9 December, 2009

December 9, 2009

Sunday was so hideous a stormy day that night had fallen on Soho by 3pm. Soaking wet and being completely ignored by the incredibly gorgeous incredibly gay waiters in Balans, I looked up from the cold remnants of my brunch to see street lights flickering against blackened skies, and Old Compton Street completely deserted but for an increasingly large network of murky puddles; for a good long moment, this was all rather depressing.

After rousing myself from this premature bout of Sunday evening blues, and having to step outside the building without paying before a waiter noticed my existance, I puddle-dodged my way down Old Compton Street to Café Boheme, where Kate had suggested we meet for ‘lazy Sunday coffee’.

Arriving twice as drenched and windswept as was necessary, thanks to initially walking completely the wrong way and, on turning round, tripping into a foot-deep pothole in which floated a McFlurry carton and a condom wrapper, I peered through the steamed-up glass doorway and spotted tiny Kate in the far corner, half obscured by a very large glass of red wine.

I should probably have realised that Kate and I, in the six years we have known each other, have never once had ‘lazy afternoon coffee’, and in fact only ever been for ‘quite a lot of wine’. But before any willpower had the chance to be summoned, the glass door flung open and I was ushered in by a grinning Colombian man sporting a precariously angled bright-blue trilby, and pointing proudly to a large set of bongos just inside the doorway.

“You like music?!”

“Erm, yeah…” was my mumbled and slightly self-conscious response as rainwater dripped off the end of my nose.

Moments later, illuminated by candle light and sat beside Kate and two large glasses of red wine, I was ringing out the bottoms of my jeans while my still-grinning Colombian door-opener and a newly-appeared musician pal began bursting out a summery repertoire of funky bongo-lead tunes.

Within minutes, a collection of couples had taken to Café Boheme’s small floorspace – one seemingly fresh from the dance halls of South America, her a tiny Latino beauty, and he one of those rare and justifiably arrogant good-looking European men who can move effortlessly to any musical genre, and another, a v-necked-sweater-wearing (I would guess) maths teacher and his besotted lady, unrhythmically bobbing along, as unaware of the audience as they were of the beat, and generally having a lovely lovely time.

With pitch-darkness outside, flowing wine and music within, it seemed impossible that this was 4pm on a Sunday. Contrary to my fears that in this season to be jolly the weekend ends mid-Sunday afternoon, it would seem that a Soho winter means merely swapping a typically non-eventful afternoon for an extra night out; one where you can spend a good six hours enjoying red wine and live music, and still be tucked cosily up in bed by ten.

5 November, 2009

November 5, 2009

With Chris clamped firmly between my thighs, and several champagne cocktails fizzling away in my tummy, last Saturday night proved a thoroughly thrilling and wholly new London experience.

Chris has been regularly extolling the joys of hopping on motorbikes since we moved in together three months ago: ”It’s just like flying, and everyone wants to fly” I believe was his leading argument.

While in sober daylight I had decided that someone who finds it difficult to stay upright in heels should probably not perch unaided on a high-speed vehicle, an impromptu evening of cocktails somewhere beneath the cobbled streets of Soho* suddenly left me with an overwhelming and quite unexpected urge to give this motorised flying thing a go.

Luckily Chris, who had just settled down with his first glass of red wine after an evening’s work at the Lyceum Theatre, is a patient and understanding chap; rather than suggesting his pissed flatmate resume her adrenalin quest at a reasonable hour, he put down his twice-sipped glass, re-laced his boots, only pausing to advise a change from the current sleeveless dress and heels ensemble into something a little more robust should my evasoslightly inebriated self slip off and make contact with the hard and unforgiving London concrete.

Giggling, and feeling instantly like a Power Ranger (the hot pink one) hopping aboard a transformer, I clung excitedly to Chris’ waist and waited for him to instruct me on the dos and don’t of being a safe motorbike passenger.

As I clunked my helmet into his for at least the seventh time, he yelled back:

“Lean when I lean…”

The engine revved, and off we went.

Mere breathless moments after pulling away from our pocket of Bethnal Green, we were whizzing past the throngs of wide-eyed revellers surrounding London Bridge nightspot Shunt. A little twist and turn later and the deep black expanse of the Thames was twinkling from its neon trimmings; with a clear road ahead we flew over Westminster Bridge – parallel Tower Bridge standing proudly to our side – and on the other side, St Paul’s loomed unlit in the darkness, emitting a suitabley soft and ethereal glow from inside the lower windows.

Peering round to observe a chubby girl displaying a generous amount of breast as she zig-zagged her way down Shaftesbury Avenue whilst crying loudly into her phone, I caught our reflection in the widow of Costa Coffee. Unfortunately, I had only the splittest of seconds to enjoy the “yeah, we do look pretty cool” thought flickering across my brain, before Chris pulled sharply away from the lights and my unprepared body compensated with a dramatic lurch forward, smacking my helmet hard into his.

“Whups!” I laughed, more to myself as the engine was roaring. “No worries – happens all the time!” came Chris’ clear reply. It is quite mysterious how even wearing massive helmets and vibrating with the noise of closely situated engine, we could hear each other as clearly as when side by side on the sofa listening to the throaty whispers of David Attenborough.

I’m sure a comfort blanket of alcohol helped, as did the fact I know Chris has an exceptionally high sense of self preservation, but my first motor-biking experience was surprisingly 100% fear-free.

“It’s everyone else’s driving you have to worry about” ring the high pitched tones of my mother. And I know there is truth in that, but when biking through the centre of the capital there is more than a slight reassurance that an absolute excess of traffic, a tangle of mind bogglingly confusing road systems, and hoards of pedestrians who seem to adopt the ‘safety in numbers’ approach to crossing the road regardless of whether there is traffic coming or not, means even the most eager of four-wheeled vehicles stands little chance of reaching anything that could really be classed as a “reasonable speed”.

Heading out of sedate Clerkenwell, we hit a grinding 60mph along Old Street – the beautiful Hoxton masses still partying hard. Turning down Shoreditch High Street, with electronic beats pumping from many a small nook and exclusive cranny that you need a modelling contract or a nod from the Geldof sisters to get into, it was under ten swift seconds later that we swung into Bethnal Green Road, past the stumbling remnants of Brick Lane, and rolled gently into Ramsey Street.

Chris did finally get his glass of red wine – several in fact – but all had to be appreciated whilst nodding patiently at his gabbling flatmate banging on for a good few hours about how the only way to travel round London is by motorbike.

* which featured the happy discovery that champagne with a shot of Crème de Violette is most probably the nicest drink in the world.

9 September, 2009

September 9, 2009

When Chris said: “We really won’t need to buy much for the flat, as I have a lot of stuff…” what he really meant was: “There really won’t be space for sensible things in the flat, as I have an archive of obscure kitchen utensils circa 1972, a waffle maker, eight packets of instant mashed potato, half a bottle of Malibu, several old computer consoles, two bikes, an electrical tapestry of seemingly pointless wires, a duck-shaped popcorn maker and, if the last item wasn’t quiiite random enough, come admire my intricately painted accordion.”

Living with Chris is whole-heartedly tremendous, and not just because he owns a massive TV, makes cheese cake from scratch, and there is always, always beer in the fridge.

But, with my marked lack of practical of belongings coupled with his humorous array of impulse purchases, we’ve found ourselves in the somewhat awkward position of enthusiastically inviting people over to our new place, only to make them eat with their hands and drink wine from a KitKat mug. (Making sure we then rinse the mug that night so you can’t smell wine when eating cereal from it the following morning.)

While I know several people who might not see a duck-shaped popcorn maker and an 80s fondue set as adequate recompense for eating their beans on toast with a spoon and a chopstick, what can be said for our assorted jumble, if slightly unessential to daily life, is that it is entirely in keeping with our new ‘hood’.

Brick Lane market may officially be the saris, jewellery, hookahs and other shiny goods that fill the eponymous East London street every weekend, but the call of the market trader doesn’t stop there: in the environs of Brick Lane, everyone’s at it.

A little detour down any surrounding side road swiftly turns into picking a path through an increasingly bizarre sea of objects. From a wheelbarrow stacked high with guava juice, to a small Indian man sitting crossed legged by a tea towel displaying a single sunglasses lens, three brown leather laces and a plastic apple, this area reverberates with the passing on of random things.

Even on our street, two roads away from the main action, a gaggle of plump ladies spend their weekends kicking back on the pavement outside their house, noses buried deep in the revelations of Heat magazine, whilst scattered around them are old and faded children’s’ toys that, oneday someday, a passer by might just fancy.

Other than plonking them on the pavement, no effort is made to sell these battered wares, and aside from one or two Ramsey Street residents ambling by, the hours scarcely bring anyone past the group – but they carry on regardless. It’s just the done thing.

While used plastic toys are the specialty in our residential cul-de-sac, over the other side of Brick Lane a slightly larger-scale racket is in place. Every Sunday, the unassuming side road of Sclater Street transforms into the jostling nucleus of London’s bicycle black market; if your bike goes walkies in the capital, trot down to Sclater Street the following weekend and you’re sure to buy it back for a very reasonable sum. And, if you happen to, er… find one… then the Sclater Street traders will happily relieve you of your acquisition.

Hmmm, I’m sure Chris doesn’t need two bikes.

20 August, 2009

August 20, 2009

We probably should have guessed that somewhere touting “24-hour hot water” as a special feature didn’t have a lot to recommend itself. But, nonetheless, Chris and I optimistically turned up to be shown around yet another shockingly bad flat in the East of London.

After having quite enough of listening to next-door pee less than a metre from my pillow, and of my decidedly odd French housemate who, from what we can fathom, spends most of his day sitting in his bare room silently growing a beard, I decided that my time at Bianca House was swiftly coming to an end.

In a lucky bit of timing, my decision to move precisely coincided with my friend Chris’ discovery of a thriving colony of maggots in his kitchen bin, prompting him to vow to his 27-year-old self that he would, from this moment forth, live with people better suited to his maturing hygiene standards.

So we’re moving in together (plus my cousin Anna, who is currently going very brown in France while we have our serotonin levels sucked dry by landlords called Fabio.)

While we had the choice of the whole sprawling city, it was pretty much a done deal that we’d remain amid one of Earth’s most bizarre communities, in Shoreditch.

As Chris said after several pints, “it’s, like, where it’s at right now, isn’t it. And, while we’re still young, we so should live at where it’s at, right?”

Well exactly.*

After six months living amid the ridiculousness, there is the massive urge to escape the city from time to time, and run, gasping, to the coast; but, right now, home is when you pass the man sporting red dungarees, pink DMs, a ginger moustache and a bowler hat.

And even though your average Shoreditch Shorebitch (pouting willowy clones laden in preppy-vintage trying desperately to look as ‘not bothered’ as possible) is unlikely to become my best mate, she is totally harmless as long as a constant supply of quirky bars, light beers and rolling tobacco are on offer.

I know this isn’t a sustainable relationship. This place is rundown, relentlessly busy, relentlessly polluted, and thoroughly ridiculous. It will most likely end in plummeting self esteem, rapidly disintegrating general health and a rushed move to Brighton. But, for the moment, I’m utterly addicted to the circus.

The problem, however, is that Shoreditch landlords have well and truly caught onto the attraction of this funny little area, and now charge over the hilt for the grottiest of properties.

And so, at 11am on a Sunday morning, there Chris and I were, being lead into a sparsely windowed, brown-carpeted dingy den, by a 16-year-old agency representative who knew very little about the property other than they wanted £500 admin fees on top of rent and deposit.

After well and truly disturbing the younger members of the occupying family’s Sunday lie-in – three sets of bunkbeds crammed into one room all with little feet sticking out from under each cover – our guide swings open one closed bedroom door, only to swiftly shut it again.

“We go in there in a minute.”

Suffice to say, we gave no money, and that particular place is not our future home. But, after a somewhat depressing couple of weeks, we have found it, our place, in a block of East London flats (not dissimilar to something out of The Bill), three minutes’ walk from the curries and bagels of Brick Lane.

No Jacuzzi or butler just yet, but we’ve a clean, simple space, with no trace of previous life embedded into any furnishings, and a matchbox balcony from which you can see the gherkin poking out amid the regimented bank buildings. And, to top it off, our new address is Ramsey Street  – a massive childhood goal quite accidentally accomplished.

* Chris does not normally sound like a 16-year-old stoner

23 July, 2009

July 23, 2009

They may have been carting frugal travellers around since 1972, but I have only recently cottoned on to just how much cheapness there is to be enjoyed with National Express coaches.

Sinking back into a leathery black seat, as concrete high-rise and urban bustle gave way sweeping Home Counties’ green, I spent the two hours from Victoria to Brighton smug in the knowledge that my £5 return ticket cost considerably less than the box of diabetic Thorntons chocolates I demolished at lunch. (I’m not diabetic – just figured they must be healthier.) With surprisingly clear roads, and my fellow Friday-evening passengers few and sleepy, this seemed like an all-in-all bargainous way to travel.

Brighton was on particularly good form as we pulled up near the pier. The air was fresh, the sea blue and lively, and the streets bubbled with the mellow movements of quirky-chic Brighton folk pleasantly submerged in arty musings and organic thoughts. (This is, after all, the only place in the world where Falafel is a respected baby name.)*

Still possessed by London Mode as I stepped off the coach, a smile from a passing stranger sent me stumbling in confusion. After several minutes bulldozing my path through the sauntering swarms, the hardened commuter’s scowl subsided, and I softened to a pace far better suited to the maze of bright cafes and quietly subversive clothes shops that characterise the Lanes.

Brighton is often referred to as ‘London-on-sea’. This is a ridiculous claim. Nowhere in London gives up its goods this easily. London is like a brilliant but willful child that disappoints 50% of the time for not living up to its full potential. Brighton is reliably convenient and reliably easy. The people are reliably pretty, reliably intelligent and, more often than not, fans of lentils. It is a small bubble of clean air, floaty dresses and nice food. It soothes my brain, relaxes my shoulders and every time I visit, I want to stay forever.

Following this pattern, and shrouded in hangover from a wonderful weekend of family and friend frolicking, my return Sunday journey began with boarding the coach deep in ponderings on whether to become a happy Brighton person, and so completely blind to the substantial deterioration in vehicle standards from my previous National Express encounter.

Beginning to register the coarsely covered and decidedly hard seat, my knees jammed right up against the seatback in front of me, I suddenly became aware that a) the back of a very hairy man’s head is less than three inches from my face, and b) I’m engulfed in the stench of fried food.

Clearly, National Express coaches are not all made from the same mould. And, under the direction of the karma god of bargain transport, I was now paying for Friday’s First Class service. As if being close enough to lick a stranger’s head whilst crammed in to bruising point was not enough, surrounding me now, filling nearly every other seat, were gabbling Spanish students eating with much gusto from greasy orange boxes of chicken.

After two looong hours of shrieking teenagers, and having to move my head to the side every time hairy-man felt the need to service his head with a thorough scratching (which was about every other minute), the madness of Victoria station was welcome relief.

Needing to pee as a matter of urgency, I hopped to the loos only to find I didn’t have the required 30 pence. After a 15-minute-long discovery that trying to get a £10 note changed up in Victoria station at 8pm on a Sunday is actually impossible, I stomped down the escalator to be greeted by a big sign declaring that the London Underground is awfully sorry folks, but the Victoria line has taken Sunday July 19th off. Service will resume tomorrow.

After the most convoluted route back to Old Street known to man, I got home to find the sink piled so high with dirty dishes that you can’t even fit a glass under the tap to get some dubiously metalic East London water. Giving up on the day, I go to bed.

“It’s fuckin’ ovaaa. It’s so fuuckiin’ ovaaaaaaaaa” ricochets off the concrete blocks of Bianca House.

Door slams, followed by swift, slightly irregular heel clicking, and the odd high-pitched hiccup.

Door opens. “Caarrlaaaaaaaaaaaa!!” booms a male voice.

“Fuuuuck. Youuuuuu” replies Carla, clearly a little perturbed.

And Carla and her spurned Casanova proceeded to bellow at each other, outside my window, for the next hour and a half.

At 11pm, close to tears and/or violence, I threw on jeans and trainers and stormed through the two adjacent streets – passing one fight, three jovial tramps and a heck of a lot of drunk people (half of which were wearing sun glasses – gotta love Shoreditch).

Kingsland Road is home to what must be 90% of London’s Vietnamese restaurants. Arguably the best Vietnamese food in the city is found at Song Que – the nearest restaurant to my flat. But, because they balance culinary excellence with breathtaking rudeness, I bypassed it and instead opted for the little green one a few doors down.

Rubbery food and scatty service ensure that this little place will definitely not be topping a Time Out Best Eats list any time soon, but the earnest staff are so overwhelmingly appreciative of your decision to enter their establishment, that a chorus of frantic bowing is directed at whoever may be arriving, leaving, or just nipping to the loo. I felt, the recent hours considered, that I was a deserving recipient of a little bowing. 

The moment my toe protruded over the threshold, five beaming and bobbing waiters ushered me to a seat and I quickly vanished amid a pile of menus, napkins and prawn crackers.

Munching on spring rolls (which I didn’t actually order, but as they were placed in front of me with such an excited flourish I didn’t have the heart to point this out) I realised I may have found the one place in London that actually gives a shit about me.  And, while I can see the lovely ease of seaside life twinkling on the horizon, I guess that’s enough for now.

* I made that up.

8 July 2009

July 8, 2009

Wednesday evening, and I still have a very odd taste in my mouth.

In a bid to remain flirtatious observers rather than fully-fledged participants in the fabulous debauchery that was last Saturday’s London Pride (flamboyant celebration of homosexuality, not patriotic ale), my friend Ben and I discovered that a few hours’ mindless Redbull consumption on the streets of Soho fucks you up far more than a hearty intake of vodka, and whatever was fueling the fidgeting queue to The George toilets.

Because Ben – a former advocate of all things indulgent – has hurled himself headfirst into an all new  ‘my body is a temple’ mentality, and my commute between Old Street and the bowels Kent is steadily turning me into the world’s most tired person, we decided to shun the evils of alcohol and other hedonistic delights, and instead opt for drinking in the jubilant atmosphere supplied by the billions of surrounding others, totally off their faces. This could have been a good idea – if Ben, in a moment of weakness, hadn’t suggested kick-starting our buzz-stealing with a couple of cans of Redbull.

I don’t know when two cans became four – I think around the time that speaking in a Welsh accent became stomach-achingly hilarious – but very soon our manic laughter was getting some rather odd looks (when considering the man standing next to us had bare pendulous breasts with beaded nipple-tassels, we must have been making quite a scene.)

Dancing round bins seemed like a tremendous idea during our fifth can, and half way through our seventh Saturday July 4th officially became the “best, just best best night ever”. Two sips into my ninth, as a deep burning sensation began to engulf my vital organs, I realised I could no longer swallow.

The next three hours became one shrieking but not unpleasant blur of naked Brazilians sporting white thongs and angel wings, slender Asian drag queens with gilded cheeks and 30-inch talons, an array of hairy backs, mindboggling piercings and many many excited nipples – all sweeping along the odd shell-shocked theatre goer who thought taking mum to see Jersey Boys at the Prince Edward on a sunny Saturday in July would be a relatively painless excursion.

Twilight came and cooled – though, if anything, the number of nipples was on the increase – and, as neon lights began flickering and the moon rose over Old Compton Street, I decided (amid thudding heart palpitations and grinding teeth) that it was time to collapse.

After a pathetic excuse for a sleep, I awoke with pupils the size of two pence pieces, flip-flops still sticking my black and beer-soaked feet, and a caffeine and sugar downer like you would not believe – plus the vague memory of having my face licked by a girl wearing nothing but a twister board. Good times.

25 June 2009

June 25, 2009

Among the collection of peculiar people who, like me, pay a small fortune to live inside a slab of East London concrete called Bianca House, is a short, squat, 20-something-chubby-bloke I have named Wayne.

Wayne lives with his mum, directly beneath our cramped compartment, and, when he is not tending to a struggling clump of facial hair, or emptying tubs of gel onto his head, he can be found – come rain, shine or religious holiday – arse crack in the air, tinkering with his car on the pavement outside.

As Bianca House’s self-appointed gate keeper, his stooped and squishy figure is a regular fixture on my journeys in and out of the building – out, being the preferred option – but, rather than offering a simple “hello”, or even going for a more suggestive raise of eyebrows and nod of head combo, Wayne feels the need to mark each and every one of our daily passings with a loud and minute-long variation of “cum ‘ere baby, yeah you, blondie, oi, cum ‘ere, oi, blondie, ooooi ooooooooooooooooiii”.

Puffing out his chest, leaning awkwardly against the boot of his souped-up Peaugot 205 – spotted boxers poking out from his faux-Addidas tracksuit bottoms – it seems highly unlikely that if blondie did succumb to the mating call and indeed came over, Wayne would be capable of anything more than making a sheepish retreat behind his oversized spoiler.

But, nonetheless, it has clearly been programmed into Wayne’s gel-set head that this vocal display is what all real men make when a lone female below the age of 50 crosses their path. Even if she does cross your path five times a day.

He does get full marks for consistency. And, I guess, going on the law of averages, the hundreds of Waynes bellowing provocatively across the streets of Britain must be paving the way for at least one lucky Wayne to receive an impromptu blowjob at 5.15pm on a Wednesday.

Yet while I’m unlikely to sexually respond to streetside “cum ‘ere” tactics, at least without a cup of tea and a couple chocolate biscuits thrown in there first, I do feel less offended by Wayne’s stream-of-consciousness-courting than the deceptive efforts of the suited and well spoken 30-something who tried to pick me up on the dance floor of Brick Lane’s 93 Feet East by professing I had “nice boots” (and yes, he did say boots).

Here was an intelligent man, who, rather than offer to buy me a drink or find out anything about me, was attempting to trick me into believing he possessed some sensitive, boot-appreciating side, with the hope, I imagine, that I would suggest we go back to his so he could have a closer view of my footwear. I definitely feel safer with Wayne.

17 June 2009

June 17, 2009

I forgot to dry my skinny jeans after Tuesday’s brief but monsoon-like downpour, and now they smell like cauliflower. I, like the bus I had been waiting nearly three-quarters of an hour for, was highly unprepared for the tropical storm that hit East London at around 7.15pm; my £1.99 Superdrug umbrella can barely cope with traditional British drizzle – it stood little chance against raindrops the size of brussels sprouts.

Following much loud swearing at my wilting brolly, and two failed attempts to wedge myself under the overcrowded bus stop, I resigned to an unsheltered patch of pavement, and was promptly as soaked as if I’d power-showered in my clothes. With water running down my back, and iPod and phone stuffed under my sopping top, I spent the remaining bus-waiting time trying not to acknowledge what substances were most likely involved in the opaque grey liquid swirling over my flip flops.

After whipping the occupants of Mare Streets into an uncharacteristic sense of togetherness – London College of Fashion students frantically seeking to shelter their asymmetrical hairstyles amid crowds of buxom East Enders – the sheeting rain stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and Hackney was left shell-shocked, bedraggled, and a tiny bit cleaner. Of course, the periodic downpour meant all buses were then running late for the foreseeable future, and even when I finally scrambled onto a 55, the driver clearly thought the puddles far too hazardous to risk going above two miles an hour.

I do realise it’s common knowledge that British transport doesn’t cope well with extreme weather – we live in a country where ‘leaves on the line’ is considered a completely valid reason for day-ruining travel disruption – but I still don’t quite understand why.

I was particularly confused in February, when the Underground was subject to partial closures, big delays and general chaos because of the heavy snowfall – surely one of the few plus points of working, as the name dictates, ‘underground’, should be that tube drivers needn’t have to bother checking the weather forecast before heading off for a day at the office?

Even when the brief Siberian spell had passed, the remaining murky skin of ice covering much of the city lingered for days, and, because nobody thought to sprinkle a little road salt Old Street-way, getting about by foot resembled something out of Takeshi’s Castle. But whilst slightly wounded by Hackney Council’s nonchalent  attitude toward pedestrian safety, witnessing the gaggles of stern and suited city chaps waddling their way to the tube penguin-style was more than worth the three times I fell over.

8 June 2009

June 8, 2009

Yesterday, after the BBC’s utter incompetence at predicting the weather was confirmed once again, (the symbol for torrential rain remaining defiantly on their website whilst Londoners sauntered about their Sundays in gentle sunlight), I spent a leisurely while strolling the leafy path that runs beside the Old Street-Angel section of the Grand Union Canal.

I’ve only recently been introduced to this quiet little stretch – its existence coming as a mild irritation considering I spent every morning and evening of last month trudging the mile or so between Old Street and Angel amid the jams and sirens of City Road, completely oblivious of the waterside and fume-free route running parallel just 50 yards to the right.

But that’s London, apparently designed to give maximum focus to the shit bits – the red neon glow of an Aberdeen Steak House is inescapable – whilst plentiful pockets of quirky bars, pretty parks, basement pubs and deliciously cheap international restaurants are craftily concealed behind a facade of filthy windows, concrete alleyways and cigarettes stubbed out in chewing gum. London is not made for the visitor.

While Old Street might not be the cobbled scene of bowing iron lampposts, musty bookshops and wizened tailors that its name suggests, the Shoreditch end throbs with an irritatingly attractive and achingly cool crowd who pout and pose their spandex-wearing way around fittingly kooky establishments. It may be a pretentious bubble that shamefully encourages the shallow and ridiculous, but this people-watching paradise is eccentric London at its best.

Yet five minutes down the road, visitors taking the Shoreditch exit from Old Street tube station are met, not with neon bulbs and the thudding of electric beats, but rather a vomit-strewn pavement sporting three gaudy Kebab shops, a cash machine that charges two quid and frequently nicks your card, and the chaviest pub I have ever seen (and I grew up in Portsmouth). There is not the slightest hint that around the bend is a whole community living life like it were a music video.

London makes you search; you can be right on top of something and still not find it. Thrice-daily do I receive pleading requests for directions from wispy fashionistas who have mistakenly wandered onto the concrete estate that I live on in search of the boho cafes and bars of nearby Hoxton Square.

“Turn onto Hoxton Street, pass the group of vocal tramps on your left, and, once opposite the smashed windows of the job centre, take a right by the industrial bins,” are the exact directions.

And this architectural plan to deceive happens all over. On the opposite side of the city, tourists eagerly emerge from Notting Hill Gate tube expecting Hugh Grant-a-likes, cream townhouses and wrought iron gates revealing glimpses of trim private gardens. Instead you get crap cafes and Waterstones. A walk of two minutes and a couple of sharp turns will lead to vintage shops, quaint cobbled muses and the eclectic charms of Portobello market, but if it weren’t for the sweeping current of the weekend crowd, you’d never guess.

Looking side-on at London from my morning train ride to work, (to an inconsequential place in Kent that no one has ever heard of – even people who live in Kent), it amuses me how, from this distance, the crowded, thumping heart of central London simply looks like an odd collection of toys peeking out over a non-descript sea of rooftops. Not even the skyline gives anything away.

4 June 2009

June 4, 2009

“I don’t feel old enough to resort to internet dating” said Rachel, who turned 22 last month.

“No, me neither” said me, who turns 27 in precisely two weeks.

Rachel smiled. She has one of those smiles of such fluid intensity, that it flushes the whole face in an eye-twinkling, rosy-cheeked wave. She could smile her way out of anything, however guilt-ridden, and if she were to flash her teeth at any one of London’s furrowed masses, my money is on the recipient becoming an instant fan. But even the biggest, toothiest Rachel smile couldn’t mask the “er, hell yeah you’re old enough” that was holding on for dear life to the tip of her tongue.

And I am. I am old enough, single enough and busy enough to warrant internet dating being firmly in my life. Yet whether it is because I find it tacky, am scared of putting myself out there, whether it makes me feel desperate, or I just can’t be bothered, (my pathetic levels of self-awareness are a continual disappointment), there is something about mixing sexual matters with technology that repels me in the most massive of ways. (This also means I have very little desire to make pornographic films, Mum will be pleased to know.)

I have wafted a vague bit of effort towards opening my cynical self up to the idea of cyber-searching for love. Last month saw me, after several litres of wine and much hilarity-based encouragement from my housemate Flynn, sign up to Guardian Soul Mates, and be promptly inundated with offers of affection from 50-year-old Yorkshiremen. “Is Yorkshire too far from Shoreditch?” one hopeful queried.

Last month also witnessed a pathetic attempt to join mysinglefriend.com – as in, my lovely friend Ben wrote me a profile, and I didn’t sign up.

And I feel bad. I feel I should be joining the single London set in filling all free evenings with alcohol-fuelled interviews of prospective partners – drinkerviews, if you will. But maybe there is a part of me that still holds hope of meeting someone the face-to-face way – catching the eye of a handsome stranger between the armpits of a sweaty tube carriage, or something.

Or, maybe I’m just socially lazy and can’t be bothered to waste precious Flight of the Conchordes watching time on stilted conversation with people I don’t know.

All I can hope, as well as for the ability to produce more than one dish of socially acceptable food, is that 27 brings with it some little flash of lucid introspection every now and then. It would be an awful help.


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