A Clerkenwell Tale

Good morning  readers, and this week we skid over into EC1, where the former working class area famous for its clock and watchmakers, Clerkenwell, is now so wealthy and chic that a corner of Exmouth Market will cost you a trust fund or seven.  Clerkenwell was always ripe for the picking when it came to gentrification because it exposes one of London’s home truths : People don’t want Victorian.  They want Georgian.  They want flesh spilling out a bit, a hint of classic, a hint of decadence, a bit of filth.  They want England before those killjoy Puritans got hold of it and blasted England with middle class Puritan morality.  They want high ceilings and a sense of space.  These please the modern eye ; show me a former Georgian London suburb and I’ll bet you your polenta that the area is now cluttered with public school types eating swordfish at £28 a plate.  The English are not natural Victorians; but are Georgians.  Highgate, Hampstead, Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Old Street (the bits that the Germans didn’t bomb, nor post-war commercialism demolish), not to mention the parking headache known as Richmond upon Thames.  There are few English sights more elegant than a Georgian sash window.   And Clerkenwell is stuffed with some of the fruitiest Regency glass designs probably erected not long after Wellington won at Waterloo.

And I do think it ironic that the important Battle of Waterloo, which was won on the fields outside Brussels, has a great enormous station named in its honour.   Waterloo Station was an honourable representation of the success of the British in a battle which basically kick-started the nineteenth century of British imperial power.  How ironic then, that 180 years later, Waterloo Station was the place where British politicians had to go to get on a train and go back to the site of the original battle, Brussels, to bow to new European rules and international legislatives.    Not that the Regency knew this would happen, of course.  They were too busy arranging cavalries and galloping randomly with Prussians.

Moro is not new, of course, nor does it date back to the Regency, although the building it was in in Exmouth Market must do.  I dined there on Tuesday with someone who swears he went to Moro in 1989.  But in 1989 then, when we were beginning to spell “Sun-dried tomato” and thought Habitat was cutting edge, this place must have blown people’s minds.  It’s always rammed, extremely jolly, warm and very very loud inside Moro.  The menu is a respectful combination of Spanish and Moroccan.  I say respectful, as the menu blends sensitively, and seems to respect the national characteristics of both.  I started with a broad bean and rocket salad with something interesting on top that was goat’s cheese related, whilst Mr Bluebird had a wonderful braised pea concoction, with tiny girolle mushrooms, and so-tiny-they-were-nearly-invisible slices of cured ham.  This was all on top of what we first thought was a large mushroom, but turned out to be a cheery piece of fresh toast.

If you need dough to establish yourself in Clerkenwell, you certainly don’t need to bring your own dough to Moro.  The breads are wonderful, sour dough in the main, a very generous variety included in the cover charge, and some with surprises – shards of fennel that are buried in the base, chinks of sea salt hovering in the middle.  The only thing that wasn’t noble or fortifying was the prostitutes.  Well, I think they were prostitutes, but obviously I didn’t ask them.  Might have thought I was trying to book them for a job or something.  I think the table behind us was partly composed of prostitutes, and of the extremely high-end, very tall and glamourous South East Asian variety.   So much public peacock-like hair flicking and pseudo lesbian performance was going on during the starter on our neighbouring table, that I thought they were some kind of art installation.  The two girls (one of whom actually looked a bit like a chap) were with the two of the most mild-mannered, dismal and characterless looking men I’ve ever seen.  Much of our evening was spent ruminating on the nature of their relationship, although it was entirely obvious.  The basis of their evening at Moro was economic, rather than gastronomic.  I’ve always been a sort of supporter of prostitution – not actually, darlings, I mean, I have never been so desperate as to actually pay for it, you know – but at least you buy and then you get.  You can’t say the same about an estate agent or a life coach.  I find straightforward economic exchanges refreshing.  And frankly, if I was a middle-aged man with a paunch and a bald patch, I suppose nothing could be more refreshing than having a charming supper at Moro and then paying someone £500 to bend over and let you do extraordinary things to them in a five star hotel of your choice.

The two ladies (one of them possibly a chap – see above) spent quite some time talking loudly together whilst locked into a female toilet cubicle.  This wouldn’t have been a problem, only Moro has just the two loos, and the fact that one of them was being monopolised by two hookers in drag was a little distressing for the queue of us outside.  Eventually they vacated the cubicle and tottered out.  I was the first in after them. There were strands of tenacious, very long hairs on the floor and one calmly draped over the toilet paper.  They even carried on flicking their hair where no one could see, clearly.

Back to the food, my main meal was so delicious that I can barely express it – pink, delicately cooked slices of lamb with coriander butter, with fat chickpeas sitting in a peculiar dahl and a perky Greek style salad.  Two of our fellow diners went for the chicken, and Mr Bluebird opted for a seafood fish tagine which was apparently scrumptious.   Moro is a great place for sherry fans – two pages of various sherries fill the first section of the wine list – but as we are not sherry fans we reverted to the massive section of Spanish wines available, which Moro sources from small producers on the Western coast of Spain (no Riojas here).  We went for something which was third down on the list, extremely reasonably priced and was was on the loveliest wines I have ever tasted.    The acoustics in Moro, however, are unforgiving.  You have to scream at the person sitting next to you to be heard.  This is not helpful when it comes to supper party parlance.  I spent ten minutes listening to my husband tell a story about Luis Bunuel being taken to his first whorehouse when he was 13 by his father, and was under the impression he was talking about Oscar Wilde.  I kept trying to picture Oscar Wilde slipping over the threshold of a house of ill-repute but the image wouldn’t stick. I found it very confusing.  Obviously, what was going on on the table next to us was shaping our conversation topics as well.

Dessert was lovely – and I had plotted it that morning in the office at 10am while salivating over the Moro menu online.  I had Malaga ice cream with fat sultanas which had been soaked in sherry.  It was a party on a plate.  I wanted a party to go with the party on my plate so asked the waitress which dessert wine I should have to go with it, and she suggested “Pedro Ximenez Sanlucar de Barremeda”, which I am writing down for you, because if you drink one thing before you die, make sure it is this.  It was a kind of not-overly-sweet red sherry.  None of us are sherry drinkers, but all of us tried it and loved it.  Mr Bluebird said it was even better than the Spanish stout he had ordered the last time we were there.

A couple of double espressos saw us home, via the meandering Farringdon Road, still smacking of it’s peculiar Dickensian-chop-house aura.  Old pubs have closed down.  Travel bookshops with woodwork painted in duck egg blue or eau de Nil clutter about replacing newsagents and DIY supply shops.  I thought I saw the Duke of Wellington vanish down a side street in search of whore, but clearly was mistaken.  The last echoes of the mid 19th century in Farringdon are being batted out, and a strangely pretty early 19th century Georgian village has been re-emerging and reasserting itself in Clerkenwell in the last decade.  It isn’t being tempered by the current economic climate, it is thriving.  Moro provides excellent repast, tasty and original, and offers dishes that let the ingredients speak for themselves.  However, no matter how new, antiseptic and thoroughly middle-class Clerkenwell has become, you only have to turn your eyeline slightly to one side to see the prostitutes.  You can take England out of the Georgian era, but, it seems, you can’t take Georgian decadence out of the English.

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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Something to communicate

Apologies, fellow Londoners, for not undertaking exciting excursions this week.  It has been a bit of a whirlwind week for me, now that Murdoch’s BSkyB deal is off, I can throw my hat in the ring again.  So, as soon as the news came in that the wrinkled Australian old man was out of the picture, we have been all a-flutter at Bluebird Towers.  My £50 bid is low, but it is noble, and includes hot tea and crumpets for the PM if he says Yes.  Here’s hoping!

Two weeks ago I discovered my phone had been hacked at some point in 2003, which caused me mild consternation.  A man called Giles (or was it Miles) called from the Sun and adenoidally droned down the hotline at me that they had three messages in their possession: one was from John Lewis saying my curtains were ready for collection, another was from the piano tuner saying he was on his way but lost on the A406, and the other was from Ryan Giggs confirming he had been to Lidl for the pregnancy test (damn the rhythm method!) and would be on his way, as soon as he’d finished doing an Adidas fashion shoot in Salford.  Giles / Miles / Charles said they were worth £3.50 or so on the open market.  This was mainly because the stories of Ryan Giggs’s sex life were so florid and depressingly numerous that there were thousands of women in every corner of England getting these messages anyway.  Lidl had basically sold out of pregnancy tests nationwide that summer.  Giles / Miles had put the hours in and was clearly upset.  He demanded expenses and asked if I couldn’t be a little less dull next time he behaved illegally, trespassed on my personal liberty and basically did me the disservice of farking up my morning 8 years later and subsequently making me late for an appointment at Kwik Fit.

This brings me to my point: of all the hacking and calling and ringing and emailing and snooping, how much of it reduced our lives to embarrassing levels of mundanity?  How much crap did they have to trawl through before anything of any value could be found?  How many messages were from people’s mums about ringing Auntie Maureen because it was her birthday, or British Gas wanting to speak to the person who paid the bills?  Or beauticians reminding women of their routine waxes?   It’s like trawling through a barrage of rubbish in order to come up with a nugget of gold.

And even the most interesting person may not have the interesting aspect of their lives present in their modes of communication.  Yes, Sienna Miller is a hugely attractive clothes horse, with doe-eyes, a gamine charm and a winsome bohemian bourgeosie grandeur.  But is she interesting?  Yes, she has been engaged twice to a man whose hairline appears to be slipping off the back of his head like an eiderdown in the night, but she isn’t famous for her telephone chats.  I should know.  I rang her up once and she was surprisingly chilly.  It was only a short survey, for god’s sake.  Her messages are most likely to have been from Somerset-based cheese shops, or Reiki healers, I imagine.  How much journalistic mileage can be got from “Sienna buys Red Gloucester: ‘I would have got some mineral water, but it wasn’t organic’ says film starlet”?

After I was hacked, I went on the attack.  I downloaded an DM Exterminator App onto my  Iphone, courtesy of CrapApps.  What it does is it has sensory perceptors that sniff out Daily Mail journalists in an 100m radius, locate them, and then shoot them.  All for £1.59.  I then realised I didn’t need my iPhone to do this; all I had to do was look for a middle aged, woman-hating man in a terribly cheap suit brandishing a hacking device and an illiteracy problem, who was seen in public writing stories about immigrants roasting English children on a hog roast spit and eating them for supper, and he was almost certain to be a Daily Mail journo anyway.   The only solution, my friends : go commando, telecommunicationally.  Throw away the mobile phone, shove Twitter, disappear from Facebook.  I think the solution might be this : think Victorian novels.  Resurrect the feminine habit that remained solid for nearly two hundred years – write hand-written letters daily.   Get your pen out.

Kids – kids – stick with me on this.  It’s good, I promise!  It’s workable.  One of the main problems with email and text is that these modes of communication are so perfunctory.  They are not designed to beguile, to charm, to incentivize, to dramatize or influence.  They allow no stylistic extravagance.  They are electronic coughs of information, short, punctual and practical.  They make it so very easy for someone else to determine what is going on in your private life.  The pen, my friends, is mightier than the text.    Read how Victorian heroines get through the day : they use telegrams, use the Royal Mail postboxes to send letters warning people of impending disaster / murder / spies / hackers and problems.   The women who want to put people off the scent – and I’m thinking of the manipulative murderess Lydia Gwilt in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale when I write this – use letters to construct the most blatant falsehoods, to send followers off in the wrong direction.  With a letter you can foil your enemy : and then, for the ultimate Victorian thriller drama, you can do the thing that really pisses people off – undertake to devise a code.  Write your diary in it.  Write a letter in bright turquoise ink in code, which only your fellow correspondee can decipher. Don’t write to your solicitor directly, but care off a City of London coffee house where he can pick up his coded mail on his way to a public hanging.  Stay one step ahead of your followers. Challenge their methods of research.  Send you enemy the odd handwritten haiku and utterly perplex them. If they want information, make them work for it.

This is not to say that the characters in Victorian novels didn’t have to deal with hacking possibilities, though, because they did.  In Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Marian Halcombe is more or less a prisoner at Blackwater Park (as dark, eerie and slippery as it sounds) and has to go through vastly complex plots simply to get her communications into the outside world without interception from enemies.  She is hacked from all sides.  Getting a letter to the post office to her London solicitor, in order to try to save her sister’s life, turns into a many paged struggle, in which letters left on hall tables are not posted by staff, and her post from London arrives at her breakfast table with telltale rips around the sealing wax.  Eventually, she has to escape from the house unseen, meet a recently sacked housemaid in a local pub, get her to hide letters about her person, and instruct her to post these letters only when she gets to London and not before.    Even that doesn’t work.  The housemaid is drugged by a mysterious Italian woman ( they are always Italian in English Victorian novels) and wakes up the next morning discovering the letters have been stolen.

What Marian understands is that “any woman who is sure of her own wits is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”  Patience and biding her time bring eventual success from her hackers.   Her hackers are exclusively male, and I’ll bet you Gordon Brown’s voicemail messages that very few of today’s parasitic hackers are ladies.   What she invests is feminine wile.  It seems that our own systems of communication are too comprehensive to defy hackers and robbers and those intent on tomfoolery.  We must become more Victorian in our need to maintain privacy, because if we have more sophisticated pieces of telecommunication than they could ever have dreamed of, we must become so much more sophisticated and expert and dealing with anyone who thinks our information is, in fact, theirs.   So, I intend to put everybody thoroughly off the scent.  I am  planning to leave all of my voicemail messages and texts in my tricky-super-double-autistic code.    That’s going to fox ’em.   Ha.

Right.  I’m off to invest in some carrier pigeons.   They are virtually hack proof as they won’t speak under torture.  Then I’m going to the theatre again tonight which is very Victorian.  However, I sometimes wish people would hack plays, just to make them more interesting.  There are, for example, too few car chases on the British stage.  I shall report back next week.   In invisible ink, of course, and on old parchment that you must burn in the drawing room fire as soon as you have finished reading it.

Please return to the London Bluebird if you have enjoyed this.   This blog is updated every Thursday.

Take What?

A week of various London-ist pleasures this week took in musical theatre and musical theatre.  Last Thursday, after the union strikes had littered the West End with coppers and the Strand was filled with vans full of them, sitting around pressing buttons on i-phones, waiting for the violent protest excitement that would not come, I saw Legally Blonde at one of the West End’s smallest theatres.   I think it is strange that the Savoy Theatre invites musicals at all; it seems more suited to some drab play or other, as the auditorium is possibly the dinkiest in the West End.  But it was, as a blue sign on the side of the building told me, the first building in the world to have electric light installed.  And electricity is what you need if you want to look at the lovely Lee Mead and a succession of teeny stage dogs that threatened to upstage our Lee with their charming barking and on cue-cuteness.

We have shared the Lee love before here on the London Bluebird, as myself and Theatre Buddy follow his award-winning buttocks (which look as though they had been moulded by angels at twilight using a combination of warm steel and young flesh) from theatre production to concert, and then from concert again back to theatre production.  I don’t need to inform you of his Meady’s wonderful-ness again (the interested of those among you can check it out at https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/06/03/the-tale-of-two-musicals/ and https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/a-night-in-albania/) but will say that this production is another success for our boy – a sort of Joseph in corduroy trousers, an Ivy League version, if you will.  And Lee is so darn helpful, spending most of the Act I finale trying to tactfully help the leading lady, whose waldrobe malfunction meant her dress was not done up and therefore she ended showing the audience more than her equity card.

In a week, about 8,000 people see Legally Blonde.  In eight days over the last week or so, half a million people have seen Take That, another quite astonishing bit of musical theatre that took place in a stadium so large that I immediately lost my sense of perspective and nearly had a giddy turn when I took my seat.  With the exception of the Iraq War and /or the arrival of American’s first black President, five lads from the north west playing Wembley was more or less the event of the century.  Ladies got their hair done for it.  They had policemen on horseback for it.   The entire event sold out in approximately 0.0001 seconds in March.  You could practically hear Boyzone grating their teeth all the way from Dublin.  Through my Jazz Buddy we had corporate seats, although the idea of corporate seats is nothing to do with the reality.  If you want to see Robbie Williams in concert and you are a lady of the female variety, you want to be close enough to see him – or smell him – or lick his socks – or….oh sorry.  You want to be in amidst the sweat and torrid fabulousness of the standing area near the stage.  As Jazz Buddy observed, if the event you are seeing is more than 100 people away, you can’t really see it.  So, you watch the big screen instead.  And you sing along – and that’s the stuff.  That’s what you’ve paid all that money for.  It’s the tribal feeling of singing Never Forget with another 99,999 people who understand why you love it.  It’s admiring the greeny-blue shimmering screens of thousands of i-phones directed to the stage.  In stadium rock the audience see themselves in a different light, as the observers become the thing to be observed.   The experience becomes a near-orgy of nostalgic fever.  In India thousands of people go to the Ganges, in England, thousands of people went to Brent.

The strange thing about corporate seats, is you pay more to experience less of the event.  You pay to not be close.  You are heightened – whizzed off and up to the sides and – disastrously – further from the stage than you would have been in the old Wembley structure.  Height gives you some advantage in that you have a better view of the crowds below you, but Take That were each as high as a fifth of  my little finger.  I am not sure they were even in the room.  Mark Owen is three foot six inches tall.  It doesn’t matter how many lightbulbs are flashing on his bizarre neo-Victorian suit, or how long he spends holding on to long notes, in the deluded hope that we will forget he is a squalid sex pest, further than 100 people back, it is all lost.

Which leaves me to the show itself – yes there was an Alice in Wonderland theme which this passionate Carroll-ite adored.  Yes there was a series of explosions, fire, yellow confetti, white balloons, dancers dressed in black and white as human chess pieces executing complex dance routines in wonderful headresses.  There was all of this, and yet only one main stage, and Stage B – an extension to the original stage, stretching out about 50 feet into the standing audience in the central area.  In Wembley Stadium terms, 50 feet is about four inches.  Why not take a leaf from Prince’s design at the fastidiously grim O2 four years ago?  Why not have a stage constructed in the shape of a giant cross, that at least stretches out to some of the sides of the auditorium?  Yes, it was pleasant to have Mr William’s gyrating on a strange metal plinth, shaped like one of those Terry’s Pyramint chocolates from the 1980s, but why have this plinth extend only fifteen feet out from the stage above people’s heads?  Why not take another leaf out of the book from that aforementioned chap from Minneapolis, and have a flying contraption brought in that really makes the audience (all of them) feel involved?  In 1988, Prince drove a purple convertible around an Arena in the Lovesexy tour.  Simple – relatively cheap – a sort of funky, sexy pop Top Gear – yet remarkably effective.   And that was 23 years ago, when Take That were 7 and should have been researching these things.  Sloppy, I call it.

This was a show in Wembley Stadium that wasn’t for Wembley Stadium.  And – here’s the thing – for the same price and with just a little more foresight and planning – it could have been.  The metal robotic man who slowly stood up at the end of the show after a nearly orgasmic build-up seemed wasteful.  Surely, after the initial focus on him he would do something – a barn dance perhaps?  But he just stood – half in and half out of the Progress-themed structure.    Most of the audience didn’t see anything.  The show, like Mr Owen, needed to be 80% bigger than it was.  Or at least that was the view from the Club Wembley section (although the champagne was very nice).   There was also the astonishing mis-fire of getting the audience to sing the national anthem, as we were in the national stadium.  I thought The That had lost the plot, and that all that post-alcoholic therapy had fried their cute little Cheshire brain cells.  I don’t care what Take That think I should sing.  I have, however, paid £95, and they should care what I think they should sing.  That’s how it works.  How thoughtful to put the words on the large screens, however, so that the monarchly-challenged of those amongst us could be reminded of the words.  But what a woefully inappropriate piece of bunkum.  The justification for this was that we were in the national stadium.  But the national anthem is only sung at national events when a national team or representation competes.  And as much as Barlow and co would like to Rule the World and have their well-coiffeured heads on coins and stamps, they are not our national representatives or kings or emperors.   Yet.  A public display of  Take That songs was what I signed up for.  I am not entirely sure I signed up for Robbie Williams’s shouts of “I’ve never felt more fucking patriotic than I do tonight!  Be English! Be English!  Be strong!”  Any more jingoistic lunacy from him and we would have been goosestepping out of there.   Plus the Queen wasn’t in the room (Was she?!  Was she?  Bopping to Relight One’s Fire at the back?)  so what’s the farking point?  I sung it at Ascot coz the old dear was going past in some knackered out old carriage or other getting rained on after she’d gone to the trouble of wearing a yellow hat.  But our feelings about the monarchy, like our feelings about politics and sex and faith, are private.   And if those feelings are about having sex with the monarchy then – please – I beg you – keep it private.  I have said it before, and I shall say it again – I’ll stand up when the national anthem’s Jerusalem and not a moment before.  Anthems should be about this ‘ere green and pleasant baby of a country, not about a quite nice German person in a hat.   Oh, and I could have done without the lady next to me loudly labeling my friend and I “LOSERS!” when we didn’t stand up to Mark Owen’s command with the anthem either.   Being called a loser was ironic, considering Mark Owen is the one dressed like an 1840s bell hop with a warbly voice and a haircut like a hamster, I thought, but you can’t explain that to people when they’re fizzing with royal fervour.

The verdict was I enjoyed singing along to the old Take That hits in a room full of hysterical women, but the band themselves were almost an accessory.  The atmosphere was truly splendid, because of the audience.  In a way, if a massive sound system had been placed in the centre of the stage and just played out the greatest Take That hits it would have been an identical experience.  From the vantage point then of Wembley Park station, when we were herded out along with 99,999 other women, all of whom stopped to pet the pretty Metropolitan Police horses, with dirty feet from dancing, and feeling hot, sweaty, dirty and thirsty, the idea of going to the theatre with several hundred other people to see Lee Mead singing and watching dancing and cute dogs seemed wistfully innocent and desirable.    I loved Legally Blonde when I saw it – I loved the score, I loved the acting, I loved the show.  But as for Take That, I don’t know.  I’ll tell you when I’ve seen them.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.