Thursday, 12 November 2015

Pizza of the Week: Domino's, Marrickville

My fast-food pizza of choice used to be Pizza Hut - from birth to age 20 it was the only pizza I'd ever eaten, thanks SED - but in the past year they've dramatically changed in quality, using different cheese, sauce and dough, and what was once a beloved and reliable friend is now an inedible mess. It's the biggest betrayal of my life. I've given them SO much loyalty, not to mention money. Long before Pizza Hut stabbed me in the back, I'd widened my pizza palate to include Domino's, and do I quite like it as well, though its spicier sauce does mess with my tummy a bit, thanks ulcerative colitis. Now, it's all I've got, when it comes to easy, fast, oily, tasty, chain store pizza. And that's what I wanted tonight. Sometimes, it's needed.

I had an online coupon: $33.95 for three pizzas, garlic bread and a Coke, which is a great deal, especially considering that I freeze leftover Domino's and eat it later. I can get four or five meals out of three large pizzas, if I ration out the slices into freezer bags. Leo gets the garlic bread. I don't like it.

I find the quality of Domino's very inconsistent, and so I had my fingers crossed for a good and satisfying order. They delivered. PUN INTENDED. Good effort, Domino's Marrickville. You nailed it tonight.

Look at these crunchy-crusted, comforting delicacies.

I forgot to take a pic of the cheese one before stuffing it into my face. The all-mushroom one was particularly delightful, because mushrooms, in layers, create a sort of savory juice of their own when cooked. A heavily mushroomed pizza is one of the juiciest things a non-meat-eater can eat.

They did bring a Coke instead of a Coke Zero, which is slightly annoying as I'm trying not to drink full-fat soft drink. The best sugar-free drink by FAR is Pepsi Max, another Pizza Hut casualty - in this country, Domino's has a deal with Coke and Pizza Hut has Pepsi products. And I am a lifelong Pepsi girl. Fight me.

So far I've eaten 6 out of a potential 24 slices - I shall stop now and bag the rest up for freezing. The trick to freezing pizza is doing it while the cheese is still warm - before the whole thing dries out. If you let it defrost properly (NOT in the microwave, they change the molecular structure of food and therefore affect the taste, and it makes Domino's pretty tasteless) and then gently re-heat in the oven, it's almost as good as new.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Pizza of the Week: Rosso Antico, Enmore

I'm the polar opposite of a foodie, but is it okay if I use this blog to talk about really important pizza experiences that I've had?

So last night, Leo had to drop off a key for a workmate in Newtown (Leo, for anyone not immersed in my personal life, is my primary-companion-to-the-exclusion-of-all-others) and I decided to go with her because a) it was Halloween night and I wanted to see how that was going down on King St, and b) I was hungrier for more food than we currently had in the house. After meeting the esteemed colleague outside of The Hub - what's going on with that place, by the way? - we went up Enmore Road, expecting get pizza at serviceable staple like Azzuri, San Remo or Manoosh. But before we hit the Enmore Theatre stretch, we discovered Rosso Antico, a pizza bar which opened only recently on the street level of what used to be the empty and neglected Newtown RSL building.

The food looked decent from afar, so we decided to risk trying this new place rather than seeking out the familiar. It had a good atmosphere, very open. It was full of people enjoying themselves, but not full enough to be oppressive or to have a wait for a table, and it was very, like, on trend, with mismatched low-watt bulbs, unfinished brick walls, and that tried-and-tested hipster stable of cream subway tiling with black grout, which does it for me every single time. Also, their front wall is completely glass, and because it was Halloween, we ended up being passed by a disco Thor, the Phantom of the Opera, a dude Leia and lady Stormtrooper, a gorilla on a bicycle, a ton of wounded civilians and I'm-a-mouse-duhs, and a white guy in a P. K. Subban jersey as we ate.

I like many of your traditional pizza tropes: Italian, New York, Chicago, Lebanese, Domino's... I love them all for different reasons, but I like them to be the best possible versions of themselves, and this was by far the best Italian pizza I've had in Sydney. Gigi's was okay, but they were snooty pricks who have recently launched a vegan-only menu, possibly just to fuck with people. Nom Pizza in Marrickville does a very good take-away Italian-style, and Lucio in Darlinghurst, which is often in top ten lists for Sydney, is pretty much worth the hype. Rosso Antico was better than all of those. It's going to get a rep so fast, because it was fucking unbelievable.

Ohhhh myyyy godddd.

I had what I always have when it comes to Italian pizza - a margarita with mushrooms and black olives added. (If it's a fast-food place, or a crunchier base, I also get pineapple.) They did NOT skimp on the toppings. Thick chunks of mushroom - a lot of it, rather than one single mushroom sliced and artfully arranged across six slices, which is what you get sometimes when you add a vegetable request to a margarita - and handfuls of whole black olives, very high quality ones, I'm discerning about olives. The crust was that very chewy, puffed up type that thins out in the middle to disintegrating levels of floppy, a bit salty in a good way. The sauce was a light san marzano puree, not really strongly flavored with other herbs, but a very perfect blend.

Even the cheese was flavorful, which was a huge added bonus, because often with Italian pizza (at least in this country) the mozzarella isn't very strong - you get the texture and the oil and the basil and everything coming together to make a good package in your mouth, but if you isolate a chunk of cheese it's almost tasteless, especially if it's fior di latte as opposed to bufala. This was the best, yummiest, most stands-on-its-own-two-feet fior di latte I have ever experienced. Thank you, cows.

It was one of those pizzas where you pick up a slice and everything slides off unless you fold it properly, which I am bad at. I made a mess. I do not care. I picked up all the bits with my fingers. Huge puddles of tomato liquid/oil residue soaked through the middle of the pizza onto the plate and that stuff tasted so good on its own that I actually mopped my plate with spare crust, and I am not a mopper. There were too many olives to stay on the pizza, they literally rolled off, and I squeezed the sauce residue out of them into my mouth. And I couldn't finish it, which goes to show how weighty the toppings and cheese were, because usually Italian pizza is pretty light and I can eat a full one.

Leo had potato croquettes, which are the closest thing you'll find to mozzarella sticks in this country, and a pear/walnut/rocket/parmesan salad. She also had my last slice of pizza, though I ate the saucy, saucy mushrooms and olives. The croquettes were so big that she had to cut them up with a knife and fork, and she kept waving bits of pear in my face, so I guess she approved.

~aesthetic. From the Rosso Antico instagram.
Ohhhh my god, it was so very good and so very unexpected. A Halloween miracle. I am ranking it 9 out of 10 slices, purely because I didn't get to eat the last one.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

*taps mic* is this thing on?

The past twelve months have been the worst, for me, in at least ten years. In December I lost a job that I thought I was doing well at, where I felt creative and productive. In July, my dog died and my aunt died, within a week of each other, while I wasn't in the country. My mother's will finally came to term this year, so I've spent several months both mentally and physically preparing for the sale of my childhood home, which I own, and going through all the stuff of hers that was put into storage in a hurry. The house I rent - and I adore it - was also sold, and I had to deal first of all with financial advice and banks and bridging loans and begging in an attempt to buy it myself, which did not work out timing-wise, so then there were photographers and viewings and pushy agents and house-hunting. That situation didn't end up as bad as it could have - the new owners settled before an auction took place and we get to stay here as tenants (though there's a 40% rent increase) but it was a really bad time, especially as it was happening concurrently with all the death stuff. 

These circumstances caused long stretches of won't-get-out-of-bed, lose-track-of-time, can't-reply-to-emails-until-six-months-later depression, and a full-on shaking-on-the-floor panic attack in the airport when I was trying to fly out of San Diego to get back to Australia for a funeral and the local connecting airline accidentally locked my ticket so that the main airline wasn't able to access it.

Don't get me wrong, a lot of really awesome things happened too (amazing UK trip last October for The Libertines and everything that's happened with them since then, Megan visiting Australia for the first time, doing SDCC with Hypable, getting my learners permit, discovering The Raven Cycle and Hannibal and Hamilton and Kingsman and Deadpool and cronuts) and even the bad stuff served to strengthen a lot of personal bonds that I have with people - I've had important one-on-one conversations with a lot of friends this year and received immense amounts of support from places I never expected. But it's been a time, guys. This was The Year The Bad Things Happened.

During this time, writing was not something that helped me. I've never labeled myself a writer, but I was always a blogger - not, like, a "blogger," just a weblog diarist - from the moment I really got involved with online communities. I got a lot out of it, particularly in the days of LiveJournal. The instant gratification of Twitter did wean me off long-form blogging a bit, and I love my Twitter more than anything in this life, but I always returned to my blog when I really had something that I wanted to tell people about, or to explain the details of a situation and let my friends know what was going on.

That stopped working for me. In the past year, that prospect has seemed daunting. Attempting to explain myself or how I feel has been draining, not cathartic. Opening up a blank entry page was just like a stressful horror story, and I did it as little as possible, including, as I mentioned, replying to emails. This goes for my work as a features writer at Hypable too. I had no ideas or opinions that I could be bothered expressing. I've always toed deadlines because I find that I work best then, but this was more than that, it was active procrastination because I did not want to do it. Producing content each week became an anxiety-ridden obligation, to the point where I had to take an official break from my duties for the first time since I joined the site in 2011.

However, I'm finding in recent weeks that the worst is over. I took a really indulgent holiday by myself in September, after all of the housing/death mess was over. I saw a favorite band's reunion concert, a ton of friends, and five musicals in five days. It was intended to heal and recharge, and it kind of worked... or maybe it was just a matter of time. I'm writing for the site again and as I go, I'm actually getting excited about the prospect of composing my articles, jumping out of the shower to make notes... The thing is, I knew that I wanted to want to write. I just literally couldn't. But for now, I can. And for the first time in a long time, I also feel like writing for myself, in a more personal manner. I came across an old post on here today and thought that I'd dust this account off and have another go. I thought about starting a new blog, but that seems unnecessarily dramatic.

So this is ultimately going to be a personal, but public, blog. I've never actually had one of those before - my writing was always very divided between locked personal accounts, and public pop culture accounts, like this one used to be for a hot second. I hope to post medium sized-entries about anything that occurs to me, from my current mental state to reviews of the pizzas that I eat.

To any newbies who happen to end up here: no, I'm not trying to be, like, a thing. I come from the LiveJournal generation. We all used to do this. LiveJournal was like Twitter, but longer.

To any oldbies: hey.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Can You Analyse A Spell? - My London; part two

"...and to go away from you, London, is often to come nearer to you in loneliness, in strange places, when a memory of how it feels to ride down the Strand in rain on top of a 'bus is like remembering something lovely about your mother..."
- The Spell of London - H.V. Morton

In part one of this possibly unnecessary epic, we left off in Notting Hill. Let's pick back up there and have a wander through west and central London.

In Threepenny Memoir - Carl Barat's autobiography, which is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and one in which the city is a central character, he states, at one point, “London really began for me, though, in Camden and Soho.” I adore those places, and we'll get to them in time, but it's the sentiment of that statement that I'm focusing on, because London really began for me in Notting Hill. The area is obviously familiar to many because of the aforementioned Hugh Grant film, but even before that, it was the first part of London that I really knew. The first time I went to London, I stayed in a flat there belonging to a close friend of my family. Over ten years later, I ended up living in the same flat, in a room with huge sash windows overlooking Westbourne Park Road. I remember, from childhood, Notting Hill in bright flashes, I remember pubs covered with flowers in hanging baskets, and the feeling and strange, gassy smell of an old-fashioned pocket-warmer, and I remember a certain falafel shop under the Westway, and buying fruit from a street stall, and catching a bus down Kensington Church St and seeing the most overgrown pub in the world, literally all greenery, and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.

Notting Hill, to me, is still always so beautiful – it still overwhelms me to walk around the streets, looking at the houses and the Colerigean “sunny spots of greenery.” It isn't the grandness – though some of the area is, admittedly somewhat fancy – it just gets to me. It's just perfect, in my mind, it's what London is. It feels perfect and timeless and real.

Portobello Markets are a major tourist attraction – on Saturdays, to quote The Movie, “hundreds of stalls appears out of nowhere, filling Portobello Road right up to Notting Hill Gate... and thousands of people buy millions of antiques, some genuine... and some not so genuine.” As much as I like the idea of collecting old brass binoculars and vintage footballs and leather trunks, that part of the market gets a little same-ish as time goes by, and my favourite part of the entire thing is going out of my street, Westbourne Park Road, and turning right, towards the Westway. On weekdays, this stretch is filled with fruit and veg stalls – fruitselling in London still kind of delights me, as well as being, you know, quite handy – and then on the weekend, when the main market takes place up towards Notting Hill Gate, this area plays host to a second-hand and hand-made clothes market, some garage sale type stuff, and some proper vintage collectors. I have bought a fair amount of clothes from here, including some great vintage dresses and coats for £5 each. If you walk under the Westway on the pedestrian path from Portobello to Ladbroke Grove, there's more stalls of new crafts, including unique jewelry and hat designers. You can also walk through the Portobello Green Arcade, which is a tiny shopping complex of specialty designers, from artisan soaps to restorers of vintage eyewear to suppliers of 50s-pinup style lingerie and stockings.

Many of the streets that run between Portobello and Ladbroke Grove have interesting permanent shops – my favourite is probably Elgin Cresent, mainly because I am a fan of The Grocer on Elgin, which supplied me with perfect lamingtons on the days that I missed Australia. Once you enter the area behind Portobello, you're in the strange concentric horseshoes that make up the posher side of Notting Hill – grand houses, most converted into flats, which surround private gardens – beautiful places with large iron fences, only accessible to the residents whose houses are attached. It's nice, and a bit pathetic, to walk around these streets, trying to peer in where you can.

Towards the Notting Hill Gate end of Portobello, there's one of my favourite shops in the world – Hummingbird Bakery. Their cupcakes are a bloody joke, like, they're so freaking good – better, actually, than any of the specialty cupcake places I've tried in America. Hummingbird has several branches in London now, but I believe Portobello was the first. I have a t-shirt from there (which, lol, I'm actually wearing while editing this update,) and a postcard of the shopfront on my pinboard at home. Even further up, the little quiet top of Portobello that isn't a retail thoroughfare, there's a row of smaller houses, more like working-class terraces which are now individual homes, rather than Victorian mansions which are now flats, and they are painted insanely bright colours. A lot of houses in the area are colourful, in pastel tones at least, it's not uncommon to see a strip of Victorian terraces with one white, one pale pink, one blue, one yellow, but these are small, cute, and richly coloured and I want to live in one of them so badly that it hurts. Yes, I have a specific favourite, number 58.

These houses are actually more the style you'd expect to find in a mews, not on a main street. Pro tip – if you ever see a street labelled Something Mews, especially in West London, take a detour down it, because mews houses are the cutest things in the world. A mews was, back in the day, a row of stables, carriage houses and living quarters for staff, separated from the main house by the garden. So for an upper class city house, in one of those big five story Victorian mansions, the main house would face the street, it would have a garden behind, and then at the back, the carriage house, which exited onto the back lane way or mews. And you'd have the carriage houses of the next street facing yours, sharing the lane, in a sort of back-to-back fashion. Nowadays, the mansions are flats, and the mews houses are individual homes. Usually the mews streets aren't driven down, and they're often entered through little archways, and they're just so fucking charming. St Luke's Mews, just behind Westbourne Park Road, and literally 30 seconds from my old front door, is a good example of a lovely mews street, and – this will definitely sell it to you if you have a heart – number 27 in St Luke's Mews was the home of Keira Knightly in Love, Actually – this is where the "to me you are perfect" cue cards scene was filmed.

Heading up Westbourne Park Road, you can walk in the direction of Bayswater and Paddington along Westbourne Grove. Westbourne Grove is posher than Notting Hill proper, it's a fairly expensive but enjoyable high street which has both chain and independent shops, a variety of restaurants that I'm told have good reputations, and a few art galleries. I've seen small exhibitions here of some of the loveliest paintings, one random artist in particular I've never got the image out of my head, so it's worth just walking by. It's a quiet and tasteful area, until you hit Queensway, which is busy and noisy and tacky in a way that I weirdly love. It has a shopping centre – which is pretty uncommon for London, they're all about high streets and department stores, not malls – at one end, a place called Whiteleys which is pretty famous, and then it just heads all the way up to Bayswater Rd, getting louder and cheaper as it goes. I used to work in a hair salon on Queensway. I bought a lot of discount £5 shoes from crappy shops on Queensway. I got hit by a car on Queensway. It has shitty tattoo shops and Asian food and an ice skating rink and it is the very definition of the word “bustling.” I love it, and I have absolutely no idea why, because it's awful. But still I love it.

At the top of Queensway, on Bayswater Road, you can either go left, towards Lancaster Gate, and enter Kensington Gardens, which I love dearly – it's a dreamy place to me, Kensington Palace and its surrounds are a sad fairy tale, and when the light hits the water on the Italian Fountains it pretty much make me weep . Or you can go right, back towards Notting Hill Gate, and then go down Kensington Church Street. This is an extremely pleasant road, featuring patisseries, many antique shops with museum-style window displays, little streets shooting off with perfect parallel white houses and blossom trees, and pubs – including the Churchill Arms, the aforementioned floweriest, vine-iest pub in the world that entranced me when I was a child. That pub has a great, proper smell of old beer soaked into the carpets, and, unusually, serves a menu of Thai food, which I'm told is nice. If you allow yourself to wander, there are a lot of tiny streets and narrow passages and thoroughfares to its west, some of which have bizarre little shops, like a dandyish vintage menswear place run by a man who is approximately three thousand years old.

Kensington Church Street is also – for me most importantly – the location of Adrian Harrington Rare Books. It's quite an unusual location for an antiquarian bookstore – usually you'll find them clustered together in Charing Cross Road or in Bloomsbury – and it's the kind of place that may intimidate you if you're shy, because it looks beautiful and grand and fragile. You might be the kind of person who thinks that they will be sneered at for looking, and you can throw that misconception out of the window. There is extreme snobbery in the rare book trade, but this particular place is run by lunatics. In 2006, I walked into this place in an absolute state, the most wrecked and grief-struck and fucked-up that I've ever been, and it changed my life. I had one of the best conversations I'd ever had with the guy working there, who took two hours out of his day to just show me things – things I could never buy, like a signed copy of Oscar Wilde's Duchess of Padua, and ancient bibles. He took me upstairs off the shop floor to see more of their collection, he horrified me by hitting a £45,000 book on the table to show off its structural integroty, he talked about Harry Potter and Phillip Pullman and he treated broke, depressed 19 year old me like an intelligent equal. It was the first good thing to happen to me in the months after one of the most traumatic and scarring events of my life, and to say it helped me is the world's biggest understatement.

For some reason – I couldn't tell you why - I never returned to that shop while I was living in the UK, and didn't go there on my first visit back to London, in 2009. In 2010, however, I had started to collect books myself (antiquarian books, that is, obviously I've been buying general books my whole life) and I was in the area and had a vague sense memory that shop being around here somewhere and I went in and the guy was still there and he remembered me pretty much on sight. This time, we kept in touch, and three years later, we are now best friends, as in we literally talk every day. I have spent hours sitting at his basement desk in that shop, pestering him while he pretends to work, If you go there and look for him (he's the redhead named Jonathan) and say you know me, he will show you the treasures of the universe. These guys just really love their books and love sharing them with people who may be interested, even if you can't take one home – though there are plenty of affordable volumes there as well as the super insanely rare stuff, and if one of London's book fairs is on, you can get free tickets to attend and see the collections of other booksellers from all around the world. It's like a really niche, hands-on, book museum exhibit.

London is absolutely full of actual museums and art galleries, and unlike many other cities in the world, the majority of them are free. Pretty much any of them are worth visiting – I have good friends who are obsessed with the Natural History Museum and the British Museum – but my personal favourites of the big ones are the National Portrait Gallery near Leicester Square, which is small enough to do all in one go, and just fascinating from Tudor portraits of Elizabeth I as a teen down to Sam Taylor-Wood’s creepy video portrait of David Beckham sleeping; the Tate Britain in Pimlico, mainly for the collection of Pre-Raphaelites, whom I am very attached to, and the V and A, which is just the most overwhelming and gorgeous collection of STUFF that exists in the world. It's billed as the world's largest collection of decorative arts, and basically anything that anyone has ever made pretty, they have a room for it there, from fashion to drawing to furniture to weapons. Books, photography, jewellery, glass... it's definitely worth looking just at the costume collection, and they often run amazing pop-culture based exhibits – the recent David Bowie show they had was hands-down the best, most immersive exhibition I have ever been to in my life. It's a great building, I've gone there just to eat in the cafe a few times, and the shopping in their stores features some of the coolest stuff you'll find in London.

The massive National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is great for people who like to see classic, famous pieces – it features old masters like Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and impressionists like Van Gogh, Monet, and Cezanne. Many people may also enjoy the Tate Modern, built into an old power station on South Bank. It's a great building designed by the same designer as my favourite building in London (the Battersea Power Station, as I mentioned in my last post) and the vista from the top-floor cafe is one of the best free views you'll find in London. I'm not a huge fan of the collection there, or modern art in general, aside from a few pop art pieces, but it has a lot, from Dali to Damien Hirst, and is generally popular with a lot of people. It depends on what you like! These are just some of the really big National Trust-style places. Most neighbourhoods of London have small private museums and galleries tucked away everywhere and if you pass one by you should probably go in. Try the John Soane Collection, the British LibraryLeighton House in Holland Park, the Transport for London Museum (and buy me ALL the Underground merch) and, if you like weird/creepy shit, the Wellcome Collection or the Old Operating Theatre but AVOID the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, the worst place in London and basically the creepiest and saddest and most sinister place ever.

One of my very favourite things about London is the green spaces, the big parks, the churchyards, lawns with blossom trees in front of housing complexes, the unexpected little squares, the way they look in the summer all full of annual flowers and bright and clean, in early spring daffodils coming haphazardly out of the lawn, in the winter with bare black trees, green green grass and white skies. I love that you can cross nearly the entirety of central London just by using the big four. London parks are better than any other parks ever, and the best are the ones you discover yourself, by accident. I've mentioned a few parks in specific neighbourhoods elsewhere in this guide, but here are some of my top ones in general:

St James's Park - this is my favourite of the “big four” parks in Central London (Hyde, Green and Regent's being the others) – it's between Whitehall and Buckingham Palace. I really love the lake, which is some sort of bird sanctuary – it has dozens of weird and rare duck breeds and I LOVE LOVE LOVE ducks. Feeding the ducks at St James's is also an ongoing activity for the two lead characters in my long-time favourite book, Good Omens.

Postman's Park – this is a tiny pocket-sized park not far from St Paul's, a very quiet little place that's almost a thoroughfare which has quite a history as a former churchyard and is also home to the “Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice” - a wall of tiled plaques dedicated to normal people who died saving others. They date from 1900 to today and in the film Closer, Natalie Portman's character takes her fake name from a plaque on this wall, but I pretty much want novels about all of the people – some of them really paint a vivid life story with only a few words.

Holland Park - between Notting Hill and Kensington, this park is sort of bizarre, and was the first London park I really knew, because it's my dad's favourite I first met squirrels there and remember it so clearly... it has an odd structure, from south, off Kensington High St, to north, on Holland Park Ave, which becomes Notting Hill Gate, the park goes from completely organised and maintained to completely wild. The bottom third is literally just sports fields, the middle third is the grounds of the old Holland House, which is now just a few walls and an orangery, surrounded by formal gardens, geometric paths and tidy lawns, as well as a Japanese garden, then the top third is nearly all forest that you can't enter – you can walk the trails in between the areas of arboretum, some of which contain wild pigs, and then the trails emerge at a little lawn behind an old wall at the top end of the park – this is designed as a sun trap and it was here I met the squirrels. In the middle section, there's also a YHA in a heritage building within the grounds of the park, which is pretty much the coolest location for a hostel ever.

Chelsea Physic Garden – this is actually has paid entry, but it's not much - it's a historic apothecary garden down on the Chelsea Embankment. It's quite small and it's so cool and pretty, and very unique. It's considered, by some, the most secret garden in London, it's totally walled and I think it's only open to the public on Wednesdays and Sundays - it may change depending on the season. While you're in the Chelsea area, you can go two streets over from the Physic Garden and look at Oscar Wilde's home in Tite Street, or head back up to shop on King's Road, especially if you care about the history of fashion.

My personal idea of “central London” is the vague rectangle shape bordered by the Euston Road to the north, the Strand – or the Thames – to the south, Hyde Park to the east and Covent Garden to the west. It's all flat – bless London's flatness, I walk much further there than I would anywhere else, I walk everywhere in London – and a few shops and landmarks I personally like in this area are as follows:

Centre Point – this is a random skyscraper at Tottenham Court Road. London doesn't have many truly high buildings, except in the business district to the east, and Centre Point isn't massive, but it's a lot higher than all its surroundings. I've been to a party at the Paramount bar on the top floor and it's got a pretty incredible 360° view of the city from windows on all four sides. The entire area at Tottenham Court Road, where it meets Oxford St, has been a mess of construction for around two years – so some other parts of that area have been demolished, which is a real shame. Directly opposite Centre Point used to be the Astoria, one of London's most legendary and historic music venues, and I will never forget going to gigs there and seeing the drunkest people pour out of the venue at the night and climb into the fountains at the base of the skyscraper.

Foyles is one of the biggest independent new-volume bookstores in the world. It's an extremely famous shop on Charing Cross Road – the traditional home of London booksellers – and it's just amazing. They're also the mortal enemies of @WstonesOxfordSt.

Soho Square is a cute, medium-sized green square just behind the top of Oxford St, separating the tiny streets of Soho from the main shopping strip of central London, and the houses that surround it are the head-offices of some of the biggest media and production companies in the world. I've mentioned Soho Joe's and the Soho Theatre, but the entire Soho area, bordered by Oxford, Regent, Shaftsbury Ave and Charing Cross Rd is – despite being renown as somewhat debauched – to me, has always felt very charming and welcoming and full of life. At night, the streets – which are not technically pedestrian only – are full of people, every establishment is a tiny boutique or club or restaurant or sex shop, but it generally doesn't feel dingy or seedy. It's a very gay-friendly area as well, and it's one of those places that is so famous that you assume it must be over-rated, and then you go there and you realise it's not.

Victoria Station is by no means London's prettiest or most significant train station, but I've got a lot of love for it because it's always been my connection to the city. I know it inside out, I know where every spare power point is and the quickest routes from Tube, coach station and cab... When I'm not staying in London itself, my main hub in the UK is in Kent, about one hour outside of London via train, and that service gets into Victoria. I have loved that train journey every single time I have taken it, which would number in the hundreds – seeing the British countryside, which always delights me and never gets old, then the rooftops, the London brick starting, then Brixton, spotting the Academy before reaching - through the train's right-hand windows - my favourite view of Battersea Power Station before the river. I am absolutely obsessed with that image and it does something to my chest every time I see it. If you look out the left-hand side, you can see the play yards of the famous Battersea Cats and Dogs Home, and people meeting their new pets. The train crosses the river and reaches Victoria, and the high glass roof, the shops, the ever-present chill – everything about stepping into that station hall means, to me, my world opening up.

Hamleys on Regent St is the world's oldest toy shop and it genuinely has to be seen to be believed. It is freaking insane and I am pretty sure all of the staff are on amphetamines. It is almost overwhelming – I do not suggest going there if you have any sort of easily triggered anxiety. It is like something out of a cartoon – about six floors of complete crack, dozens of display stations with people operating the games and toys – toys you've never seen anywhere else. If you want a good LOL go to the top floor and look at the life size Lego reconstruction of William and Kate's wedding, but seriously, this place is CRAZY. The British are not known for their enthusiasm, but I have been to FAO Schwartz in NYC – hell, I've been to Disneyland – and I've never seen staff as totally hyperactive and an atmosphere so busy and fantasy-like as Hamleys. It's not for the weak.

Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly is basically a very classy department store/deli – like, I believe Buckingham Palace gets groceries from here. They have a tea shop and restaurants and several floors of just beautiful, beautiful goods, like the world's most expensive kitchen towels, and tins of biscuits, and signature teas, and candles, and gloves, and shaving brushes and wine glasses and cheese. It's all beautifully decorated in rich colours, it's about 300 years old, and it's just lovely if you dig that kind of snobby, classist thing – which, I somewhat shamefully admit, I do. I love chivalry and elegance and class, and anything old-world. It's a majorly famous destination, so they have tourists and all sorts of people visiting – it isn't, like, exclusive or anything – but it's certainly very posh, so if that kind of thing makes you uncomfortable, keep that in mind and dress accordingly or do what makes you feel confident, if you do want to go there.

Right down the other end of the class scale is Primark. Primark, like Pizza Express, is one of the staples of Britain that genuinely improves my quality of life. Primark is basically an extremely cheap high-street chain store that stocks men's and women's clothes (and now homewares) for ridiculously cheap prices. It's a step below the standard sort of non-designer high street stores like H&M, New Look, BHS and Marks and Spencer, and it is a godsend, because basically it makes all the current fashions and wardrobe staples for just.. ridiculously cheap prices. To compare it to Australia, I’d say it's somewhat similar to the quality at Cotton On, Target or Kmart, or Asian-import shops like SES, but Primark's clothes are MUCH nicer and MUCH cheaper than those places. Sometimes their clothes fall apart fast, sometimes they last... I would say at least 50% of my wardrobe is from Primark. Shoes and bags and accessories and underwear as well. I do not shop for new clothes in Australia, unless there's a random one-off item needed. I literally go on day-long shopping trips to Primark when I am in London, and that lasts me until the next time I am in the UK. Every British town has a Primark, but the very centre of London has two – one at either end of Oxford St (Marble Arch and Tottenham Court Road.) The Marble Arch one is bigger but can be a bit overwhelming and stressful. The TCR branch is newer and laid out in a way that isn't so intimidating, but it is still massive. I swear by Primark, I live and die by Primark, I have socks embroidered with I <3 Primark. Really.

Covent Garden obviously has huge historical significance to a lot of people, and it really is a nice place, even if it is very done up now. It's still full of street performers, and market stalls in the covered market, and the Actor's Church is still there and still worth looking at, but the whole scene is pristine and shiny, not really somewhere you'd envision covered in mud and rotting vegetables. To quote the Carl Barat book again:

“When I moved there, I'd go back to places again and again, and remember standing in the cobbled square in Covent Garden early one morning with a light mist on the streets and no one around. I fancied I heard the flower market starting up across the way, blooms brought on trestle tables. I imagined Oscar Wilde, the comings and goings of My Fair Lady, I romanticized it out of all proportion and it took me a long time to realize that it was a modern-day tourist trap. When I was working at the theatres I used to go down to the Piazza in my lunch hours and watch the performers, and I'd see people in sleeping bags waiting to perform for the tourists and people a little too drunk for lunchtime, and I realized that the only place that the romantic Covent Garden lived on in was in the hearts of people like me.”

That's all very true, but if your heartstrings are tugged by Victorian London, it's still a place you need to see. Also, there's great shopping, both from beautiful branches of some of the best high street stores on Floral St and Long Acre, and in the rather glamorous stalls of the Apple Market off the piazza. Perhaps more interesting are the little streets that surround Covent Garden, many pedestrian-only stone passageways with antique lampposts and little weeds growing through the flagstones, where the buildings on either side lean in diagonally over your head. A lot of these places are media industry – casting agents, PR, production companies and so on, and you might see someone you rather fancy ducking into these alleys for a meeting. Also worth finding is Seven Dials, a weird road junction sort of north of the piazza. Seven little streets converge on a central point like the spokes of a wheel, and the area used to be one of the worst slums in London. The little wheel-spoke streets are now all full of interesting little shops and bars, all a bit unusual or noteworthy. If you can find Neal's Yard, a little passage there, that's a crazy little street of bright colours, new age places and health food cafes. It also, unsurprisingly, is home to the flagship store of Neal's Yard Remedies, the UK's biggest range of organic health and beauty products. It's pretty easy to get lost around here - it's pretty higgeldy piggeldy - so, remember my advice from part one and keep your A-Z handy!

Righto. This part definitely needs pictures, which I will add out of my own personal collection once I finish this series. Next edition, we'll hit up north London - that's Camden and Primrose Hill, then the East End, as well as some of my favourite fiction-related London locations.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Can You Analyse A Spell? - My London; part one

“...and London appears before you more than a home: a spiritual anchorage perhaps, in which you think you would stand a chance of happiness.”
- The Spell of London - H.V. Morton

It's known that I am an ex-resident of London, that I regularly return to the city, and that I'm passionate about being there in a way that no other mere physical location could ever touch upon, and I was asked a little while ago to offer up some advice for people visiting London – what to do for the “real” experience, not the “touristy” stuff. My London is not necessarily the same as anyone else's, and that's okay, but for those who have expressed interest in the way I see this city, I've put this together. I'm going to attempt to write about the London that I know – a bit of north, south, east and west, where I like to eat, what I like to do, the things that mean something to me, and the places I would take someone. I did consider constructing this entire post out of Doherty/Barat lyrics captioning selfies of me sobbing, but they may be a little contextless, so here we go...

(disclaimer - this entire piece ended up being well over 12,000 words, so I'm posting it in three or four shorter parts. This first update deals with the practicalities of visiting London, me getting emotional about Pizza Express and the Tube, a little about food, and a bit about accessing entertainment, particularly theatre, as well as exploring South Bank. The next parts will focus specifically on various areas of London, and various subjects like museums and unusual streets. So, here's part one. Stay tuned, if you can bear it!)

While I can (and am about to) rattle off fifty or more things genuinely worth seeing or doing off of top of my head, the first thing that you need to understand – the most important thing, is that the London is not Ye Olde Theme Park. It is not a Land at Disney World. It is not quaint or cute or precious. It is a survivor. It is unlikely. It is authentic. It grew from the ideas and hopes and horrors and smoke and stone and mud and greenery and of the thoughts and the dreams of every man and woman who has ever come through there and made their mark, of people throughout history and all over the globe who heard the word London and it sounded like a promise. Like a spell. It draws you in, and if it chooses you, then you belong to London, and London keeps its own.

I recently read a Imagined London: A Tour of The World's Greatest Fictional City,” a wonderful book which I purchased after coming across this quote online:

“London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present. And for that reason it will always have meaning for the future, because of all it can teach about disaster, survival, and redemption. It is all there in the streets. It is all there in the books.”

For this reason, very few of what are considered London's attractions are actually stereotypically “touristy.” The Eye, Madame Tussauds... maybe the London Dungeon, since they've re-done it. These are the only things that come to mind as genuine “tourist traps,” things that have very little objective value. Everything else that might make up the Top Ten Things to Do in your guidebook – the palaces, Trafalgar Square, the Globe, Westminster Abbey, and of course, the Tower – these things are important. The stories they contain will never not be relevant. They may be visited by thousands of people every day who go sheerly to tick an “experience” off a list, but if you have a slight understanding of what occurred in these places, of why they have become attractions, of whose blood was spilt here, whose bones encased there, who fell in love, what proclamation happened, what this particular spot means to history... it's enough. That's the attitude you need. So visit these places. Pick ones you know about. If you know the story of Lady Jane Grey, go to the Tower and think about her, really think about her. Feel it. Don't look at Tower Green and think “oh, how twee, look at all the cottages.” Know what you're experiencing, and let it haunt you.

Perhaps it is something more recent – this is where Oscar Wilde bought his cigarettes, this is the Abbey Road crossing, or perhaps it's even fictional. Perhaps it's Eliza Doolittle selling flowers in Covent Garden, or Hugh Grant spilling orange juice on Julia Roberts, or figuring out where the Leaky Cauldron should be, or the Turner painting Bond and Q meet under in Skyfall. It doesn't matter if it happened or not – it is real, and it contributes to the fabric and the legend of the city and the reason why it remains, to me, the only place in the world with its own life force. So that is my primary advice. Don't coo over how Pretty and Old everything is. Don't go staring at carved stone walls and nod, knowing you're not really understanding why you've paid £12 to get in. Find the things that chill you, find the places where you can say to yourself “this happened here” and have that simple idea overwhelm you. That's what London is for.


Right. Now that that's out of the way, here's the first practical tip: upon arrival, you need to immediately obtain two things – an Oyster card and a London A-Z. Oyster Cards, you will quickly discover, are a tap-on/tap-off system for buses, Tubes and trains in the Transport For London network. Yes, you can buy paper day tickets or even, LOL, singles. Don't. You're stupid. Just don't do that. Get the Oyster right now. If you are in town for more than a week – or even slightly less, but you plan to use transport a lot – get the 7-day unlimited top-up, which is, I think, £30. You can also just feed as much money as you please into the card and use it as you go – it will hit an “unlimited day pass” limit at around £6 or £7 and won't charge you more than that per day. Oysters are cheaper – each trip, when not part of an unlimited pass – is still a cheaper fare than buying a paper ticket, by nearly half – and they're quicker. You need Oyster. It is not negotiable.

The London A-Z is a street directory. Yeah, yeah, we have smartphones and GPS now, look at all the fucks I give. Get the A-Z. You might not have a UK phone plan, don't waste your roaming data on Google Maps. The A-Z comes in pocket-sized, paperback-novel sized and bigger. I have the novel-sized one. It's a detailed street atlas of the entire Greater London area, showing major landmarks and Underground stations as well. No, you will not look like a tourist if you are carrying one of these. Nearly every London resident I know has one. London is a very old, very random and very complicated city. It grew. It does not make sense, until you know it well. You will get names and places mixed up. Carry the A-Z. Do not get a tourist guide book or a big fold out map. Use the A-Z. Trust me on this.

The two next things you need to know are interconnected: a) the Tube is easy to use, and b) you don't need to use it within zone 1 unless you're in a hurry. When you're in a Tube station, there will be little fold up maps of the Underground network. You can take one of these, everyone does. That's not touristy. No one knows the Tube map off by heart (though I've got a lot of it down.) Basically, though – once you're in Central London, all those stations on all those different lines – they're all approximately 5 minutes walk on actual land, in actual air, on the actual London streets. Say you're staying in Paddington and you have to meet someone so you can go see We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre outside Tottenham Court Road station. Look at your Tube map. You get the Bakerloo line to Oxford Circus and then change onto the Central line to Tottenham Court Road, right? FUCKING WRONG. You are clearly a chump, because you've chosen to see We Will Rock You, the worst show on the West End, the worst jukebox musical ever made, despite the wonderful source material. Freddie Mercury hates you. I hate you. Shut up and listen to me.

You get the fuck out at Oxford Circus and you walk in a straight line up for five minutes up Oxford St to Tottenham Court Road. Seriously. This is a rule. If you are in zone 1, and your destination is one stop along after a line change, do not make the line change. Get off at the end of your first line, get out of the station, and walk. I love walking around in London, but this isn't why I'm saying this – we'll have a whole section on walking in a little bit. I am telling you this because you'll quickly notice that Tube stops within zone 1 are only around 60 to 90 seconds apart when you're riding the train. The trains go fairly slowly within zone 1 because they're so frequent – there will be another one only two minutes behind whatever one you're on, so they have to be paced properly and be able to brake quickly. The point is, the tube stops are all very close together. Stop looking at the spacing on your Tube map – it isn't accurate. That's why I told you to buy the fucking A-Z. Check the route while on the Tube - you can do it in the book, even if you lose phone signal.

But it isn't just that the stations are all near enough to each other. My reasoning doesn't stop there, oh, no. I am actually trying to save you energy and effort here. If the line change is easy – like, just across the platform or whatever, or if I know it's only down one set of stairs – I take it, of course I do. I'm not a chump, and I want to save my legs for when I actually want to walk all day. The thing is, a lot of the line changes are not easy. The lines were built at different times, and so although they've built tunnels and dug in in order to connect several lines to one station, some of the connections are a real bitch, and it's very hard to remember which ones are super-easy and which ones are insanely long. Most tube stations don't have lifts – some have escalators – most just have a lot of stairs. So. Would you rather just get off at the end of your first line, walk for 5 to 7 minutes while observing London at its finest, and reach your destination, or do you want to go up a set of stairs, down another, through a tunnel that may or may not be one of the ones that makes you feel dizzy or makes you feel like you will be trapped walking in this tunnel looking for the Victoria line for the rest of your days, wait 2 minutes for another tube, go ONE STOP, get out, find your way out of that station, probably through more stairs and tunnels, just so you can arrive at the very tube stop your shitty guidebook says is the closest to the landmark of your choosing? No. Exactly. Just.. don't do that.

That rant kind of makes me sound like I hate the Underground, when nothing could be further from the truth. I am in love with the Tube. Sometimes, I can be sitting on the Tube and be overcome with emotion and tears purely because I love the fact that I'm in London, on a Tube. It is so bloody convenient – best public transportation system in the world. Every time I come back to Sydney, it's like returning to a special hell, with our train systems. “17 minutes until the next North Shore Line train? Is this some sort of sick joke?” The Tube has constant, almost instantaneous arrivals, it goes everywhere, it's fast, and it's got a good vibe. It's not perfect – I'm sure other places have a faster, more accessible, more clinical system, with elevators everywhere, and god, luggage on the Tube can be a bitch depending on your route – but it's just really lovely to me. But if cycling is more your thing, London is relatively flat and has, in recent years, developed a HUGE public bike hire system. You'll see banks of the Barclays/"Boris Johnson" bikes absolutely everywhere, and you can pick one up and park it anywhere else.

I love the London Underground's design and branding. I love the fonts and the colours and the symbols. I love the pre-set station announcements and I can recite nearly all of them along with the recording, in the exact tone. (“The next station is Green Park. Doors will open on the right-hand side. Change for the Jubilee and Piccadilly lines. Exit for Buckingham Palace.”) I love all the references to it in British rock songs. I can stare at a Tube map for literally hours, travelling on mental journeys – I have a poster-sized one above my desk. I remember, as a child, stealing a Mind The Gap Underground symbol t-shirt from my father. I cannot remember if it was before my first trip to London, or afterwards, but I still have the shirt. The Tube is my fucking favourite and riding it “gives me a sense of enormous well-being,” to quote a classic.

Now. Food. I'm not the best person for food recommendations, as I have eating problems which mean I prepare most of my food myself (god bless Tesco Express and Marks and Spencer Food Hall, both of which have much nicer, fresher and cheaper easy-to-grab foodstuffs than convenience supermarkets at home. A snack-sized packet of sugar snap peas and an individual chunk of strong cheddar, yes please, I'll take that for my train ride lunch over a McDonalds any day.) But here's a few little things, just from my experience.

For vegetarians: the Taylor Walker chain of pubs (not many pubs in London are still independently owned: to a foreigner, they won't look like a chain - they'll have individual names and just look like good old fashioned British pubs, however their business, including their menu, is part of a bigger company/franchise) does a “vegetarian fish and chips” meal that is actually a slab of battered and deep fried haloumi instead of fish, which is ingenious. However, one thing that I can and really do enjoy going out to purchase and stuff into my face is pizza.

The UK is home to a miraculous invention called Pizza Express. It's not a fast-food place, despite the name sounding tacky as fuck. They make hand-tossed Italian style pizza, they're licensed, they're fairly cheap and everyone goes there – it's never seen as childish or unclassy option, as, say, the eat-in Pizza Hut restaurant might be seen elsewhere. It's a legitimate restaurant, like somewhere that wouldn't be weird to go on a date, not that that's my priority... and it's a chain – there's probably somewhere between 50 to 100 of them in London. There are not words to express how happy I would be if a pizza restaurant chain of this quality and environment and this price range existed in Australia. It's just really good and really easy, which is really important to me as someone who has both physical trouble and extreme anxiety about going out to eat.

There's a takeaway/delivery chain called Red Planet which is some of the cheapest and yummiest junk-food style pizza I've ever had, though Domino's in the UK is also a million times nicer than Domino's in Australia or the USA. A couple of other nice eat-in restaurants I really fancy include Soho Joe's – a very cool/trendy not-just-pizza restaurant and bar in Dean St, right next to the Soho Theatre, which has a lot of great comedy and fringe theatre, definitely check out what's playing there – and the Gourmet Pizza Co in Gabriel's Wharf. Gabriel's Wharf is a redeveloped area on the South Bank, containing a lot of independent/artisan design and art shops, bars and restaurants. The pizza place is right on the riverside edge of the little enclave, and you can sit on the balcony looking straight out at the river.

South Bank is an area that I always like to spend a day in. It's one of the more modern parts of central London, but it still manages to be charming – the view of the more majestic buildings on the north side of the river is cool at either day or night, but the long pedestrian walk along the river is also always filled with street artists, living statues, film crews, food trucks, joggers, businesspeople, tourists and life in general. The stretch I focus on is between Waterloo and Southwark Bridges, or in my language, between the National Theatre and the Globe.

The National Theatre and the BFI – which share the same complex, known as the Southbank Centre - both host amazing events and content, obviously. If you haven't watched the National Theatre's 50th anniversary gala, you're missing out, and I've attended events at the BFI ranging from the season premiere of BBC's Merlin, with the cast in attendance, to one of Joseph Gordon Levitt's HitRecord events. It's definitely worth looking up if either the National Theatre or the BFI is showing anything relevant to your interests, but if you're just passing by, even the gift shops are worth a visit. They're full of books and DVDs about film/theatre in general – they stock a lot of obscure things that you'd usually have to order online, including recordings of past productions. Outside the complex, outdoors underneath Waterloo Bridge, is another rather special shopping experience. There's a daily market for second hand books - just a few rows of long tables, packed with old books. Some sellers carry random paperbacks, some have speciality collections in wooden crates, but it's charming and unpretentious and one of the coolest things to ever randomly come across.

As you walk east along the Thames, you can enjoy the view of the river or get a little closer by doing some mudlarking - foraging the shoreline for treasures, somewhat like beachcombing. You're kind of not meant to do it unless you're with an organised tour, but simply walking along the river bank is allowed, and while doing this with a friend last summer, within about 5 minutes he'd picked up a clay pipe stem (these are really common from Elizabethan times onwards, because the pipes were sold as a disposable, one-smoke thing and then just chucked away) and a purple crystal from some sort of chandelier. People find Roman coins, ship's nails, medieval roof tiles, and even older artifacts. If you're not with a Londoner who is familiar with mudlarking, do go on the tour because you will learn a lot more.

Shakespeare's Globe – a replica of the open Elizabethan theatre where most of Shakespeare's great works premiered – is not quite on, but very close, to the site of the original structure, and hosts a long season each year of several shows including Shakespeare's own, of course, but also other Elizabethan works, like Marlowe's Faustus, and even brand new plays as well. As a throwback to the original peasant audiences, the theatre sells “groundling” tickets for £5; this gets you a standing place on the floor around the stage, like at a gig. It also has three tiers of rather uncomfortable wooden seating for a bit more, and you can rent the use of a cushion or a backrest. You can usually get at least a groundling ticket to a performance just by wandering past on the day, unless the current show features a big name - Stephen Fry recently played Malvolio in Twelfth Night there, in a production that later transferred to the West End and now New York.

Nearly every show, though, features both veteran and young actors that, if you are a fan of the British entertainment industry and follow the BBC/theatre community, you'll know. I saw Faustas with Arthur Darvill, of Doctor Who fame, and Henry IV with Olivier-winning Roger Allam as Falstaff and The History Boys' Jamie Parker as Hal. The productions go on in all weather, rain or shine, and they are usually traditional and simple, done in the style of the theatre's original era, the music is live from period instruments.

It's definitely an all-around “experience” – just don't start throwing rotting vegetables at the stars. The Globe was also used in the Tennant-era Doctor Who episode The Shakespeare Code, so if you can't make a production, maybe you can do their behind the stage tour and shout EXPELLIARMUS from the empty stage. Like the National, the Globe's shop is 100% worth visiting all on its own – it's full of really cool merchandise, like stylised quote t-shirts, leather journals, quill and ink sets, and live DVDs of past shows. The Globe, as a company, has a really great ethic in what they are doing – sending productions worldwide for education, and they're an official Trust, and generally it's just a place really worth supporting. They're very active on social media and I get sad every time they advertise job openings because I want to work there.

London's obviously home to a lot of amazing theatre, though, and the actual West End is one of my favourite places in the world. This little website is the best for looking through everything playing, from huge shows to tiny ones. You can look them up via genre, opening date, celebrity stars... I always read through the entire list of what's playing whenever I'm there and make a short-list of what I want to see.

If you're not booking online for a full price seat to something specific, visit the TKTS booth in Leicester Square to get cheap tickets for shows that evening. They won't have everything, but they have a lot, with discounts of up to half price. There are a lot of little tourist stalls advertising West End tickets – try to avoid them. They will rip you off and TKTS is a not-for-profit company that donates money back into the theatre community. If you want to see something big – like something short-running with a massive name in it – you'll need to book in advance, like while you are planning your trip. Sometimes these shows do release last-minute rush tickets on the day of, so look out for that. The long-running popular shows like Wicked or Les Mis will sell out for weekends, but you can usually get tickets for stuff like that on a weeknight.

Don't pick your shows based on the theatre they're housed in, but, that being said, if you happen to see something at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, the Old Vic, the Noel Coward or Wyndham's – these last two are back to back and their stage doors face each other in a little pedestrian cobbled alley with a few cute restaurants – these are some of the prettiest that I have been to. The Old Vic has an important history and the inside looks like a Faberge egg or something, Haymarket is a landmark for Oscar Wilde fans – two of his plays premiered here, and the other theatre he used – the St James – is no longer standing, so this one actually contains an “Oscar Wilde room” and tributes to him. If you are interested in ballet or classical concerts, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is also one of the most surreally beautiful places in London.

Right at the other end of the grandeur scale is the Battersea Barge, a tiny little gorgeous venue which literally takes place on a permanently moored boat, on the south side of the river just along from my number one fave building in the entire world, the Battersea Power Station. I saw a musical theatre cabaret at the barge, featuring six performers who have played major West End shows, just doing a review of their favourite songs for an audience of about 30. Totally fantastic. They do all sorts of events, comedy, trivia nights - be sure to check it out.

London has a million things “to do,” in every sort of industry you can think of – theatre and music and sport and food and history and whatever... but if you're the kind of person that enjoys the media, check out Applause Store or SRO Tickets for free audience passes to a shitload of television tapings. Also, keep an eye on London's flagship Apple Store, in Regent St – they have free events pretty much weekly with celebrity guests being interviewed about their current project. I find this kind of thing really enjoyable and have seen lots of great actors, writers, comedians and musicians at free appearances like this. Another basic tip is following @SkintLondon - an update account that has news about cheap events and opportunities every day, all for under a tenner. They're good people.

For music – London is obviously a huge player on the world stage, hosting some of the biggest events and raising up some of the most underground scenes. Like the theatres, I can't recommend gigs based on venues, but some of my favourites, if you happen to see someone you like playing there, include the Union Chapel in Highbury and Islington, which is literally a converted church where you sit on pews and can get tea or hot chocolate in real mugs, or ice cream during the show; Brixton Academy, which has been the Carling Academy and the O2 Academy or whatever, but remains just Brixton to most, and it's a legendary place; the tiny Borderline just across from the old Foyles building in Soho (this amazing, iconic bookstore just moved a few properties down Charing Cross Road!,) and the Camden Underworld, which is the most intimate and sweatiest of rock venues, where a lot of big artists do small one-off shows. Some of my other faves – the Astoria and the Hammersmith Palais – have, in the last few years, unfortunately been closed and demolished, despite their historical significance.

As far as movies go, besides looking up special events at the BFI, there are a few rad options for the whole cinema experience. London has a huge IMAX if that's your thing – it's not really mine. It also has a bunch of normal cinema chains and a lot – like, a lot - of independent cinemas showing ~arty things. Obviously, all the major chains in Leicester Square will be showing anything current that you could ever want to see, but just around the corner, in Leicester Place, is the Prince Charles Cinema, an old red-velvet theatre that shows cult, arthouse and classic films, as well as a couple of current ones. It's pretty cheap – ridiculously cheap if you're a member – and it does sing-along musical events, themed marathons, pizza nights, Mean Girls “quote-a-thons” - seriously, it does so much and it is all so cool. Definitely check their schedule in advance.

Another special experience is the West End Film Club, an organisation that does a monthly screening of a special film – often a musical - held in the lounge of the Century Club on Shaftsbury Avenue, a private club for the arts and entertainment industry. You know those private members clubs that Harry Styles falls out of at two in the morning, that are just a mysterious door leading to nowhere and are filled with celebrities just looking to sit around in a bar or lounge chilling out or networking without being annoyed by random passers-by with cameras? It's one of those. You'll rarely get a chance to get inside one of them, but for West End Film Club – the screening tickets are only  £5!!! - you get a look inside the Century, and you're invited to stay for the whole evening, to eat there or hang out in the bar. The staff are completely unpretentious and kind, even to total noobs just there for the monthly film night.

I've also been a frequent visitor of the two independent cinemas at Notting Hill Gate – the Gate and the Coronet. The Coronet is a 19th century historic theatre which now shows a pretty big range of films. Fun fact: I once went on a date to this cinema to see a film we'd both really been looking forward to based on a bunch of Tube posters. We did not realise until we sat down and it started that the film we came to see was in French. It had subtitles, so you know, whatever, but it's an amusing memory. But it does show all sorts of things, including blockbusters. The Gate, a slightly more modern building with a bar, right across the street, mainly shows arthouse.

We'll hit pause on extremely excessive London bloggage here. We've entered Notting Hill, and in the next edition we'll go for a long walk around West London and talk about some museums and parks.

Mmmm... should I go back and put pictures in this?