This week, I hit the streets of London again to visit two places that I’ve had on my list for a while. It was a nice day, not especially warm given that we’re into the final days of October, but the wind was bracing and I decided that I would walk to my destinations. Arriving at London Bridge, I felt I might be in it for the long haul, as first I needed to get to Islington.
The walk was satisfyingly long, but I got to crunch through autumn leaves most of the way there, passing through areas of London I’m far less familiar with. That in itself is always exciting.
I eventually found my first stop – Present & Correct, a stationers without compare. If you follow my other blog, you’ll know that I’ve just read a book called Adventures In Stationery, a history of everything in your pencil case. (Believe me, it’s far nerdier – and far better – than it sounds.) At the back was a note that he liked this stationery shop. When I saw a few days later an article about the same place, I decided that it was time to turn up myself and have a look, being a sucker for a good notebook or pen.
Tucked away down Arlington Way, its name stencilled onto the glass in small gold letters and no banner signage over the door to indicate what it is, Present & Correct seems to shun the limelight. You know it’s a stationers though before you even look inside; in the window are giant pencils and an enormous blue and pink eraser.
Although small, the shop is packed with goodies. I have read that the two owners travel Europe (and perhaps further) in their quest for new products to sell, so there’s a fairly eclectic mix of stuff here, from unusual paper clips, curiously lined notebooks, reels of brightly coloured tape and gorgeous children’s books. If you’re really into stationery, then pop in and fill your boots (although maybe not literally) with some of the fanciest pencils, pads, scissors and bulldog clips in the world. I wish I could say that I bought something in here, but I found myself unable to justify the price of anything. But then again, I don’t think it’s the sort of place where you go if you need something. You go because you want it.
One thing I can always justify the price of, though, is wine. Thanks to that current bastion of pop culture and important knowledge, Buzzfeed, I had discovered The Fable, a book-themed bar near Holborn. I walked here from Present & Correct, feeling that the walk would make me feel less guilty about any alcohol I consumed at, what was, lunchtime.
It was a fair old walk (although did include me passing a hairdressers called Barber Streisand) but the bar is situated near the Holborn Viaduct, a short walk from Chancery Lane station. The bar/restaurant is on three levels, and has street seating too, meaning its capacity is enormous. I descended to the bottom level, past walls papered with book pages and a general feeling of happiness and warmth. Once below, it was quite busy, but I found a high table, adopted my position on the stool with a glass of wine and got out my book. This was the real reason for wanting to come here; it’s meant to be a great place to sit and read. And it was, save for the fact I accidentally got too drunk, which is never a great look by yourself.
The first glass of Pinot Grigio went down too quickly, but when I got up to the bar to ask for some food, the barman who had served me first merely said, “Another large one?” They had me pegged. But I ordered some chips and within five minutes – that’s no exaggeration – they had arrived. I can’t vouch for the rest of the menu, but the chips were great, and other people seemed to be tucking in heartily to their lunches, although the majority of people there were in business dress and just drinking. From what I gathered, the restaurant was on the floor above me.
I did then accidentally get a second large glass of wine, so while some memories of the place are a little wobbly, I do know that it’s a charming, warm and friendly bar. The staff were all excellent, sharp and efficient. I didn’t get the name of the guy who had been serving me, but to the chap in the pastel blue-and-pink checked shirt last Thursday, you were excellent. Although the book theme isn’t overtly pronounced, it crops up in a few places. Most notably (see right) in the booth that is made out of stacks of books presumably glued together. I would have loved to tuck myself away in there for the afternoon, but given that it’s a table for six-to-eight and was already occupied when I arrived, it wasn’t really possible. A really nice touch happened before I left, when my bill was handed to me, not on a tray, but tucked inside an old hardback. And hanging high up above us was the beautiful quotation, “Once in a while right in the middle of an ordinary life, love gives us a fairy tale”, which seemed charming and a lovely sentiment.
After leaving, I then spent a slightly tipsy but enjoyable afternoon traversing the city’s bookshops, but that’s a story for an entirely different post, so for now I’ll call an end to this. But hopefully this post shows that if you are a keen reader, writer or designer, there’s more to do in London than attend writing classes or browse bookshops. It’s a city with a rich literary history – if not the richest in the world – and so it has constructed itself to reflect this. And I for one couldn’t be happier about it.
Anyone who follows my other blog, the book reviewing Fell From Fiction, will know that I am a sucker for anything Agatha Christie wrote. It came to my attention this week that, in honour of the 125th anniversary celebrations of her life, there was an exhibition called “Agatha Christie: Unfinished Portrait” on in London so I naturally dropped everything and had to go see it.
As soon as I arrived at London Bridge though, someone thought it amusing to begin pouring the entire contents of the Pacific over the city and with only a small umbrella as shelter, I became steadily more and more sodden as I walked along Southbank in the direction of Bankside Gallery. Eventually, with only fifty or so metres to go, I succumbed to temptation and disappeared into the Tate Modern for a drink on their top floor bar. Alright, it might have been unnecessary, but the wine was good, it had stopped raining by the time I’d finished, and I got this lovely picture up there.
Bankside Gallery is a small, one-room gallery with a gift shop off to one side stocked with books about art and artists, as well as the usual tourist trappings. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs inside, but instead whipped out my Moleskine and took notes on what was inside.
The exhibition has been set up with the help of Agatha Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard, her only living relative, who has delved deep into the family’s personal effects to draw up previously unseen photographs of the Queen of Crime. Displayed all around the walls along with a timeline of her life and works, and quotes from her autobiography, private letters and notebooks, they form a version of the writer that few people ever knew.
Most people, from what I can gather, seem to think of her as an old woman hunched over her typewriter churning out mystery after mystery, but the reality seems very different indeed and the gallery goes a long way to showing that she had a fascinating and varied life, a joyful childhood, a good sense of humour and never actually had any ambitions of being a writer.
In the gallery, I discover that she actually wanted to be a pianist or a singer, but wasn’t good enough at either. She became a nurse during the First World War, and that is what made her so knowledgeable about poisons and why so many of her characters were killed by them. It details what everyone knows about her, that she once went missing for eleven days, and gives an insight into the breakdown of her first marriage and the beginnings of the second, one that was certainly a lot happier.
It transpires that she didn’t smoke or drink, but not because she didn’t want to. She looked on enviously at those who enjoyed those vices, but was unable to appreciate them herself. It is testament to her success that she is the only female playwright to ever have three shows on in the West End at the same time (The Mousetrap, Spider’s Web and Witness for the Prosecution), and when she died, every theatre in the West End dimmed their lights for an hour. At 85 when she died, she didn’t fear death, but was merely interested in finding out more about it.
At the centre of the gallery sit three things that, for me, were the most incredible items here. First is a painting of Christie by Oskar Kokoschka that normally never leaves Prichard’s house. The second is a rare recording of her voice – Christie never did a television interview and didn’t care for speeches – in which she discusses that she, like every other writer, suffered from writer’s block, and knew the pain of the right words coming when you were miles from anywhere to write them down. And thirdly, next to some first editions of her early books, sits her Remington typewriter, the very machine that produced so many wonderful works of literature.
Christie isn’t for everyone, but if you go to the gallery, your opinion is likely to change regarding her anyway. She enjoyed life, hugely. She liked roller-skating, tennis and is believed to have been the first English person to ever surf standing up, something she brought back from a holiday in Honolulu. The exhibition is only on in Bankside until September 6th, so I urge you to go along this week if you get a chance.
I’m aware that this entry has been more of a potted history of the life of Agatha Christie rather than about London itself, but the point of this blog is to explore all aspects of London and what is London without its people? Agatha Christie may have been born in Torquay and died in Oxfordshire, but in the interim she spent a lot of time in London, lived in Chelsea, produced numerous plays for the West End and set a lot of her books here. I’ll cover these on another day.
Once more, I suggest you hurry along to the Bankside Gallery and explore the life of this amazing woman. And if you can’t make this one, I am sure that another exhibition will be open soon enough that will entice you to one of the most charming galleries in the city.
The British like to drink. It’s been part of our culture for so long that other countries struggle to keep up. We aren’t the heaviest drinkers in the world, certainly. It’s been estimated that we drink ten litres per person each year; the outright winners are Estonia who drink 12.3. But nonetheless, with it being such an important part of our heritage, it comes as no surprise that London is full of places to get tanked up.
How many? Well, that’s something for another day, but estimates range between four and seven thousand, depending on where you draw the borders and what counts as a pub or bar. You could drink in a different one every day for ten or more years. Today I’m just talking about one of them – BYOC.
There are actually three branches of BYOC in the country, two of them in London, but the following takes place in the Camden branch. I went there in May for a friend’s birthday. We’d been to a couple of other pubs in Camden first (which later turned out to be a mistake) and then turned up for our appointment at BYOC. Trouble is, it’s not exactly the easiest bar to find. When we did eventually find it, it was just a black door sandwiched between two nondescript shops, its name printed in small black letters on a glass panel above.
Why all the secrecy? Because BYOC is not your average bar. For one thing, it doesn’t have a liquor licence. It also doesn’t have any menus. BYOC stands for Bring Your Own Cocktail, which means you supply the alcohol that you want to drink. Then, with whatever you’ve selected, the mixologists add their non-alcoholic ingredients of fruit, syrups, juice and garnishes to produce cocktails specifically tailored for you.
There were nine of us there and we all chipped in to buy a good selection of drink, taking in a mix of gin, rum, vodka, tequila and prosecco. The mixologist assigned to our table said we’d probably get four or five drinks each in the two hours we were allotted (you have to book ahead of time, and that’s just how long you get). As it turned out, we made it through at least seven each.
The mixologists clearly know what they’re doing and have a cornucopia of non-alcoholic ingredients to make up whatever they want. You can specify what you want them to make, as we did a little later, but it’s just as easy to let them get on with it. They know what works and what doesn’t, and they’ll happily whip up some of the tastiest things you’ll ever drink.
Our first drink was a cool vodka and lychee cocktail with a raspberry floating in it, that worked almost as a palate cleanser, syrupy and sweet. For the second drink, the mixologist poured the whole bottle of rum into a glass bowl and created a rum punch, complete with edible flowers floating in it. (As a side note, if you’ve never eaten them, flowers taste exactly like you’d expect them to.)
While we drank the rum from cute glass teacups, the third drink was whipped up in the form of a gin and prosecco cocktail. These were followed by the strongest passionfruit margaritas in the world that had too much tequila for most of our tastes, but most of the group still managed to get them down, aided along by the previous drinks.
After that, we had very large shots of prosecco, which is an interesting sensation, and then a lurid green concoction of gin and cucumber. The final drink before we stumbled out into the evening was another gin, prosecco and raspberry cocktail. We’d drunk everything we brought in, apart from some dregs in the tequila bottle that no one was much keen on claiming ownership of. All in all, it was a fantastic night, although parts of it are a bit hazy.
The interior of the bar is gorgeous, compared to the unexceptional exterior, decorated entirely like a 1920s speakeasy. The music complements it wonderfully, and everything feels like you probably shouldn’t be there, again, like prohibition-era America and this is all top secret. We were sat at a blackjack table, complete with piles of gambling chips, but it’s all for show. I daresay if you bought some cards you could have a game or two, but the drink is really the priority here.
It’s not a place I think you could go to regularly, if only because the cost for two hours in there is £25 per person, but it’s good as an experience, and you definitely get your money’s worth. Obviously you have to also account for the cost of the alcohol you’re bringing in, but I would advise anyone going to not feel they have to splash out on the expensive brands. People on the table next to us had Beefeater gin and Grey Goose vodka, but we’d gone down a cheaper route and it definitely didn’t matter. Once everything’s mixed up anyway you can’t tell. I would also advise that you take a wide selection of drinks or you’re going to be limiting yourselves and the bartender. We had seven bottles between nine of us, and that worked out great.
The staff were very pleasant – we had a couple of mixologists over the course of the night – and BYOC prides itself on only hiring very experienced bartenders, all of whom know not only how to mix any cocktail you can name (as well as all having the balls to experiment and try new things all the time), but are knowledgeable on the history of cocktails, the scientific principles behind mixing and how to be a good host.
Get a group together and book yourselves a table at BYOC. It’s a great laugh and a genuinely good night out with a twist. My final piece of advice? There’s no need to go to anywhere else for a pre-drink. You just won’t need it.