Shakespeare in Albert Square

Shakespeare in Albert Square

Shakespeare in Albert Square? To be or not to be: you muppet! No, not EastEnders Albert Square, this one is tucked between Clapham Road and South Lambeth Road in our little piece of heaven that is either Oval, Stockwell or Vauxhall depending on your point of view or which estate agent you talk to.

Albert Square SW8 is quite a grand affair with high, white, hansom houses that stretch five stories and ring this pleasant patch of green that is overseen by a fine example of that London wonder, the London Plane. Local legend has it that one of the houses contains Joanna Lumley.

Every June, a Friday evening is given over to an alfresco production of a Shakespeare play. Last night the Quite Right Theatre Company gave us a rip-roaring version of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. They sang, they danced, they spoke verse, they battled the wail of planes descending into Heathrow, they didn’t flinch as motorbikes roared round the square and they remained unperturbed by growling dogs and the munching, wine swilling residents of our community.

For a modern audience, The Taming of the Shrew is freighted with a few problems as it deals with Petruchio trying and succeeding in taming his wife Kate. It doesn’t quite fit with the #MeToo generation, but Izzy Daws, who played Katherine, didn’t look like someone who would put up with any kind of misogyny. Plus, she has some great lines: ‘If I be waspish, best beware my sting.’

But with due respect to the actors, the plot may not have been uppermost in people’s minds last night, as this event is never quite sure if it’s a play with a picnic or a picnic with a play. Whatever it is, it’s a great communal event where children turn cartwheels, dogs steal from picnic baskets and you meet friends you haven’t seen in a while. Come back next year Quite Right Theatre; you bring the play and we’ll bring the picnic.

London & New York: Twin capitals of the world (1)

London & New York: Twin capitals of the world (1)

I love New York almost as much as I love London. Here’s the start of an occasional series reflecting on both cities.

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The twin capitals of the world are London and New York and yes, I know New York isn’t a capital of anything. Not the capital city of America or even the capital of the state that bears its name. But when you emerge feeling slightly grubby from Manhattan’s rotten, jangling subway or from London’s slightly superior tube you know these are no ordinary towns.

I’ve lived in London for most of my life. I came here when I was 23 and aside from an eight year debouch to Asia I have been here ever since. Visitors often say: ‘London, fine to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there’. Personally, I don’t want to live anywhere else, except perhaps New York. I often feel I have more in common with residents of the Big Apple than I do with most inhabitants of the UK who live outside the capital.

I first visited New York when I was 21. I’d met a girl at university whose home was on Long Island and we planned a trip. I was living with my parents in a minute village just outside Northampton and I remember just trying to get a US visa was a challenge back then. The first time I applied, my visa was refused. I then got our local vicar to endorse my application and it went through. The power of prayer I guess.

My girlfriend met me at JFK in her parents’ big, burgundy coloured Mercedes. The heat was burning up the tarmac. I got in, rolled down a window to get some air and was quickly told to roll it back up as there was air conditioning. It may seem odd now, but I’d never experienced a/c before. The year was 1975.

New York SublimePrior to heading to Long Island, we took a trip into the city. I can remember gliding in over the Queensboro Bridge as if it was yesterday. Everything seemed utterly familiar because I’d seen the Manhattan skyline in movies, but also utterly new and thrilling. I took my 14-year-old daughter on the same trip last year and it still is.

I visited many times during the late 70s and early 80s when Ed Koch was Mayor. Back then the city was going through a pretty rough time. I remember a cop telling me on no account to walk down one of the streets leading from Times Square as it was ruled by drug dealers and muggers. It’s cleaner now and healthier but I’d be hard pressed to say it was better.

Back then, there were many compensations: all the tiny Italian restaurants in Little Italy and Greenwich Village and there was one big bonus that I perhaps didn’t appreciate enough at the time. I’d been brought up listening to jazz, my dad was a big fan, and I was able to catch a last look at some of the greats from the Modern Jazz era. I saw, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck. All ghosts now, but then just a few feet away on stage in some downtown jazz dungeon.

Walking through London can sometimes feel like walking through Manhattan, both are great walking cities. Soho often feels like SoHo and there are parts of Battersea Park, behind the lakes around the big rocks, which feel uncannily like Central Park.

In some ways though, the two metropolitan giants differ wildly. In London rich and poor rub shoulders, alright not so much in Mayfair, but on our street in Vauxhall there is a wide mix of upper (we have a couple of Lords and Ladies), middle and working-class residents. This is largely the result of Nazi bombs and the post war drive to build council accommodation on bombsites. Over in Pimlico there’s a council block that has balconies facing the Thames. I wonder what they fetch now?

Inevitably, many of the prime local authority houses have been sold off, but there remains, on our street at least, a healthy mix of plumbers, doctors and those who dress in Ermine to go to the office.

Manhattan has largely become a dormitory for the wealthy, but there rich and poor never lived cheek by jowl. The Quality lived around the park or in Midtown while the Poor frequented the Lower East side. Now it’s all upscale, but then again so are many parts of London.

But I don’t want to appear too dewy-eyed; London certainly has its problems. Four years ago, when we returned from living in Asia, one of the first things we noticed was just how angry people were; Londoners operate on a pretty short fuse.

I was riding my bike up a side street, with cars parked on either side of the road. This prevented a car from overtaking me and though I couldn’t have held up the driver for more than 10 seconds, my goodness was I screamed at. Cut up a car driver and you can expect the full force of gammon-faced apoplexy, not to mention the horn treatment. People behave this way largely, I suspect, because they feel protected in their car, they can quickly lock the doors, and so feel confident that they can say and do things they never would if they were face to face with another citizen. They operate with the safe anonymity of a Twitter user with CAP MODE PERMANENTLY LOCKED, YOU F***ING IDIOT.

In Asia, you soon learn that if you scream and shout, you are immediately judged a fool and the person to whom you are directing the insults will just shut down and have nothing more to do with you. So, if you’re in a bank or hotel and are screaming and shouting because you didn’t get the service or the room you wanted you will quickly be left to your own devices and no one will think about helping you.

It bothers me slightly that I now don’t notice the London anger as much as I used to, but not getting angry at the drop of a hat is one of the great lessons learnt from living in the Far East. Persistence is fine, anger not so much.

In 1949, around thirty years before I first set foot on Manhattan, E.B. White wrote a seminal article called Here is New York (And I will be returning to Mr White in my next New York/London blog) and he talks about the latent anger he sensed, saw and felt in New York all those years ago.

‘The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified – a single run of a cross town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustrations and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: the light that always changes an instant too soon, the passenger that bangs on the shut door, the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the questions asked at the wrong moment.’

But ultimately both London and New York are tolerant, liberal societies because they have to be. We are tolerant out of necessity; if we weren’t both cities would explode in anger, hate and bigotry and let’s face it, sometimes it comes close.

But let’s close on a positive note and leave the last word to E.B. White who though he was talking about the New York of almost 70 years ago, could just as easily be talking about London right now.

‘The city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin – the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.’ Amen to that.

Next time I’m going to look at a trip I made to New York two weeks after 9/11.

Restaurant review: 24 The Oval

Restaurant review: 24 The Oval

There are restaurant premises on Clapham Road close to Oval tube that have seen many manifestations and make-overs. In our 18 years of living in the neighbourhood it’s been: The Lavender, Oval Lounge and now we have a new eatery: 24 The Oval.

The new owners took possession of the property at the back end of last year and we all expected it to be open for the busy Christmas period, this didn’t happen. The place obviously took a long time to refurb and only opened earlier this year. I’ve been meaning to check it out for some time but finally got around to it when Mrs Preen and I visited last Wednesday.

I walk past the restaurant most days with the dog on the way to Kennington Park and had checked the menu. I was concerned it all looked a little pricey, certainly more so than the previous incarnations I’ve mentioned, plus I wasn’t seeing many patrons.

So, I was surprised when I called to make a booking for 8pm to be told there was nothing available until later in the evening. On our arrival I couldn’t have been more wrong about the lack of punters, the place was heaving.

The long refurbishment must have more to do with the kitchens and the elements not on display as the interior doesn’t look so different. It’s all pleasantly woody with flowers and plants giving it a charming country kitchen atmosphere. Strangely the music was very loud and given all the reflective surfaces of glass and wood, conversation proved a little difficult, but almost as soon as we’d sat down someone dialled down the sounds and chat commenced.

One their website 24 style their approach as ‘old fashioned, modern British cooking’. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but the menu is gratifyingly small and there were many dishes I would have been happy to order. While we were waiting, we were brought a yummy cheese fondue with savoury choux buns as a taster.

Deciding not to go for starters, my wife ordered the Roasted Skate, Jerusalem Artichokes and Rainbow Chard (£16). I opted for the very fishy mix of BBQ Monkfish, Smoked Mussels, Salsify and Seaweed (19). I’m not going to come on like a MasterChef judge and give you chapter and verse as to what was right and wrong with the dishes, largely because that’s way beyond me, but I will say both dishes were consumed with gusto and pronounced excellent.

Just one caveat, while the last thing we wanted were huge US-style portions, both dishes were a little on the small side. The Skate wing was more the size of a budgerigar wing; perhaps portion control could ease up a bit.

I had Treacle Tart and Ice Cream to finish, because I’m incapable of not ordering treacle tart if it’s on the menu.

Add in three glasses of house red wine (perfectly drinkable) a side order of Triple Cooked Chips and the bill came to a pretty reasonable £69.

A couple of other things to add: My wife is Coeliac and has to have a gluten free diet, this was speedily arranged with no fuss. There is a Tasting Menu which comes in at £38.50 per person, but best of all 24 is a dog friendly establishment.  A large silver haired mutt of indeterminate breed sat behind us beneath its owner’s table.

This looks like a really welcome addition to our neighbourhood which is not blessed with many fine eateries. A return visit to 24 is definitely on the cards, but next time with Bucket.

Urban Axe Throwing

Urban Axe Throwing

If you get it right the axe spins gracefully through the air and hits the target with a satisfying thonk. If you get it wrong, it falls clattering to the ground. Welcome to Urban Axe Throwing, taking place at a railway arch in Vauxhall; it’s like darts on steroids.

The firm, Whistle Punks, set up the Vauxhall part of their operation just over a year ago. On the night I went with two friends there were around thirty, mostly young people present, both men and women.

You sign up online, it costs £29 per person, and are immediately given some ground rules. Turn up smelling of alcohol and you’re out, and no you can’t throw an axe at a picture of your ex. There was a two-minute safety brief at the start of the event, and unusually in these circumstances, people were actually paying attention. Flying axes seemed to concentrate people’s minds.

You warm up with some practice throws (it’s not as easy as it looks by the way) to get your eye in and thereafter there’s a competition. My two mates made the semi-final, I’m ashamed to say I did not and so wasn’t covered in blades of glory.

I asked the winner of the competition, who was spectacular, if he’d done it before. He hadn’t and seemed as bemused as the rest of us as to how good he was.

You conclude by throwing two axes at once and doing some trick shots; well let’s say you attempt to do some trick shots. The whole thing lasts for 90 minutes, which seemed the perfect length of time.

Apparently, the sport, if you can call it that, comes from Canada. There, itinerant lumberjacks are won’t to while away the evening chucking axes at trees, but that’s Rural Axe Throwing, nobody was wearing red checked shirts in Vauxhall.

From a money-making perspective there’s one big flaw with Whistle Punks’ business model. They can’t sell beer. If you think of an equivalent night out, perhaps darts, snooker or bowling, these are always accompanied by alcohol. Not an option when people are chucking large lumps of lacerating metal about the place.

The axe wrangler who looked after us did a great job, was very upbeat, roaring ‘Bullseye’ when someone hit the spot. But beware, even the pros can get in trouble; he recently dislocated his shoulder.

Want to try something a little different, perhaps release a bit of pent up irritation? Then chucking axes at a wooden target might be just the thing. Next team building event for the office?

Thanks to Gyuri Szabo for the  wonderful pictures: check out what he does here.

Cultivating convicts

Cultivating convicts

Walking through our local parks, it’s a common sight to see teams of Community Payback (CPB) men and women in high viz jackets working in the gardens. They are people convicted of minor offences who undertake community service imposed on them by the courts.

Magistrates and Judges can order offenders to do between 40 hours and 300 hours of community service. They are expected to carry out a minimum of six hours work a week while wearing bright jackets. This is so local people know who they are and what they are up to.

Last year, following a drink-driving conviction, Wayne Rooney was sentenced to a twelve-month community order, forcing him to do 120 hours of unpaid work. With pictures of his fall from grace all over the press, I’m guessing the lack of pay was the least of his worries.

Recently, I spotted a few enforced garden operatives in Vauxhall Park; some working hard, some not so much. They were plainly surprised to be approached but most were happy to talk.

I spoke to both men and women and the general view was that if they had to endure community punishment then this was a pretty good option. Having said that, it was a sunny day; the verdict might have been a little different in March.

In our neighbourhood Vauxhall One, a non-profit organisation owned and led by local businesses, works with Community Payback participants. The project which was made possible by an arm of the Probation Service, the London Community Rehabilitation Company, has been running for five years and happens every Monday between 9am-4pm with a maximum of 10 participants.

Speaking to Javier Flores, Vauxhall One’s Environmental Services Manager, he stresses they take on work the council is either reluctant or doesn’t have the resources to tackle.

A case in point is Goding Street. It backs on to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and is where, at closing time, assorted ravers and party goers spill out on to the street from the busy clubs and restaurants. Over the weekend this creates an enormous amount of mess and by Monday morning it resembles a war zone. As Javier says: ‘Visitors like to park and extend their party time, drinking, smoking and (engaging in) other types of anti-social behaviour’. So, every Monday the CPB get stuck in and clear the street of all the party detritus.

Other tasks that Javier oversees are painting the railings on Albert Embankment, removing graffiti, cleaning telephone boxes and of course gardening. They also help dispose of trashed or forgotten street furniture and remove ever-present supermarket trolleys.

Vauxhall One provides CPB people with the necessary clothing and tools and a place to eat. They are currently in discussion with The London Community Rehabilitation Company over adding an additional working day on Saturdays.

Last word to Javier: ‘CPB has become an invaluable help on keeping central Vauxhall tidy and clean’.

Despite seeing the paybackers all over our borough, The Office of National Statistics indicates numbers are dropping. In 2007, across the UK, 191,000 convicted criminals received community orders. Last year that figure had dropped to 99,000.

The decrease in community sentences may be caused by judges issuing suspended prison terms, where an offender walks free but is jailed if they commit a further offence.

Right now, Vauxhall Park is looking magnificent, and that is, at least in part, thanks to work undertaken by people who would not necessarily describe themselves as gardeners.

Dockless bikes: Urban junk or the future of pedal power?

Dockless bikes: Urban junk or the future of pedal power?

A new two-wheeled phenomenon has hit the streets of London; the dockless bike. You’ve probably seen these orange and yellow pushbikes propped up against walls and dumped in parks. Two firms predominate: Mobike and ofo. We already have Santander Cycles, or Boris Bikes as everyone but people who work at Santander call them, but those are docked in stands around central London.

Controversy rages (perhaps rage is a little strong) over whether these new additions are two-wheeled litter or provide a useful public service. You may have seen the BBC report on dockless bikes in China, from where Mobike and ofo originate, where millions have been dumped for scrap.

I have a bike and use it regularly, particularly for shorter rides around our neighbourhood, but I also use Boris Bikes when I know my return journey will be made using some other form of public transport. So, time to check out the new kids on the block.

I downloaded the free apps for both ofo and Mobike onto my phone and signed up. This proves to be very easy; you provide your email address and mobile phone number and they ping you a code. You log that into the app which opens your account and thereafter you give them your credit card details. Both apps work in a remarkably similar manner.

Time to look for a bike parked locally and that’s where I hit a problem. At the heart of the apps is a Google map which shows your location and bikes that are close-by and ready to rent. You need to have your roaming data on and apparently it all works more smoothly if you turn on Bluetooth. There are no Mobikes near me and just one ofo, about five minutes stroll from my home.

Digging a little deeper it seems that while not regulated by Transport for London (TFL) dockless bikes do have to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with local authorities and where I live (Lambeth) that hasn’t happened. Largely, I think, because there are a plethora of Boris bike stands in our borough. In the burbs dockless bikes are very popular and have largely been welcomed by the authorities. The upshot being that any bikes in our area are incomers brought by discerning people who fancied a trip to sunny Vauxhall.

Donning a helmet and high viz jacket I set off in pursuit of my ride. It was propped as you can see just outside a local primary school. Unleashing the yellow beast proved remarkably easy. Open the app, click on unlock, the app now takes control of your phone’s camera which you focus on the bikes QR code. A metal lock around the rear tyre springs open and you are good to go.

You pay 50p for thirty minutes with a daily cap of £5. By way of comparison: It costs £2 to access Santander Cycles for 24 hours. You can make as many journeys as you like in that time but if you go over 30 minutes you’ll incur another £2 charge.

So, what are they like to ride? Well frankly, they feel a little flimsy. If you’ve ever ridden a Boris Bike you know they’re built like tanks and are extremely heavy. Not something you can say about an ofo bike. These have three gears which for my money are set at a better ratio than the Santander Cycles, I actually changed gear which I almost never do on a Boris. Another plus is they have a proper basket on the front which would certainly take a small load of shopping. This is far preferable to the strange arrangement on the front of Santander Cycles which doesn’t quite know what it’s supposed to be.

A big downside is the saddle height. I’m six foot one and it just doesn’t raise high enough for me, so getting any kind of speed up was tricky and it also proved wearing on the knees. But you know what (?), for a short trip around the corner to pick up a loaf of bread and some tea-bags (we live high on the hog in our house) it was just fine.

I propped the bike tidily outside the house, secured the lock around the back wheel and the journey was over. Then came a little surprise, I received a text saying:

You’ve parked outside ofo’s operational zone! To avoid losing 20 points from your ofo score, please ride the bike back into ofo’s operational zone – check the app for more details on where we operate.

I checked Google maps on the app and couldn’t find where their operational zone is located. This rather defeats the whole object of these bikes which is the ability to pick them up and leave them where you chose. Albeit I accept they have to be parked properly and not dumped in the middle of the road.

I’m also not entirely sure what losing 20 points from my ofo score means and what disadvantage this has put me at, but it wasn’t sufficiently scary for me to do anything about it. Around twenty minutes after I left the bike, someone else picked it up so it’s now off my conscience.

Just checking the Mobike app again and I see there is a bike available just over the road. On further inspection it turns out a neighbour has the bike parked in their back garden, so  inaccessible unless I knock on their door. Not sure what happens here, but I assume at some point a Mobike operative will be paying them a call.

What to make of dockless bikes? They’re flimsy, but cheap. They’re handy but often dumped in ugly heaps. To answer your unspoken question, I’m sure I will be booking another ride. And ultimately isn’t anything that gets us going places leaving no carbon footprint a good thing?

Before I go, you might be asking why the name ofo? Apparently, according to the company, the logo looks like someone riding a bike. Now you know.