Let’s eat cake

It was quite uncanny. Oxford Street was pumping. It seemed that everyone in London chose to do their Christmas shopping yesterday. And they chose Oxford Street. Two minutes away from the mayhem, we found an oasis that made my heart smile: Maison Bertaux.

We’d walked from the busy high street in central London towards Soho. We walked through Soho Square and a block down from the Square, we found this place:

Maison Bertaux - an original in the heart of Soho

We’d talked about stopping somewhere for coffee and I insisted we try this place – it just looked, well, so un-high street.  It looked like a place that had a story to tell. We weren’t disappointed.

This is what we found when we stepped inside.

A little shop of edible treasures
Everything looks like it has a story to tell
Pink scarves and retro wall-lamps

I didn’t know where to look first – at the ornaments, at the writing on the mirrors, at the decor, at the newspaper clipping of Alexander McQueen, at the cakes, the cheeky meringue snowmen with their chocolate-roll sleighs … then we were asked what we wanted to order. I asked for a filter coffee and a cappuccino and was offered the only two coffees they have on offer: a café noir with milk and a café au lait. Being Christmas, we thought it would be rude not to try the homemade mince pies too.

We sat down at one of two tables in the small downstairs area and waited for our order.

I couldn’t stop staring at everything. One of the waiting staff noticed my curiosity.

“There’s so much to look at,” I said.

He said the place was full of stuff from the 140 years the cake shop had existed.

An old photo of the newly-opened Maison Bertaux

“Not sure if you can tell that we have our Christmas decorations up, or not,” he said, wryly.

We found our answer when we spotted a small Christmas tree on the piano.

Near to the Christmas tree was a signed copy of Noel Fielding’s book Scribblings of a Madcap Shambleton. A note stuck to the wall suggested there were more where that one came from. Noel is not only a genius, off-beat comedian, but also a regular here.

We chatted to one of the two sisters who own the cake shop. The younger sister of ‘a cross between Margaret Rutherford and Joan of Arc’, she told us the shop had remained the same since its establishment in 1871 – the same cake recipes, everything made fresh – every day – on the premises. She called it not only the oldest cake shop in the country, but also ‘the Ivy of cake shops’ in London, in that it attracts artists, actors and other real celebrities.

“It gets completely mental upstairs sometimes,” she said, as she rattled off names of people who frequent the cake shop.

The old stucco’d walls are grubby and absolutely, antiquely beautiful. The glass shelves behind the counter boast – among ornaments, bottles, scarves and a giant chocolate éclair ornament – a photograph of the shop in its early days. The glass shelves in the window groan with the most beautiful, creative and mouth-watering delights you care to imagine. A stream of white-capped chefs marched through from the kitchen to present their handiwork for the window for the day: trays of fresh-fruit tarts, marzipan figs, gateaux saint-honore, croissants, cakes, éclairs and ‘wormy pies’ (meringues with endless coils of cream). Equally, deliveries of sacks of flour arrived while we were there. It is a working kitchen, for sure.

A taste of Maison Bertaux specialities

We were told about the art on display upstairs. I went to have a quick look at it, but didn’t spend much time as I wanted to leave the few customers up there to enjoy their coffee and books in peace. I also made a quick stop in the ‘wee wee hut’; I was amused and delighted to see the toilet flushed with an ancient pull-chain.

I don’t think much has changed in this gorgeous tea shop since it was established by French communards in 1871. In today’s world of overpriced paper cups filled with have-a-nice-day coffees, and plates filled with cardboard pastries, I was completely entranced by this original gem. So close to the hubbub of the high street yet so far removed in every possible way.

It was pricey, yes, but when you step into an era of genuine tasty quality, creativity and originality in a room full of chaotic, colourful history – what else could you expect? It’s our new favourite tea shop. In the whole world.

Sunshine signing off for today!

 

An evening in Coolsville

We spent yesterday evening in Coolsville, with the Duchess herself. She sang her way through the soundtrack to my student days in the early 1980s; listening to classic Rickie Lee Jones live was another awesome, red box experience.

The Duchess of Coolsville, 57, skipped on to the Royal Festival Hall’s stage in trademark brown beret and half an hour late for her Pirates concert. According to the Southbank Centre preview, the queen of pop/jazz/country/soul/R&B/blues/you-name-it, with a career spanning 30 years, maintains an unwavering cool despite a historically difficult personal life which has seen her battle and overcome broken hearts and drug addiction. Her concert featured tracks from her two most successful LPs, Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates, in her only stop in the UK before heading to Paris and Bilbao to round off her short European tour.

She opened with Danny’s All Star Joint to thunderous applause, and went on to dance with her beret through After Hours (12 bars past midnight). Spent, she abandoned her beret along with her water bottle, on the piano.

Rickie Lee Jones is not as tall as I would have imagined. I loved watching her bob and weave around the microphone with, what looked to me like awe and fear, and always, always needing the sound to be perfect.

The audience went crazy to hear the opening bars of Chuck E’s in Love, which the Duchess delivered to perfection before moving into a self-conscious, exquisitely delicate and vulnerable, arms-folded version of Company. A beautiful Easy Money prefaced her move to the piano, where she played and sang for the next hour. Living it Up was followed by a call from Rickie to ‘play some more happy songs’, as she moved on to the hauntingly beautiful clarinet-soloed Skeletons.

Ms Jones’ band is filled with outstanding musicians: a crazy talented lead guitarist, a Duke of Coolsville on bass, a keyboard (piano and Hammond organ) magician, an astounding drummer and ridiculously brilliant three-piece horn section of saxophone/clarinet, trumpet and trombone. Each artist had their moment in the spotlight to share their beautiful talent.

After We Belong Together, Rickie Lee apologised for being late.

“Did you forgive me yet for coming on late? I don’t have any reason, except I wasn’t ready. In so many ways,” she said ironically before moving on to Lucky Guy, filled with pretty, pretty Hammond organ solos. On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 was followed by an emotional, tear-filled outpouring of Coolsville.

The Duchess followed her heart rather than the setlist, which kept the band watching her closely and the setlist frequently being replaced.

She moved on to Pirates and Traces of the Western Slopes before a funky Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking. Guitar in hand, Ms Jones talked of her first trip to London in 1979 and how everything about the city ‘creeped her out’ as she walked through the ‘emotional chasm of heroine withdrawal. Everything was different, from having only one television channel (‘that played dogs chasing sheep’), to the light switches, to waking up at 3am and everyone was asleep’.

As an apology for that story, she sang a bonus number, a pure-Rickie Lee version of On the Street Where You Live. The Weasel and the White Boy’s Cool rocked the most insane lead guitar solo before Night Train, Young Blood, Last Chance Texaco and After Hours.

Ms Jones wept as she talked of the ‘supreme peace that found me, unexpectedly, on this Pirates tour’. She thought it would be a nightmare, reliving the difficult times through Pirates, but found that she can now ‘go home and sleep at night’.

With emotion and gratitude, she sang the closing number The Returns, leaving us all with a hope that the Duchess of Coolsville will be back. Two hours of pure Rickie Lee Jones magic. Catharsis rocks.

Sunshine signing off for today!

The best is yet to be

She’s feisty and funny, gentle and bossy, kind and loving, generous and caring, scatty and awesome. She talks plenty and laughs even more.

We shared a room through our childhood and memories through forever. We travelled to boarding school together and sat and swung our little, hairy legs from hard benches as we waited in small, random airports in Africa. We’d climb into each other’s beds when the movie was too scary, or we were homesick, or the monster was about to climb out of the tissue box again or if we were just plain scared. We were best friends.

We shared a cigarette when she was ten and I was eight. We took advantage of the babysitter when all he wanted to do was lie on the couch and watch telly; we ran amok through the house and went to bed late and our parents never knew.

We moved from town to town and school to school and it was okay because we always had each other. We wore matching clothes and our patent leather shoes were always filled with mom-knitted cotton socks. We learnt to play the piano together and we trained for swimming in the same big swimming pools.

Ever longing for a career on the big stage, she wrote, produced and directed our early productions which she presented, with a flourish, in front of a packed lounge full of parents and visitors. All four members of the audience were riveted as Rapunzel let down her golden hair from the dizzy heights of the dining room table. She cast me in various productions as a tree and as Queen Victoria and as her production assistant and she always smiled as the dining room doors closed after another well-received ovation.

After school she started a career in nursing, and her carer heart has brought light and joy to everyone she looked after. She married young and has always been a loving and passionate mother to her children.

She’s fought for freedom and her big heart has broken when change hasn’t yet come. She’s spoken on big stages and small, sung at rallies and in meetings, stood by her principles and risked imprisonment for speaking the truth. She uses her beautiful voice for change.

She’s a mother and soon to be a grandmother, she’s a wife and a daughter, a much-loved aunt and an adored sibling.

She’s my big sister and it’s her birthday today. Happy birthday to you, my precious S. You’re one heck of a sister and I look forward to growing old with you.

In step with today

I don’t know what it is about some days. It’s like they get stuck under my shoe, and no matter how I try, I can’t shake them loose. With every step I tramp awkwardly and feel, for the most part, a little off balance.

I had such a day today.  To say it was frustrating is like saying that Madonna is quite rich. At midday, I decided to try and walk it off. My plan was to take my lunch and go and eat it down by the River Thames.

Having bought my lunch, I walked along a lovely piazza lined by restaurants. I got distracted by a small band setting themselves up in the shade of a leafy plain tree. I sat down in that same shade, and waited to see what would happen next. And the band began to play.

Adam was the lead singer and guitarist; a kind of curly-haired Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen on Prozac; slow and poetic, but not as depressing as he could be. He was joined by a violinist and double bass player, and together they played some really interesting, original music.

Soon after I sat down, a young woman sitting next to me lit herself a rolled “cigarette”. I use the word loosely. She took a drag, stood up and put the rollie down where she’d been sitting and disappeared. I watched her disappear out of view, and wondered if I was part of a social experiment. I thought maybe someone was about to come and have a second drag of it, but no. About five minutes later, the young woman returned with a coffee in her hand. Of course.

Next, I saw another young woman, dressed in a bright yellow, lycra, polka dot body suit. She walked past, not without some sniggering from the construction workers sitting near me.  As I looked around for a camera – surely a candid camera moment? – I saw another young woman emerge from the opposite direction on an old-fashioned bicycle with a basket in the front. She had a scarf wrapped around her head and knotted on top, like an old-fashioned washerwoman. She stopped her bike for a short while and stood and watched and listened. She then rode off, with her furry toy penguin strapped in as a pillion passenger.

Adam continued to pour his heart out into the piazza, to very little attention from the lunching majority walking by, or sitting chatting at the local restaurants. After one lively-ish song, a friend of Adam’s shouted out that his last song had sounded “quite happy”. Adam apologised.

Oh, and a chalkboard next to the small wooden stage from which Adam and band played held a stern warning: “No stage diving”.

I sat a bit longer and soaked everything in. I looked at the beautiful late-autumn-sunny London day. The sky was blue, the sun was streaming through the green leaves of the trees, and what I was experiencing could not have been happening anywhere but London. The city that does random, bizarre, funny, unique like no place I’ve known before. I found sunshine in my otherwise grey day, and I remembered the joy of a city such as this.

I walked back to my office. Funny, there was no longer anything under my shoe.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Randomness

Random thoughts. They tie together not at all and appear in “no random order” as I heard someone once say.

This morning on my walk to the bus, I watched a swan as it dipped its head deep into the water right in the corner of the local dock. I stood and watched for a while. Soon it came up, shook its head a little and its forehead was green with algae.

As I rushed home from work to get to my zumba class in time, I wondered if there would be any mail in our letter box. I imagined finding a letter there telling me I’d won a million pounds. You know what my first thought was? Would I still go to zumba?

On my way home from zumba, I saw three young professionals studying the plaque on a small heritage building in the area. One young man, dressed in a suit, hairstyle like a Beatle with long, pointy sideburns, was giggling as I walked by. He pointed at the plaque, and said, “I can’t believe it says erected.”

When we were at the open air concert in Hyde Park a few weeks ago, I discovered an amazing sense of community and the art of mime. I’d forgotten to take with me my note pad and pen, so I could make notes of the concert for my blog. I mimed “pen?” to my friend who was sitting behind us. She made a face as if to say she didn’t have one, and then motioned that she’d ask her friends. After a few minutes, she looked at me and made a disappointed face and showed me her out-turned hands, palms up. No pen. No worries. About two minutes later, the pink-haired lady with every finger nail painted a different colour, who was also sitting behind us, came over to me with a pencil. She’d borrowed it from her bovver-booted husband, and brought it to me. Who ever said mime doesn’t pay?

A relentless eavesdropper, as you know me to be, it was difficult to overhear conversations at the concert, against the backdrop of never-ending music. It was interesting, however, to watch the goings-on all around us anyway. I watched a family of four enjoy a day out in Hyde Park. Endless trips to the bar saw them taking it in turns to bring back pints and Pimms and ciders and spirits. You name it; they knocked them back. They danced and as the day progressed, their dancing became more “uncle- like” and standing upright seemed to be a growing battle for each of them. As dusk darkened the sky, I noticed the husband and wife arguing. She said, “Fine, then.”  And with that, she turned tail and disappeared into the crowd. The daughter appealed to her dad, “She’s just gone. She’s just literally gone.” Dad appeared unperturbed. Oh well.

A few hours later, in the rainy evening, the mother appeared in front of me. I looked at her and smiled, and she said to me, “My whole family’s just fallen out. It’s an absolute nightmare.” I mimed sympathy, and smiled at her some more. She said, “I saw you look at me, so I thought I’d tell you. It’s a nightmare. We’ve all just fallen out.” I asked if they’d arranged to meet up somewhere, and she told me no-one knew where she was and reminded me that it was a “nightmare”. “Oh dear,” was all I could manage. At that point, her husband appeared to our right and said, “Oh, there you are! We’ve been looking for you everywhere!” To which she said, “Is that so?” and turned tail and disappeared back into the crowd. He looked at me, sighed and said, “It’s an absolute nightmare.” You think?

Sunshine signing off for today!

These are the good times

Having lived in London for two years, it was only last week that we experienced our first open-air concert in the rain. BBC Radio 2’s annual music festival in Hyde Park is a wonderful day’s entertainment. Add four seasons into that day, and I bid you welcome to British autumn.

Hyde Park’s summer season of open-air concerts ends with this one. It’s kind of ‘goodbye open air concerts; goodbye summer; hello any season you like, all at once’.

It was a huge line-up that we bought tickets to see. Billed by BBC Radio 2 as ‘a festival in a day’, the programme ran from 3.30pm to 10pm (‘any later and we’ll keep the Queen awake!’), packed in a whopping 12 artists in a row and 40,000 people into the park. The rain came and went, as did the sunshine and wind. The evening ended with a full-moon rising, blurred behind the clouds.

The likes of ’70s African American disco and R&B band, Chic, played numbers from our disco days:

Chic - who brought Le Freak to the world in 1978

Alabama-born duo, The Pierces, brought new American sounds into the mix, along with dazzlingly popular UK band Take That’s Gary Barlow. Add in some Will Young, James Blunt, Imelda May, Lenny Kravitz, Jonathan Jeremiah, Caro Emerald, Beverley Knight, Bellowhead and Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, Ruby Turner, Louise Marshall and a rare live performance from Sandy Shaw, and you have a spectacular afternoon of music and entertainment.

A number of the artists were new discoveries for us: Jonathan Jeremiah with his mesmerising ‘Lost’.

Jonathan Jeremiah - I just loved his 'Lost'. What a great find.

Imelda May’s contemporary rockabilly beat seriously rocked, and I was entranced with her playing of the bodhrán (Irish frame drum), not to mention her unique style and talent.

Imelda May - a great Irish rockabilly star

British talent is always popular in London. Will Young was ill and without much of a voice, disappointingly, but he did his best; he even tried miming to one of his songs. That wasn’t such a great idea. James Blunt rocked the park, much to my surprise, and I didn’t see his jumping-on-to-the-piano dramatics coming at all. Not at all.

Beverley Knight brought rocking soul to the stage, while Bellowhead – with their 11-piece band of piano accordion, banjo, mandolin, cello, fiddles, trombone, saxophone and tuba – brought a kind of medieval story-telling into the mix. I really loved them.

Caro Emerald, from Holland, was another new and lovely voice to hear, while Lenny Kravitz – in his trademark shades – was just incurably cool.

Lenny Kravitz is too smooth. And he does move

Ruby Turner filled the park with her big voice and rousing Infatuation and Moving out of the Cold, with sensational backing from Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. Backing singer, Louise Marshall, also grabbed the mic and the audience’s attention; she’s another one to watch.

Gary Barlow stood in for headline act, Lionel Ritchie, who was either ill or busy with a new album, or both. Gary is currently heading the judging panel on the new season of X Factor and, if the contestants represent a chunk of the UK population, a lot of women on this island are in love with Gary Barlow. He couldn’t have been better received.

Gary Barlow. Much-loved British artist

I have to say, though, that my favourite favourite of the whole day might not be what you’d expect. Contemporary music, new music, rockabilly, heart throbness, coolness, retro beat, story-telling and miming aside; this grand lady floated on to the stage in sparkly short pants, fringed top and shining black locks. With long beautiful legs that flowed all the way to the ground and into two bare feet, her two songs took me back to a childhood in dusty Zambia, where – despite being light years behind the rest of the world – we still knew iconic pop music when we heard it. Even if we were only six.

Here’s the original version of one of Sandy Shaw’s two songs:

Rain, sunshine, wind and many drunken revellers notwithstanding, our red box got richer by two more tickets. And, in the words of Sandy Shaw’s second number last Sunday, there’s Always something there to remind me.

Sandy Shaw - on the soundtrack of my childhood - performing here with crazy-talented Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra
If you look beyond the brollies, you can see Will Young

Sunshine signing off for today!

Big day in Little Venice

Our exploration of this crowded city continued yesterday and took us to an area in the west of the city, known as Little Venice. In glorious late summer sunshine, we walked along the edge of this junction of two canals and marvelled again at a hidden treasure presented to us by the Big Smoke.

Little Venice, the junction of Regent's Canal and the Grand Union Canal

We travelled along the Bakerloo line as far as Warwick Avenue – yes, the very title of a song by Welsh singer, Duffy – and followed the finger boards to Little Venice in south Maida Vale. According to Wikipedia, the area is believed to have been so named by the English poet, Robert Browning, who lived in the area from 1862 to 1887. Browning’s Pool (pictured above), the junction of Regent’s Canal and the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal, bears further testimony to the influence of the poet in this area.

Many lovely houseboats line the length of the canal

We walked along the perimeter of the junction’s triangle, originally known as Paddington Broadwater when the junction was created in the 1810s, and enjoyed a lovely picnic lunch in Rembrandt Gardens. Artists’ studios on the east side of Browning’s Pool were demolished and replaced by this small park in 1975, so named to commemorate the 700thanniversary of the founding of Amsterdam, the ‘Venice of the North’.

These two older gentlemen enjoyed the late summer sunshine so much they had a little snooze in it!

Apart from having been home to Browning, Little Venice has been home to short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, playwright Christopher Fry, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard and Icelandic singer Bjork.  It is also home to the Canal Cafe Theatre, the Puppet Theatre Barge and the Waterside Cafe.

The Waterside Cafe - we had an ice-cream here!

After our picnic lunch, we took the waterbus – a long boat – from Little Venice, eastwards around Regent’s Park, and on to our final destination of Camden Town. A delightful crew of a Scotsman and an Englishman instructed us in the health and safety guidelines for climbing safely into the boat, and then assured us that any marriages officiated by the captain on the 50 minute journey would only last for the duration of the journey. Just as well; the narrow seats were well uncomfortable.

Our boat ride along the canal took us through the Maida Vale tunnel, a 250 metre long tunnel built in 1812. Architecture that ranged from the majestic to the common lined the canal as we wove our way past the London Zoo through to the heaving market town of Camden.

Waterbuses go up and down the canal at regular intervals. A great idea for special occasions, as this 'hen do' indicates!

Another outstanding day in this beautiful city of surprises.

Sunshine signing off for today!