Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Don't mention the War!

I’m referring to the Second World War. There is a lot of it about, and a lot of post-war austerity in television dramas and on the pages of novels. Is this because we need to be reminded during times of recession that things can be so much worse? It also occurred to me that this particular period has a peculiar resonance for my own, post baby-boomer pre generation-x demographic, are people my age behind some of this interest?

The baby-boomer generation were often children during the war; if not their own parent’s lives were often defined by it. I have always thought that the selfish, hedonistic, escapist sixties were partially fuelled by an “I am bloody sick to death of hearing about the bloody war” mentality. Who can blame our parents? How on earth were they ever going to compete with the toughness, suffering and downright chutzpah of their parents. After all how do you rebel against a generation who repelled the Nazis? The only answer is to reject the world they fought for, even though it may have provided the only kind of culture in baby boomers could freak out and drop out.

It was different for my peers and I. Not only were the sixties our parents’ era, and therefore profoundly old fashioned but their generation were busy making terrible mistakes in the seventies and eighties. I never felt I had much to live up to in terms of my parents generation. But what really makes a difference is that perennial generation jump that engenders a fondness between grandparents and grandchildren. Our grandparents all came from that Wartime generation, some even recalled the Great War. We’d hear first about the exoticism of wartime London, how much fun could be had, the near-misses and practical jokes. When older we would hear of the horrors of the blitz, the lost, the injuries and the damaged. Your grandad might talk about tanks and machines but never the actual mechanics of fighting or your gran, like mine, would never be able to use a tube train or lift due to an experience of being buried alive. At the same time, although on a scale minute compared to the blitz, we were still being bombed by vicious cowards.

In the 70’s the remnants of the war were still also still around. The area next our tenement block (now part of the nine elms complex) was a bomb site. There were no ruins, but you’d still collect shiny bits of shrapnel and the odd bit of casing. There were other signs, the local little brick terraces had little low walls you walked along, but they weren’t walls, just the stone bases that had once supported railings. Old enamel street signs were peppered with singed holes and many terraces still had gaps or houses were shored up with huge wooden planks.

There are many retrophiles who revel in the romance, pugnaciousness and sheer style in the face of disaster that the home front represents. But I have always preferred the thirties. I suspect this is because I know that it is the hopes of the 30’s and the wish to preserve some elements of that glamourous but unstable world that drove my grandparents to persevere through bombs and barrages.

I can understand the enthusiasm for wartime music and fashion. Laurence Llewellyn Jones of all people, in promoting the 40's as the style decade for some banal programme made the very pertinent point that things and people often looked great despite austerity, squalor and suffering. Admittedly most newsreels show grubby grim shabby people but lipstick still found itself being worn, hair was permed. For me part of the glamour was the role of women as firefighters, munitions workers, radio operators or the tough heart of the home front. It seems more appealing to look back at them when you consider the vapid, thin, sex-doll image that seems to epitomise the ideal of women now. The glamorous stereotype of the war had nails, resources and indomitability.

But I still prefer the pre-war 30's stylistically and musically, I would have hated to have lived through the war, I lived through part of it, second hand through my grandparents and generally speaking it sounded horrific.

Revellers at the Blitz club in London copyright Clayton Hartley

Monday, 19 April 2010

Notting Hill Gate

Portabello Road Market (lower end).

I haven’t been to Notting Hill much in the last couple of decades. It really isn’t my idea of London, steadily in the eighties I saw it shift into some kind of interior suburb which really belonged to somewhere like Canterbury, or Guildford. A place where the Home Counties equivalent of yoof settled to earn money in the city prior to returning to their vicarages and restored follys in Hampshire. Last weekend I found myself for various reasons in Portabello Road market.

Initial impressions were not good. The market teemed with European language students and those stalls and shops which are the sign of a market gone wrong proliferated. You know, the ethnic tat/faux craft stalls which first infected Camden and moved on to Greenwich. During the day I also saw plenty of the upper crust version of the same thing, those shops mercilessly parodied by Harry Enfield in his ‘I saw you coming’ sketches. Pretend dairies, over-priced fake enamel antiques, shades of bleach and skanky organic food. Despite the hordes of Spaniards and Italians the place had been completely deracinated. Ethnic cleansing is alive and well in London. I’m not inclined to entirely criticize gentrification, an area dominated by one ethnic group is monocultural and creepy (and yes, South Lambeth and Tower Hamlets I am talking about you) however the near total disappearance of black and asian faces from an area I recall being very mixed is downright sinister.

However I did also find things to like, particularly that a few old fashioned traders were still hanging on. I found one vintage jewellery dealer with decent stock at decent prices. Towards the lower end, where it felt like it was still a proper market (less tourists, fruit and veg on sale) the food smelt good. For me however the best bit of the market was not on Portabello Road but at its finish, under the Westway where I saw several good stalls of vintage and second hand clothes. There was a particularly good range of mens suiting. Some of the small shops in the shopping mall were interesting. It also houses ‘What Katie Did’, for my money the best ladies lingerie shop in town. I’d wear their undies happily every day but on this occasion satisfied myself with a couple of pairs of tulle hosiery. This bit of the market I was quite happy with and will revisit.

What Katie Did Boutique.

Going back to the start of this blog though, the area in parts does not feel like London. The attitude to fashion was interesting. The boho maxi dressed look, skinny limbs, long dry blonde hair and the tendency to wear dippy hippy headbands is not common elsewhere. It is an attempt to look urban that is a major fail. Festival hippy plus skinny blond rich bitch just looks, well, Notting Hill. And Notting Hill seems to me to be a fantasy version of London. It does of course have lovely architecture, the white stucco terraces of the area, unlike those of Kennington and Clapham, largely escaped the Luftwaffe. On a sunny Saturday you could not help but envy the permatanned polo shirt and hankerchief top wearing bankers and corporates their balconies, high windows and champagne. I really don’t blame them. Before going to the event we had been drawn West to attend the bearded one and I had a drink in the Elgin just past Ladbroke Grove tube. A beautiful grand old place tartified by someone with rock chick pretentions. The pictures of various Stones on the walls could not stop it being what is was, a gastropubbed to the umph corner designed entirely to appeal to the urban pretensions of the innately rural types in the area. That didn’t mean I disliked it. Actually on a sunny afternoon the atmosphere of high-ceilinged, nicely wined, well heeled grandeur was pleasant.

Interior of the Elgin Pub.

And I have to say the food looked really good. We spent the latter part of the evening in the Commander, another good looking gastropub. Here we had good company but very ropey service. So despite the fact I loved the general look of it I cannot recommend it.

There is probably a place for a bit of the Home Counties laced with an edge of Eurotrash glamour in London. Pleasant enough for a wander, lovely houses, lots of good wine lists but still not the bit I would choose, under any circumstances to live in. If I could afford it better places would beckon. Still not half as bad I thought.

Exterior of the Commander.

What Katie Did:http://www.whatkatiedid.com/

The Elgin Pub: http://www.theelginnottinghill.co.uk/

Friday, 16 April 2010

Nicholas Jolly exhibition: ' The Age of Anxiety'

Last night I tripped off with Torquil Arbuthnot and Katie Chutzpah amongst others to Mayfair for the preview of Nicholas Jolly’s exhibition ‘The Age of Anxiety’ at the Sarah Myerscough Gallery in Brook Mews, just behind Claridges.

The gallery is a square cube of white, something friends have heard me rail against in the past, but for once I thought the bare blistering white made this artist’s work sing. As you can guess from that comment they are colourful, there is also a measured √©lan to Jolly’s work, an element of bravura. Personally I felt the adaptation of surrealism and its traditional motifs such as birdmen and Ernst-like collage was cheerfully being subverted. Mind you who knows what an artist’s intentions are? (I have put a link to an interview with Jolly at the end of this post) As a person very fond of Edward Burra (birdpeople!) and as an (ex) art historian I do like to see a painter take a genre and give it a good old rattle.

'A Message from Our Leader.'2008 copyright Nicholas Jolly

Quite apart from this, anyone who knows me will now how much I enjoy a bit of vintageretrophilia, and the sources of Jolly’s imagery are to be found in the magazines and advertisements of the early-mid 20th century that I enjoy.

'Early Warning Device'2007 copyright Nicholas Jolly

Alongside the inevitable banal conceptualism still promoted by many galleries there has been a turn to the macabre powered by celebrity artists such as the Chapman bros and Hirst. Someone at the view suggested that Jolly is somewhat in that vein. I don’t think so, to start with there is a wit lacking in Hirst and his ilk's work and Jolly’s paintings, with their familiar and sometimes cozy looking motifs seem designed to draw the viewer in rather than make them recoil. There is no doubt that the compositions might make the viewer uncomfortable, particularly those involving infants and seemingly monstrous bacterium. But these are representations of harmless, everyday organisms such as pollen that we rub along with quite happily most of the time.

The exhibition is on until the 8th of May and I would strongly recommend that people pop in and have a look. And buy a painting, I would if I could.

I had to include this portrait of the artist because he is such a dapper chap!

Interview with the artist here: http://www.islingtontribune.com/reviews/features/2010/apr/feature-exhibition-nicholas-jolly%E2%80%99s-age-anxiety-sarah-myerscough-fine-art-

Gallery details here:http://www.sarahmyerscough.com/index.html

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Spring evening in Soho....The Coach and Blacks.

Ahhh.. a sunny London evening. Most residents of this metropolis go and sit in parks. Clothing is shed, millions of yacking international language students appear from nowhere and deport themselves across Soho Square. The tendency is exterior and predominantly park life. For those who cannot be bothered or with hay fever the alternative is to loiter outside a pub getting in peoples way. Yours truly opted for the middle way, inside a pub and surrounded by natural substances. Well wood counts, and there is something organic about the Coach and Horses. Or rather the clientele. I like the fact you can usually sit down. We did next to two charming ladies, one of whom was wearing excellent shoes and was an expert on Moth execution. It is, in case you dandy types had forgotten, also the beginning of Moth Apocolypse season. Remember it is them or your cashmere. The bearded one declared himself to be well pleased to be back in Soho....

We were on our way to meet Sue and Steve who were taking us to Blacks, the private members club in Dean Street. I like Blacks far better than its close neighbours, the Groucho and Soho House. Partially because it has let us into the bar when desperate and also because it still has a feel of being Georgian rather than an ambitious boutique hotel in the Home Counties. The membership also has a louche edge, perhaps because the odd ex-Colony room type number amongst its members or perhaps because it has a bed in one of the nooks in the upstairs club room. I had however never eaten there. This was the first time also that I had been there earlier on in the evening. The place looks better in the darkness, not because there is any thing wrong with the decor but because at night it has a bibaesqe romance, all dark corners and twinkly lights.

The first thing that struck me on this occasion was how crowded and noisy it was. I put this down to the sudden arrival of sunshine but our host felt that perhaps the membership had grown. It took an hour and a half to get to our table. The company was excellent, and having all been busy we were a bit weary and very hungry by the time we made it. The food was good value for the 25.00 set menu but there could have been more and I felt that the restaurant showed the signs of having been caught unawares and run ragged. I love the dining room decor, lovely dun blue painted wood panelling, sea shell sconces and a large steampunkish geographical instrument doo dad hanging from the ceiling. All very Peter Greenaway meets Congreve, an effect enhanced by the presence of Hogarth prints adorning the walls. Lovely room, shame about the fact that a table behind us was a group of very young, very loud girls. It was like being in the student union bar. Still all this aside I think it is one of the most attractive and charming of the modern private clubs, that it has a distinct charm and I could not fault the company.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Isle of Man

Toto, this ain't Soho...

My lack of blogs recently is partially explained by a trip to the Isle of Man, even I didn’t feel the need to drag my laptop with me, although I admit for a nanosecond I was tempted. I was going to attend, what turned out to be a charming wedding. However as the Isle of Man is a rather longer trip than the usual be-hatted excursion to Surrey we had decided to stay for 3 nights. As you can imagine, small islands in the Irish Sea are not Red Leg’s native habitat. I am quite literally a fish out of any water that is not redolent of the Thames: grey and murky. I’d also never been to any of the Channel Isles so had no idea what to expect, except hopefully good fish and chips and salty characters, a kind of Doctor Martin but in the Irish Sea.

Port Erin without the sea.

The first thing that was appealing was the journey. I’m a long haul traveller having spent an extended period in the Far East. Thus flying on a small aeroplane with propellers had a charm of its own. I had to walk on the runway and climb up stairs into the aeroplane which was redolent of Grace Kelly boarding a plane to Monaco, apart from the fact it was Gatwick and the man boarding before me was wearing a very peculiar wig. Arrival was fun, a blustery runway right on the edge of the Island and a bijou sixties airport that we were in and out of in a jiffy.

We were staying at what I think was the far West of the Island in a little place called Port Erin. It rapidly emerged that being out of season nearly everything was closed and a 30-minute walk revealed all the on offer including it's strangely reticent seagulls. Mind you I am used to Cornwall, the home of the hoodies of the seagull world. Our hotel, 'The Falcon’s Nest' was a curious establishment, Gladstone had once stayed there and it had obviously once been a very imposing building. Like most hotels it had been cut up, ceilings lowered and fire doors added. It however had a breakfast room that looked like a grand Georgian drawing room with high ceilings and a frieze of plaster daffodils. The service was eccentric but friendly. The place did however have the most amazing views of the beach from the hotel bar and a pint of O'Kells beer and a sunset are not the worst ways to see an evening in.

Sorry dahling, no agent no pose...

Soon it transpired that Port Erin was not the quiet spot we imagined, certainly not on that weekend. Quite apart from the wedding party, there was some kind of world viola symposium and the place was full of nerdy foreigners with big instruments. Additionally it transpired that the pub run by the hotel was the social hub for the area’s youth. Unfortunately it was also right under our otherwise large comfortable room.

This apart the Island was a curious place, more redolent of the West of the country rather than the North and very proud. I liked the pride the locals had. Most things were prefixed by the designation ‘Manx’: Manx sausages, Manx breakfasts, Manx cream and on the final day, as a bus driver proudly announced "fine Manx weather". This consisted of horizontal rain and a gale. Curiously the Island didn’t seem particularly well set up for tourism, this was evinced by the available souvenirs: rubbish fridge magnets and fudge or toffee. The local speciality was ‘Manx Knobs’, the most original thing about them being their name (they are basically a type of humbug). I did consider bringing back some of the rather delicious Manx kippers but baulked at putting smoked fish in my hand luggage.

Did I say there was a wedding?

Wedding aside, the high points of the trip were a journey on a steam train to Douglas, and in Douglas a guided tour of the House of Keys (the Groom being a member of this august institution). The train journey was very pretty and spring-like. I noted the response of the local Manx animal population to the train. Pheasants ran around in circles, grouse stuck their heads up and looked cross, rabbits hid ineffectively, their ears sticking up behind hillocks, horses chased us and the only Manx cat I saw promptly showed us it's (tail-less) derriere. Ooooo! I've come over all Country File. Maybe that makes up for asking a Manx man about the land mass in the distance (turned out to be Ireland, duh!). Despite my general rural ignorance I liked the place. I think a touch of seagull coaching in the summer may be called for.

Le Cassoulet, good French food.

Exterior of Le Cassoulet.

It must be admitted that Croydon, as a place, does not get a good press. Perhaps it is because of the feral school children and confused asylum seekers wandering around the Whitgift Centre. However how many of you realise it has a palace? Croydon is more of a demographic cape, it is where currents meet. Suburban money, Home Counties wealth, and middle England respectability clash with Croydon face lifts, jerk chicken and people with faces like shovels. A bit of that shovel faced character can be seen in its most famous child Kate Moss. But what of those other famous children of Croydon: John Ruskin, David Lean and Jacquelin Du Pre? I mention all this not because I am a Croydonite, but because the area may have hidden pleasures. To illustrate this fact I raise the subject of the restaurant Le Cassoulet located in South Croydon.

Interior of restaurant(lunchtime).

Le Cassoulet, named after the titular bean and gubbins stew is a small restaurant serving classic French dishes. Unpretentious dishes such as Moules Mariniere, Pate, Confit of Duck properly cooked and attractively presented without any of those mastercheffy flourishes (foams that look like spittle, scallops on scrapings and so forth). Every thing you order is what you expect, but much better. For the prices this is an extraordinarily good restaurant. Even at much higher prices it would be still be an excellent restaurant.

Interior of restaurant (night time).

One of the things I appreciated is its rejection of that particularly British affectation: the distressed, dainty battered french farmhouse style leavened generously with Seaside naffery. For a classic example see Sophie Dahl's kitchen in her current television series, more Notting Hill than Normandy. Like all good French restaurants Le Cassoulet is grown up. It's Frenchness resides in its banquettes, delicate flowery wall paper and wall mounted lamps. It is the kind of interior the Dean Street Townhouse is stylishly pastiching. The staff are largely French, and have that combination of professionalism and humour very faintly veined with a hint of superciliousness that is the mark of good gallic restaurant bods. The Hare ragout was off, as they were not 'eating the Easter bunny' which of course was originally the far tastier hare. They handled the neighbouring table, a group of people who could have walked straight out of Abigail's Party with friendly forbearance. The wine recommended by them was excellent, the cassoulet punctured with generous servings of duck was pronounced delicious and even the cheese course was well judged. Steaks were perfectly cooked, a citron tart was lovely. I was taken back by the price of the lunch menu; £16.50 for three courses. I asked to look at the evening menu, richer more sophisticated dishes, but still about £28.00 for three courses. This food was better than many expensive central London restaurants. I know many reading this will mutter about Sherpas and vaccinations but for those of you not living in Siberia (Norf and East London) Le Cassoulet does what a good restaurant should do: provide a well cooked meal and a gentle relaxing environment to eat it in. Now if they would only open a branch in Soho....

See the homepage for further information about the restaurant: www.lecassoulet.co.uk


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