cafes of north london

I don’t think I’ve ever spent a happier day than a day I once had in Paris with my friend George. We spent the whole day just wandering without direction, stopping at a café every half-hour or so.

We’d spend about an hour at each café – enough time to get a drink (espressos in the afternoon, through to beer and wine as the spring evening gently rolled in), talk about politics, books, girls, language, architecture, the view, etc. – and then move on. From Montmartre to the Left Bank, wandering, sometimes talking, sometimes just sitting happily in the sun. It was wonderful.

And then I came back to England, and wondered if a day like that would even be possible here. Sure, you could have a great day trawling through pubs, but it wouldn’t be the same kind of day. You could, theoretically, do a walking tour of all the West End branches of Café Nero – there might even be some value in that. But it wouldn’t be the same.

Now, today is not the day for my Walter Benjamin-esque treatise on why a misunderstanding of cafés is what has made the British so socially and culturally retarded. Let’s just say for now that I love them, and leave it at that.

Fortunately I live in North London now, where we have no shortage of cafés. They’re further apart than the cafés of Paris; but then, that’s what London is like. So, I thought, if I were to spend a day touring North London’s cafés, here are the ones I’d choose. (Feel free to recommend me any I might have missed)…

Honeycomb, Crouch End: Because I start most days here anyway. It’s practically right underneath my house but it feels like walking into a Parisian café-patisserie because they are always baking in the kitchen. It’s run by two brothers who are always say hello, the croissants are perfect and the chocolate fudge cake is phenomenal.

Spiazzo, Crouch End: The best place in London for pretending you are on holiday in Italy. Spiazzo had some trouble with the council when their terrace expanded into Hornsey town hall square, but then everyone decided it was a such great place to sit and eat and talk on a sunny day that they seem to have got away with it. So, extra kudos for Sticking it to The Man using espressos and lasagne.

On The Hill, Muswell Hill: It’s like the Honeycomb, only in Muswell Hill, plus it’s about two doors down from one of the most awesome little independent bookshops I know.

Queen’s Wood Cafe: It’s in a wood. In a real wood, with trees – huge great ancient-woodland trees. It’s about halfway between Muswell Hill and Highgate, but it feels like you could be way outside London somewhere. Plus the sofas indoors are comfy and the home-made cakes are delicious. One of the best places to read, ever.

Kalendar, Swain’s Lane: Don’t bother with Highgate Village, it’s a chain café hell (they’re the only ones that can afford the rent). But if you go down Swain’s Lane – possibly stopping off at Highgate Cemetery to say hi to Karl Marx, who no doubt would have predicted Highgate’s café problem – then there’s a few good cafés at the bottom. Kalendar gets the recommendation because whenever I’ve been it had the best coffee and the most outdoor tables.

Starbucks, Hampstead Heath: I know, I know. But this one’s…different somehow. Not to be confused with Hampstead Starbucks – the one I’m talking about is on South End Green, right by Hampstead Heath station. If you’d never seen a Starbucks and you thought this was an independent you’d love it. It’s neat and comfy and I’ve never failed to write good stuff there.

Inspiral Lounge, Camden: Yes, they’re a bunch of mental hippies. But if you really have to make Camden part of a café tour then you may as well smell it properly. Plus, it turns out that hippies make very nice bagels, and there’s a very nice view of the canal.

(I have a feeling that there’s a good café in Regents Park that I went to once and loved, but now can’t remember what it’s called…)

And since the tour seems to have crept towards central London, it’s worth saying that there’s also…

Russell Square gardens café, Russell Square: don’t get the food, it’s awful – but they make perfectly balanced cappuccinos and it’s the perfect place to sit in summer and watch kids playing in the fountain. (Though if you’re a male on your own, be careful that you don’t look like you might be there just to watch children. People don’t like it. Apparently.)

Cilantro, Piccadilly: This is in a location that ought to make it awful, but it’s just perfect; they have loads of books lying around that you might actually want to read, and a hot apple cider that I am sure has actually cured frostbite in January.

Fifth Floor of Waterstones, Piccadilly: narrowly beats Foyles café because you can take books up there and speed-read them, while spending the money you would have spent on said books on coffee/wine/beer instead. Plus you can see Big Ben out of the window. Plus, it’s cool – if I ever went on dates and wanted to impress them, I’d suggest this place. Though I would inevitably then bore the date by just talking about books. Duh.

Tate Modern Members Room: Having now abandoned the idea of sticking to North London cafés, I suppose I can put this in the list because it’s one of my favorite places in the world. Stewart Lee once said it had the best view in London, and he is very rarely wrong about anything. Incidentally, it would be another great place to take a date, were that relevant to me. Though I would inevitably bore them by just talking about art. (I guess if they got tired of that, I could always move on to books.)

Bar Italia, Soho: This has to end the list – not so much for the coffee, but because it never, ever closes. People come and go; the best and the worst of humanity can be overheard (and often over-seen); and insomniacs just sit and think and write, until the sun comes up over Soho in all its filthy glory. When I find myself there, I never know if I’ve succeeded or if I’ve failed, or what exactly it is I’m waiting there for.

But the charm of cafés, as Walter Benjamin says, “can only be thoroughly appreciated by those with a passion for waiting”. Benjamin was writing about Paris, of course, but the same could be true of any of London’s cafés. So here I am; writing this in the Honeycomb right now, without knowing what exactly it is that I’m waiting for – perhaps something that will never come – but still enjoying the wait…


everything else is cream cheese

One of my all time favourite movie quotes is from Teen Wolf. Scott (Michael J Fox), star of the school basketball team and occasional werewolf, gets some advice from Coach Finstock (Jay Tarses). The advice is:

“…there’s three rules that I live by: never get less than twelve hours sleep; never play cards with a guy who’s got the same name as a city; and never go near a lady who’s got a tattoo of a dagger on her body. You stick with that, and everything else is cream cheese.”

That’s pretty sage advice. But I’ll never get that much sleep and I don’t really play cards. So I’ve been thinking, if any of my students ever come to me for advice, what will I tell them? I was trying to think up some Finstock-style rules that would have helped me. For example…

  • Never accept an offer of a drink from a man with more gold teeth than white ones.
  • Never open a bank account on the advice of anyone whose salary is dependent on you being charged £40 every time you fuck up.
  • Never get involved with a woman that’s never voted in a general election.
  • Never perform a joke that ironically suggests you might be a sex offender at the Comedy Store late show: they are an audience that may take such claims at face value.
  • Never brag about being good at scrabble unless you really, really are.
  • Never bet your shoes on a game of scrabble when you have a long walk home.
  • Never get involved with a woman who reads Sophie Kinsella books in any way that could not be described as ‘sarcastic’.
  • Never go on a canal boating holiday with someone who is just learning how to play a musical instrument.
  • Never get on a bus in Edinburgh at rush hour carrying an eight-foot makeshift crucifix. The other passengers are less patient than you might expect.

Those should be enough to stop anyone from getting into serious trouble, at least…

“are you a dylan fan?”

I was asked a week or two ago if I knew the song ‘Love Minus Zero’. And then, as a follow up question, if I was ‘a Bob Dylan fan’.

I guess the girl who asked me wasn’t to know. How could she?

And yet, she knew three or four other things about me – how could she not have deduced what Bob Dylan would have to mean to someone like me?

It’s actually the time of year that I start listening to a silly amount of Bob – always around Autumn – and I start actively looking out for conversations where all the little anachronisms about my Dylanism creep out. Like, that I think “Love and Theft” is his best album (you read that right); that I can’t help but find The Times They Are A’Changin kind of annoying, but think that Street Legal is actually pretty good…

I remember first listening to Dylan records when I was about 17 or 18 – it felt like there was a Dylan-shaped gap in my knowledge of pop history, and so I started borrowing CDs from my stepfather’s pretty comprehensive collection of Dylan albums.

Within days, I’d learned all the lyrics to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and was announcing to anyone in my English Literature class that would listen that if you just wrote down the lyrics from Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited then it would be the greatest poetry anthology of the 20th century.

And more than that – I started playing and singing the songs. I think (coincidentally) that the first one I really wanted to sing was ‘Love Minus Zero’. It just felt like the perfect song.

But by singing the songs I soon found that the gap in my pop-history knowledge had been filled with some kind of goldmine, a resource so fluid, so broad and so deep, that singing Dylan’s songs could fill other gaps in my life, too. So many other songs I went through fitted my mood perfectly, healed any wounds and strengthened me like some miracle tonic – ‘…Rolling Stone’, ‘I Want You’, ‘Tombstone Blues’… And then, of course, the Live 1966 ‘Royal Albert Hall’ recording came out and I, as a lovesick fresher at Liverpool, just realising that Dylan had invented punk too, sang ‘I Don’t Believe You’ so often and so hard in my little room in Halls that I must have annoyed the hell out of the rest of my flat… It’s embarrassing to think of now – but not regrettable (it did, at least, get me the girl I was after…)

I don’t remember a time since then when there haven’t been a few specific songs that I have on repeat in my head; they last a few weeks and then get replaced by others. Right now, ‘Love Minus Zero’, which had sat just below the surface of my consciousness for a year or two, has made a comeback; also ‘Visions of Johanna’ and the bootleg recording of ‘I’m Not There’ which they dug out for the film soundtrack.

And then there are a handful of songs I’ve never been able to sing; the songs that are too heavy with life and death for a young man like me to even attempt – I don’t feel worthy. ‘Not Dark Yet’. ‘Mississippi’. Those songs. I can’t sing them. Not yet.

But I know they’re there. And they’ll be there when I need them.

So, am I a Dylan fan? Yeah. Yeah, I guess I am.

ideas for next year’s edinburgh

The ideas for interesting shows to do at next year’s fringe came pretty thick and fast during the festival; most of these are not my ideas but emerged from conversations with Loz and Tony. Still, I feel they should be documented so the ideas are not lost…

  • Comedy Pro-Evolution Challenge: where we set up a playstation and a huge screen in the venue and get comedians to take on the public at computer football. Possibly featuring a special guest commentator comedian each day, possibly James Sherwood with his brilliant joke about the name of the game ‘pro-evolution soccer’
  • Nick Helm and Brett Goldstein Freestyle Rap For An Hour: it would maybe be a little bit like Richard Coughlan’s 24-hour freestyle rap, only it would happen more than once and wouldn’t get a bit dull and weird after an hour. With me on the beatbox
  • Balls-out Stand-up: a normal stand-up showcase, but none of the acts wear trousers or pants. This MUST NOT be referenced or acknowledged at any point in the show 
  • The Tempest: advertised as Shakespeare’s best play (my opinion), but the audience arrives to see a biographical tale of the life of stand-up comedian Adam Tempest

More ideas to follow…

doug stanhope’s rainy day

I’ve lost four umbrellas in the past six weeks.

It usually happens when I’m either drunk, or distracted by something else, or both. But I need to stop losing them, because it was a really pissy day yesterday – both literally and figuratively.

For a start, it was my first proper day back at work, enrolling new students and hoping that they will be clever and nice and independent-minded, and all the things you hope for in a new trainee philosopher. I met very few of the class I’ll teach, but the ones I met seem pretty cool. Still, I had to get up in the morning, and I’ve never really enjoyed that, to be honest.

And after work, I went to see Doug Stanhope at the Leicester Square theatre.

Now, Stanhope is one of the most brilliant stand-up comedians working in the world today. I saw him this time last year, and he was mind-blowing. His stuff about Sarah Palin back then was inspired and original and truly, truly filthy, as was a closing routine about the realities of sex and how intimate it really is. He was angry and brilliant and I laughed harder and more honestly than I had for a while.

This year, he’s…he’s just got less in the tank. He acknowledged it, and he seemed to be trying to build a show around having very little left to say and little faith in his ability to say it. But some of his new stuff misfired a little and he repeated most of the sex stuff word-for-word.

Perhaps the earlier time slot didn’t help him; 7.30pm is a tough time of day to be drunk and angry and filthy.

Still; a genius that isn’t firing on all cylinders is still a genius, and he still made points that were more witty and original than most of what I’ve seen in the entire Edinburgh festival. Perhaps he was just having a bad day too; he’s certainly having a tough tour.

It’s probably also worth bearing in mind that in the last few weeks I’ve also seen Stewart Lee, Rhod Gilbert and Daniel Kitson twice. It’s hard to match that, even on a good day.

Guess it was just a bad day all round. Wish I still had one of those umbrellas.

the recovery position

I guess it takes a few days to recover from Edinburgh.

I’d quite like to just lie down and let my liver re-metabolise, but that’s not really possible – I’ve come back to a heap of work, a giglist that needs filling, and a slightly cool relationship with a girlfriend I have woefully neglected.

And also – Why did nobody tell me Ted Kennedy had died? I completely missed it! And then I was sad. It really is like having been living in a bubble for a month, or like some kind of fantastical dream that I’m just waking up from and discovering that things are depressingly back to normal.

It didn’t help that on my second night back I actually did have a gig booked; the truly delightful ‘Party Piece’, run by the truly delightful Tom Webb, in Stoke Newington. Annoyingly, instead of doing the tried and tested set that I’ve been honing in Edinburgh, I got distracted by Tom and Joel Dommett’s idea of trying to get a shout of ‘ULTIMATE PUNCHLINE’ for a joke. The result was that I went hunting for the silliest, most punchliney joke I had. Inevitably, I ended up in an ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie’ cul-de-sac. Oddly, it got laughs that the Edinburgh audiences weren’t giving it, though I still wished afterwards that I’d just done my normal routine…

When I got home, I found that another review had been published:

Circling The Drain: Scurvy Comedy Present Mankind’s Inevitable Spiral Towards Total Destruction – Free

To say that this outing felt like a complete waste of time would be both unfair and inaccurate but the truth isn’t too far away. With the exception of Lawrence Francis’ catchy and entertaining song about the embarrassment of having to explain to a computer technician how a virus was caused by looking up you-know-what on the internet, the material from the other two comedians, Charlie Duncan and Tony Dunn, was repetitive, dreary and virtually devoid of punchlines. On the rare occasion a promising joke was delivered, it was bizarrely finished off, and subsequently stripped of any success or credibility by overly vulgar punchlines. My advice to Mr Francis – go solo.
Laughing Horse @ Espionage, 7 – 30 Aug, 1.15pm (2.15pm), free, fpp35.
tw rating 2/5

VIRTUALLY DEVOID OF PUNCHLINES? What could they possibly mean? Oh, right…

Still, at least Loz is vindicated. It must be odd to be called, within the space of a few days and by the same publication, both “worse than awful” and “catchy and entertaining”.

I’m sure he’ll cope with the inconsistency.

Anyway. The recovery is underway. Just need to take it easy for a few days…

and the results are in…

I got back in to King’s Cross yesterday afternoon, completely zombified, and it was fucking sunny. Hot and sunny – as if to say, this is what you could have won, if you hadn’t been off chasing unattainable dreams…

Still, there are a few things worth mentioning.

The first is that now I’m back, I need to book some more gigs. So if there are any promoters out there who want a massively improved Charlie Duncan to perform at their shows, please get in touch. I am now in the position where I could be billed as ‘critically acclaimed’ (on condition that the rest of the bill is “mediocre”).

Secondly, the number of views to this blog has inexplicably rocketed, from about two per day before the festival to 101 so far today. Who are you people? Have you nothing better to do? Or are you just one scary and obsessive internet stalker? If so, get in touch. I like the attention.

Thirdly, a few people have asked me about going to Edinburgh – was it worth it, they’re asking?

Yes. Emphatically, yes.

Even quantitatively speaking, when I counted up the days where I’d put ‘Win’ or ‘Lose’ at the bottom of the blog, I’ve ended up with 15 ‘Win’ days and only 6 ‘Lose’ days. Admittedly, the ‘lose’ days felt truly horrible. Gut-churningly, sickeningly, sleep-losingly horrible. And even some of the ‘Win’ days didn’t exactly make me feel happy, exactly.

But one or two of those ‘win’ days were so exhilarating that everything else was irrelevant: the hard work on my act, the fall-outs, the fluctuations of acceptance and rejection, the fact that I know I’ve made friends I can only miss; all of it was worthwhile, because there were times that were genuinely fulfilling. The horrible feeling of the bad days will go and leave me with memories of a very happy festival.

When Nan saw my tired face last night she said, “Please don’t do this again next year. It’s eaten you.”

But, I tried to explain, it was worth it.

If the last few weeks ate me, I just hope I was delicious.