How I learned to love Manchester

This time last year, my only experience of Manchester was a nailbiting three-hour trip to Old Trafford – where, regular readers will remember, Palace beat Man United after extra time in the quarter-finals of the 2011/12 League Cup. It was good, but it could have been in Slough and it would still have been good, and I wasn’t bowled over by Old Trafford itself, which looks a bit – well, it looks a bit like it might be part of Milton Keynes:

Apologies for the poor quality: I was quite a long way away when I took this

Apologies for the poor quality: I was quite a long way away when I took this.

It’s better inside, but in the thrill of the moment I seem to have forgotten to take any photos inside.

Anyway, my next trip was back to the same part of the city, more or less, for last October’s Radio Festival, held at the Lowry Centre at Salford Quays, where I was delighted to find art and music and the fantastically interesting and thoughtful Daniel Libeskind-designed Imperial War Museum North all crouching greyly by the waterside. But apart from the inside of Piccadilly Station I hadn’t seen the city proper until I went there a few weeks ago with work, and now I have seen it, I’m cross that I spent 36 years not visiting it, because Manchester is brilliant. Whenever I visit a new city* I end up deciding I would like to live there, but the feeling usually wears off within a few hours, and certainly by the time I’ve spent a day back in London, with everything London has. But Manchester has quite a lot of what London has, and more besides – a compact, walkable centre; space for buildings to breathe and be viewed from all angles; thriving, mixed-use canalside and dockside areas in the city centre; a strong and convincing sense of civic pride – and the tallest residential building in Europe, the faintly terrifying-looking 46-storey, 169-metre Beetham Tower:

Beetham Tower

I became a bit obsessed with the Beetham Tower, and eventually figured out how to get at least partway up it to take some photos of the view – which you can see, along with the rest of my photos of Manchester, here. I even went and had a look at a flat for sale there, not because I was going to buy it, but – well, just to make absolutely sure I wasn’t going to buy it. (I’m not going to buy it. It was 75% amazing, but the bedrooms were poky and the service charge is THREE THOUSAND POUNDS A YEAR, though as at least some of that goes towards window cleaning I had to grudgingly concede that I’d rather pay than do it myself.)

The city is a mishmash of buildings old and new, just like London, but – at least partly thanks to the nineteenth century red brick, which really is everywhere – the contrast looks intended and appealing. And it has lively and unique arts, technology and gay scenes and a genuinely diverse population; all prerequisites for a great city. Every Londoner I’ve spoken to about it since has said “I didn’t think I was going to like Manchester, but actually it was really nice!” – and perhaps its middling reputation with other parts of the country is why it’s so proudly and distinctively itself, in which case please forget everything I’ve said and go back to thinking of it as middling. In the meantime, I’ll be planning my next trip.

*Exceptions to this rule include Norwich and Edinburgh, leading me to believe that perhaps I just don’t like hills.

Recipe: borscht with celeriac and stilton soda bread

Celeriac and stilton soda bread

The problem with working next to Oxford Street is that there is no consumable that I can’t get hold of by leaving the office and walking for five minutes. Need new gloves? Accessorize is right there. Knickers? M&S is just over the road. A beautifully-designed but faintly useless toothbrush? Muji is your friend.

Even worse, I can eat anything I like for lunch, and even worse than that, there’s a place at the back of the always-empty and visibly low-rent Plaza shopping centre called “Pizza Hut Express”, where you can get a 6″ pizza, chips and a drink for £4.69 and eat it at your own four-seater table in the food court. For the first week after I disovered it, I ate there almost every day, because why wouldn’t you?

I offset this, in my mind, with the fact that I walk in to work from Charing Cross in the mornings and back again in the evening: an upside of this location (and there are lots) is that more or less all of central London is within walking distance of here. The station is a mile away and it me takes less than twenty minutes to stride through Soho to reach it; Camden is two miles along the edge of Regent’s Park and barely takes longer to reach than it would by tube; Shoreditch is a bit further but still under an hour away on foot, and rather that than pile onto the Central Line at Oxford Circus in rush hour.

(I don’t go to Camden or Shoreditch for fun, incidentally. I am 36. But I have to go for work sometimes.)

The other way to offset it is to eat well in the evenings, which is much easier to do (or, rather, harder to not do) now we have a veg box. In our Abel and Cole 2013 calendar, February’s recipe is this celeriac and stilton soda bread, which is super-easy to make and tastes amazing (although I had to cook it for about 20 minutes longer than the recipe said), and since they sent me beetroots instead of carrots this week I made it last night with borscht, which is one of the best cheap but exciting things to make. Do wear an apron, because even fresh raw beetroot makes everything red, though not as permanently as the pickled stuff does. This recipe is an amalgam of several, and you should play around with adding and removing things, though I think you MUST add carrots to get that carroty silkiness, and you MUST strain it through a sieve, because it’s the contrast of the rich, earthy beetroot flavour with the delicateness of a strained soup that makes it so nice to eat. If you don’t have caraway seeds you can add fennel, or you can have both, or neither.

Ingredients (serves 2)

3-4 fresh beetroots

3-4 carrots, more if they are tiny

A stick of celery

A handful of shallots

A clove of garlic

1.5L of your stock of choice (mine is chicken but beef and vegetable are OK too)

A teaspoonful of caraway seeds

A bay leaf

Method: Peel and roughly chop all the vegetables and put them in a pan with the caraway seeds, the bay leaf and some black pepper, and salt if your stock is not a salty one. Cover with the stock, bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for about an hour. Remove the bay leaf, whizz in the blender until smooth-ish, then strain through a sieve. Reheat on the hob and serve by itself or with a splosh of sour cream (Polish sour cream, which you can get in Polish stores, of which there is definitely one near you even if you haven’t ever noticed it, is tastier). Eat wearing a bib, or something you don’t mind getting red on.

Carter USM at Brixton Academy, 10 November 2012

Carter USM at Brixton Academy

This is why I am not a professional photographer

Good things come to those who wait. I waited twenty-one years for it, and this month my patience was finally rewarded when I got to see Carter USM, the best band in the world, play Brixton Academy, the best (big) venue in the world.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that twenty-one years of anticipation would be too much to live up to? That now that I’m, frankly, 30 Something, and they are, well, older than that, the frenzied excitement and wild fandom of my teens might have faded, and the sparkle and energy of their live performances dulled? I’ve never seen them before so I can’t tell you it was as good as seeing them in 1991, but it was as good as I’ve ever imagined seeing them to be, and better. As good because it was as thrilling and lively and boisterous a show as you could hope for, and better because it hadn’t occurred to me until I had the evidence before me that south London is full of people who love Carter as much as I do, who know all the words and were having exactly the same amount of fun as me. I have always said that the reason radio will never be killed off by Spotify and its ilk is that there is something transcendent and intimate about being one of a group of people who don’t know each other all sharing the same  musical experience, and if a DJ can do it then a band can do it times ten. The last time I wrote about them I said I liked to keep Carter as my own secret band, but it turns out that sharing them is even better.

Other things: this may be the first gig I have ever been to at Brixton where I didn’t drink anything more exciting than a Pepsi, and that was good too, because I was in a place I loved, full of people I loved, watching music I loved, and none of it was the fake love that a couple of vodkas inspires (“No, YOU’RE amazing”). I wanted to hug everyone there, and I still do.

(That said, we skipped out of the aftershow party quite quickly because we were tired and flaky, so we didn’t get to have our photos taken with the band themselves, but that’s probably for the best. If you shouldn’t meet your heroes, you definitely shouldn’t meet your superheroes, right?)

I posted this over here rather than over there because it’s not a review. It’s a thank-you note. To the band, to everyone who made the show happen, to Shona who bought me a ticket (and who has a photo of me, aged 15, in a knocked-off Carter t-shirt which was my pride and joy) and to everyone who was there on the night. I got beer spilled on my difficult-to-wash jumper and I lost my voice, and everything about it was perfect.

Sofa so good

I have been trying not to write about the Olympics, because I haven’t got anything to say that someone else hasn’t already said better, and because I am too busy watching to think about writing anything anyway. But having spent the last two evenings at live events (table tennis on Tuesday, football on Wednesday), I have realised that – whisper it – the Olympics are kind of better on TV. Of course, being there is super-exciting, and you get to be a part of the crowd and talk to people you’d never have talked to otherwise, and if you’re lucky get within sniffing distance of a superhuman. But you also get to spend a lot of time standing around, or queueing, or spending a lot of money on not-very-nice food, and I realised as I stood penned-in by police horses outside Wembley Stadium last night that I could have been spending all that time watching the fricking Olympics. It’s bad enough that I have to go to stupid work and be in stupid meetings while people are winning medals, but it’s worse when I’ve paid £80 to stand in a queue and miss out on it all.

So I have come to the conclusion that the best way to enjoy the games is by mostly watching them on TV, and just sticking your nose briefly into the action itself. After all, a single ticket to most of the sessions costs just about what the license fee does for a whole year, and with literally every event available via the BBC you will get more sport for your sterling by sitting at home, where the food is cheaper and the toilet queues much shorter, than by buying expensive seats which allow you to sit quite a long way away from everything that’s actually happening.

This is all good news. The Olympics are designed to be watched in person by tens of thousands of people, and on TV by actual billions. In this case, you lose nothing by being one of the ninety nine per cent. So use your Mastercard to buy a Pepsi, settle down in front of your Sony TV and enjoy the freedom and the luxury of watching from the best seat in the house.

Man interviewing fan in comedy glasses

Half-time entertainment at the table tennis. It doesn’t have to be this way.

(All of which said, please note that I will happily accept gifts of free tickets to anything you like.)

 

London Bridge (station) Is Falling Down

Caution: Wet Floor sign

There is a stretch of tunnel at London Bridge station, linking the Underground with the Southern Railway platforms, which is lined with half-a dozen shops of the sort that you make an emergency visit to when you are on your way to someone’s birthday party and you have forgotten to pick up a card. It is dingy and badly-lit, and the clock overhead is wrong for at least six months of the year. It is not a place you would choose to linger for longer than it takes to buy a birthday card.

In the last few months, though, it has become even more offputting. Now, as you walk through, you have to dodge large puddles of water, in the middle of which sit optimistically-placed buckets and the odd “Caution Wet Floor” sign. Sometimes, you have to dart at odd angles across the corridor to avoid being dripped on.

Now.  We’ve had a lot of rain this summer, I know that. But it rains a lot in winter and autumn, and it has never caused the roof of the station to develop this many leaks. Call me crazy, but I can’t help wondering whether the 310-metre-high building which has been built inches away from the tunnel could be at least partly responsible for this sudden instability.

If you are an engineer and can tell me why I’m completely wrong, please do, ideally before this evening when I will have to make the journey again. A crowded, sweaty, stinky commute is one thing. One carrying even a minimal danger of becoming crushed in a collapsed heap of brickwork and birthday cards is quite another.

The perfect baked potato

A baked potato

A baked potato

Over the years I have got better at cooking not gradually, but in a series of leaps that look like this:

1976-1994: No cooking at all.

1994-99: University years. Specialities: pitta-bread pizzas, cheese toasties, tuna pasta bake.

1999-2005: Spent living with a chef. Learned a few bits of proper cooking, but mostly left it to him. Specialities: stuffed peppers, chilli con carne.

2005-2008: What I like to think of as The Wilderness Years. Very little cooking. Specialities: pasta with grated cheese, buttered crumpets, crisps.

2008-date: Sudden keen interest in cooking, wedding vouchers spent on kitchen equipment. Specialities: roast chicken, roast beef with yorkshire pudding, chicken pie, lasagne, apple crumble, sausage rolls, bread, cheese scones.

From which we can conclude that if you want to come over for dinner, you should do it now and not five years ago. Unless, that is, you want baked potatoes. I love baked potatoes. They are one of the simplest, cheapest, most honest and unfucked-about-with things you can eat, and a big one is a meal all by itself. But here’s the thing: I can’t bastard cook them. I have tried every method, and whatever I do they end up unevenly crunchy where they should be soft and soft where they should be crunchy or else so dried out as to be more or less inedible. There is no in-between. Occasionally, like one time in twelve, they have turned out OK, which makes it even worse because it’s just encouraging enough for me to keep trying, with almost-inevitable disappointment each time.

If you have a miracle method to share with me, please do. I will probably make a cock of it, but I’ll give it a go. The perfect baked potato is:

  • Fluffy
  • Not too dry
  • Not reheated
  • Liberally annointed with butter and cheese
  • Elegant in its proportions, not the size of a half-brick

Damn, I’m hungry now.

Olympic rage

I have spent seven years defending the London Olympics to everyone who thinks they are a terrible waste of money and effort. “The Olympics”, I have said more than once, “are the only time when the nations of the world come together in an activity which isn’t a war. They represent the best of human society and endeavour, and we should celebrate them”.

I still think that, but Londoners have been exposed to an increasing amount of games-related publicity in the last few weeks, and I think I’ve finally snapped. It’s not the solemn entreaties to walk or cycle instead of taking public transport this summer (although unless you’re going to refund some of my £160 monthly travel costs, Boris, you can fuck right off with that suggestion); nor is it the utter mess they made of ticketing (although I’m separately angry about that). No: the reason my stomach clenches every time I see one of the posters is the unutterably hideous font they’re using to promote the event.

Look at it:

London Olympics text

It looks exactly like the kind of design I used to come up with, freehand, when as a teenager I briefly thought that I might like to be a graphic designer. It was the fact that my fonts looked like this that made me realise I wasn’t good enough. It’s ugly, it’s difficult to read, and most of all it looks half-finished, like a placeholder that’s being used as a joke to remind the designer to replace it with a proper font before he sends the proofs over.

But it’s not a joke, or a placeholder: it’s the font that somebody, somewhere – possibly, even, a committee – has decided should be used to showcase British design talent on the biggest, brightest stage of them all. I feel ashamed every time I look at it, and you know what? I could absolutely have done a better job.

(Also terrible: the logo, which I have ranted about elsewhere, and the mascots, which are so bizarrely awful that I almost can’t bring myself to mention them at all, but just for comparison, here is Misha, the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Misha, for the avoidance of doubt, is a bear:

Misha the Olympic bear

…and here are Wenlock and Mandeville, the mascots of the 2012 London Olympics:

wenlock and mandeville

Wenlock and Mandeville are, uh, they’re…aliens? In…cycle helmets? Cute! I want one!

Still, at least they aren’t named after a small-town law firm. Oh.)

Fairytales of New York

Image

I’ve just got back from New York, the city where every street has a song named after it, and every vista is a still from a movie. So since I am yet to get over the jet lag and I took so many photos that I am overwhelmed at the thought of uploading them, here as a lazy alternative to a real blog post is a list of my favourite New York films. What are yours?

1. Annie Hall

I could have had any of about eight Woody Allen films, but Annie Hall is the best of them and one of the New Yorkiest, and Annie is the New Yorkiest heroine ever, despite being from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Also, it features my favourite ever line from a film, if I had to choose – you know, the one about the eggs*.

(Actually, I did have to choose my favourite line from a film recently, for work, but I thought the one about the eggs would make me look a little weird and neurotic, and I’ve only been there three months and I don’t need them to know that already. So I went for Sloane Peterson’s “Sooner or later, everybody goes to the zoo” from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which sounds profound but, I think, isn’t.)

2. Ghostbusters

Like Annie Hall, would probably make the list of my favourite films ever (actually, so would about half of this list). After nearly thirty years (I know!), still perfect. And really a love poem to New York City, as implicit in its luscious locations as it is explicit in Winston Zeddemore’s “I love this town!”.

3. The Taking of Pelham 123

A proper thriller, set mostly in the bowels of Manhattan’s subway system, with occasional glimpses above ground, where the steam jets that shoot out at street level echo the spikes of tension that increase as the film goes on. If you haven’t seen it, rent it today (I am, in case you’re unsure, talking about the 1970s version and not the recent remake, which I have not seen).

4. King Kong

The 1933 version. Not entirely a New York film, but it makes the cut for that incredible final scene. I also quite liked the 1970s version, and even the Naomi Watts version was OK. It’s just a really really great story. But the Empire State Building was only two years old when they made the original, which adds an extra frisson to the battle between nature and mankind that lies at the heart of the film.

5. Laura

Not just because we have the same name, but because this is the sexiest, dreamiest, most elegant piece of noir you’ll ever see and because it offers a glimpse of high society in 1940s New York, which might just be the most glamorous time and place that ever was. As it happens, Laura is showing at the BFI on the Southbank until the end of next week, so if you live in or near London, do try to go.

6. Dog Day Afternoon

There are films which I think are exemplary, one-off pieces of film-making and which I might watch every couple of years (2001, Badlands) and films which I watch at every opportunity because I love them like you love your slippers, and most of all I love the characters (Ghostbusters, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and then there are films which are both, and Dog Day Afternoon is one of them. Set on a hot, steamy day in Brooklyn, it tells a short but brilliant story which is laden with atmosphere, and it’s one of the films I always immediately lend to people who haven’t seen it, because it is a film everyone should see, today if possible.

7. Crocodile Dundee

There’s a dispoportionate number of 80s films in this list, but that’s because the 80s were an exciting time to be in New York City. When I first saw Crocodile Dundee I was half-entranced, half-terrified by the androgynous, highly-hairsprayed characters making up some of the supporting cast, but as an adult I just find them impossibly alluring, and it breaks my heart a little bit that I will never go clubbing in New York in the 1980s.

8. Coming to America

Like Crocodile Dundee, this film is better now than it was when it first came out, because it speaks so elequently and appealingly of a particular New York that doesn’t really exist any more. Plus, the mean Queens apartment that Prince Akeem rents now looks like a palace compared to the eggbox-sized spaces that people really live in. And, well, it’s just still funny.

9. Q: The Winged Serpent

Monster! In New York! I can’t tell you precisely why this is so good; you just have to watch it.

10. Splash

Slash was in competition with Big and Arthur for the tenth spot, because like those films it shows you the New York we all grew up with; the fantasy version of the city that we knew before we ever went there. But it wins because when I saw it I, too, thought “Madison” was a beautiful name for a girl, and couldn’t understand why Tom Hanks didn’t agree.

Not making the cut are films I love which use New York as their backdrop, but which aren’t really about New York (Synecdoche New York, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rope, The Apartment, Rear Window, West Side Story) and films which make New York look like the worst place in the world (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets). I also haven’t made room for Goodfellas, which would have been eleventh if I had been making a longer list.

*  “I thought of that old joke, y’know… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because most of us… need the eggs.”

Blue sky thinking

sky-coloured lighting

Sorry, that’s a truly terrible title for this post, but I’m at work so I have to write quickly. I am lucky because my new office has lots of windows, and I honestly think that daylight helps you (or, at least, me) to concentrate, which is why I would always have a desk facing outwards if I could. But in the absence of that, and since the beloved is yet to write the bestselling novel which means neither of us will ever need to work again, the next best thing is probably this sky-mimicking ceiling lighting from (naturally) Germany. It’s €1,000 per square metre at the moment. Donations welcome.