When a film triggers a memory

Last weekend I went to The Phoenix cinema in East Finchley with Michael to watch Philomena. The Phoenix is one of the UK’s oldest purpose-build, continuously operating cinemas according to its website. The vaulted ceiling dates back to the early 20th century. It’s an amazing venue, and quite the place the Boulevardier should frequent.

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The film itself was wonderful and thought provoking, albeit rather harrowing. Towards the end (and I won’t give plot away) there is a scene with an aged and retired nun. She belligerently defends her actions fifty years previously which materially affected Philomena’s life. Philomena remained calm and said she forgave the nun for her actions.

As we left the theatre my thoughts turned to my school days and as we walked back to our cars I told Michael a story about my first few days at school. Some of the detail had faded with time, and as I was meeting my parents for lunch two days later, I decided to ask Mum what she remembered.

After a morning coffee in the Boulevardier’s lounge my parents and I walked the short distance to The Maynard where we were booked for Sunday lunch. After we had ordered our roast chicken, roast beef and a beef and Guinness pie, I asked Mum what she remembered. I was unable to take a long and dramatic sip of sherry or red wine as I was rather dehydrated following a brilliant Halloween party the previous evening, and had decided to abstain.

‘Of course’ said Mum, ‘as if it happened yesterday.’

When I was three years old and not a London Boulevardier but a country boy, I went to playschool. There was no playschool in the village in which we resided and I had to go to the one in the next village. The first morning passed without incident, but on the second Mum received a call as I was distraught. Playschool was held in a timber annexe known as The Scout Hall on the outskirts of the village and one of the older children came in wearing a scary mask! This had almost traumatised me and it will come as no surprise that I didn’t want to return.  I asked Mum why she didn’t make me go back.

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‘There is no choice on whether or not you go to school but there is a choice with playschool’ Mum reasoned.

School soon came around and I was extremely excited and enthusiastic to go. It was six weeks before my fifth birthday. Mum thought she might have a problem leaving me there, but I was positive, took off my coat and ran to a table and sat down. Mum said I was proud as a peacock to be at school. Flamstead JMI was the only education centre in our small village and it felt massive. Its five classrooms and over one hundred pupils were all new to me and daunting enough on their own without the additional punishing circumstances.

The morning passed and Mum came to collect me for lunch. We lived close enough to the school to take luncheon at home. My mood had drastically changed and I did not want to go back to school for the afternoon. Confused, Mum asked me what had changed and I told her the teacher had smacked me. Mum didn’t believe a word of it as a teacher couldn’t smack a child – or could they? I didn’t settle at school as well in the afternoon as I had in the morning and Mum struggled to get me to stay. It was all rather upsetting.

When Mum returned to the school gates at the appointed afternoon time she encountered one of Dad’s sisters, Auntie Ann, and explained the rather odd events of the day. Auntie Ann said she would ask my cousin Lorraine who was also in my class what had happened.

Lorraine confirmed that Mrs S. had smacked me as I couldn’t hold my pencil properly and had tried to make me write with my right hand rather than my natural and favoured left. I hadn’t yet learned to hold my pencil between my thumb and second and third fingers, but rather held the pencil between all my fingers.

At this Mum went straight round to the classroom and demanded to speak with Mrs S.. She denied administering corporal punishment and held her position regarding changing the hand I wrote with. This was the mid-1970s, not the dark ages, in case anyone was wondering. Mum left the classroom and walked to the Headmaster’s office; he listened and confirmed he’d look into it.

Mum came home uneasy and hoped that all would be sorted. The next lunchtime she asked me which hand I had used to hold my pencil, and I indicated I had to use my right. I of course didn’t say right as I was too young to know the difference but rather showed Mum.

We walked back to school for the afternoon session and Mum went straight to the Headmaster who was apparently still looking into it. Mum wasn’t having any of it and told Mr Ashwood, the Headmaster that she was going to see the GP for a professional opinion.

Mum telephoned Dr Coombes that afternoon and he confirmed that there was no way the school should continue trying to change the hand with which I wrote. He suggested that Mum should notify the school of his opinion and if there were any more problems he would come to the school. Mum relayed the message to Mr Ashwood and I was suddenly allowed to use my left hand again.

Mrs S. was in Mum’s words ‘as sweet as apple pie’ thereafter with no further incidents. Years later when Mum would bump into her she would always ask after me. Mum would always give a curt ‘He’s fine’ response.   

I can remember being smacked across the left hand, which knocked the pencil from my hand, and being aggressively criticised for using the wrong hand, holding the pencil incorrectly and not being able to write my name. My memories are in flashes and evoke somewhat unsettling emotions of panic and despair.

I thought we went to school to learn?

I can also remember being told that I was far too naughty to go out to play in the afternoon with the rest of the children and being made to sit on a chair outside the staffroom as Mrs S. watched me. I was terrified and so upset. I can remember being really excited about growing up and being old enough to attend school, and things unravelling and going so wrong so quickly and it was all too much. I made a dash for it but S. caught me before I could get out of the building and make the short run home. She smacked me again and chastised me for being so disobedient

Years later when I was in my late teens this incident used to haunt me and I wanted to go and speak to the teacher, dominate her, and see how she felt. I decided not to and I am glad I didn’t.

We finished our lunch. Mum was too full for dessert, aside from a spoonful of my sticky toffee pudding. Dad had some bread and butter pudding. We chatted more about old memories and I connected on Facebook to one of Mum’s cousins whose new address she didn’t have. It was a lovely afternoon. I always enjoy my parent’s visits to Crouch End.

Did Mrs S. ever look back and realise she had acted so wrongly? I have no idea. However, at least there weren’t any long-lasting or adverse consequences, and I really enjoyed school. In fact, aside from the first few days, I would go back and do it all again at the drop of a hat.

The consequences on Philomena were substantially more severe and in fact incomparable. It’s really amazing sometimes how a really old and rarely thought of memory is triggered. As I reflected I am glad I didn’t confront my teacher, and like Philomena, maintained my dignity.

TNW

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Here come the Fash Pack

The Boulevardier is displaced. This sometimes results in attempts to navigate the unfamiliar waters of advancing years while trying to retain cool, trend and panache. The days of uber fashionable parties filled with the fash pack of London were behind me. Or so I thought.

I rather fortuitously landed an invite to a rather fashionable magazine party in East London several weeks ago. I was pleased to see that my networking with media types still had bite when it was required.

First and most major consideration was what to wear. Leatherette jeans would have been perfect. However, they were snug when purchased, and with too much fine dining of late, the snug has developed into too tight. A trip to Brent Cross was required. I had ideas.

I wanted to achieve a hybrid of fashion and smart casual. And I am not talking about the boring smart casual of the corporate (non media) world i.e. keep your suit on but whoop-e-doo take your tie off.

I wanted a smart jacket perhaps with a 50s edge which I could couple with dark jeans and T. When combined with the quiff and jewellery I hoped I could pull it off.

I had seen some jackets which were varying shades of blue with a darker velvet(ish) lapel and collar. However, they only came in children’s sizes, well young men’s perhaps. The male body shape changes so much from mid 20s onwards. This idea was thwarted.

Fashion and grown up or bigger than sample sizing can create quite the challenge.

I looked in a number of establishments, but nothing said ‘Statement Jacket’. I finally found a black corduroy blazer with pink visible stitching around the collar and pocket flaps which was indeed unique, in Jeff Banks. Who knew the presenter of The Clothes Show still had ‘it’. I thought the jacket represented a portent for the impending autumn and would contribute nicely to my smart, casual, cool look.

New simple black jeans and an array of potential T shirts were purchased from All Saints and H&M.

Brent Cross has the ability to solve serious problems. It was like Breakfast at Tiffany’s but less glamorous.

Foresight works so well for me, and with the planned outfit on, complimented by blue and silver Prada trainers I set off. As I approached the venue with my good friend Justin it looked like an old man’s pub on a main road north of Hoxton. We double checked the address but it appeared correct. We were expecting a private members club. We strode ahead with confidence, as you do in these circumstances, and the doors opened and presented a wonderful oasis of vogue and elegance.

The ground floor was sumptuous with rich red velvet booths and banquette seating. There were chandeliers at every turn, and an intricately designed pewter ceiling. 90s swing was pumping from the DJ which is ironic as this was the music de jour when I lived in East London. An enormous stuffed taxidermic tiger pounced from the centre of the bar.

A winding Victorian staircase with heavy flock wallpaper led to an enormous lounge with further stuffed creatures in the shape of a massive polar bear and peacock.

We continued our journey upwards and found a flock of tropical stuffed birds perched on a wooden roost on the landing. I have a ridiculous and irrational fear of birds, which was heightened by the peacock a floor down, and dared not look up for fear of running from the building screaming.

We were unfashionably on time. The venue was more or less empty. We had broken the first rule of fashionable parties and not arrived several hours after the start time. Even the hosts didn’t arrive until 45 minutes after us. There was only one thing for it and we sunk into a red velvet booth seat and a quenched our thirst with a few Tanquerays.

The chic of London started to arrive from 9, from the trendy Hoxton/Dalston boys in tight chinos with baseball caps and sockless loafers to the artists, photographers, djs, drag queens and transsexuals, muscle boys in t shirts, fashionista females who only eat once a week draped around designers and even a couple of infamous 1980s party people.

There was no keeping up with this crowd. There were a few of similar age to me who were trying, and squeezed into child sized clothing. Maybe it’s ok to try when surrounded by your own peers, but not when attempting to play this uber stylish fash pack at their own game. Several other slightly more mature gents, of a similar age to me had opted for the jeans, suit jacket and t shirt and we looked cool damn it. We would look unique and original in our own peer circles and here we wished the young would look at us and hope they still had this degree of ‘it’ when they matured.

I headed out into the crowd, networked and made new friends. Even met a fantastic trendsetting and beautiful DJ known for her unique and outrageous fashion. Amy has already made a massive name for her Sink The Pink brand, and incidentally dates someone I knew when I was much younger and lived out in the provinces. He is cutting edge artist now.

I was really starting to believe that it’s distinguished to be a ‘displaced’ Boulevardier. I don’t need to wear clothes three sizes too small to be somewhat ahead of the pack. Those times have passed.

However with displacement came an early call for bed, and at 11.30pm my yawning had increased (been there since 7pm) and I decided to head home. As I exited the venue I rubbed shoulders with another of the moment Drag Queen DJ who just arrived to take to the decks. Unlike many of the young attendees I could afford more than the night bus, flagged down a black Hackney cab and headed back to the warmth and protection of Crouch End knowing that here I am the fashionista and Boulevardier combined.

TNW

You say tom-ate-o and I say tom-art-o

Arguments have long endured between the British and Americans concerning correct class, etiquette pronunciation and tradition.

I certainly held my sword aloft to this debate when I recently hosted a good friend Joe for a couple of weeks. He is American.

I quite happily quoted Downton Abbey, Tea With Mussolini and other worthy and valuable rules books at him when it suited my purpose.

Did not the Dowager Countess profess in Downton Abbey ‘You Americans never understand the importance of tradition.’

I somehow can’t remember Shirley MacLaine’s response.

I have a great greeting card which questions

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Cher was not invited to the picnic in Tea With Mussolini, as according to Maggie Smith, the ‘Americans simply don’t understand picnics’, and was criticised for buying a knickerbocker glory or ‘that American Monstrosity’. Maggie confirmed that ‘they (Americans) can even vulgarise ice cream!’

I love America and have spent significant time there over the years and enjoy immersing in their culture. However, they do get rather antsy when talking about tradition. Great Britain has been great for a long time and had opportunity to develop, enhance and refine tradition. Perhaps our friends from across the pond should look and learn.

Is the difference in language? We seem to speak the same words but in different order and with apparent misspelling (theirs).

From their fannies (our posteriors) to our fags, (their derogatory word for gays) to our vest (their undershirt or wifebeater), to our wifebeater (a slang term for Stella Artois lager). American vests are our waistcoats, and our braces their suspenders, and our suspenders their garter belts.

It’s no wonder conversations are oft difficult. It reminds me of spending afternoons drinking with a group of Glaswegian friends, whose accents grow stronger and they talk faster with each passing drink. After a short time I always hope I am nodding and smiling in the right places.

So I asked Joe for his 5 points of commentary on the differences or challenges he faced while in England. I will try and offer a suitable answer to each.

1)      Air-conditioning: Admittedly, I grew up in the Southern US and always seem to find myself living in places that are warm and muggy, except during the deep freeze of February. So, I like my air-conditioning. Unfortunately, the London Underground and other enclosed public spaces don’t seem to share my love of things cool. It’s about time that England joined the rest of us in the 21st century and condition the air supply. I’m not saying they have to crank the thermostat down to sub-arctic conditions, but a little cool air is refreshing when one is packed into a carriage with 100 other sweaty people. I was there in September, and that was bad enough. I can just imagine what it’s like at the peak of summertime with tourists so thick you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting 50 of them.

Boulevardier: It is rare that air conditioning is necessitated in the United Kingdom. For the few days a year when it would be useful we would rather protect our atmosphere rather than risk contributing to the ozone layer. But fear not Joe, we are always cool. Rest assured that our styling is carefully plucked and arranged to ensure cool at all times.

2)      Ice: Water, water everywhere, and nary a drop frozen. The US traveller will learn very soon to ask for “extra” ice in their drinks. Otherwise, you’ll just get a cube or two. I’m surprised pubs and the like haven’t caught on that there is less liquid poured into a glass that’s full of ice. Less liquid, higher profit margin; it’s simple economics.

Boulevardier: As a frequent visitor to the USA I am overwhelmed with the amount of ice in drinks. I can barely get to the drink sprinkled lightly between the ice cubes. Perhaps this is why Americans are quite quick to involve support organisations such as AA. I mean if you are able to actually get to the drink between the ice you must have a problem.

3)    Language: George Bernard Shaw purportedly said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Don’t even try to call out an Englishman when he’s made a grammatical gaffe; it’s a battle you will never win, even if you are correct. It is, after all, “their” language. I mean who cares if the major contributors to modern English were the Angles, Jutes, Danes, Norse, Romans, and French? Sadly, the original inhabitants’ Celtic has long been phased out of modern English vocabulary, with only traces of its syntax remaining. However, I digress.

The English know everything there is to know about their language; and other speakers of English from, say, the US (aka speakers of English as a foreign language) will never be able to comprehend the complex nature of the language. Just smile and nod.

Boulevardier: I think you make my argument quite succinctly. Unlike you and your fellow countrymen I do know when to keep quiet.

4) Tipping: Don’t tip in pubs, unless you have food. Round up to tip the cab driver unless he/she assists you with your bags, then it’s a pound per bag. Some restaurants include the tip on the bill, some don’t. Look, either do like the US where everyone sticks their hand out for money regardless of how much or how little service they have provided, irrespective of the quality, OR just do away with tipping all together. Who can remember all the rules for how much to tip because of convoluted tipping customs that would require a dissertation to explain?

Boulevardier: On this point I am happy to agree. Tipping here is confusing. Perhaps we should not have attempted to mimic your ways.

5) Public Transportation: I know I’ve been winging (that’s ‘complaining’ for you non-native speakers) about things I feel would improve England, but I have to say London’s public transport has got it right this time. Convenient, efficient, and for the most part, timely, London’s underground, rail, and bus service is on the mark. I never had to wait more than a few minutes for a train or bus, and it’s fairly simple to navigate. Although a bit pricier than public transport in the US, it’s well worth the little extra cost. I was never more than a few minutes’ walk from a station or stop. I think almost every major city in the US could learn a lesson from London, if they could only get that air-conditioning issue sorted out.

Boulevardier: Agreed. We agree on two of your five points. It was rather lovely when you even knew the times of the W7 bus to and from Crouch End. They come every few minutes so we natives just turn up and ride.

So the war is far from over and Americans may have size, voice and an air of entitlement but it’s no match for our class, style, tradition and age. All in my own humble opinion of course.

TNW

North Marine Drive

I waited outside the school gates for Heather at the beginning of lunchtime. It had been easier to coordinate lunch in the 3rd year as we were in the same set and had the same lessons. The 4th year was the start of our ‘O’ Level options and as we had chosen differently had to plan meeting up at breaks.

At registration that morning she had tantalised me with news that she had new music from her older super cool sister who was at University. We were predominantly listening to The Smiths and Simple Minds until Helen, the older sister, had introduced us to Freur and their electronic album Doot Doot. In the same vein I hoped the new music would be original and something off the wall.

Heather appeared and immediately passed her school books to me. Heather was a young lady and preferred to carry a small, impractical for school books, picnic basket which housed her hairbrush and make up. I didn’t mind as my bag was much bigger and I was stronger. We had been good friends for over a year after Heather dated one of my school friends. They split but we stayed friends.

We hurried the 10 minute walk to her parents’ house, and I retrieved my cheese sandwiches my mum had prepared that morning. Cheese was my preferred sandwich with prawn cocktail crisps, penguin and apple. I sometimes varied the cheese sandwich with cream cheese. Heather went into the lounge and hit play on the large silver coloured ghetto blaster.

Brass instruments hit my ears followed by a distinct jazzy beat, and then the silky voice of Tracey Thorn ‘If you ever feel the time, to drop me a loving line.’

WOW!

WOW!

This was jazz, and I liked The Smiths. But there was something so unique and so simple. I didn’t like jazz. It wasn’t cool, but this was something else. It sounded like jazz but as the tracks flowed it was clear that there was a darker sound to the voice. I needed to get a copy.

My new sound stayed with me through the day, and Heather had promised to make a copy for me that evening. I got Everything But The Girl’s album Eden on one side and Ben Watt’s solo album North Marine Drive on the other. It’s funny that we talk today about illegal downloads, but either recording from the radio or tape to tape copying was commonplace in the 1980s.

The beginning to Eden gets me every time, even to this day. It’s so powerful and pure, and transports me to a different place and time.

Ben’s solo album is more raw, and a collection of melancholic but picturesque (however bleak) tracks. As a somewhat morose teenager at times, this fitted perfectly and provided a companion (alongside Morrissey) to the problems and depressions associated with growing up.

I never got to see Ben Watt or Tracey Thorn live either individually or collectively as Everything But the Girl. Concerts weren’t so accessible then. In fact I didn’t go to concerts until I was in my early 20s. I was not in the know to find out about concerts and rarely read NME so didn’t see any EBTG concerts advertised. My Boulevardier qualities were in their infancy. EBTG were silent popstars. Today the words silent and popstar create an oxymoron. EBTG were not emblazoned across the front of every newspaper, falling out of clubs or selling their souls. They just made music.

So that was that! I still loved and consistently listened to particularly Eden and North Marine Drive. It was such a relief when these albums were released on CD. CDs were more durable, and every time I played the tapes I feared it would be their last.

Earlier this year, Ben Watt posted on Twitter that he was performing a couple of acoustic concerts, at small venues. These would be the first solo gigs of this nature since the early 1980s. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted tickets and booked two. I really wanted to ask whether he would be playing some of the older stuff, but I always sensed they were not sentimental and preferred not to look back. This was confirmed by Tracey Thorn earlier in the year when I asked her at her book reading about touring and playing some of the earlier ETBG material.

Ben asked on Twitter who was coming to the gigs, and I responded positively. Justin, my good friend who was coming with me, stated that he wasn’t sure what to wear. Ben replied saying ‘It’ll be hot, so keep it simple.’

Fashion advice from Ben Watt on Twitter.

I decided to keep it really simple and wore denim shorts, sandals and a Jimi Hendrix T shirt. I met Justin at Old Street underground station, and he was wearing a long sleeved, but thin, sweater, jeans and silver pointy shoes. He was also carrying a jacket. A Jacket! It was still about 24 degrees. I did have an H&M graffiti hoodie around my waist but a jacket. We laughed and joked as we bound along Old Street expectant of a great gig.

The venue, interestingly called The Venue is a downstairs room at The Slaughtered Lamb Public House in Clerkenwell. The pub itself is a large square room with a mish mash of aging leather sofas and unpolished wooden tables and chairs. Justin walked in and instantly greeted the barman. Was he a regular? No, it was a friend he didn’t know worked there!

After quenching our thirst on delicious wine and beer, respectively not subsequently, we walked downstairs to the Venue. Two heavy dark wood doors opened into a medium sized dark room. At one end was the bar and the performance area. This was not a stage as it was not raised. It actually looked like a guitar shop as there were 6 guitars all lined up ready for use, along with a mandolin, keyboard, mikes and amps. One solitary standard lamp rather frayed at the edges lit the corner. In front of the stage were a number of small stools, and we selected the second row. The Venue gradually filled and started to heat up. Ben was right with his advice! I wondered if Justin rued wearing a sweater. Both our jacket and hoodie were redundant and on the floor.

At just after 8.30 Ben appeared to applause. He didn’t bask in the applause and instead offered simple non-verbal gratitude and sat at the keyboard and shared one of his new tracks with us.

Wow! It was fantastic. The sound more mature than his early solo material, but still full of emotion. His voice still as unique and haunting as it ever was.

Someone called Bernard joined him to play on a few tracks. Ben joked that Bernard hadn’t had time to learn them all. I wasn’t aware at the time but this was Bernard Butler from 90s fame and acclaim.

Ben warmed up and as he did engaged more and explained his journey back to music. He hadn’t written any new tracks for a number of years and was suddenly hit by inspiration earlier in the year. It was good to know that even the great and successful artists found it difficult to write when consumed with other projects. I have previously written here that my passion for the commercial world stifled and stunted my create writing. I am working hard at redressing this balance.

Ben hinted that if he was brave enough he would play a few of his old tracks. My excitement intensified. Was I really going to hear live interpretations of some of the sounds of my youth.

Ben continued playing some beautiful new tracks, mostly with the same gloom and angst present throughout his early work. Songs such as Golden Ratio, The Levels, Nathaniel we will always love you, and Bricks and Wood, or was it Wood and Bricks, spring to mind.

Ben announced that he had not played the next track to an audience in over 30 years. As soon as the first few melancholy plucked notes hit my ears, I knew we were in for the treat that is Walter and John.

Ben then played Somethings Don’t Matter and North Marine Drive, which are two of my favourite tracks from his North Marine Drive album. Ben forgot some words halfway through North Marine Drive, but it really didn’t matter. It felt like we were sharing a journey with him, and in doing so he was fulfilling my journey which started with these tracks over 30 years ago. This evening was a precious moment in time.

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The temperature in the room was akin to a sauna, but it somehow didn’t matter.

After a few more new tracks and a keyboard version of On Box Hill Ben’s first solo concert in over 30 years was over, and an amazing success. He even quipped that it wasn’t as tough as he had expected! And that he would be in the studio from September and hoped to release some new material next spring.

Ben came back into the room after the concert and it gave me a chance to say thank you in person.

A fantastic evening coupling a trip down remembrance avenue and some new fantastic material.

TNW

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