We are not amused

As I walked along the seafront I noticed a couple hurrying into an amusement arcade. She clutched her handbag tightly along with her husband’s arm as they entered the almost empty funhouse. They wore desperate faces and shabby clothes and not in a chic way. It was mid-summer. Where was everyone else?

I glanced deeper in from a safe distance and saw a handful of living bodies pumping coins into slots. Why are these establishments called Amusement arcades? No one appeared to be having any fun. I wondered whether I should call the trade descriptions police.

Amusement arcades have been part of the English seaside for as long as I can remember. As a child I wiled away the hours on holiday deftly slotting 1p and 2p coins into shove ha’penny (or Penny Falls dependent upon your preference) hoping that my coin would be the catalyst to push hundreds of others from their precarious ledge and into my tray.

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That was amusement, and maybe it’s because I was younger and less aware, but the places bustled and everyone seemed to be having fun. I checked with my mother and she thinks enjoyment at arcades is age dependent! Apparently my parents used to ‘enjoy’ watching me having fun but didn’t enjoy the noise, heat, flashing lights and claustrophobia. Mum averred that enjoyment dissipates with increasing years.

The entire front of the buildings are always wall less to provide maximum entry opportunities, and to entice customers with bright flashing lights, electronic beeps and sometimes if you’re lucky the Grease Megamix blasting at you.

As I grew into my childhood I loved the holiday arcades more. I am not sure my parents appreciated the constant request for money. The digital age was moving forward apace, and I wanted to play Asteriods, Pacland, and Star Wars costing more per turn that the penny arcades. I remember climbing into an X wing fighter with Obi Wan Kenobi telling me to ‘Use the Force Luke’. I didn’t really pay attention to the fruit or slot machines. The only slot I played was with my parents. The house rarely won and I often hit the jackpot!

Awareness increases with age and maturity and I started to see another side, perhaps the more sinister one. People were alive, but acted as zombies as they hit the ‘spin’ button to win the elusive jackpot. Rarely did their clothing or demeanour say they had the spare funds to commit so much to chance. Their faces yearned and willed the win. Would it release their trancelike state?

Is there a sinister element? I am not sure but I still feel something odd when I approach and enter.

In every arcade without fail is a change booth. This booth, often caged, is invariably staffed by an unhappy looking employee who hadn’t yet been on a customer service course, and didn’t yet deal in pleasantries.

A request would be made. ‘50ps worth of 2s please.’

The cashier would push keys on their till and 25 2p pieces excitedly hurtled down the slide into the tray at the front. The sound was remarkably like a jackpot hitting the winnings tray. Anticipation raised. Clever marketing really.

As I grew, so did the depth of my own pockets and the available funds to travel. Norfolk was humbled and I was off to Las Vegas. The glitz, the glamour and promises of fortunes surrounded by big name shows, elite shops and trendy pumping bars and clubs.

And there you find casinos rather than amusement arcades. But are they really that different? There are rows of cashiers rather than a single change booth employee but they wear the same expression and exude the same attitude. And yes of course some of the patrons are dripping in diamonds (and that’s just the men) plunging the craps dice down the silky felt of the table, but look a little further out to the sides and rows of fruit machines. There you will find shabby zombies pushing their plastic cups loaded with quarters into the slots. These slots equally promise life changing jackpots.

In Vegas however you can spot the same individuals at the machines when you go to bed as when you get up. They wear the same clothes and expressions. Vegas is happy to help you spend twenty four seven.

I am not sure if it’s just the Boulevardier outside his comfort zone or whether these sinister establishments prey on the weak willed. This applies equally to the multimillion Vegas casinos and shabby seaside arcades…

Either way the house always wins.

TNW

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A Few Days Away

Last Sunday I was enjoying a lovely cup of Assam in bed perusing the weather predictions for the next few days, and of course in true UK style it said ‘unsettled’. I had a few days off work and planned to travel to Essex and then the South Coast. I pulled my black leather holdall from atop the wardrobe and went to shower. As Arrow’s Hot Hot Hot blasted from my docking station, I realised that whilst only a few days away, I would need a suitcase and a multitude of outfits, due to the weather. See previous blog regarding packing to understand my thought process here…

With a rather heavy suitcase packed I drove to Sible Hedingham, where I spend a beautiful afternoon and evening with great friends. We caught up over several Tanqueray and tonics and a couple of bottles of wine. The weather was stunning and we sat in the garden right through into the evening.

I had arranged bed and breakfast at a local farm, and walked back there at midnight. Unfortunately a Boulevardier sometimes forgets that outside of London, and particularly in the country, streetlamps don’t light your every step. The vague light of occasional yellow streetlamps provided little assistance along the unknown path.

I made it back unscathed and heard conversation in the lounge, but went straight up the stairs to a beautiful twin room and to bed.

I woke to the sound of cocks crowing. At 5am! I managed to get back to sleep and had planned breakfast at 8.30. The hostess had asked the previous day when I wanted breakfast and I therefore came down as planned. She informed me it would now likely be 8.45am, to coincide with the other residents, as bacon tasted so much better when freshly cooked. I took a turn around the lounge, and was thankful that there was a nip in the air and we were not having breakfast outside, as there was a horrid chicken and three chicks parading in the back garden. This Boulevardier has an absolute and irrational fear of all feathered creatures. And I am not sure why anyone would want them in the back garden in any event!

At 8.45 on the dot breakfast was announced, and I was guided into the kitchen diner and welcomed to the head of the long heavy oak table. There were to be four other guests and we were to have breakfast at the same table. I braced myself for morning conversation with strangers.To the garden side there was not a wall but heavy concertinaed double-glazed glass doors, which were open, and therefore only a few feet between me and the bloody chickens. I tried to not raise too much panic in my voice but left the hostess in no doubt that the doors needed to be closed urgently! She left the bacon and hurriedly sealed my safety while giving me an odd side look. She did not share my fear of would be killers!

I sat and braced myself for the arrival of fellow diners, and first through the door were two teenagers, who from their dishevelled appearance had literally fallen from bed to the table. This did not stop their polite chatter. They were followed by two men. We all introduced ourselves and set out reasons for our trips. The two boys were not brothers but travelling with their respective fathers who were both previously married, divorced and now married to each other. I was pleased to see the ‘New Normal’ family unit so comfortably shared outside the acceptance of the Metropolis.

With a full stomach and some great tunes I donned my Ray Bans and travelled the short distance to Bury St Edmunds to have a lovely long lunch catch up with an old school friend. We had not seen each other for over 20 years, but the years melted away. There was no awkwardness which time apart can sometimes create. We chatted and the hours elapsed all too quickly. With promises of meeting up again soon, I was back in the car and on the longer journey to Hastings.

My hotel choice was somewhere between 2 and 3 star, so I was not expecting luxury. The reception area was pleasant enough, and after checking in and being shown to my room I realised there were no towels! This was quickly remedied after a trip to reception, but really no towels! Pretty fundamental I thought, and hoped this was not a harbinger for my stay.

To assist with recovery I needed some liquid refreshment, and fortune shined upon me as I had arranged to meet the author VG Lee for a rather large gin and tonic on the lovely hotel terrace. There was no Tanqueray but Bombay Sapphire sufficed.

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We then promenaded along the promenade enjoying the evening sun. In fact the unsettled weather wasn’t really unsettled at all. Indeed it had been rather pleasant.

VG recommended a fish restaurant, Webbes. After perusing a vast menu we made our choices, accompanied, obviously, by a good bottle of wine. We both decided on fresh battered haddock and chips. This was served with mushy peas which VG did not want. It was a rather entertaining conversation which ensued with the student waiter.

‘Is there an alternative to mushy peas by any chance?’

‘They only come in a small ceramic pot on the side of the plate.’

‘That’s fine, but I don’t want them. I wondered if there is an alternative.’

Blank look from waiter. I looked at the menu and suggested that there were green beans as a side dish.

‘Yes,’ said VG ‘Could I please have a few green beans in place of the mushy peas?’

‘Green beans are a side dish.’

‘Yes I know. I wondered if I could substitute the mushy peas for a few green beans.’

‘They are a side dish and come in a separate dish, so you would need to order them in addition.’

VG ordered her side dish and the waiter left the table. We both joked at the service, which wasn’t bad, but VG wasn’t asking for gold plate, but a few cheap, regular green beans. Our evening continued in a jolly fashion and we shared many laughs, complemented by delicious fresh food, and a second bottle of wine. I was led astray by VG.

We watched the sun set, and with it the other patrons and tables gradually disappear. Apparently life in Hastings stops at 10pm on a Monday. How quaint I thought while mentally noting that this would not suit a Boulevardier on a regular basis.

We walked back a little tipsy. We passed the ironically named New Town. Ironic as it’s Victorian!

The next morning I went down to breakfast, which was not included in the room rate. There is a 20% breakfast discount to residents which I thought strange as the hotel restaurant and bar is advertised as only being open to residents between 11pm and 12pm. I decided to investigate with the reception.

‘Good morning. Why is there an advertised 20% discount to residents for breakfast?’

‘Good morning. We like to give a special deal to all our guests.’

‘Is breakfast available all day then?’

‘No, only until 11am.’

‘But your sign indicates that only residents are allowed in the restaurant until 12pm’

‘Yes.’

‘Midday?’

‘No, midnight.’

‘But midnight is 12am!’ I did enjoy pointing out in a lovely humble manner.

‘Oh no,’ she laughed ‘we’ve been using that sign for months, and were wondering why the morning trade had fallen off! Thank you so much for pointing it out.’

With a good deed completed before 9am and the sunshine and only a gentle sea breeze I walked out onto the front terrace and ordered a tea (no Assam) and a vegetarian breakfast. I looked out to sea and watched a distant tanker far out at sea and a solitary closer sail boat drift by.

Two other older couples joined me on the terrace. The ones closest to me talked rather loudly, and as I speared a grilled tomato revealed to his companion the level to which his wound was oozing that morning… I do think a Boulevardier should be entitled to his own terrace, so as not to suffer such ear violence.

Before heading back to the sanctity of Crouch End I had one final day catching up with a lovely friend in Goring. The unsettled weather stayed away and we enjoyed a lovely beach walk and afternoon tea with massive cream cakes. I am partial to a cream slice.

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We were Weight Watching, or rather watching our weight increase! Next week I will definitely be enjoying, or enduring, depending on your perspective – lettuce leaves only…

TNW

Nude with Violin

It was one of the hottest Saturdays in July. It was beautiful.

The summer of 2013 was certainly turning out to be the best since 2006. UK summers over the last 6 years have been a let down. Much was promised by the ever optimistic weather diviners, but few of their predictions had come to pass.

2013 was proving much better with long days of constant sunshine and temperatures regularly hitting 30 degrees. A Boulevardier should never demonstrate a physical manifestation of overheating or worse sweating so it was important to select suitable clothing and activity.

I had a beautiful lunch with my friend Jane at Melange in Crouch End, where we respectively enjoyed walnut and Roquefort and tuna steak salads, while sitting in the lovely sun. As the temperature rose we moved inside to maintain a cool appearance.

Jane left and the afternoon was spent relaxing in the garden with another friend Michael. We were barely moving and relished conversation filled with art, books, music and theatre. We were indeed off to the theatre together that evening.

Late afternoon we made the short journey to Highgate, and partook of a late afternoon drink at The Flask, which incidentally is across the road from George Michael’s London home. Unfortunately he was nowhere to be seen either to star spot or sing us a song. After several glasses of refreshing Malbec (me only) we consumed some pre theatre food and took the few steps to the Gatehouse Pub.

Storms were brewing, temperatures were going up and the humidity hung in the air creating a tropical atmosphere.

The theatre named ‘Upstairs at the Gatehouse’ delivers exactly what it says on the tin, and is in fact on the first floor in the Gatehouse Pub. I am sure many of you will have seen the Gatehouse, as it sits at the top of Highgate Village, next to the junctions heading to Kenwood and Hampstead. The appearance of the pub externally is Tudor, and I believe to be one of the oldest in the area. It is also allegedly haunted, although I saw no phantom apparitions.

The bar area was disappointingly generic, lots of light wood panelling, coupled with loud carpet and banquette seating. We headed upstairs to the ‘green room’ which was a fabulous mixture of props, posters and furniture, appearing as a spare room where everything is shoved that you don’t want to display. In the corner we eyed with anticipation a regular domestic chest freezer with signed promises of ice cream.

At the appointed time we, with the other patrons, were called into the theatre, which was a mid-sized auditorium set in the round with rows of stadium crushed velvet seating. We sat in the middle on the back row.

The temperature was going up.

The play was a little known Noel Coward piece called Nude with Violin, which is set in Paris in the mid-1950s. It’s a beautiful comedy of manners set in the drawing room of a recently deceased world renowned artist, Paul Sorodin. His estranged but most immediate family have gathered to sort out the estate in the absence of a will.

As the drama unfolds various characters turn up with letters signed by the artist confirming that they indeed painted the pictures of various periods of his career. In fact we are left wondering whether he actually painted anything himself.

To avoid the scandal the family and the art dealer set about trying to contain the secret with the assistance of the ever present, ever listening, multi skilled valet.

It’s not particularly fast paced, and the entertainment came from the clever and witty one liners.

The theatre itself has not yet been able to invest in air conditioning and the 3 fans and one portable unit could not stop the ever increasing temperature, and despite the claps of thunder (I wondered whether they were indeed part of the production), the air did not cool.

In the interval we headed for ice cream and some air. While it was cooler outside of the auditorium it was far from cool, and the rain was heavy so rather than risk flat hair we had to stand by the open outer pub doors and try and cool down. The creamy vanilla ice cream helped.

Things seemed to get hotter in the second act. By the end I was sticky beyond belief and feeling a little dizzy, which was a shame as it was a wonderfully funny tale ridiculing the world of modern art, with which I agree.

It reminded me of a visit some years ago to Flowers East on Richmond Road in Hackney when I lived there. I had seen some beautiful paintings on the first floor, and took some very arty friends, Rita and Andre, to view. The ground floor contained what I like to call ‘paint splodges’, and when we headed to the first floor I was aghast to realise that my favoured exhibition had been replaced by more paint splodges.

‘Oh no! These paintings are the same as downstairs!’ I exclaimed.

A curator appeared and informed us in an irritated manner ‘These have absolutely nothing to do with the exhibition downstairs.’

‘They look the same to me.’ I said

‘To the untrained eye maybe.’ He replied with an ever increasing patronising tone.

‘If that’s training my eye, I would rather stay unpretentious and untrained.’ I added, and at this he scurried back to his room. Rita, Andre and I nearly fell to the floor laughing.

It is ridiculous, and I am well aware that I don’t ‘understand’ some modern art, but I am not sure I want to. Educating Rita springs to mind (and not the aforementioned Rita).

I guess a good Boulevardier has to maintain a pretence of being in tune with the art world, but maybe I am more independent and happy to confidently assert my own opinion at the utter rubbish which can be defined as modern art.

So Mr Coward I am right there with you in ridiculing something so easily set up to be mocked.

TNW

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Bar Snacks

A successful Boulevardier keeps his admirers guessing as to his age, but sometimes clues can be drawn from memories…

Growing up I would attend child friendly social clubs with my parents where snacks were generally confined to crisps (plain, salt and vinegar or cheese and onion), salted or dry roasted peanuts or pork scratching. Crisps were usually kept below the bar in their transportation cardboard boxes, whereas nuts and scratching displayed on cardboard banners, tempting consumers with pictures of large breasted women in bikinis.

The social club we attended was cultured and had the addition of a ‘Fish Man’, i.e. a man with a large wicker basket full of trays of prawns, whelks, crab sticks, and cockles. Once you chose your fare he would adeptly slice open the plastic top with a plastic fork and spear the produce with said fork and present for consumption!

One of the club managers also developed her services to include cheese rolls, or rather slabs of cheese in half a French stick, and jacket potatoes. She was the kind of lady who believed in feeding everyone with generous portions which mirrored her generous spirit.

Once old enough to frequent public houses without parental accompaniment, I would enjoy the snacks on offer which had progressed. Bacon bits and scampi bites felt exotic. The latter would coat your hands in eau de fish, so best consumed towards the end of the evening or where the pub had good strong soap in the bathrooms.

It would be remiss not to mention the advent of McCoys, which quickly established themselves as the crisp du jour with their crinkle cut and flavours such as flame grilled steak. Gourmet delights were enjoyed as an addition to Pernod and black.

In the last few years with the arrival of Gastro pubs, bar snacks seem to have also scaled the social ladder.

With journalistic pursuits in mind, I headed out to the pubs of Crouch End to carry out some research, and perhaps enjoy a sherry (where available) in each establishment also.

It was a beautiful summer (early) evening, and my outfit was simple. Denim shorts, an Amy Winehouse T shirt and Papillo Birkenstocks in Paul Smith pink. My hair was quiffed and I was full of confidence.

I planned a sensible and logical route starting at Villiers Terrace. There were no patrons inside and only a few on the outside deck.

‘A glass of your finest restorative sherry’ I responded to the offer of service from the barmaid, followed by ‘Do you have any bar snacks?’

She poured the sherry and directed me to a chalk board on the wall next to the unlit open fireplace. I could have ordered coca cola chicken wings, chorizo quesadillas, olives, mixed nuts or crisps ranging from £1.15 to £.425… For bar snacks I hear you cry!

I quaffed my sherry to deal with the shock and headed to The Maynard.

The Maynard is one of my favourite Crouch End haunts and falls into the Gastro pub category. A few more customers meant I could look at the snacks on offer without being accosted by willing staff. Sea salt and herb peanuts or chilli crackers were in tall glass jars ready to be decanted into small terracotta pots. Crisps were also available in packets of the Piper variety. Piper market flavours such as cider vinegar and sea salt! (I wonder if the taste of cider and sea adds to the salt and vinegar tang we know well).

A few minutes stroll around the Clocktower and I arrived at the Kings Head, which was pretty vacant.  Rather than stop for another drink I glanced the peanuts, chilli crackers and wasabi peas all in big glass jars, of course, and all before the barmaid had time to spot me. I muttered something about meeting friends and headed out again!

A little further up the hill and I crossed the road and into Railway Tavern, decided to be braver, ordered a drink and asked what bar snacks they had, and explained I was writing about the changes in bar snacks rather than feeling the need to consume any!

‘As long as you are not from a rival pub’ the barmaid quipped, and with a smile handed me an extensive menu, typed beautifully and encased in a shiny plastic coating. The choice was vast. I could have eaten chicken wings with BBQ sauce, nachos, scotch eggs, cajun king prawns, mini falefels, loaded potato skins, onion rings or even a full cheese or Italian meat platter. I thought I might mention the false advertising in that these were not snacks but a veritable feast.

If there is one place in Crouch End where I thought I might find original,unadulterated bar snacks it’s  the Harringay Arms. This pub has not responded to the modern decor of expensive (looking) furnishings, menus and chandeliers but retains a raw, drinking den persona. I was not disappointed! No glass jars in sight but rather cardboard holders held on the wall displaying scampi bites, twiglets and bacon bites.

And finally I headed on to the Queens and managed to take the below photo, as my tapping fingers weren’t working! Not sure if that was due to fatigue or the 3 sherries and 2 glasses of wine swallowed in a short time!

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The Boulevardier left his perch and walked the short distance back to Middle Lane and proceeded to pass out, ahem I mean, fall asleep on the sofa, smiling and satisfied at his journalistic prowess.

TNW