Hello from the 17.34 service from Glasgow Central to London Euston. It’s a long journey, but I’m taking advantage of my seat with an odd little work table (room for a laptop, but slotted in snugly behind the luggage rack) to try and clear out my extensive backlog of September blogging material.
From our long list of possible anniversary dates, Randi and I have two to choose from this month. Early on in September we celebrated the anniversary of our very first date by going to Babur, while 24th September marked one whole year since we dragged everyone up to Hereford for our big, beautifully sunny (second) wedding day.
The weather was similarly sunny when we journeyed up to Josh and Anna’s one Saturday for a back garden brunch, followed by a lot of playtime in the paddling pool and (most importantly) a chance to teach Cora to chant “Naughty Aunty Randi!” whenever she did anything objectionable and/or I needed to deflect blame from the consequences of my own actions. So, to summarise for anyone who has (presumably jokingly?) asked how married life is going… it’s going great 😀
As my mum will soon be moving out of London, we hung around North West London for the rest of that weekend to spend time with her, help a little with the clearout and do some panicking at the lack of spare storage space in our own flat to house the things I now needed to bring back from my childhood bedroom. On Sunday we were joined by Tash, Cormac, Katie and James for a ‘farewell to the house’ Sunday lunch, with chicken pie and mash to honour one of the staple weekend lunches of our childhoods.
To be clear, I wasn’t joking when I said that this weekend had thrown me into a furniture-related panic. Fortunately, Randi and I had already been planning to do something to turn our joint office into a real guest bedroom, so this gave us the impetus we needed to start ordering more furniture. As a result the following weekend, while Randi was safely away in Edinburgh, turned into a madly productive spree of furniture assembly… most of which was done relatively correctly, even though there was a moment around 1am when I was trying to manoeuvre a giant bookcase into place and wondered if I would get crushed in the process. Sam, who has been staying with us off-and-on this month, graciously became the first guest to try sleeping in the guest bedroom and check whether the bed would collapse overnight or not. It did not. Hurray!
This month I also visited my Grandma, started watching State of Chaos with Randi (a recap of the last seven years of disaster and disarray in British politics, in which the relatively recent past feels like a lifetime ago), bade a very sad farewell to Jill at work and enjoyed a wonderful dinner with my mum, Randi and Melissa at a delicious Malaysian restaurant in Queen’s Park which is apparently run by a former QPCS student.
Last week, Randi’s parents also arrived in London. Sadly they picked the worst possible moment to attempt the 10 minute walk from Forest Hill station to our house, and so were welcomed back to the city with a hailstorm, but once they dried they were cheerful once more. On Friday night the three of us met up with Andrew and Bonnie for some excellent tapas, while on Sunday we met up with the rest of the family for an afternoon of tea and cakes hosted by Alix and Adam.
We’ve reached Penrith and I’m close to wrapping up the London section of this post, but first I also need to summarise the rather eclectic collection of shows I’ve seen in the last month:
- Guys & Dolls at the Bridge theatre. This was a last-minute invite from mum to see a new production of the classic Broadway musical, of which I knew literally nothing about a vivid memory of that scene in The Simpsons about a song which (spoiler alert) “isn’t even in the show!”. Anyway, the Bridge Theatre version featured an immersive central stage in which all of the audiencegoers with standing tickets stood and mingled with the cast in a replica New York. I loved this, albeit I loved this from the comfort of our front-row seated tickets which I would not have wanted to sacrifice to contribute to the immersive effect in any way. The musical itself was an entertaining curiosity. Clearly it’s from a very different time and place, with joyously unbelievable characters and a strange ending which seems to skip a couple of crucial scenes in the interests of time… but a good night out nonetheless. Even if they didn’t sing that song from The Simpsons.
- Unbelievable, a new magic show created by Derren Brown for which – in order to buy tickets – you must tick multiple boxes to reaffirm your understanding and agreement that Derren Brown himself does not actually appear onstage in the show. We get it! Who does appear is a troupe of actor-musician-magicians with a series of tricks and illusions. Some are definitely more successful than others but the overall evening is quirky and fun, with lots of audience participation, a Prohibition-era musical routine and a go-for-the-heart ending. I saw this with Tash and Cormac (after some great pizza sharing at Pizza Pilgrims) as a London farewell before they go travelling, and it was a really lovely night – even if we were all slightly paranoid that our every move was being monitored by the theatre for pseudo mind-control routines.
- Finally, we saw Red Pitch at the Bush with Randi’s parents after lunching at Shepherd’s Bush Market. This is the story of three teenage boys whose friendship has been forged on their local football pitch in South London, and is remarkable for the fact that the actors are also kicking the ball basically nonstop throughout the entire 90 minute performance. It’s also super naturalistic – probably too naturalistic, in fact, for my personal preference as, just like in real life, you only get hints about wider themes and character arcs. On the other hand, after the play I described it as “the boy version of Sleepova” (the first thing we ever saw at the Bush) and, just like that show, the acting is perfect.
OK, onto Scotland where I joined Randi and her parents this weekend for a day in Edinburgh and my long-awaited first visit to Glasgow. Originally I was supposed to get the train up on Friday evening, but thanks to my stubborn determination to see a work thing through I made an impulsive last-minute switch to (gulp) a nine hour overnight coach to Edinburgh, leaving at midnight from Victoria Coach Station.
The journey was… fine, I guess? It’s true that I barely slept, arriving the next morning in Edinburgh looking like a zombie, barely coherent and in desperate need of a nap. But on the other hand, it was kinda reassuring to know that I’m not so old to have lost the ability to do this yet.
It was also well worth the sacrifice because we all had a great weekend together. Saturday in Edinburgh was a more relaxed rest/walk/recover/eat/sleep kinda day, but having come all this way I did want to experience a decent chunk of Glasgow before my train home on Sunday, and I wasn’t disappointed. We arrived out of the station into George Square on the day of the city’s half-marathon, which immediately gave everything a buzzy, lively air. From there, Randi had wisely booked us on a walking tour so we could quickly cover some ground, and our guide did a great job in orientating us with some of the basic history and culture of a place which prior to now I’ve known basically nothing about.
Of course, one thing I did know about Glasgow is that it’s one of the three cities in the UK with a subway. So, naturally we had to make a point of riding it. The Glasgow Subway consists of a single circular loop around the inner city, which Glaswegians will try to tell you is “two lines” (one in each direction) even though, obviously, any subway line in the world can be ridden in either direction and by this logic London has 22 lines on the Underground. Nit-picking aside, the subway is delightful. It’s actually the most Tube-like thing I’ve ever ridden (other than the Tube, of course) with small, tube-shaped carriages shuttling along. It’s just a shame there isn’t more of it!
We got off near Kelvingrove Park and walked around the park and the area by the University of Glasgow, admiring the beautiful views on this surprisingly sunny day (given it’s now October) and retrospectively approving of where Katie used to live before she left Glasgow. We also took Katie’s recommendation to share a box of doughnuts from Tantrum Doughnuts before heading back into the city centre and going our separate ways. While it was only a brief visit, I was very impressed by Glasgow overall and would definitely be up for a return trip. But, for now, I will sign off with (*checks timetable*) a dispiriting 100 minutes left to go on this train. Next week, I will try and get more sleep…
We’re back from our summer Chicago trip! The last time Randi and I visited the Windy City together was just after Thanksgiving 2021, so this was the first time since leaving in 2018 that I’ve experienced the city in its sunny, joyful, everybody-doing-things-outside mode.
Digression: on the flight there I took Kira’s recommendation and watched Groundhog Day from 1993. I’ve used the term ‘groundhog day’ as a synonym for ‘ugh, here we are again, stuck in this never-ending loop’ for as long as I can remember, so it was weird to realise that this meaning (rather than the actual groundhog day tradition to predict the first day of spring) originated with this film and is younger than I am! Overall, it’s a really fun movie about a conceited and curmudgeonly weatherman who inexplicably finds himself repeating the same day over and over again, and it makes me somewhat nostalgic and sad to live in a world where it feels like these mid-budget films no longer get made. To somewhat balance this feeling out, it should be noted that the ‘sexual entrapment’ angle of this already quite sexist film gets creepier and creepier as you go along, and so I am glad that this mid-budget film would no longer get made today in this particular way.
Also, hats-off to the hilarious moment where the mere knowledge of what an ‘espresso’ or ‘cappuccino’ might be is used to contrast bougie, urban culture with small town, down-to-earth America. The hipster frontier is always moving!
Anyhow, back to the epitomie of boughie, urban culture that is ‘staying with Catherine & AJ and their toddler’. It’s always so much fun to be with these three, and this time we really got to appreciate their local park – Winnemac Park – as well as our traditional Channel 4 documentary viewing; this time we binged through Sixteen, a series about Year 11s in Dudley sitting GCSEs (kinda) in the middle of 2021’s Covid-era lockdowns. We also watched the first Republican debate, which was notable mostly for kicking off with a confusing and unnecessary indoor drone sequence.
Aside from an exciting tour of Jason and Carrie’s new home, followed by a very fancy dinner at Parachute (Korean-American, sharing plates, controversial cocktails), we left our other Chicago reunions for the second week because we had a very, very exciting long weekend planned: a return to the Minnesota State Fair!
Catherine has been to every State Fair that she’s been alive for, and surely a lot of this credit must go to her mum Juli (or mom, I guess) who very generously hosted us all in the suburbs of Minneapolis. (I’m not entirely sure how workable this is, but I think forming a book club with Juli is now a life ambition of mine.) While Catherine flew, AJ drove me and Randi up there in order that we could (a) revisit the authentic American roadtrip experience, (b) listen to some extremely violent conservative talk radio in the forlorn hope of hearing some Republican debate analysis (it was all about cultural Marxism instead) and – most importantly – (c) make a mandatory stop for burgers at Culver’s. Yay for Culver’s!
Anyway, when I wasn’t staying up until 1am discussing books, we spent a solid majority of our two days at the fair. I’ve evangelised about the Minnesota State Fair to so many people in the UK, but mostly to bemused faces. So, to repeat, you should go. The food is incredible, and the best things – the cheese curds, doughnuts and cookies – really do come in buckets. On top of that, we tried a bunch of the ‘new for 2023’ offerings, including the bagel/croissant ‘basant’ hybrid and some delicious crab fritters. But we also enjoyed the craft beer, seed art, prize vegetable displays, lumberjack & lumberjill competitions, high school marching bands and overall intensely friendly and welcoming fair atmosphere.
The other thing which really stands out to me about the Minnesota State Fair is the politics. As you can see, we had fun in the Democratic booth voting for our favourite Democratic Minnesotan policies with pieces of corn, but over at an entrepreneurial ‘Dump Biden’ stand other fairgoers were casting their own corn votes for their favourite Republican challenger to take on Biden in 2024. (Spoiler alert: the polls you read are all correct. They want Trump, again, and overwhelmingly so. I’ve seen the corn jars with my own eyes.) It’s not all happy-go-lucky; in fact, even wandering into the official Republican booth now feels physically intimidating, especially when it’s packed with t-shirts glorifying guns. But it’s precisely because the cultural divide is so stark that at least seeing Americans enjoy a fair together is so lovely.
Talking of cultural divides: on Friday night, the four of us celebrated the end of our first day at the fair by going to see Barbie together. This had been planned for a while and I’d deliberately avoided a bunch of spoilers, which was great because I really enjoyed seeing the film’s counterintuitive twists and turns through fresh eyes. This included the refreshing discovery that Will Ferrell’s Mattel boss character wasn’t just a straight rehash of Lego Movie boss, as well as the surprising unfolding of what the tagline (“She’s everything. He’s just Ken.) was actually all about.
It’s all very good, very funny and very meta, and the only thing which gives me pause (aside from a general observation that audience applause in a cinema is always cringe) is that Barbie, unlike the Minnesota State Fair, will never reach across the US political chasm. And I’m not saying that because I think conservatives should watch it “to learn something” (although perhaps they should). Barbie is at its best when its skewering itself, and in a better world Republicans who can’t stand American corporate culture would find a lot to love there! But in all likelihood they won’t, because either they won’t see it or they’ll only hate-watch in a way which strips out all of the movie’s nuance and humanity. (And let’s face it, nuance and humanity are not really in vogue with that crowd right now.) This isn’t Barbie’s fault. But it still makes me a little sad.
Back to the fair and my final story from day two: I had expressed some prior interest in riding the super-cool giant spinny thing (the ‘Skyscraper’, if you want the technical name) but these hints generated zero uptake from anyone else in our group. Nonetheless, Catherine in particular decided that she was keen to see me ride the super-cool giant spinny thing (which, in her words, might also have included the word “horrific”) so I paid for my ride tokens and joined the queue in the hopes that I would find another solo traveller. Happily, a young woman from Texas was also the only person in her group with an interest in flying through the air, and I was very, very grateful to be able to have someone to talk to during my least favourite part of the ride: the “be suspended very high in the air for an indeterminate length of time while new riders are loaded at the other end” phase. She also said she was pleased to have someone else to ride with, but had trusted that God would be looking out for her. Ah, America.
On our last night in Minneapolis I broke away from the others to spend the night with Jill, Nate and their three wonderful kids. Jill was a colleague of mine at Groupon back when I first moved to Chicago in 2014, and the person who I had some of the loveliest, most interesting philosophical conversations with in my life over Gchat (remember Gchat?) when we were supposed to be working. She’s also absurdly talented and a massive Sate Fair fan, not only winning the grand champion prize this year for her seed art but also a bevy of ribbons for her jams. I had the blackberry jam on toast at breakfast the next morning, and I can confirm it’s delicious.
It was so, so wonderful to be able to catch-up with her and Nate after all these years, and I was very pleased that my Cadbury Heroes and Jelly Babies made it over the Atlantic in one piece so that I could try and sell the family on British confectionary. (There weren’t many left the next morning, that’s all I’ll say.)
As a bonus treat, our drive home through Wisconsin gave me and Randi the chance to stop by Cat and Brian’s new home just outside of Madison. By this point we were yearning for a meal with some fresh vegetables, and Cat responded to our prayers with an amazing spread – combined with Brian’s homemade bread! – which we were very grateful for. We also got a tour of their home, which included the most adorable couple’s jigsaw set-up I’ve ever seen. Aside from the awkward moment when I almost drank out of Cat’s fox mug (and risked ruining our friendship forever) this was a wonderful playdate for me and Randi, and we were fully refreshed for the rest of the journey back to Chicago when our pseudo-dad AJ swung by to pick us up again.
Last year, after we got married for the second time, Todd and Carolyn sent us an outrageously generous quantity of gift cards for our favourite Chicago spots. So, for our second week, Randi and I spent our days making excellent use of them: Antique Taco, Open Books (one of those old-fashioned bookshops where you’re still allowed on the sliding ladders!) and Janik’s, one of two brunch places which will always be very dear to our hearts. The other one is Windy City Café, which – don’t worry – we also made it to. There I got my usual order of corned beef hash with added blue cheese: an underrated combination. Huge thanks to Toggolyn for our amazing gift card guided tour around the city!
During our second week here we also found time to walk around areas of the city where we each used to live, enjoy an impromptu beer flight at the bar where we had our very first date and cheer on the Cubs at a Cubs vs. Brewers game at Wrigley Field. Much to AJ’s consternation the Cubs won, but the rest of us were delighted. In the evenings we were so lucky to be able to schedule time with so many people we wanted to see, culminating in a big group outing on our final night to Improv Shakespeare. Long-time blog readers will know that this is our favourite thing to do in Chicago, and we were very excited to learn (via a chance conversation with the cast of Shamilton in Edinburgh!) that it was back in the city. This time the audience prompt was Sarah’s Wedding – presumably as part of an inspired bachelorette party – which resulted in a stirring tale of suitors competing for Sarah’s hand via the noble sport of jousting chess. Afterwards we sat outside drinking craft beer in the warm summer air with Todd, Carolyn, Jason, Carrie, Melissa and Rob… a perfect Friday night.
I could probably keep writing forever about how much fun (and weight gain) we had in Chicago, but seeing as it’s already a week later and I’ve had to lock myself away in my old childhood bedroom at my mum’s house to finally finish this blog, I’ll stop here. Huge thanks, as always, to Catherine and AJ for putting up with us while they were trying to work from home, introducing us to the whimsical doughnut guy at their local farmer’s market, taking us to Half Acre for drinks, showing us the best sandwich place in Lincoln Square and generally making us feel like we’ll always have a home in the city.
Also, as usual, I want to quickly note all the fun evenings I had in the run-up to this holiday which I never got a chance to blog about! So thank you to my uncle Andrew for drinks at the Waterside, to Angela for our late-night garden party (with improv dinosaur impressions) and Reema for sending us off the night before we flew with some amazing tapas near London Bridge. And our post-Chicago adventures will have to wait until next time…
Every few months I read the same basic article about the ‘rebirth’, ‘rediscovery’ or ‘renaissance’ of the sleeper train, but I’ve never ‘forgotten’ about them in the first place! I’d take every trip by overnight railway if money, time and tracks allowed.
No surprise, then, that Randi got us tickets for the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William for my birthday. We met after work by one of Euston’s unglamarous platforms, stashed our bags in our Club Twin room and headed staight for the Club Car (as you do) for a sumptuous dinner, drinks and dessert while the outside world faded into darkness. I’m not 100% sure if I’ve ever eaten haggis before – this blog doesn’t say – but that evening really kicked off a haggis streak over the next week or so. It was all excellent, as was the Highland Breakast the next morning, by which time the scenery outside had transformed into breathtaking Highlands beauty. Surely plenty more people would ‘rediscover’ sleeper trains if there were more of them.
Our train pulled into Fort William at 10am, after which we checked into our Airbnb and took a walk along the Cow Hill circuit trail, which offers great views from the summit and then a walk through the woods on the way back.
That night we were joined by Katie and James, who drove up from Edinburgh to hang out for the weekend. James had already staked out Steall Falls as a place he really wanted to revisit, so on Saturday afternoon – after Katie, James and Randi ran parkrun in the morning – we set out on this popular hike to the promised waterfall.
The most unusual part of the Steall Falls trail is the option of crossing the river on a wire bridge at the end. This isn’t necessary to complete the walk – it’s a there-and-back, so you can always turn around here – but it is the only way to get close to the waterfall itself. In my case, I took full advantage of the sibling dynamic: clearly, once Katie had decided to cross it, I wasn’t going to miss out and had to follow her. (Everyone we saw seemed to have a different method for moving their feet, but nobody fell in.)
Once we got to the other side, Katie and I enjoyed the close-up views and swapped notes on how badly we expected to be hurt if we’d fallen off the wire. Then thoughts turned to getting back. After my initial suggestion (cross the slippery rocks over the fast-flowing water) was rejected, I was proud of myself for spotting a useful tree further downstream which could serve as a useful river-crossing device. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that this was merely stream #1 and there was in fact another river to get back to, at which point ‘just taking my shoes off and wading back barefoot’ became the chosen strategy. Cold, but effective.
Tash had recommended the Highland Cinema as a good lunch spot in Fort William, and while eating here Randi and I had decided to buy tickets to see Oppenheimer on Saturday night after Katie and James returned home to Edinburgh. I hadn’t actually been all that enthused by the trailer, but Christopher Nolan’s name is a draw and I did really enjoy the film itself. In some ways it has a surprising focus: it’s not really about Oppenheimer’s leadership of the US’s atomic bomb programme, or their use against Japan, and is centered more on his later struggles with the US government and the political manoeuvrings of the Atomic Energy Commission chair, Lewis Strauss. Stauss is the villain of the film and, like all good villians, he makes some good points. But the audience’s sympathy lies, I think, with Oppenheimer – and that’s a strange place for the “father of the atomic bomb” to end up.
Instead of heading staight back to London, Randi and I both worked the next week from Edinburgh, where we were also joined by Kira on her first visit to Scotland. (Shout-out to the lovely American couple from Cleveland on the train back from Fort William after taking a week to walk the West Highland Way. I’m pretty sure they had intended to play a nice game of cards together, but never got the chance as we just kept talking to them.) Other than working, the three of us mostly spent the week walking, drinking and watching many episodes of Scotland’s Home of the Year on BBC Scotland, a show in which one of the three judges pays brief lip sevice to recognising “environmentally friendly” homes during the intro but then always awards the highest marks to the largest, most energy-intensive houses in the middle of nowhere.
Then, on Saturday, we got to Fringe!
- Enquiry Concerning Hereafter – a loving tribute to the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith, set in Smith’s old house and with very intimate staging. Objectively, I didn’t think it was the greatest drama in the world because the problem with “you’re brilliant because of this” and “no, you’re brilliant because of that” is an obvious absence of dramatic tension, a problem not fully ameliorated by adding Charon (y’know, the guy who ferries souls to the underworld) to the mix. Subjectively, stuff all that because I obviously loved it. It’s a play about my two favourite philsophers talking about their philosophy! If you are already a fan of something, there’s nothing wrong with fanservice. And the best part was Adam Smith’s interrogation of Charon on the monopolisitc practices of his boat service.
- Shamilton – you know what this is, because we saw it last year, but for the record: an improvised Hamilton-esque hip-hop musical about a public figure nominated by the audience at the start of the show. This time we got the (slightly sanitised) life of Kanye West, with a healthy dose of Taylor Swift rivalry. It was fantastic, as usual, and inspired us to book a showing of Improv Shakespeare for our upcoming Chicago trip.
- What The Veck? Songs in the Key of Strife! – to almost exactly replicate our pattern from last year, the five of us (Katie, James, Kira, Randi and I) decided that we should squeeze in one more show, chosen semi-randomly from the Fringe app just a few minutes before it was due to start. This turned out to be the low-key but delightful Tom Veck singing silly songs and handing out naff raffle prizes (the naffle) from which our group won repeatedly.
Back in London, Kira had persuaded me and Randi to see The Pillowman with her on Friday night. My expectations were very uncertain not because I thought it would be bad, but because with my history of going blind triggered by certain types of content I might only get to enjoy the first few minutes of this “gruesome”, “macabre” play about torture and mutiliation. I prepared myself by booking a seat at the end of the row with the perfect escape route, and we had dinner together first at Toyko Diner (where my mum took us before seeing Patriots) so that, y’know, we’d still have had a nice evening.
Anyway, I needn’t have worried because I really, really loved this play, and the dark comedy style was – for me – hilarious rather than panic inducing. This production is a revival of the 2003 original, which starred David Tennant as a short-story writer with the silly name (Katurian Katurian) who is interrogated by two agents of the unnamed totalitarian state in which they live when his terrible tales seem to have been the spur for real-life copycat incidents. In the revival, Lily Allen plays a gender-swapped Katurian, while Steve Pemberton and Paul Kaye play the good-cop/bad-cop policemen Tupolski and Ariel.
Obviously I would love to pop back to 2003 to see Tennant’s performance, but having read some negative reviews about Allen I have to say that I thought she was great. Yes, Steve Pemberton is amazing and steals the show with some of Tupolski’s lines, but the whole cast was excellent and I’m very grateful to Kira for including us in her London theatre spree. Randi and I have spent a long time talking about this play since!
Hej! We spent last week in Sweden with Catherine, AJ and their incredible baby daughter and – to be honest – we’re all about ready to move to Stockholm and share a flat together. But in the meantime, let me gush about what a great week we had. 😊🇸🇪
Having arrived pre-armed with the Stockholm Go City pass for our two full days in the capital, we started our whirlwind tour with the Fotografiska museum of photography. Well, technically we started with a very nice lunch in the bougie restaurant on the top floor of the Fotografiska, but we worked our way down to the art eventually. I think the exhibition we all liked was Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara, a recreation of her mother’s migration from disintegrating post-USSR Moscow to California as a mail-order bride. (This was especially resonant having only just seen the play Patriots in London with my mum on Friday night, but more on that later.) That day we also made it to the Nobel Prize Museum – the coolest part of which is a toss-up between reading some of Einstein’s letters and the mechanical ceiling display in which every Nobel Prize winner slowly circulates around a track. If you’re someone who’s reading this and feels you might be close to winning a Nobel Prize, I hope this is the incentive you need to keep going.
There is something charmingly mad about Stockholm. It just seems like a massive effort to build a whole city around many little interconnected islands, but of course everything is organised brilliantly (at least through the eyes of a tourist) so the next morning it was easy to catch a ferry across to Skansen, the world’s oldest open-air museum which is part-zoo and part homage to pre-industrial Swedish life. We wandered around, admired the bears and puzzled over why Catherine’s ancestors decided to leave such a charming and idyllic country and get on a boat to Minnesota instead. (Side-note: the island of Djurgården also boasts its own theme park, Gröna Lund, which we didn’t visit but whose rollercoasters were teasingly prominent in the skyline. Next time!)
After an outdoor lunch (and wine, lots of wine) at the very sunny Rosendals Trädgård garden café, we meandered along the riverbank to a cluster of museums, popping into the Nordic Museum, the Vasa Museum and the Viking Museum, where AJ and I encouraged his child to arm herself with a Viking sword while Randi and Catherine drank beers outside, blissfully unaware. Of these, the Vasa is the most striking – the whole museum being built around a largely intact 17th century Swedish warship which was recovered from Stockholm’s harbour in 1961.
Once you actually read the exhibits, however, things get a little disappointing. Why, you might ask, was a 17th century Swedish warship lying at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbour in the first place? The answer is because it sank a few minutes into its maiden voyage. Was there a sudden storm? An iceberg? Attack of the pirates? No, it turns out the whole design of the ship was structurally unsound from the very beginning and would have never coped with even a light breeze. So, in reality, the museum is a monument to a total failure. Sweden being Sweden, they were sophisticated enough in 1628 to hold an inquiry into the disaster, although since the King was partly to blame it’s maybe not surprising that it failed to reach any definitive conclusions.
For the second half of our trip we took a ferry to the island of Gotland where, allegedly, Eurovision winner Loreen lives. (To be clear, that’s not why we went, and this unverified intel was provided later by a friendly but possibly unreliable witness who stood behind us in an ice cream queue.) Aside from possibly being Loreen’s home, Gotland is famous for the medieval town of Visby and its beautifully-preserved historic centre, which is dotted by many, many church ruins and encircled by a very much not-ruined defensive wall. Visby is where we stayed and also where we enjoyed a great walking tour by a cheerful British immigrant to Gotland, albeit one who left out any mention of the fearsome Victual Brothers – a gang of pirates who plundered Gotland during the 1390s before being expelled by some Teutonic Knights. My suspicion is that telling this story would have made the town wall seem less impressive.
In addition to lots of eating and drinking in Visby itself, we also set aside a day to visit the much smaller island of Fårö, which has a tiny population (around 500) but is a popular summer spot for Swedes and just a short hop from Gotland on a car ferry. Despite being so small, it’s kinda incredible how different its east and west coasts are. One side is all windswept rock formations and shrubland, whilst we emerged onto the other to find sandy beaches and a sparkling blue sea. (The relaxed music from the beach bar was so incongruous it felt like we’d stepped out of reality into one of those dreamlike metaphorical cut scenes from a film.)
For lunch the island is blessed with a wonderful little pasta place, Pastamakarna, which is staffed mostly by Fårö residents and serves up warm, hearty bowls of pasta which made us all very happy. In fact, this is a good moment to sing the praises of all of the food we ate in Sweden, from our daily cardamom buns or the egg and caviar breakfast sandwich I picked up from a bakery at Stockholm Central to the ‘Chef’s Choice’ mystery meatballs on takeaway night, the amazing pickled herring or the tasty sourdough bread. As Randi and I had a later flight on Sunday morning, we also got to sample/gorge on the breakfast buffet at the fancy hotel which Catherine very generously donated her points for us all to stay at on the last night back in Stockholm. Would recommend.
To sum up: Sweden is great, and let’s not think too much about the other half of the year when those long, light summer evenings get inverted. Our only major failure was failing – twice! – to turn up early enough to bag spots on the English-speaking tour of the Swedish parliament, but – if any Swedes are reading this – please note that we did not pretend to be Swedish speakers and sneak onto that tour instead, as other tourists definitely did. We did make it to the ABBA museum on the last day, however, of which my favourite part was simply watching clips of Eurovision presenters from 1974. My, how things have changed.
But honestly, I think I would be happy to share an apartment for a week with Catherine and AJ just about anywhere, especially when there’s someone fun to play with who has now mastered the art of walking around, laughing and swatting me with a fly swat. It was also so nice to be able to just stay up chatting late into the night, even if AJ did sometimes insist on making us guess answers to Swedish quiz questions. Can’t wait for our next adventure!
As mentioned above, before leaving for Sweden my mum treated us to Patriots as an early birthday present: a Peter Morgan play about the rise of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky in the ashes of the former USSR, his early support for Putin as his protege/puppet and then his dramatic fall from grace and exile in London as Putin turned out to be less controllable than planned. It’s such a fascinating story – the type of play where you’ll find yourself ingesting giant Wikipedia articles on the Tube home afterwards, trying to work out how much is true before concluding that it’s basically all true, at least so far as the basic facts. Even the events which I lived through (such as the poisoning of Litvinenko) is now a shock to remember that it happened. And the lead actors were both great: Berezovsky with all of the bullying charm which a kleptocrat requires, and Putin permanently seething with such suppressed rage that you can see it in how he walks. Another great play this year.
This first weekend back after Sweden has also been super busy, starting with Alison Hook’s retirement party on Friday night at QPCS. Ms Hook was my GCSE English teacher and all-round extraordinary organiser of so many trips, programmes, summer schools, productions and publications – the kind of force of nature which you take for granted at the time, but I’m so glad that so many people were there to pay tribute. (In fact, it was surprising how many former students and teachers I actually knew.) After staying over at my mum’s I got to hang out with Josh, Anna and Cora on Saturday morning – including more sandpit playtime! – before some shared birthday celebrations at Ottolenghi Spitalfields in the evening with mum, Randi, Tash and Cormac.
It is my birthday tomorrow, in fact, so finishing this blog before midnight is now a race against time while I’m still 33. But happily I can sign off on a wonderful (and very unexpected note) because today Randi and I got to spend most of the afternoon with my friend Jen, who lives in New Zealand but is visiting for a couple of weeks. I last saw Jen in 2016 but we had such good conversation about everything under the sun, and (as is maybe a running theme here) there’s basically nothing better than reuniting with a good friend. Especially when the sun is shining, you have a table at the Honor Oak and there’s a three-tier birthday lemon cake waiting for you back home…
It’s been a busy few weeks! A few weeks ago I attended Booking.com’s annual partner conference in Amsterdam, held on a grander and flashier scale than last year and – most excitingly – included an appearance from 2014 Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst at their big party on Wednesday night. I think I actually missed Eurovision that year, so I’m glad I finally got to see her perform, although it was her cover of the instantly recognisable Everyway That I Can (Turkey, 2003) which was the biggest crowd-pleaser of all.
Amsterdam itself was as lovely as ever, even in drizzly March. Public service announcement: the trains accept contactless card payment now, so the “standing confused beside the ticket machine” phase of your trip is now a thing of the past. Hurray!
After getting back home on Thursday night, Randi and I finally made it to Tash and Cormac’s new flat for a wonderful ‘London Supper Club’ Friday night with my mum and Cormac’s dad Brendan. Alongside a true feast of Indian cooking we enjoyed a riotous night of poetry, songs and one interpretative tin whistle performance (you’re welcome) which really buoyed us up into a cheerful mood for the whole weekend. It also inspired me and Randi to read The Importance of Being Earnest aloud together one evening a few weeks later. Who needs Netflix, really?
Talking of readings – a few days later, at the stone setting service in memory of my great uncle Leonard, many of our family dug deep into our email archives to perform some of Leonard’s famous emails from years gone by. For most people this would probably be pretty dull, but Leonard’s emails were certainly flights of storytelling… even if the story he was telling was normally a tale of trial and tribulation. Thanks to my friend Simon for inspiring us with his Charles Dance-esque interpretation of Leonard’s writing a few years back.
For some professional entertainment, Randi and I also saw Sleepova that Saturday at the Bush Theatre, a play about the enduring power of teenage friendship as four girls go through life’s ups and downs during their GCSE years. Everything about this play just worked for us: serious themes, but always funny, warm-spirited and life-affirming at the same time. I’d never been to the Bush Theatre before but it’s as close to perfect a venue you can get, with strong vibes of the Tricycle in its glory days. All four characters felt real and relatable, albeit with some subtly different attitudes to the generation I remember (because I’m old now) but always played with warmth and humanity which kept you rooting for them all. You really know a play is working when one of the characters tells her parents something that she shouldn’t, and the audience all instinctively sighs together with frustration. Highly recommended. (I mean, the run is over now, but in theory at least: highly recommended.)
Even more culture: a week earlier Randi and I had a very rare movie night in and watched Everything Everywhere All At Once, the Oscar-winning universe-hopping surrealist sci-fi comedy centered on a Chinese American immigrant family and their quest to save the multiverse and/or save their laundromat from an IRS tax audit. Unlike Sleepova, you’ve probably seen this already and don’t need me to describe it to you. But it’s very good, and a real delight to see a film so brimming with creativity and imagination. Also, I should note that we finally finished Our Friends in the North after I (falsely) promised to Randi that the final episode must be more uplifting than those couple leading up to it. It was a promise made with the best of intentions, but sadly proved inaccurate.
Recently, while having brunch with Josh, Anna and Cora, we learnt that Josh and Anna were planning a romantic couple’s getaway together to Thorpe Park. Unfortunately I didn’t mask my excitement at the idea, nor the fact that I still had a day of annual leave to burn before the end of March, and that’s how I ended up inviting myself along to Josh and Anna’s rollercoastery day out. Of course, it was totally worth it, especially as it included a sleepover of our own the night before so I got to spend even more time with Cora (who now talks all the time!).
The next morning the three of us set out for a day of rides and ride analysis, of which my main conclusions are (a) Saw is probably Thorpe Park’s best all-round rollercoaster now, but (b) I’m really glad I went off to ride Stealth again because – although Josh and Anna aren’t fans – it’s up there as one of my favourite rides of all time. It’s been years since I was last at Thorpe Park and investment (along with visitor numbers) has fallen away since I was a teenager, but they are now finally working on a new rollercoaster so I guess we’ll just have to go back again once it opens…
Finally, in exciting and still slightly surreal news, I’m very happy that my friend and colleague Kira has just successfully made the move to the UK. By a weird twist of fate she’s spending her first few weeks in Willesden Green, so on Friday night we celebrated her arrival at the excellent Beer + Burger. But by Sunday the wheels were already in motion for Randi’s South East London sales pitch, and together with our colleague Patricia we enjoyed a great shakshuka and challah brunch at ours before playing some energetic rounds of Cobra Paw and a good game of Citadels. Then, since we’re all still excited by the novelty of it being light and sunny outside, we walked over to Crystal Palace together for ice creams and dinosaurs. More South East London at its best! And all part of Randi’s plan.
Randi and I already had plans to to visit Bristol this Easter weekend, since – although I’ve heard many good things about the city – my only actual experience of it was a brief (and very odd) day trip for work back in my Groupon UK days, and that was to an offensively ugly office building which I hoped wasn’t representative of the whole place. Happily, once we knew Kira would be in the country by then, we managed to persuade her to join us and so the three of us took the train up on Friday and stayed in an Airbnb loft in the fancy Clifton area. (Yes, as in the Clifton Suspension Bridge – which is indeed very cool to look at and walk over.)
I really, really liked Bristol from what I saw. Because it’s so hilly and green, and because so many of the buildings are built from Georgian stone (and on roads which refuse to form straight lines but instead criss-crossing crescents at different levels) there’s just a lot to look at and admire as you walk around, without mentioning the colourful houses, beautiful artwork and harbour area. We basically did a lot of walking – including through the expansive Leigh Woods – interspersed with a lot of eating, from authentic Cuban food to a proper pub roast on Easter Sunday itself, plus a very healthy number of Easter eggs. We also enjoyed Victoria Park and the M Shed museum, rewatched Free Solo together and played a couple of big-money games of Dominion Prosperity.