Good advices – tips on writing a first novel

Front cover of 'Being Someone'Writing a novel is easy. You just need a bit of time, an idea and considerable curiosity. Re-writing a novel, now that’s the hard part. On the eve of the publication of Being Someone, I thought it was time to reflect on how I got here, about what I wish I’d known then that I do now.

I finished the first draft of my debut novel about two and a half years ago. In naive satisfaction, I posted here about the sense of achievement that completion brought me. Of course, I recognised that it was just the end of the beginning; except, in reality, I recognised no such thing. In short, I had no idea how much more there was to do: sure, I knew that there was a re-drafting process to go through, but how onerous could that be, after the triumph of the first draft?

It took two years of re-working to get the manuscript into a state fit enough to be seen out on its own. It also took a huge amount of advice. Much of this was specific and I owe a great deal to the various readers and editors who have, ever so politely, pointed out quite where I’d gone wrong. It was seldom comfortable, but it was always helpful.

Beyond the comments on Lainey’s limitations and the psychosis of James (someone even psychoanalysed my narrator, and concluded on a diagnosis of border personality disorder) there are three general pieces of advice that I got that might be useful to you, should you be embarking on what, for me, is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your life.

  1. Don’t get it right, get it written

Writer’s block is, unsurprisingly, a fear of failure. Committing words to paper, by which I might be judged, was at first terrifying. After all, they might not be the right words. Only when I realised that no-one had to see those words until I was happy with them, at some distant future point, did I discover ‘flow’: a frankly sublime state of fluency, within which words, sentences, and paragraphs appear unbidden, cascading in the most almighty torrent of bliss. I had set myself a net word target of 1000 per day of writing; pretty soon I had upped this to 1500, slightly ashamed at my initially paltry ambition. Even then, I surpassed my target with gratifying regularity; I came up short maybe three times.

2. It’s laying pipe

But it’s not simply getting the words down, beautiful or otherwise. The process of writing a novel (or at least re-writing one) is a window on the mechanical elements of others’ fiction. From the formulaic to the avant garde, the fiction that works is that which takes you, the reader, from point A to point B; each paragraph pushing the narrative and character development on. There is very little room for verbal passengers. So the first step in writing Being Someone involved not paragraphs, either crafted or scrambled, but an A3 sheet of paper. It was pencil-scratched over with arrows and boxes, linking plot incidents in forward-backwards loops; characters, unnamed, ill-formed, bumped into each other along the way, all just junctions in the pipe work. My greatest satisfaction on completing the first draft was that the end product was, by and large, faithful to this original sketch-map. I still have it, and will keep it long after the drafts and redrafts have been returned to wood pulp.

  1. Kill your darlings

This is perhaps the most cited piece of writing advice of the last hundred years, but its glibness belies its brutality in action. A phrase, an image, a scene of which you are immensely proud does not advance the pipeline of narrative or character: no matter how fondly it is held, it must be put to the sword. You can kid yourself that you’ll store it away for future use, but unless your filing system allows for remarkable cross-referencing, it will in fact go the way of countless beloved words from my manuscript: forgotten and lost forever. And you can’t allow that to bother you. How to make it easier to smother your pearly genius? I refer you to the first piece of advice – don’t get too attached in the first place. They’re only words, after all…

My debut novel, Being Someone, is published by Urbane Publications in May 2014, and is available to pre-order in all formats.

Note: the title of this piece is a nod to the REM song of the same name, not a typographical error…

Posted in Telling Tales | Leave a comment

The tastes of Istanbul

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt starts like hay fever. Except neither of us suffers from hay fever. Even if we did, this would be a strange place for it: we emerge from the station at the top of the dinky underground funicular railway into the area that bears its name, Tünel. This is the gateway to Beyoglu, the modern heart of Istanbul. At the other end of the Istikal Caddesi, Turkey’s Oxford Street, is Taksim Square.

The helpful woman at our hotel recommended the restaurant: along with the prospect of some great food, a visit to Ece Aksoy provided the ideal excuse for our first trip across the Golden Horn. The trouble at Gezi Park has died down by now, surely.

Except, within metres of the station, you can feel the tension in the air. Everyone on the street is facing one way, craning their necks towards Taksim. And the itching around the eyes, that burning at the back of the throat, that is not hay fever. That, is the trace of tear gas carried on the evening breeze.

We don’t admit it at first, neither to ourselves, nor to each other. But when the locals start to take masks from their backpacks, it is clear that the situation at Taksim is far from resolved. We press on, ducking into a side street to where we think we might find the restaurant.

Searching the narrow streets is unusually purposeful: this is no shambling saunter of discovery. We stop in a bar to ask directions. A Canadian couple are already hiding out, drinking beer, watching, waiting. The staff have an edgy nervousness to them, but they helpfully point us in the right direction and we set off. Through the backstreets, other tourists are weaving, uncertain; locals in masks and plastic construction-site helmets head off towards the epicentre.

Turning a corner, a sudden gust of wind forces a lungful of gas down the narrow alley and into our faces. What has been until now mildly uncomfortable becomes painful. We turn on our heals and try to outrun the gas.

Then we are there. The restaurant is in darkness, and the owner politely tells us that they will not be opening that evening. It is perhaps the most reasonable thing in the world, and yet I still try to the challenge the decision, saying we have a reservation, only slowly aware that her inconvenience is much greater than mine.

Good sense seeps in and we turn tail and – if not run – then certainly scurry down the zigging and zagging lanes that lead through Galata towards the water. The air is clear of gas and tension almost immediately, and normal city life resumes: boutiques selling guitars, hats, and consumer electronics cascade down the steps, passing the Galata Tower, and we become tourists again. Hungry tourists.

We know of one other highly recommended place to eat: the Karaköy Lokantasi, tucked away on an inauspicious street in the soon-to-be gentrified wharf district of Karaköy. We find the place and, after a short wait for a table (the place is buzzingly busy), we are welcomed into its refined but relaxed embrace. At the counter, we order too many mezzes: sumptuous fava, laced with just the right amount of dill; the most succulent mucver ever tasted; peppers, beetroot and samphire; cacik made with homemade yoghurt; wine and raki and an oozing chocolate fondue. Soon the taste of tear gas is just a distant memory.

The next day, we will return to Beyoglu, and we will walk as far as Taksim Square. We will sit in Gezi Park and welcome the shade and the breezes that it affords, and we will wonder why anyone would want to put a shopping centre there. And I will imagine my next trip to Istanbul. Once things have quietened down, perhaps.

Posted in Desert Island Dishes | Leave a comment

To the edge of the world – Hornstrandir, July 2012

ImageWe got to Isafjordur’s Tourist Information office, which doubles as the West Tours office, by about 9.10am to check in for the boat and guide to Hornstrandir. I had booked the tickets weeks before: this was to be one of the highlights of the whole trip and I had wanted to make sure. Ahead of us in the bleary-eyed queue, a guy with an enormous rucksack was debating with the young woman behind the desk about whether it would be possible to fit five days of wild camping on Hornstrandir around the schedule for boat crossings. Our one-day hike seemed suddenly very puny in comparison.

We picked up our voucher and were directed towards the harbour. Outside, the low clouds hung on the tops of the cliffs that enclose the town. We convinced each other that the breaks were growing and that the tiny patches of blue held promise for later in the day. It was not, at least, raining.

We found the jetty after a little confusion. Isafjordur is not a big place and, as promised, there was a flag fluttering above the assembly point, but on sea West Tours trade as Sjoferdir. A slow process of elimination eventually confirmed what should have been obvious. There to greet us was Albertina, our guide. A young Masters graduate in human geography, she specialised in depopulation in remote areas. She ushered us onto the bustling boat and, bang on 9.30am, we slipped the harbour and headed out into the narrow neck of Skutulsfjordur.

Soon we were out onto Isafjordurjup (literally, Ice Fjord Deep) where the sea became more assertive. When we crossed the broad mouth where Isafjordurjup meets Jokulfjordur, the wind picked up and raised surf and spray against our incursion. Thus far, this was as near as I’d ever been to the open North Atlantic and, even on such a calm day, it was feisty. Fortunately, I did not think to speculate what this might mean for later.

Things calmed down as we sailed into Hesteyrarfjordur. In the shortening distance, the abandoned settlement of Hesteyri transformed itself into distinct houses – fewer than ten of them are left although there would have been many more of them when the whaling station, and then the herring factory, brought work and a reason to endure the winters. The church, ‘stolen’ by the National Church and relocated to Sudavik after the settlement was abandoned, could seat one hundred worshipers.

ImageLanding at Hesteyri was easy (something for which I wasn’t sufficiently grateful at the time) and our group (about ten, plus Albertina) gathered on the grass between the wild flowers and the relics of human habitation. Hesteyri, along with the whole Hornstrandir peninsula, was abandoned to permanent human habitation in the early 1950s, the result of too little work as much as the fierce winter weather.

The whaling station closed in the early twentieth century, when the Government imposed a temporary ban. Shortly after, the buildings were converted into a herring plant. Then, as they so often seem to do, the herring moved on, leaving the residents largely workless.

Albertina’s family left Hesteyri with the rest in 1952 – her choice of Masters degree suddenly made much more sense – and she was full of stories and nostalgia. She pointed out her uncle’s house, still owned by and maintained by the family. She retained a raw resentment about the theft of the church and bemoaned the arrival of the lupins that have colonised so much of Iceland. She had a fierce loyalty to a place that had been abandoned long before she was born.

Most of our shipmates decanted to the Doctor’s House, the guest house that operates through the summer and looks remarkably comfortable even without electricity; its water is taken from a mountain stream above the (un)settlement.

Looking down on what's left of HesteyriOur group however, continued up alongside that stream, following a hand-made road, built by the locals after the Second World War as part of a Government make-work scheme, compensation for the departing herring. Despite its claims to be a road, Britain’s uplands are crossed by many more accomplished tracks and it is in such a state of disrepair as to be unobtrusive.The path/road rose alongside the stream, passed a series of unnamed waterfalls, past the Elf King’s Rock, and then between Kagrafell (an inviting climb) and Burfell. In places, the track disappeared beneath the remnants of the winter’s snow but it was easy to follow. By now, the buttercups and soft turf of the southern slopes had gone and, even though we were still only at 300m, the terrain became rocky and barren.

At tImagehe pass, with the sea visible to both the north and south, the main path to Latrar stretched on, marked only by cairns (the locals hadn’t bothered with the road any further, able to see the writing on the wall more clearly than the officials from Reykjavik). We took a detour, turning westwards along an intermittent path. Out target was Midvik, the middle bay of the three that make up Adalvik. To the left, three massive flat-topped crags fell 300m to the sea; to the right, Grassdalsfjall, the cliff top where the US placed a radar station during the early days of the Cold War, a twentieth century Hadrian’s Wall, where unwilling soldiers shivered at the edge of the world, watching for invaders.

Up on the pass, I had my first real sense of the emptiness and isolation of the place. I had wanted to come to Hornstrandir since I heard a walker on the Laugavegurinn talk about it so effusively three years before. The initial landing, the tidiness of Hesteyri, the slow and easy ascent through familiar mountain scenery had all pushed me towards disappointment. But at the pass, it had come into its own, as the cascading ridges of emptiness swept off into the increasing wilderness. As we made our way down the northern slopes, easing from snow and rock to turf and wild flowers, I began to imagine another trip here, a multiday hike eastwards.

We paused on a horseshoe plateau above a lush glacial valley: Midvik. Below us, waterfalls; surrounding us, the steep valley walls fell in endless layers, laid down by ancient eruptions. Our platform was one of these strata, strata that make up the whole of the Westfjords, one of the oldest parts of Iceland, scraped through by long lost glaciers into the steep valleys and fjords that characterise the region. On our plateau, we ate our lunch and looked out towards the sea.

ImageThe descent to the valley floor began beside another nameless waterfall (that things are unnamed emphasised the emptiness). Albertina was unsure about where the formal path was, so we picked our way down the steep bank like sheep. Once down, I almost wished for the rocks once more: the valley floor, particularly by the base of the falls, was an enormous, sodden meadow and standing still meant sinking into the waterlogged turf. But the discomfort passed quickly and it became clear that the meadow was full of wild flowers: three varieties of wild orchid and countless other rare and delicate flowers, the names of which I shall never know.

The first task was to cross the stream that flowed from the waterfall to the sea. Again, Albertina was unsure of where to find the best crossing point, so we made it up and picked our own fords, wading through the chilly water, hoping it didn’t reach the knee. The flies swarmed as we dried our feet and rebooted, and Albertina distributed fetching face nets to keep them at bay.

ImageThen it was off around the northern flank of the valley, maintaining a bit of height to avoid the worst of the marshiness. The orchids grew like daisies and with every ten metres a new rare flower was discovered. The sheep and other livestock left with the people in the 1950s, and were completely banned in the 1970s. Since then the flora of the peninsula has recovered magnificently, beautifully. The abandonment has also had a great impact on the fauna of Hornstrandir. The Arctic Fox, Iceland’s only native wild mammal, has found something of a refuge. Its hunting is banned, but in any case, the absence of anxious farmers and their nervous sheep means that Mr Fox is safe from the traps and rifles of all but the abjectly malicious.

There were undoubtedly foxes around: a cluster of feathers here, a pair of dismembered wings there. But Mr Fox was being shy. I paused frequently, both to look at the ground with its flowers and to scan the hillside for brown fur and pointy ears. It made for slow going, but we eventually made it down to the shore, skirting tightly around where the craggy foot of Mannfjall met the beach. There on the sand, within the tidal reach, were paw prints. Fox paw prints. They were in disconnected runs of three or four pads, where the little creature had had no option but to hop from the rocks and onto sand before once again finding firm footing. They were less than an hour old, given the tide, and they were as near as we were to get.

Around the headland, craggy Mannfjall became a massive sand-dune, the result of the driving winds pushing the sea sand up its flank. And the wind could blow: it was coming in straight off the open ocean to the west. Thoughts of the lush and sheltered meadow behind us were rudely blown from our memories as we started to walk along the beach, K and I chatting to Albertina about restaurants and cafes in Isafjordur, plans for the rest of the weekend. Then the ground gave way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’d seen quick sand before, even unwittingly walked onto its fringes, feeling it give too easily in that soft relentless way it has. But I’d never walked out into the middle of it, blithely unaware, the slow realisation of what was beneath me coming too late. The news that something wasn’t right made its way from my boots to my brain eventually. Looking down, thinking the sand is soft, that it isn’t going to stop, looking at K and at Albertina, then back to the cracking, collapsing ground around us, suddenly sure that it’s time to leave, to get back to firm ground, pulling K back to her feet and across the quaking surface that is no longer willing to support our presence: I guess all this took only a couple of seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. Back on the real, reliable beach, we were a little sand-shocked and a lot sand-caked, and wetter than either of us would have liked. Albertina could only laugh. We continued, K testing every new step as if it were her last.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlmost immediately we arrived at our second crossing. The Teigur, a wide stream, maybe 20 metres, separated the beach under Mannfjall from an area of sand dunes, the Melur, sitting behind the beach arcing around the next bay. Off in the distance we could see the collections of colourful wooden houses at Latrar, our destination. K’s nervousness about soft sand only heightened the discomfort of the cold water as we waded across. On the other bank, fly free in the stiff breeze, we rebooted and set off across the dunes and back down onto the slow arc of the beach. The sun had come out, but the wind washed away its meagre heat. The surf rolled in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the far side of the bay, a path ran under Grassdalsfjall, flanked by more flowers and iridescent mosses, until it reached the Black House, where its current, temporary residents were starting up a barbeque, a tinfoil-wrapped leg of lamb and a pile of baking potatoes sitting among the coals. We waited for the boat, along with another group eager for rescue. We spent the time watching a third group loading their gear, including generators and a set of intriguing and heavy black cases, onto their own boat. They ferried people and equipment across on a small, inflatable motor dinghy, bobbing precariously over the insistent waves. It dawned on me that this was how we were going to have to board our own boat, when it eventually arrived: the sea was too rough to get close to the collapsed concrete jetty.

Now, I’m not good with small boats in choppy seas, much less so climbing out of them at sea wearing a backpack. My anxiety rose as the temperature dropped, and we waited in the weak sunlight and chilling wind. Conversation became stilted, and the barbeque smoked into life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe boat appeared, a speck in a white plume of surf on the other side of Adalvik. While it circled in the bay, its tiny tender, an inflatable with an outboard, wearied its way back and forth to the beach beside the pointless jetty. I speculated that, on calmer days, they might string a floating pontoon to that jetty, although I found it hard to imagine when this bay would be in any way calm.

On the third shuttle, K and I clambered on board through the surf – our boots and trousers were already wet, it made little difference. I clung to whatever I could as we scudded over the uncertain surface to meet the mother ship. There was a nervy scramble aboard, leaping as the two vessels kissed in the swell, and we found a seat inside, out of the wind at last. The pallor of the early boarders and the wallowing of the idling boat foretold of a queasy journey ahead.

Four or five shuttles later, and we found out just how queasy. We set off at speed, and the boat jumped and slapped into wave after wave, a cloud of spray whiting out the world. As we passed the point of the last headland, we were effectively in the open ocean, despite being only a few hundred metres from shore. The boat seemed undecided as to whether it wanted to be a plane or a submarine: the stomach calming trick of focussing on the horizon became impossible since the spray obscured everything. It was like being in a washing machine.

At first, the faltering sunlight made a silver thread of the ocean horizon, but soon even that disappeared, obscured by brine. I elected instead to sleep. When my eyes reopened, something over an hour had elapsed and the gravel spit of Isafjordur lay across the fjord. There were no more waves; it was 9.30pm.

Soon after, we tied up and rediscovered solid ground, gratefully. I was cold, damp, tired and queasy, hungry too. The vinbudin was shut and there was only a can of baby beer in the fridge back at the apartment. Yet I was satisfied, content, and wiser too: I had learned three lessons. First, Hornstrandir is well worth a further, longer visit. Second, quicksand is unnerving stuff and best avoided. And third, there is a reason why I choose the mountains over the sea.

I’ve written about other walks in Iceland, including the Laugavegurinn and the Fimmvörðuháls pass. There’ll be more from the West Fjords soon.

Posted in Ramblings | Leave a comment

Beer World (part eight): Welcome to Hackney’s Hoppy Valley

I’ll confess, I’d forgotten about Wandle. There was a time, not so long ago, when the simple presence of Sambrook’s best on a bar was reason to relax. But unlike Deuchars or Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, it was brewed in London and allowed me to enjoy a pint and indulge in a little London pride of my own, without troubling with Fuller’s ubiquitous brew.

But in the last couple of years, Wandle has rather fallen off my radar. I was reminded of its impact when I saw Mr Duncan Sambrook himself at a rather unusual event during this year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Unusual because we weren’t there to discuss books, but beer. Sure, there were books at the back, and the panel was chaired by the inimitable beer writer Pete Brown, but that was incidental. The premise of the event was the sudden expansion of London’s craft brewers; there was a nod towards the writing that has surrounded this resurgence, but the point was to talk beer: why and how London’s brewing culture has enjoyed such a renaissance, but also to taste the bounty of that renewal.

When Wandle first appeared in London pubs in 2008, there were just two London breweries. With the flight of Young’s, only Fullers and Meantime (both south of the river) were brewing in the capital. Sambrook’s arrival was a much needed boost. But things have changed and today there are over forty London brewers, most of them producing exceptional craft beers* in a mindboggling range of styles, some historic revivals, others hybrids, many more reinventing US reinventions: Brewdog’s Dead Pony Club, take a bow.

Stoke Newington’s Literary Festival is usually a beery sort of affair, of course. This year, I think I survived on beer alone for the whole weekend as I scuttled between events. The tight schedule and dispersed venues meant that, to get the most out of your weekend ticket, you had to run between sessions with little time to take on solid sustenance. Fortunately, each venue had a bar, well-stocked with good beer. In the main venue, Stoke Newington’s glorious deco Town Hall you could get a pint of Redemption’s festival ale (dubbed Mary Wollstendraft in honour of local feminist literary legend, who established her ground-breaking school on Newington Green). Elsewhere, bottles of Brewdog were plentiful, including the bone-dry, throat-desiccating 5am Saint. Other beverages were available, I suppose, but why would I notice?

Back to London’s Brewing, Saturday afternoon’s non-literary literary event. Packed into a church hall off the High Street, a mixed bunch of Stokey locals were greeted with a small glass of Redemption’s Trinity, only 3% abv, but perhaps my favourite tipple of the moment. Things had started well.

From the stage, Pete Brown introduced beer writer Will Hawkes and four of the capital’s leading young brewers. While they talked, the marvelous Festival crew distributed samples of the beers each had brought along. While the panel discussed the origins and merits of each, we got to try their wares.

First up was an as yet unnamed red ale from Hackney’s Five Points Brewing Company (when it is released it will travel under the name of Hook Island Red). Made with twenty percent rye, it was packed full of flavour, but without the cloying heaviness of some of the Belgian reds I’ve sometimes tried to love. Fruity, hoppy and crisp, I knew at the first sip that this is what I will be drinking at Christmas this year.

Next the deceptively-named Sam Smith of Pressure Drop introduced the shamelessly favour-currying Stokey Brown (Pressure Drop have since left Stoke Newington to find larger premises elsewhere in the Borough). No matter how hard I tried to recall the bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale I drank at university, this tipple refused to disappoint: a lot of chocolate and tobacco flavours and a clean hoppy dryness.

Then came a full-blooded IPA from the Beavertown Brewery (named after its original home in De Beauvoir Town – they have also moved on, to larger premises elsewhere in Hackney). The 8 Ball is a dark IPA in the Californian style (one of the founders, Byron Knight, originates on the West Coast) and is very, very hoppy, and again is made with a slug of rye. If anything, it seems heftier than its 6.2% abv and to my taste it was a little heavy and sludgy.

The final beer of the afternoon came from Sambrook, the most far-flung brewer in attendance. It was not Wandle, but the latest addition to their slowly growing list. Power House Porter was something of a surprise: despite drinking a lot of stout in the past, I’ve never really got on with porter. I mean, I’ve not found it objectionable, simply too leaden to derive much joy from it. This example, however,  was bright and dry, with loads of malts and lots of tobacco – Duncan described it as chocolate, but it was decidedly Galloise to me. Apparently, they use more hops in this than in any other beer they produce and this probably explains its brightness. Power House is a successful reinvention of a London classic; a fitting end point for an event about the complete reinvention of brewing in the capital.

The consensus around the panel was that London had come late to the revival of craft beer. On the evidence of this event, and on that displayed on the pumps at a growing number of London pubs, we’re making up for lost time.

* Personally, I am very glad that we’ve got over the ‘real ale’ thing: I’m less concerned by the precise strictures of the production process than I am by the quality and diversity of the product. That isn’t to underplay the importance of the work done by CAMRA, simply to say that through the ‘dark days’, I got by on decent lagers (often German or Czech) and the pleasures of Belgian brews, many of which would fall foul of the definition of ‘real ale’.

Posted in Desert Island Dishes, London Life | Leave a comment

Beer World (part seven) – Lambic adventures in Brugge

Belgium. It is a daunting place, for someone who likes to think that he likes beer. The menus run to hundreds of brews, but it might as well be thousands, millions. And all (with the possible exception of some of the pilsners – take a bow, Stella) will be magnificent. True, not all will be to taste. Personally, I just don’t understand fruit beers. But if you’re going to insist on drinking flavoured beer, it might as well be Kriek.

A weekend in gorgeous Brugge (or Bruges, if you insist) in the snowy chill of February was both a delight and an exercise in restraint. I had decided that if I were not to drown in beer choices, I would have to set some rules. The first rule was easy enough: I was only to drink beers I had not tried before. So while I love Duvel, De Koninck and Grimbergen, all were barred to me, leaving only around 437 beers to try on the extensive menu at Cambrinus.

The next rules were less easy to observe. The ‘only drink local brews’ worked to a point. Local boy, Brugse Zot, is a tasty beer. Far from a lager or a pilsner, it is light and hoppy enough above the malt to be quaffable and quenching.

Its more refined and charming stable-mate, Straffe Hendrick is also brewed in the old city centre, at the Half Moon Brewery. Rich and malty, with a hefty 9% ABV, it is a charmer, one to savour in a brown café with a book. The dark variety certainly, is available at the Dovetail in Clerkenwell, although I haven’t spotted my preferred blond in London yet.

However, after the initial flurry of discovery it became difficult to spot local beers on the menus. Most are organised by style rather than terroir, and even where the locale is specified, my knowledge of Belgian geography is insufficiently developed. After only two attempts, my requests to bar keepers for ‘something local’ sounded horrifically touristy, so I rethought the rules.

Meanwhile, in the Brugs Beertje, another Brugge beer institution, I was directed to the Ranke XX Bitter, a really nice, very bitter Pale Ale. I’d happily sit and drink it all night, anywhere; but I wasn’t anywhere – I was in a temple to Belgian brewing with a sophisticated menu of over 300 brews. Inspired, I decided to focus, like the menu, on styles.

I started with Trappist beer, of course. Belgian Trappists are brewed in one of six remaining  monasteries following this strict branch of the Cistercian order. They are top-fermented and mainly bottle conditioned, and each monastery typically produces a Dubbel and a Tripel variety. The Chimay White is their Tripel (and their blond) beer, and has a sweetness to balance the heft of its 8% abv bitterness.

But for me, the Westmalle Tripel, is a compact explosion of beer loveliness. Lots and lots of hops, and a softness that belies its 9.5% ABV. A single mouthful can be enjoyed for what seems like hours, rolling its creamy complexity around the tongue. Given its strength, it is maybe wise to take it slowly, although the beer goes down all too easily.

Somewhere in a Westmalle haze, I stumbled into the land of Lambic beer. I’ve already mentioned Kriek a cherry-infused staple of Belgian beer bars, and pretty much the archetype of my expectations of Lambic beer. But in a bottle of Boon Oude Geuze, I discovered a whole new world: no fruit but instead the strange sensation of drinking beer champagne, with the easy effervescence and sour biscuit notes of a decent bottle of fizz.

The intricacies of Lambic brewing produce a range of distinct and distinctive beers, aside from the Krieks and other fruit-infused beers I know from London boozing. I stuck with Geuze for a while, and the next day, back in Cambrinus, opted for a bottle of Geuze Girardin 1882. Slightly cloudy, this really did taste of champagne, but with a mouth-puckering sourness (which is much more pleasant than that might sound…)

Then it started to go wrong. Just as I was thinking that I had wandered into a Lambic wonderland, I tried a Lindemans Faro. I’m sure it’s a very fine example of its style, but it was horrifically sweet to my palate: a little like finding yourself with a glass of Lambrini when you were expecting Veuve Clicquot…

Fine, I thought. Not all Lambic beers are created equally; it’s a big world and each to their own. I decided to tighten the rules still further and limit myself to Geuze only. And then the Belle-Vue Gueze arrived.

Not a terrible beer by any means, but simply lacking all distinctiveness: a flabby, pasteurised beer that is instantly forgettable. It was nothing like the real thing, by which I mean the Girardin and especially the Boon Oude Gueze. The Boon will forever be the bench-mark against which all other Geuzes will be judged, and it was this, along with some bottles of Westmalle and Straffe Hendrik, that filled the staining carrier bags I hauled away from the Bier Tempel on the last morning of the trip. Next time, I promised myself, I’d give the red ales a go.

           

Posted in Desert Island Dishes, Ramblings | Leave a comment

The city sparkles

The morning’s cloud, slow and greasy, did not bode well. By lunch time, however, the thick drizzle had melted away; later still, as I crossed London Bridge, weaving through the commuters streaming out of the City and over the river, the West End sat under pinky blue skies. The light to the east was peachy and my target, the Shard, was burnished to a warm apricot.

I have fallen out with people over the Shard. There is a complacent liberal orthodoxy now that the building is an insult to the city, an overbearing one-fingered salute from the rich and privileged, from our callous overlords. Its architecture is ‘bombastic’, ‘intrusive’, ‘ungracious’. Yet these critiques of form never seem far from a railing against the socio-economic context in which that form sits.

I occasionally attempt to point out that the socio-economic foundations of every significant building in the capital are similarly suspect, that to judge St Pancras Station Buildings on the basis of its projection of power, wealth and exclusivity would be similarly negative and similarly pointless. But there is a particular hatred for the Shard, an excessive vitriol from friends who simply don’t like the Shard.

Of course, not liking it is fine. We all make subjective, aesthetic judgements all the time. I personally love the National Theatre and hate the façade of St Pancras Station: since the Eurostar moved in, I have moderated my opinion somewhat, but I still find the building’s profile bombastic and over bearing. An American friend of mine, a proper New York Londonophile, hates the London Eye, which she sees as an arriviste imposition that infantilises a city she loves. I disagree. Horses for courses.

As with the Eye, I find the Shard gracious and elegant. I like the way that it changes our perception of the city, that our understanding of east and west, of the flow of the Thames, is modified, corrected by its presence. Its omnipresence. I love the fact that in any given street in any part of this sprawling metropolis, you can turn a corner and there it is, framed by the familiar street you are on.

So a trip to the top, even at the exorbitant admission price, was something to be savoured. What you get for your £25 is two very speedy lift rides, some of the most highly polished, highly scripted customer service this side of the Atlantic, and then that view.

We’d arrived at 6pm (the 5pm tickets, timed for sunset, had sold out) and the pinkish-orange of the western sky was quickly turning to dusty peach. Dirty contrails smeared the sky, and the lights of the city were coming on.

We moved quickly up from the ‘inside’ viewing gallery to the ‘outside’ gallery on the 72nd floor. Still enclosed by glass, this level is in amongst the crags of the Shard’s glassy crown, and some of the building’s structure is revealed. Certainly, the irregular angles of the external planes become if not intelligible then certainly manageable towards the apex.

It was getting properly dark, and the internal reflections of the glazing made taking photographs tricky, even with a polarising filter in place. Out to Westminster, the red ring of the London Eye seemed ghostly, almost superimposed, a solar flare, simply a reflection, rather than a real thing. The Palace of Westminster looked puny, insignificant; far beyond it, a thin line of lights signalled the incessant departures from Heathrow. Closer, curious planes passed on their way to City Airport, and I fought the temptation to wave, like a child by the railway tracks.

In the deepening darkness, the greatest city in the world sparkled around us. North across the river, London took on a Bladerunner aspect. The cluster of City towers – the NatWest, the Gherkin, the Heron, as well as the burgeoning Walkie Talkie and Cheesegrater – looked cramped and menacing.

Over in the distant east, the Canary Wharf cluster winked and blinked like stock footage in a film, as if shot from a helicopter. But, looking straight down – to the Tower and City Hall, to London Bridge Station, to Borough Market – you were reminded both of your altitude and of the specificity of your location, of its connectedness: below, at the foot of the tower, tiny trains took commuters back to the suburbs that stretched out into the distance.

As the trains rattled off to Sydenham or Bromley or wherever they were bound, I wondered if their weary cargo, catching a glimpse of the Shard’s slender form, might sense some connection with their city through its needle-point and might, just might, feel like waving to me.

Posted in London Life | Leave a comment

Watching Newcastle United

Tyne BridgeInstead of a family, I have a city. It is as precious to me as an aunt, as timeless as a grandfather. Its shapes and sounds are etched still into those that remain.

A glimpse of its bridges, arcing over that slow stream, fills me with regret, longing; or simply with a nostalgia for something beyond the reach of memory. It is beautiful to me; it is a thing of pride, a site of unquestioning belonging. A marker of specialness.

It is mine and I am its. But I could not live within its walls: its close familiarity would murder me.

Posted in Telling Tales | Leave a comment

Beer World (part six)

The Reliance in Leeds is a fine place to enjoy a Sunday lunch before heading home. Veggie sausages and mash, some odd mushy peas on the side, and all washed down with the house beer. Reliance Best, brewed for the pub by Acorn Brewery, is a bright, chestnut pint with lots of caramel notes and toasted malt. But it is in no way overpowering or cloying in the way that malty beers sometimes seem to me and, at 3.8% abv, I could imagine downing a few more than the train timetable allowed.

In any case, the Best was much more evocative of Yorkshire than the first pint of the weekend had been. When we walked into the Regent at Chapel Allerton on the Friday night, the giant plasma screens displayed the 5-0 score line, but the pub’s punters were stereotypically stoical about England’s dominance over puny San Marino. A pint and a – relatively – quiet corner to catch up and enjoy the glorious straw colour of Leeds Pale, an old-school pale ale, without the citrus; like Deuchars, but more rounded, easy drinking, light and quaffable if maybe a little too easily forgotten.

The next day we head out to Malham, to walk the well-trodden loop up to Malham Tarn and back. When I was thirteen, all of my friends at school had visited Malham on a geography field trip – I did history, which did not allow for such adventures. Thirty years late, I arrive ready to enjoy the scenery and geology.

We walked up via Janet’s Foss to the gaping mouth of Gordale Scar. Despite the bright blue of the sky, the ground was sodden – there had been a lot of rain, which didn’t bode well for the viability of scrambling up the face of the bottom waterfall. A short look at the rocks, the water, the invisible path through both, and I am decided – the head-cold, the terror, the desire for dry feet; we are not going up through the scar, despite Alex’s enthusiasm.

Back down the gorge to the little bridge and the friendly burger van, then off across the fields. Shadowing a wall, the path above is etched into the steep grass, up to the limestone crags hanging on the skyline. A style, a kissing gate, and we are off and up, following the shortening steps, boot-cut into turf, towards the bright blue skyline.

On the table-top of Malham’s famous limestone pavement, looking back to the south and the sunshine, there are sandwiches and rest. Then there are children, talkative and intrusive in the slow air silence, and we’re ready to go again. Skirting the edge of Gordale Scar, K walking inside the ramshackle wall, safe from the cliff, we amble over sprung turf until we reach the point we would’ve reached had we made it past the rushing waters at the bottom of the Scar. Peering over the edge, back down the sketchy path, K is grateful to be where she already is.

Then we are striding along the broad grassy path between slabs of limestone. Had I been on that field-trip all those year’s ago, I might have been able to describe the geology in terms other than ‘weird’ and ‘sublime’. Half a mile, maybe more, and we reach the road, overshooting at first, losing the step stile in the dry stone confusion. Then the path cuts across the Roman street, which leads off to the east where the map suggests there is an ancient fort, unseen. We continue north westwards, along a gravel track. The wind becomes uncomfortable, a presentiment of winter on the uplands despite the autumn sunshine. The long straight track heads off towards the trees and the glint of water’s dapple.

Malham Tarn is a very large tarn: to me, a tarn is a small reddish-brown patch of water, tucked under the shoulder of a fell, not a small lake beneath a grand house and served by two stone boat-houses. Nor do they drain over a nineteenth century stone race, feeding a broad beck. But such is Malham Tarn, the highest lake in England, and glorious it is under an October sun. A pause by the water’s edge before turning back to complete the loop.

The path leads down through a shallow gorge, a picture perfect location for a prehistoric film or a 1970s episode of Dr Who. Some incongruous Highland cattle punctuate the greenery; their disdainful stares masked behind their ginger fringes. Then the sky opens up above Malham Cove, the deep fissures of the cliff-top pavement home to miniature forests of diffident plants. The views from the lip give onto the rolling lowlands, and to Malham itself. Some walkers have installed themselves with bottles of beer on the cusp, legs dangling over the drop; others, like us, pick their way over the stepping stone surface, while amiable dogs canter carefree, untroubled by vertigo or caution.

Stone steps lead down to the base of the cliffs, in the bow of the cove, and a more manicured path takes us back to the village. Once more on tarmac, we give the Lister Arms a miss (there was a queue at the bar – an actual queue of people, apparently unfamiliar with the etiquette of pubs, standing in a line!) and instead made for the hikers’ bar at the Buck Inn. A pint of Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best, a light mild, all smooth amber tones and soft easy drinking, is the reward before heading back to Leeds.

Posted in Desert Island Dishes, Ramblings | Leave a comment

Around the world in eight houses

The Olympics came to my city, and so did the world: it seemed impolite not to say hello. So, armed with only a camera and an Oyster card, we set off on a marathon of our own. The mission: to visit eight of the national ‘Hospitality Houses’ that have set up shop across London for the duration of the Games.

These Houses act as the national base for most of the competing countries: for their VIPs, their athletes, their media and officials. Many are not open to the public; but some outward-looking countries positively welcome visitors, recognising the value of a high-profile platform from which to promote their countries, their food, their music, and their eccentricities. Some are grand affairs, like the Dutch takeover of Ally Pally in north London; some are ticketed only, like the Czech House at the Business Design Centre in Islington (fronted by a double-decker bus doing press-ups on Upper Street); others still are completely free, including food and (non-alcoholic) drink, such as Bayt Qatar at the IET on Savoy Place, where hospitality goes to another level (the food looked remarkably good); and of course, there is the marvellous Borough of Hackney’s own Hackney House, down on Shoreditch High Street. But these were not among our targets for today

Things started out badly. By the time we’d reached Club France, housed in Old Billingsgate Fishmarket, the queue was stretched along the street. Neither of us could face the wait, failing at our first attempt, so we continued eastwards towards the Tower, thronged with tourists and Olympic visitors wearing or carrying their national signifiers. Always cosmopolitan, today London felt like the meeting place of the entire world. Up on Tower Hill, at Trinity House, was Austria House Tirol, the front terrace of which was open to the public.There was no queue, which immediately increased my admiration for all things Austrian, and with the sun shining, we ate lunch as if at a ski lodge; indeed, skis and snowboard’s littered the scene, and a chair lift seat leaned against Trinity House. Inside a red ‘phone box, there was a ‘yodel phone’; bar staff in lederhosen busied themselves and, had it not been for the thumping Tyrolean Techno, we might have been tempted to linger. But we had a race to run.

Next up were the Danes, who had taken over St Katharine’s Dock, bringing with them stylish furniture, free food (‘100% Danish meat’) and more Lego than you could shake a relay baton at.  The Lego wind turbine was appropriately Danish, but it was the modest plastic rendition of the Olympic park that kept the kids (and me) engrossed.

We had already eaten, so we moved on, taking the DLR to Westferry to find the Deutsches Haus Fan Fest at the Museum of London Docklands. There was good beer and good wine (served in a proper glass no less) as well as pretzels and rye bread and wurst. What’s more, there were tv screens showing the ongoing German/Japanese table tennis battle: actual Germans had showed up in their hundreds to cheer on their women in the ping pong. It was a slick and substantial operation, no entry charge and no queue. Had it been something other on the screens, I would have – again – been tempted to linger over a couple more Weissbiers, but I remained disciplined.

We took the cable car from Germany to Jamaica. The Emirates Air Line, as I suppose we must call it, ferries thousands across from Royal Victoria Docks to North Greenwich and the Dome. The queues were lengthy, but moved quickly enough; the views from the gondola were fantastic, but it too moved quickly, too quickly by far. The Air Line is London’s new London Eye, less an addition to the transport system, more a spectacle for Londoners and tourists, a new perspective on the city (and the City). Despite the queues and the brevity of the crossing, it’s an exhilarating way to cross the river.

After the sophistication of the Germans and the Danes, and the thrill of the ride over the Thames, the descent into the suburban brutality of North Greenwich was unnerving. I hadn’t been here since the thoroughly disappointing production of Damon Albarn’s Monkey; and I hadn’t missed it. The place was thronged with thousands of visitors and hundreds of Games Makers. We had timed it badly, as an event had clearly just finished and the area was filled with people heading for the tube. Getting to Jamaica House, which is inside the Dome and therefore the security cordon, involved a convoluted route around past the tube station and back again. Once inside it became no less manic, and both of us became tetchy. For me, the Dome has become simply an over-packed and over-sized peripheral shopping centre and multiplex; inside it is quite charmless (despite its still stunning exterior). The mood did not improve when we discovered that Jamaica House was full; the prospect of hanging around for a couple of hours did not appeal. Besides we were on a schedule.

The tube whisked us easily to London Bridge, where we struck gold at the House of Switzerland at Glaziers Hall, arriving just in time to see their triathlon winning athlete, Nicola Spirig, being greeted by the crowd and collected Swiss media pack. The excitement of the crowd rubbed off a little and the tribulations of our failure at Jamaica House were forgotten in the swirl of red and white, cooked cheese and beer.

The RV1 (possibly my favourite bus in London) took us to Somerset House, where Casa Brasil has set up camp, taking over the courtyard as well as much of the exhibition space. As the hosts of the next Games in 2016, they are taking this seriously, with live music every night, for the duration. As it was, the performance of Sargento Pimenta (a samba act doing Beatles covers) made everything pleasantly surreal.

By this point we were well into the home straight: only one House was left on our itinerary. Belgian House was scheduled to be open until 2am, and of course the beer would be good. We barrelled along Aldwych and Fleet Street as far as the little alley down to Inner Temple and a little piece of centuries past. We were almost there… but it was full. We stood in the aimless queue for half an hour, waiting to see if they’d release more tickets (it’s £5 in), before we conceded defeat and headed for home, exhausted.

That we finished on failure was a disappointment, but overall I feel proud of our achievement. We failed to get into three of the eight Houses we visited, but when we did succeed, the hospitality of the nations concerned was warm. The quirkiness of the Danes and the Austrians was commendable; the enthusiasm of the Swiss (not a phrase I ever expected to write) was infectious; the grooviness of  Rio was uplifting; and the sheer quality of the Germans was embracing. By the time we got home, to the news of Team GB’s success, we both felt far more Olympic than I ever thought we would.

Posted in London Life | Leave a comment

The Fimmvörðuháls diary

Fimmvörðuháls is a pass between two glaciers (Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull) in southern Iceland. It is also the centre-piece of a 25km walk from Skogar to Thorsmork, now interrupted quite magnificently by the fresh lava fields of the 2010 eruption (yes, that one). It is a classic Icelandic route and each midsummer, hundreds walk the whole trail in one go, under the midnight sun.

I walked it at the end of June 2012, when things were a bit quieter, with a group organised by Utivist. My photos from those couple of days are here; to provide some commentary, I’ve also posted my journal entries from the walk here:

Day One: Skogar to Fimmvörðuháls

Day Two: Fimmvörðuháls to Basar (Thorsmork)

Day Three: Rettarfell

You can read about two other Icelandic walks by following the links for the Laugavegurinn and for Hornstrandir.

Posted in Ramblings | 3 Comments