After spending an hour trying to book a table for three at any half-decent
London restaurant, I gave up and got the train down from Sheffield on Thursday
evening. I guess I ought to know better than to leave it so late to book lunch
for the Friday before Christmas.
was meeting Jim and some of his artist friends. The plan was that we’d visit
a couple of private views, talk through some FAD stuff, trying to hammer together
some kind of artistic manifesto and also working out some of the practicalities
of displaying and selling art online. We never got very far with the private
views – just visited some gallery/set of studios just off Kingsland Road, they
were showing video art but Jim didn’t seem to keen and I didn’t watch more than
a few seconds of it, so couldn’t really judge. Outside we met Wayne and Phil,
who both work at the V&A as… I dunno the official term, but art handlers
and installers, from what Jim says they’re both among the best in the business,
and their skills will come in handy both for the art shows we’re planning, and
also for sending art around the world once we get the online gallery running.
Both of them also make their own art, which FAD will be exhibiting.
We adjourned to a bar in an alley/driveway off Curtain Road, and started pontificating.
Everything opened up very quickly, and it felt like a really productive evening.
We came up with yet another acronym for FAD – Fine Art Discussion. As part of
our spirit of openness and non-art-snobbiness, we all agreed that we didn’t
like the idea of criticism – apart from the obvious negative connotations of
criticising something, the whole practice reeks too much of highbrow I-know-better-than-you-ism.
We want a context where it’s OK to admit to ignorance, it’s OK to talk about
all aspects of a work without feeling embarassed, it’s OK for an artist to admit
they have no idea why they did something the way they did. We want to start
conversations, rather like art-school crits where students talk about one another’s
work, rather than dictating opinions.
We moved on to talking about shows – as well as our main show next year, where
we will exhibit the ten FAD artists, we want to hold an open… something like
the Royal Academy Open show, only much, much more so. Something WIDE open. Call
it the Very Open Open for now. The price of admission is one piece of art, which
you can then nail up as part of the expanding exhibition. Perhaps at the end
we’ll auction the whole lot off as one job lot, for charity or something.
We talked on and on, kept throwing up more ideas and egging one another on.
Then Wayne and Phil had to leave – Wayne still had work to do that evening,
and Phil had to somehow find/make three costumes for the staff pantomime (Mother
Goose) he was appearing in at the V&A the next day. Jim and I strolled down
to Liverpool Street to get some money out, then decided to go for one quick
drink before turning in for the night. We went to Catch bar at 22 Kingsland
Road. Bouncers made us wait outside for 60 seconds just to demonstrate their
power, then we went in and got drinks. We took them upstairs, where some good
music was playing (The Strokes?) and a couple of people were dancing around
at the back. I felt like joining in – I’ve hardly danced at all in the last
few years (except for the exeptional moshing I got up to when The Electric Shocks
played Amsterdam) and I was feeling so up that dancing seemed an appropriate
way to celebrate. I shuffled around a bit, swung my limbs here and there, but
Jim was getting restless. There were only a couple of blokes dancing with us,
and he said he wanted to dance somewhere where there were women (there were
women, lots of them, lining the bar, but apparently Jim wanted to see women
dancing). We headed back downstairs, where the music wasn’t quite as good, the
bar and dance area was far more packed, and there were indeed a lot of women
dancing. I tranced out for probably an hour or two, dancing away in my own little
world, eyes closed most of the time. Most of the women seemed to be there with
men, but I wasn’t in the least bothered, I was dancing for myself only. I saw
Jim chatting to a couple of the guys, and was happy to see that they seemed
to be getting on so well.
Then I went to the toilet, where I bumped into a couple of the guys who’d been
near us, queuing for the cubicle. I told them to go ahead and take their coke
there and then, don’t mind me. Everything seemed very friendly. Then, as I came
out of the toilet, Jim grabbed me and said "let’s go". We squeezed
quickly through the crowd and then, once outside, Jim took off in a run down
the street. I caught up with him and asked what was up. He said "didn’t
you see those guys? We were about to get beaten up."
"The ones who were dancing all around us, about ten of them." It turned
out he meant the people he’d been chatting to, the people I’d met in the toilet.
"They’re from Lewisham", he offered as an explanation.
I was stunned. How had I missed this? Was Jim being totally paranoid, or was
I being totally ignorant? I admit I’d had my eyes closed for most of the night,
and my dancing, never quite conventional and always rather self-conscious, even
in my freest moments of spasmody, could easily have pissed people off if they
were looking for something to be pissed off about. But all the same, the vibe
I’d felt had been definitely friendly. Perhaps I was just interpreting the situation
in light of my own ebullient mood. "Are you sure they wanted to
"They’re from Lewisham."
"But… you were talking to one of them, it all seemed very friendly."
"No, I dunno. He said to me ‘it’s not just you, it’s you’re mate.’ They’re
It put a bit of a downer on the evening. To find out that my self-consciousness
while dancing was totally justified, gnawed into my self-esteem. I didn’t feel
quite so ebullient. But I let it pass, nothing was going to damage my mood that
much. We went back to Jim’s and carried on chatting into the night. Finally,
at about 3am, I crashed out on the sofa.
The next morning I was a little hungover, but I knew that a few minutes of fresh
air and walking would soon ventilate my head. I strode out of Dalston, towards
the West End where I was due to meet Mark in a couple of hours. I planned a
stop-off near Smithfied Market for breakfast – I thought I’d have something
meaty, and I might as well get it from the source. Got to the market, walked
all the way around inspecting every eatery, from greasy caff to Michelin starred
restaurant (I was also still on the lookout for somewhere to have lunch with
Mark and Josh). Finally, my plans were amended by a vegetarian restaurant just
towards Farringdon. I spotted the array of lush salads in the window, and couldn’t
resist. So I plonked myself in there for about an hour, slowly grazing on my
food, hoovering up a freshly juiced mix of carrot, apple and ginger, and getting
my mind up to speed by immersing myself in a few pages of A Rebours. I was served
by a chirpy, friendly be-spectacled East End geezer, who reminded me a little
of Phil.Afterwards I asked him if they had a toilet – he directed me to the staff
one, but there was someone in it. So he pointed me at another staff toilet,
downstairs through what must be the staff changing area (what’s that on the
floor amongst the pile of clothes? Looks like some kind of S&M harness,
all leather and spikes). That one was locked too. I tum-te-tahed upstairs for
a while, waiting for somebody to finish vacating their bowels as the Phil-geezer
apologised repeatedly for the inconvenience. Finally the cubicle was free, I
squeezed through the kitchen, past the sexy rake-thin Italianate woman with
bleached hair and piercings, presumably the owner of the S&M clothing. In
the toilet I remembered the toothbrush and toothpaste I’d bought that morning,
having forgotten to pack mine, and gave my furry mouth a brush out for good
Change of plan, I decided to meet Mark in South Kensington, as Josh was in that
part of town. I hopped on a tube at Holborn, and emerged into our old stomping
grounds. I dreamt of re-visiting some of the restaurants that were home-from-home
when we’d worked at Leo Burnett’s. I wonder whether the terse but immensely
likeable Scottish waiter was still working at The Crescent? As it was South
Kensington, there was really only one place to meet up, The Cod, which really
was more of an office than our office when we’d worked in those parts. I arrived
there at 11.30, and remembered that they have a very good restaurant out the
back, I’d only eaten there a couple of times but hadn’t been disappointed, and
their langoustine risotto, eaten on a very hungover stomach in the company of
the two female slaves I’d purchased at Leo Burnett’s valentine’s slave auction,
was a very warm, happy memory – my own personal embodiment of comfort food.
I asked the barman hesitantly… "I don’t suppose there’s any chance of
a table for three this lunch time?"
"I’ll just go and ask."
(No chance, I told myself).
He came back, "yes, no problem, 12.30ish OK?" Wow, could it really
be that simple, after all the time and effort I’d spent telephoning what seemed
like every eatery in London the previous day.
Mark arrived, and then Josh. We all lined our stomachs with Guinness before
moving over to our table and ordering. I wanted white wine, Mark red. "But
we’re eating lamb, and you’re having duck, it has to be red" he said as
he ordered a bottle of Fleurie.
"Oh but… we’re all having seafood to start. White wine would go with
"Why not have both", suggested Josh. Hell, yes, why not – it is Christmas
after all. I called the waitress back and asked her to bring us a bottle of
We tucked in; I had ordered the same langoustine risotto that held such fond
memories, as my starter. Josh had the same, while Mark had deep-fried squid
rings with some kind of sweet chilli sauce. The risotto was every bit as good
as in my memory. I savoured each grain to its floury core.
My main course was duck breast, served in a jus with a mini-gratin of sweet
potato. The duck was, again, not quite as tender as the one I cooked myself
the other week, so unexpectedly succesfully, but it was a hell of a lot better
than the one we had in Richmond. The gratin was scrummy. And we had some side
dishes – carrots, celery, spinach, courgette, sugar-snap peas and broccoli.
Then for dessert… I really wasn’t going to have a dessert, but I was enjoying
myself so much, it seemed perverse to interrupt the flow of the meal like that.
I absolutely couldn’t choose between the amazing sounding dishes on offer, so
I asked Mark to select something for me. He ordered a double-chocolate something
or other, very much like Nigella Lawson’s sticky chocolate pudding (which I’m
sure I’ve mentioned before, and which I’m cooking for my family as part of Christmas
dinner). There was a scoop of vanilla ice-cream with it, absolutely essential
for food this gooey, warm and chocolatey, and a squizzle of rasberry sauce.
Josh woudln’t let us get away without a round of digestifs. In fact, as it turned
out Josh wouldn’t let us get away without two rounds of digestifs. Josh and
Mark both had Janneau, while I had a kummel for old time’s sake. I would have
preferred not to have had two kummels, a bit too sticky and cloying, but Josh
re-ordered behind our backs, so two kummels I got. It was definitely at this
point that I moved from being merely merry to a more pissed loss of self control,
a slight wobbliness.
We went back into the pub area, where we bumped into a few old friends from
Leo Burnett’s who we’d not seen these past two years. Madonna and Fern were
there, with a bunch of new(er) people. We chatted away and joined them in drinking
white wine. I bumped into Paul from IT, but only got to say a too brief how-are-you-doing.
We dragged Henry over – we’d been due to introduce him to Trevor at Century
that afternoon, but things didn’t work out, so Mark thought we’d introduce him
to Josh instead. Good seeing him, but rather brief as he was en route to Clapham.
We’d planned to spend the evening at Kirsten’s party, but the tickets hadn’t
arrived in time and Mark had no way of getting hold of her, so we called Andy
from Vice, always a good source for inspired madness of an evening. We were
about to catch a cab to Shoreditch, when I realised that Josh and Tors would
be driving that way en route to Suffolk, so we blagged a lift.
The evening from this point gets a little fuzzy. We wandered around trying to
find the Vice offices – asked several confused people if they knew where Lennox
Street was, until we rang Andy again and discovered it’s actually called Leonard
Street. We went up to the offices to find Andy alone in the corner, huddled
over his laptop. Something was wrong, he wasn’t the ebullient exuberant epicentre
of fun that he’d always been when we saw him in the past. Turns out his girfriend
had left him – strange to think of Andy, who can and does have his choice of
women, who gives the impression of being devoutly promiscuous, being so cut
up over this loss. It was both touching and depressing to see.
We finally left the office, and went to the Lord Nelson, but Mark did a Mark
and veered off home as we got there. I went inside with Andy and we met two
Canadian brothers – I felt out of place for the first time in this trip, a bit
too pissed to summon up any conversational flair, a bit awkward. But I kept
up my corner, and gradually our little group grew and grew until closing time
when we piled outside to find somewhere else to drink. We ended up further along
Old Street in some new bar. Inside it was like a barn: huge, lined with rough
wooden planks and full to bursting with deafening music. The barn metaphor was
continued by the fact that the place felt like a cattle market. There was a
definite frisson of boys looking for girls and girls looking for boys for some
Friday night fun. I felt even more out of place until a woman, Jo, came and
plonked herself next to me, thrust her face up close to mine and started talking.
Suddenly all my verbal skills returned to me as we chatted and chatted and chatted
away. There’s nothing like the undivided attention of a good-looking woman to
restore confidence and mental ability (funny, just after writing this on the
train, I was reading Robertson Davies’s excellent collection of essays The
Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing and the World of Books
[a book I strongly commend to anyone interested in reading, writing or books,
which should be all of you] and I read this diary entry which Davies had written
following one of his succesful lectures: "I like the pretty girls who say
"Oh, you’re wonderful!" – Vain old ass that I am, but what one could
not attain in youth one savours in age").
Jo worked in literary PR, I told her I was writing a book, like me she’d been
drinking in South Kensington since noon, she was from Manchester, had studied
in Sheffield, was a huge fan of European cinema… I could have talked to her
for hours, but chucking-out time came all too soon and I knew I had to try and
find a bed if I was to get back to Sheffield in enough time, and a suitable
mental state, to drive to Wales the next day. I’d arranged to meet Jan, but
he hadn’t arrived and, from our brief muddled conversations, seemed to be on
something of a bender. I’d left my bag at Andy’s house, and had since lost Andy.
And in pursuing Jo down the street, I’d also lost all Andy’s friends. I called
Andy, managed to establish that he’d gone back to the office before my phone
ran out of bullets. I met up with Andy, he graciously took me back to his flat
and let me in, I bedded down for a short night’s sleep while Andy went of clubbing
Up at 8am. Straight out of the door after necking a couple of pints of water.
Out into a rain-washed Commercial Street. Walked the couple of miles or so to
St Pancras, insulated within my huge duffel-hood. Saw the world in a different
light, damp but radiant. Wrote life histories of every person sat in St Pancras
café or boarding the train, based upon the lines of laughter or regret
moulding their faces. And wrote this until my laptop battery died too.