Well, it's part travel guide for visitors to London. It's part historical record of a city coming slowly back to life after months of lockdown. It's part review of a week's worth of culture in June 2021. And it's part pharmacological study, as we hurl everything we can at two people who've had two doses of AstraZeneca to see what we can get away with in public places.
It's part two (part one's over here) of my report on what The Belated Birthday Girl and I did around London on the week of our twentieth anniversary as an item. Awkwardly, it doesn't start in London.
Wednesday June 16th
We go on a day trip to Brighton for the same reason why everyone else goes on a day trip to Brighton: to buy shoes. Vegetarian Shoes is one of the few shops where The BBG can get decent non-leather footwear, and so whenever we pop down to the south coast it's invariably one of the places we visit. But we've managed to hit town on what turns out to be the final day of a delicious hot spell, so we also get in some time just chilling out on the beach and the pier. Foodwise, we make one major new discovery (Bread and Milk for lunch), pay a return visit to a favourite haunt (Brass Monkey Ice Cream), and learn that a former favourite that we thought was closed down has come back to life (beachside restaurant Due South). I guess we'll have to go back again soon.
The hot spell starts to fade almost from the moment that we get on the train back to London, and by 8pm we're in the beginnings of a tropical rainstorm. Which is a pity, because we're committed to spending the next two hours in the open air. For the second year in a row, Good Ship Comedy has nabbed the courtyard at Le Gothique in Wandsworth for a series of outdoor comedy shows. It's the usual sensationally diverse bill, with compere Ben van der Velde (he/him) introducing bisexual Fern Brady (she/her), lesbian with cerebral palsy Rosie Jones (she/her) and gender progressive Andrew O'Neill (they/them). Unfortunately, after their first show of 2021, Good Ship was hit with a complaint from a neighbour (that arsehole/that wanker), and they've had to scale things back compared with last year. Part of that scaling back does involve the use of a canvas canopy over our heads, which admittedly helps with the rain, although it would have helped more if I hadn't been on the end of the row under the dripping edge. Still, it's another excellent night of comedy, and I suggest that you give Ben and the crew your support over the rest of this season, particularly as it looks like (that arsehole) has knocked them down from one show a fortnight to one a month.
Terrifyingly, a large part of today is also scheduled to take place outdoors - but after last night's deluge, the weather is happy to stay at merely grey and overcast, and that suits us fine. So after an Australian-style breakfast at Antipodea Kew, we stroll down the road for a day out in Kew Gardens. My first visit to the place, incredibly, was less than a year ago, as we were coming out of the first lockdown, and I loved it to bits. The BBG spotted this, and bought me a gift membership for my birthday: however, it's taken until now for me to activate it, what with us being told not to travel and so on.
It's the first time I've been in Kew on a day that wasn't a Sunday. On a school day, predictably, it's a lot quieter than at the weekends, to the extent that you become ridiculously aware that you're directly underneath the approach path to Heathrow. But the weather stays dry throughout, with even the odd bit of sunshine here and there, making for a rather lovely afternoon. We finish off with a ride around the gardens on the Kew Explorer land train thingy, which wraps the trip up nicely and gives us some ideas of areas to visit next time.
Thursday's our tai chi night, so we spend it back at home. For the past fifteen months, our lessons have taken place on Zoom, which works a lot better than you might expect. But at one stage, the possibility was raised that tonight we might be having our class in meatspace, in a park close to where our lessons used to happen (with the option for attendees to follow along on Zoom if they didn't feel ready for that). Weather and technology ultimately put paid to that plan, sadly. And I spend part of this evening's class musing on why that's such a disappointment. Over this week, we've seen our first live performances of 2021 - several batches of comedians, one enormous band, and to a lesser extent Richard Ayoade (who ended his sketchy introduction of his film Submarine with "well, I'm glad we had this talk"). In each case, it's been apparent how much the performers gain from being in front of an audience - in several cases, actually telling us that directly. And it's nice to feel part of a process that makes people that happy. But you have to admit it's largely a passive part. A tai chi class in real life - where we're all following along with each other, and adjusting our individual speeds to give harmony to the group - that, to me, seems like the closest I'll get for now to that sort of collective participatory experience. It'll happen soon, though, I'm sure.
Friday June 18th
After a week or so of successes, it was inevitable that at some point the weather would actively mess up our plans. Tonight's entertainment should be a screening of Moulin Rouge at the Openaire, an outdoor cinema in the Paddington Basin where the audience can choose to sit in deckchairs or small boats. This morning, though, we get an email telling us that the weather forecast is too scary to consider making people sit outside, so the film's been postponed. We've already had one outdoor movie screening cancelled on us so far this year - Sound Of Metal at the Peckham Rooftop cinema - so obviously nature is telling us we shouldn't be doing this sort of thing in 2021. We remember that we were considering seeing In The Heights at Kew Gardens in July, and make the decision there and then to not bother getting tickets for that one. We then also remember that In The Heights opens in normal cinemas with ceilings and so on, like, today.
So we use the daytime to catch up with things like shopping and getting bits of plumbing fixed, and then assemble a replacement plan for the evening. We stick with our original dinner idea of Scandi nosh at KuPP in Paddington Basin, where through the window we have a perfect view of the deserted Openaire cinema, and the weather that isn't anything like as bad as they said it was going to be. As if to tempt fate, we stroll along the canal through Little Venice, still undisturbed by rain, to eventually get to a cinema that isn't too chickenshit to show films tonight. The last time I went to the Everyman Belsize Park, it was called the Screen On The Hill and Desperately Seeking Susan was showing there in its first run, so that's got to be at least 35 years ago. We're there for the opening night of In The Heights, which is... fine, really. It was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda while he was still in college, and it's obviously a much less mature piece of work than Hamilton: the songs are less memorable, the narrative is more soapy. But director John Chu gives it enough energy to make it work on a Friday night, with a couple of numbers nicking their staging from the golden era of musicals - 96,000's aerial shots of huge numbers of people in water, and the little touch of movie magic which elevates When The Sun Goes Down.
One of the small luxuries of this week has been finding other people to make breakfast for us, and the final one of those of this holiday takes place at the Kensal Green restaurant Parlour. Covid has hit the hospitality industry hard, but Parlour has made it through thanks to its jaw-dropping agility. Every time we've visited it over the past year and a half it's been different, as they've converted themselves into different permutations of general store, hot food takeaway, grocery delivery service, bar, outdoor restaurant and/or indoor restaurant, depending on the current government guidelines. Today marks the first time in the pandemic era when we've been able to sit indoors and eat, so we do. It wasn't a regular haunt of ours eighteen months ago, but I think it will be from now on.
We need a good solid breakfast this morning, as most of the rest of the day is going to be a research trip for our Bermondsey Beer Mile website, our much-more-popular-than-this-one description of what to expect on London's best stretch of small brewery tap bars. The last time we visited the Mile was back in our Dry January of 2020 - since then, that battering of the hospitality industry I mentioned has changed the shape of the route. Thankfully, the site's now well-enough established that readers have been sending us updates in the comments about bar closures and openings, so it's been kept up to date to a degree: nevertheless, it would have been a dereliction of duty not to head down there at the earliest possible opportunity and report on the current state of the bars for ourselves. That's our excuse, anyway.
How are things on the Mile partway through Stage 3 Lockdown? Okayish, I guess. We've had two losses (Affinity and London Calling Sweden), balanced out by three new openings (Billy Franks, Craft Beer Junction and Three Hills Brewing). All the surviving bars on the Mile have found a way to operate in the current climate, invariably involving taking over the pavement space outside their premises to some degree or other. The numbers of people heading from bar to bar on this particular Saturday is a bit lower than usual (overcast weather and football playing their part along with Covid nervousness), but on the whole the Mile appears to be holding itself together. I don't want to say 'nature is healing', but you know what I mean. An expanded version of this paragraph is currently being threaded through http://www.bermondsey-beer-mile.co.uk, and with any luck the update will be completed before July 19th, when restrictions should be lifted and the whole bloody thing will probably have to be updated again.
Sunday June 20th
The final day of our holiday, and there's one more fancy meal out - Sunday lunch at Brasserie Zedel, which until today I hadn't realised is located on the former site of the Regent Palace Hotel, the landmark that always appeared on the far left hand edge of every tourist's photos of the neon signs at Piccadilly Circus. (The restaurant's Bar Américain is literally the hotel's old bar, preserved in all its art deco glory.) We've dined at Zedel a couple of times before, and after a week of eating out expensively their low price formule is very welcome. But the main reason why we're here is to pay an after-lunch visit to Zedel's own dinky cabaret venue, The Crazy Coqs. We're here to see Ian Shaw for the second ever live concert we've attended this year, the pointedly titled In A Room With You. For some reason, the mental image of Shaw that I keep in my head is of what he looked like when he was a brash young thing on the cabaret circuit in the late eighties, and whenever we catch him every few years it somehow always surprises me that he's aged at the same rate as me. He's still in fine voice (despite apparently coming off the back of a bout of laryngitis), and his song choices are delightfully off-kilter - he's the only singer I know who can take Leonard Cohen's Everybody Knows and make it legitimately swing.
Our final night is spent at home, where we make a late decision to rectify Friday's change of plans by watching Moulin Rouge on DVD. Why are we so determined to see it? Because it's twenty years old, like that thing we do. In fact, the circumstances of our seeing it in 2001 were a bit unusual. Three months into our relationship, The BBG went off on a holiday to Singapore and environs that she'd booked long before we were a thing. So while I was off seeing the film at the Odeon Leicester Square, she was watching it on the back of a plane seat. I made sure that when she got back to London, we both went to the Odeon to see it on a proper-sized screen. Because to be honest, even the forty-odd-inch TV we use tonight is too small for the film to make sense.
Moulin Rouge has its fans - some might call them apologists - and we both fell into that camp in 2001. Nevertheless, I was a bit concerned as to whether it would still hold up. Good news: we can confirm it does, though I'm not entirely sure why. Its flaws are all there in front of you: it's haphazardly edited, it's got a leading man who can't sing for toffee, and literally only one bit of comedy in the whole thing works (the pause after "and in the end, should someone die?"). But Michael Powell used to have this concept he called 'pure cinema', using all the tools in the toolbox to wow an audience visually and aurally, with no real concern about minor fripperies like plot or character development. And Moulin Rouge isn't really concerned with them either - it just bombards you from every possible angle until you succumb to it or run away screaming.
It's pure excess, of course. But in a week that's seen us take in one hotel, twenty meals out, three comedy shows, two jazz gigs, three exhibitions, three films, two parks, one pub crawl and one beach, we know a thing or two about excess: so if Moulin Rouge has any kind of story, it's almost certainly our kind of story. As they say at the end, this story is about Truth, Beauty, Freedom, but above all Love. And I'm hoping there's plenty more of it still to come. Being a monkey, and all.