The Blog of Dust

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The Book of Dust - La Belle Sauvage
The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage

Last night, my mum treated Tash, Cormac, Randi and me to a delayed Christmas outing to see The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage at the Bridge Theatre. This was exciting on many levels, not least because – discounting our immersive Time Fracture experience at Christmas – this was my first time back at a theatre since Covid began. But going much further back, I can still picture the library in the attic of my primary school where I first laid eyes on Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, and there’s something special about being part of an audience with equally long memories of Lyra and Pan gallivanting around Jordan College. This production itself was also excellent, with Samuel Creasey giving an especially good performance as the bright, confused, hungry and heroic 11 year-old Malcom Polstead who protects the life of baby Lyra in his canoe during a great flood.

It’s much harder to imagine the second book in the trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth, being staged with the same uplifting energy given how much sadder and more melancholy it is. We shall see!

The last few weeks haven’t been that busy, but a few weeks ago we did gain a civic participation brownie point by attending a (virtual) Perry Vale community meeting. Ostensibly the purpose was to discuss the allocation of a pot of funding between a long list of worthy-sounding community projects, but – in a familiar problem – there’s no way I’m actually in a position to have an informed opinion about which projects are worthier than others. So we skipped this part, and joined instead for a presentation from Lewisham’s directly-elected mayor, Damien Egan, on the council’s overall budget and objectives. There are pros and cons to directly-elected mayors, of course, but at a basic level it is satisfying to have ‘a leader’ who can articulate in one voice what the council is doing. (Obligatory snarky comment about London boroughs: just maybe not 32 of them.)

At the other end of the democracy spectrum, Randi and I finally finished watching The West Wing after setting out on this adventure in (*checks blog history*) July 2017. Hey, that’s still faster than watching two Presidential terms unfold in real time! There’s a lot to love about The West Wing, and a lot to roll your eyes about, either because it’s based on completely false premises or (more prosaically) because whole characters and story arcs have a habit of vanishing into thin air. But I miss it now it’s gone. The other night, while Randi was out, I filled the gap by watching a few classic episodes of The Simpsons which I haven’t seen for years and years and was pleasantly surprised at how they can still make me laugh out loud, even something as simple as Homer making a phone call to Japan. (If you want to feel old, read the YouTube comments where the concept of an expensive long-distance telephone call has to be explained. )

We also hosted Kirsty and Roger at ours for a lovely evening of arguments about politics and culture, followed by a great Sunday afternoon at Matt and Laura’s in which I tried to suppress my envy that Cress still gets to have Calpol when she’s sick. Meanwhile our new tradition of Friday night food exploration has included sharing plates in Peckham (from a baseline recommendation of 4-6, we ordered 8), an amazing Georgian restaurant in East Dulwich and – as a reward for persevering through hail the night of Storm Eunice – The Herne Tavern. (Yes, obviously we stayed indoors for the red weather warning bit. Our fence, on the other hand, mounted an invasion attempt into the neighbour’s garden and is now a high-priority item to fix.) Last, but not least, we also tucked into an amazing pastry-crusted fish pie at mum’s at the latest London Supper Brunch Club.

The Spriggan on the Parkland Walk
The Spriggan on the Parkland Walk

And, yes, obviously we’ve kept walking the Capital Ring too. Recent sections have taken us via muddy Fryent Country Park (is it ever not muddy?) to Barn Hill – where my dad used to take us as kids all the time – and the Welsh Harp (much lovelier than Mr Birch’s secondary school assemblies about murder made it out to be) and later Highgate Wood (delightful, although Tash has since reminded me that this is where the worst dogs of our childhood appeared) and the wonderful Parkland Walk south to Finsbury Park. In case you can’t tell, I’m enjoying all of these North London bits, but the last one was especially exciting for being an old railway route, with the tracks now lifted, but which would be part of the Tube’s Northern line today had the Second World War not intervened.

The archer at East Finchley station
The archer at East Finchley station
Queen's Wood in Highgate
Queen’s Wood in Highgate
Abandoned Crouch End station platforms on the Parkland Walk
Abandoned Crouch End station platforms on the Parkland Walk
At the Woodberry Wetlands

December blogs are frantic while January blogs are chilled: that’s just the way of the world. We haven’t had any dramatic adventures so far this month, but 2022 did get off to a really lovely start when we hit the Capital Ring on New Year’s Day for fresh air, muddy trails and the familiar Grand Union Canal. That evening we settled down for Doctor Who’s Eve of the Daleks– romantic comedy plus time loops plus Aisling Bea plus Daleks, of course – which instantly became one of my favourite Jodie Whittaker episodes of all time and certainly one of the show’s most satisfying festive specials.

Back on the Capital Ring route
Back on the Capital Ring route
You can never get tired of a good canal
You can never get tired of a good canal
Striding across Horsenden Hill a week later
Striding across Horsenden Hill a week later
The Wembley Arch shows that we're slowly reaching North West London
The Wembley Arch shows that we’re slowly reaching North West London

Otherwise we’ve mostly been staying warm and cosy indoors, watching the new series of Would I Lie To You?, cracking open the Dominion: Adventures board game expansion, making tremendous progress with the final season of The West Wing (the end is in sight!) and enjoying David Attenborough’s home videos of plants The Green Planet, albeit without entirely accepting the premise that time-lapse photography of aggressive water lilies can ever quite match footage of animal interactions. We’ve also continued to expand our repertoire of local food places which we love and cherish: from The Lazy Chef by Forest Hill station to Malaysian food near Crofton Park and (slightly further afield) sharing platters at Tupi in Peckham. It might sound obvious, but it’s funny to realise that the owners of the restaurants and cafés in Forest Hill all know each other, and London really is a huge collection of urban villages after all.

Last weekend, we also went over to Erin’s extraordinary time-portal flat by Hampstead Heath for mimosas and a delicious shakshuka brunch – courtesy of Antonis – before an invigorating walk around the Heath with the two of them plus Erin’s dog Diva, who it was a pleasure to finally meet. Even after we had collectively put the world to rights Randi and I still weren’t done with the walking, so we headed to Charing Cross on foot before finally catching a train home. It’s fascinating to be reminded, or perhaps discover for the first time, how the areas of London I’ve always known (Hampstead Heath, Camden, Euston, Oxford Street) actually link up together.

Ski You Later
Ski You Later

Finally, last night we attended Caroline’s ‘leaving party’ (basically just an excuse for a party, without any long-term ‘leaving’ actually taking place) which was lovely, and – in a way which feels like a novelty now! – an actual party where you quickly find yourself in a crowd of people you’ve never met before. Personal highlight: being momentarily taken aback when a guy leaned over and confessed, somewhat conspiratorially, that he was also a Labour party member. I’m not sure this has happened to me at any of Caroline’s events before.

Cora admires our tree
Cora admires our tree

Merry Christmas!

Now it’s time for me to ensconce myself on the sofa while Randi is working and begin the traditional flurry of blog writing before the year is over, starting with a catch-up for the rest of December since we got back from the States.

After receiving the all-clear from our let-us-out-of-here-already PCR test, and absorbing festive spirits at a warm and cosy pub in Deptford, the big excitement after getting home was hosting Josh, Anna and Cora for their first sleepover at our place. We had so much fun together, especially when Cora began showing off her brand new walking skills in our kitchen.

More walking in Mayow Park, on the way back from Crystal Palace
More walking in Mayow Park, on the way back from Crystal Palace

The next week we were unexpectedly joined by temporary flatmate Sam for a few nights as all of her alternative places to stay in London were eliminated as options one-by-one by omicron infections. Right on cue, this week also became mad-dash-for-vaccine-boosters-before-Christmas week. I have huge appreciation for the amazing staff at the Queens Pharmacy Vaccination Centre in West Dulwich, who delivered a shot of Moderna to both me and Randi with great efficiency as well as finally being able to provide one of those coveted “I’ve had my Covid vaccination” stickers. In fact, as we celebrated Randi’s booster at The Rosendale pub down the road afterwards, there was a lovely sense of community when both two fellow pub-goers and the woman serving us popped out for unplanned shots before the centre closed for the day.

Christmas at Kenwood
Christmas at Kenwood

Our next turn in the great game of pre-Christmas omicron dodgeball (™Tash) was on Saturday at Christmas at Kenwood, a smaller version of the Christmas at Kew event we did in 2019. Side-note: Randi and I walked across Hampstead Heath in the dark from Gospel Oak station to get there, and I don’t think I’ve ever walked across the Heath at night before. It’s magnificent, and quite muddy. Anyway, at Kenwood we were joined by mum, Katie and Tessa for a mulled wine-infused stroll through Christmas lights, fires and lasers before heading over to Willesden where – much to my surprise – everyone accepted my suggestion of eating at Beer + Burger.

Festive walk through the woods
Festive walk through the woods
At the festive finale
At the festive finale
Chicago El glasses from Randi for Christmas!
Chicago L glasses from Randi for Christmas!

Without any big Christmas parties, the other thing which really helped to stir holiday feelings was going downstairs on Thursday night for a mini-gathering with our neighbour Angela, her friends Louisa and Chris and some very excited young children who put on a play for us and reached a heroic peak of deibels. Randi also cooked a surprise dinner to celebrate our first anniversary of moving in, along with a selection of truly delicious ginger and chocolate cookies which lasted all through Christmas. Tash also popped in for an evening, I made my final blood donation of 2021 off a busy-but-not-what-it-was Oxford Street, and I also gave up trying to understand how our existing thermostat worked and replaced it with a fancy Nest device.

Christmas day
Christmas day

And before you know it we had packed our bags and set off up North(West London…) on Christmas Eve. Remarkably, everyone survived through the battery of lateral flow tests and we had all made it home together. Christmas dinner tasted particularly good this year, and games included Not Alone (organised by Katie, in which everyone else plays against Katie, and each new iteration of the rules seemed to favour Katie), Debatable (which arrived in my Secret Santa bonanza from Tash and was played with much emotion in the evening with Andrew, Bonnie and Susanna) and a reverse-Charades variant with lots of cheering and booing which Grandma was not pleased with.

On Boxing Day evening, continuing the theme of celebrating Christmas in smaller groups, we gathered beside the fire in Sally’s garden to drink wine (and polish off Randi’s cookies) with Josh and Cindy who miraculously made it over from Canada. Randi and I then hopped on a delightfully speedy night-time bus journey back home (thermostat primed for action in advance from the top deck, naturally) before the final event in this year’s Christmas schedule: immersive theatre at Doctor Who: Time Fracture.

Celebrating a successful mission at Unit HQ
Celebrating a successful mission at Unit HQ

Now, originally this was supposed to have been Katie’s birthday present back in July before it was derailed by flooding. And as Christmas approached, the idea that an immersive theatre experience wouldn’t be knocked out by infection seemed laughable. But the “we’re sorry, the show is cancelled” email never arrived, and on Monday afternoon Katie, Randi and I reported for duty at Unit HQ for an adventure through space and time.

Skip this paragraph if you don’t want any spoilers, but one cool thing about the show is that the audience goes on different journeys depending on where they happen to run after the first section. So, we ended up having an amazing time with Queen Elizabeth and William Shakespeare – including a scene in Shakespeare’s office where it was just us alone with these two – while others met different people in other places. We loved our interactions, while crouching from Daleks, running from Cybermen and getting cornered by Weeping Angels in the dark was genuinely terrifying. Plus, the intermission on the travelling spaceship/bar with live music made us feel like we were genuinely on an intergalactic cruise. An awesome experience and highly recommended.

After the show, Katie came back to ours for an overnight stay and kindly agreed to teach us how to play Citadels again. This was one of games which I was most excited about recovering from the back of Robert’s closet in Chicago, so I was very pleased to be playing again even if I still haven’t won a game. The next morning we took a leisurely walk to Beckenham through Beckenham Place Park (or BPP to its friends) before saying farewell to Katie and looking forward to the final few days of 2021: quiet, restful but – hopefully – high in blogging productivity. One down, two to go 🙂

Journeys through the time fracture start here
Journeys through the time fracture start here
A heated game of Citadels
A heated game of Citadels

We made it! Fair warning: this is going to be an exceptionally joyful blog post, because Randi and I finally made it to the US and back after three whole years of being away. In fact, our United flights were mostly covered by credit from our aborted holiday of April 2020, so we had a lot to pack in.

Alex and Randi
Alex and Randi

Our first stop was LA to stay overnight with Randi’s brother, Alex, and his partner Lia. They kindly shepherded us from the airport to an outdoor restaurant for dinner (because you can do outdoor dining in November in southern California) where we had a lovely time pretending that our sleep wasn’t 8 hours behind where it should be.

The next day, suitably reset, we spent some time together at the Huntington Botanical Gardens before moving on to Randi’s parents in Yorba Linda. This was a perfect place to relax into holiday mode – beautiful gardens, including some fearsome cacti, and all in sunshine.

Japanese garden at The Huntington
Japanese gardens at The Huntington
Relaxed!
Relaxed!
La Brea Tar Pits, near where we stayed in LA
La Brea Tar Pits, near where we stayed in LA

Time for a quick side-quest, though! Before leaving the city, we also worked in a brief window to sneak off to Farmers Market and introduce Randi to my LA cousins Jackie and Jeff. This has been a long-overdue introduction, and they generously treated us to brunch while we made the most of our short time together. A really lovely Glamily bonus.

The first of many burritos during this trip
The first of many burritos during this trip
Back to the pool!
Back to the pool!

The number of books I’ve managed to get through during the pandemic has been shockingly poor, and I’ve now decided to blame being cut off from Randi’s family home in Yorba Linda. It really has become my happy place to sit by the pool and read, occasionally refuelled by trips to In-N-Out Burger (still delicious).

Obviously, it was also great to spend more time with Randi’s parents, and in the evenings we gathered together to keep pace with British essentials such as the Bake Off finale and a creepy Weeping Angels-centric episode of Doctor Who, during which I was pretty sure I could sense an army of malicious statues approaching from their backyard.

The perfect place to spend an evening
The perfect place to spend an evening
The entire nursing team for Beth's post-knee surgery recovery
The entire nursing team for Beth’s post-knee surgery recovery

Just in case this makes it sound like we never left the house… we weren’t that immobile. Our furthest adventure was to Newport Beach for a fishy (in a good way) lunch with Randi’s friend Sonali, followed by a good walk along the beachfront itself. In news which will surprise no-one, we opted to join the small fraction of the population who ride the local 71 bus to Newport Beach rather than driving – and while it’s neither very frequent or particularly fast, I have nothing bad to say about my $2 Orange County bus experience, which was actually reasonably well-used for the middle of the day. And free masks, too, for anyone ‘forgetting’ to wear one – including for the woman who boarded, took her free mask and then got right back off again.

We also went for a wonderful (and quite philosophical) stroll around the local neighbourhood with another of Randi’s childhood friends, Sienna. Meanwhile, Randi cooked an amazing dinner for the Leikens when they came over for the evening, along with Alex’s friends Brian and Gabo, and I can confirm that it was me who finished the chocolate cake the next morning. For Thanksgiving itself, I found myself in the disorientating position of making the salad dressing (despite, y’know, not eating salad) which miraculously ended up being edible. Not quite as edible, however, as Andrew Shelanksy’s ginger cookies which have to go down as one of my Thanksgiving 2021 highlights.

Yup, there are buses in Orange County
Yup, there are buses in Orange County
Lunch with Sonali
Lunch with Sonali
When we reached the beach, we basically ran into the ocean deliriously
When we reached the beach, we basically ran into the ocean deliriously
Randi and Sienna, sitting on top of the world
Randi and Sienna, sitting on top of the world
Coats? We must be back in Chicago.
Coats? We must be back in Chicago.

And finally: Chicago! No matter where we live, this will always be the city where we met and we never plan to be away for such an outrageously long period of time again. Our home base was Cantherine Catherine and Blaine’s AJ’s fancy new apartment, and in addition to all of the running about we did it was just really magical to spend some time again just hanging out, drinking Spotted Cow, streaming Channel 4, revisiting their wedding, stealing pizza slices from the fridge, recreating the entire Geja’s fondue experience with a DIY takeaway kit and arguing about whether ‘takeaway’ is a word. We also enjoyed a Hanukkah latke feast with Catherine’s cousins – and fortunately, we had come prepared with offerings from the land of Peppa Pig to satisfy the youngest guest.

Oh, but we did so much more. We ordered Mexican food with Toggolyn – still, by some distance, the couple with the coolest bookshelves – and then hopped over together to Robert and Julie’s for pizza and wine and incredibly tangented stories. Their two sons are also so, so much fun. We went back to Windy City Café with one of my most favourite ex-Grouponers, Ellen, who is slowly morphing into a European before our very eyes, and hit up our other go-to brunch place, Janik’s, with the one and only Cat “I’m going to move to Madison just as you leave Chicago” Hurley.

Evening engagements included a night out in the ‘burbs with Randi’s former boss and her family, cocktails with Jason and Carrie and Thai food at Michaela and Andy’s flat where an awful lot of opinions were expressed about Omaha. I also took a solo trip on Metra out to Downers Grove for burgers with another ex-Groupon colleague, Mike, although it almost turned into a much longer diversion because I almost boarded an Amtrak train by mistake… which could have been a lengthy error.

We also spent time with our beloved flatmate Amanda, of course – not once, but twice – starting with dinner at the one-and-only La Scarola. They’ve always been suspiciously nice to me there, starting from my very first visit, to the extent that Randi assumes they’ve confused me with someone else. Still, I’ll take it, especially since this visit ended with the owner ripping off a piece of tablecloth for me to write my phone number down so he can “take me out to dinner in London” when he visits.

Anyway – having gorged on Italian food – we reunited with Amanda a few nights later at Joe and Julie’s house which, not surprisingly, is a quirky masterpiece of design. We had an uproariously great night together with Amanda’s partner John and long-time Chicago friend Karol. (Julie’s chocolate and marmalade cake is highly recommended.)

Too excited to wait for Todd for the selfie
Too excited to wait for Todd for the selfie…
...and then decided to lay in ambush together
…and then decided to lay in ambush together
Discovering Chicago's Forest Preserves with Catherine and AJ
Discovering Chicago’s Forest Preserves with Catherine and AJ
"We should be able to cross this"
“We should be able to cross this”
Successful crossing in progress
Successful crossing in progress
Catherine and Randi
Catherine and Randi
Windy City with Ellen (now more pedestrian-friendly outside, too!)
Windy City with Ellen (now more pedestrian-friendly outside, too!)
Randi's former boss, Alison, and her family
Randi’s former boss, Alison, and her family
Heading back on the Blue Line
Heading back on the Blue Line
Flatmates reunited!
Flatmates reunited!
I turned up to decorate Hanukkah cookies with Robert's kids
I turned up to decorate Hanukkah cookies with Robert’s kids
Fondue from the comfort of home
Fondue from the comfort of home
Cat joined us on a Pulaski Park revisit
Cat joined us on a Pulaski Park revisit
I insisted on a photo with Joe and Julie's terrifying Halloween figure
I insisted on a photo with Joe and Julie’s terrifying Halloween figure
A less frightening group shot
A less frightening group shot
Thankfully the correct train to Downers Grove
Thankfully the correct train to Downers Grove
Drinks with the reassuringly unchanged Jason and Carrie
Drinks with the reassuringly unchanged Jason and Carrie

Before flying home on Saturday, we just had time for some excellent Swedish breakfasts before accompanying Catherine and AJ to buy a Christmas tree. (In truth, I think we were mostly there so that Catherine had a secure majority of people whose instincts are to bring home the biggest tree possible.) And then, far too quickly, we were in a cab to the airport. If you’re thinking that “cab to the airport” doesn’t sound like us, you should know that, when I left Chicago in November 2018, Robert very kindly offered up some closet space to store a bunch of books, board games and other possessions until we had somewhere permanent to send them to.

I certainly wasn’t intending to colonise his closet for three years, and – beyond feeling guilty – there was something incredibly gratifying about finally coming back for my stuff, even if it took an unwieldy number of extra bags to do it. Yes, stuff’s just stuff, but it was my stuff… and on the flight back, the sadness of leaving people behind in Chicago again was balanced with a satisfaction that our home in London would now become – in a sense – whole.

Carrying the tree home
Carrying the tree home
Our cab driver despairs at our bags
Our cab driver despairs at our bags

Appropriately, on our first flight out I reached the very last episode of Wicked Game, a podcast series recommended to me by my uncle Andrew which works through each American Presidential election from the beginning. I also picked Finding Dory for my traditional aeroplane animation fix… although, sadly, this time I found the story pretty underwhelming and one dimensional. On the way back, therefore, I went in a different direction and watched the Christopher Nolan thriller Tenet. Probably not the ideal viewing experience for that film, but enjoyable enough. The real shining moment of my first post-Covid international journey, however, was being reunited with a pack of Ruffles (Cheddar & Sour Cream) at O’Hare. Ruffles! I had forgotten about you, but you were always an excellent option from the Groupon vending machine.

It’s clearly time for this rambling narrative to end, because tomorrow we go back to the real world. At least, the real world as bounded by the walls of our flat for a few days, pending the (hopefully negative) outcome of a PCR test. We came home today to a Christmas tree of our own (it’s beautiful), a big Indian takeaway (see, definitely a real word) and the Doctor Who finale: all good reminders of our home here. But nothing makes you appreciate home more than leaving it, and I can’t wait for whatever travel comes next.

Walking the virtual plank
Walking the virtual plank

My first experience of VR was in 2014, when I donned a bulky Oculus Rift headset and rode a virtual rollercoaster in the middle of Katie Schuering’s apartment. It was pretty fun, in a “this is a novelty now but I’m sure this will be huge in a few years” kinda way, so I’m actually surprised that it’s taken until 2021 for my second VR experience at a team offsite event this week.

The technology’s gotten better in all of the obvious ways, and I thoroughly enjoyed blasting zombies to death with my team. It’s still a long way from photorealism, but I felt suitably nervous when walking around virtual ‘corners’ and jumped when a member of the undead snuck up behind me. As demonstrated by the virtual ‘walking the plank’ experience (pictured) it really doesn’t take much for the human brain to feel itself to be in mortal danger despite obviously ‘knowing’ that you’re a mere 1cm off the ground rather than walking off the top of a very tall building.

Virtual reality gaming: the view from outside...
Virtual reality gaming: the view from outside…
...and inside
…and inside

There’s an irony in meeting your colleagues again after nearly two years and then jumping straight into virtual reality, but it was incredibly lovely to see everyone in person. Special thanks to Tomas for staying up late in the hotel bar for an impromptu session on system architecture and/or Russian geopolitics.

And now, as I write this, there’s only one more sleep to go before Randi and I finally make it back to the States! This is a trip which we’ve planned, cancelled, re-planned and re-cancelled so many times that I won’t believe it’s happening until my feet are planted firmly on Californian ground. Yesterday morning, however, we cleared the pre-flight negative Covid test hurdle so we are almost there.

Forgive me, then, if the rest of this post has a bit of a helter-skelter vibe as I race through the last few weeks. Way back on Halloween we welcomed Andy and Bonnie for their long-delayed introduction to our flat, and just as they were leaving the first in a pleasing flurry of trick-or-treaters started to arrive. One group was so large I think we’ve now met an entire cohort from the local primary school, and there were some impressive costumes to boot. Of course, I withdrew all trick-or-treating services later that evening to focus on the start of the new, serialised season of Doctor Who, which in general is working really well with this more old-school format.

I’ve also enjoyed a night at the Captain Kidd pub with Eric, a Zoom pub with Simon, Ellie, Oliver, Robert and Steve at which we argued about who was responsible for us not being at a real pub (I tried!) and an impromptu evening of takeaway Nando’s and long-overdue catching up in Chelmsford with my honorary big sister Abbi. Meanwhile, Randi and I practised our patented two-step North West London hop from my mum’s to Josh and Anna’s to celebrate Cora’s first birthday. Key discoveries: (a) Cora has entered a talkative phase, albeit not yet in a language which any of us are able to understand, and (b) Cora seems to have picked up a disturbing NIMBY attitude towards tower blocks and will smash them all down at the earliest opportunity. A worrying personality trait.

Celebrating Anna's birthday
Celebrating Anna’s birthday

A week later, just when she thought she’d gotten rid of us, we turned up at the North London Tavern in Kilburn for Anna’s surprise birthday party. Randi led the charge to buy helium balloons for the occasion with infectious enthusiasm for a giant floating caterpillar – money well spent – and I accidentally ordered way too much food. So, obviously, we had a great time. Happy birthday Anna!

Finally – in a quick break between packing and panicking about something going wrong – we popped over to Tash and Cormac’s tonight for a delicious (and finessed!) Friday night family dinner. We’ll see you all on the other side!