Shockingly surprising

I’m a bit of a sucker for surprises. So when I got my weekly email from the comedy club in Greenwich last week, announcing that the Sunday Special had a “top secret megastar” for top billing last Sunday, I couldn’t resist. They even went on to say “we can’t reveal who it is, but you won’t want to miss this”!

I absolutely love surprises. Not really surprises like when someone jumps out from behind a door to give you a fright and then laughs their head off because you’ve just jumped out of your skin. That would be a shock more than a surprise. Fun surprises are more my thing.

Like the time a few years ago when I had a few surprises rolled into one: firstly, I was given two tickets to a Women’s Day concert at one of Cape Town’s most popular theatres. I invited a friend to go along with me, and we enjoyed a few hours of the most unbelievable talent that I didn’t even know existed in Cape Town. Poets, rappers, rock bands, jazz singers, story tellers, soul singers and opera singers appeared on the stage and wowed us in the most amazing way. Audience members had no access to a programme; the show just unfolded, one beautiful surprise after another.

As the show neared its end, the compere came out on to the stage and thanked everyone for being there. She thanked the artists for performing, invited people to come and meet them after the show, and thanked everyone once again. As she was about to leave the stage, she said,
“Oh, and I have one more surprise for you. She’s in South Africa doing some work with a charity that she supports, and we managed to convince her to come along and entertain you tonight. She’s all the way from Manchester, England, where her group MPeople had massive success. Ladies – put your hands together for Heather Small!”

And on to the stage walked one of my favourite singers; a tiny, pint-sized dynamo, blasting forth “Moving on Up”. She sang “Search for the Hero” and “Proud” and many of her new hits, and I was literally beside myself. After an embarrassment of talent, the evening closed with this final, perfect surprise.

If you’re a regular follower of my blog, or indeed if you know me, you will know that I digress. Easily. So back to the start of this post…

We went to the comedy club in Greenwich last Sunday night to enjoy not only the line-up of up-and-coming young comedians, but to wait – in delicious anticipation – to see who the headline act would be. We imagined Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Michael McIntyre …. just who would this megastar be?

There’s nothing quite like live comedy, and it makes for such a fun evening. The opening acts were a delight. They are always young, up-and-coming comedians cutting their teeth on a smallish, London audience. A young guy in a “jumper” opened the show with a really charming set of observational humour. He talked about everyday things like chairs and jumping castles, and how, when you get to that certain point in your relationship, one of you always has to pretend to be dead just to get a reaction.

Another young stand-up came on to the stage next, and, although he was nervous and didn’t seem too sure of himself, he kept us amused – even if it was just because we were waiting for him to be really funny. The third act was (and there always has to be one in any line-up) a manic singer/comedian. He was pretty funny, though – and his closing song about panda bears just being polar bears in bad relationships was bizarrely amusing – and he continued the work of warming the crowd up. (Some audience members were doing that perfectly well by themselves, as they devoured jug after massive jug of lager.)

The wait then began for the “top secret megastar”. Our 15 minute wait became half an hour, then 45 minutes (“traffic” was the excuse for the superstar’s tardiness) and then the MC returned to the stage to hold the crowd while we waited for Mr Man-of-the-Moment. He said it was an MC’s nightmare to hold the floor when the headline act’s eta is as yet unknown. He did well, though, and his time was made easier by – long story – downing three pints of lager on the trot, to the audience’s chanting. The moment then arrived that Mr Megastar was about to arrive and we were told to “put your hands together for Mr MEGASTAR”!

First up, we’d never heard of him. (Sorry, east London.) Secondly, he was a megastar? Thirdly, he was really not funny… he was trying out new material for a tour he’s embarking on later in the year, so he read from his notes, scribbled notes on the paper and seemed a tad distracted. It must have been the “traffic”.

He picked on audience members and insulted them. He said pretty tacky stuff to a bunch of young girls near the front, made a comment about the weight of a young guy near us and then he spotted my husband. He asked him his age, and when he heard my husband’s age to be a year on the far side of a half-century, he proceeded to made “old” jokes at my husband’s expense. They would have been funny if my husband had been 100, or even 75, but for a healthy, bright, professional, it was just plain rude.

He said, “Have you heard of BBC Three, sir? It’s a radio station for YOUNG people. It’s really good – but maybe you guys should have your own station called, I don’t know, BBC Seventy Three. Where they play all the stuff for young people, just loud. With reminders to pay your gas bills. I don’t know, would that appeal to you, sir?”

We thought he had written a set of jokes for an “old person” and saw my silver-haired husband and tried to make the old jokes fit.  However, he lost us as he waded his way through heavy-handed comedy and we bided our time until the show finished and we could wend our way back home to a safe, insult-free place.

You know I mentioned the difference between a surprise and a fright? Mr Megastar was more fright than surprise, and he wasn’t even funny. Not even for a minute. From now on we’ll be wary of surprise megastars – I’ll just have to hide behind the door when I see the word “surprise” – and focus on the new up-and-coming young comedians. At least you can be sure of a good laugh.

Sunshine signing off for today!

A Troubled Bridge Over Waters

The studio we visited on Friday evening (Applaud … Now!) was in Hammersmith, an area of London we’d not visited before. We had a short time to walk along the edge of the River Thames before going into the studio and we discovered what an amazing area it was. Walk with me …

The Hammersmith Bridge across the Thames is an outstanding, imposing and quite formidable piece of engineering work. My friend who used to live in Hammersmith told me it had a fascinating history,  so I checked it out. Thanks Wikipedia!

The original Hammersmith Bridge was built in 1825, as the first suspension bridge over the Thames.  By the 1870s, the bridge was struggling under the weight of the traffic that passed over it, particularly the 11,000 or so who crowded on to the bridge to watch the University Boat Race in 1870. A temporary bridge was constructed, while a replacement bridge was built.

The replacement bridge, built on the original pier supports, was designed by well-known civil engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette (he also designed the Cathedral of Sewage in London’s east end – I’ll write about that in a future post) and it was opened in 1887.

Several times, the IRA have attempted to bomb it – once unsuccessfully in 1939 when an alert member of the public noticed a smoking, sparking suitcase on the bridge and went over to open it and throw the suitcase in the river. It exploded in the river, a few moments ahead of a second bomb that went off further down the bridge. In 2000, an IRA bomb exploded on it and put the bridge out of commission for two years.

Here are a few views of the bridge, which spans the River Thames between Hammersmith and Barnes (my husband took these amazing photographs):

Hammersmith Bridge in the late afternoon sun
Such a magnificent bridge

I had a quick stop to take a phone call:

Quick on the draw - I can answer the phone at ten paces
A view of the bridge as we walked north along the River

We walked further along the River and came across another boat suburb:

Fabulous house boats on the Thames

And some webbed residents:

These ducks don't often use the boat
I hope the big guy isn't a bully

We loved this walkway to a pub, called The Dove:

I love the low doorways in old buildings

We walked past amazing old houses along the edge of the river. I was fascinated to walk past a house with the sign “William Morris Society” outside it. My friend, Wendy, over at Herding Cats in Hammond River updated her blog theme last week, using a William Morris design as her background. I’d never heard of him (blush) so it was such a coincidence to discover Kelmscott House which was his residence from 1878 to 1896. This is the only photo we took of the house:

The William Morris Society house

We saw a hopeful glimpse of spring against the dusk sky:

Yay for the sight of cherry blossom!

Our walk came to an end and we headed back to the studio to become part of the TV audience. There are so many sights to see in London and each new one overwhelms me. I can’t imagine ever tiring of that feeling.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Lay On, MacDuff!

Last night we went to see Macbeth in the Blitz at a small community theatre on the other side of the river from where we live. The whole concept of community theatre appealed to me and I was so excited to go and enjoy an evening of local talent. I use the word talent local very loosely: it would have been quicker to swim across the Thames.

I misunderstood the blurb about the play. It read:

“It’s January 1941. The Docklands is in the midst of the Blitz. The shattering attack on East London is having devastating effects on its people and the landscape. In an attempt to restore normality, to resist in the only way they can, a group of actors perform Macbeth in an air raid shelter.”

My expectation was that the play would be about a theatre group putting on Macbeth during those difficult and horrendously frightening days. Instead, the play was Macbeth with the screeching of sirens and the sounds of bombs going off every now and then. The costumes were appropriate for that time, but apart from that the sense of history and context was kind of lost. I would have loved to have known the back story.

The cast reflected the diversity of London in 2011, complete with a female King Duncan and accents from Eastern Europe, Asia and South America. There was some fine and passionate acting and it was certainly an ambitious project for an amateur dramatics group to take on. We particularly enjoyed the actor whose self-conscious default was to stand with his arms hanging about his sides like guy ropes.

The play was put on at The Space. I had read about this beautiful old building in the Isle of Dogs, and had long wanted an excuse to visit. Last night’s play was the perfect opportunity to do so, although there was no direct route to get there – we had to take a bus, a tube and then another bus, although we could have taken a ferry then a bus. A twisty route, indeed.

The Space is a community arts centre, offering theatre, music, comedy and dance. Converted from a beautiful 19th century church, with stained glass windows, and a high, domed ceiling, The Space offers a theatre space as well as a delightfully cosy cafe/bar upstairs, known as the Hubbub. The theatre, as it was configured last night, seats about 50 people. The audience sat on either side of the hall, with the play taking place in the middle.

The Isle of Dogs is an almost-island in the East End of London, in the loop of the largest meander of the Thames. There is some speculation as to how the name Isle of Dogs came about, but it was recorded as such for the first time in 1588.

Two more tickets for our red box. A visit to another area of London we’d not seen before. An interesting performance of Macbeth in a beautiful, historic venue. It was worth braving the cold and the circuitous public transport route for all that.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Walking Through History

I have walked through a couple of centuries of history during the past week. Venturing along some cobbled walkways that featured in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and sipping wine in the Devil’s Tavern, I feel well and truly steeped in years gone by. Oh, if walls could talk.

Now, if I were a brilliant writer in the league of my friend, Kate Shrewsday,  I would recreate some of the history I walked through and keep you rapt throughout the journey. Sadly I’m not, so I will describe my experience of the places, share some photos with you and leave you to follow the links to find out more.  This city is truly amazing.

Last week, I went with a friend to a gorgeous little tea shop in Shad Thames, called the Tea Pod. To get there, we walked from our homes to the south side of the River Thames and walked through an area known as Butler’s Wharf and through to an ancient, cobbled walkway known as Shad Thames.

I didn’t have my camera with me, so on Sunday my husband and I retraced those steps so I could capture the image that took my breath away, as we rounded Butler’s Wharf. It is the image that reminds me that – and why – I live in London; this awful, compelling, fearsome, exciting, culturally-rich, historically-steeped, embracing, cold and infuriatingly beautiful city that I currently call home:

We walked along the edge of the Thames before taking a left turn at the Design Museum, which brought us to this, the beginning of the walkway known as Shad Thames:

Despite the modern shop fronts and the ever present sight of a Starbucks at the end of the lane, you can imagine little urchin pickpockets running around, helping themselves to the spoils of the rich. In the delightful Tea Pod, there is a sign that cautions patrons to beware of ill-motivated people who lurk the streets and help themselves to others’ property. Or words to that effect. While I know they don’t mean tax-collectors, they could just as well have written: “Beware of pickpockets. This is Oliver Twist country.”

The Shad Thames ends at this point:

This is the view of Tower Bridge if you were to drive or walk across it:

Walking back south along the river, we came across this community of barges, which I understand is the natural habitat of several local celebrities. We watched for a while, but none of them emerged from their hide-aways. I did, however, dream a little and imagine the romantic life of a boat-dweller in the city. Pretty cold, but I can’t imagine a more authentic view anywhere else in London:

You don’t need to worry with public transport, or walking:

On Friday night, we went to a public house that is known to be the oldest riverside pub in the UK. The Prospect of Whitby, on the banks of the River Thames in Wapping (almost exactly opposite the area we live in), dates back to 1520. Looking at it from our side of the river, you can see that it has defied development and modern architecture; the contemporary buildings on either side, with their straight lines (up and down like a s**thouse door, to quote a famous author) accentuate the wobbly, off-centre facade that characterises this ancient pub:

Known originally as The Devil’s Tavern, it developed a reputation as a meeting place for villains and smugglers, cut-throats and “footpads” (thieves that prey on victims while they walk). The hanging post stands ominously on the beach in front of the pub as a stark reminder of the public end that such criminals met some centuries before:

The interior of the pub is warm and cosy, and it is filled with nooks and crannies, broad walls and dark wood surfaces everywhere: 

An upstairs wall bears a wooden plaque, bedecked with the names of monarchs who have reigned on this island since the pub has been open; such history leaves me breathless.

So I’ve added a few more digits to my pedometer over the past week, I’ve walked in the steps of smugglers, villains, pickpockets and kings, and I’ve thankfully not been accosted by footpads or cut-throats. My fascination with this ancient, modern city never wanes.

Sunshine signing off for today!

London Makes You Laugh

I think I am in love with Greenwich. I keep finding more reasons to adore the area, and last night was no exception. We went to Up the Creek, a comedy club, for an evening of brilliant, stand-up comedy. Two more tickets for our red box, and another excuse to enthuse about the area where time begins.

I’ve been longing to see some real, live stand-up comedy in London. I saw Ricky Gervais at Wembley last year, and he was fabulous, but such a huge venue loses the personal feel and cringe-worthiness of a dark, intimate venue just up the road. Last night we took the ten minute bus ride, joined the queue to get our tickets and to get a “glow-in-the-dark” X drawn on to the back of our hands, and then went into the darkened, red-seated cavern that is Up the Creek.

I was fascinated with the temporary tattoo on my hand. I tried to look at it through cupped hands, creating my own kind of darkness, but it didn’t work. I also meant to ask my husband if they also drew a “Y” on the back of his hand, but I guess they didn’t have to be chromosomally correct.

We took our seats three rows from the front. Seating wasn’t booked, and we noticed that the front rows were conspicuously empty until some latecomers had no choice but to sit directly in the firing line of the comic guns.

There was a wait of about an hour before the comedy began. We heard the guy behind us – he was from up north somewhere – tell his friends, at least three times, just how f***ing brilliant the headline act was. He told his friends he’d seen him once before where he performed for two hours on the trot.

“I tell you, he was f***ing brilliant. We were creased up.”

Ah, that delightful English gift of understatement.

After an hour, compere Dan Atkinson took the stage. Dressed in a suit, with an impossibly foppish fringe, he proceeded to take the mickey out of anyone within spitting distance of the stage. He engaged ruthlessly with audience members, bringing his quick, acerbic wit to every encounter.

He introduced the first act: a comedy sketch trio who call themselves The Pappy’s (sic). They were incredibly corny, but so corny we found ourselves laughing despite ourselves. An example: a job interview sketch, where the interviewee couldn’t think how to answer the questions he was being asked. He called out for his imagination, which arrived in the form of fellow comedian, dressed in a shower cap, dressing gown, bizarre funnel hanging from his nose and jumping – very badly – on a pogo stick. I rest my case.

Dan came back to pick on a few more unsuspecting patrons. He chose to engage with one newly front-rowed patron who had had a riveting Sunday: she’d made bread. White bread.

After a few jibes at what he thought the patrons from Croydon would make of that, he introduced Act Number Two: a delightful, young, gorgeous and – as I’ve seen him described – fresh-faced Scottish comedian by the name of Iain Stirling. He had us at the accent, but he was also really funny. He delivered a bunch of clever gags, poked wicked fun at the Scottish, and batted off some stupid comments from the snotty patrons sitting in front of us.

Next up, after a further audience battering from Dan, was Nick Helm, a frenetic and engagingly pessimistic and self-deprecating comedian who really made us laugh. The self-acclaimed “human car crash of light entertainment”, he started off by picking on a meek and, clearly, boring young guy in the front row and yelling at him at the top of his voice: “DO YOU LIKE COMEDY? DO YOU LIKE COMEDY? DO YOU LIKE COMEDY?”

In a style reminiscent of George Carlin, he delivered a number of brilliant one-liners, recited a gin-fuelled love poem and sang us a delightful song written to a female friend of his about her good-looking boyfriend who makes her “look fat”. The song ended with a plea to her to consider going out with him, because “look how good you’d look next to me”.

Dan came on for the final time to introduce the headline act, and the reason we’d booked to go to this show: Micky Flanagan. The room went ballistic as the brilliant Cockney comedian took the stage and shared his unique, down-to-earth brand of humour that has gained him popularity all around the UK. Describing himself as “proper proper workin’ class”, he grew up in the East End of London.

“Before the gentrification of the area that brought rich people into the East End, we would walk the streets dreaming of Essex,” he said.

His father, he said, was a casual criminal, his mother considered alphabet spaghetti a luxury, and he said his nan (grandmother) used to take him “daan the pub” to teach him how to take the p*** out of people.

“If they can’t hear us, we’re not doin’ them no ‘arm,” she’d say to him.

Without resorting to humour that is crude or vulgar, he kept us laughing for the full hour. His gags are aimed largely at himself, British culture and his own working class roots. He performed at last month’s Royal Variety Show in London – check it out here, you’ll see what I mean.

He engaged with a few front rowers in a gentle and un-mocking way and managed to bat off – graciously – the increasingly annoying punters sitting in front of us. I don’t think, however, he called them annoying punters.

We walked to the bus stop, replete with humour, well creased-up from laughing and so glad to have discovered another treasure on our doorstep in Greenwich. We’ll be back there for sure.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Stop with me a while, enjoy Italy in London

I love it when we have friends staying with us. I realised this past weekend that we’ve had more people stay with us in London than anywhere else we’ve lived. London’s like that.

We had a friend staying with us over the weekend and planned a full weekend for him. While not everything went according to plan, it was just how it was meant to be. Life’s like that.

Our plan for Friday night was to go to one of our favourite restaurants next to Tower Bridge. It is right next to London’s City Hall, a modern and interesting-looking building that was added to London’s skyline in 2002.

London's City Hall designed by architect, Norman Foster

So our destination was London Bridge. We stood at the bus stop where the buses all head off in the same general direction. We discovered (actually we knew, but weren’t thinking) that the bus we jumped on gave London Bridge a wide berth. We decided to stay on board and travel to Waterloo and walk back along the South Bank to our final destination. The walk took us about an hour.

We walked the route I described in my blog post last week – Come and walk along the South Bank with me – but without the buskers, the book market and daylight. It was dark and cold, but still a wonderful walk, always with so much to see and soak in. The view of St Paul’s on the far side of the river, lit brightly against a dark, autumn sky, is always breathtaking. We walked past the working replica of the Golden Hinde, the small flagship that unbelievably took Sir Francis Drake around the world in 1577. We walked through, past, alongside and underneath amazing culture and history – I always wonder what the walls have seen and what they could tell us.

When we saw Tower Bridge in the distance, and the Tower of London on the far side of the river, we knew we were nearly there. We got a table upstairs at our favourite Italian restaurant, with the brightly lit Tower Bridge as the backdrop to our meal.

The view from the restaurant

Our delightful young Italian waiter, two months new to London and here to learn English, smiled awkwardly at us as he tried to make sense of our strange accents. English must be bad enough to understand. Saffa English? Heaven help the boy.

We ordered our meals from the menu bursting with Italian delights. Our friend wanted to impress the waiter, so he squeezed in a “Paolo Nutini” with his order, just to sound Italian. That was really funny!

Saturday morning and we headed east to Bethnal Green, to our favourite breakfast spot: ePellicci. Not only is the restaurant itself Grade II listed for its wooden art-deco interior, but it is an experience I would recommend to anyone visiting London. A true East End caff, ePellicci combines the wonderful, witty banter of the East End with the food, hospitality and kind community-mindedness that is typically Italian.

The best caff in London

The restaurant was started in around 1900 by the Pellicci family when they moved to London from Tuscany, and has been run by the family ever since. Mamma works in the kitchen (she is the daughter-in-law of the original couple and was sadly widowed two years ago; a framed photograph of her late husband hangs proudly on the wall), and her son, daughter and nephew run the show, with help of a few young waiters.

It is a tiny restaurant and I would imagine, at capacity (at which it operates constantly) seats about 35 people. The first time we went there, we walked in and were greeted warmly by the daughter who said to me, “Are you stoppin’, young lady?” I was sold.

They fill chairs, not tables, so you will always be seated with other people. The breakfast is a jolly good, greasy, fry-up for a fiver and if you leave anything on your plate, the staff feels bad because you could have substituted what you didn’t like for something else. They don’t want you to lose out – I loved that. Service is good and personal, they introduce people to each other, they have regulars who eat there daily or weekly, and plenty of people who travel from afar to experience Cockney Italian hospitality at its finest. On Saturday they showed us their photo album, which is filled with photos of celebrities – local and international – who have eaten there.

On our first visit, Nevio Jnr insisted on giving us – “guv, and the young lady” – a taste of the bread pudding his mamma made. He wrapped two slices of it in tinfoil for us, told us it was a taste of heaven and asked us to let him know, next time, what we thought of it. Generosity, community-mindedness, good service, personal touch and good, old-fashioned, tasty nosh – I thought you didn’t get any of that, anywhere, any more. ePellicci gives it to you in spades.

I’ll save the rest of our weekend for another post. I wanted you to enjoy a little Italian with us. Music and markets for another day.

Sunshine signing off for today.

All the leaves are brown and London is beautiful

This weekend time stood still. For an hour anyway. We turned our clocks back yesterday to end official UK summer time. I think I’m over the jet lag now, but all of yesterday I kept thinking, “This time yesterday, it was an hour later.” Confusing times indeed, for a Saffa in London.

The sun now sets earlier on these beautiful autumn days, and it feels like winter is truly calling.

We decided to continue our “exploring London” adventure over the weekend and went into east London to Victoria Park. Affectionately known as Vicky Park, it is described by LondonTown.com as follows:

“One of London’s best kept secrets, Victoria Park is a fantastic place to spend an afternoon. The city’s first public park, it was opened in the East End in 1845 after a local MP presented Queen Victoria with a petition of 30,000 signatures. The aim was to make it a kind of Regent’s Park for the east and it originally had its own Speakers’ Corner. The landscape has changed little over the years, with countless varieties of trees adorning the skyline: oaks, horse chestnuts, cherries, hawthorns and even Kentucky coffee trees.”

We took the overground train to Shadwell and a bus to Bethnal Green and then we walked along a section of Regent’s Canal that lines Victoria Park’s western border. Regent’s Canal was built in 1812 to link the Grand Junction Canal’s Paddington arm with the Thames at Limehouse. It is eight miles long and it passes through Camden Town, King’s Cross and Mile End. It features three tunnels through which it runs underground, and is the only canal in London to pass underground. We thoroughly enjoyed the section of the Canal we walked along before going into the Park, and we will certainly make a day of walking the length of it.

These boats line the edge of the canal.
I loved this emergency kit on top of a boat on Regent's Canal.
A bridge over the River.
Water or wheels, whatever takes your fancy
I loved this boat's front door and welcome mat

We did, however, walk the length and breadth of Vicky Park, stopping for lunch at a cafe next to a beautiful little lake. The sun came and went, we got rained on but mostly we soaked in the rich autumn colours and the sights and sounds of a chilly autumn day in London.

A riot of colours in Autumn
Sunshine in the autumn rain
Coffee with a view
Outrageous autumn

The weekend started with a crazy, energetic session of Bollywood aerobics! Our latin aerobics instructor has left London, and that fun class has been replaced by another one led by a fabulous eastern European instructor. She led us through an hour of high-intensity cardio with Bollywood expression … head flicks to give you whiplash, eastern hands that could chop bricks and the Bollywood neck movement that is so hard to master. Our instructor gave us Bollywood homework – to brush our teeth by holding the toothbrush steady and not moving our hands! That way we can get used to the sideways and forwards/backwards movements with our necks! How funny is that? I will practise – you never know when Bollywood will call.

Sunshine signing off for today!