Month: June 2018

The Unwelcome Guest: Slight Return

The Unwelcome Guest: Slight Return

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that at the end of last year I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I’ve been blogging about it under the title: The Unwelcome Guest.

People are very kind and often ask how I’m doing and the answer is I’m doing fine. I went to see my oncologist yesterday (boy, I hate those seven words) and my progress is good. I’m on a particular form of therapy to shrink the tumour and a blood test that gives an indication as to how that’s going was encouraging. My PSA level came out at 0.8 and all you need to know is that I started out on 5 so I’m well on the way to the highly desirable zero. The joys of radiotherapy will have to wait until September. End of cancer update: Regular ‘A Little London Life’ flim-flam will resume.

Vauxhall Park model village gets suffragette makeover

Vauxhall Park model village gets suffragette makeover

The tiny houses in the Rose Garden of Vauxhall Park are getting a makeover. Nobby, aided by his trusty dog Sandy, said he was giving the crofts and cottages a lick of paint in the suffragette colours of purple, green and white.

Why the suffragette colours? February of this year saw the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time and paved the way for universal suffrage 10 years later. Vauxhall Park has a connection.

Henry Fawcett (1833-1884) lived in a grand house on the site of the park. He was a Member of Parliament and was blinded at the age of 25 when shot by his father’s gun while the pair were out partridge shooting. Clearly a determined man he became Post Master General, started the parcel post and encouraged women to work at the Post Office.

Vauxhall parkIt was Fawcett’s wish to turn his garden into a communal park after his death. His wife, Millicent Fawcett, made it happen. Involved in the suffragette movement, she became president of the National Union of Woman’s Suffrage Societies in 1897. She also founded Newnham College Cambridge. Quite the power couple.

Talking with Nobby (or Nobby the Grab, to give him his full name) while he was taking a break from the painting and decorating, he told me the houses were made in 1948 by Edgar Wilson who sent a set of 30 to Melbourne, Australia by way of thanks for the food packages sent to us during the war. Next time you’re down under you can take a look.

There are also a couple of tiny detached houses in Brockwell Park near the clock tower.

As to the ones in Vauxhall, local hoodlums used to nick them until Nobby came up with the brilliant idea of filling them with sand and rocks so making them too heavy to shift. There’s only one original ‘Boat House’ left, the other two were made by the man himself. I should point out that Nobby does this on a purely volunteer basis, so if you see him about he deserves a big thank you.

Nine Elms Sunday Market

Nine Elms Sunday Market

Nine Elms Lane SW8 5AL: 9am-2pm

New Covent Garden Market is just over the road from the Battersea Power Station development. It’s the fruit and veg capital of the UK with produce coming in from all parts of the globe and then being shipped out to all parts of the UK. During the week, from the very early hours, it reverberates to the shouts of barrow boys, the squeal of fork lift trucks and the thunder of departing trucks. On a Sunday, the nation’s greengrocers get a day off and it becomes one of the biggest markets in London.

The day I went, the sun was beating down, prices were being beaten down, police were clamping down and the new US Embassy was gazing down on Nine Elms Sunday Market. It was my first visit in years.

Superficially, not much seems to have changed. If anything, it’s even busier, perhaps there are more Slavic and Russian accents and a few more Polish stalls than before. It’s still very much a working-class event, with a high proportion of immigrants both buying and selling. New Covent Garden on a Sunday is a world away from the old Covent Garden in the West End. There’s no artisan cheese, craft gin or organic chocolate on sale here.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the sizeable police presence. I chatted to a few of them but in true plod tradition they were keeping it pretty tight lipped. In total I guess there were about twenty police officers present made up of two groups. One were officers impounding counterfeit goods – I saw at least two clothing and handbag stalls being closed down – the other group were police supporting Immigration Enforcement officers from the Home Office who were clearly tracking immigration offenders. They were in urgent conversation with various individuals, but I didn’t witness any arrests. Talking with stallholders and punters, it seems that in the last two weeks the police presence has risen sharply. Checking for fake goods and fake IDs looks like hot work for those who go to work in a stab proof vest.

So, what’s the shopping like? Arming myself with an excellent flat white from ‘Full of Beans’ (which came with a complementary choc chip cookie) I went in search of bargains. Trainers are a big sell with brand names such as Vans going for £20. Whether these are real or of real interest to the police I couldn’t say. Builders’ kit is clearly a big draw with men coming from all over to get tooled up with electric saws, drills, spirit levels and the rest.

If you want to take a break from shopping, check out the many global food outlets. Curry and Chips (see above), that’s fusion cooking Nine Elms style. Then there are several ‘Head Shops’ where those with an interest in illegal weed can score their rizlas and other cannabis related paraphernalia.

Inevitably, stalls sell electrical items such as mobile phones, second hand laptops, satellite dishes and there’s no end of clothing, mostly T shirts, jeans and sports shirts and it has to be said a fair amount of plastic junk. Get your dodgy cigarettes and tobacco on the way in.

Many people clearly love the place and use it as a popular day out to meet friends, have a bite to eat and pick up some bargains. It’s not posh, plush or pretty but it is cheap, and the place has a real energy about it. I accept some won’t like it, but it’s here, it’s on our patch, and you should take a look.

Fancy running a stall yourself? Here the low-down: A 3×3 metre pitch costs from £55 a day and you can hire tables and other market gear to display your goods. All new traders have to register and provide some form of photographic identification such as driving license or passport. Casual traders must go to the market office at 6.30am. Once you’ve registered and paid, you will be given a pitch for the day. If you want a permanent pitch, then that’s the time to ask. A regular pitch is cheaper and means you are in the same place every week, so your customers know where to find you. Contact: info@saundersmarkets.co.uk. Tel: 01483 277640

Shop Local

Shop Local

Our neighbourhood is fenced in by Brixton Road, Clapham Road, South Lambeth Road and Wandsworth Road all of which fetch up either at Oval or Vauxhall. Lots of roads, but no Hight Street; no banks and no big destination stores, but what we do have are great independent shops.

Use ‘em or lose ‘em may be a cliché, but when it comes to retail it’s quite literally true. Shop local because if you don’t, what do you get? More boarded up buildings, more chicken nugget boutiques and yet more bookies. That’s a future we can do without.

So here are three local shops for your consideration: Max & Melia, Blissett’s and Mimi’s Deli. I took a stroll round to all three and asked the owners why people should pay them a visit.

Max & Melia

  • 16 Clapham Rd SW9 0JG
  • Opening Hours
  • Tuesday to Thursday: 1030am-7pm
  • Friday and Saturday: 1030am-6pm
  • Monday and Sunday: Closed

Max & Melia is a gift shop; go in for a card and pick up a present. The owners have a terrific eye for quirky gifts, so while there are plenty of scented candles, greetings cards, and a rather fine Queen & Corgi salt and pepper set, you will also discover ‘shabby chic’ antiques. The owners scour auctions and markets for the unusual and idiosyncratic. They don’t claim to be antique experts, but they buy what they love, and they know what their customers want.

M&M opened its doors in November 2012 and originally intended selling furniture and other bigger homeware items, but customers started calling it the Little Oval Gift Shop, so that’s what it became.

Maxine, one of the owners, makes the point that what they offer is personal service. Come in a few times and you’ll be greeted by name, made to feel welcome and offered informed suggestions as to what you might want to buy.

The shop has just won a prestigious award. Battling against other top independent outlets from across London they received a Greats Award and were named ‘Independent Gift Retailer of the Year’.

They are dog-friendly (they own two), they have goods from all over the world, but they are on our doorstep so: think global and shop local.

Blissett’s

  • 32 Brixton Road SW9 6BU
  • Opening Hours
  • Monday to Friday: 8.30am-5.30pm
  • Saturday: 8.30am-4pm
  • Sunday: Closed

Google Blissett’s hardware store and the reviews are spot on:

  • Super helpful staff, good range of stock and fair prices.
  • Friendly, knowledgeable staff and an Aladdin’s cave of fantastic products.
  • Excellent DIY shop with very helpful staff.

Blissett’s is no new kid on the block. It was a building firm after the war employing some 27 men and was bought by the current owners’ Dad in 1981, who decided to retain the name but turn it into a builder’s merchant.

When asked why people should visit their shop, personal service and advice was again high on the agenda. While they still supply builders, many of their customers are now householders doing DIY. I can vouch for this as over the years I’ve sought their advice and products. My wife thinks I’m best at DNY (Do Nothing Yourself) but with their help, I struggle on.

Interestingly, they mentioned that many of their customers don’t have cars and so won’t venture farther afield to say B&Q but would rather use Blissett’s because it’s convenient and just a walk away.

They have a wide range of products which they claim are often cheaper than when sold over the internet and if a customer wants something they don’t have in stock they do their best to have it for them the next day.

Mimi’s Deli

  • 2 Brixton Rd SW9 6BU 
  • Opening Hours
  • Monday to Saturday 8am-5.30pm
  • Sunday 9am-3pm

Mimi’s has just been spruced up with some rather slinky designs of an elegant woman (is it Mimi?) drinking coffee. Any why wouldn’t she, the coffee is great in this extremely popular family run shop that is both deli and café.

Pop in for lunch or pick up something to take home. In our house their home-made pesto Genovese combined with their fiery chili pasta is always a winner. And my daughter wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t mention their legendary cannoli.

The café seats 20 people and is ideal for lunch with all the food being prepared in their downstairs kitchen. There’s a full menu every day which includes Italian classics such as pasta and pesto, lasagne and spaghetti Bolognese.

The shop has been a deli for more than thirty years with the present owners taking over in 2009. The financial crash saw off most of our specialist food stores so it’s a delight that Mimi’s has survived and thrived. As with the other shops I visited they pride themselves on giving their customers ‘that special, extra attention that you don’t get from chain stores’.

Mimi’s Deli: It’s our little bit of Italy on the Brixton Road.

You may already use these fine, welcoming establishments, but don’t leave it too long until your next visit.

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.

IMG_5092 2

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.