What I Know About London So Far

When I posted the other day about moving to London, it sounded like I’ve never even visited the place. That’s not entirely true… so in order to prove that I’m not a total hillbilly I’ve been trying to remember the dozen or so occasions that I have been to the city, and recall some of the details. I contemplated sticking up some pictures to accompany this post, but really, no one needs to see me standing in a Harris Tweed skirt, clutching a bottle of water and pointing excitedly at the Camden Town tube sign. You’ll just have to take my word for it on the existence of that classic shot.

At some point, soon after finishing high school, I went down for a weekend with my Mum, and stayed in the spare room at my brother’s house in Ealing. My abiding memory of that trip is that he had a noise-activated clock that lit up and projected the time on the ceiling if you clapped your hands. Unfortunately I had a cold, and every time I coughed during the night it also activated the damn thing and flooded the room with light. Between that and the flat’s location directly under the Heathrow flight path, it was not the most restful of holidays. Other than that, all I can remember is having my photo taken beside all the street names that I’d hear of, like Covent Garden, Leicester Square and the aforementioned Camden Town. Probably a habit I should drop if we’re moving there.

My chronology might be a bit off, but I think the next time I was down was a year or two later with my lovely friend Katy; we were both on a mission to do interviews with writers for Fest magazine. We shared a room at a hostel in Bayswater and then she headed off to interview Alain de Botton at his house near Paddington, while I headed off to interview Howard Jacobson at his flat in Soho. She came back disappointed that Alain was prematurely balding, and not as attractive or youthful as the picture on the back of his books had led her to believe. I came back disappointed than Howard had been a prickly and awkward interview subject, and deeply un-cooperative with the Fest photographer. His flat was lovely, though. Katy and I consoled each other on the South Bank, sitting in the sun and drinking several large glasses of wine.

The longest I’ve ever spent in London was three weeks around Christmas 2004 when I was doing an internship at a national newspaper. I split my time between the arts desk – calling John Berger for his reaction to Susan Sontag’s death, trying to track down Paul Rusesabagina, the inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda, and contributing to numerous end of year highlight lists – and the news desk, which was full of people frantically trying to keep up with the stories coming in about the Indonesian tsunami. It was not a jolly time.

On Christmas Eve, when everyone else in the office went home to their own families, some friends of a friend of a friend briefly adopted me. I went to a church service with a wonderful, kind family I didn’t know, gatecrashed their Christmas Eve dinner, watched the Snowman with their toddler children, and was then dropped me off at a Travelodge near Kings Cross. I drank miniatures of vodka, and paid £12 to watch a bad porn film (is there any other kind?). On Christmas morning an ex-boyfriend collected me, and we spent the day delivering meals to the elderly in Hammersmith. On New Year’s Eve, I sat alone in my brother’s flat, (with that damn light-up clock again), watching the fireworks on television, eating M&S tiger prawns out of a plastic tub and drinking a bottle champagne that I’d bought last minute at Waterloo station. As I said, it was not a jolly time.

I’m very grateful to the London friends who tried their best to take care of me over those few weeks – I was treated to lunch in Covent Garden, pints in Soho, and copious quantities of dim sum in Chinatown, but despite their best efforts it was a pretty miserable festive season. I drank too much, relied too heavily on Big Macs, and got lost on the tube a lot. I went to a pantomime at the Old Vic… by myself. Ian McKellen’s Widow Twanky was wonderful, but there can be few things sadder than being a 21 year old single woman and going to panto on your own.

Fortunately, the next time I was in London for any length of time – early 2006 – I was in great company. I’d been selected to do the Ben and Jerry’s/WWF Climate Change College, and was there with my fellow students for a few days of workshops. We stayed in a funky little hotel in Earls Court, and attended some amazing lectures at the Royal Geographical Society before heading out for food and dancing every night. At the end of the week, we all headed to the IMAX cinema and attended the first UK Screening of An Inconvenient Truth. There is another picture of me somewhere looking goofy beside Al Gore. Forgive me if I don’t dig that one out either.

Most recently, I have known London through quick visits for work (pre DorkySon), and occasional weekend trips with DorkyDad (also pre parenthood!). Here is what I know. There is not one London, there are many Londons – millions, even. Every resident of the city has their own favourite park, and pub, and specialist shop. It is easy to wander down one street and find a tiny wee Italian restaurant, where you can watch the chefs kneading your pizza dough, and then wander down another and chance upon a beautiful public square full of birds and squirrels and people sitting on picnic rugs. If you want to buy a silk tie there’s a place for that, and if you need a particular brand of chilli sauce there’s a place for that. Until now, I have barely scratched the surface of the place… I can’t wait to get there and dig a little deeper. More importantly, I can’t wait to go to the panto again this year… this time with my family.

The end of the Edinburgh Festival (and I feel fine)

So it’s the final weekend of the Edinburgh Fringe! Thank goodness. Fun though it has been, it’s time for life to calm down again… or at least time to start drinking a little less and sleeping a little more.

I did a post halfway through the Fringe, about some of my highlights at that stage, and I’ve already done one over-emotional post about some of the lovely people I encountered throughout August, but here are some of my other festival moments I haven’t had a chance to ramble about yet.

Nom Nom

We might as well get the food chat out of the way. Lord knows you’ve probably worked out by now that the only think I enjoy more than eating is writing about eating. Next year I’m determined to spend an entire day wandering from food stall to food stall, trying everything that the Fringe has to offer. This year I only made it to one or two old favourites, but found time to taste the offerings at a couple of new stalls too.

The fabulous Passion 4 Juice bar had been moved from its usual spot outside the Gilded Balloon to a new, much quieter, location on the south side of George Square. They were rightfully indignant at being bumped down the culinary pecking order. From what I overheard, while I was subtly eavesdropping on the muttering punters outside Teviot, the indignation was twofold, and Passion 4 Juice’s presence was much missed in that part of town. Irrespective of Edinburgh’s geographical politics, though, their fresh, zingy smoothies with shots of ginseng and echinacea remain awesome… If you need to recover from over-indulging in their evening offerings (Hot Apple Cider) then I recommend the watermelon, pineapple and mint.

The strawberry and Nutella crepes at C Too provided some sweet and very welcome warmth for DorkySon and me as we queued for a show in the rain. We made almost daily visits to the Mackies Ice Cream bike, shared several hummus and carrot sandwiches in the Pleasance Courtyard, and thought we’d found our favourite festival food when we had the lamb burger from the lovely Outsider people in George Square. BUT… that was before we’d found the Laughing Stock stall tucked away in a corner under the purple head of the Udderbelly. Not just the tastiest burger and chips I can remember eating at the Festival, but the tastiest burger and chips I can remember eating anywhere in a long, long time. I really hope they’ll be back next year.

Earworms

“Sure!” I said. “I’ll do the kids shows! One a day for the entire Fringe.”

Little did I know that I was exposing myself to some of the most persistent earworms known to man. I owe a large and sincere apology to the numerous festivalgoers who have caught me wandering around the city, pushing DorkySon in his pram, belting out songs from whatever kiddy theatre performance I’ve just left.  My voice is not the best. In fact, it’s pretty horrendous. Normally I mime when singing Happy Birthday at family parties. But still…

“I am a mole… and I know… that it is none of my business.”

“Hairy Maclary…. from Donaldson’s Dairy.”

And my enduring favourite… “Stick Man” – pause – “lives in the family tree” – pause – “with his stick lady love, and stick children three.”

Cue jazzhands.

Perhaps by this time next year they’ll have stopped going round, and round, and round in my head. And I’ll be ready for Toddler Tunes Take Two. Bring your earplugs in 2012, people.

Loveliness

If the downside of reviewing kids shows is earworms, then the upside is meeting some of the nicest people at the Festival. I’ve already rumbled on about meeting John Hegley, and being taken aback by how lovely and normal he was. My second interview was science communicator and BBC presenter Marty Jopson. If he’d not had another interview and a performance to do, I would have happily sat under an umbrella in George Square and chatted to him all day. He was interesting! Self-deprecating! Smart, funny, and kind! Obviously he hadn’t received the memo instructing him to display all his performer lanyards prominently and act like a complete arse.

I thought encountering two nice performers was already pushing the boundaries of possibility… and then I found myself reviewing Kevin Cruise. I expected to hate it. I actually loved it. And because I was the only reviewer who bothered to show up to the Bosco Tent in the middle of the afternoon to see him, KC was terribly grateful. I woke up, the morning after my review was published, to a lovely email from him saying thank you.

It was all very civilised indeed. If I am lucky enough to be given the opportunity next year, I will definitely be sticking with the Kids section.

DorkySon upstages his Dad

So I’d made plans to meet a friend for coffee in the Forest Café, not realising that DorkyDad was doing a poetry reading in there the same day, as part of the 36 hour No Sleep In Bristo event. We showed up just as he was coming to the end of his set  – DorkySon couldn’t even see his Dad, as a decent-sized audience and a dividing wall blocked his view – but he sure as heck heard him.

“DADA!” he yelled!

“Shhh…” I whispered. “Daddy’s reading his poems.”

“LET ME OUT, MAMA!”

“Let’s just listen for a minute.”

“I WANT TO SEE DADA”

“In a minute…”

“WHERE IS DADA? DAAAADAAAAAA? WHERE ARE YOU?”

So I let DorkySon out of his pram; just as DorkyDad was starting to read a poem about him. He rushed up, snuggled into his Dad’s legs for a minute, did a couple of twirls for the audience, just to make sure he’d been noticed, and then scooted back over to me. He doesn’t like to be the centre of attention for too long, DorkySon, but he likes to know that you’ve noticed him.

My other highlights, in no particular order, are: The Incredible Book Eating Boy; meeting up with old university friends; Bubblewrap and Boxes; walking along Jawbone Walk and seeing lots of eggs hanging from the trees; a very temporary exhibition of canvases, hammered to the trees, also on Jawbone Walk; overhearing someone tell John Malkovich that their favourite film of his was Con Air; the colour John Malkovich’s face turned when he heard that; hearing my sweet DorkySon say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ everywhere we went; the Fest end-of-festival staff meal, even though I bailed out to go to bed at 9.30pm; getting squashed on the bus by an embarrassed looking man with a tuba; Fest’s Kid Critics; being very proud of DorkyDad for his show; seeing the outpouring of love for the Forest Café; being grown-up enough that I don’t feel the need to wear my press pass anymore; someone at the BBC saying to my husband “You’re married to DorkyMum? She’s a legend!”

Edinburgh Fringe… one week to go.

I’ve just submitted my final review for the Kids Section of Fest. There’s still over a week of the Edinburgh Fringe to go, but the working part of my festival is over. Hurrah!

It has been a very different experience to previous years doing Fest. Last time I took on a section editor role, I was still a student with few responsibilities. I went to all the festival launch parties, stayed until 3am, and flashed my press pass at anyone who looked in my direction. If there was a party I hadn’t been invited to, I had the necessary chat and chutzpah to blag my way in. I survived on a diet of cheap wine, free beer and Boots Meal Deals, and spent most of my time in the office, without any sense of whether it was day or night.

This year I haven’t been into the office at all; I’ve done all my writing and editing from home, either in the evenings or while DorkySon naps. I’ve had no invites, no parties (gatecrashed or otherwise), and I lost my press pass in the Meadows Playpark on day three. I’m still waiting to find out if I can get a babysitter, so I can go to the staff meal on Monday night.

It has been a bit odd, to see a very different side to the festival. But, in truth, it has been the best ever. There have been so many pleasant surprises and fun moments.

Number one surprise was the guys at Fest. How nice it was to have an employer who treated the fact that I have a two year old as a selling point, rather than a hindrance. “Great!” they said. “We’ve never had anyone with a kid write for the kids section before! You’ll bring so much knowledge and experience to the role. We’ll really appreciate your perspective.”

They went on to tell me that I could sort out my own review schedule, and fit my work around DorkySon’s nursery hours. “Don’t worry about showing up to the staff meetings,” they said. “We’ll just give you a call afterwards, at a time that suits, and let you know the important stuff.”

As long as I got the job done, the captains of the good ship Fest didn’t care too much how, when or where I did it. Well hello, rest of the world. It is totally possible to be a family friendly organisation, if you choose to recognise the benefits that can come from employing a mother or father.

The second surprise was that the majority of press officers and PRs had the same attitude (although if you’re asking me for a clear winner, Kelly and the Assembly Team get the DorkySon loveliest attitude award, by a mile). They were happy to arrange interviews around childcare, recommend age-appropriate shows, and take ten minutes out of their busy working days to coo over DorkySon while I got my tickets sorted out. In Edinburgh, this August at least, the age-old stereotype of press officers suffering from collective child-hating stink-eye did not ring true.

There have been plenty other moments worthy of note, but it’s late, and I have to be up to flyer for DorkyDad’s show tomorrow morning, so I’ll do further highlights tomorrow 🙂

Edinburgh Fringe: The Halfway Point

We’re halfway! Or almost. It may be only one week into the Edinburgh Fringe, but on Sunday the third issue of Fest magazine will be sent to the printers, with only two further issues to go… and by Monday afternoon DorkyDad will have done five of his solo spoken word shows, with only four more shows left in the run.

There is plenty fun left to be had, (and hopefully the sun will make an appearance at some point too), but here are some of my highlights (and a couple of lowlights) so far.

Highlight: Fest writer cuts out the middlemen

This made me laugh. We wanted to do an interview with the wonderful Neil Gaiman for the Kids section of Fest. Stevie – the writer who was assigned the job – spent several days trying to track him down – through the Book Festival Press Office, then Neil’s publishers, then his PR, then his PA…  They were all very friendly, but noncommittal because Neil was ‘travelling’. When her calls weren’t returned, she finally resorted to sending him a message on Twitter, and within an hour they’d got a time and venue set up. Seems he was in Edinburgh after all. Props to Stevie for tracking the man down, and props to Neil for responding so positively. You can read the interview here.

Lowlight: Rain

There’s really not a lot to be said about the rain, except that it is ever-present. It makes everything harder – flyering, queuing, getting DorkySon’s pram into any of the outdoor venues, finding somewhere to have lunch – and I hope it goes away soon.

Highlight: I pretend to be John Hegley, briefly

I was lucky enough to spend half an hour interviewing John Hegley, who is also in town with a show. We started chatting about social media, and I mentioned seeing that he’d joined Twitter a few days earlier, and was already up to 2500 followers. “Well yes,” he said. “But a friend set me up and I don’t really know how to use it. There’s something I want to say to all my Twitter followers today though. If I give you my password will you send it out for me?”

Umm…

So he wrote what he wanted to say in my notebook (and, amazingly, it was exactly 140 characters long….), and then he wrote down his password. And when I came home, I logged into John Hegley’s Twitter account and sent a Tweet on his behalf.

I’m still scratching my head about that one. What an amazingly trusting, lovely man. You can read the interview here.

 Lowlight: Rioting

Okay, so the riots didn’t spread this far North. You can see the full extent of the Edinburgh riots here. (You really should watch that, it’ll make you laugh…) But the city is full of Londoners at this time of year, and it wasn’t much fun for them to sit several hundred miles away, watching the news footage on TV and wondering if they were going to have homes to go back to. Nearly a week on, and most comedians have incorporated something about the rioting into their show, but it still cast a shadow over proceedings for the opening weekend.

Highlight: Fest’s Kid critics cut everyone down to size

‘How cute!’ everyone said. ‘What a nice idea’ they cried. Yes, everyone thought it was a great idea to have children – aged between 5 and 10 – reviewing children’s shows for Fest… until they started to read the submissions.

“I did get bored as it was a bit too long.”

“One of the actors sometimes forgot their lines.”

“I only give the show one star.”

Personally, I think they’re some of the best reviews I’ve ever read of the festival. Completely honest, to the point, and BS free. The kids aren’t self-conscious, they don’t dress things up with long words, and they write for themselves rather than their audience. If there’s any justice, they’ll be back again next year.

Lowlight: Celeb Spotting

I’m not doing very well with this yet. I’ve seen Mark Watson walking up some steps in George Square, and Stewart Lee pushing a pram through the rain in Marchmont. Meanwhile my friends are putting pictures of themselves with John Malkovich up on Facebook. Must do better.

Sorry for the lack of blog posts at the mo. Hopefully that gives you some idea why. Normal service will be resumed in September.

Bye Bye Beatbloggers?

I was hugely disappointed to see the news yesterday that the Guardian Edinburgh blog is coming to an end. The two beatbloggers, Tom Allan and Michael Macleod had done a great job with the blog, and for many people in Edinburgh it had become their main source of local news.

Judging by the online comments section following the announcement, readers of Guardian Cardiff and Guardian Leeds feel the same way.

In Edinburgh, the blog covered local politics in an entirely non-partisan way, and went into the detail of decisions made at Council level in a way that no national newspaper ever could or would. For the first time in the ten years that I’ve lived in the city, local politics felt accessible and relevant

Beyond that, the blog led to much better arts coverage in the city, gave local campaigners a voice and a platform to reach wider audiences, and even gave local photographers the chance to showcase their work through the regularly updated Flickr slideshows.

In short, the Guardian Edinburgh blog felt like news as it should be – relevant to local people, regularly updated, and diverse in its coverage. I was hopeful that at the end of the blog ‘experiment,’ as the Guardian are now calling it, the local sites would be expanded to include other cities. Instead it looks like financial decisions have come before editorial ones, and that is a real shame.

A Twitter campaign has already been started to try and save Guardian Cardiff, and a crowd funding proposal has been put forward in Leeds. It would be great to see a similar campaign of support in Edinburgh, as the ultimate illustration of how successful the three blogs have become at engaging their local communities.

Edited to add that the first Guardian Edinburgh beatblogger Tom Allan has put forward his thoughts.