the former Town Hall and were waited on by possibly the friendliest, young staff I've ever encountered. Honestly, if ever you're in Shorham go there. Then it was off to ........ Ropetackle.

It may sound like a Dutch nightclub but Ropetackle is an arts centre. Getting in was our first challenge as the front doors had 'no entry' stamped across them. Interestingly, once inside I noticed they had 'no exit' stamped on the other side. But that was not the only odd thing about the evening ahead. Uncharacteristically for a gig, the 8pm start time appeared to have been diligently adhered to and as late entrants we were told, by the octogenarian who took our tickets, we would have to wait till the end of the song before we could sit down. Sit down!?! Once behind the closed door we were greeted by the sight of a sea of gray-haired couples sporting fleeces and high-waisted jeans, sat in the brightly lit room, enjoying the band. Struck by an attack of nervous hysterics, I stuffed my scarf into my mouth while my friend steered me towards the trestle-table-bar-facility, nestled at one side of the room.

And the band played on.....

An avuncular crew, dressed in relaxed fit denim and with only the keyboard player sporting sunglasses, but they may well have been prescription, they were all men of a certain age. Indeed, at one point the guitarist suggested they do a song they'd already sung. The lead singer, dressed in regulation rock'n'roll black, came with more than whiff of past excesses, as all good lead singers should. A wiry gent, one Steve Gibbons, late of The Steve Gibbons Band of the 70s, (think one of those blokes from a Never Mind The Buzzcocks line-up) and who, according to wikipedia, would most definitely have a few tales to tell about the glory years, blew with confidence into his array of harmonicas. They were indeed a competent team and a good deal more coherent than Bob ever is, choosing, it seemed, songs mainly from his back, back-catalogue. I'm a fan of the great man and I only new about half.....'Signore' I shall single out for a special mention. But if Dylan had become a wedding singer I think this is what he'd sound like.

To add to the Twin Peaks meets Spinal Tap: the sequel, experience, we noticed a handsome youth with streaky blond hair and a wispy goatee, sat centre front, his eyes fixed lovingly and not a little alarmingly, upon Mr. Gibbons throughout the performance. And after, he leapt to his feet, clutching his vinyl collection, requesting autographs and photos. He can only have been about 26. I blame the Internet.

The band certainly seemed to enjoy themselves and the packed house loved it, despite being told to stomp their feet and rattle their dentures during, 'Everybody Must Get Stoned', and even gave them a standing ovation....well, those of them who could stand. Surprised I may have been, and closer in age than I like to think, at how old these revellers were, lest we forget, these over-sixties, with their flowing gray-locks and M&S hippie-summer separates, were at the coalface of the festival scene. These were the naked, dancing peaceniks with flowers in their hair, the pot-smoking, afghan-coated students of the summer of love that spawned the Glastonbury's, Latitudes and Big Chills that we now take for granted. We owe them our festival fun.

Despite the on-site bar facility, during the interval, an elderly lady with a large badge bearing the title 'Volunteer', came around the seated audience selling tubs of ice cream. She sold out. The times they are a changing......

Top tip: check out this fabulous emporium of all things vintage, Detail, and from now until Christmas just enter XMAS on the checkout to receive 15% off!

Saturday, 20 November 2010

One more cup of coffee 'fore I go......

It's cold today. Outside the the leafless trees poke the sour-milky sky, grayed like a bad white wash, neither wet nor dry, a Saturday fit for nothing. My son calls to say he is up the road. I don't know why he's calling to tell me this but I seize the opportunity, rarer and rarer these days to communicate with him.
"Where are you?" I ask.
"By the green," he says.
"Do you want to go The Diner? Have some brunch?"
He does so we do.
It falls well short of the American model it tries to emulate but I enjoy the experience: sitting at a table, eating with my son.
"I'm drinking filter coffee," he says, "you get free refills, like in America."
I have the same and we order pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausage, and pretend we are in New York. He was too young to have his coffee refilled when we lived there so his memory is borrowed from the movies.

Outside, the good denizens of Islington go about their busy weekend business. Every other man appears to be wearing a small child strapped to his chest, one even has a specially adapted coat in which his infant is swaddled. Their woolly-hatted, baby heads wobble back and forth, their chubby baby arms jut straight out, like a fleet of B 52 bombers, their tiny baby mitten-fists clutching at life. One bearded and bespectacled father causes my son to point and laugh, he's a dead ringer for the funny one in Hangover. I laugh too and our coffees are refilled.

Sunday night brings a big moon, looming high over the roof tops that fill my window. The silver-gray clouds conspire to obscure the white light, hammer-horror like. Roast chicken with garlic, chili and cinnamon, roast potatoes, baby carrots and cavolo nero, lots of red wine and Ottolenghi's ginger, rhubarb cheesecake. It's a better day than yesterday, tomorrow is another day. Bag packed for Monday morning, lists made, laundry still damp, hanging limp on the dryer, plates piled..... who ever's not working can wash them. And there is a light at the end of my Sunday night telly dilemma: Any Human Heart, Channel 4..... oh joy of joys and Jim Broadbent....... please do not disturb.

Top tip;: check out this fabulous emporium of all things vintage, Detail, and from now until Christmas just enter XMAS on the checkout to receive 15% off!

Friday, 12 November 2010

New York, New York........

At the very front of the top deck of the No. 19 bus, I sit immobile, watching out of the window. It's my favourite seat despite the attempts of the designer, no doubt some faceless committee who had clearly never travelled on a bus, to ruin everything by installing huge windows which render it a travelling greenhouse should the summer-sun dare to show it's face, ripening the passengers within. But now it's Autumn, the sky is blue, my seat is safe and everything has turned to amber and orange, it makes me feel like I'm in New York. Warm sunshine on a cold day always reminds me of living in America: coffee to go in a blue and white cup, 'we are happy to serve you' emblazoned on the side, copper-coloured leaves crunching under foot in Central Park, my 6-year old son, a dead ringer for Noddy, kicking them high, killing the baddies while I try to read the Sunday Times. Hard though it maybe to imagine, there was once a time when travelling anywhere without a hot beverage in one hand and some kind of baked goods in the other, did exist in London and the closest one got to a cappuccino was a frothy-coffee. So being able to walk into my corner deli and buy a coffee .... to go ...... was very exciting indeed.

I still miss the city. I miss my daily breakfasts in Les Deux Gamin, on Waverly and 4th: bowls of cafe au lait and a croissant, watching Rupert Everett eat his tartine and talk to his dog in French. I loved living in the West Village. I used to walk my son to his school looking up at the Empire State Building and walk back in the shadow of the Twin Towers. It is hard if you never saw them, to imagine just how much they dominated the downtown skyline. Without a child in tow, one may not notice that New York is a city of parks and playgrounds. I spent many happy hours in Washington Square Park where junior would play chess with the old guys for free because they said he was good for business, drawing a crowd as he sat , feet barely able to touch the ground, chin cupped, brow furrowed in concentration, almost winning ...... yet again. Or catching the sun over at the Bleaker Street playground, bare legged, sitting on the bench with the single-moms-from-hell, eating cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery, while our children searched for their precious Power Rangers lost in the sands of time, somewhere beside the swings.

This was before Marc Jacobs and Stella McCartney had moved into the neighbourhood but even while I lived their the neighbourhood was changing. Rents were rising and Mayor Giuliani's work was almost done. The wet fish shop was gone and the vintage store on the corner of Bleaker and Morton had become an emporium of fine food. Even the hardware store on 6th Avenue had closed down, where the women wore tobacco-brown coats and always had fag on. They sold paper bags of nails and screws, counted out from wooden draws that lined the back wall, light bulbs, sink plungers, bath plugs and chain cut to length. All gone and replaced with magazines and greeting cards.

For me, Manhattan never failed to deliver and I loved it with the same passion I disliked Los Angeles. And despite the popular myth that New Yorkers are un-caring and rude I found to the contrary. I lost my purse three times while I lived there and three times it was returned to me ...... intact ....... having arrived with a five year old and a fist full of phone numbers, I was shown nothing but kindness, consideration and generosity of spirit. I lived in a tiny apartment with a miniature bath tub, hard-wood floors and an open fire. And when I sat out on my fire escape .... just like in the movies ..... I could here someone practising their opera scales and in the distance, the sound of a saxophone...... Back in London ten years now, how long did it take me to get over leaving? Any day now .....

Top tip;: check out this fabulous emporium of all things vintage, Detail, and from now until Christmas just enter XMAS on the checkout to receive 15% off!

Monday, 8 November 2010

An Angel at my table.....

So, I have a story I will tell you and you can make of it what you will. Several years ago I met a friend of a friend who was very into Angels. She was writing a book about them and told me all about it. Now I'm quite into a bit other-worldly hoo-ha and I like the idea of having a Guardian Angel, Wings of Desire and all that. So I listened intently. She told me I was very angelic, asked where I lived.
'North London', I replied, 'near the Angel.'
'Of course you do.' she said.
When the book was published she sent me a copy and it's a lovely book.

Now, feeling somewhat fed up last week, rather lacking in work from the many and varied freelance jobs I do, and rather broke, I happened to pick up the Angel book and read the bit about being successful and solvent. Apart from asking the Angels for help it suggested sprinkling angel confetti on your bills ........ OK I thought, whatever. The next day I happened upon some of these tiny silver angels at a friend's house so I popped one into my purse...... why not? Half an hour later I got a call to come do a last minute make-up job for an eminent director who was being interviewed. And today I have been offered another job on an on-going basis ......... what can I say? The spirit has moved me.

Downton Abbey is over, for the time being, and what a roller-coaster it was. Am now bereft. How will I cope without (my) Hugh Bonneville? It's going to be a long, harsh winter.

Top tip: Co-Op Fairtrade Chocolate Brownies.....I know, I know but just try them.....

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Thyme on my hands.......

So......guess what time I got to work today?? The thing is I was away this weekend and yes, I did put my watch back and I did make the most of my extra hour....drinking homemade Sloe Vodka as it happens.....but when I got back to London I failed to adjust my alarm clock (even though I'd remembered to remind the 20-year-old-son) and so it was, I arrived at the churchyard I usually cross to reach my designated bus stop (sounds like I live in some Austin-inspired village rather than central London doesn't it....) to find the gates chained. Wonder why that is, I thought. Perhaps because it was half seven and not half eight in the morning? However, so smooth was my journey to East London I have vowed to get up an hour earlier every Tuesday......we shall see how long this lasts....

So, the weekend away........ having enjoyed my recent sojourn in the French countryside so much, I thought I'd give equal opps to the English countryside, and I headed off to the Isle of Wight, where a friend with a birthday has a beautiful converted barn, nestled in a leafy hollow, deep in the south, that looked suspiciously like the French countryside. Having arrived late the night before, and feasted on holiday-flavoured fish & chips, birthday-celebration Prosecco and cakes I'd cleverly sourced in London, from Ottolenghi's outrageous selection of fancy goods, I awoke to the sound of rain lashing the roof and not one but two text messages informing me that the weather in London was ........ wonderful.

But no matter the weather, this was the country and we had activities planned ....... mainly involving the outside. So, after a much-bigger-breakfast-than usual, involving eggs, mushrooms, muffins and lots of coffee, we set out on 'The Walk'. I have discovered that going for a walk in the country often starts with a drive and this walk was no different as we had decided to go along a the coastal path. Parked up we set off and it was epic, the dense clouds fought for space, hanging low over a dull ocean, then suddenly sharp shards of sunlight cut through the grey and turned the sea silver. As we walked, the sky turned brighter and bluer and I sucked in the salty, fresh air, feeling fitter by the minute. Then it began to rain. Big, fat, exceptionally wet rain. The kind of rain that would be accompanied by a potential love interest if it were a Richard Curtis movie, to wipe away the rain drops that splattered my sunglasses and dripped from the end of my nose. So we sought refuge at the cafe in Steep Hill Cove and had a pot of tea and a Colin Firth to go.

We collected wood for the fire, went to a movie, won a pub quiz, picked sloes from the hedgerow and bought chicken fresh from the farm where the turkeys were already gobbling nervously, and roasted it with garlic from the island and thyme from the garden and ate it with my favourite new discovery: Ottolenghi's Mejadarah, a delicious dish of rice and lentils that's oh so easy to make. I'm lucky, I live practically bivouacked at the back of this fine emporium of exquisite cuisine but for those of you who live further a field, here is the recipe:

250ml sunflower oil
4 medium onions, thinly sliced
250g green or brown lentils
2 tsp cumin seeds
1½ tbsp coriander seeds
200g basmati rice
2 tbsp olive oil
½ tsp ground turmeric
1½ tsp ground allspice
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sugar
Salt and black pepper
350ml water
Heat the sunflower oil in a medium-size heavy-based saucepan. When very hot, carefully add a third of the sliced onion. Fry for five to seven minutes, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until the onion takes on a nice, golden-brown colour and turns crispy. Use the spoon to transfer the onion to a colander and sprinkle with salt. Repeat with two more batches of onion.
Meanwhile, put the lentils in a small saucepan, cover with plenty of water, bring to a boil and cook for 12-15 minutes, or until the lentils have softened but still have a little bite. Drain into a colander.
Wipe clean the saucepan in which you fried the onion and drop in the cumin and coriander seeds. Place over a medium heat and toast the seeds for a minute or two, until they release those distinctive aromas. Add the rice, olive oil, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, sugar, half a teaspoon of salt and plenty of black pepper. Stir to coat the rice with oil, then add the cooked lentils and water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer on very low heat for 15 minutes.
Remove from the heat, lift off the lid and cover the pan with a clean tea towel. Seal tightly with the lid and set aside for 10 minutes. Finally, tip the rice and lentils into a large mixing bowl. Add half the fried onion and stir gently with a fork. Pile up in a shallow serving bowl and top with the rest of the onion.
Yotam Ottolenghi is chef/patron of Ottolenghi in London.

Top tip: check out Sloe Gin or Sloe Vodka...... utterly delicious