London Sketchbook

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I’m a massive fan of books. The touch, and in particular the smell, of a book is still one of life’s great pleasures for me. The anticipation of unpacking a book that has been delivered, the unzipping of the outer and the unexpected gentle crack of the spine of book that no-one has ever opened is pure, unalloyed, joy. The first gentle leaf through the pages, allowing the ink and paper aroma to waft upwards is delicious.

Recently I’ve been captivated by the rather wonderful London Sketchbook, published by Laurence King. It’s a beautiful and inspiring tour of London told through the drawings, paintings, sketches and doodles of illustrator Jason Brooks. Better know for his fashion illustrations which you’ll find In Vogue and Elle, London Sketchbook is the second instalment of his series of illustrated travel books.

Brooks takes the reader on an effortlessly cool tour of London’s highlights from restaurants, essential places to see, cultural highlights and beyond. The book is beautifully put together with uncoated paper sitting alongside gloss finish coated stock, the ubiquitous tracing paper inserts (or simulator paper as it is properly known) and a lovely red white and blue book mark.

Crucially the production values of the book don’t get in the way of the content—they enhance it, which is how it should be. So I’m now inspired to take my drawing book out in London, which I haven’t done yet oddly and try and put some of London’s life onto paper for myself.

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December will be magic again

December is always a lovely time for eating out: family, friends, work colleagues. It all gets a bit hectic to be honest and it can seem like a bit of a blur especially if like me you have your birthday in the middle of the action. Here’s a snapshot of some of the fab food I’ve been lucky enough to taste in the last month of 2014…

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Christmas lunch was spent for the second year on the trot in Leeds at the rather wonderful Kendell’s Bistro. I make no bones about my love for this restaurant and to return after almost a year away was like visiting a much-loved and much-missed member of the family. Sharon and Steve always make us feel so very welcome and everything else just falls into place. Emotional.

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Christmas Eve lunch at Sheffield’s Milestone was a delight. On a cold and dreary day, our third visit in as many years warmed the cockles. The Milestone suffers from locals thinking it’s high-price food but that’s not true, as a recent disappointing (and expensive) meal at Sheffield’s Silversmiths showed —The Milestone is still the best in town. If only the service was as good as the food then this place would be genuinely top drawer.

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Early doors New Year’s Eve dinner at La Brindisa Tramontana in Shoreditch. A regular haunt for us due to the super authentic, high quality Tapas with lightning fast service we snuck in pre NYE madness and filled our end of year boots. We should probably try to find another tapas place nearby but why bother? La Brindisa is always cock on.

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These lobster rolls were voted the Number Two dish in all of London recently by Time Out magazine (and they know a thing or two), so after a busy week culminating in a client pitch we thought we’d give them a try. Smack Deli had just recently opened and had the feel of a brand new concept —which I’m always a bit nervous about — but I needn’t have worried, the sandwiches are spectacular served with craft beers and cheerful staff. Go.

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Midweek work dinner at Busaba Eathai in Hoxton. I love the cool vibe of this restaurant and the clean, small plate food that delights at every turn: hot, sharp, cool, sticky, soothing and unmistakeably Thai, with other stuff thrown in for good measure. I’m no expert in Thai either and as a recent convert I love this place, although the small plates costs can soon rack up and the booze ain’t cheap.

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Lyle’s in Shoreditch is another place we wanted to tick off the list. Set up by a couple of ex St John Bread and Wine guys, this place has a real feel of St Johns but with a slightly cooler East London edge. The food is edgily creative with  set menu of £39 for 5 course, which I thought exceptional value. There is an unpretentious simplicity, combined with surprise and delight about the entire experience, that means we will return very soon.

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Julie’s fish from the Milestone does deserve a mention before I move on. Smooth, unctuous, meaty and satisfying — it’s proof that fish in the cold North in December can pack a punch and deliver a big cuddle.

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Couldn’t resist putting those crab donuts in from The Chiltern Firehouse again. One of the standout dishes of the year for me.

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Pre Manic Street Preachers gig in Camden we were seeking a decent bit of pre music grub. We decided to walk some way and happened upon the Q Grill. Not realising that the head chef is ex Hix and owner ex Caprice, we dived in for some unpretentious beer soak up food and weren’t disappointed. There’s clearly more to it than that so we’ll take another look when we get a chance.

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Work lunch at The Modern Pantry in Clerkenwell. The food sparkles in here: there’s no question that it’s more interesting than a French exchange student was when you were 13 and although it’s a bit toppy in terms of cost, you leave feeling a little bit cleverer having eaten there. I should go more often.

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A freezing cold night in Shoreditch found us hunkering down in a corner of Bird, looking for fried chicken when only fried chicken will do. There’s plenty of these gaffs about these days (chicken only, steak only, chicken and steak only etc) and Bird seems to have go it right. Staff are helpful, bearded, gingham-wearing hipsters, tattooed up to the eyeballs (even the girls). But no worries, the chicken in essentially battered and deep fried so all is well in the world if not in your arteries. Note to self: my daughter will love this place, lets take her when she’s down tomorrow.

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I have decided our culinary life is divided into ‘cheapie’ meals and ‘pricey’ meals and those that sit in between (I’m no scientist, but you get my drift). Sometimes cheap and tasty is what you need and when that’s the case we head to Huong in Shoreditch. It’s no frills cooking with tons of flavour and we love it. Tip: go early doors before the flotsam and jetsam of a Shoreditch night out arrive for their nosebag.

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Julie thinks Marcus Wareing is too serious on Masterchef but I quite like how he’s allowing bits of real personality to emerge from his crinkly eyes and his flat Northern accent. Off the back of this discussion, we decide to go to his new restaurant Tredwell’s for Sunday Roast in the run up to Christmas (not that we expected him to be there). What transpired was a very good if not exceptional Sunday lunch (the best I’ve had this year so far is Hawksmoor) but nevertheless a jolly time was had by all. Again, the booze racks up the pennies but the food is well priced.

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Finally another mention for House of Ho. I think we might have done this place now having been 3 times. Still, the all you can eat and drink lunch from £36 has to the best value food/drink/location combo in London. Julie claims to be on first name terms with head chef and owner Bobby Chinn and the live music brunch is the thing you should try — it’s a blast, and you get blasted. Go as a foursome at least and you’ll love it.

Nostromo

Here’s post from the Archives…

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I make no apology for sheer geekiness of this post – it just bubbled up from some deep nerd chasm within my psyche!

Nostromo is the name of the space craft from Ridley Scott’s original Alien movie. I’ve been fascinated by every aspect of this movie since before it opened in 1979 and the production design made a huge impression on me when my obsession was art and design in every single form.

The ship itself is one of the major stars of the movie along with the incredible Alien itself designed, of course, by HR Giger. Alien was one of the first movies to portray space travel not as the clinical and precise vision we’d seen elsewhere but grungy and grim, worn at the edges and industrial. Ron Cobb was the principal production designer for the spaceships and he did an incredible job at creating the vision for a…

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The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

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Before I read this book, the first question I asked is does the world need another holocaust book? The death camp Holocaust story has been told powerfully many, many times in film, book, stage and for me there has to be a very good reason to put the reader through it again. But after I’d read it, I had to re-appraise my view.

Firstly I have to say I found the The Zone of Interest one of the most brutal, empty, morally void, ambivalent and unflinching books we’ve ever read. At times this book was unreadable—in a good, bad way.

Amis is clearly a writer of real stature, a ‘proper’ author who uses words to massive effect (often ones I have to look up in a dictionary, so he must be proper). He’s that good. He perfectly captures the stark contrast between the captors and the captives – each suffering in their own way. I was reminded many times of Maus, a very different take on the holocaust but no less powerful.

I like at 1st how we didn’t know when the story was set. The picture gradually revealed itself, which usually frustrates but I enjoyed this reveal. Initially it could have been any time in history or the present day, which I’m sure was an intentional dramatic ploy.

The multi-voice narrative was bold, powerful and immersive. Confidently painting the darkest picture imaginable. Unusually, this was easy to navigate, displaying the author’s prowess. The impeccable research and exquisite German cultural detail sat alongside horribly accurate concentration camp atrocity. I felt the book laid bare the German psyche: the reasons, the impact, the retribution, the horrific fallout and consequences of their actions. Amis casts an unswerving eye on Germany as a whole and whether involved directly in the mass murder or not, everyone is guilty by implication.

The notes at the end of the book were most enlightening: the immersion and desire to understand what happened and the philosophical arguments that to somehow understand why it actually happened actually validated the actions. These discussions actually helped me to make some sense of the book.

There was of course a mini drama being played out against the harrowing backdrop: Hannah, Thompson and Doll’s complicated relationships seemed at first petty and pathetic, annoying details set against the enormity of industrialised death. It seemed horrifically banal. But in the final chapters, the bitter love story developed into an insightful filter by which we could observe and understand how Germany came to be like this and the dreadful outcome. The relationship was unexpectedly but satisfyingly resolved in the end, in a typically and brutal fashion, the long, icy fingers of the past creeping into the present.

This book made for a truly unenjoyable read: not in the sense that it was hard to read or that it was laborious prose, but because to turn each page was to unearth inhumanity. In the end I didn’t want to turn the pages but I felt compelled to. At times I felt hollowed out by it. There was no triumph of the human spirit to be had here. The atrocities were laid bare, responsibilities clearly handed out and the complicated aftermath only just beginning. Amis revels in the moral ambiguity of his characters, challenging the reader at every turn. At the heart of it were meticulously drawn characters – not sketches – but Leonardo-esque in their detail and accuracy.

I actually love reading history books about the Second World War: Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad and The Second World War are immense and immersive accounts of man’s inhumanity to man (both credited by Amis I noticed in this book). But for me personally, the veneer of factual history literature protects me from the grab you by the balls detail of a novel, where the writer has unfettered access to our imagination—the imagined more powerful than the actual, for once.

And yet his book digs deeper. Gets under the skin of the Third Reich, using the collective German psyche as a prism for their actions; gradually, imperceptibly becoming truly horrific. The book maps out the moral maze Germany faced: everyone implicated from locals turning a blind eye to grey snow and the stench to corporates like Bayer, who still exist today in our everyday lives, quietly making products like Alka Seltzer.

It’s not often I wheel out words like elegant, intense, powerful, truthful. But this book is all of these. I’m not sure it’s ‘fearless and original’ as the blurb describes (back to my earlier point about does the world need another book about the holocaust) but In The Zone of Interest demands the attention of the reader until the very last page and I’ve scored it high because the book held me in its vice-like grip to the very end.

Impossible to pick up, impossible to put down.

Halloween

I’ve always liked Halloween.

When I was a kid, it wasn’t anywhere near as popular as it was these days. We’d get together, our little gang from the estate, tell scary stories on the steps of each others houses and frighten ourselves silly with stories of Chalkie White (local imaginary weirdo killer), missing children and persistent, peripatetic spectres in council houses. We’d hollow out turnips (oh for the luxury of soft pumpkins) and stay up far too late. And as the turnips started to smell nutty and cooked, the witching hour approached.

But still, over the years, it resonates. I’ve been fascinated with being scared and as such, through every horror phase: comics initially then the quite immersive books and then ultimately the movies. Each has built in me a fascination and fear of the supernatural that although seems somewhat diminished at my age, it still informs a lot of what I enjoy to this day.

So I got to thinking: what were my top five scary films?

After lots of discussion, both on and offline, here they are in classic reverse order…

What are yours?

5. The Exorcist

I mentioned horror books earlier, and the daddy of them all was William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. As an avid reader of horror and scifi as a teenager, this was the bad boy of them all. I seem to remember plucking up courage to read it after mum had put it down and after reading it, wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Books always leave a bigger impression with me (that imagination again) and this one was no exception. it was chock full of horribly visual and very realistic set pieces: the whole country seemed to be talking about how bad it was.

When the film came out I was too young to see it at the cinema and it took years for it to appear on old school video tape. I avoided it. I knew it was scary – I’d seen bad clips of Linda Blair doing horrifying things and I’d read the book so I knew what was coming. When I eventually summoned up the courage to watch it, it was part of an all night horror video session with me and my old mate Carl Milner. It was scheduled for a 2am slot (because we reckoned that’s when we’d be at our lowest ebb and therefore more susceptible to frights) coming right after Romero’s frankly unsettling Dawn of the Dead.

Suffice it to say we had the lights on and we made plenty of cups of tea when it got a bit much. It still has a hold of me even now – it was on tonight, but I wouldn’t watch it: there was something else on.

4. Blair Witch Project

It’s funny, when I got to thinking about the films that affected me at the time that I saw them, there weren’t many modern horror films. Oddly, when I saw Blair Witch at the cinema, I marvelled at the fake marketing campaign around it and enjoyed the thrill of one of the best ‘must see’ cinema events of recent times.

It was only when I first saw the film on a television, in a hotel room, a long way from home, that the full power of the film hit me. Made for the small screen, it really got to me – jittery, claustrophobic filming and the one hundred per cent believable scenario drew me in.

I looked around the empty American hotel room except for me and my imagination and again, my mind filled in all the gaps and made it way scarier than anyone could have made it. It builds and builds to an ordinary, horrific crescendo that genuinely chills you to the bone.

3. Alien

This film is not a traditional frightener in my books, I’ll come clean.

But the first time I saw it – the theatre was packed with tension. Word had got out about the ‘chestburster’ scene and people were nervous about it. Before that, the anxiety builds portentously and after that it’s pure adrenalin punctuated by moments of genuine horror. These days it’s been superseded by all manner of shockers but it’s the daddy of all monster movies for me.

Ridley Scott builds the tension beautifully and the genius is that we don’t see the monster until near the end — and even then we don’t really get to see it. Our minds work over time. I remember in the days before video, it took 8 viewings at the cinema to appreciate HR Gigers’s magnificent monster. And still it fascinates.

2. The Haunting

Of course, you’ll know that I mean the original Robert Wise version from 1963, not the shoddy remake. How can a film made the year I was born pack such a chilling punch? This film is all about what is not shown on the screen – the mind does all the work and as I write this a chill goes down my spine and goosebumps appear when I think of the door handles slowly turning and the wood of the doors bowing with supernatural pressure. The director skilfully lets our minds do all the work and modern directors should take note: scares are to be cultivated and not dropped in willy nilly. That’s the power of this film.

Not much else to say except don’t find yourself at home, on your own, with this film on the television. Turn it off and watch a re-run of Family Guy. Or Top of the Pops.

1. Halloween

The first 18 film I ever saw in the Odeon Cinema in Leeds has left a lasting impression. John Carpenter’s genre defining movie has it all: a relentless, demonic killer with supernatural overtones, middle America that looked like the promised land, plenty of gratuitous boob shots of babysitters and stacks and stacks of tension and shock value. The soundtrack was home-made electronica and brilliant – of its time and at the same time, timeless.

It’s lo-fi horror with the bad guy wearing a cheap mask (based on William Shatner, fact fans) and a boiler suit hunting down local suburban kids in small town America in what would become a staple scenario for years to come. Carpenter delivers a taut, edgy and to this day iconic movie full of memorably shocking scenes.

It still sends a chill up the spine: its knowing classic horror movie references and its cold, cold heart. Oh, and of course Michael Myers, who just won’t lie down. At least until the sequel, but that’s another less interesting story. Halloween is a classic — still unbeaten after all these years.

Post apocalyptic zombie makeover

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To be honest, I’ve felt better…