This site has never shied away from celebrating big anniversaries. And this, to be frank, is probably the biggest. Because in June 2021, The Belated Birthday Girl and I are marking twenty years of doing that thing we do. I know, I know.
For some time now, we've been trying to work out: how would we commemorate our twentieth anniversary? For a while, we were considering a return visit to Hong Kong, winner of the Funnest Place On Earth award for the years 1993 to 2017 inclusive. Sadly, it's not really in the running for that award at the moment. Then, when our plans for our nineteenth anniversary fell through for covidular reasons, we realised that we could roll those plans forward a year to give us a rather spectacular setting for our twentieth. Those covidular reasons still remain, as you'd imagine, and we're currently planning to make that the setting for our twenty-first. Third time lucky, as they say.
In the end, it was a rollover booking from an entirely different holiday that helped us come to our decision: we'd spend our twentieth anniversary almost entirely in London. Because June 2021 in London had all sorts of interesting possibilities - the possible transition from the last stage of lockdown to a totally opened up city, leading to the various cultural hotspots of the capital slowly waking up again after many months of hibernation. We could take a week off work, and actually be part of that waking up process.
Over a ten night period, we may have taken that idea a little too far. Put it this way, this page is just going to be about the first five nights...
Friday June 11th
There's no point in hanging around, is there? At 5pm on Friday night, The BBG and I both set up an out of office message telling people we'd be off work for the next week. By 6.15pm, we're in a booth at the Aces and Eights dive bar in Tufnell Park, scoffing pizza and drinking beer in preparation for the first stand-up comedy gig we'll have seen in eight months. Andrew O'Neill has been running their Troy Club out of the basement of the bar for a while now, and given that it's a tiny little room we were slightly concerned as to how they could do it safely. We're still not quite sure afterwards, frankly, but it's a fun night out anyway, even managing to get over a last-minute change in headliner (with Bridget Christie dropping out with a wonky shoulder, and Marcel Lucont ably taking her place). Many of the acts are visibly delighted to be playing to a crowd again, O'Neill most of all - they describe the joy of spotting bits of the room which aren't laughing as much and redirecting the comedy in their direction to compensate, something which you can't really do on Zoom. Still, for all the talk of how this is a Great Reset for society, somehow we still have the usual bunch of arseholes at the back of the room who talk through everything.
Is this going to be a staycation? People would have you believe that if you're not at home for it, it isn't. But what if you're staying in a hotel a few miles away from your home? Because that's what we're doing. Originally, our plan for Christmas 2020 was to spend three nights in the Resident Soho hotel, which we managed to get a cheap booking for in a Black Friday deal. The Christmas lockdown put paid to that plan, so we rolled over our stay into the Easter weekend. Inevitably, that didn't happen either. By the time the hotels have opened again, we now have a new occasion to celebrate, albeit a non-religious one - making it all the more amusing that it's a Resident employee called Jesus who greets us at reception. "Third time lucky?" he says, hopefully. Spoiler: yes, it is. The Resident's a lovely place - it used to be the Nadler, and going into the room brings back buried memories of our visit to the Liverpool branch of the chain, notably the way your wardrobe is seamlessly combined with a small kitchen unit.
We're going to be tourists in our own city for a few days, so we decide to go old school and buy a new A-Z from Stanfords to help us navigate around, just like we would if we were overseas. It's during the walk from the hotel to the bookshop that we have our first major surprise of the week, as we discover that the streets of Soho have been closed to traffic, and the restaurant tables are all spilling out onto the pavements and the roads. On one level, it's thrilling to see - London's become European by stealth. But on the other hand, it's a bit alarming to see so many people in one place, operating on the raggedy edge of social distancing. It may take a while to get used to that idea again.
This feeling recurs when, after a nice Thai dinner in the indoor bit of Patara, we head off for our second comedy gig of the holiday at 21 Soho. It's a large, airy room, but the seats barely have the regulation 100cm between them. The one visible concession to the current situation is an at-seat app-based drinks ordering service, which is similar to the one that Aces and Eights were using, except that this one is dogshit. At one point, when I show the barman my phone receipt for an order that still hadn't been delivered after 45 minutes, he tries to suggest that ‘you probably scanned the bar code wrong’. The show, happily, is more solidly reliable, although on an entirely different scale from last night's. The Troy Club audience was largely made up of mates of the performers: this one is a West End crowd out to catch some people off the telly on a Saturday night. Compere Ed Gamble finds the level of the audience quite early on with an extended routine about how he sliced his finger open on a mandolin while making dauphinoise. Still, Nish Kumar's righteous anger works splendidly no matter how much or how little middle class you are. "Some people ask if I want to see Boris Johnson sacked. No: I want to see him in jail. Not a pretend jail like Bernie Madoff went to, a proper jail jail with Morgan Freeman narrating."
Sunday June 13th
One quirk of the Resident that's been there since its days as the Nadler: they don't have a restaurant, and the only option they have for breakfast is ordering croissants from a bakery down the road. No problem - it's not like central London is particularly short of places to go for breakfast, even on a Sunday morning. We spend ours at 45 Jermyn St, pigging out on kedgeree and omelette Arnold Bennett, which only seems fitting for a restaurant tucked around the back of Fortnum and Masons. Suitably fortified, we take the longish walk to and through Hyde Park. We've luckily hit town in the middle of a heatwave, though unfortunately the park's full of the sort of men who really shouldn't ever consider taking their shirts off but have decided to do so anyway.
We're actually visiting the park to get to the Serpentine Gallery, and hit the right building on the second attempt. We're here for the exhibition James Barnor: Accra/London, a retrospective of a British/Ghanaian photographer. The exhibition is tightly tied to an eventful couple of decades in his life: starting as a portrait photographer in an Accra studio in the 1950s, documenting his country's move to independence (lots of shots featuring Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah, who I only really know from a Kojey Radical song), moving to London in the 1960s to learn his craft and discover colour, and going back to Ghana in the 1970s to apply what he'd learned. It's a fine collection of pictures: the London ones are my favourites, although you do find yourself searching for subtext in images like the one of three old Kilburn ladies 'admiring' a small black child.
Our fancy Italian dinner at Lina Stores is enlivened by getting a seat at the counter and watching the chef at work. At one point, he slices up some truffles for our pasta, using the heel of his hand to run them across a mandolin. That's how you do it, Gamble. From there it's a short hop over to Ronnie Scott's, and the first bit of live in-a-room-with-you music we've heard since Cambridge in March 2020. Lokkhi Terra aren't a band we know at all: we just wanted to see how Ronnie's would operate under social distancing. Pretty well, it turns out - even with half the seats removed, it's a decent sized crowd. It's more of a problem for the band, a twelve-strong Afro-Cuban fusion outfit, because the restrictions mean only seven of them can be on stage at the same time. Working in shifts, they produce a rather splendid noise with styles clashing into each other like crazy, aided by vocalists Sohini Alam in the first half and Dele Sosimi in the second. Rather like our comedy gigs, it's delightful to see how much joy the people on stage are getting from being with an audience again. Back at the hotel, we watch a recent livestream by the same band in the same venue, only with no audience, and you immediately see their point.
The actual morning of our anniversary is marked by Boris Johnson surprising precisely nobody with the announcement that England's going to be locked down for four weeks longer than originally planned. Good job we didn't have anything enormous planned, then. We start the day with a couple of vegan sausage naans at Dishoom Covent Garden – we discovered these last year when they started doing them for home delivery, and always vowed to try them again in situ when the time came, and that time is now.
We stroll down to the Thames, cross over it, turn left and head for Tate Modern. It's a funny thing: we've both visited the gallery regularly over the last two decades for specific exhibitions, but I don't think I've paid a visit to its regular collection since... well, since it first opened. There have been several changes since that 2000 review, and the biggest one is the expansion into the new Blavatnik Building. It gives the Tate much more space for exhibiting art, though several floors of it are currently unused: still, at least we can look out of its windows into the apartment block over the road, and flick the V's at people who can afford a million-pound flat but somehow can't find the money to buy curtains. It's interesting to note that even with all this extra space to play with, the current permanent collection is a bit lower on large-scale showstopping pieces than it was twenty years ago (Cildo Meireles' Babel is the main new thrill for me on this visit): meanwhile, some of the smaller installations have had to be closed off because of Covid safety restrictions. But if you're looking for a grown-up middle-class adventure playground, it's still the best one London has to offer.
For the evening of our 20th anniversary, The BBG and I start off by paying a small tribute visit to a disused building a few minutes away from our hotel, in Manette Street. This was what used to be The Borderline, the venue where we went to see Ed Harcourt on our first date: these days, it's a hollowed-out shell presumably waiting to become a disabled toilet for Crossrail. Notoriously, that first date didn't involve the consumption of any food whatsoever, so twenty years later we decide to go in the opposite direction, and centre the evening on a lavish and rather lovely blowout at 10 Cases. That date also didn't involve seeing any films, despite that being the initial interest which put us in contact with each other - so our after-dinner entertainment is a screening of Submarine at the Prince Charles, with director Richard Ayoade giving an in-person introduction to mark the film's tenth anniversary, the lightweight. Ayoade's introduction is as slapdash and tossed-off as we'd expected - "Anyone here seen the film before? [show of hands] It hasn't changed." But it still holds up as a slightly screwy coming-of-age romcom, with the added bonus of being projected from a just-tatty-enough 35mm print, bringing back similarly warm and fuzzy memories of what going to repertory cinemas used to be like in the old days.
Tuesday June 15th
It's checkout day at the Resident, and we haven't really planned it as much as the others. Our first choice of breakfast venue is currently takeout only and our second choice has permanently closed down, so we end up with the compromise of coffee and croissants at one of those thousands of branches of Ole and Steen that have opened up in the West End of late. We're only looking for a light breakfast anyway as we have biggish plans for lunch, but it does leave us with an awkward gap between the two meals. We fill it with something I stumbled across during our walk back from the Serpentine to the Resident on Sunday afternoon - the Halycon Gallery on New Bond Street, which is currently showing an exhibition of Bob Dylan's paintings. It's a small collection, padded out with a timeline of the octogenerian's career, some handwritten and illustrated lyrics, and a couple of bits of ironwork he's done. The paintings themselves are nicely rendered images of classic Americana - bars, street scenes, boxing matches - but exhibited without any dates, titles or context. You'd have thought a curator might have pointed out that Bob has been literally copying frames from some of his favourite movies, and maybe done a little analysis of what he's up to with that. The downstairs bit of the Halcyon has a similarly dinky collection of Warhols, and you suspect that Andy would have approved.
Our West End holiday finishes off with a splendid lunch at Social Eating House (the trick with a lot of fancier restaurants is to go for their cheap lunch deals if you can - you can get a three course prix fixe for £25 here), and then home. In a year when a lot of people are going to have to consider staycations, I think this is how to make them work - spend as much time out of the house as humanly possible, especially if you're in the sort of job where you've been both working and living in the same four walls. If you can stay somewhere else, all the better: but if you can't, you can still cram your days full of stuff even if you're going back to your own bed at night. As we will demonstrate over the next five days of our anniversary week, coming in part 2.