Street Junk

Street Junk

If I ever need to buy heroin or presumably just about any other drug of choice, I now know my local dealer. I’ve yet to approach him but most days he can be seen dressed in a hoodie with a promising looking backpack slung from his shoulder often with a couple of sad-sack junkies trailing in his wake.  He’s always in the same place hanging out, taking care of business, at our local BT InLink digital kiosk.

InLink allows you to make free calls, jump on wifi and charge your phone. It’s a hi-tech version of a phone booth and has proved a huge boon to the drug dealing fraternity.

Occasionally backpackers, slumped on their luggage, can be seen topping up their mobiles which must be deeply irritating to the dealers who feel that this is rightfully their territory.

BT must have thought they were on to a winner: A free public service that comes with a sleek electronic advertising hoarding that puts other street furniture to shame.

I suppose it’s an example of unintended consequences with crims using a service most people don’t need now most have smart phones. But bad news Mr Drug-Juggler, apparently police and councils are stopping further installations.

Dealers are big fans of this service as calls can’t be traced, but, wait a minute, there’s a CCTV camera hanging right above our kiosk. Perhaps the hoodie is obscuring his view.


 

Lust for Life: Van Gogh at Tate Britain

IMG_0041

It was always the sodding Sunflowers. The first Van Gogh painting I ever saw and if I’d had my way the last. Seventies student bedsits were crammed with posters of either the Tennis Girl, or Van Gogh’s drab pot of blooms. Perhaps they were right for the 70s in their awful beige flatness. Over the years my opinion of the troubled post-impressionist shifted somewhat, but I can’t say the Tate’s Van Gogh and Britain filled me with expectant joy. Sometimes it’s lovely to be proved wrong.

Everyone is describing this as a blockbuster exhibition so, being a member and to beat the crowds, I snuck in to see the show at 8am on a Sunday morning.

IMG_0022

To be clear, VG never painted a single picture in England though he lived near the Oval in London in his early 20s while working for an art dealer. Apparently, he loved the place, loved Dickens and said: “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes.”

The curators of this exhibition have done an astonishing job in selecting work that influenced the artist and in turn artists who were influenced by the troubled, red-headed Dutchman. He lived for just 37 years, painted for only ten of them and only made his artistic and stylistic breakthrough in the last two years of his life during which he created more than 2,000 pictures. If my maths is right, and I certainly wouldn’t guarantee it, that’s almost 20 a week. He was mentally disturbed and of course took his own life, but the range and intensity of his work leaves the viewer breathless.

A few years ago, the Royal Academy hosted the YBA’s ‘Sensation’ exhibition with the likes of Damien Hurst and Tracey Emin. It had the right-wing press in a lather not knowing whether to be morally outraged or to make fun of it. Twenty years after Van Gogh’s death his paintings were introduced to the British public in an exhibition at the Tate titled: Manet and the Post-Impressionists. At the Tate today there’s a wall of newspaper cuttings looking at that exhibition that are just as snide and sneering as those levelled at ‘Sensation’ but interestingly just like ‘Sensation’ it was wildly popular with the public and attracted more than 25,000 visitors.

IMG_0014

After the war, when people must have been craving colour, the Tate staged a Van Gogh exhibition which also proved highly popular. There’s a photograph in one of the glass cases of punters queuing on the front steps, eager to get in. Similarly, as I left the current exhibition today there was a line of people stretching out the door. Van Gogh identified with the working man, perhaps with everyman and we seem to respond. Even at his most psychedelic, and some of these paintings are eye-melting, he speaks directly to us.

IMG_0018

The standout picture of his in this exhibition is probably Starry Night, but some of the self-portraits are breathtaking and, unlikely as it might seem, a small picture of a pair of boots is heart breaking for reasons it’s hard to explain.

Shoes

Obviously, those going to see this exhibition will be looking for pictures by the man himself, but there are wonderful paintings by his Contemporaries and those who came after. I thought John Everett Millais was just another of those drippy pre-Raphaelites. He did the one of Ophelia, a hippy looking bird, drowning in a river. But just take a look at his magnificent ‘Chill October’ which is technically brilliant and seems to epitomise a cold autumnal British landscape. The final three paintings are by Francis Bacon titled Van Gogh in a Landscape and I know most won’t agree but they are perhaps the greatest works in the entire exhibition.

IMG_0032

Perhaps it’s down to decades of prejudice but ‘Sunflowers’ still looks drab, beige and curiously two dimensional. The exact opposite of just about everything else in this overwhelming exhibition. Don’t stop to think about it, just go.


 

The Oval Cook Book

The Oval Cook Book

Fed up with Brexit Britain? Had enough of Little England? Well here’s an idea, go buy a cookbook, more specifically The Oval Cook Book. As the author, Veronica Parker, says in her introduction: ‘In 2016 when we voted very narrowly to leave the EU, it felt as if all sorts of divisions had been opened up in our society.’ She wanted to heal those divisions where she could and set about creating a diversity cookbook which celebrates the lives and recipes of Kennington residents who have come from the four corners of the world.

Meet Akin Mustafa, originally from Cyprus, who runs the electrical shop on Clapham Road. He studied electrical engineering but fled the island after partition. Akin can fix anything from a toaster to an old VHS video machine and he can also fix a ‘Turkish Bean Salad’.

There’s a fine picture of Jasvir Singh receiving an OBE from Prince William for his services to social cohesion. His parents are both Punjabi Sikhs and the recipe he contributes to the book is ‘Turka Dhal’, that wonderful Indian dish with red lentils at its heart.

Walk down Coney Lane and you’ll come to Ashmole Stores run by the Patel brothers Bav and Prash. They came to the UK when Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Ugandan Asians. The brother’s parents, together with their two sisters, moved to Leicester, then came to London and set up their shop in 1984. Bav is a Millwall supporter but don’t hold that against him. Their recipe is for ‘Curried Meatballs’.

Now you’re already getting hungry and wondering where this nourishing book can be found, which leads me to Jeanne Joyce who runs the gift shop Max & Melia. Jeanne was brought up in Normandy, came to England as an au pair and made London her home. Her recipe is for ‘Tomato, Onion and Hearts of Palm Salad’.

In 2018 Max & Melia was named London Gift Retailer of the Year. The book is on sale at their store and costs eight pounds. Five pounds of every copy sold is donated to the Triangle Adventure Playground just off Claylands Road. So far £1400 has been raised to support this excellent cause.

There are fascinating life stories in this book, which go into far more detail than is contained here. Find out more about the lives of immigrants who have made Lambeth their home. We are lucky to have them, and now we are lucky to have their recipes.

Sparrows are back

Sparrows are back

I remember reading articles a few years back about the disappearance of that most common London bird, the sparrow. No one seemed to be able to account for their disappearance, but one day they were here in their millions and the next day they were gone.

I don’t know if it’s just my advancing age, but I never gave birds much thought in my youth, but I do now; they seem like little packets of magic. I grew up in rural Northamptonshire so can name all the common species, which always comes as a shock to my family as they only know me as a metropolitan type with little love for the countryside.

Just over a year ago we lost our cat Ziggy to some vile feline disease and we now have Bucket the Battersea Terrier. Sad as we were to lose Ziggy, it meant I was able to place a bird feeder in our small south London garden a few weeks ago. It hangs from a potted maple tree just outside our kitchen window and we waited to see who might stop by.

I don’t know where the little buggers have been hiding but we are now awash with sparrows. It’s quite common for there to be ten of them in the tree above the feeder, where they sit stropping their beaks, acting like meerkats keeping a lookout while a couple of them dive down to feed. These avian hoodlums are tough guys and the pair of blue tits that nest close by are given short shrift when they duck in to feed.

The winter has been so mild so far that birds don’t really need a free feed yet, but I’m happy to make their life easier as I have a guilty secret.

I’m ashamed to say, and this is genuine shame, that when I was twelve, I begged my parents for an air rifle. They didn’t like the idea, but I persisted and eventually got my way. And what did this vile twelve-year-old do? Why, he went shooting and killing sparrows in the family garden. I’m now a reformed character.

I mourned the apparent passing of these most London of birds and am delighted so many can be seen from my kitchen window. No guns this time little sparrows you’re safe with us, but watch out for the neighbour’s cat.


 

Oslo Court Restaurant

Oslo Court Restaurant

I love the crazy places of London. The places that seem improbable but exist anyway. How come a flying saucer with mushrooms in the ceiling landed in Knightsbridge was named Albert Hall and became one of our favourite concert venues?

Why are men currently throwing themselves into the icy grip of Hampstead Men’s Pond when they could be tucked up at home with a hot drink and a good book? Who knows but I’m glad they do even though I’m going nowhere near the place until the Spring.

I want to introduce you to another crazy place that I’d never heard of until friends took me there last Friday. It’s the Oslo Court Restaurant in St John’ Wood.

Its location is, to say the least, unusual. Walk down Prince Albert Road and turn into Charlbert Street and you’re met with a handsome art deco apartment block. Build in 1937 it boasts 125 one-bedroom flats many with balconies on to the park. Out front there’s a small sign that gives a clue that it also boasts a restaurant. Apparently in days gone by posh blocks often had restaurants but that fashion has disappeared.

Walking into reception a smartly dressed attendant directs you through a small unmarked door and suddenly you are in the pinkest restaurant in the world. It’s like falling into flock of flamingos and is something of a psychedelic shock as you reel towards your table. You are at a pink festival on Pink Day in Pinkland.

The owner, Tony Sanchez, has been running the joint for more than 35 years. The place definitely has a period feel. The single rose in the silver vases, the rich fabrics, the melba toast with vegetable croutons creates a time-machine that catapults you back to the 70s. There is nothing minimalist about Oslo Court. There’s no steel and glass here; it’s sumptuous.

Now describing a restaurant as having a 70s vibe will be about as welcome to the management as an outbreak of norovirus. Food in 70’s London was terrible, I know I lived through it, but I was poor at the time and I guess places like this must have existed for those with money.

Let’s get to the food. I started looking at the menu which as you’ll see has Dover Sole, Crab and Prawn Salad, Duck and Chicken Liver Pate, Salmon with Hollandaise sauce and sundry other 70’s delights though not (Tut Tut) Black Forest Gateaux or Prawn Cocktails. Suddenly a waiter arrived bearing news of at least twenty specials. I love a special.

Oslo Court RestaurantI opted for six oysters to start, served with an excellent sauce of Balsamic vinegar and garlic, then Beef Wellington (perfectly cooked and this is not an easy dish to get right) and for afters Lemon Meringue Pie with a side order of raspberries and vanilla ice cream. To finish up we had Petits Fours and coffee. A moment ago I described the atmosphere as sumptuous; the same goes for the portions. I then ordered a wheelbarrow to get me out of the place.

In the seventies, in between leaving school and going to University, I worked in a restaurant that boasted silver service. This is when the waiter serves your vegetables from a silver salver grasping the spuds and cauli between a spoon and fork and placing it effortlessly on your plate. Frankly I found it tricky and carrots typically ended up in the lap of some unsuspecting patron.

Silver service is now about as rare as a dodo, but not at Oslo Court where the waiters are dishing out the veg left and right while dressed in natty bow ties and dinner jackets.

This is a destination restaurant and if your destination factors in power cuts, a 3-day week, Ted Heath as PM it’s the place for you. The food is generally excellent but it’s not cheap; lunch comes in at £36 and Dinner £47. My only quibble was the vegetables were overcooked, but hey that’s the way we liked them 40 years ago.


Reservations: 020 7722 8795

Chalbert Street, NW8 7EN


 

Barking Mad

Barking Mad

Do you think Brexit is Barking Mad? Are you against being hounded out of the EU? Do you refuse to roll over and demand Walkies not Porkies? Well the chances are you were on the Wooferendum March with Bucket, me  and a bunch of terrible puns.

It was the most English event I’ve ever attended. As English as rain on a bank holiday and guessing the weight of the vicar at a village fete. It was Mr Bean or for those with a longer memory, an Ealing Comedy: Passport to Pimlico with dogs.

All of which was odd because the whole point of the march was an attempt to reverse our current little England tendencies and stay in the EU.

Bollocks to Brexit
Bucket and me on the way

Leaving the tube at Charing Cross we made our way to Waterloo Place where the dog pack was gathering. The organisers had organised pee stations, with pictures of the Bad Boys of Brexit taped to bollards at doggie height.

There was a surprising number of snappers present and you could tell they really relished the moment when a bulldog unloaded a quite spectacular amount of urine over Boris Johnson’s head. This is where you need a large male dog, that lifts its leg and lets go a Niagara Falls of piss. Bucket is female and quite small, so she just made Dr Liam Fox MP a little damp. Good effort though.

And of course being English everyone was incredibly polite scolding their dogs if they got a bit snappy and apologising profusely. This is entirely unscientific, but I’m going to hazard a guess and say there were around 5,000 people on the march and slightly fewer dogs.

Making for Trafalgar Square we were suddenly caught in the cross-fire of a Brazilian demonstration. Brazil is in the middle of a very hard-fought election campaign with the far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro stabbed during a recent election rally. His supporters were on our right (well of course they were) and those of his rival the Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad were on our left. In total I suppose there were about two hundred protesters, but I have to say they put us lot to shame.

We were all shambling along politely with our mutts, while they were screaming shouting, singing, gesticulating and generally tearing the lid off the thing. Us Brits, we’re just not good at being demonstrative, which is kind of a pity when you’re on a demo.

Walking on down Whitehall past Downing Street I came across Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor and fervent anti-Brexit activist, who had brought along his five-month-old King Charles Spaniel Skye.

I asked him if he missed being at Number 10. He poo-pooed the idea but looked a little wistful, I thought.

Our final destination was Parliament Square. There were various speakers including Campbell, actor Peter Egan and Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy. Frankly, by now Bucket’s heart wasn’t in it and so opted for a poo on Parliament Square. I thought this might have been a pawlitical act on her part but on balance I think she just needed a dump.

So there I am bag in hand cleaning up the mess when out of nowhere a march organiser descends and says don’t worry I’ll take care of that and scoops up Bucket’s poop and departs. Bet you don’t get that in Brazil.

Vauxhall Park Lavender Harvest

Vauxhall Park Lavender Harvest

Walking down Fentiman Road SW8 and the smell hits you. Suddenly you’re not in Lambeth you’re in Provence; the smell of lavender is everywhere. Turning into Vauxhall Park there’s a hive of activity with locals harvesting great rows of lavender plants.  Almost twenty years ago an unused bowling green that sat on the west side of this much-loved local park, was turned into a lavender field.

One of the hottest London summers on record means this year there’s a bumper crop and this weekend the locals are bringing it in under the watchful eye of Ruth and Polly from Friends of Vauxhall Park. Usually you are encouraged not to pick the flowers; this is the exception.

Volunteers are cutting down the plants and then snipping the flowerheads into baskets. These will be taken to the distillery tomorrow and turned into lavender oil and ironing spray, which will be on sale at Italo on Bonnington Square. A 10 millilitre bottle costs £8 and all proceeds are ploughed back into the upkeep of the park.

Distillery owner, Laurie from Carshalton, who’s in charge of the distilling process takes out his magnifying glass and shows me where the oil is contained in the flower buds. Last year the crop produced 5 litres of lavender oil, but he tells me excitedly that this year could see almost double that amount.

Ruth explains the old lavender plants must be replaced. So, pop into Italo and buy a pot, you’ll be part of making sure that we all enjoy the lavender harvest next year.