Friday, 28 November 2008

Autumn again

Our street is, like most of the suburb, lined with deciduous trees which are a riot of green all through spring and summer. About this time last year I remember being struck by the sudden change the trees go through - I moved to the UK in July so I turned up just in time to see all the greenery before autumn turned everything into something out of a Rob Reiner movie. Well, that's what it seemed like. As I would have said at the time, they have real seasons here! What I'm trying to say is that this is exciting for me, because autumn in Brisbane looks pretty much the same as all the other seasons.

This was our street one morning a few weeks ago.

I also saw another bit of picturesque continuity - this house a few lots down with a carpet of leaves adorning its path.
I photographed this same house and path sometime in April when it had a different seasonal carpet:

The street looks quite different again now. The trees are bare, and the only thing lining the streets are a few rotting remnants of the autumn leaves, and people's recycling spilling out of their front yards while it waits to be collected. Most of the houses seem to have to leave their rubbish and recycling out on the footpath and because most of it is in bags or open topped containers, the squirrels have an excellent time sorting through it all and then leaving all manner of disgusting things strewn all over the footpath. It's been cold and drizzly all week so this makes the street look particularly unpleasant. I'm sad we'll be leaving before things turn around in spring, but then again, the end of February seems to be London's least inviting time of year so perhaps it's the perfect time to go after all.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The Boyfriend's London

On a recent Saturday we set out to buy The Boyfriend some jeans (you'll see why shortly) and to visit the Tate Modern, which I keep harping on about because our annual membership is going to expire shortly. To be honest the Tate is never that appealing on a Saturday afternoon as it's packed to the rafters with people, mostly families, and the Members' Room is a stroller/pram/frazzled parent obstacle course instead of the calm refuge with bar I always hope for.

So after we'd braved the ludicrous crowds on Oxford Street, we decided to walk down to the Tate. However, we got distracted by the shops on Carnaby Street and then Soho, and never actually managed to make it to the art. I suspect this was a ploy of The Boyfriend's to avoid the Tate, because I've never seen him so interested in shopping as he was that afternoon.

Carnaby Street's Christmas lights this year are comprised of giant, white, obese men lit from inside who float above the arcade amongst white snowflakes.

The Oxford Street lights seem to be the same ones as last year - is this normal? I thought they changed each year?

We followed up a fruitless quest for new shoes for The Boyfriend with lunch at Cha Cha Moon in Kingly Court, which was a revelation as it keeps getting terrible reviews from all the snobby food critics in the UK papers. Now I think about it, the negative reviews seemed to based mostly on either the acoustics, which really seemed to offend one particular reviewer, or the fact that the food isn't authentically Chinese enough, a sentiment I find pretentious and annoying - the mains are £3.50 each for goodness' sake. We had awesomely cheap (for Central London), delicious crispy duck and jasmine tea-smoked chicken liao mian in completely inoffensive ambient conditions and I'm sorry we didn't discover it earlier in our London stay.

After a few hours wandering in Soho, we inevitably we found ourselves at Forbidden Planet, the flagship of the famous comic book/sci-fi pop culture store. This is probably The Boyfriend's favourite place in London, except perhaps the street with all the guitar shops near Charing Cross Road.

Here is The Boyfriend checking out the merchandise.

As you can see, his unfashionably saggy jeans prevent me checking out any of his merchandise. We purchased two more snug fitting pairs at Gap this same afternoon which are much more flattering, although The Boyfriend's friend back in Australia heard he'd bought some tight jeans and warned The Boyfriend in no uncertain terms not to come back wearing some crazy European wardrobe like their mutual friend who returned from his London stint sporting some lovely lederhosen-style short shorts. And not in a humorous or ironic way.

There are a lot of puzzling and or amusing things to find in Forbidden Planet, which has two enormous floors of comics, graphic novels, figurines, costumes, books, DVDs, toys, collectibles, etc devoted to every feature of pop culture with even the most tenuous connection to science fiction you can imagine, and probably much more. This particular shelf caught my eye though. That's a fairly specific category.

Finally, we ended up at the Intrepid Fox, a goth bar near Tottenham Court Road station.

This bar is adorned with the usual gargoyles, headstones, headless creatures etc but it plays a pretty good selection of metal and rock music (which means The Boyfriend will tolerate being there - pubs that play top 40 pop music bring out his petulant side) and the crowd is definitely more interesting to watch than the tourist and hen night crowds in most of the watering holes in the area.

White Docs: they do go with everything, don't they?

Of course, after an afternoon of retail and cider, we were rather jolly on the way home and recorded some aspects of our journey back into West London.

The Boyfriend and friends

This is me with the Paolazzi mosaics in Tottenham Court Road tube station. As you can see I was not really suitably attired for the goth bar (although I suppose the font on the front of my hoodie could be described as Gothic). If only we'd known where the afternoon would take us, I would have gotten my white Doc Martens out. If I had any.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Sand dollars

On my way to Waterloo Station to catch the train to Brockenhurst (for our New Forest adventure, see below) I walked along the South Bank of the Thames, past the Tate Modern, Oxo Tower, National Theatre, and the British Film Institute. As this was late October, the sun was actually still up (only just) at 5pm. Unlike now, when you look out the office window at 4pm into pitch blackness.

This was the view from the northern end of Blackfriars Bridge across to Westminster.

And the view back towards the bridge and the City from the South Bank.

I also spotted something with some continuity to an earlier post, which was nice. Early this year I posted some (grainy) photos of sand-dwellers in this particular area of the South Bank who were merrily sozzled and singing to the passers by while crafting couches and other things from sand. The primary purpose of all this was to coax money out of us, for beer they said, but the whole effect, with their roaring fires and sand furniture and straight-to-the-point chorus, was decidedly entertaining.

So I passed by this spot on the way to Waterloo and found some more sand-sculpting but of a more morbid (yet still enterprising) variety.

The headstone says:
'Here lies a sandy queen
Waiting for next Halloween
In 7 days she will wake up
So throw a coin and wish her luck.'

(As always, click on the photo for a better view.)

I like how he has her showing a bit of leg, just in case that would reel us in.

Monday, 24 November 2008

The New(ish) Forest

The Boyfriend took me to a fancy English spa hotel a few weeks ago. This is extremely unlike him, as he usually makes a point of broadcasting that he hates "all that rubbish" and just wants his punk music and his computer and a bottle of wine. But he seemed to be actually feeling the stress of being a City professional in the current economic climate and, after encouragement from a workmate, booked this package at a hotel in the New Forest, Hampshire.

Soon after we arrived, The Boyfriend took in the embossed wallpaper, chintzy curtains and the spa treatment list that started at £60 for the most basic treatment, and realised his folly. While I was quite happy to book an overpriced massage and to recline in front of an open fire while the wind whistled outside, I'm pretty sure The Boyfriend was almost terminally bored. It was a nice experiment though. And also interesting to experience the dining room, which seemed to be a relic of English upper-class country life (no denim or t-shirts, attentive and polite service, no changes, excessive amounts of meat). There was actually a man at the next table on our first visit with a white bouffant, salmon sports coat and cream trousers looking snootily around at all us pretenders.

This was the hotel:

Not too bad really.

We decided to take a ramble through the New Forest itself, and on our way we came across actual livestock, roaming the streets and fields at their leisure. This seemed a bit unusual to me. Is this laid on for the tourists?

(OK, I've looked it up - this is another legal hangover from hundreds of years ago which gives the peasants the right to turn horses and cattle (and pigs, presumably) out to graze in this particular forest.)

The New Forest itself was uneventful, particularly because a large part of it is actually new, so that part is mostly scrubby bracken and young pine trees planted in neat rows. But deeper into the forest, things became older and more enchanting. (Click on these to see them properly.)

We decided to walk the 9 miles to Lyndhurst, the path to which the hotel receptionist ensured us was clearly signed. We saw one sign, which seemed to have no correlation with the map she'd given us. Other ramblers also seemed to be taking different paths from the ones that seemed logical. They were dressed in Gore-Tex from head to toe, wearing hi-tech footwear, and carrying those professional walking stick helper things. Maybe they were expecting to discover some as yet undetected mountains?

Anyway, somehow we made it to into the town, which seemed to consist almost entirely of antique stores and luxury car dealerships including Maserati and Porsche, so The Boyfriend was rewarded in the end by being allowed to gaze on the shiny, monstrous glory of European vehicle technology (until I couldn't bear it any longer and hauled him off).

The rest of the weekend was spent, frankly, eating and drinking, so I'm certainly not going to complain about that.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Friday vegetable update

Over here, some things in the supermarket are a little bit different than in Queensland. For one thing, you can buy alcohol here (because unlike in Queensland, the government has not been hamstrung by a super-powerful alcohol distribution monopoly). Also, there are massive aisles of pre-prepared "ready meals" for one which cover a whole range of cuisines but by and large manage to taste almost exactly the same as each other. "Woolies" here is not the dominant and most profitable supermarket in the country, but a minor purveyor of homewares and hi-fi equipment. And finally, things have completely different names: what I know as a snowpea is mangetout, those orange pumpkins are butternut squash, eggplants are aubergines, and zucchini is courgette. Plus, for somewhere with a decidly non-tropical climate, they all seem awfully keen on pomegranate. I don't think I'd ever seen a pomegranate before I arrived in England.

Today I had my first British experience of an entirely new vegetable (rather than something with a different name), the golden beetroot. In Australia, beetroot usually means violently magenta hued, very sweet slices extracted from a tin made by Golden Circle and served at barbecues. Possibly for serving with pineapple on a hamburger. Occasionally someone (like my mother) might bother to buy fresh ones and cook them (meaning they would have about 400% less sugar than the canned variety), but most Australians I know probably don't even realise this is possible. However, I had no idea it was possible to get beetroot in different colours. It was like the time I first encountered those purple potatoes.

The weirdest thing is, it tastes almost exactly the same as red beetroot, so while eating it I experienced a weird sort of sensory confusion. Apparently golden beetroot used to be very common in England before being supplanted (ha!) by the red variety. So there you go. Maybe I should start farming it in Australia and selling it with a mark-up on the red beetroot price. It's not really golden though... more of a dull, slightly translucent yellow.

Another thing I've learned about golden beetroot is that it seems to emit some sort of invisible forcefield that prevents the camera from being in focus when someone tries to take a photo of it. This the only possible explanation for the range of substandard photos Google Images brings up when you search "golden beetroot".

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

I personally, at this moment in time...

I'm not really in a cheery blog posting frame of mind at the moment, for a variety of reasons that include my deteriorating spine and how that might prevent me from my rice cracker hookup later in the week, and if I wrote about how I was really feeling it might be a bit too profane for my family-friendly little blog. However, this article about the 10 expressions English people find most irritating is giving me a welcome sense of superiority and well-being. In case you can't take the suspense of waiting for the page to load, here is the list:

1 - At the end of the day

2 - Fairly unique

3 - I personally

4 - At this moment in time

5 - With all due respect

6 - Absolutely

7 - It's a nightmare

8 - Shouldn't of

9 - 24/7

10 - It's not rocket science

I don't really see what the problem is with no. 7. A resigned exclamation of "Nightmare!", usually in the context of supermarket or ATM queues, is definitely more prevalent here than in Oz but I've found myself adopting that particular piece of annoyingness.

I heartily agree with no. 1 though. It's right up there with people around the office who say "ramp up" and "on the same page" and [shudder] "synergy/ies". I thought everyone had finally caught on to the uselessness of all that indirect, pointless business jargon, but apparently I was wrong.

I suppose glib top ten lists would fall into some people's idea of irritating too. But it's nice to have something straightforward and concise to refer to, particularly when you're cranky.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Coram's Fields

Since I reigned myself in from binging on all manner of artery-hardening junk food when bored, one of my life's greatest pleasures has been snacking on tzatziki with rice crackers. (Oh yeah. I live on the EDGE!) Not those cardboard-tasting, frisbee like puffed rice discs, and not the glazed, sweet Japanese-style ones, but the small, fairly basic rice cracker you find everywhere in Oz, looking much like this:

(These are the barbecue-flavoured ones, which are okay, although I'm more partial to the seaweed flavour.)

When I first moved to the UK, I was gutted to discover that neither Tesco nor Sainsbury's (our local supermarkets) stocked this kind of rice cracker. At one point Tesco had something similar, but in these almost surreal-ly insipid flavours (something like "Oriental Spice" and "Sweet Thai Herb") and not only were they so sweet as to be almost inedible, they definitely didn't go with the all-important tzatziki.

For the following twelve months I would duck into every single off-licence and corner store we happened to pass in the hope that I would find a rice cracker with which to satisfy my cravings. Everytime I spoke to other Australians living in London I would interrogate them about where and when they'd seen them for sale in the UK. Occasionally I would find an almost-adequate substitute (e.g. there is a "chilli-flavoured" version which actually almost resembles something flavoured with chilli) and buy five or six packs in order to hoard them until more could be found. But when I'd return to the shop, I would always find they hadn't re-stocked since the last time I cleaned them out.

Finally I stopped bothering The Boyfriend and others with my insane rice cracker obsession and started to look for other snack alternatives.

Then, when I moved into my new group at work, my lovely temporary office-mate, a Kiwi, happened to mention something about rice crackers and I gave her my sad story of defeat. And she replied casually that they sell them at Waitrose (one of the UK's largest supermarket chains, i.e. freaking everywhere). There is a Waitrose in our area but the Tesco and Sainsbury's are much closer so we'd never bothered to trek down to it. Imagine my pleasure (and dismay at all those wasted months).

I've now taken to making a regular sojourn on the way home to the Waitrose near Russell Square in central London to stock up on just this one item, Sakata rice crackers (seaweed flavour). I am a much happier person generally.

This has been an enormously long (and dull?) segue into how I discovered Coram's Fields, which is located along the walk from my office in Holborn to Waitrose, Russell Square. There is a lot to see on this particular walk, including as it does parts of Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury and therefore lots of beautiful old terrace houses and antique and/or seedy bookshops. However, I was overjoyed to find on my inaugural Waitrose trip another London park to add to my list of favourites.

My joy was diminished almost immediately because as I discovered, you can't go into Coram's Fields WITHOUT A CHILD ACCOMPANYING YOU.

I see from Wikipedia that Coram's Fields offers a playground, sand pits, a duck pond, a pets corner, a café, four half-sized football pitches, one normal-sized pitch, and a basketball court. As I had no child at my disposal (and am not likely to at around 6.30pm on any weeknight), I couldn't verify this with certainty. I recalled later that some of the companies around London play sporting fixtures at the Fields, and wondered how this rule was applied to them. Does every member of each team need a child, or is one per team sufficient? How do they verify the children's ages anyway? Does the child have to want to be there, or can they exclude you if the child is throwing a massive temper tantrum about wanting to go home and watch Dora the Explorer for the 89th time?

Anyway, it doesn't look all that nice inside the high fences. In fact it's so dull the photo I took is not even worth posting. Take that, Coram's Fields. I don't need you anyway.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Adventures in North London

Last Tuesday night was a strange one, and not just because I stepped out into the streets of King's Cross into bucketing snow. I happened to be in King's Cross to attend an x:talk fundraiser with my friend Sarah. After work I walked up north, arriving in King's Cross about 45 minutes earlier than planned. However, there was lots to look at while I waited for Sarah. The upside of the sun going down at 4.30pm is that all the bars and restaurants and houses look so inviting and cosy, full of warm, happy people and glowing light. Sarah told me there is a word for this in Danish - hoogli (??) which doesn't really have an equivalent in English.

It was also pre-Halloween so some of the shop windows were full of extremely tempting themed treats.

Some interesting graffiti along the way (I never see much in the way of really cool graffiti here, despite being in the land of Banksy)

x:talk provides English language classes for migrant sex workers in London, and the fund raiser was held at an extremely pleasant gay bar not far from King's Cross station. I was not shoved or ignored once at the bar, the music was excellent, and everyone was chatty and interesting. There were also a number of live performances including an S&M reading by a delightful lady in a leather dress, and a rather cryptic piece by this young man, who also did a reading and then stood at solemn attention with a red cloth over his head while a clip from Dolly Parton's The Littlest Whorehouse in Texas was played on the TV behind him. He seemed very earnest and emotional about it all but I wonder if there was something I missed.

He was also wearing the most hardcore shoes I've seen in a long time. Good on him, I say.