A Return To London Village

It would be fair to say that I had a few expectations for this trip to London. Not once, though, did I have a thought that I might find myself on the 1938 to Bedford in order to get to Luton Airport. And yet…

Every time I’ve visited London in the past few years, I’ve been struck by an urge, or a melancholy feeling: I should have lived here. Unlike New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, I feel like I could cope with the scale of London Village (to be fair, I guess I did cope with LA for half a year, but I was starting to go crazy at that point). There’s so much to do, so much to see, and if you ever got bored on a Saturday, you could just head out and lounge on the lawn in front of the Tate, or see what’s happening at the ICA. They even seem to be getting Mexican right at long last. Well, they seem to be improving, at least.

In lieu of actually living there, then, I did the next best thing: rent out a place from Airbnb in Shoreditch. Home of Doctor Who, Rough Trade, and the greatest concentration of hipsters east of Williamsburg. It didn’t disappoint: Thomas The Tank graffiti, neon outfits, a vintage market full of East German army wear, and a shopping centre constructed from shipping containers. Of course.

Biggest surprise of the trip? Blackfriars is finally open after three years of construction. No longer is there a diversion from the Tate to the South Bank - you can walk along the waterfront all the way back to Waterloo (okay, so you do have to leave the riverside to actually get to the station, but you get the idea). Second biggest surprise would be Tabea flying into Luton on our final night in London en route to Ireland.

So, not only did I get to see Blackfriars open, I even ended up leaving from there on a train to London Luton Airport (hoho), and then a very early trip back to London the next morning in order to see Stacie off at Heathrow. And then came home and went to bed. Let’s not do that again in a hurry.

One thing that did sadden me a little: the encroaching invasion of America. Every time I come back, there’s more seeping in. Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew, and now Chipotle. It seems a little wrong for me to complain, seeing as I now live in the US, but I do feel as if parts of our culture are being a little subsumed with all this. I wonder when Asda & Boots will drop the façade and become Wal-Mart and Walgreens.

(insert standard rant about how the history of the 80s computer games world in Britain is vastly different from the US or Japan’s, despite the Internet’s attempt to minimize cultural differences. Also, Transformers UK.)

Anyway, back home now. London is still London. Lots of new buildings, but the South Bank is still reassuringly concrete and alien.

Dinner

It’s apparently the ninth best restaurant in the world right now. And we ate there on Thursday night. Dinner by Heston is seemingly the result of Heston Blumenthal’s research for all his TV shows in the last last ten years; a restaurant dedicated to recreating British dishes from yesteryear. No 21st century food here, not even 20th century; the age of the dishes ranges from 1390 to 1890. Which, at first glance seems to be at odds with Heston’s usual modus operandi of grinning like a madman as he uses liquid nitrogen and gellan to make a liquorice enveloped salmon. But if you’ve ate at The Fat Duck, glanced through his cookbooks, or caught him on Channel 4 in the past few years, you’ll know that this has been an interest, or perhaps an obsession, of his for some time now (and you’ll be able to buy the book at Christmas time, of course).

Dinner, then, isn’t the Fat Duck slimmed-down and shoved into a fancy London restaurant. Well, apart from the triple-cooked chips. And the ice-cream trolley which can come along to your table and make instant ice-cream using liquid nitrogen (though even here, the mixer on the trolley is hand-cranked to give it a semi-vintage feeling). Oh, and a £70,000 clockwork spit-roasting contraption in the kitchen that’s Alton Brown’s nemesis: it only exists to make the roasted pineapple for the Tipsy Cake dessert.

(to which I say hurrah, as I find Brown’s uni-tasker crusade to be intensely puritanical and mis-guided)

Okay, so that’s the pitch, but how was it? You can take a look at the menu to see what’s on offer. Stacie got the marrowbone as a starter, whereas I took a long hard look at the menu and realised there was something in every dish that I wouldn’t eat. I’m a picky eater, although picky in odd and annoying ways. Anyway, I’m told that the marrowbone was great. For the main course, I had the fillet, while Stacie got the spiced pigeon. And…well, it was a hunk of meat on a plate. A great hunk of meat with amazing beef gravy and triple-cooked chips, mind you.

But, this is me, so the important thing was always going to be pudding. As a lover of pineapple upside-down cake, Stacie was always going to order the Tipsy Cake, but I went for the brown bread ice-cream (what I didn’t realise until after was that choosing this meant that my entire meal came from 1830). This was served on an olive oil shortbread and drizzled with salted caramel. And was amazing. I seriously don’t think I’ve ever had an ice-cream that was that smooth and so perfect.

And then Heston walked by. Admittedly, he did have Jeremy Clarkson in tow, but it was a wonderful cap to the night. Does it deserve to be almost ten places above Alinea in that latest listing of restaurants? I…think not, but it’s not quite aiming for the same thing (and only about the third of the price!). Plus, you know, you can book on OpenTable rather than having to fight the insanity of Chicago’s reservation system.

London Fragments

Boy in Shoreditch loudly proclaiming that he was going to buy a Hawaiian shirt on the back of advice from the shop across the street

The doorman at Mandarin Oriental who must hear tourists every night awkwardly asking: “Excuse me, we’re here for Dinner?”

German tourists must love all the VE Day newspaper clippings in Poppies while they’re eating their fish and chips. Nothing beats a restaurant full of war memorabilia

The queue for Bowie at the V&A snaking around the classical statues

The girl on the 8 bus, hair pulled out and curled, crying before getting out at Liverpool St. Station

New high-rises being built here, there, and everywhere

Blackfriars!

If They Were Me

Hand-made chocolate box!

This is what happens after you watch a film about a French chocolatier and off-handedly mention that you really like the look of a prop. This was made by friend Tammy as a birthday present, complete with drawers for transporting and showing off chocolates! It really does look as it has stepped out of the film, though I may need to fill one drawer with an ice pack as the summer heads our way.

To celebrate my birthday, I decided, in a fit of hubris, that I’d do a dinner. A five-course dinner where four of the courses were desserts, because that seemed to sum up how I approach things. Next time I come close to suggesting that, I need to be slapped. Two and a half days of prep work and cooking, experimenting with a gluten-free flour mix for the first time and having a stack of about ten different food chemicals on the counter. It was bound to having some major problems without practicing any of the recipes first. Oh, and buying the wrong type of potatoes and watching them turn to mush as I was attempting to roast them.

(we won’t even talk about what happened to the tofu I made. Well, made is the wrong word. Cremated is a better one)

Of all the dishes, only one came out as I planned - the first, a spin on Wylie Dufresne’s Fake Egg. Instead of making a fake fried egg, I used his locust bean & guar gum ‘egg white’ to fill up egg cups, and then made a mango fluid gel to act as the yolk. Perhaps not quite as “oh wow!” as popping the carrot yolks in the original, but it did work pretty well. Which is more than you can say for what eventually passed as the roast potatoes.

That Escalated Quickly

To return to a theme from a post or two ago; we’re looking at houses. Or were looking at houses, I guess. To sum up the timeframe: a house went on the market last Thursday. My mum spotted it online on Friday, we saw it on Wednesday, put an offer in on Thursday, and had it accepted early Friday morning. Something of a whirlwind.

note that I didn't get a good picture of the house in general

There’s a set of photos over at Flickr for those of you that haven’t seen it yet. It’s quite impressive for what we’re paying - roughly 2,000 sq. feet of house in a 20,000 sq. feet lot (yes, those zeros are accurate). And whilst it’s an old house, the electrics, water and heating have all been replaced in the last five years. I will again live in a house with water pressure.

(every time I had to go back to California, the sadness about being back in a hotel room room was tempered with the knowledge that I’d have a proper shower again, at least!)

Of course, it’s not all finished and finalised yet. The mortgage still has to be sorted out, and there’s a copious amount of inspections that may find something that calls for us to pull out of the deal. But…it looks like this may be where we end up for the rest of 2013. And beyond.

What, No Council Housing?

We’re looking at houses at the moment. Yes, slowing becoming one with the capitalist homogeny. But they’re so nice and pretty. Of course, we also live in an area that was set on the road to gentrification already, and all the fancy new construction coming to the centre of Durham is helping to increase house prices considerably. Also, I have quite a bit of stuff, enough, one might say, to almost fill a shipping container. Plus, the books, which grow at an unbounded rate (Durham County Library book sale this weekend people! Is it wrong I’m going to try and leave work an hour early on Friday in order to get to the early opening? I do not have a problem, honest). Despite being on rather decent wages (and I’m underselling that), we’re slightly restricted on what we can buy with money down, and we don’t want to extend ourselves too far.

So we’ve looked at houses. One was by a main road and too noisy to even have a conversation on the front steps, and another looked fabulous in the pictures, but in person it turned out that the photographer was amazing and the house less so.

And then there’s 648 W Club. I’m not too fussy about my houses - I can take old or new. I do absolutely love Mid-Century Modern homes, mind you, but I’m not enough of a programming rock star to stretch that far. Though there is one out by Rho that would be amazing…but no, cast it from your mind, Ian! Too far out, and just tantalizingly enough out your price range - back, back, I say! Back to W Club, a house from 1940 that has had its entire attic/loft space converted into a master bedroom suite, making it seem like a huge amount of house for a very good price.

But there’s always a ‘but’. There’s a few cracks in the walls, and the foundation has had to be reinforced with steel beams (though at least it has them). The downstairs bathroom would need to be ripped out, fencing would need to be completed, and most jaw-droppingly expensive of all, it needs a complete renovation of the ground floor’s heating and air conditioning. It is not exactly walk-in ready.

The potential, though. Already you can imagine how great the kitchen would be after a remodel, how the bare wooden floors would shine after being sanded down and polished. How we could turn the huge basement into either more rooms or even a chocolate warehouse underneath the main house. Bookcases lining the walls and secret blackcurrant bushes growing in the back garden…

…and then the cracks in the house pour open and the basement floods, or the ceiling collapses on the ground floor. Or the crack sucks Amy Pond through the Time Vortex. Dreaming is one thing, reality is a touch more expensive. We’re going to get more expert advice on the house and see where to go from there, as well as looking at other houses in the area. So, if you’re selling a house in the 27701 zip code, do let us know!

You Useless, Cretinous Morons

This is is what you have done.

Corned Beef?

I’m still a little bemused by American celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day, which seem to be a bigger deal than in the country that is actually having the feast day. Maybe it’s because almost none of it seems to recollect any of my experience of Ireland. In my thirty years of living amongst a family with a huge Irish background, with visits across the sea, I have never, never heard of or had corned beef and cabbage. Not once. It seems to be a uniquely Irish-American thing.

And I don’t think they can understand the Irelands I lived with growing up. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I understand, considering how silly some of it was.

I lived in a country that decided that certain political parties were so dangerous that we weren’t allowed to hear their voices. Where songs were banned if they suggested that the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six were innocent (which turned out to be true). Where my mother left Harrods before it blew up in ‘83, and present at two bombings in Bangor. I walked past the crater from the biggest bomb exploded on the mainland almost every day for three years. I went to weddings that could feed the five thousand and make the Sermon On The Mount look like an amateur operation (did Jesus even provide butter? I don’t think so). I got in trouble at school for both students and teachers for reading a biography of Michael Collins. Jackie Charlton and Tony Cascarino, circa ‘94. And getting all the jokes in Father Ted.

A country divided, where even the name of a city is a point of argument and identification. But things are better now; the guns are buried and growing moss. The Maze, once part of the language of my childhood (why did I know about ‘H-blocks’ from such an early age? Did I really watch the news that much?) lies in ruins, Manchester took the Government money and ran, transforming its aging city centre into a 21st century arrangement of glass and metal. Stormont lives once more, and Ireland are determined never to win the Eurovision Song Contest ever again…

Up

I wonder if it’s the second year that the feeling of losing home sets in. The only reason I knew it was Mother’s Day today was because last Sunday Firebox started emailing me in a frenzy that there was only four days left of post before the day (though Bonnie did send a reminder on Tuesday, so I wasn’t totally in the dark), and I’ve also been told that I’m starting to affect a slight twang. I deny this totally, of course, but I do fear that it’ll happen sooner than I expect and I won’t notice it until it’s far too late.

Still, despite that, I know it’s Red Nose Day next week, and I had to explain the significance of a Blue Peter badge to my friend Tammy after watching 56-Up with her this week, so that helps keep up my Britishness a little. And I did spend at least some of that munching British mini eggs. I haven’t started wearing a Stetson yet.

(56-Up was, as expected, both rather happy and soul-crushing. Just how long can it go on, I wonder? Last time, at the end of 49-Up, nobody seemed all that enthusiastic for another round, but while there were lots of negative comments towards the focus and format of the documentary this time, it gave an air of ‘well, we are annoyed at the intrusion every seven years, but we’re British so we’ll just grin and bear it’, so I think 63-Up may happen. Proving Apted holds out, I guess.)

And it’s sunny. The proper pre-summer weather has just rolled into Durham right in time for the latest Food Truck Rodeo (over 50 trucks and still everybody lines up for Chirba Chirba. Guys, they’re around a lot - try something new!). It’s still a bit cool in the shade, but the blossoms on the trees will be coming out shortly. My favourite part of the year in the South, in fact. Warm without being intolerable, and everything looking so pretty as Spring hits in full force.

(Though I say that as somebody who doesn’t have allergies, obviously)

Music Man

First week of new work is over. Thoughts? I’m living in a room that seems to be dubbed “the cupboard under the stairs”, it’s filled to the brim with hipster furnishings, full of smart and friendly people, and most of all, it has a large fridge filled with an endless supply of Diet Coke.

(admittedly, it might have been better for me to have discovered the latter fact before I went and obtained 180 cans of the stuff on Monday. But, it’s good to have a decent stock. That’s what I’m telling myself, anyhow)

It’s going to take me a little while to get settled in, but I’m liking it so far. Even if my old nemesis has returned. Yes, Trade Gothic, I saw your font files. I will not be cowed!

What else has been going on this week? Well, it looks like Monuts will be opening soon (in fact EVEN AS I TYPED THAT SENTENCE, I got word of the soft opening potentially happening next week. I will take the hard task of reporting on their new space, dear reader, suffering each and every doughnut to give you information. It’s a tough job, I know), and demolition work has started on the HOTEL OF HORROR. Hmm, I was certain I blogged about our experience at that auction, but I can’t find it in the archives. I can, though, link you to the OpenDurham entry for the site. It looked pretty spectacular in Durham’s Golden Age, but the years took their toll…and I don’t believe Stacie has forgiven me yet from the squalor we saw at the auction site. Though great if you really wanted to purchase unopened bottles of Coke from 1982. I feel that there’s a great untold story behind Ronnie Sturdivant and his holdings in Durham, but that’s going away now, to be replaced by apartments for students. Well, we wanted people to know that Durham was a great place. Now they know, and that means a lot of change, for better and worse.

(this obviously ties in with the gentrification theme I was talking about last week - Durham is actually doing better than a lot of cities when it comes to reusing old buildings - I’m now working in a building that was once part of the vast tobacco district. The danger is that we’re building a grand new city for the creative class flocking to Durham, but sidelining those who were here before us, pricing them out of the centre and pushing them towards the edges of town. And I’m not sure how we can deal with that)

Off now to make some more chocolate.