Hello, I’ve written another book which is now sitting in the dusty drawer marked “I don’t want to edit anything oh God” for a little while now as I enjoy my general Christmassing and New Yearishness trying to speed-read some very large books which I foolishly got out of the library without realising that I am not blessed with quite the amount of free time I had at 16.
I did however find the time to finish a long-term project that’s been chugging away forever:
The test run of the Bin Fox Hot Chocolate History Tasting Tour got off to a wobbly start as I discovered that my hasty formatting for the scorecards didn’t hold up over the two separate instances of MS Word it’s apparently necessary to use in my house in order to print things, and my even hastier cobbling together of tour guide text was, it must be said, somewhat lacking in stylistic consistency and grammatical sense.
“I promise there’s a good reason for this,” I told an amused cashier at Wasabi on Oxford Street, having thrown about ten sachets of pickled ginger onto the floor in my desperation to purchase them and nothing else. I was not being entirely truthful. My reason – not necessarily a good one – was that a few months ago I decided that the history of drinking chocolate in London as distinct from the turbulent history of coffee, tea, and gin consumption (all also remarkable), was fascinating in its own right and that our proliferation of chocolatiers in the city deserved celebration.
Like many of the ideas that I have around 3.20am at work, I announced my intention to my friends and promptly forgot all about it, in this case because I was trying to combine writing a book, learning to belly-dance, learning basic Turkish, and getting swole (adj).
Thus it was that on the eve of the test tour I found myself desperately skim-reading Wikipedia and some articles by the indispensable Dr Matthew Green, and making impassioned pleas for categories by which to score hot chocolates – at an hour best described as “a little late in the day for this preparation work”.
But the next day I slogged to The Ship on Wardour Street with determination, printed scorecards, a head full of recently-acquired knowledge, a pack of Bic biros, several sachets of ginger for palate-cleansing and a bottle of fizzy maté as cleansing backup, there to meet my test audience, Mim and Al.
Besides enthusiasm for history, learning, and chocolate, Mim and Al brought differing palates (Al has a preference for the bitter and Mim for the sweet), and touring capability (Al lives in the gym, Mim has EDS). This, I thought, would provide a good test of the route, intended break times, and probably also the limits of my pancreas.
The notion that we were going to share out drinks at a ratio of about one between three had already been agreed upon, and turned out to be absolutely and utterly vital to our survival. I cannot stress how totally and utterly I would no longer have blood running through my veins if we’d had one drink each at these places.
At the first stop on our tour we learnt about the overall history of hot chocolate, its origins as a drink in South America, and the propensity for adding spices – an option still available to patrons of Paul A Young today, with their array of additional flavours available for the connoisseur at no additional cost.
SWEETNESS: Mim 2, Al 4 – some discussion was had over how to rate, with Al going with “I ranked it highly because I like that it wasn’t that sweet” and Mim going with “I ranked it on objective sweetness level”. CREAMINESS: Mim 2, Al 4, revised up from 3 at the end of the tour after some discussion. THICKNESS: Mim 1 Al 4, also revised RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4 SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4, also revised MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 4, also revised COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4
OVERALL SCORE: 28 (revised up from 24) out of a possible 35 from Al, while Mim presents a mode score of 4, an aggregate of 20/35.
COMMENTS: Mim: “customisable: add own spice”, Al: “Pick own spice”, shorthand for their belief that the option to create your own spiced blend is a strong selling point here. Historically, too, as we discussed, spices have been added to hot chocolate since its inception. Mim ranks this as her 3rd favourite, Al didn’t provided number rankings.
A London institution and murderously difficult to get into to sit down most of the time, SAID is a wildly popular provider of Italian-style chocolate drink, and rightly so. At this place – and this place only – we had the capability to buy a “small” size, equivalent to an espresso shot. Trust when we say this is all that you need, and even that may prove to be too much, It is a dauntingly rich experience, available in dark, milk, and gianduja (hazelnut).
Price: £2.50 for a small.
SWEETNESS: Mim 3, Al 4 CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 5, Al 4 RICHNESS: Mim 2, Al 4 SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 5 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4
OVERALL SCORE: 29 / 35 from Al, mode 4 and aggregate 24/35 from Mim. The differing scores on “richness” may be related to the choice in hot chocolates (see below).
COMMENTS: Mim: “Om nomm nommmmm”, Al: “Milk also nice”; Al and I plumped for dark chocolate as this is our default, and Mim took on milk chocolate, but was kind enough to let us try. The majority of other comments amounted to visceral noises and trying to lick the inside of the cup. It was not dignified, but it was heartfelt. Mim ranks this as her number one of the chocolates reviewed.
Possibly addled by this experience, and possibly just very bad at reading Googlemaps, we got briefly lost and did a loop through Kingly Court. This is unnecessary – the next place is very close to SAID DAL – but perhaps worthwhile, as it gave us the chance to recover from the intensity.
CWDD is best-known for intricate chocolate sculptures in astounding forms and a pantomime wonderland interior, It is flashy, over-the-top, theatrical, and overwhelming; the branch in Brighton’s Lanes has frequently taken me by surprise as it looms out of the narrow alleys like a fairytale rendition of chocolate heaven or Willy Wonka’s deranged chocolate factory. The Carnaby Street branch, also tucked away down narrower roads, is much the same. The queue here was also enormous and there was a little confusion in communication but in mitigation we’d like to add that the staff here were beyond delightful, friendly and engaging and determined to make accommodation for Mim’s needs in particular, leading to the spectacularly indulgent experience of sipping hot chocolate while reclining on a chaise longe in a towering hallucination of sugarcraft. Definitely one for children and the festive season.
SWEETNESS: Mim 5, Al 2 – sticking to his previous “do I like this” scale CREAMINESS: Mim 3, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 2, Al 2 RICHNESS: Mim 1, Al 3 SCENT: Mim 1, Al 2 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 2, Al 4 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 2, Al 2
OVERALL SCORE: 19 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 2 and aggregate of 16/35 from Mim.
COMMENTS: Mim: “Very, very sweet”, Al: “Teeth-meltingly sweet, great spectacle [but] basically a high street hot chocolate”. Mim ranks this sixth.
Exterior to ChoccyWoccy and over the sound of mysterious fireworks, we enlightened ourselves as to the introduction of chocolate to London in 1657 under the guise of a panegyric (of course), and some of its subsequent development.
The route through Soho has taken us in the opposite direction from the rest of the Central London tour so far, but there is a good reason for this. A large chunk of the history of “chocolate houses” revolves around St James’s Street, which we duly walked down before turning back through the bottom of Soho, with a brief stop to weep longingly over crisps – salty food! SALTY FOOD!
Where is Rococco?
While the majority of my inclusions on this list were based on observations either by myself or by other tour members, Rococco was included after perusing an official list of Best Chocolate Drinking Establishments on one of those infernal listings sites.
As it turned out this was a mistake. Rococco: Earlham Street, said my notes.
No such place, said Earlham Street, which indeed contained not a hide nor hair of Rococco.
While this extremely well-known chocolatier has many, many branches this is the first I had encountered which was selling hot chocolates. Rather brilliantly my introduction came when a man pounced on me with a tray of samples and then instead of muttering shut up when I asked about how the recent cocoa bean glut had affected things on a business level, eagerly told me all about the plantation/company relationship and price-setting structure used with their partners in Ghana.
This joy in all elements of the chocolate industry continued with our visit on the tour; additional cups were provided – as they were in many places – but already pre-poured, and once we had settled in some of the staff came over to ask us about the tour, the scoring and how they were faring so far. Hotel Chocolat has an almost intimidating variety of options, but after the intense sweetness of ChoccyWoccy the team were pining for something bitter, and plumped on this occasion for their 85% dark.
SWEETNESS: Mim 1, Al 4 (revised from a 3, sticking to the “I like it so I will rank it higher” approach as compared to Mim’s “objective sweetness level” approach) CREAMINESS: Mim 1, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 3, Al 3 RICHNESS: Mim 3, Al 3 SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 2, Al 3 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 3, Al 3
OVERALL SCORE: 24 / 35 from Al, with a mode score of 3 and an aggregate of 16/35 from Mim.
COMMENTS: Mim “80% dark”, Al: “Overall better than individual score”, referring to his enjoyment of the drink as a whole but less so in the individual categories. The gestalt 85% dark Hotel Chocolat was held successful, despite Mim’s low score, and ranking of it in 5th place.
While comfortably located and taking a much-needed bathroom break, we also continued our education on the history of drinking chocolate with the infamous chocolate houses of St James Square, and in particular the notorious and infernal Tory hangouts, Ozinda’s and Whites.
Another multi-branch institution, Godiva in Covent Garden is short on space and in the lead up to Christmas short on patience, so they did admirably to accommodate our indecisiveness in choosing between four or five flavour options (including praline!). For a larger group it would certainly be necessary to phone ahead in order to avoid placing excessive strain on a diminutive chocolate heater. We optioned for the Viennoise Praline, on the grounds that variety is the spite of pancreatitis (this is not medically accurate) and that the saltiness might save us from total meltdown.
SWEETNESS: Mim 4, Al 4 (revised from a 3) CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 1, Al 2 RICHNESS: Mim 3, Al 3 SCENT: Mim 3, Al 3 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 3, Al 4 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 2, Al 4
OVERALL SCORE: 22 / 35 from Al, mode score of 3 from Mim and aggregate of 20/35.
COMMENTS: Mim: “Viennoise Praline – nutty”, Al: [N/A] none on the sheet but the saltiness was remarked upon favourably. Mim ranks this 4th.
Close to defeat we joined the queue at this Italian wonderland for another thick and intense hot chocolate and were presented with three clear plastic cups and the beginnings of a sugar headache, an experience I do not think I’ve ever had before and am not keen to repeat. Happily Venchi’s hot chocolate is so good that we laboured on past the pain and consoled ourselves with lemon water; one to undertake by itself for full enjoyment, although it speaks well to the product that even after that much chocolate it stood out.
SWEETNESS: Mim 2, Al 4 CREAMINESS: Mim 2, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 4, Al 3 RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4 SCENT: Mim 4, Al 4 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 4 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4
OVERALL SCORE: 27 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 4 from Mim and her aggregate is 24/35.
COMMENTS: Mim: “RICH” which is certainly accurate, Al: [N/A] none on the sheet, mostly because we were too busy chasing the last remaining drops out of the glasses with the plastic spoons and making animal sounds, Bin Foxes to the bitter end. Mim ranks this in joint second place with the next establishment.
“I just want to sit down,” Mim said, as we reached our destination, “and have a cup of tea. Something that isn’t chocolate. Maybe some food.”
We were all in hearty agreement by now. Daydreams of lapsang souchong, and very salty chips danced through our heads. We waited half an hour for a table, because Sunday evening is not a good time to get to the head of any queue in Covent Garden, but at last we were there: jammed onto a sofa, possibly pre-diabetic, ready to take our sweet time.
A French affair, this company is better-known for its macarons and patisseries than for its attachment to chocolate, but the secret is out: they serve Viennese-style hot chocolate in pre-Revolutionary decadence in an attic in Covent Garden, and this is the perfect way to end a tour, in my opinion. We fortified ourselves with bitter teas, prepared our mouths and enjoyed the last of the hot chocolate.
SWEETNESS: Mim 3, Al 3 CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4 THICKNESS: Mim 4, Al 3 RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4 SCENT: Mim 4, Al 4 MOUTHFEEL: Mim 3, Al 5 COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 3, Al 5
OVERALL SCORE: 28 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 4 and an aggregate of 25/35 from Mim.
COMMENTS: Mim: “Luxury. Poured. Creampot niceness”, Al: “Appearance reflects surroundings”, and indeed the attic tea room is a wonderful spot to end the tour. It was judged “perfect” in conversation, which must certainly count for something. Mim ranks this joint second with Venchi and was in raptures over the curtained chaise on which she was seated for the experience of the remaining tour text:
At this concluding juncture the remaining medicinal claims were debated, and the future of chocolate-drinking hinted at. There may have been a little hint that hot chocolate can cure depression; I like to think the company helps to elevate the mood as much as the beverage.
Over steamed rice and frantically consumed salty rice crackers we totted up scores (an aggregate, rather than the originally-suggested mode), and compared notes on the tour as a whole as well as the individual chocolatiers.
In future we will need napkins and possibly spare cups
More lemon water for palate-cleansing
SALTY SNACKS, we shouted in unison. DEAR GOD SALT.
While ChoccyWoccy received a drubbing here, we acknowledge that different people have different tastes; Al and I in particular have a fondness for the bitter and the rich respectively which leads the very sweet and milky to a disproportionately poor score. And regardless – it’s good to have a “villain” as a point of comparison or contrast, For others, Paul A Young’s spices or uberthick SAID’s rich headache brew, or the admirable pretension of our Parisienne conclusion may fulfil that role – the more tours we have, the more chances there are for receiving improved scores!
There are a number of other well-regarded chocolatiers in London who would be included on a broader-ranging tour – Dark Sugars, Melt, Konditor & Cook among others – and I am eager to give this a spin when my headache and incipient diabetes have worn off.
Personally I find the history portion of my tour currently scant, and as I cribbed a great deal from Dr Green it needs revisions in style so it stops being outright bloody plagiarism. I’d like to make more, too, of the role of slavery & conquest in the provision of chocolate to Londoners and the subsequent association with decadence and depravity, as well as its complex global connections and lingering exoticism. I want to talk about when it acquired its current gendered, feminised associations when as recently as the first half of the twentieth century “a mug of hot cocoa” was considered as much a cure for one’s ills as the true elixir of joy of the Britons: tea.
But on the whole the itinerant Bin Foxes scavenged up a very enjoyable Sunday on International Men’s Day!
I’d like to thank in particular the good-natured staff at all the chocolatiers we visited for their tolerance and in some cases outright enthusiasm in the face of our increasingly hyperglycaemic nerdy bellowing and requests for additional cups like a bunch of misers. With a larger group this should be less of an issue.
I’d also like to tip my hat to Al and Mim for being good sports and risking their bodily health on this absurd pilgrimmage, and to Al for making such a fetching backdrop to my chronicle photos above.
I returned home with a single chocolate ganache profiterole from SAID DAL because I’d happily knife a man in cold blood for choux pastry on any given day and on this given day all I had to do was pay money.
As I was furtively sticking it into my face in the kitchen, the Resident Australian appeared behind me and stared, aghast.
“How,” cried the horrified Antipodean, “can you possibly eat more chocolate after all that?”
I think it will be the last for a little while.
Quite fancy some chips though.
If you have enjoyed this post, why not toss me some coins to pay for a coffee? Definitely coffee and NO MORE CHOCOLATE.
The last few touches are being gently hammered out with a brick on publication of Heavy, but in the meantime, here is a lovely digital artwork of the Eastern end of the Thames in London, which took me absolute months and made Photoshop shit itself more times than I care to swear about.
If you’d like to see it at a larger size (and I advise that), go here and also look at the stuff you can buy it on, because I have to go and pay someone to drill more holes in my wretched teeth and my bank account is crying.
Phew, look at that. It’s summer! The sky is full of SCREAMING BIRDS and the sun has found the one part of my body I didn’t aggressively spray with Factor 50, and it has burnt it. My mouth, it has burnt my actual mouth, which is what happens when you and your idiot friends decide to go and feed parakeets but you also really feel the need to drink two bottles of wine and half a bottle of gin, break your flipflop and also give yourself a grass rash that makes you look like you’ve lost a fight to an entire battalion of angry domestic cats.
So while the world catches fire, blows itself up, crashes down around my ears, and murders people with vans outside my friend’s flat (ah, London in 2017: an endless roulette of “oh shit what particular area of my city has become a trending hashtag on Twitter today?”, and that is why I am not going to get very far on giving up drinking this year…), I’m gamely trying to squeeze as much fun as I can out of whatever time I have left on this terrify earth. Tom of Finland documentaries, live broadcasts of sad plays about AIDS, panel talks about London history, and a punishing amount of fruity cocktails feature in my near future, always assuming that we don’t get hit by an asteroid or anything (the way this year is going that’s a possibility).
Also, making art, because that’s what you do in times of strife. Admittedly, I think you’re meant to make political art, but sometimes you also need to colour in a cityscape, right?
Or you could, I guess, print it out and colour it in. I mean, it does look like you ought to be able to. Although ideally I’d prefer it if you bought it on something and thus funded my extravagant lifestyle of going to £12 panel talks about Peter Ackroyd books like the London-obsessed gay nerd we are all very, very aware that I am.
The time has come for another book to be released into the wild, to flourish where it can, like a weed, and hopefully sow fertile seeds in the imagination. Or at least take up some prime real estate on someone’s bookshelf, which is of course identical to becoming an important part of their inner life.
The year is 1900. An Earl, an
engineer, a suburban philosopher,
and an enigma meet at University
and make a pact to learn the art
Consider yourself warned: the rabbit is out of the hat and the cat is out of the bag.
Here are some facts about London: it is old, and it is new. It is disgusting, and it is powerful. These truths are interlinked; foul industries, dirty water, a shambling stream of corpses and fire-halted epidemics give rich foundation to the quasi-religious veneration of our one true God, the golden god, and our old and all-conquering vice: Avarice. Bawd and ideal may be plentiful but the muddy, bloody swamp of a city sinks or swims on its venal lawlessness and nearly two millennia of proof can be dredged up for it.
London creates cultures like a loaf of damp bread. It generates saints. In Camden Town the long, sorrowful face of Amy Winehouse appears in smeared black on buildings like the Madonna on American toast; sheer will supersedes finger-wagging press to create her a modern, Jewish saint; “Don’t venerate an addict” and dire warnings of her moral character fall short and miss the point – Amy is an icon because of her flaws, not in spite of them or in their ignorance. Like Marilyn and Billie Holiday before her, the locality bears witness to struggle and pain paired with eloquence and skill, and raises a broken woman to the status of a divinity. It is a black paint backlash against the madonna/whore dichotomy; let her be both, let her be both.
We have hopes for George Michael, but it’s early days yet.
London makes saints of the ordinary, too; not far from my home there is a shrine. A man, 22, whose name I know but won’t share, died violently in the street in November. In a turbulent time these things go unremarked, but the shop across the street remembers, and his loved ones replenish flowers, candles, photographs, empty whisky bottles. Offerings to somewhere or something, to keep him from fraying in their minds. Devoured by the city, he becomes part of it.
Do the rules of urban sainthood cover the man I saw die this week, his vast white belly unthinkingly exposed as he lay surrounded by green-clad paramedics
and stony-faced on-lookers, spread-eagled by an unsuccessful defibrillator on a cold station floor? If he is canonised by the fleck-marks among the grey, how long for?
But it is a morbid time; it is Dead Winter. The time of year when I am quite grateful to find mould growing on my sandwiches because it proves that something can still grow in this hellish twilight. Past the dimple of midwinter and the instinctive bonfires, this frozen endless coda between the solstice and spring equinox is the time I give real and visceral consideration to the possibility of human sacrifice. At 3pm, already dark, on a night-shift week, I drag myself to he gym to treadmill the black despair into aches via the media of glowing orange numbers and participation in a nationwide detoxification – purificiation – fast-and-atonement ritual as we try to apologise the spring into happening. And I think, yeah, I’d kill a child to bring the sun back right now. Why not? Shit, let’s kill ten and have a nice summer this year.
London is a ritual city. It has no pomp nor splendour, no matter how much gilt we pour on the remaining high traditions or crenellated and NeoGothic excesses we defer to – the rituals are modern in age and pre-Enlightenment in character, private or primal: the weird, carved fish of Guild processions, the prescient and personal libations to a Bacchus tossed in the Fleet in the fourth Century, the roadkill funerals, the furtive wishing coins, knuckles to the window of the London Stone and prayers to the known monsters travelling in the eternal dark beneath the city. From the dank earth we came and shall return; we are filth, stains lapping at the feet of our unsecured glass skyscrapers – we are ugly, and let us remain pox-disfigured grasping mollies, roaring over newsprint…
One could weep for all the histories lost in the foundations of raw progress – the temples destroyed by railways, the birthplaces by bombs, the memories by meretricious, mercantile greed, but London does not stand still and it does not stop – a fossil city is a dead city. Better to build on top of our own sinking rooftops, lay roads over
rivers, and let future archaeologists marvel at our litter as we now paw over the plague-pits Pepys and Defoe’s peers did their best to cover.
Buddleia reaches for the sky, whole trees hanging out of brick cracks the size of a thumb; black mould marches over my bedroom ceiling; five mice quarrel in hypersonic territorial fury between the rails of the train to Cockfosters and somewhere in those miles of 19°C subterranean veins, rippling through clay like bands of a new composite mineral, we are evolving a new species of mosquito at light speed. The Tube Parasite. Our very own blood-sucker —
— London is a ritual city. We revisit our haunts. We pay our respects. We set our habits like heartbeats, not clockwork. Environment rules apply: the same man who moved me gently out of his path in a crowded, convivial nightclub in Vauxhall by placing the tips of his fingers on the angel tattooed on my neck kept to the etiquette of the Night Tube afterward, hunched up at the far end of a carriage with his eyes locked to his phone, a dozen empty, newspapered seats between us. Courtesy in both worlds: in the sweat and strobes the pressure of his cock on the waistband of my jeans is simple and unimpeachable neutral manners, too.
Condensed, London is a highly-charged space. Widely-spread souls mistake this hyperreal interaction for hostility instead of the hallucinogenic endgame of compressed human interaction. In the countryside I grew up in, friendliness is a two-hour chat with a grinning death’s head stranger; in this hive it is the quick smile to a bus driver from a passenger who has been on this route a decade. It is the small rituals with speed-ravaged 4am shopkeepers. It is catching the eye of the tired passenger who is watching the same pigeon fight that you are. In each of these seconds a week of intimacies unfolds in its own sweet time.
Do not be so quick to hate the ‘bubbles’ in which we dwell. They are beautiful and we have chosen them for a good reason.
A man was born in California in 1948’s closing months who was destined to make something quite, quite bonkers in London. Just off Spitalfields on Folgate, having been “drawn to London by English light” (already bonkers), Dennis Severs purchased a house and, like Jeanette Winterson and bonkers artists Gilbert & George, renovated it.
However, being magnificently bonkers, Severs didn’t politely repaint the walls and strip out some annoying 1950s fittings and whatever else it is my father is currently doing to a house he’s acquired in Dorset, nor did he simply limit himself to fixing the roof, installing some electrics, and having protracted arguments about different forms of environmentally-friendly plumbing as my mother & step-father did when they, too, bought a derelict property and turned it into something legally habitable.
No, our Dennis was a man with a vision. A glorious, batshit vision. For twenty years, until his death, he resided in this property, living in a museum. Somewhere between a set piece, a really involved one-man LARP, an exercise in time-travel, and the most elegant excuse for being a card-carrying capital-H Hoarder you could possibly devise, his house on Folgate was made into installation art history:
Not only did he turn each room into a tableaux about the mysterious Jervis family, with food left on the table and in some cases playing cards strewn on the floor (you can just about see them in this picture), not only did he live in the middle of this nutjobbery, effectively inventing an art form to justify his wacko spending habits (God bless you, sir), devising a sense of immediacy and imminence of an invisible family…
… After his death it was turned into a public attraction.
Meaning you can visit this wonderful monstrosity, which is precisely what Emma and I did last week.
We’ve tried to explain the experience to each other, standing in the suddenly-loud street afterward. The weirdness, for me, of the smells and creaking floorboards, reminiscent of so many other experiences (Installation History seems to have been an unusually vibrant museum market where I grew up); the nuttiness of the scheme; the fact that on entering a cat ran past us; the way almost all the food was real (smells, again, and the acknowledged difference in weight and visual texture and believability that results); the piped sound of voices from other rooms lending the air of having just missed real people, and above all:
You will complete this journey in silence.
After a while, holding my breath, listening to the voices of the past while peering at their goods, the enterprise began to feel grubby. I felt like a ghost of the present, haunting the past. As if I’d wandered backwards in time to gawk at the private doings of normal people. The pressure of the experience is startlingly immense in that moment. (Slightly spoiled by the necessary presence of volunteers to stop people nicking things or walking into the open candle flames).
“You’re about to begin a journey into the past,” Emma sagely mentioned, mimicking the doorman at the house, “As he stabs away at his iPad, somewhat ruining that illusion.”
“Yes,” quoth I, “but did you notice he had the same face as the portraits? I think he may have been generated by the building.”
After the better part of an hour stalking an immaculate set composed of imagined history and funded by a man who thought nothing of filling the master bedroom with china pots on tiny gold shelves (a shelf for each of them), this seemed a perfectly rational explanation.
The house is on the south side of Folgate Street, and dates from approximately 1724. It is one of a terrace of houses (Nos 6-18) built of brown brick with red brick dressings, over four storeys and with a basement.
Like many people, or indeed the whole of human society, I have a complicated relationship with being on my own. Solitude is frequently cited as the ne plus ultra of modern existence, because everything is loud and constant and I personally live in a large metropolis in a flat with thin walls and an unsafe level of overcrowding; at the same time the press will not shut the hell up about how we’re all ignoring each other because of smartphones (something I’ve experienced plenty of: the friends who beg you to come out with them then spend the entire meal, exhibition, or even, God forbid, play or film, on Facebook talking about something else) and the older generation are increasingly lonely and loneliness is more detrimental to physical health than smoking because humans are social.
It is, admittedly, hard to be genuinely alone in a city because there are people everywhere.
Also like many people I have had the joy of a programme of fairly intensive therapy over the last 18 months, because of Reasons (mental health ones, of course), and can offer the observation from the man in charge of making me a more functional human being that I “isolate myself” from feelings, a problem shared with approximately 49% of the human race.
Isolation, it seems, is bad. The press, again, and psych textbooks, talk about “isolating” people from communities or from their families (allegedly bad), about the “isolating” effect of certain experiences, about the “isolation” of mental illness; more esoterically, in medicine pathogens must be “isolated” to be destroyed. An “isolated” community is a weak one; an “isolated” individual is a vulnerable individual. “Isolation”, then, is bad; presumably this is why, when I was shipped off to school with a lot of other Disruptive, Annoying, and Otherwise Undesirable Teenagers, it was located away from anywhere else. Trying to isolate the infection.
But solitude, according to the spiritual, is good. It allows the space of contemplative thought. Reflection. Lets God into your mind (in much the same way I imagine that solitary confinement lets God and any manner of other hallucinations into the stimulus-deprived mind: tick, tick, I’ve solved the mystery of visitations to Anchorites). How do you tell the difference?
Google Image Search seems to think the answer is all in the angle of your head and the colour saturation of the landscape.
The lazy writer’s explanation for why a character is fine in their own company fails to ring true. “I was an only child,” says the character with a shrug, after fifty years in the Arctic with only a picture of Elvis for company; “I got used to making my own entertainment.” Or, “We always lived in the middle of nowhere anyway.”
Having grown up in some pain-in-the-ass places, in a household containing one other person and one very loud sewing machine, I can confidently state:
Getting used to something is not the same as enjoying it.
You will take any opportunity to catch a lift into the nearest town. Literally any. Oh, the terrible, pointless activities I have engaged in to avoid spending more time sitting in my own room staring at too-familiar posters.
Self-isolation is something the social monkey engages in when it feels threatened. You lock yourself in a toilet cubicle because the braying rugby narks outside seem like they might do a hate crime on you; you choose the hidden library carrel, the agoraphobic’s approach to living in shared accommodation; when the world is full of threats a closed door becomes a shield. Witness, if you like, the fear-riled who squeak indignantly about Britain’s insurmountable immigration, as if all of our major threats have not come from within.
A friend, living alone after a break-up, going through a hell inside his own head, used to travel to a service station cafe at night to “people-watch”; he liked the feeling of being both apart and present.
Alone, but not lonely. Apart, but not isolated.
Much is made by lazy journalists and bloggers of the London commuter’s “bubble” of personal space, which often consists of “their skin + some serious denial” during rush hour. According to people who haven’t travelled on the Underground since 1996, we never make eye contact, never come into physical contact, don’t speak to anyone, and don’t emerge from our hated bubbles of isolation.
Would that were true. A girl sat next to me once to tell me about the abortion she’d embezzled money from her dad to pay for in Nigeria. “I don’t know why I’m telling you,” she said, “I just think someone should know.” Another time, a man barged into me on a nearly-empty Northern Line carriage and shoved a condom in my face in possibly the least coherent sexual proposal I’ve ever been subjected to. I was reading at the time.
A bubble of isolation is a mutually consenting abstention from social interaction which can be breached at any moment. It is fragile, illusory, enforced by talismanic headphones, screens, and books. You cannot be alone on public transport unless you are physically alone.
I’ve never been much good at being alone in public places. Meeting up with people is hell even in the age of continual phone contact (if you are one of those people who feels the need to text people with continual updates of your progress towards a rendezvous I love you, be my friend) and was worse when I was a teenager (I was once stood up in a place that took me three hours by train to reach); I’ve spent enough time at events hiding in toilets waiting for people I knew to show up to have written at least two novels, and the stupid thing is I’m not actually shy. I’ve done stand-up, for Christ’s sake. I repeatedly climbed on stage and invited people to stare at me. Given half a chance and a single pint of cider I will dance on any podium presented to me as long as I know someone else there.
Most idiotic social anxieties are connected to childhood bullying; say the wrong thing and everyone laughs? Glue your mouth shut for thirty years. Always on your own and an easy target for bullies who never face any recriminations? Become a world-class skulker.
Lurking behind bins however does lose its appeal when you’re trying to actually live a life, and since the Great Engendering I’ve been trying to make up for lost time on many fronts. But I’m still missing out on exhibitions, gigs, movies, plays, visits to new places, and explorations of who-knows-what purely because some Safe Person can’t or won’t come with me. Not everyone, apparently, is into “I want to go here and look at a frankly horrifying number of prosthetic eyeballs“; not everyone can find the time to be there when, like some ancient Mayan calender occurrence, Jeremy Bentham’s mummified head is possible to view, or it stops raining for long enough to go to the fucking beach. And, well, sometimes your friends are too broke to indulge in trying this week’s weird food discovery, or too squeamish.
I am determined to try and retry things, now that I have a good idea of who I am, until I know what it is I do and don’t like. This “learning to like stuff you didn’t like” project has yielded progress with food: I’m cautiously capable of ingesting lamb, or I would be if I hadn’t quit meat at the beginning of the year; I got the hang of bananas in 2015 and night shift has dragged me kicking and screaming into the adult consumption of coffee. Beer still tastes filthy.
Project: Stop Being Such A Fucking Coward, Derek has begun.
Bribery with food works wonders. In case anyone wanted wonders worked: bribe me with dinner. I will put up with anything for a free meal, or even just a nice meal.
Shoryu (branches in Soho, Broadgate, and some other places I don’t care about) is a tried-and-tested locale for putting nutrients in my horrible carcass. They sell interesting sides, fun cocktails, and at every time I’ve been in there someone’s been eating alone at the counter, which means eating alone there is Normal.
Normal for me has traditionally been to “hide” in a park to eat alone, because what if I look weird otherwise; dining out, properly, by myself is not quite ground zero of “oh god help me why am I here by myself”, but it’s fairly alarming. After the test case in Solo Adventures (Tokyo Nights in Dalston in the winter) did not go entirely according to plan I’ve been leery of it.
But on Friday I aggressively wanted atsuage tofu and a warm onigiri and nothing, not hell, high water, Delightful Boyfriend’s Japanese food fatigue, nor the entire besuited population of City standing in Broadgate Circle like the most sartorially identikit obstacle course outside of a football match, was going to stop me.
I marched into Suit Hell carrying a backpack full of work-related crap, a book about Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli failing to steal the Arno river, and listening to Leonard Cohen’s The Future at an uncomfortably high volume, because I’m cool and hip and in no way a sad little nerd boy.
And it was fine.
Of course it was fine.
It’s fucking London. I went into a restaurant fully-clothed and didn’t scream abuse at anyone and I have the acknowledged privilege of being so white that I am slightly confident I could take out an actual bomb in a railway terminus and not be shot; animosity and suspicion nil. Reading at the counter? Fine. Photographing my food compulsively? Normal, hello, everyone has Instagram.
And so the spectre of another few thousand instances of muttering provincials and lobbed stones (“Why don’t you move out of London, Derek, you could afford to buy a house?” // “Have you seen The Wicker Man?”), relentless, suffocating gossip, and apparently depthless staring directed at anyone who so much as bleaches their hair has another little wobble.
Take a book. Sit next to the four other individual diners at the counter (all men in our thirties and forties wearing nearly identical shades of blue jumper, I’ll see myself out. Maybe we can start a club). Take a deep breath, and just have dinner by yourself. It will be okay.
Going to places alone isn’t the only question of “being alone”, though. While having a social crutch for handholding, performing a personality at, and avoiding potentially being targeted as a lone imbecile by a hostile world is handy, sometimes the presence of another person or persons is a desperate distraction from a brain that will not shut up.
Picture the scene: you’re on a bus. A London bus.
You’re on the top deck of a bus listening to shitty hard techno from 1995 to keep yourself awake, and rosy-tainted dawn is clawing furiously at your face as you try to whisk your aching brain towards bed. You have been up all night reading the news, which means if you met Rod Liddle on the road you would murder him without blinking, and you are so neurotic about food that you fear dust particles on the bus around you may contain too many calories to be safely inhaled.
Congratulations, you now own a brain that is fizzing. Would you like to ruminate on a lengthy blog post about your failing as a human being? Design vans that sell hot rice? Imaginary arguments with people you haven’t spoken to in upwards of ten years? Obsessive self-flagellation over mistakes you can do nothing about? Planning things you can’t actually act on or do? Run out of words? NO WORRIES WE CAN BOMBARD YOU WITH A CONTINUALLY-SHIFTING PATTERN OF REALLY INSISTENT IMAGES AND FEELINGS AT RATE OF FOUR A SECOND–
Who’d be alone with their own thoughts?
When you can no longer concentrate on the solitude-addict’s best friend, the book, there’s nothing between you and the raw and naked garbage heap of the unfiltered brain. Mine – over-caffeinated, over-tired, bogged down with a night of relentless news and unacknowledged worries – is especially putrid. Even in times outside this nadir of human existence, the shift-change between the vomiting drunks on the 24-hour service and the early-morning workers, even when I’m no longer stuck in the bizarre bubble of returning home as you go to work, the rot is palpable.
Who’d be alone with their own thoughts?
Introspection is allegedly the mark of the intelligent, but it’s possible I’ve done enough to secure my place among the neurotic.
You know what’s cool, though? This very busy city contains quite enough to distract me.
Free exhibition @ The Barbican Centre; rainbow over Stoke Newington; butterfly fish at Kew Gardens; 2300-year-old terracotta pig in the British Museum; taxidermy stag head in Camden Stables Market.
Welcome back to my continuing mission to be the unpaidtourism board for my city.
Central London has a baffling amount of places to ingest food, most of which are good, none of which are cheap, the majority of which appear these days to be in Kingly Court at the expense of, variously, the Soho Book Exchange and any kind of shop.
Yesterday I plunged into the waters of London Cuisine to bring you a report on places to eat on the fringes of Soho: covering Japan, Mexico, and India, with a small detour into Anglo-French; looking at the deli, the chain take-away, the tea room, and the informal/haute restaurant. All of the following places are within easy walking distance of both each other and the tube. No main dish will cost you more than £20, and most of them cost less than £10.
Closest Underground Station: Piccadilly Circus is less than a minute away from the entrance.
Price range: Most dishes are under £5
The Japan Centre is fundamentally a deli counter and tiny food court in the middle of an import supermarket. It is accessed via a mirror-lined escalator which is just wide enough for one person, through a kind of straits between two take-away stands selling takotaki and and buns, and a row of shelves threatening you with cheap donburi bowls and cat-glazed sake cups.
Your options on arrival are to either browse the cold shelves for pre-prepared sushi, sashimi, donburi bowls, assembled throwaway bento boxes, etc, or to go up to the deli counter and ask for food from the array there, which can be heated on request. You pay at the tills, along with the people buying from the supermarket section, and get red tape on your eat-in purchases to assure staff you’re not just arbitrarily eating things off the shelves without paying for them.
As this is a food hall, don’t expect much in the way of lavish comfort. As this is a deli, also don’t expect to pay a fortune – I took a chicken katsu onigiri from the fridges, a piece of pork tempura, and a shiso salmon stick from the counter for my brunch and the whole thing came to less than ten pounds. The onigiri wasn’t even £2. You come here for food which is quick-to-immediate, very affordable, and excellent value: everything I bought was straight-up delicious and exactly the way I wanted to start my day.
Given that you’re in the middle of a supermarket there’s also pretty much an endless array of choice if you want to supplement your hot & cold purchases with packet desserts or cold puddings: the dessert fridge contains a huge selection of fresh cheesecake pots, individual mochi, and just next to it is a freezer full of tiny ice cream tubs.
Definitely the place to go for cheap Japanese food: don’t waste time and energy trying to find a branch of Yo!Sushi (similar price range) when you can come here and have something a hundred times better and spend, often, less.
Closest Underground Station: Mid-way between Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road
Price Range: A standard burrito is about £6.50, with guac around £8.70 (who eats burrito without guac anyway)
A warning to visitors from North America (Americans, Mexicans, Canadians): this is probably not what you’re expecting when you suffer from a burrito craving and decide to go and avail yourself of one. “It costs more than two dollars!” you cry, angrily, outside the grey frontage. “Where’s the limitless soda pump? Why isn’t this fifteen tonnes of grease and corn syrup? I QUIT.”
The elements which make this Not A Real Burrito Ugh Omg according to my American informants are however the elements that make me enjoy it.The brand here appear to be committed to fresh ingredients: the lettuce certainly is crisp and the steak chunks came to me fresh out of the fryer because the servers didn’t like the look of the ones that were already waiting in the basket. The servers: not me. Another blow for the culture of complaint! Similarly, the whole thing isn’t swimming in relentless grease, doesn’t taste of HFCS, has normal rice in it, and in general looks fairly wholesome both in its assembly and consumption. Also: is a sizeable meal for the hungry without being a watermelon-sized monstrosity. For the sake of completion I’m letting these two paragraphs stand: I was given the impression by a loud, disgusted complaint of being unimpressed as we passed the TCR branch that said American was talking about the UK iteration of the US chain (as regional variants are pretty common in chain eateries), and based on my own sad experiences of American food I filled in the gaps: she’s since explained that actually it’s Chipotle in general that fails to fuel her fire. For all I know, there’s no difference at all. There’s always Wahacca!
An ethos of fresh/vaguely healthy food isn’t for everyone – indeed, if you’re suffering from the acute need for something dirty and satisfying Chipotle probably isn’t the place for you, but there is fortunately a greasy pizza stand every three metres in this part of London so you shouldn’t despair. As to the rest of us: sit down on one of the squashy-topped stools at the brushed steel counters or stroll out onto the street with your fat burrito baby and enjoy a hot meal.
Closest Underground: Oxford Circus
Price range: a pot of tea or hot chocolate will set you back £3.50, afternoon tea is more.
In terms of ambience and cheerful, friendly service Camellia’s is a solid winner, tucked away on the top floor of Kingly Court and stuffed to the rafters with pretty tea ware, attractive cakes, tins of different teas, and helpful staff. A clear winner with the Afternoon Tea crowd, we spotted two tables of separate groups of young ladies Instagramming their towers of cake and sandwiches: as well they might, because the array was highly attractive.
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of going to a speciality tea house and ordering a hot chocolate, which arrived watery and badly-mixed, with the chocolate grounds lurking malignantly in the bottom of the cup no matter how hard I stirred. This was unfortunate, as the pistachio macron I ordered with it was an exercise in restrained heaven. Caveat emptor, then, and stick to what they’re good at: tea. Though I heard no complaints about the coffee, either.
Closest Underground: Oxford Circus
Price range: around £20 maximum for a main, £8-10 for a cocktail, under £10 for a starter.
No flies on Cinnamon Soho. Part of a brand which includes far more upmarket and haute cuisine offerings from the subcontinent, the Soho branch is significantly more relaxed and informal without compromising on décor (slick, black, minimal, comfortable, and intimate) or, importantly, taste.
Being somewhat full after a day of tramping around London consuming chocolate and doriyaki every three steps, the restrained portion sizes at Cinnamon were distinctly welcome, as was the unexpected two-for-ten-pounds offer on the cocktails. I opened with tandoori salmon (tender, thoroughly-cooked, crisply-spiced, served with pea purée), moved on to spinach dumplings made with paneer, in a tomato & fenugreek sauce and served with rice (crisp and delicious, with just the right amount of sauce to keep the dumplings and rice moistened but not enough to swamp them: a scientific proportion I am sure has been worked out carefully through experimentation), and finished with an excellently-poached peer served with rice kheer (which I haven’t had since I lived in the country 25+ years ago but apparently still miss) and cinnamon ice-cream, plus the mandatory smears of coulis which I can’t bring myself to mock because they genuinely did add to the flavour.
Accompanied by a long, cool Garden Martini (elderflower and cucumber, as I vainly try to guilt summer into happening), the only snag was that I’d ordered Masala mash and didn’t receive – although as by that point I didn’t have room for it and we weren’t billed for it I’d say that wasn’t as much of a problem as it could have been, and certainly not worth complaining over. Great service, from affable and unintimidating waiters (certainly compared to our last dining-out experience at Wilton’s, which was frankly too frightening to write about!), and a timely and unhurried meal was just right to wrap up a long day savouring the delights of Soho.
On a sadder note, a day in Soho has made it all the clearer that the area is being blasted into nothingness. There are already gaping holes in a once-familiar skyline, blank shutters on Berwick Street, and nothing new or similar to replace the emptiness. Many moons ago, ahead of the curve, The Correspondents lamented, “Oh, no, what’s happened to Soho… oh no, where did all the reprobates go?” and now the rest of the arts fraternity have caught up: