Let’s start with the thing I have a lot of photos for: on Friday night, we excitedly joined Tash and Cormac for an evening kayak down the Thames! Technically this was a joint birthday gift to the two of them, but it was also the type of gift where you can’t resist inviting yourself along too. So, all together on the ‘Night Bus’ we paddled our way along as the sun went down, starting at Battersea – then past Westminster, the City of London and Canary Wharf – before rocking up at a Greenwich beach by the Cutty Sark.
We loved it, although the experience felt strikingly different to our kayaking adventures in Chicago. Over there, being on the river really feels like being in the very heart of the city, and you’re often surrounded by people and skyscrapers on either side. In London, the Thames may be the spiritual heart of the city but the city does not really ‘live on’ the river in the same way (to steal my mum’s language). The river is wider, the banks are higher and for most of the time the journey felt surprisingly quiet and peaceful. Highly recommended, unless you’re not happy with the sight of the odd dead rat, washed in by flooding and now bobbing along with impressive buoyancy. (No pictures of the rats follow.)
The Euros now feel like an age ago, but two weeks ago England were only at the quarter final stage when Randi and I travelled up to my mum’s to watch the team’s triumph over Ukraine. (It is always lovely when my mum cooks dinner for us, but sitting outside in the garden with smoked haddock crepes was especially lovely, and this is before she had a chance to demonstrate the full force of technological achievement which fancy ice cream scoops have now achieved.) The next morning, suitably refreshed, we walked over to Alix and Adam’s ‘new’ house – not really new, but this was our first chance to admire it! – and spend more time with my smiley baby cousin Austin.
Then, after I managed to fall out of a bathroom with the slapstick setting turned on, we moved on to Bob’s Cafe in Queen’s Park for a long-overdue catch-up / setting-the-world-to-rights lunch with Promise. Despite going to both QPCS and Cambridge together, I had no idea – until now – that Promise is a seasoned regular of the Minnesota State Fair, and shares exactly the same overseas longing for Sweet Martha’s cookies which assails Randi. It’s a small world, and to be honest a lot of it seems to converge on that fair.
In the last few weeks we’ve also been out drinking in Streatham with Reema and John, taken Carolyn and Maria on a dinosaur-packed tour of Crystal Palace Park and taken part in the innovative online Jury Duty game which was my birthday present from Katie (thank you!). Obviously I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but the format is that a group of strangers form a jury over Zoom to investigate a case and decide a verdict. This was a lot of fun, and we felt very lucky to find ourselves in a group which gelled together, collaborated and seemed to do pretty well at the game!
Also, whether for the benefit of the actors or participants, they very sweetly contacted everyone beforehand to reschedule to a time which wouldn’t clash with England’s semi-final kickoff. And – speaking of the Euros again – while the final on Sunday may not have ended happily for England fans, I did enjoy the ups and downs of having another temporary, big-tournament-induced interest in football. (Obviously I apologise to Josh for texting him questions throughout the matches like “what prevents a goalkeeper from just holding the ball and walking down to the other goal to score?”)
This weekend, as the sun finally started to provide some real summer weather again, Randi and I joined Catherine and Hitesh at the aching cool Limin’ Beach Club on the south bank. It genuinely felt like being on holiday. This Catherine, incidentally, is someone I haven’t seen in a decade but the bonds of the 2005 Brent-Eton summer school go deep (along with the kayaking training, come to think of it) and we had a great time together. Afterwards, I made an emergency parasol purchase, accidentally took a train to Croydon and back after becoming too engrossed in emergency parasol research to get off at the right stop, and finally had everything assembled in time for us to host Caroline and Josh in our garden the next day with some much-needed shade along with a ridiculously good Randi brunch special and plenty of Pimm’s.
Finally, and apropos nothing at all, I’ve had “Put Pret Orders on a Graph” on my to-do list for so long that I’ve lost all context for how/why I ever thought this might be a necessary thing to do. But I was having a productive weekend, so I trusted my past self and did it, and having done so it would be a shame not to share…
Confession: my least favourite part of blogging is writing these introductions.
Writing an introduction is easy if you’re writing about one event (New post: My trip to the moon) or multiple events with one running thread (New post: My top five podcasts to listen on the way to the moon) but sometimes there’s just no way to fake any narrative coherence. And that’s OK. Sometimes, you just have to learn to give up and lean into subheadings.
Celebrating 32 Years on Earth
It was my birthday last weekend! To celebrate, Randi added a slightly menacing block into my calendar (“This day is not in your control”) and then squirreled us away to Seaford on Friday night so that we could have dinner at The Grumpy Chef. We love The Grumpy Chef, last seen in November during our US election day/pre-lockdown dash to the coast, and it seems to be doing well enough to have expanded into The Grumpy Fish over the road.
The next morning we had a choice between repeating our Seven Sisters walk to Eastbourne or trying something new in the other direction. Happily we picked the second option, because even though we didn’t make it all the way to Brighton on foot (cutting it short after about three hours with the help of the impressive frequent coastal bus) it led us to make a serendipitous discovery buried deep in The Lanes which I will keep secret until later in the summer.
I also can’t leave Seaford without mentioning that also managed to have breakfast in 1945. “We’ve just won the war!” enthused the proprietor – who seemed genuinely pleased – as Randi and I tucked into our food and enjoyed the background hum of all your favourite wartime melodies. My favourite moment was when the guy at the counter ignored the anachronistic “NO CARDS, CASH ONLY” sign and pulled out a hidden contactless machine from under the till for us to pay. “Don’t worry, I’m happy to take cards. The owner’s just a bit stuck in the twentieth century” he said, before looking around and laughing as he realised this explanation was probably unnecessary.
The next day we travelled up the country in the other direction to Hereford to do some scouting. More on this later, too!
Global Britain, 1966
Katie and I enjoyed another Doctor Who night last week, going all the way back to 1966 for the highly enjoyable and gleefully ridiculous The War Machines.
The premise: all of the world’s countries (including both the USA and the USSR) have agreed to place their entire computer networks under the central control of a single new super-powerful computer, WOTAN, built – for some reason – on the top floor of London’s shiny new
BT Post Office tower. You know WOTAN’s really, really amazing because it’s able to provide the square root of 17422 (to three decimal places) within seconds.
Anyway, my favourite scene is when Sir Charles Summer, head of the ‘Royal Scientific Club’, elegantly bats away the sole American reporter who voices any concern about this foolproof plan:
SUMMER: Gentleman, ladies, may I have your attention please? Well, you're heard the backroom boys, now it's about time you my turn. C Day, that is Computer Day, will be next Monday, July the 16th, that is in four days time. Now on that date all the computer systems in this country, and subsequently in the whole world will come under the control of this central computer which we call WOTAN. Now, as you've heard, that will have both peaceful and military implications. I need hardly tell you that this is a great step forward for Britain, and indeed I may say, for the whole world. Now, have you got any questions?
STONE: Roy Stone, New York Sketch.
SUMMER: Fire away.
STONE: Sir, doesn't this put a great deal of power into the hands of whoever operates WOTAN?
SUMMER: No one operates WOTAN. WOTAN operates itself. The computer is merely a brain which thinks logically without any political or private ends. It is pure thought. It makes calculations, it supplies only the truth. It has no imaginative powers.
STONE: Is there no way of fixing it so it can give the wrong answers?
SUMMER: There would be no point. Now don't forget that a computer like WOTAN is not a human being.
STONE: Oh, but surely, sir
SUMMER: It has no reason to suppress the truth, it has no emotions. It is our soul.
STONE: It seems to me by the way you're talking, sir, that this machine can think for itself like a human being.
SUMMER: It can. Only much more accurately.
STONE: But sir, I mean, isn't this kinda risky? I mean, suppose it decides it can do without people, what then?
SUMMER: I hardly think it'll come to that. I'm sure that Professor Brett and his team will have the machine well under control.
I have absolutely no doubt that Sir Charles Summer would be doing very well for himself today.
Football Football Football
Excluding the matches which I ‘played’ in during PE – and by ‘played’ I mean ‘observed from as far away from the ball as possible’ – I’ve never actually seen a whole football match in person. Until Tuesday, that is, when I benefited from some generous Booking.com corporate hospitality and saw England vs. Czech Republic at Wembley. Thankfully, I was accompanied by my colleague Lee who could explain what was going on, and despite being assured afterwards that it was a pretty boring game I’m going to play my “I’ve got nothing to compare it to” card and say that it was a lot of fun. Especially as (a) England did score the only goal of the game, and (b) they kindly did so during the half when we were sitting behind the goal in question.
Finally Double Vaccinated (But Not The One You Think)
On 10th July 1990 I got my first dose of the MMR vaccine as part of a global conspiracy to stop children dying of measles, mumps and/or rubella. You’re supposed to get the second dose at age 3, but for some reason I didn’t. This definitely wasn’t my parents’ conscious decision, so let’s just put it down to uncharacteristically bad record keeping. Hey, it was the 90s – there was no NHS app yet.
Then a few weeks ago I happened to flick past Channel 4’s documentary on the latest generation of anti-vaccination con artists, which inspired me to check my own medical records later and realise that I was 28 years overdue for my jab. I made a quick phone call to my bemused local surgery and was vaccinated the same day. 💉💉💉
Dinner on the Tube
My birthday gift from Tash and Cormac was being treated to a delicious six-course Latin American-inspired tasting menu… on an old 1967 Victoria Line tube carriage in Walthamstow! This was every bit as amazing as you would think, so thank you guys!
So, I’ve even run out of subheadings, but let’s keep going! After 5 years I finally invited myself over to Oliver and Abi’s ‘new house’, and enjoyed a very long lunch in their incredible garden. Randi and I went out for drinks with my colleagues Eric and Tomas, being led around Eric’s home turf on a mini-tour of local pubs. This morning we went back to parlez in Brockley for a final celebratory birthday brunch, before introducing my mum to One Tree Hill and Horniman Gardens and trying to persuade her to imagine the amazing views which she would be able to see on a clearer day.
And, last but extremely not least… last night Randi and I livestreamed Catherine and AJ’s wedding from the-tornado-warning-has-now-been-lifted Chicago.
We’re extremely fortunate that during the pandemic we’ve never had to experience getting sick, or losing someone close to Covid, or losing our jobs, or working on a hospital ward, or being forced to suddenly be responsible for homeschooling, or any of the other staggeringly difficult things which other people have faced. So in that context, there’s no doubt that the saddest impact for us has been not getting to celebrate this wedding in person. Nevertheless, it made me really happy to be there virtually (top-notch microphones, by the way) and I am reassured that we will make up for it in the future 🙂
…and to pick up the vaccine cliffhanger from last time, I’m happy to confirm the exciting news that Randi and I have both now received our first doses.
My experience was quiet, orderly and quite British: I turned up at Guy’s Hospital at the appointed time and waited for a few minutes on a socially-distanced chair at the end of a corridor while a succession of nurses came out of one of the little adjoining rooms, asked “well, who’s next?” and paused until someone gained the confidence that it was legitimately their turn. Before long I was called into a room of my own, read the formalities and finally injected with my new favourite mRNA. Next day: a slightly sore arm, nothing more. Thanks very much!
Not being quite eligible to book yet, Randi had a more entrepreneurial journey. On Bank Holiday Monday, shortly after saying goodbye to Josh, Anna and Cora, they gave us the heads-up that the giant pop-up centre in Twickenham Stadium was throwing open its doors to over 18s for the rest of the day. In the spirit of adventure, we decided to chance it and engaged in madcap dash to the stadium… but by that point, so had everybody else in the 18-29 age group, and by the time we got to the end of the giant queue it was already too late. We consoled ourselves that it was nice to see so much enthusiasm (and it really was a lovely crowd) and went home again. But a few days later, just as work was wrapping up, Randi got another tip-off about another centre vaccinating over 28s until 7pm and then it was a solo dash -> train -> Tube -> sprint -> jab -> job done. Next stop: second dose August 😊
Before any of these vaccine runarounds, on Friday night we celebrated birthdays for mum, Tash and Randi at The Narrow restaurant by the Thames. I haven’t been around the Limehouse basin much, and had equal love for the food, the cocktails, the view and the company. We also had a chance to finally see Tash and Cormac’s flat in person beforehand, which has been a very long time coming! I think it speaks to our elite Escape Room training that we were able to master the instructions for the building’s doors without using a lifeline.
The long weekend was also perfect for catching up with friends and especially friends-with-babies. Baby #1 took us to Romford to visit Simon, Fleur and Cleo, which also gave us an opportunity to admire their almost-finished house! Baby #2 was Cora, of course, but this time we lured Josh and Anna down to us as part of a general strategy to raise everyone’s immunity to crossing the river. Randi cooked up a vegan storm, Cora repurposed my knee as a drum and we all walked the Waterlink Way to Blythe Hill for some blissful sunshine and fresh air.
To be clear, having a baby is not a necessary condition to hang out. In the last couple of weeks we’ve also met up with Jamie, a colleague of mine, in a Ladywell pub garden and caught up (sadly only virtually) with Melissa in New York. We’ve also walked Capital Rings 3 and 4 on either side of Crystal Palace – and I have to say, Crystal Palace might just be one of the most beautiful railway stations there is – and treated ourselves to dinner at parlez outside Brockley station. (parlez serves brunch by day and Indian fusion by night, which is scarily tailor-made for me.)
Katie and I also ran a successful experiment with Zoom’s screen share to resurrect our Doctor Who Nights virtually, and very much enjoyed the debut outing for both The Master and Jo Grant in Terror of the Autons. If the threat of a Nestene invasion isn’t a good reason to reduce unnecessary plastic usage then I don’t know what is.
Circular London walking routes: we’re back! After finishing the 24-section London Loop, which roughly tracks the border of Greater London, in October we started this month on the Capital Ring, its little sibling. This route is about halfway into London, so is only 15 sections and (so far) mostly a park-to-park affair, which (a) makes for an easier challenge, and (b) massively increases the chances of stumbling across a café or two along the way. So I’m very optimistic that our hallway which proudly boasts a London Loop certificate (printed, framed and signed) will be gaining another one before too long.
A special shout out to the Oxleas Wood Café in the meantime, which sits near the end of Section 1 and so makes a great choice to enjoy English breakfasts and stunning views before Section 2.
I hadn’t seen Steve, my boss, in person for over a year so it was a delight to finally be able to go to the pub with him and his partner one Wednesday night this month. Less delightfully, I allowed all ordering decisions to be made by these hardcore craft beer aficionados and consequently felt more fragile the next morning than I’ve felt in a long, long time.
You could tell it was serious because instead of going to the polling station bright and early – as I’d usually do on any election day! – it was lunchtime before I ventured out with Randi to the primary school down the road to cast my vote for Sadiq. (I wish there had been a supplemental box to tick, for information only, with the words “….and I actually like Low Traffic Neighbourhoods too”.) Anyway, I was a chastened and reformed character a week later during outdoor work drinks #2 with Lee, Jill and Sally. Hangover or no hangover, it’s such a pleasure to see people again.
Randi and I have also been on another countryside walk in the Chilterns with Erin, this time enjoying the (very nicely signposted) Ivinghoe Beacon Ridgeway Circular Walk which starts and ends at Tring railway station. Highlights: magnificent views from the Beacon, sure, but also magnificent sandwiches from Pret for lunch. There’s a lot of food in this post.
One event which was still virtual – at least for us – was Jason and Carrie’s wedding in Chicago. As much as we wished we could have been there in person, we were still excited to fire up Zoom at 11.30pm on a Saturday evening to watch what we assumed would be a livestream-style broadcast… only to discover that, no, this was actually a full two-way Zoom and we had just catapulted ourselves into the front-row of a wedding ceremony in our pyjamas. Sorry! Still, it was really lovely to be there and have some time to chat to Jason and Carrie afterwards on our ‘table’ of fellow virtuals, the rest of whom were all fully dressed.
In the past week we’ve also been celebrating Randi’s birthday, which has helpfully coincided with the return of indoor dining, socialising and activities! Following a pre-birthday kickoff dinner at Hattush Mediterranean restaurant, we hosted Randi’s colleagues Reema, Sam and Esther at our place for a generous helping of Honest Burger and cake. For Randi’s birthday itself we were lucky enough to have brunch at Dishoom in Covent Garden for their very first day of reopening. Apparently we were there at exactly the same time as the (thankfully re-elected) Mayor, although we were too focused on our food to notice.
Afterwards we sauntered through the centre of London to Primrose Hill for a good view of a city returning to life. But for an even better view, you need to go higher…
…so yesterday, we took the frighteningly fast lifts up to the top of the Shard for its incredible view of London in every direction. I’ve been before, but Randi hadn’t, and to be honest I’m already looking for an excuse to go again. After over a year of lockdowns and spending most of our time in our local area, it’s especially satisfying to be able to get up there and take in so much at once.
Plus, watching the tiny little model trains run along the many train paths is always cool too 😉
Before our time slot, we were also delighted to be joined by Very Special Guest Matt Hull to mooch around Borough Market (“keep flowing, keep flowing!”) and eat doughnuts by the river. And if all that wasn’t enough, that evening we enjoyed the triumphant return of Eurovision! It was, by general consensus, an exceptionally strong final. I had many favourites (Greece, Malta, Iceland to name a few) and a lot more which I would have cheered for (France, Portugal, Bulgaria) and of course one of the very few countries which left me cold – Italy – which won by a landslide. Sigh.
When it comes to the UK in Eurovision, though, I’ve become strongly influenced by Randi’s outsider view and now present my highly controversial and socially unacceptable three-point plan:
- UK viewers should actually watch the semi-finals. I know, I know, you think you want to “come to the songs fresh”. That’s what I thought too. But now we’ve gotten into the habit of acclimatising with the semis it allows me to appreciate the final itself much more. Which brings me to…
- The UK should give up its guaranteed slot in the final and actually compete in the semi-finals. Yes, this would probably mean a long, sad stretch of failing to qualify. Yes, that would mean pressure to cut Eurovision funding, which is why this might be a terrible idea and you shouldn’t listen to me. But in the long-term it would surely give the country valuable practice on entering performers who can actually win votes. And this is important because…
- The UK should actually enter a potential winner. Sure, it almost certainly won’t win. But right now we’re trapped in a cycle of entering songs which “deserve to be mid-table” and then being disappointed when they come last. I’d rather we entered something which actually deserves to come top and then falls short. Everyone always says this is completely impossible because of the fragile egos in the music industry. But I bet France doesn’t regret coming 2nd vs. our 26th place.
There you go: my Eurovision soft power initiative begins here.
Finally, there were a few other things which made this weekend feel totally packed but in a very satisfying way. Firstly – and then I’ll stop talking about eating, I promise – Randi made a surprise booking for us on Friday night at The Garden, an amazing Italian restaurant (the kind staffed by actual exuberant Italians, so maybe I should give their Eurovision winner another chance) which we discovered shortly before the pandemic and have been crossing our fingers would make it through ever since. They have, and their pizza is as delicious as ever.
Secondly, today we travelled to Andrew and Bonnie’s for a proper family meetup, including with my young cousin Lena and totally-hot-off-the-press new cousin Austin, which was wonderful.
And thirdly, on Saturday morning I woke up to discover that the ever-falling age eligibility for vaccination had now dropped below that magic threshold where it was now my turn to make an appointment. So, next weekend, fingers crossed, another pandemic milestone approaches… 💉
It’s time for the annual tradition of saying happy birthday to this blog. On Tuesday, it turned 17 and can now legally drive (no thanks), be interviewed by the police without an adult blog present (hopefully unnecessary) and give blood!
I’m pretty sure I loved being 17 and – while I wouldn’t want to be 17 forever – I’d certainly be happy to relive it once or twice. This is partly to do with the way Sixth Form works in Britain, or at least for me, which begins in Year 12 as former school pupils emerge blinking as freshly-minted students with more freedoms and a more relaxed, collegiate atmosphere but not yet Year 13’s mad crunch of A-Levels, university offers and the sense of everyone parting ways.
Although I have a decent handful of photos from this era, plus some top quality videos from various beloved Nokias, it’s a lot more scattergun than I remember because this was all pre-smartphone. In fact, I’m grateful to Catherine for recently sending me one of these pictures from her 18th birthday while we were reminiscing about our Eton summer school days. I remember it well (and treasured that brief period when teenagers flirted by swapping MSN Messenger addresses) although curiously I don’t seem to have blogged about it afterwards, probably because it took a while in those days for any photos to emerge onto MySpace. So, consider this a belated post from the lost days of being 17 in 2006.
Back in the present, Randi and I dubbed last week our own unofficial London Restaurant Week as we donned suitably warm coats and splurged on a succession of outdoor dining at places both new (amazing gourmet Indian at Babur) and old (including our old friend the Tulse Hill Hotel). Best of all, last Saturday we walked up to Rotherhithe and finally fulfilled our long-delayed plan to visit The Mayflower pub with Tash and Cormac. Sitting by the Thames again was pretty thrilling, although we didn’t get as close to the river as the guy behind us who dropped his phone all the way down to the river through the slats. Fortunately, it landed at low tide and he was lucky enough to have a friend willing to venture all the way down to retrieve it for him.
Meanwhile, our group all kept hold of our phones and enjoyed a wonderful late lunch before admiring the excellent statues of the pioneering Salters nearby and basking in the sunshine in King’s Stairs Gardens. I always thought it was a bit silly when people single out an area for having ‘lots of history’ (doesn’t everywhere?) but walking around the cobbly streets Rotherhithe is more evocative than most. The next day we were delighted to welcome Chris to our very own back garden as our inaugural garden furniture guest. Having watched countless couples lose their shit on Location Location Location over whether a potential garden was south-facing or not I’m amused that we accidentally ended up with a south-facing garden without realising, but now I can see the benefits.
Of course, our garden can never compete with the full-on private café / nature reserve experience at Josh and Anna’s which we visited again today after seeing my mum on Friday night. Excitingly, Josh had his second dose vaccine appointment booked so after eating lots of pancakes and teaching Cora the basics of multi-party democracy (see below) we walked down to the vaccine centre together and hung around semi-enviously outside. It shouldn’t be long for us now, though, and I’m delighted we thought to inaugurate a new tradition of a post-vaccine pint afterwards. It’s not exactly how my 17 year old self imagined the future, but we’ve all come through alright.