poor and happy

Contrary to popular belief, London is a great place to be skint.

I mean, I’m only temporarily skint because I thought I was going to get paid on Friday and wasn’t, which left me with £6 to last me almost a week. And I think London is a very difficult place to be permanently poor.

But there’s SO much to do here for little or no money that I sometimes wonder why I bother spending money at all.

Yesterday I made a packed lunch (total cost: £1.20), got a bendybus (obviously) from my house to Trafalgar Square, and walked over the river to the National Theatre bookshop where I spent an hour quite happily sitting around reading Aristophanes’ Clouds and a bunch of books about comic performance.

Then I walked back up to Trafalgar Square to the National Gallery where I spent ages with the Velasquez paintings;

and also this incredible painting by Philips Koninck (it’s just called ‘Extensive Landscape with a Road by a River’). It’s a fairly ordinary landscape but the canvas is huge – and just look at all that sky! It takes up almost two-thirds of the picture! It’s incredible, there is so much openness in it…

Anyway, then I got another bendybus to the house in Finsbury Park where I used to live, where my friends gave me tea and nuts and tolerated my ill-qualified relationship advice; and then home to listen to the Manic Street Preachers’ new LP (which is, incidentally, outstanding) on spotify. Which, to be fair, I pay £10 a month for so I don’t have to get advertised at, but that’s still ridiculously cheap considering that a few years ago I’d have paid more than that for the Manics album alone.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Today I’m thinking I might go for a walk around Regent’s Park, or go to a free comedy gig, or treat myself to a £1.50 film at the Prince Charles Cinema, or go to the Tate Modern, or the British Museum, or the library…

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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…

on liberalism

On Saturday evening, I was walking through Soho with a friend on our way to see Marcus Brigstocke‘s Edinburgh Preview. I was quite chirpy about this because I’ve been a big Brigstocke fan for some years now, and with his show clashing with ours in Edinburgh I had been worried I wouldn’t get to see it.

Anyway, to get to the show we had to navigate our way through Soho Square at about 7.30pm, where the Gay Pride festival was fully underway. It wasn’t just gays there to party – it seemed like every non-homophobe in London had turned up to get drunk, and dance, and snog in the street under brightly-coloured banners. It was a sunny evening, everyone was smiling, and the only people looking uncomfortable were the pair of policemen sent to patrol Greek Street. It was brilliant.

As we weaved through the crowd sharing a burrito, my friend turned to me and said how cool it all was, and then added something like, “Strange to use the word ‘pride’ about sexuality, though. I wouldn’t say I’m ‘proud to be heterosexual’. Though maybe that’s because being heterosexual’s dull.”

I smiled, but she’d made a good point (though she now says she wasn’t intending to make it) – it is odd to talk about being ‘proud’ of something you had no choice over. I’ve always been baffled when people say they are ‘proud’ to be from the family or ethnic group they were born into, even though these things are purely arbitrary and nobody has made any decision or action to be proud of.

I thought for a moment, and then – probably thinking of all the heterosexual couples I’d noticed around the place – I said, “perhaps it’s not pride in being gay, but pride in taking part in a tolerant society. I can be proud to be part of that.”

“No,” she said, “It’s not ‘tolerance’, because being gay doesn’t involve doing anything wrong which needs to be tolerated.”

“Ok,” I said, adopting her implied definition of ‘tolerance’ in order to accept another good point. “Not ‘tolerant’, then. How about ‘liberal’?”

“No,” she said, “I don’t really like that either.”

I tried to push her for an argument as to why she didn’t like the word ‘liberal’, but then we got separated by a big dancing crowd surrounding some almost-naked men with conga drums.

She didn’t need to explain it, anyway. The word ‘liberal’ has been dragged into confusion and disrepute, partly because of the horrible things that have happened to it in the US (despite the brilliant attempt by Bruno Gianelli in The West Wing to clear things up). When you use it, as she pointed out later, nobody knows what you mean; they put their own meaning on it, and assume something they either like or don’t like based on the way they’ve been socialised to respond to the term. It swings between meaning something like ‘we should allow individual freedom within certain parameters’ (which is both wussy and horribly vacuous), and meaning something like ‘moral decline that will send us all to hell’.

In short, it’s a problematic word.

But it’s a word that needs reclaiming. Firstly, because it’s classy: it’s the best, most elegant word that the Spanish ever gave us (the first people to call themselves ‘Liberales’ were the Spanish supporters of the 1791 French Constitution, which led to the signing of the first explicitly ‘liberal’ constitution – the 1812 Cadiz constitution, which is arguably Spain’s greatest contribution to practical political philosophy.

Secondly, because it’s the best word for the best combination of the other ideologies we have: Liberalism encompasses the wide-eyed utopianism of anarchism, the common decency of socialism, and the maturity and good sense of conservatism. It does what conservatism tries and fails to do in valuing us as we are and how we want ourselves to be, not as we ‘should be’ according to any unjustifiable position of moral superiority. It allows us to change when we become different, but allows it gradually (again, taking the most mature and rational element of conservatism, its gradualism, while actually allowing that gradual change to happen).

Good liberalism, of course, has anarchy as its ultimate goal, its telos, but it knows you can’t get straight there from here. It’s a gradualist ideology that chips away at irrational and corrupt authority slowly, carefully, delicately, reasonably, conservatively. In the meantime, its immensely pragmatic and reasonable myth of ‘human equality’ implores us to at least pretend we are equal for just long enough not to cause dangerous problems for ourselves. While all the time giving us the power to say what we want, to laugh at what we want, to dance and kiss in the streets if we want.

At bottom, liberalism isn’t built on any absolute truth, but it’s practical, it is brave, and it works. It’s a good ideology, and I am proud that I choose to live in a city that is proud of its liberalism.

Brigstocke’s new show is awesome, by the way. It’s about religion. On Saturday, though, his opening line was, “Good evening. Aren’t gays messy?” There was a short pause – nobody was quite sure if what he’s said was intolerant or not – then, as he shook his head and smiled and said, “so very messy!“, we realised there was something in the subtlety of his voice, something that the best of us humans are bright enough to understand, had told that it was all okay – that he’s just as proud to be a liberal as the rest of us.

And we laughed, because we bloody well can.

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