Lost in London

A look at London and life in general through the eyes of someone who sometimes can't bear to watch.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Come dine with me

London is supposed to be a European centre of culinary excellence, with restaurants featuring such world-renowned chefs as Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Jean-Christophe Novelli and many, many more. What the guidebooks don't tell you, though, is that if you can't afford the 1000 or so fine dining establishments that get full marks in the Zagat guide or are slathered over by Time Out, you're stuck with the rest of what London has to offer and, as I discovered this weekend, it's a load of old shit.

The bank holiday weekend marked the first time ever that I have had a clear run of absolutely rubbish meals out, with not one redeeming feature among them. I can only afford The Ivy or Oxo Tower on special occasions (i.e. birthdays and, um, other people's birthdays) so am forced to eat like Joe Public the rest of the time if I don't fancy lifting a pan in my own kitchen. I'm not really a food snob, but I do really hate being ripped off or being served what is clearly very shit food which, usually, is made even worse because it's being brought to you by someone who hates you and wants you dead. Let me take you through an average London dining experience:

The entrance
In your dreams, you sweep into the restaurant, which is lit just right and are met by a beaming Maître D' who knows your name and makes sure that you always get the table you like. In reality, you're met by a stone-faced harridan with lumpy tights or a yellow-toothed 13-year-old in a faded, shrunken T-shirt. You're shown to your table for two which consists of side-by-side seating at a bench that stares at a bright orange wall, stained by long-since swatted flies and bluebottles. You ask to move; you are told that the restaurant is full.

The order
In your fantasy, your drinks order is taken within a minute or two of you being seated; the waiter smiles politely as you hem and haw over which wine to select. Once drinks have been ordered, your waiter leaves you to peruse a simple yet delicious-looking menu and keeps checking every now and again to see if he can help you with your choices. Eventually, you order and your waiter congratulates you on your selection and recommends something else you might like. In the real world, the 13-year-old ignores you for half an hour while he shows people to tables a hundred times better than yours. You manage to read the uninspiring menu, which has badly-photographed 1970s pictures to illustrate some of the dishes, a staggering 8,000 times. When he does come to take your order, he's chewing gum and rolling his eyes. He offers no help when you ask questions, for he has never looked at the menu before. You make a special request and the waiter does not write this down nor does he seem to be listening to you. In fact- no!- is that an iPod he's humming along to while he takes your order? Yes it is!

The food
In your fantasy, the food is lovingly and freshly prepared, making it worth the wait. When it arrives, it's tastefully presented, warm and scrumptious. You never want the meal to end. In the harsh reality, your food will: a) arrive in record time, scalding hot and fresh from a microwave on an Argos plate with a garnish that's clearly seen more than one meal in its lifetime; b) arrive after a 45 minute wait, freezing and on stained crockery, having sat unnoticed in the kitchen; c) never arrive because your waiter popped out to a nightclub after taking your order and forgot to come back. If you do receive it, eating it will be a chore, but you begrudge wasting food because you're from 'the North' (may only apply to me and other people from the North).

The plate clearing
In fantasyville, your still beaming waiters clear your plates and ask attentively if you'd like anything else or just the bill. If you've left any food on your plate, a concerned waiter asks if there was anything wrong with your meal. Back to reality and your almost-full plate is wordlessly collected and the bill comes crashing out of nowehere to your table wrapped in a brick, narrowly missing your head. A service charge of 15% has been added. You will probably not question this.

To be honest, if you can't splash out, you're better off with a kebab most of the time.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Single bilingual*

The bank holiday weekend stretches before me and it's the first one in well over four years that I'll be spending single, following the break-up of my relationship last weekend. Now, I don't do 'personal' on this blog really, so I'll spare you the details, but this situation now presents new problems for me: namely, I've forgotten what it's like to be single. What do these people do? Where do they go?

When you're in a relationship, you forget those years spent alone: nobody to share taxi fares with; arriving at dinner parties solo with the wrong bottle of wine because you had no other half to discuss it with in the off-licence; nobody to blame when you get lost because you didn't listen to directions. The list goes on and on. I'm trying to cast my mind back to what it was like to be single and as the mists of time clear, the memories aren't good ones. At all. Three of my truths, then, about singledom:

1. Social calendar central
The myth behind singledom is that you're out every night and while it's true that there's nobody waiting at home tapping a foot if you go for a few after work, I tended not to go out and get off my face every evening. Singledom, while not quite the pyjama-wearing anxiety of Bridget Jones, is a couple of nights out with the rest of the week comprising of making too much dinner for one but eating it all anyway in front of reality TV.

2. The faint scent of availability

It's hard to imagine now as I scrutinise my face in the mirror, but 'back in the day' (4 January 1806, I think), I was a more dateable prospect. Now that I am 30, which is at least 75 in gay years, I suppose I will have to buy some sort of small animal to carry around and fuss over in the hope that someone will hear me cooing in the antiques shop and look me over. Oh God, I'm going to have to start liking antiques!

3. Others' fear of single people
One of the hardest parts about singledom is the look of abject pity from your loved-up mates. Gentle whispers of 'You'll find someone' or 'I've got this friend...' are not uncommon at social gatherings and you'll be unable to go on a night out without a friend exclaiming 'Off out on the pull, then?' and following it up with raucous laughter as if every gay man in the world can't get through 36 hours without having a stranger's pecker rubbing up against him (eurgh I can't believe I just wrote that) in a sweaty, smoky (England and Wales only of course, following the smoking ban in Scotland) nightclub.

It is, of course, early days, and there's every chance that I can work things out and put an end to this hopefully temporary singledom very quickly, because it's really not my thing at all. Until then, it's M&S dinners in front of Antiques Roadshow; I've some serious revision to do.

*Oh and yes, I really am bilingual.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Four seasons in one day

I'm finally giving in and doing that most British of pastimes: talking about the weather.

London is suffocating at the moment in the 'weather that can't make up its mind' phase that seems to happen annually. One moment it's blistering heat with not a cloud in the sky; the next it's oppressive darkness with the threat of rain and yet still a temperature high enough to keep your cotton T-shirt sticking just slightly to your skin and your underwear clamped firmly to your arse.

The good thing about this time of year is that things start to 'happen'. The capital seems less dead and as the trees start to bud and the first tops of the year are peeled off in the park, Time Out suddenly gets a bit thicker and there are all sorts of things to do; things you'd never have the time to do even if days were 72 hours long and weekends lasted a month.

It's the time of year when your weekends get booked up quickly with parties, barbecues and boozy sessions in bars you've never been to before. Everybody seems in so much of a better mood that I often wonder why people bother living in temperate countries at all. Why don't we all live in the Seychelles? And then I remember how nice winter is and dismiss that ridiculous idea.

What grates about this time of year is not knowing what to wear. As I said, the weather is doing its level best to be like one of those people you meet at parties who pretend to be crazy and unpredictable and yet usually live the most humdrum of existences. I'm being continually caught out by mini-downpours and sudden bursts of blazing sunshine. I took my jacket on and off so many times last Saturday that I feel now fully prepared to take up a scholarship at poledancing school. I have always detested surprises and the weather's constant attempts to jump out at me and say 'boo!' are not welcome. You can bet that whatever I choose to wear will be wrong; by the end of the week I'll probably have been both soaked to the skin in just a T-shirt and roasted alive in long sleeves and a jacket.

And yet I prefer this transitional phase to summer proper, where all hope of cooling off is abandoned with hours spent sweltering on trains or buses, fanning yourself desperately with that same copy of Time Out. Everybody's buoyant mood at the prospect of summer has mutated into irritation at the heat and number of tourists sharing the same space. Leisurely walks to get ice creams are replaced by desperate charges to find the last chilled bottle of Evian in central London that doesn't cost over £3. Boozy lunches in beer gardens make way for stony silences in the park as everybody bakes and can't find the effort to talk. If only spring could bounce around for a bit longer.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Better the devil you know

All across the UK, local elections were held yesterday with Labour bracing itself for a severe routing by the Tories. From what I saw on the news this morning as I was waiting for a weather report (which I was denied; apparently the weather doesn't matter when there are elections to quack about) it was in dear old London town that Labour was to be most disappointed, with council after council falling to the various opponents. My own borough also showed Labour the door and allowed the Lib Dems to enter. If you could see the borough where I live, you'd realise that's nothing short of shocking; there's nary a liberal in sight.

Tony Blair is scarily unpopular isn't he? He looks untrustworthy, can't seem to look people in the eye, has that stilted way of speaking while he desperately thinks of the next thing to say and also has a wife that practically everybody hates. The trouble is, I think far too many people turn elections into popularity contests. I'm the first to admit that politics really isn't my 'bag', but I like to think that I can see further than the figurehead. And even if I couldn't, is anybody buying David Cameron's schtick at all? Are they? Why?

It seems like he's been studying Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair very closely because he's already perfected that distant sneer of someone who's spent far too long shaking hands with the great unwashed. He might as well wear white gloves, carry a handbag and be the Queen. From his immaculate suits and coiffed into oblivion hair, there's just something a little bit too packaged about David Cameron. He has all the air of a leader-in-waiting, yet his attempts to New Labourise the Tories is falling a little flat with me. Sorry Dave, but I'm in no rush to see Tony go just so that you can get your sensible shoes through the door of number ten.

Anyway, politics is boring, right? What's concerning me more right now is that Footballers' Wives has finally been put out of its misery and given the boot by ITV. Plummeting ratings, awful storylines and a frankly bored-looking cast caused me to predict this fate a while ago, but I think it's a shame that Tanya's foot-long nails have been cruelly snipped yet a dreg of a show like Bad Girls is allowed to survive.

Maybe now that Zoe Lucker is out of regular employment (she claimed she'd never be Tanya again, but let's get real here), perhaps the Conservatives might want to sign her up. After all, Tanya and Thatcher weren't that different were they? I'd rather see Tanya pouting, rolling her eyes and chopping lines out during Prime Minster's Questions than David Cameron's robotic smirking frame any day of the week.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Be my guest

I've been doing something lately that I used to do a lot but haven't done for a while. The first time I did it, it was quite amazing; the second time, I was happy enough; and the third time, I really was over it and had resolved never to do it again. I'm talking about clubbing, by the way.

London is a real Mecca for clubbers. The clubbing section of entertainment bible Time Out is packed to the rafters with all sorts of bizarre nights covering just about every cultural and sexual group going. Clubbing's changed a lot since the days when I would do it every weekend. Long ago, be-trainered clubbers would stumble out of taxis or buses and queue for a while outside an unmarked door trying to smile extra nicely at the bouncer so he wouldn't subject you to a search or charge you extra because he didn't like you. Fast forward a few years or so and you have whole gaggles of impeccably dressed and uber-botoxed yet charmless types stepping elegantly out of an oversized limousine and lining up outside a big shiny club in a massive queue marked 'guestlist', while an ordinary group of people look on amazed from their much shorter queue marked 'no guestlist'.

The idea of a guestlist in the old days was that famous people, DJs, local dignitaries and people who were sucking off the bouncers could get in for nothing. Now, a guestlist is for people who just want the supposed kudos of looking like they just might be a celebrity and they still pay almost as much as everybody else for the privilege. Unfortunately, nobody watching actually cares whether these people are stars are not, because you can get famous these days just by being on a quiz show or spending a summer in a studio masquerading as a house.

I've been on a few guestlists in my time, but it always feels like such an empty victory. So you're getting in ten minutes before the 'proles' in the other queue? So your name appears in ink on a shabby piece of paper? So what? It doesn't mean you've 'made it' or that you're something special. You might feel like a celebrity for five seconds, but that's where it ends. There'll be no free champagne for you inside and nobody will be pointing at you and whispering because they recognise you. You will not be asked to join the table of a major A-lister and you will not have your photo taken by a tabloid. You'll be standing at the bar getting ignored by the surly barstaff just like everybody else.

The illustration accompanying today's entry is by the wonderful Ianbetween.