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Posts tagged: London

Last Night A Speed Date Changed My Life

It had been nearly six months of telling my cousin that I would be his wing-woman on a random escapade to either find him a nice girlfriend- or at least open up the possibilities. But London is the desert of dating. So bad, that nearly 30% of new couples meet online. “Save a boyfriend for a rainy day- and another, in case it doesn’t rain,” said Mae West. But are all potential suitors circulating cyber space, asking people out by winking at them through their online avatar?

While researching East London’s The Book Club, for another piece entirely, Last Night A Speed Date Changed My life popped up on their events list. Could this be a more successful matchmaking scheme? I phone my cousin immediately. His hot new girlfriend is just across town, sitting at an empty table with a score card and his name on it. He’s game, and so we book ourselves in. But after the weekend I suddenly slump, unable to muster the appropriate mindset for the opposite of what I really want to do: put on soft clothes, play low music, talk to no-one. Speed dating on a Monday night!? The dread is akin to an approaching job interview when, so unprepared and exhausted, ‘hello’ is a mere squeak that disturbs my equilibrium. I want to bolt. The idea had become an abstract notion, an enabler of my cousin’s romantic life, and I forgot that I had to speed date too.

What is the etiquette of speed dating? And what can someone do when they can’t handle the formalities and etiquette of regular dating? And on a Monday?

My cousin picks me up from work, grumpy, exhausted, and already annoyed because I’m late. So we sink something strong in a pub opposite and enter the warm and welcoming Book Club as if we’re heading into battle.

We’re greeted by the friendly Jolene, who takes us down into a basement cluttered with cute, mismatching tables and chairs. The ceiling is a take on Jeff Wall’s Invisible Man, shrouded by a collage of light bulbs. Across the room, a motley crew of men screen us from the bar, the girls the other side. But then Jolene starts talking, her friendly banter gets everyone relaxed. We write our names on stickers and Jolene explains the rules: the girls find a table, on which a bowl of sweets and a few candles have been placed, and the guys then circulate the room. Each time Jolene plays a chiming sound, the men move to the table on their right. Phew! I find a spot at the back of the room and grab my cousin (reluctantly) to join me- not wanting to sit alone while the men sheepishly find their first date. This was a good plan in match-making Andrew, as he always makes me laugh. For the next three minutes, the cackling coming from my table gets the attention of a hot blonde to my left, who doesn’t know that Andrew and I are related. When the chimes sound Andrew shimmies off to meet her, and suddenly a strange man with grey, square hair shakes my hand, sits down and starts a fire-speed chat about all and nothing. For the next few mini-dates I realise that by locking onto one tiny detail, you can pretty much spin a three minute conversation out of anything. I then learn about tweed, swing dance, Disney and a Catholic boss who wants to be a nun: far less tiring than speed-flirting, which is impossible on a Monday night.

Half-time and Andrew and I go for a cigarette outside. Someone has re-written his name tag, so he is now being known as Andy, which couldn’t be funnier. The man who taught me about tweed joins us with an 18th century tobacco pipe, and tells us a bit more about gilding and the intimidating group of girls sitting on a row of tables next to each other. One of them, Andrew chips in, leant over to accuse him of stealing her friend’s wine. This is not the way to speed date.

Second half; another gin and tonic and three more dates, when I spy a rather older gentleman schmoozing his way from table to table with a bowl of nachos. Andrew comes back into view from behind the pillar, slightly hot in the face, speed-date weary, possibly now drunk. The lap is closing. But that’s not before Stuart (with his nachos) pulls the chair around to my side, and we start our last and most surreal date. Weren’t the age brackets mid-twenties to late thirties? When the chiming starts, he slaps me on the thigh and says he’ll catch me at the bar. Now, only one person can slap me on the thigh like that, but then I’m at a speed-dating night: just another one in the mix, playing the game for the sake of my cousin.

There’s the weird intimacy of a stranger, plonking themselves at eye level, to judge and be judged. There’s also the exhausting pretend-flirting and paranoia that your face is speaking your thoughts. But most importantly, and finally, there is the hot blonde… and her friend, who matched Andrew on their ‘wish list’, to be dated again? Maybe a speed date will change his life…

Turning Balfron Tower Inside Out

It was a bleak day when I went to visit artist Rab Harling at the Balfron Tower in Poplar (East London). I have always been suspicious of Brutalist architecture and whether it serves as a happy environment for the people that live in the buildings, and staring up at the gargantuan concrete tower block set against a grey sky, I could see why Danny Boyle used it in his post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later. It scares me. When I tell Rab that it looks somewhere between a large factory and something out of 1984, he disagrees. Firstly it was Battersea Power Station (another example of Brutalist architecture) that was the facade for Victory Mansions in the film of 1984, and secondly, because inside, he says, it’s beautiful. Rab is currently taking up residency on the second floor to create a large photographic installation about the building, its community and the idea of ‘happiness’ that an environment can either inspire or extinguish. Having just read Alan de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, I was intrigued to find out more about social housing like Balfron Tower, and those that live there.

Its sister building is the 31- floor Trellick Tower in Kensington, and both were designed by Erno Goldfinger in an attempt to solve the huge shortage of housing in the country following World War II. Goldfinger was known as a humourless man who would fire his assistants for being too ‘jocular’. When he heard that Ian Fleming had made him into the villain of one of his James Bond books, he contested it so much that Fleming nearly changed the character to ‘Goldprick’. Looking at the tower, I can’t help but think it is a mere extension of the architect’s character, which has been – and will be — inflicted upon many a generation. At 27 floors high, it houses hundreds of people — about half of whom are Bangladeshi (says Rab) and all of whom (including him) will be moving out as they refurbish it, not knowing if they can return.

Where we live and the buildings around us make up the foundations of our community and can have a strong hold on our sense of happiness in life. Oscar Wilde claimed that: “The wrong kind of wallpaper could upset him more than a death in the family.” As an extreme aesthete, I doubt he would have liked Brutalist architecture. The Balfron tower was built with socialist ideals of economy and community, but due to urban decay after the war and the stark alien presence of such blocks compared with the rest of the city’s architecture, Brutalism became quickly un-popular and synonymous with un-happy residents.

Photograph from Rab’s project

“I want to make a piece that sheds a positive light on the often negative associations people bring to social housing and celebrate the diversity of the community within,” Rab says as we reach his place, on the second floor. It’s the size of a small house with steps leading down into a large living room with big windows. It’s peaceful, quiet and light. A balcony spans the room and the kitchen next door and over-looks another estate, a children’s ‘playground’ (fit with strange concrete walls and a concrete slide), and in the distance, the grand glass HSBC towers, one of the richest areas in London. “This area,” Rab says, “is one of the poorest in Europe – but this building” — he thumps his fist against the living room wall — “is solid, well made so that you have privacy.” Rab’s work is a series of photos taken in the apartments looking out. To show the building from the other perspective, he’ll set them on a light-box and in essence turn the Balfron Tower inside out. By getting to know as many of the residents as possible and through their word of mouth, he is building up his own network and relationship with his fellow residents in the form of “a family tree”.

“Beauty is the promise of happiness,” quotes Alain De Botton in The Architecture of Happiness, but in Brutalist design there is no room for the indulgence of beauty, only that of economy. Form must follow function, which through the 70’s and 80’s was simply ‘low budget’. John Ruskin said: “Buildings should shelter us, speak to us of all the things that are important, and remind us of them on a daily basis.” Domesticity, comfort and protection are but a few of the feelings that I think a house must communicate and even though Balfron looks like a severe dystopian factory from the outside, inside, I agree with Rab that it’s beautiful. When he takes me to the 27th floor the view is mesmerising and inspiring. “But the residents are treated really badly. They’re in the process of erecting scaffolding over the entire block — to work on the building for six months — it’s cheaper to do this when the building is occupied rather than wait and do it when it gets refurbished. No one was told. The direct disruption of noise and blocking up the windows has caused major unhappiness.”

Social housing can often say more about the ideal of the architect or a council’s budget, which in turn can have a negative impact on those that live there. A community can turn sour and break apart, not just because it is a poor one, but because of the way it is regarded, the relationship it has with neighbouring boroughs, the police and each other within it. I’m writing this as vans of police shoot past my window and my neighbours board up their shops. The place, East London (right now) is the target of hatred. Instead of gangs fighting gangs, they’re fighting the buildings, the communities, and last night broke down walls on terraced streets in Tottenham and used the bricks to smash and loot local businesses and banks, and it started from the same Brutalist inspired estate that gave birth to major riots in the 1980’s.

This speaks of social problems that run deeper than whether a house is pretty or not, but what de Botton and Rab Harling are both promoting is that we pay more attention to the psychological consequences of design in architecture as it can have the ability to further alienate communities, and will always affect us all.

Don’t Upset The Chef

The Perils of being ‘nice’.

According to Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School, when it comes to judging someone we do so on two main factors: warmth and competence. Warmth – whether they are friendly and well-intentioned, and competent – whether they have the ability to deliver on those intentions. She says: “We admire and help people who are both warm and competent and feel and act contemptuously towards the cold and incompetent.”

Yet by being ‘warm’ to one of the queens of pop-up hospitality the other day only incited rage and barking. By trying to diffuse the situation with more warmth, I was perceived as more incompetent- to the point of an airhead, and might well have done better if I had behaved cooler.

My friend is desperate to introduce me to the pioneer of the pop-up restaurant, the woman he’ll be working with at festivals and possibly in her kitchen while he stays with her. He has one of her business cards to show me when we meet off the train. I’m excited. We arrive at a gorgeous house with flowers blooming over the entrance; a handmade ceramic number is pinned to the door frame. Cute. Inside: beautiful wooden floors, a large open dining room half-prepped for guests and French windows that lead onto a lush garden with a small white summer house at the end of it – for private parties.

But the woman in question is on the phone. So we loiter in the corridor and read numerous testimonials taped to the wall. Half an hour later, we pop our heads around the kitchen door.

“I’ve got to go.” I hear her say. “There is a stranger in my kitchen.” She means me.

“This is my friend; I wanted you guys to meet each other,” my friend says.

A short, harassed-looking woman storms through the kitchen giving me more than just the once over. “Hi,” we say in unison.

“I love your house.” I chirp, “It’s so gorgeous. And you do a pop-up restaurant here?” My enthusiasm is genuine, but she doesn’t like it.

“Listen,” she looks like she’s ready to charge at me. “Do you really think I’m going to talk about- A,” she lifts a tiny finger to the ceiling, “my ‘fabulous’ pop-up restaurant. Or B how I make the fabulous effing food for it?” as a celebrity might bark down questions on their sex-life. “So don’t ask me about that.” But I’m not here to interview her. She turns to an open cook book on the sideboard. Silence falls.

“I’d love to have a place like this one day.” I’m now afraid. Maybe she could ask us a question?

“I’m making mustard,” she huffs. Should I respond to this? I could ask her what type? Why? How long it takes?  “Do you make all your own sauces?” I say nicely, searching for my bag.

“You know what; I’ve answered these questions to death. I,”  - she waves her soiled spoon in the air – “have been interviewed by everyone and I,” – she sticks it into the magi mix – “write a blog! Read the effing blog that I spend hours on if you want to know about my restaurant! Read the fucking interviews if you’ve got any questions!” She’s not joking. She’s not even playing the role of ‘drama chef’ but something similar to a bride yelling abuse in her wedding dress. She’s a host-zilla.

And the warmer I am to her the more horrid she gets.

When researching the idea of warmth and competence, the psychologist Nicolas Kervyn performed a study on two groups of people, one ‘warm’ and one ‘cold’ and his findings showed that people regarded the colder group as more competent. The upshot: “Your gain on one [trait] can be your loss on the other.” As if people who are actively warm to others must be concealing what they lack. Maybe that is true. I conceal my nervousness by asking questions that she doesn’t want to hear.

“Do you know the book Like Water for Chocolate?” I ask.

“Think I watched the film.” She says.

“When the girl cooks, all her emotions pour into the food, and the people that eat it go wild.”

“So, I should make my mustard with less bitterness?”

“Well, it is mustard, so maybe it’s OK.” She sort of laughs so I turn to leave before I say something ‘nice’ again.

“Well, you should come to my restaurant if you want to know more!”

Judgements and prejudices are far more complex and subtle than the ‘warm/competent’ theory. And I only disliked her so much because she hated me, not because she was ‘cold’ and certainly not incompetent. She later referred to me as ’posh’ and a ‘bimbo’, without knowing anything about me, so I guess that ties in class and hair-colour. I was an unexpected guest in her kitchen when she was tired. But why go to so much effort creating a brand of cute, retro chic – down to the font on the business cards – when you’re a nasty, barrel shaped woman who wields mustardy spoons at people. Maybe by plugging this warm, welcoming image since the scene started, has made her repel her own branding – and those that liked it.

Reading on the Train

"Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction,” says David Ulin in The Lost Art of Reading. So, I do resist (eventually) but at what cost?

From Dalston to Waterloo I have 40 minutes and an old book I grabbed on the way out. It’s not a long journey. It’s not even a complicated one: three changes and plenty of time.

In an empty carriage to Canada Water (because it’s 3:45pm on a hot Saturday afternoon); I ignore the book in my bag for an out-of-date Metro from the next seat, then consume it like a McDonalds – as if it’s going to get cold and congeal – and realise that I have no idea what I’ve just read. The stories don’t resonate. Not even Nemi (Metro’s cartoon strip) on the back pages sits for long in my memory bank. But it stands between me and the book, in the same way the internet is now thrumming behind this half-typed page, whirring away to be opened. Eventually the book, A Multitude of Sins by the American writer Richard Ford, gets its turn. On the front cover one man stands in a blur that is Grand Central Station. I soon realise that I’ve read all of these stories, except the second half of the last: ‘The Abyss’.

The train hunkers through East London. Before I know it I’m at Canada Water. It’s 4pm, but there’s plenty of time. So I read from where I left off years ago, riding the escalator down to the Jubilee Line. An illicit affair between two people at a conference in Arizona has suddenly taken a wild turn. The pair rent a car and, despite their reservations about each other, all that they risk, and what the hell they’re doing, they speed off for a romantic break to the Grand Canyon. It’s an overlapping of his and her POV. She thinks he’s arrogant, oafish and boring. Her enthusiasm for the vastness of the landscape suffocates his. Five hours into the trip and her voice is that of birdsong on a sketchy winter morning. As soon as they hit the road, away from the ‘illicitness’ their work environment defined, sexiness disintegrates to a sordid layover in a motel en-route and then… where am I? On a now crowded train at Bermondsey. One more stop and the pair, frazzled, irritated and bored of each other, reach the Grand Canyon.

I get off at London Bridge, with 15 minutes until I meet my work partner, Steven. So I head out of the station into the sun. The London Dungeon guys, covered in fake blood, try and spook me as I find a spot away from the tourists. But I’m taken. The couple are at the canyon. Each desperate to define the wonderment they feel so individually. She takes photos. Hands buried in his pockets, he scuffs the dry earth, longing for his wife.

“Take a photo of me!” she cries. Reluctantly, he takes the camera as she larks around in front of him.

“Just a bit closer,” she squeals, stepping over the safety barrier. “Look at me!” He sees her, star-shaped for the photo. Aligning his right eye with the view finder, there is an “Oh my!”

Fully aligned now, but he can’t find his subject. He moves the camera around the space, frowns, she’s not there – only the drop of the cliff edge and the crevice of the void. Dropping the camera, he walks to where she stood, steps over the safety barrier and looks into the canyon. 100 feet below, and her broken body lies in the top branches of a tree.

What? It’s 4:30pm. If I don’t run to the foyer I’m going to be late. But where is it? Everything looks different.

“Where’s the main train station?” I yell at a man in a fluorescent jacket as I run past.

“The consort is straight ahead.”

I sprint to the consort. It’s smaller than I remember, mostly under construction and screened off by bright orange netting. A few upbeat station attendants stand at the gates to the platforms.

“Is this the main station?” I puff.

“This is it!” the guy says, twinkling in amusement.

“Really?” I look around – nothing but screens of orange and a Cafe Nero.

“But, I’m supposed to be meeting someone under the ‘big clock’.”

He roars with laughter. “You’ve been watching too many films!”

“We’re catching the 4:50 train! Is there a clock at this station?”

“You must be thinking of Liverpool Street, love.” He now frowns.

“No, Waterloo.”

Digesting this, his eyes well up, the laughter roars out again. “Waterloo? This is London Bridge!” He splutters. “Del Boy met his wife under the clock at Waterloo!”

“We are a culture that seems unable to concentrate, to pursue a line of thought or tolerate a conflicting point of view,” says Ulin. Well, what if you can concentrate – just not on the right thing? In being so ready and willing to disengage from the plentiful distractions around me, I lose sight of B and am lost before my final destination.

At 4:46pm, an angry Steven is still standing beneath the clock at Waterloo. We make the train, but when I reach down to find the book – it has gone.

And the unfinished narrative has been distracting me ever since. Wondering what that man did after seeing his mistress dead on top of a tree caused me to take the wrong branch of the northern line to work this morning, which in turn stressed out a heavily pregnant woman and thirteen people in a BBC meeting. I wish I could just completely disengage from reality and submerge myself in a fictitious world but that would leave me as the figure on the front of Ford’s book – in a daze, at the wrong station, with the real world shooting past. But maybe that’s just what happens every time you read a good story.

Front Window

 Summer brings the NOISE

In New York Max Neuhaus campaigned for police sirens to be less of an offence.  I think we need a Neuhaus in Dalston.  From my desk I am getting more and more rattled by the wheeping of police- zooming down Dalston Lane below me. They are set to give me a heart attack, or a twitch. I shut the windows, sit here and slowly poach until I’m a pale pink. Still the noise prevails. It seems worse now than it did a few months ago. Could it actually be noisier in summer than it is in winter? On a day like today (hot) engines sound raspier, more strained, all dried up and on the last rev before burn-out- which will probably happen just outside my window. Right now- it sounds like someone has crashed down there.

“What the f*** are you doing?”

“What- I was just crossing the road mate!”

“Look wha you done. Look!  F****** scratched my f****** car!”

Natasha (my Canadian flat mate) stomps into my room. “What’s going on? Is that a fight happening?” We open the window, fold our arms over the ledge and look below. A small blue Citroën is now straddling both lanes. The driver’s door flung open. A black body builder in a florescent T-shirt is furious. A small, wispy haired white guy is looking scared.

“Oh my god. He’s carrying a telescope.” Natasha says. We both giggle.

“I was just trying to cross the road!”

“You want some?”

“Whoa- where did that come from. Hey, dude, stop fighting!” Natasha yells. Despite being ten metres above them, they don’t hear this. Hippie man foolishly places his telescope on the ground in front of Angry Driver; a sacrificial offering, a buffer maybe? A booby trap to either trip or bewilder his assailant? None of these. Driver hops over it, swings his legs at Hippie’s heel. He crashes down, gets up swiftly, biffs Driver’s enormous bicep and gets biffed back. They jump in circles around each other, fists clenched, swiping the hot air. Sweat pours down Driver’s forehead, Hippie turns a deep pink. Driver’s passenger gets out the car, slams the door and storms down Dalston Lane without looking back. The traffic is now at grid lock. I can feel the accumulative throttle vibrate through my body, through Natasha’s.

“Hey! I said stop fighting!” Natasha yells.

 “Stop fighting!” I yell.

“We should call the police” She says. I’m on the verge of saying no. I can’t handle any more noise, any more action. But then a ripping WHEEP cuts through the commotion. Natasha and I nearly fall off our perch- struck down by the din. Hippie scoops up his telescope. He wields his tripod at Angry Driver who- in his last bout of rage- kicks his own car. And the whole debacle folds in on itself.  No one’s a winner. Hippie is now full steam, hot footing it down Dalston Lane, whipping round, hair flying, punching at the sun with his tripod. Angry (most likely at himself) Driver speeds off to find his now angry passenger. Police reach the scene- which is now just loads of cars parked up on the pavement to allow them through- and fail to shut down their sirens. Wheep wheep wheep. The noise is deafening. Revelry at The Three Compasses has stalled.

“Yo- in Canada- police sirens are not that loud!” Natasha yells at me.

We resume places in our respective rooms. I read online that warm air is ‘stiffer’ than cold. The molecules are (as I’m typing this) moving around with more energy.

HONK.

“Watch where you’re going,” screams another angry man on this hot afternoon.

The air is not as elastic when warm, I read, molecules are bumping into each other.  I can’t help but compare this crashing of molecules to the crashing around of people below me, moving faster, creating more ruckuses. Then there’s global warming. “For each degree rise in temperature, the speed of sound in air increases by 0.6 meters per second.” Does this mean that ‘peace and quiet’ will soon become a fossilised notion? A few generations forward and silence may be a thing of the past. There is no aural rest in the heart of Dalston. There may be less and less to come. Everything- from this moment right here- seems to be heating up. I like peace, and the quiet.

Should I/we be scared?