An Obsolete Guide To London

Tonight I tackle the residual flotsam from my recent encounter with London. There’s unpacking and laundry to deal with – a mere 2 weeks after my return – and travel things to file in the places where I file my travel things. Amidst this paraphernalia – a tourist guide that I picked up on impulse. On the whole it delivered the goods but I’ve had many over the years and they are a mixed bag sometimes stating the head-bashingly obvious, other times insightful and on occasion just plain lacking.

Aside from being instantly out of date, one of the problems with guide books is that they try (and fail) to be all things to all people. With a 3G phone in hand you can get personalised travel information on the fly and I wonder whether the printed article has any future when it’s up against the continuously updated, google-map-toting reference called the Internet. Want to know what’s on this week – go to an events website. Need a hotel recommendation, check out TripAdvisor. Want a local up-to-the-minute view on what’s going on in your postcode – check out a Twitter feed.

So time is running out for static reference guides and I reckon that once augmented reality kicks in and becomes as ubiquitous as Google Street View then it’s all over. The death of the guide book is nigh – AARRRGGHHHH!!!

Actually this is a GOOD thing for number of reasons:

  • Rather then join a queue of American tourists all holding the same book as they wait to be ripped off by a restaurant that became a pastiche just after it got a good review 2 years ago, you might instead find yourself acting on impulse and discovering somewhere genuine, fresh and exciting.
  • All of those smug types that landed “jobs” on TV travel shows testing 5 star hotels in Sydney will have to find proper employment. I can live with the thought of Judith Chalmers, Eamonn Holmes and Carol “but what exactly do you do?” Smillie having to pay for their next holiday.
  • Real time mobile phone based travel advice is marginally cheaper than the printed alternatives.

All of which makes my personal travel guide to London truly pointless I think you will agree…

 About London

London – it’s huge. I mean you may think it’s a long way to the shops but that’s nothing. Look, there’s a lot of stuff there. Here are some photo’s that tell you everything and nothing about this great city.

One City – Many Outlooks

Rainy, with occasional breaks for fog, interspersed with fake cockney accented chimney sweeps.

I can vouch for the rain. During my visit there were times when it was unclear where the land started and the Thames ended.
 When to go

The City of London blooms perennially, except for an awkward shifty week in the new year after the sales have finished. Festive debris awaits collection on so many street corners, cultural attractions close for refurbishment and it’s a period of introspection before Chinese New Year brings the party back to life.

On the 13th day of Christmas...
On the 13th day of Christmas…
Guess when I went…
 Getting There

The train remains the least objectionable mode of arrival unless you have left it late to book, in which case prepare to extend your mortgage. Book long enough in advance and first class fares are well worth the extra, but only on weekdays when you can enjoy complimentary coffee and biscuits while you surf via the free WiFi connection. At weekends a surly attendant points out that “nothing is free today mate”, “there’s no WiFi on this service” and “the toilets are blocked, you’ll have to try the next carriage”.

If you are unlucky you also may find yourself opposite a middle aged woman from Sheffield who, incapable of not verbalising every sodding trivial thought that enters her head for over 2 hours, will either drive you to violence or – as in the case of her lobotomised husband – subdued resignation.
 Getting Around

They key to travel in this metropolis is the Oyster Card. It’s not just for locals and with it you can swipe your way across the entire transport network and even buy goods in some corner stores. An added bonus – you look less of a tourist.

That'll do nicely
That’ll do nicely

The Tube is usually the best way to cover longer distances quickly, outside peak hours at least.

Curiously I discovered that many regular commuters are unaware of other travel options in the capital when our train broke down and we were forced to leave at Monument and make alternative travel arrangements. Some of these suit clad clones emerged from their native subterranea for the first time, rubbing their eyes in the virgin light like some escapees from The Matrix.

They looked lost and bewildered as they jabbered final goodbye messages into mobile phones to loved ones in the certain knowledge that their intended destination (Bank – 600 yards away) must be 5 days walk overground and they would surely not survive.

Underground movement
Underground movement

Travel on the London Underground provides the opportunity to look out for some of the personalities encountered therein, including:

  • The “first time in London, or indeed out of the village“. This wide eyed traveller will check the route map every 20 seconds, try to leave from the wrong side and perhaps offer one of their party as human sacrifice to the great underground serpent god. They may even break the golden rule and TALK TO A STRANGER, for which the consequences are unimaginable…
  • The “My commute is so long I have no idea where I am”, typified by an epic thumb worn novel that will transfix them until their regional train guides them home to St Albans in 3 hours time.
  • The “DO NOT INVADE MY PERSONAL SPACE” lady who clutches her handbag on her lap, stares jaw tensed at an empty space and flinches involuntarily as another human being sits next to her in the packed compartment. Once home she will sob while scrubbing herself clean for 90 minutes in the bath.

For shorter distances the bus service is almost certainly a better bet. You are never far from a bus stop and clear signage tells you which services go where and there are local street maps to help you when you get to your destination. Some buses even serve food.

Queuing for the bus was never this good
Queuing for the bus was never this good

Did somebody mention walking? It remains the best way to get around this city if you want the journey to be as educational as the destination. Despite rumours to the contrary the streets are not paved with gold.

On a final note a network of bicycle hire hubs has mushroomed up around the city. You can hire a bike for peanuts if you only need it for short periods of time.


London hotels come in three classes:

  • Expensive and shockingly poor
  • Reassuringly expensive and anger inducingly mediocre
  • Eye wateringly expensive and plush, but you could have flown to California for the same money

Never pay the advertised room rate and use every online resource to take the fight back to these complacent behemoth hotel chains.

Once you have found your room, realised that your key card doesn’t worked, got the lift back to reception, queued up at reception to get it fixed and returned to your room again the first thing you need to do is liberate the bed sheets. They will have been surgically welded into the mattress and if you don’t free them now your drunken return later will degenerate into a losing tussle as you wriggle around in bed trying to escape the straightjacket.

Speaking of lifts if you are staying in a Travelodge like I did you will notice that they are made out of kitchen foil. I’m not making this up, when you press a button the whole side panel crinkles. This probably explains why only 1 of the 3 lifts in my hotel were working during my 5 night stay.

This is in keeping with their Ryanair style bare basics approach to “service”. For instance there is a self check-in booth at reception. Breakfast is not included in the room rate. Nor for that matter is soap, a hairdryer or any of the frippery one normally finds in a hotel room. I would be entirely happy with this except that the room is no cheaper and you are surrounded by posters trying to put a positive spin on the tight fistedness. The ability to pick up an iron and ironing board at reception, perhaps en-route to the cocktail bar, is presented as some kind of groundbreaking service.


You are going to need this. There’s clubs, pubs, restaurants, theatres all just waiting to drag you off the streets and relieve you of your hard earned cash. And did I mention the shops? They’re the worst.

This way please
This way please

Resistance is not only futile but also dull.


Avoid the large chains. JUST DON’T DO IT! If you get a bad meal in London you really have got it wrong. There’s a huge variety of fresh international food on offer to cater for office workers who won’t accept getting fleeced for a poor lunch. If it’s somewhere fancy you want to go in the evening check out TripAdvisor and then hit a recommended venue for the fixed price early evening menu.

And don’t judge a book by its cover. I had a fabulous and cheap Mexican wrap at this innocuous place about 50 yards from a packed and expensive looking Jamie’s Fifteen in Moorgate. I would not have swapped on this particular occasion.

El Pukka!
El Pukka!

This really isn’t as easy as it might sound, at least not if you enjoy Real Ale. Expensive fizzy lager froths uncontrollably out of the over-stylised bars to be found in every street but there’s a distinct lack of substance. Many of the pubs that begrudgingly concede counter space for real ale only do so for some predictable or average weasle brew. You are on Fullers home turf and the ubiquitous London Pride is quality but no substitute for variety. There are traditional old boozers serving real ale to real punters but you have to hunt them out.

The Old Fountain in Moorgate is one such gem. Nobody wearing a suit, no tourists (apart from me) and Art Brew Blackcurrant Stout. The balance restored.

Blackcurrant Stout!
Blackcurrant Stout!

Also don’t rule out alternative venues. I stumbled upon a wonderful place called The Camp

Camping it up
Camping it up

…with funky people, music, WiFi, comfy sofas and a damn fine mug of tea. This venue is in stark contrast to the nearby city pubs and cafes that buzzed with corporate type during the week but literally closed up at the weekend since their clientele weren’t around. Confusing for visitors like me but a great time to film that zombie movie.


Whatever you are into this city has it in great abundance and variety. The numbers are hard to fathom. There are a staggering 50 theatres in the West End and another 50 in London as a whole. If museums are your thing there are 250 and that’s not including the smaller galleries. Professional Football clubs – 13, Markets – over 60, music venues – who knows?

One common theme wherever you go is the precession of tourists fumbling ineffectually with expensive cameras. Altitudinous megapixels, state of the art sensor arrays, high quality optics and specialised picture modes all nullified at the hands of clueless point and clickers. On no account accept an invitation to a friends house to see photos from their London visit. Disappointment awaits.

With so much going on at any time London presents many opportunities for those turning up without a set plan, not just those with a clear itinerary in mind. Here for instance is a timeline of my Saturday evening that pretty much unfolded before me…

A twitter announcement tells me of an impromptu Thomas Truax appearance in Dalston so I book a ticket for the event online.

  • Arrival at the venue: The very wonderful Old Boys Club in a Dalston side street.
  • Thomas plays a great set to a variously startled/dumbfounded audience of media student types that are here for the main event (see below). I just love the reaction of an unfamiliar crowd!
  • Future Shorts entails the screening of 9 engrossing short films. There’s humour, pathos, drama, nerdiness and pain old entertainment. Personal favourites Heartland Transport, Kitchen and Homemade Spacecraft.
  • After meeting some great people and a good long chat with Thomas (he offers me a lift home – you don’t get that from Dave Grohl after a gig) I tag along with Guilia and Tajona who are headed for a very different club
  • Guilia arranges entry to the illicit venue by phone in advance – no entry unless you are on the list. It’s all distinctly dodgy but once inside the anonymous warehouse there’s the nicest bunch of people you could hope to meet chatting, chilling and getting down.
  • When my batteries are empty the regular N76 night bus picks me up and deposits me back in Finsbury square without any fuss or drama.

The future is bright
The future is bright

My old club
My old club

Make a wish...
Make a wish…

The ceiling's the limit
The ceiling’s the limit

My new club
My new club

Tonight offers proof (if proof were needed) that you have the most fun when you go with the moment – and take the guide books with a pinch of salt.


So there you have it – an already obsolete guide to London. Now ignore it and go and do your own thing.

The Machine Beautiful

It’s a grim rainy Saturday. There’s not much you can do with a day like this. Fortunately the events of Friday evening have left me in credit and so I’m sat in Quad with a coffee this afternoon recalling last nights entertainment, impervious to the days depressive qualities.There’s so much to say about last nights epic CogMachine charity event at Derby’s Bar 1 that I’m loath to attempt a comprehensive review as I will fail to do everyone justice or adequately describe all of the performances. Instead here’s a brief selective interpretation of the light and sound that made it as far as my noggin.

A quick disclaimer – my photos are mostly crap because the low sunlight at the start of the gig ruined the light balance on-stage, while later on the consistent low light resulted in high noise levels in the pictures. I may also have confused the chronology of events. And the facts. So as long as you aren’t too bothered about words or pictures this blog’s for you. Don’t act surprised – you must have read my stuff before…

The early birds to Bar 1’s rather unique covered outdoor performance area were privileged to see The Three Tenors kick off proceedings with some atypical pop material. There is a level of suspicion about the true identity of this super yet somehow normal trio. Crucially it’s a sign that I need to drink a lot more beer for this evening to start making any sense.

The Super Normals?
The Super Normals?

Next on – Neon Sky for their first performance as a 5-piece since recruiting a new drummer and bassist. They sound as if they have been playing as a unit for years and they deliver some fine songs new and old worthy of a headline billing before too long. I have special admiration for Kev on bass who wears a truly massive iron cog around his neck for the entire set without missing a note but is presumably feeling a tad stiff today.

Neon Sky
Neon Sky

The place is starting to fill up and newcomers are being gently persuaded to buy tickets for the Raffle Of Shame by the resplendently attired Ms Mischief. A myriad of embarrassing object de tat mostly donated by people on condition of anonymity obscures a trestle table – imagine a jumble sale in Room 101 and you are in the ballpark. People crowd around to pick out the items they most covet in the event of their number being called in the draw later on. There are also some extra-terrestrial looking cakes for sale.

Sweet temptations

I’m in and out of the bar area chatting, restocking my pint glass with Buddy (named after Bar 1’s infamous resident pooch) but manage to catch most of the evenings recitals from the spoken word line-up. There’s an intimate recital from talented local writer Aimee Wilkinson that captures you in the moment, a fun and punchy poem about men from charismatic Mo Pickering and then professional storyteller Simon Heywood grasped the audience in his hand with a tall tale from Ireland.

Somehow I have managed to miss the evenings top billed wordsmith Mark Gwynne-Jones. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? Was I chatting too long at the bar?

The words have met with a full stop for the evening and musicians return to the stage. Oh dear – I’m really not giving the acts the attention they deserve but I can tell you that Richard (Biff) Birkin did some very chilled things with a guitar hooked up to a some electronic gubbins via foot pedals while “woodland folk musicians” The Face That Boils Itself delivered a set that matched their nomenclature defying name in it’s avoidance of any usefully recognised genre. I think I need to hear them again – especially if they bring along the much talked about wood saw to accompany the double bass. Do they do woodwork on stage? How does this work exactly?

The evening is nothing if not eclectic in terms of the spectrum of performances, but there’s a rich seam of artistic talent that shines through from first to last. I’m in fear of reaching a point in the evening when what I’m seeing and hearing starts to make sense, because then I’m in real trouble.

It’s not all mayhem or madcap – there is some welcome sanity in the form of enormously talented singer songwriter Jo Lewis. I’m captivated. Like all the best musicians she does the simple things so well. There’s an album in the pipeline and if it captures the essence of tonight’s performance it can only be a success.

Jo Lewis
Jo Lewis

The Super Normals are reprised for a few home grown comedy numbers that go down well with the increasingly populous audience. There’s an assault on Paul McCartney that is pure Half Man Half Biscuit and a rumbustious Cockney square-up. As my partner in grime tonight @Walkerama observes it’s crying out to be an Edinburgh Fringe act. I don’t know though, they just need a little more confidence on stage…

And now – the much awaited Raffle Of Shame. I can’t under-state how much effort and love a number of people have poured into organising this event but even so I hope nobody would begrudge me for singling out Ms Mischief who has worked tirelessly for five months to bring everything together so successfully. The Raffle Of Shame is a case in point. In fact it is the point really since this will bring in the majority of funds collected tonight for MacMillan Cancer Relief.

There is a flurry of number calling, people scrum around the table to get first grabs on the many precious things. Some lucky punter walks away with part of a costume worn by The Fonz when he did panto a while back.

It’s mixed news for Neon Sky. Guitarist Matt is (a little too) overjoyed to claim a Billy Ocean single (when the going gets tough) on vinyl. He is undeterred by the fact he doesn’t own a turntable. Before anybody asks, the B-Side has an instrumental version of the A-Side. This sort of ephemera is sadly lost on the post-vinyl generation. Meanwhile vocalist Jo misses out on the Spirograph she had repeatedly begged for during their earlier set. Them’s the rules missy – tis but a game of chance.

It’s my turn to visit the tresle table. There’s only one choice. The fools before me missed it but I know it’s there. One strives for literary fulfillment. In England the tourists flock to “Shakespeares County” and I can only presume the borderline to California is way-marked with “Pammy’s State” signs.

Almost everyone has a novel in them...
Almost everyone has a novel in them…

It’s a novel by Pamela Anderson. Keep reading the previous sentence – it won’t make any more sense. Of course, when I say “Pamela Anderson” I mean her ghost-writer, presumable so-titled because something terrible happened to him and his soul is now forever trapped in between this writing assignment and the next.

An example of the attention to detail that has gone into the event: Each raffle item is accompanied by a brilliant Certificate Of Provenance that documents the physical dimensions of shame (241 x 160 x 30mm) the Gauge of Shame (15 out of 10) and a description (“A novel, no Really a novel by Pamela Anderson”). Not only has this documentation been painstakingly crafted by Ms Mischief but it has then been personally verified by independent arbitrator Aimee Wilkinson.

Provenance of shameAs it happens I have a pocket full of raffle tickets and few more of my numbers get drawn but why would I return to the table? It can’t get any better after all.

The evening is about to reach its climax. Thomas Truax has been part of the crowd so far this evening. Heaven only knows what he has thought of some of the sights & sounds so far although in truth any man that makes his own band members out of bike wheels and TV-aerials probably isn’t going to be phased by anything. I did have a brief chat to him earlier and he said he was enjoying the evening. He also said he recognised me from my Sidewalk Café blog (I promoted tonights gig in a former Truax venue in Manhattan a couple of weeks back) and he was tactful enough not to ask why I did it. Or maybe it all seemed reasonable. Who knows…

The stage is set and Thomas opens with one of his classic tracks “Prove it to my daughter” courtesy of his Hornicator.

The Hornicator
The Hornicator

It’s clear that some people in the audience know what to expect and are loving it while others are just trying to take it all in.

Party PeopleOther home made instruments featuring tonight include the Cadillac Beatspinner, Scary Aerial, the BackBeater and the Stringaling.

Cadillac BeatspinnerI’m not even going to try and describe these other than to say he manages to coax viable music out of them. Sometimes it’s funny (eg: Inside The Internet, Why Dogs Howl) other times it’s soulful (I put a spell on you). He is a performer in the truest sense and thinks nothing of running through the crowd with his guitar unplugged to perform Full Moon Over Wowtown. Once you are over the sensory overload you realise his act is not just steampunk gimmickry but he writes and performs exquisitely.

Thomas playing - a guitar?!He must be on stage for a good hour and he winds up with a great new-ish track Bee Hive Heart which takes surreal to a whole new level.

Thomas Truax - he does things differentlyOnce again it’s genius and the appreciative crowd applaud accordingly. Afterwards he is generous with his time chatting to anybody who wants to talk. In a final act of selflessness he contributes the profits from his album sales tonight to the charity pot – this from a headline act that has performed for free on the night.

Some time later as he heads out the door there is a general consensus that he needs to be rebooked as a matter of urgency. People will gladly pay to see him and it would be great to have him back.

The evening isn’t quite over for me. I’m introduced to the still remorseful previous owner of Pammy’s novel. Such is its shamefulness that she feels it necessary to explain herself. She didn’t buy the book – it was given to her. Now she has passed it on and naturally she doesn’t want anybody to know about her sordid secret. I open the cover and sure enough there are scribblings inside to prove it was indeed an uninvited gift. Don’t worry – your secret is safe with me Alessandra.

One final twist awaits me as I head towards the exit at 2am. A gentleman by the bar is wearing with some pride a badge he acquired in the raffle.

Tims shameful contributionIt’s one I contributed and I explain that I picked it up two weeks ago from a flea-market in Hells Kitchen, New York. You see, my conscience really is clear because I bought it intentionally for the raffle. Oh dear – it seems now I’m also trying to justify my actions. Time for a swift exit.

A walk on the wild side

Why doesn’t my head hurt more? I’m not complaining. That said, I am a little run down and the rain is steadily dampening my enthusiasm to go anywhere.

Tea and a bagel at what is a populous Amrita this morning. The usual eclectic bunch of souls are here meeting up, working or breakfasting. I’m earwigging four people by the front door. There’s a Hollywood actress who I think I recognise but can’t name, plus a film director. They are probably C-list but its another indication of the mix of people who call this neighbourhood home.

The morning comes and goes. It would be easy to spend the rest of the day on a tea drip working my way through the cookie selection but the big city awaits and I hate to miss an appointment.

Fast forward to the early afternoon in a grisly damp Lower East Side. This is one of the older areas of Manhattan that provided squalid living to early immigrants coming into the city. Today the area still has a working class feel to it. There’s a mix of retail and dining in the area with a number of Jewish businesses in evidence and a puzzling quantity of hat shops. Amidst the more affordable shops there are some really exclusive boutiques selling high end clothes and accessories. The sort of places where if they sell a pair of socks the manager puts up the “closed” sign, locks up and jets off to the Bahamas for a week with the proceeds.

My stroll up to East Village has a subplot. You see I am on a rather curious and arguably pointless mission of sorts. Right up my street then. I home in on the Sidewalk Café which has a significant place in musical history as a focal point for the Antifolk movement. One of the noted performers during this period was New York musician Thomas Truax who is reknown for his unusual artistic style plus the fact he makes and plays a bizarre range of instruments. Here’s a sample of his genius on YouTube.

Thomas is based in the UK now and he is performing at the CogMachine charity gig in Derby on Friday 28th May with proceeds going to MacMillan Cancer Support (please do attend – there’s a genuinely amazing line-up and it’s going to be a great evening of entertainment – plug plug). Anyway, the notion of plugging his appearance at the venue where he cut his teeth appealed to my surreal side and so here I am on a wet afternoon in a semi deserted café/bar with a poster for the Derby gig.

Tim about to flypost the Sidewalk Cafe
Tim about to flypost the Sidewalk Cafe

The venue has real presence and I sneak into the back room where the stage sits and take a few photos, though I’m not really supposed to be there. Just for good measure I leave the poster on display on the piano on the offchance somebody is tempted to jump on a plane and see him in Derby.

This sign is actually on the ceiling
This sign is actually on the ceiling
Mission accomplished
Mission accomplished

Mission accomplished it’s back to the streets. It’s 3:30pm, I’ve only had an apple at noon and I’m ravenous. But if I eat now that’s neither lunch or tea. Dilemma! I resolve to poke around the streets for a couple of hours before eating and get a measure of the East Village. And what of this suburb? It is an area for music, artists and above all, attitude. I sense that much of the “attitude” on display is commercially motivated by businesses wanting to cash in on the local brand but there’s a few genuinely rough feeling punk shops and grungy bars.

East Village attitude
East Village attitude
This, surprisingly, is a functioning bar
This, surprisingly, is a functioning bar
East Village shop front
East Village shop front

In amidst the manufactured hype sits the real thing, tucked away down a side street. McSorleys Ale House is the most famous tavern in the city. This Irish drinkery has a long and notorious history and by all accounts it hasn’t changed from the old days other than reluctantly admitting women to the bar after a long enforced ban. Even the landlady didn’t used to be allowed in the pub during trading hours.

The infamous McSorleys Ale House
The infamous McSorleys Ale House

By now I have eeked out time long enough to call the next meal tea and I have another iconic New York establishment up my sleeve. This time it’s Katz’s deli (where they filmed “that scene” in “When Harry Met Sally”). It reeks of atmosphere despite being a major tourist draw and I have to submit to the classic gargantuan pastrami sandwich.


My life span diminishes slightly in the face of a processed meat and cholesterol overdose but what the hell.

Katz Deli
Katz Deli

It’s still grotty out and I haven’t the willpower to trudge around any more so a low key evening should enable me to catch up on the sleep I’m still owed from last night. The B train takes me all the way uptown and it’s an informative journey spent listening to a couple of MTA workers talking about the redundancies proposed by the city in a much reported bid to save costs. Public transport here is as educational as it is transportational.