Category Archives: London

The Lure of Wild Swimming

I’m delighted to announce that my new pamphlet (or chapbook as my American friends call it), The Saltwater Diaries, will be coming out in September.  The collection explores my relationship with the sea, formed over the last five decades and more, and features poems mostly written since moving to a house which is a seven-minute-walk from the sea.  Many of the poems mention swimming and, as it’s the season for sea swimming (well, for me, anyway, not being quite as hardy as some I know who swim all year round!) I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the joys of wild swimming.

First, a confession.  I didn’t learn to swim until I was twenty five.  Why, so late?  Oh, where do I start….?  My father was a boatbuilder and spent most of his life on or by the river, but he never learnt to swim, maybe a throwback to the days when sailors considered it unlucky as, if you fell into the water, it would prolong your death.  They wanted the sea to take them quickly and cleanly.

Water is one of my earliest memories as we lived in Broadstairs when I was very young.  I have a strong memory of burying a grandparent in the sand but can’t recall any details.  Perhaps this is a false memory – isn’t it what everyone is supposed to do at the seaside?  One of my favourite recent films, starring the superb Billy Connolly, is What We Did on our Holiday.  It’s a hilarious and touching tale of the effect warring parents can have on their children and Billy Connolly’s character is indeed buried by his grandchildren at one point.

Film Review: What We Did On Our Holiday, aka, British Kids Say the Darndest Things – We Minored in Film

I remember nearly drowning in a public swimming pool when I was tiny, and being hauled out by the lifeguard and resuscitated.  My mother said she wouldn’t take me swimming again as I’d shown her up.  I loved my pink towelling bikini even if I had nowhere to take it.

School swimming lessons didn’t really teach me anything except how to dodge the floats thrown at my head by our sadistic PE teacher, Mr Fernside – it made a change from chalk…

I could swim perfectly well with armbands out of my depth so I probably could swim without knowing it.  Bizarrely, I loved the smell of chlorine and that strange echoing atmosphere of swimming pools, even the wet chaos of the changing rooms where you could never get completely dry however much talcum powder you shook over yourself and everyone else.

Not being able to swim was never an issue.  I spent a year in Israel in the 1980s and whenever a chance arose I would be pootling in water and under waterfalls, sometimes up to my neck, sometimes led into deeper water by kindly friends holding my hands as if I were an overgrown child.  Surprisingly, I wasn’t particularly frightened of water despite my lack of ability.  I’ve swum in the Dead Sea twice, once from the Israeli side and once from the Jordanian side, once knowing how to swim, and once not. It doesn’t really matter in the Dead Sea, it’s so ridiculously buoyant that the only issue is how to get vertical again and get out!

Amazon.com: Wee Blue Coo Vintage Photography Man Dead Sea Umbrella Book Jordan Palestine Unframed Wall Art Print Poster Home Decor Premium: Home & Kitchen

Then, at the age of twenty-five, Chris and I went to Greece and he had me swimming with relative confidence on the first day.  Since then I’ve never really stopped, instantly developing a hunger for wild water and lap-swimming in any kind of indoor or outdoor pool.  I particularly love lidos and often swim in the wonderful Hampton lido.  On my bucket list is a swim in the Ladies Bathing Pond at Highgate/Kenwood.

Hampstead Heath

One of my favourite poetry books from the last decade is Elisabeth-Jane Burnett’s Swims, a haunting, experimental long poem that flows and intrigues.  There’s a review here:

http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2017/08/swims/

I so want to be by the poet’s side as she slips into the water and explores it.

Another ideal swimming companion would have been Roger Deakin, whose book, Waterlog, is a classic.  There’s a lovely documentary which was repeated on TV recently where Alice Robert’s follows in his footsteps and enjoys some fabulous wild swimming, including underground cavern swimming which looks incredibly scary.  She also discusses the differences between swimming in a wetsuit, a costume and skinny dipping.  I’ve only skinny dipped once in a water-hole in Arizona where you were made to feel very odd if you tried to cover up – kind of a hippy dip I guess as we were on a Green Tortoise holiday which seemed to mostly be run by people who’d come to San Francisco with flowers in their hair…  You can see the Alice Roberts documentary here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t9r28

Sadly, Roger Deakin died in 2006, so no more accounts of his watery exploits.  I love the fact that the University of East Anglia archive contains a pair of his speedos.  There’s a great obituary of Deakin here, a real celebration of a life very well lived:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/roger-deakin-412989.html

He seems such a quintessential English eccentric, swimming in his own moat every day and breaking the rules to trespass on private stretches of river in true entitled style.  He describes his attitude beautifully here:

Most of us live in a world where more and more things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.”

The Swimmer Burt Lancaster 24x36 Poster Bare Chested full length in back yard at Amazon's Entertainment Collectibles Store

In Waterlog, Deakin’s inspiration for swimming around as much of the UK as he can is John Cheever’s brilliant short story The Swimmer, immortalised in the 1968 film of the same name where Burt Lancaster (above) spends the whole film clad in a rather snazzy pair of belted black swimming trunks.  It’s an extraordinary story which I often use in my masterclasses.  You can read it here:

https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/20cusliterature/syllabus2014-15/cheever_the_swimmer.pdf

So, what is it about wild swimming?  It feels elemental, adventurous, invigorating (it’s rarely warm!), primeval – yes, primeval is the best word – getting back to our human source – losing our ability to walk and discovering our watery roots.  We spend the first nine months of our consciousness floating in fluid so perhaps the need to be in water is part of our psyche.  Deakin clearly believes this too:

“When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached ourselves at birth. To swim is to experience how it was before we were born.”

Wild Swimming Brothers 🏊 on Twitter: "For a geothermal swim like nowhere else on earth visit the Víti Crater in Askja, Iceland #iceland #wildswimming https://t.co/OydxBFV71s"

Most memorable swims?  There have been so many.  One of the most striking from a scenic point of view was swimming in the Viti crater at Askja in Iceland (above).  In fact, all the swims I did in Iceland were memorable.  The Viti crater is like swimming in thick, warm, turquoise soup.  The Blue Lagoon (below) feels as if you are swimming in some kind of weird dystopian experiment.  Swimming in Icelandic rivers  means you have to be ready for the unexpected as the river can switch from freezing to very hot in just a few yards due to geothermal activity.

Acquisition offers put $286m value on Icelandic geothermal spa Blue Lagoon | Think GeoEnergy - Geothermal Energy News

I’ve enjoyed white water experiences in many countries, the most memorable being white water swimming down a river in Turkey towards the sea.  Not really swimming, more lying on your back in a life-jacket and pushing off as if you are on a giant, wild flume.

While trekking in the Amazon rainforest on a bird-watching trip our group took a boat across a tributary of the Amazon (don’t be fooled by the word “tributary” – they are pretty wide!).  We discovered on our return that another group had taken the boat back, we could see it clearly and tantalisingly moored on the opposite bank.  We were stranded.  Some of us decided to swim across and help the guide bring the boat back to “rescue” the group, a mission we accomplished with panache.  It was only afterwards we were told that the piranha native to the river will only consume human flesh if it is already dead and dying…

Blog- Detail page | Hotel Sternen Oerlikon

Switzerland is one of my favourite places to swim.  There’s a lovely outdoor wooden swimming pool on Lake Zurich, the Seebad Utoquai.  It dates from Edwardian times, as you can see from the picture above, and has a timeless elegance.  You can tell if you have swum to the middle of the lake if you see the twin spires of the Grossműnster become one.   I’ve also got a soft spot for the River Limmat which runs through Zurich – it’s such an odd feeling to be swimming through a city and watching city business carry on as normal from such a lowly perspective! I remember walking alongside the Rhine to the Tinguely Museum in Basel and seeing commuters swim to work with their waterproof floatbags containing their workgear.

In fresh water, I love seeing swans go by, unconcerned, as I quietly tread water; clearly you are not a threat when only your head is above water. I’ve been lucky enough to have great crested grebes carrying their young on their backs pass very close to me.  When I swim from my local Norfolk beach I have the privilege of seeing terns dive, cormorants doing a flypast, and even the occasional skimming swallow.

Today, as I write, it’s rainy and blustery, which doesn’t always stop me swimming, but I’ve just checked the surf report and there are 8 foot waves predicted.  Last week I trod on a weever fish in bare feet (not pleasant and not the first time either!) so I’m trying to be a more sensible wild swimmer – my list of rules so far is quite short but will no doubt increase with time:  wear surf shoes, check the surf height, don’t float and daydream and realise that you are farther from the shore than you should be etc

And the last, rather poetic, word has to go to the inimitable Roger Deakin:

Swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries: the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pool, the surface itself. When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.”

 

Happy Valley, Zombies and Ted Hughes

 

Lumb_Bank_The_Ted_Hughes_Arvon_CentreI’ve just returned from my second Arvon course under the Arts Council grant, this time at Lumb Bank, an imposing eighteenth century mill owner’s manse glowering down a steeply wooded hillside to where the ruined mill chimneys can still be seen. The concept of Arvon, the grandaddy of UK creative writing courses, was founded in Devon by poets John Moat and John Fairfax in l968 as a reaction against what they saw as a staid, dogmatic approach to teaching poetry.  Lumb Bank was Ted and Carol Hughes’ home for a short while and was leased to Arvon when Hughes suggested it was time to open a Northern centre.  The Arvon formula is the same in all three centres: two tutors, a guest reader mid-week and up to 16 anxious but starry-eyed participants.  Fantastic poets and tutors Jean Sprackland and Jacob Polley had fun with an ever-changing good cop/bad cop formula and knocked us all into better shape with grace, sensitivity and humour, coaxing (or, perhaps, ripping!) seven very different poems out of me in just four days.  Sean Borodale arrived on Wednesday night for his guest slot looking like a floppy-haired 21st century version of Keats to read his profound and erudite poems on subjects ranging from peeling and stewing apples to an extraordinary contemplation of a queen bee…

stubbings wharfThe weather was glorious except for the day I had cooking and washing up duty (sometimes the best-laid plans actually work out!).  I did a daily walk down to Hebden Bridge to sit by the canal with a beer at Stubbings Wharf or a coffee at The Den watching the sun on the painted barges and dodging the hissing geese before the steep walk back up via Heptonstall.  sylvia plath's graveSylvia Plath is buried in the new graveyard in this village which is a fifteen-minute walk from Lumb Bank.  I’ve been to this area quite a bit and was glad that I’d already “done” my Sylvia Plath poem some years back – it’s hard not to be influenced by these two extraordinary poets and hard not to let the beauty and harshness of nature overwhelm your poems.  There was even a cat called Ted, although it was from the farm down the road and turned out to be a girl…

The week was full of bizarre encounters and surreal coincidences.  Taking a breather on the pair of benches on a grassed over burial mound which look across the valley at the top of the lane from Heptonstall to Lumb Bank I got chatting to a walker from Barnsley who had done a great number of Arvon courses and whose strongest memory was of a poem by Heidi Williamson who was a guest reader on a course he’d done at Totleigh Barton.  When I said Heidi was a great friend of mine as well as my long-standing mentor he was, understandably, chuffed to bits and went off to tweet his news with a spring in his step!

Sarah Lancashire in Happy ValleyI discovered that one of the participants on the course had stayed in the same cottage in Mytholmroyd last April that Chris and I had rented in November during my birthday week.  One of my presents was  the first series of Happy Valley – it was a rainy week and we couldn’t stop watching it.  Sally Wainwright’s flawless script, superb acting from a wonderful cast, particularly Sarah Lancashire and James Norton, and the fact that every night we walked along the dark canal back from Hebden Bridge to Mytholmroyd, passing the exact spot where the chillingly psychopathic Tommy Lee Royce had been hiding, all added to the dark and rather magnificent claustrophobia which permeates the Calder Valley on  winter days.  Sally Wainwright went to school in Sowerby Bridge and most of her scripts touch on this area (Sparkhouse, Scott and Bailey, Unforgiven etc) and, of course, Catherine Cawood, Sarah Lancashire’s character in Happy Valley, is often seen in Heptonstall at the graveside of her daughter Rebecca who is the invisible motivating factor behind the whole series. Calderdale has been used as a feature film location since Cecil Hepworth’s Helen of the Four Gates in 1920 and, with its sinister moor and heathlands, steep climbs, cobbled villages and solid stone buildings, it never fails to be a character in its own right.

wuthering heightsOn my birthday we walked from Haworth back to Hebden Bridge via Top Withens (Wuthering Heights to you and me!) on the kind of foggy day that just makes you want to write intensely passionate and romantic poetry (although I was slightly distracted by the fact that I’d turned my left eye into a giant purple puffball by picking a mushroom, trying to identify it and then rubbing my eye…)

The Last Man on EarthWe also had a rather more up-to-date and positively post-apocalyptic experience that week when we went to the fantastic Trades Club on Hallowe’en to see a screening of Last Man on Earth, a schlocky B-movie made in Italy at the height of the horror era in 1968 (adapted from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend  and remade under this title in 2007 with Will Smith. There’s also a 1971 remake, The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston).  It stars Vincent Price as Dr Robert Morgan who wakes every morning in his garlic- festooned house to go vampire hunting (the film’s baddies are a confusing mix of zombie and vampire).  The screening was accompanied with live music from Animat who used a mixture of their own brand of dubby downtempo music as well as an eclectic selection of tracks from their DJ archive including, inevitably, Thriller!  Holme Street, where the Trades Club is situated, is a cul-de-sac T-junctioned  by the Rochdale Canal and it tends to attract all sorts at night…  We emerged into the darkness to be met by a ragged bunch of men staggering around in an inarticulate manner with an excitable black dog, echoing the repeated scenes in The Last Man on Earth where Vincent Price encounters angry zombies every morning when he opens his door and he even inadvertently adopts a zombie dog (black, of course!).

floodMy visit this time was tinged with sadness, but also admiration.  The effect of the Boxing Day floods last year are still very much in evidence.  It has taken so long for many of the shops and houses to dry out that building and repair work has only just begun.  I was delighted to see that favourite bookshop The Book Case had re-opened, but shocked to see that their floodmarker for December 2015 was level with my eyebrows…  Overall, the atmosphere was positive and forward-looking, these people are tough and tenacious and their refusal to be defeated by overwhelming odds moved me considerably.

Cascara+LooseSo, finally, our quest to be the geekiest of third-wave coffee seekers scaled new heights this summer as I dropped in to the wonderful and aromatic Caravan (www.caravanrestaurants.co.uk/kings-cross.html) to buy some coffee beans and was introduced to cascara…  Cascara means dried husk or peel in Spanish and refers to the dried skins of coffee cherries which are now, in a further drive to be as eco as possible, collected after the coffee beans are harvested and used to make a kind of tea.  It’s a very strange experience indeed.  One of the baristas, sensing my interest, made me an iced cascara tea – it’s definitely the point where tea and coffee intersect and for all its pale straw innocence it packs a real punch.   The only similar kick was a drink I had in San Diego called an Electric Chair – coca cola with a double-shot of expresso and yes, my hair did stand on end, and yes,  I really did think I would never sleep again!

 

North Norfolk – On Location!

 

I, GeminiSo, this month we’ve been listening to I, Gemini.  Definitely the sound of summer, this is the debut album of Let’s Eat Grandma, Norwich-based teenage duo Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth, both are multi-instrumentalists as well as singer-songwriters.  The album is getting great reviews, it’s trancey, psychedelic pop, deeply weird and wonderful…  I’ve known Rosa since she was born as I’m a good pal of mum Adrienne and was delighted to discover that the band were playing twice while I was in Paris.  The first gig was at Point Ephémère, a trendy warehouse venue by Canal St Martin and the girls were playing as part of Rough Trade’s Pop-up Store on Record Store Day (Jour Disquaire).  Their second gig was at Les Trois Baudets in the Pigalle area, just up the road from the Museum of Erotica.  Adrienne and I went for coffee and cake at the Amelie café (Café des Deux Moulins) and then joined the girls, Lee, their technician and Philippe, the record label’s local rep, for dinner in the great café above the venue.  Let’s Eat Grandma played their brilliant brand of pixie pop to an appreciative and enthusiastic audience and I helped out for a few minutes on the merch stall afterwards which was dead excitingles trois baudets!

Let’s Eat Grandma have a cameo role  in one of the Flaneur style poems  I wrote over the course of three very long walks which encompassed practically the whole city.  This style of poem is, of course, inspired by Walter Benjamin, Edmund White and Baudelaire.  In a nutshell,  you walk and record your observations in poetry, prose or prose poetry.  The pace should be that of a tortoise.  I find this aspect more difficult than the actual writing as I am frequently told off by friends for walking too quickly!

I love walking and, as a non-driver, it’s how I get from A to B so I walk from both a practical and leisure motivation.  It’s an even greater joy when the days are long and dry when my perennial favourite is the North Norfolk coast path.  One great bonus in the past year or so for coffee addicts like me and Chris has been the discovery of Grey Seal coffee.  The roastery is in Glandford opposite the wonderful vegetarian Art Café www.art-cafe.org/northnorfolk which serves what must be the freshest coffee in terms of roasting to table.  Grey Seal is typical of the Third Wave coffee movement which is sweeping through the UK.  The roasteries and outlets have a stronger relationship with the growers and often use single estate coffees.  Caravan, near King’s Cross in London, even send their staff out to work with the pickers.   In December a Grey Seal café opened on the quayside at Wells and earlier in the year one opened on Westgate in Blakeney, a stone’s throw from the harbour. The coffee is excellent and the service is bright and friendly.  The Blakeney café has a tap built in to the counter to top up the doggy water bowl, used twice by thirsty quadrupeds while we sipped our expressos.  Dogs also get free biscuits, with the owner’s permission!

grey seal blakeneyWalking and writing are such complementary activities.  The rhythm of walking very much mirrors the rhythms of poetry and I often walk stuck ideas out into the open.  I rarely want to write in the style of a flaneur when I’m out in the countryside, it’s very much an urban style after all, a bit like Frank O’Hara’s brilliant lunch poems – you need a busy scene with lots of people and activity and a slightly grungy feel to the whole scenario.   When out and about in the great outdoors haiku are the perfect fit – I seem to compose them endlessly the minute I get a whiff of fresh air.  This Japanese poetic style is much loved by Westerners.  Short, delicate, just three lines and 17 syllables in total (although balance is more important than syllabic perfection), haiku are a great way to record impressions and their focus is usually the natural world and the seasons.  The great Japanese haiku master was Matsuo Basho (1644-94), one of my favourites by Basho is:

Autumn moonlight –

a worm digs silently

into the chestnut.

I always find this haiku really thought-provoking and slightly chilling… My attempts will never have his lightness of touch, but I do enjoy writing them as seasonal diary entries.  The ones below evoke happy walking memories for me:

common blues rise

like confetti in reverse

from the cliff edge.

 

Taste the salty breeze;

a flying carpet of knots

brushes the horizon.

 

A silken sphere of

tiny spiders becomes a hundred

fluttering abseilers.

 

Walking by the river;

a robin boldly leads the way

until the sky darkens.

 

bird footprints at low tide

etched on glistening mud like

marks on a clay pot

 

Each snowflake

a tiny crystal world

melting in my hand.

 

There’s also the haibun form – a mixture of haiku and poetic prose which is perfect for travel writing – find out more here http://contemporaryhaibunonline.com

Being out and about in nature much more means I don’t go to the cinema as much in the summer as I do the rest of the year, but thoughts about films and film-making are never far away and Norfolk has always been a very attractive location for film-makers.  It’s not as well known as other parts of England so can stand in for other places without being too recognisable.  Over time it has been Denmark, 18th century New York, The Netherlands, Sudan, India, Russia, France… as well as representing countless English locations.

flora le bretonOne of the first feature films to be shot in Norfolk was The Rolling Road in 1927 starring Flora le Breton.  Legend has it that the October sea at Great Yarmouth proved too much for the skimpily-clad heroine and she had to be saved by Carlyle Blackwell, her co-star, although some say she was saved not by the film’s hero but by Robert “Chickie” Drane, a Yarmouthian who was an acknowledged champion swimmer and lifesaver and allegedly doubled for Carlyle Blackwell in the aquatic scenes.

CHILI BOUCHIERAnother notable early film shot partly in Norfolk was Anthony Asquith’s 1928 Shooting Stars.  Chili Bouchier won a competition in the Daily Mail to become a film star and here she is as a bathing belle on Cromer beach.  One of our classic British films, The Go Between, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, was shot in Norfolk using locations at Thornage, Hickling Broad, Holkham, Heydon, Norwich, Melton Constable and Hanworth to evoke the hottest day of the year in 1900.  Norfolk is so held in time that I often feel I am walking in the past evoked by these films, until my next stop for an expresso shot at the defiantly 21st century Grey Seal, that is!

And a final tip for all of you interested in writing.  Luke Palder from ProofreadingServices.com contacted me to say they  have designed an infographic entitled “128 Words to Use Instead of ‘Very,'” located here: www.proofreadingservices.com/pages/very  Sort of a one-word focus thesaurus – “very” useful!

 

 

Nostalgia in the City…

 
My craving for Paris has finally calmed down after five weeks back in the UK, so I clearly fell hook, line and sinker for the old flirt yet again!  My wonderful Paris flat landlord, Jonothan Green (who knows all there is to know about slang, check out Green’s Dictionary of Slang  – fascinating…) reliably informs me that the black guys on Rue Chateau D’Eau are not dealers (see May blog), but touts for the many African hairdressers in the locality – who says truth isn’t stranger than fiction?!

henri_cartier_bresson_bicycle-645x432Understandably, I’ve been writing a lot about place recently and I’ve been contemplating whether we remember places in black and white or colour.  This has probably been further fuelled by a visit to the fantastic Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.  It’s a really well curated exhibition, spacious and meditative with peculiarly haunting images: boules players discussing strategy in the snow, ancient prams full of wartime finds, a photographer taking a group of gypsies, the heartbreaking faces of mourners after the Rue de Charonne massacre in the 1960s and this wonderful image of a cyclist and stairway.  Strangely, when I think of Paris, the colours are very muted, almost wintery, in my mind.  Other places appear in my memory in quite clichéd colours, so India is saffron and bright pink and Mexico memories are in earthy, sandy, almost terracotta colours.  Try this yourselves, poets, it’s a good exercise – the colour of memory…  It reminded me of all those films which play with the idea of black and white and colour – A Matter of Life and Death (where heaven is black and white and earth is in colour), Stalker – a Russian re-telling of the Wizard of Oz combined with the marvellous Strugatsky Brothers sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic – here the Zone is in colour (where your dreams come true) and the contaminated  Russian industrial-scape is, of course, black and white.

chemexAnd if you do happen to be passing through Norwich, check out two fabulous cafes with their own roasteries and excellent craft coffee.  Little Red Roaster is at 1a St Andrew’s Street, also 81b Grove Road and they  have a good sized stall on the market too (52/53).  Strangers Coffee Company on Dove Street are the new kids on the block and at present are  for takeaways only.  If you fancy tea (and cake!) the rather eccentric Biddy’s Tea Room is good for people-watching and writerly inspiration – tucked away on Lower Goat Lane, it’s got a slight air of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and has a monthly bake-off and a clothes swapping evening, both of which sound intriguing!

The HurstI have just returned from an Arvon residential writing course taught by the most inspiring and generous poet-tutors one could possibly hope to have – Caroline Bird and Kei Miller.  Kei is a Jamaican poet and we did a lot of work on ideas around place in his sessions, fitting in beautifully with my current obsession (he was very patient when I started every sentence with “In Paris…”); while Caroline stretched our perception of what poetry can do to an alarming and quite brilliant extent.  All this took place in John Osborne’s old house, The Hurst, in the rolling English countryside near Clun.  Heaven!

Claire, Mon 1London, now there’s a place I always see in sepia… And most colour-appropriately I stayed there recently at an Airbnb in Bermondsey with two friends, Claire and Monika, who I hadn’t seen for around twenty-five years.  We’d all been in Israel together, kept in touch for an intense seven or eight years and then drifted apart.  We had a great weekend of catching-up and it felt as if we’d seen each other weeks rather than years ago.

So, three of my favourite places in London for caffeine, for just general amazingness or for writerly inspiration:

(Taken with my mobile phone.)

Verde and Company Ltd – gorgeous old-fashioned café and deli in a restored Georgian building opposite Spitalfield Market in Brushfield Street. It’s owned by writer Jeannette Winterson who wanted to keep the traditional spirit of the area going.  It’s a member of the Slow Food movement and is everything that the big coffee chains are not… Inside there’s a big communal table, a few tiny tables and lots of old Georgian silverware, outside there are benches.  The coffee is excellent and there are walls of translucent and expensive marmalade to reflect what little light sneaks in.  I love this area, it celebrates diversity from the Huguenot weavers who escaped persecution, the Irish weavers escaping famine, Jewish settlers, Bangladeshis in Brick Lane – it’s one of the liveliest, most happening areas of the capital.

  • Dennis-SeversWhich brings me neatly to my second London gem a stone’s throw from Verde and Company – Dennis Severs’ House at 18, Folgate Street. It’s not easy to describe this place and, be warned, it’s not open often, just Sundays and Mondays and your visit will be in complete, candlelit silence.  Severs was an artist who lived in this house much as its 18th century inhabitants had before him and thirty years ago he decided to share this experience with visitors.  The house is like a stage set and a time capsule, a series of paintings you stumble in to, seemingly just as the inhabitants have left – gaming dice flung on the table, a glass broken on the floor, a clock chiming, wistful traces of Huguenot weavers, the smell of oranges in the air…  Each room creates a different mood and evokes different inhabitants. The house’s ten rooms harbour ten ‘spells’ that engage the visitor’s imagination in moods that dominated the periods between 1724 – 1914. Your senses are your guide. Severs called this experience “still-life drama” and it works beautifully.  I’ve been going annually for years (I could swear the same black cat – yes, it’s definitely live! – skulks around the kitchen and front room, perhaps attracted to the cheeping of the stuffed canary…

I find it a profoundly moving experience every time I visit and would urge you to go, there’s even a pub opposite called The Water Poet where the Overlook Film Club meets…

  • Wilton's Music HallAnd the third treasure is Wilton’s Music Hall in Graces Alley (about 10 minutes from Tower Hill tube station). The Victorian Music Hall itself is well worth a visit.  I saw a fantastic production of The Great Gatsby there a couple of years ago, it’s a wonderful shabby chic space that takes you back to the Good Old Days!  Best of all are the series of bar areas at the front of the music hall.  Wilton’s started life as a series of five 17th century houses, the largest of which was a pub and  which were later combined and subsequently bought and revamped by John Wilton in 1850.  The Music Hall he built was popular for around thirty years, with acts like Champagne Charlie (check out the 1944 Ealing comedy Champagne Charlie with Stanley Holloway and Tommy Trinder.) treading the boards.  There’s a good history of the site on the Wilton’s website www.wiltons.org.uk  Nowadays it’s a great bar space, recently refurbished but losing none of its nostalgic charm.  The cocktails are excellent, there are great bar snacks and the space always gives me that goosebumpy “treading on history” moment…  And if you think it looks spookily familiar then it may be because it was one of Louis Lester’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hiding places in Stephen Poliakoff’s fantastic BBC series Dancing on the Edge.