Monthly Archives: January 2010

Things I won't miss about work

The mysterious smell of sick in the corner of the office the source of which has never been discerned but which has never gone away

The No 68

First Capital Connect

Pret lunches

Routine

Life-threatening lifts

Not being allowed to work naked

Furry kettles

The last eight months

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Things I’ll miss about work

My colleagues

The free travelcard

The free stationery

Cakes on Thursday

Arthur the lawyer, who knows everybody

An email address that gets automatic discounts and rapidly improved customer service without even asking

First dibs on incoming books

Not paying for teabags or toilet paper

A regular income

The pub with no booze

Heard the one about the public house that forgot to renew its alcohol license? That’s what happened over in Greenwich, in a pub that I have promised not to name after speaking to a harassed landlady who informed me, ‘It might be funny to you, but I’ve just spent the whole morning down the council sorting out the paperwork.’

However, having respected her wishes to keep schtum for nearly 24 hours, I can stay silent no longer.

The pub has managed to secure an emergency license that allows them to serve booze from Friday to Monday, but during the week they have incorporated a bring your own bottle policy, as drinkers discovered when they turned up to the weekly quiz on Monday night and were then sent home to raid their own cupboards for leftover alcohol.

The owners of the nearby Theatre of Wine can expect to make a roaring trade for the next month.

Credit crunch: combating recession with potato-based snacks

When I first clocked a recession was imminent – after I’d checked the relevant terms of my contract and cancelled the statue of myself in solid gold I was having made for the front garden – I began to think about the opportunities that a recession can create.

It’s now well established that many business start up during a downturn, largely because lots of people are out of work and have nothing better to do than be a bit imaginative. This time round, with the recession taking such a toll on incredibly wealthy financiers and bankers, who earned far more money during the Great Moderation than they could ever spend no matter how much they ballsed up house prices trying, I was convinced some fascinating new businesses would emerge.

And so it has proved. A while back, a man called Ajit Chambers got in touch with me to promote his bold plan to open up London’s disused Tube stations to the public. He is still ruthlessly pursuing his vision and will, I believe, realise it, sooner rather than later. For more, watch this space.

At around the same time I heard from a friend, Marisa Leaf, who has set up a company called Hubbub that takes orders from customers for posh delis around Islington (of which there are many) and delivers them all in one go to your door. I wrote about it in 2008 and on Tuesday, she was interviewed in the Evening Standard. In that piece she mentioned in passing one of the people whose food she sells, a banker from Highbury who jacked it all in to become a fisherman on the south coast. I interviewed him yonks ago, and the piece is due to run in Time Out sometime before I die, or so I have been promised.

So that’s three stories that have come to me without me even looking, as all the best stories should.

Where am I going with this? Well, I am in a decent position to start up a business of my own, being all of a sudden time, if not cash, rich and finding freelance journalism a potential struggle given that I’m not descended from anybody famous, daringly tedious/controversial or Stephen Armstrong.

But there is a problem: I am suffocatingly risk-averse. And I am quite lazy. However, I do have one idea that I would love to take forward if somebody else is prepared to do the taking forward bit for me.

It’s a crisp shop. A shop dedicated to selling not just any crisps, but the most interesting crisps – or other potato-based snacks – from around the world. These would be crisps of the rarest and most unusual flavours, the best packaged, golden oldies, with lots from Japan, where I do not know for sure but am pretty certain they make some of the most incredible crisps known to the crisp-world, in wonderful flavours and colours, and all with pictures of schoolgirls on the cover. This shop would be in south London, probably Streatham, and look like one of those trainer shops where people buy lurid and expensive footwear that they never intend to wear. It will be a design classic, floor-to-ceiling cellophane. Whenever Jay-Z comes to London, he will make my crisp shop one of his first ports of call, because I am sure Jay-Z loves crisps.

The irony of this is that I do not particularly like crisps. Or Jay-Z for that matter. But this only adds to the beauty of the concept.

If you like it, I will next tell you about my plan for a restaurant that only serves starters and desserts, because main courses are, and we really should be prepared to admit it by now, invariably a crushing disappointment.

London’s floating world

When I first moved to London in 1996 I lived on a boat. This is one of a number of articles I’ve written about this experience. It appeared in ‘Talk Of The Town’, the Independent On Sunday’s short-lived New Yorker-style supplement, on April 20, 2003.

Heading north from the Surrey suburbs, the back seat of my dad’s car stacked with clothes, books and CDs, it all seemed straightforward. I was a boat sitter, pure and simple, looking after a canal boat moored in Lisson Grove (where was that? Who cared?) for a couple of months, just the summer, while I waited for something better, something drier to come along. It was a foothold into London life, but no more. I certainly wouldn’t be there for long.

That was seven years ago. This summer, I’ll finally be packing up my bric-a-brac, much of it the same in fact, and heading back south over the water, back to dry land. Boat life is over; while it lasted, it was everything.

In the summer of 1996, Dazzler was – is, the old girl still exists after all – a small, slapdash, cosy vessel, ineptly painted in green and red and just 23 feet from bow to stern. But inside was everything that young man, newly freed from home, would ever need. TV, fridge, oven, shower, toilet, double bed and an 0171 telephone number; Camden was a mile in one direction, Notting Hill a mile in the other and the West End just a short trek south. Idyllic.

The mooring itself was ludicrously unattractive, a slab of urban ugliness slapped between the twin charms of Regent’s Park and picture perfect Little Venice (‘Do you live in Little Venice?’ people would ask. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply). On one side of the ragged and uneven towpath, weeds spilling through the cracks, was a huge brown-brick electrical substation that, we would proudly boast, had once been a target for IRA bombers. Periodically, it would let forth a monstrous, shuddering belch as it poured electricity through the wires that ran along the road at the top of the towpath. On the other side was a massive, grey, sprawling council estate, built upon the site of an old schoolyard and now home to lairy kids who, every school holiday without fail, would pelt our pretty, targetable boats with bricks and bottles. ‘A narrowboat? It must be so peaceful,’ people would ask. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply.

At first, my fellow boaters were an intimidating lot. They’d gather by the largest boat, so big it was moored parallel with the towpath rather than sticking out into the canal as the others were. It was a long, hot summer and the crowds would stand at the nearby barbecue drinking, chatting and laughing, everybody brown and weathered, with hands and torsos lined by ropes and engines the hard outdoors. They’d fall silent as I, pasty pale and thin with unmarked skin, scurried past. One or two would maybe nod in vague recognition. ‘New lad, Dazzler,’ the whispered explanation would follow me aboard, where I would shut the curtains and turn up the music to drown out the carousing that lasted long into the night.

It was thanks to my next-door neighbour that I broke through and become an honorary boater. She was my age, bright, attractive, posh and loud. Great fun. A bit loopy. A powerful personality, she forced her friendship upon me, and me upon my neighbours. I learnt who they were: the actors, perennially resting, the couriers, students, bankrupts, welders, writers, dossers and drinkers; riff-raff, drifters from the acceptable fringes of society. Once a year this patchwork neighbourhood would, in its entirety, up moorings and take their boats round the London ring, from Paddington to Limehouse, Limehouse to Brentford, Brentford to Paddington. Friends and neighbours waving to each other and taking photographs as they floated past the Houses of Parliament.

Nights on the ring, like nights on the towpath, would be fabulous social affairs. Barbecues would last all summer long. Sometimes, you’d be on your way home, or heading out, on a Friday night and be asked to stop and have a drink with one of the gossipy groups that would inevitably congregate along the towpath at the first sight of sunshine. Bottle followed bottle and so Friday would slip into Saturday and Saturday would become Sunday. Lazy, warm and indolent. Before long, I came to recognise another pattern: one of new arrivals. Although I felt it had taken me an age to be accepted I soon realised that it had happened practically overnight. So it was with others. You’d meet them briefly one weekend; a week later they’d be taking to your old friends as if they were their old friends. Also routine was the way I’d been dragged in – renting for a few months and staying for a few years. Fresh faces – passing friends or overnight guests – would still be there weeks, months, years later, joining the throng round the barbecue, laughing at joggers and in turn scrutinising new faces. It had that appeal, that attraction for a certain kind of person.

Time passes and things change and London’s creeping gentrification is difficult for even this hardbitten community to avoid. A new breed cottoned on to our secret life. ‘But boats in central London must be very expensive?’ people would ask. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply.

Boaters realised that the floating houses they owned were fetching London property-market rates. Drifters by nature, they moved on and away, to other ways of life, to other moorings in other parts of the country. Having appeared abruptly, they faded away, appearing less and less often, their places taken by bankers and accountants and managers and assorted nine-to-fivers. Or so it seems.

Some remain, those who make a living of the boats and off the new green boaters, still gathering in ever-decreasing to chuckle about the newbies and exchange news about old friends. Stories are swapped. Of Pump-Out Mick, who sold a boat and disappeared, they said, when he was told he had months to live. Of the bon vivant banker turned vicar, who married my next-door neighbour and took their boat to Cambridge. Of Irish Eddie, whose wife would return from work to measure his humour by the amount of wine he’d consumed – ‘so it’s been a tw0-bottle lunch has it Eddie?’ she’d say if he was being particularly gregarious. Of others: Frank, the one-time ‘Dr Who’ monster, Buzz the publican, Yorkshire Mick, the ice-cream seller and Smiley Pete. ‘You must have met some interesting characters,’ people would ask. Oh, quite.

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