Waking in Hoxton

A couple of weekends back, I spent the night in London.  On purpose, you should understand, I didn’t miss the last train home and have to sleep on a park bench.  This is something I very rarely do as it is normally hideously expensive (even on a park bench) – however, I suddenly realised that London has a university (several, in fact) and perhaps I could revert to student life in the capital as easily as in Cambridge or Oxford.  I had been vaguely aware of the option for a while as one of my former offices – sited opposite Bankside Power Station (or Tate Modern as I believe we are now supposed to call it) – was converted into student accomodation some years ago and I’ve always fancied sleeping at my old desk (or at least its location – I fear the desk may be long gone).  The challenge would be in booking the right room, websites are not really designed to accept a description based on a relative location referenced to the building’s fourth floor frontage or its historic usage.

Whilst I could have stayed in NGH, my business in town was in the soi-disant centre of hipster culture on the borders of Hoxton and Shoreditch.  So, I found myself staying in an outpost of the Univeristy of Westminster for the very thrifty sum of £36 (or about €5 as I believe it is now).  I will not try and claim the room was luxurious, though the shared bathroom was suprisingly nice (not at all like my own student days), and I had to forage for my own breakfast – but it was perfectly comfortable and the cheapest night I’ve spent away from home in many a year (well, excluding the kindness of friends and family).

As mentioned above I was staying in Hoxton, but failed to spot a single penny-farthing nor any particularly baroque examples of facial hair.  Frankly, I was the most eccentrically-dressed person I saw – not that I want you to think I spent a lot of time regarding myself in reflective surfaces.  I am beginning to think this whole idea of the hipster is a practical joke promulgated by the MSM and providing much need employment for a few out-of-work actors.  I did have pizza for my supper and when I asked for some eating irons was told “we don’t do cutlery”.  They also didn’t do plates – only paper ones – so I’m not sure if this was a hipster-affectation or some sort of phobia of washing-up.  Or is it some adjunct to the thoroughly discredited idea of paleo dining?  As a result of their fork-embargo, my fingers were rendered horribly oily and I will not be dining in that particular establishment again: though the pizza itself was very good, I don’t like getting my hands dirty.

Brunch on Sunday morning was a much more satisfactory affair, as 8 Hoston Square has not embraced the post-cutlery world.  This was a treat: a leisurely and delicious meal (literally comprising all I would normally eat for both breakfast and lunch) in the liminal space between indoors and outdoors (doors?) overlooking Hoxton Square.  None of the usual urgency that seems to infect my Sundays, with errands or things I ought to be doing pressing at my conscious mind: I could listen to 6 Music, read my book and watch the world go by.  I think I ought to start instuting a regular Sunday brunch option at home, perhaps with friends, to recapture the atmosphere of that morning with a different and more exciting menu than my standard breakfast fare.

Why, you may wonder, was I in Hoxton at all?  Well, I was at ARGCOM Fest: which over two days offers nearly 50 Edinburgh comedy previews (though one person you could never catch more than 16) in the less used spaces of Shoreditch Town Hall.  In a rare feat of self-control, I limited myself to a mere twelve across the weekend.  I rather like ARGCOM as it is rather a good simulation of the Edinburgh Fringe: overly warm rooms, in spaces normally unused (or used very differently) with uncomfortable chairs.  This is how comedy should be!

It was a lot of fun, and really nice having a 5 minute walk “home” on Saturday night rather than 2+ hours making my way back to my tiny garret.  My three top picks – each very different – would be:

Max and Ivan: despite complete failure of the technology and the show not being quite finished, this was very funny indeed and included a nice bit of acrobatics from Max in a very tight space with a wet floor (he’s a braver man than I).

Ahir Shah: clever and very funny, if slightly disturbing as at regular points in the show he would refer to me by name (though I feel I was representing a form of “everyman”).

Andrew Hunter-Murray: also plagued with technical issues, but very funny.  I had to play a character in this one, which mostly involved me wearing a hat and mask: from which I can confirm that a mask is a very impractical choice for a super-hero, it jiggers your vision in all directions.  I did also receive a very sweaty hug from a QI elf, which is not something I can claim every day.  I may now have to aim to complete the full set…

The weekend did tempt me to spend a little more time in London, and less time commuting back and forward to Southampton.  However, I do feel a liitle bit of a traitor going to culture in London, it is in some ways the “enemy”.  I always feel I should be supporting a more local option and reducing the need for artists of all stripes to have to leave Southampton to live in cramped penury in the capital.  I comfort myself with the fact that I probably go to more local culture than anyone else in Southampton in my desperate search for divertissement: unless you know better?  In which case, I’ll try and up my game!

Dining Alone

Dining alone is considered anathema by many – well, it is when in the relatively public space of the more formal class of restaurant.  So far as I know, little stigma attaches to the single fella (or lass) dining alone in the comfort (or otherwise) of their own domicile – or, indeed, in a fast food joint of the kind that has so successfully colonised these shores from across the Atlantic.

So traumatic can the mere prospect of dining alone be that the internet (that bastion of sound advice) is brimming with suggestions for the terrified solo diner.  I must admit that this particular activity has never held any fears for me, and have partaken of solo meals in restaurants across the globe (well, on at least four continents – which coincidentally, are all the continents that have e’er been graced with my presence).

I embrace solo dining – and as I have probably mentioned before – will always sit over-looking the bar and/or kitchen if at all possible.  This provides a free floor show for the diner (thus preserving his novel for a little longer) and an opportunity to converse with – and even distract (and occasionally assist) – the staff and fellow “bar”-flies.  I have learned a number of new skills and a whole range of interesting facts and fun anecdotes through my activities.

I have come to suspect that places where the staff are willing to interact with me (rather than running screaming from my sight – and more importantly for them, conversational gambits) have a tendency to become favourites (though I may struggle to prove statistical significance to an appropriate number of sigmas for some readers).  I visited two of these favourites as part of my recent excursion to Cambridge – visits which share another thematic link.

When in Cambridge, which thanks to the Interval Study happens exactly every 10 weeks, I try and fit in a visit to Fitzbillies for dinner.  This tradition started (more-or-less) by accident as they start serving early enough to allow a subsequent trip to a concert (or other gig) and have always been able to furnish me with a table at the short notice which tends to characterise my “plans” to dine out.  Whilst it started by accident, it continues by dint of the excellent food and service.  I feel I have written before about just how dapper the Maitre d’ is (or est) – but on this last visit I also discovered that he is very good with small children.  He also remembers me, my usual table and preferred red wine (and I’m sure this is not entirely down to the menu-burning incident).  On this particular visit, I found myself needing a table on a Friday night – and they could fit me in.  Not so surprising perhaps, except that the Friday in question was the 14th – not unlucky, but apparently in February an unusually popular evening to dine out (go figure?!).  Also (it would seem), an exceptionally poor choice of day to dine alone – but luckily I am brazen in my solitude (and was the only diner making this particular lifestyle choice).  Anyway, my main course was particularly excellent and brings us on to the second theme of this post (yes, I am trying to move all my posts into a formal sonata form).

As often mentioned, I am (mostly) vegetarian and there is one key area where the word “mostly” applies and that is with regard to venison.  I am all too aware that my ancestors were complicit in the elimination of all of the natural predators of the deer (and, indeed, introducing whole new species of the browsers to these isles).  As a result, Bambi’s relatives can grow in number, unchecked by predation and are becoming a destructive menace.  As a result, I feel it is my responsibility to eat them whenever the opportunity presents.  I do realise that much the same argument could be applied to anthropophagy, but I have yet to see “long pig” on a restaurant menu.  The venison at Fitzbillies was utterly divine and I thought I was never likely to taste its equal – though in this belief, as it transpired, I was quickly proved wrong.

As a result of geography and the nature of the UK rail network, I returned home for Cambridge via London.  This allowed my to fit in a trip to the Finborough Theatre to see the powerful and visceral Carthage: no mention of Phoenicia, Dido or Aeneas, but an incredible and at times terrifying play.  Theatre going requires a little fuel, and so I managed to sneak in a trip to 10 Greek Street beforehand (not exactly on the way, but close enough).  I was doubly glad that I did.  Firstly, because it was Yanni’s last shift before he returned to Greece and as the barman (probably not his actual job title) he was the employee of 10GS that I have most often distracted from his real duties.  He was also the reason why I have never had to read the wine list, I could always rely on his skill and judgment to pick an appropriate accompaniment to my food.  Secondly, I selected the venison pie from the menu and this was, if possible, even more divine than the previous night’s deer-based eating.  It was also an amazing feat of construction with the delicate pastry totally enclosing the meat contents of the pie, a little like a smaller and much more elegant pasty.  I have absolutely no idea how this could have been achieved – and no amount of dissection revealed its secrets.  Still, I suppose it’s good that there remains hidden knowledge yet to be learnt.

My haunting of the bar – like a latter-day Norm Peterson – also yielded an invitation to the opening of 10GS new sibling – also imaginatively named after its address: 10 Hoxton Square.  This was good fun and did mean I took my first exploratory steps into the centre of hip-ness that is Hoxton.  I found it surprisingly unhip (haw?) – rather more cheap sportswear adorned its denizens than I had been led to believe.  Or perhaps I just don’t understand what “hip” is in 2014?