Friday, 17 July 2015

'Slade House', David Mitchell's new novel

The author David Mitchell has slowly been creating a new universe.

Cloud Atlas has long been my favourite novel - it's an ingeniously-constructed, sweeping tale set across continents and centuries with such intricately planned character development and story-telling that I was convinced the author must be a genius. Since then, David Mitchell's stories have all told very different stories but introduced the pegs of what (I hope) will become some kind of future meganovel - characters cross over in minor and major ways, familiar locations are mentioned then tossed away, and an unusually specific sense of a different, familiar world is developing.

There's a thrill in reading these stories and triggering a memory of a previously met character or location - and a sense of reward when you start to tie up loose ends from other stories and join everything up in your mind. There's also a joy in these stories, which casually span dimensions and time, being firmly grounded in extremely familiar territory - his most recent novel The Bone Clocks kicks off in England in the early 80s; similarly the territory in his new book Slade House will be instantly familiar to Brits.

I managed to get my grubby hands on a proof copy of Slade House, which is based on the Twitter story that Mitchell published last year and builds on the same universe created in Cloud Atlas and fully fleshed out in The Bone Clocks (with cameos, of course, from characters in The Thousand of Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and probably others).

It's a slim story - almost like an extended Bone Clocks epilogue - but grabs you and pulls you in, and before you know it, it's over - but it's a great ride.

In the right conditions, every nine years, a tiny metal gate appears on Slade Alley (just round the corner from The Fox and Hounds pub) which can only be opened by a select few - the Right Sort, as the tweeted version of this story was called. What - and who - lurks behind the gate will be pleasingly recognisable by those who have devoured the much-longer The Bone Clocks, but will be equally fascinating to those who haven't dipped their toes into Mitchell's world. And that's the joy of his stories - you don't have to be in the know to like them and be gripped by them, but the true reward comes from delving in and fully exploring this wildly twisting universe he's creating - a universe that's grounded so firmly in our own and yet which takes us so far away from our normal lives.

When's the next one out?

Slade House is released in October.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

A snowy trip to New York City and Boston

Our trip to New York and Boston earlier this year came at a pretty chaotic time - flights were being cancelled and rescheduled all over the place due to major snowstorms all along the east coast, and ours was one of the few to leave relatively on-time.

I've stayed at Pod 51 a couple of times - it's basic and getting a bit frayed round the edges, but for somewhere central and cheap to stay, it's ideal. The rooms are basic and some have shared bathroom facilities, but if you really only need somewhere to crash after a busy day, it's fine. We'd previously stayed at the Edison and the Wellington which were around the same price range but poky and dated - next time I'd investigate staying outside of Manhattan, but if you're new to NYC or want to be near the obvious attractions, the Pod is great.

Another benefit is the amount of great bars and eateries in the area. Just a moment round the corner is The Smith, which is a great place for breakfast, and Blockheads Burritos who serve the best Mexican food (and frozen margaritas) I've had in years.

This was my fourth time in New York City so I was fairly familiar with the neighbourhoods fit together, but previously I've taken various great walking and bike tours which give you a great sense of where you are and how each area of town slots together. My favourite was the Brooklyn Bike Tour by Get Up and Ride, which zips you all over Brooklyn with plenty of stops for photos, snacks and trivia from a local guide. It's a really different way to spend a morning and a unique way to see this great part of the city. Another highlight was a free walking tour of Harlem, an area I'd never considered visiting but turned out to be fascinating, particularly as a social history nerd. It's free - just tip the guide at the end.

Back to Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn Flea has found a new location at 1000 Dean Street. I love this place. Not quite as visually impressive as the former Williamsburg Bank where it was sited the last time I paid a visit, but the new location provides a vast amount of space for hundreds of stalls of handmade items, antiques, furniture and food and drink. There are plenty of unique souvenirs to be had - I met a favourite illustrator, Claudia Pearson, and came away with one of her great Brooklyn Brownstone prints, You could easily spend most of a day here.

Take some time, while you're in the area, to wander the streets of Park Slope and up to Williamsburg. There are so many great little shops and bars - and the atmosphere is so much calmer than Manhattan - that it's worth dedicating at least a day to exploring. For food, check out Sea Thai and the appropriately named Best Pizza, both in Williamsburg.

Back to Manhattan, and no trip to NYC would be complete without a trip to Marie's Crisis Cafe, which I'm slightly reluctant to tell you about lest it become suddenly too busy to take away its charm. Be warned - if crowds of people singing show-tunes en masse isn't your thing, stay away. If you like an unpredictable night with the booze flowing, you'll enjoy. Nearby is The Little Owl, a great, tiny restaurant (make a reservation and try the sliders) and the famous Stonewall Inn, the site of the riots which kicked off a sea-change in LBGT rights.

This was a brief trip to New York, but my list of favourite places to visit in the city has expanded again. Other places I'd recommend include:
- Five Napkin Burger and Dinosaur BBQ - some of the biggest, juiciest, meatiest burgers you'll ever have.
- The High Line (above) is a great, atmospheric walk along a disused railway line which is now a high-level park, winding around the Manhattan skyscrapers.
- 230 Fifth serves great cocktails on the roof of a skyscraper looking downtown over the Empire State Building. Grab a blanket and enjoy the views as the sun sets.

So off we went to Boston. Narrowly avoiding a long list of cancelled trains courtesy of the snow, we luckily boarded the Amtrak at Penn Station and set off on the beautifully scenic route to Back Bay station in Boston. The journey really is stunning, and takes you right along the coastline through a series of beautiful seaside towns. Sit on the right-hand side of the train for the best views. American trains are great - they're less fussy than their British counterparts and zoom along to their destination with no messing about.

We arrived in Boston in the midst of a blizzard, accepting it wouldn't be the most action-packed holiday (as everything was pretty much closed) but also quite happy that we basically had the snowy streets of the city to ourselves. We checked in at Hotel 140, which is perfectly located for the station and watched the slightly eerie sight of the town being silently snowed in.

Wrapped in several layers, we explored nearby Boston Common (again, beautiful in the snow) and prepared for an event that generally passes most Brits by - the Super Bowl! The local team New England Patriots were playing - the promised crowds in bars were pretty thin as everyone was watching at home in the warm, but there was a fun atmosphere nonetheless and it was exciting when the Patriots won. No idea what was going on, but Go Patriots!

Next day, more snow, and a great walking tour with a brilliant local chap called Alan who had braved the slush to meet us (and only us) for a wander along the famous Freedom Trail, taking in all of the historical landmarks concentrated in the city centre - and there are many. The most interesting part for me was the neighbourhood of Beacon Hill - tightly packed rows of houses which had rocketed in value over the years, made all the more picturesque by the weather. We essentially skated our way around!

A couple of hours and a pair of replacement boots later and we headed over to Harvard. Harvard is set in Cambridge, just north of the city, and really feels like a mini version of its British namesake. The college gates are open and you're free to wander the beautiful campus and wonder how it must feel to actually study there. The students had also created a gigantic snow mound for an impromptu sledging session.

Next, we headed south to the Samuel Adams brewery. The tour is free and really interesting, although it essentially takes place on a set as very little beer is actually brewed here. The guides are enthusiastic and really like their beer, and there are plenty of samples to be had. You even get to keep the souvenir glass. Worth taking the short subway trip to visit.

We finished the day with a great meal at the Atlantic Fish Company, close to the Boston Marathon finish line.

Next day, we woke up to discover even more snow had fallen. Icicles draped along the top of our window and the ground floor windows of the hotel were almost totally covered. Faces smothered under several scarves, we set out on to the deserted roads to find breakfast. Very few people were out on the roads, other than a few brave workers with snow shovels trying to clear routes. The snow drifts were so high that we had to walk through high-walled valleys that had been carved through them - definitely the most snow we'd ever seen. We eventually found great, cheap breakfast at Thorntons, who served up the biggest plate of eggs known to man as giant clumps of snow slowly slid off the roof.

We decided to take an impromptu trip to Salem, around 20 minutes away by train. A slightly risky plan, given the weather and the fact trains were being cancelled left, right and centre, but we were both keen to go and take a look at the infamous town. Reminded several times that everything would be deserted and everything closed, we threw caution to the wind and headed off. The town was indeed deserted and everything was indeed closed, but it was great. We had the entire place to ourselves and, despite the snow whipping our faces, Salem was a very picturesque spot. We didn't miss much along the main street - mainly witchy gift shops - and we eventually found somewhere open! Trampling ice into the beautiful Hawthorne Hotel, we warmed up with soup and wine in their restaurant, the Tavern on the Green, by a very welcoming roaring fire.

Luckily we managed to catch a train back to Boston before the lines were closed down and we settled into a neighbourhood bar with a giant glass of Samuel Adams before our late flight which, despite the apocalyptic weather conditions, departed on time.

Overall, a fantastic and fun trip to Boston and a great return to New York. I'd definitely love to revisit Boston and the surrounding area in nicer weather with more to do, but the snow really did provide a beautiful backdrop to explore a city packed with interesting history.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

My probably-too-honest first timers' review of Glastonbury 2015

There's a point where you're standing in a puddle - staring at an overflowing trough of piss and abandoned cider cups whilst wondering what that missed call from your mortgage advisor was about - when you start to wonder if you might be a bit old for this sort of thing.

This was my first Glastonbury, and I'll happily admit I'd been nervous. I like a nice comfy bed, a warm shower and a building with walls to go inside when a biblical-level weather event occurs. I'd been to festivals before. Well, a festival. Latitude. Which was basically Hampstead transposed entirely to a field in Norfolk. They may as well open a Little Waitrose there. So yes, I was anxious about attending the Ultimate Festival.

I thought I was well prepared for Glasto. I'd read all the 'what to take lists'. I'd contemplated all the articles about how to stay stylish in the inevitable mudbath, Kate Moss-esque. I'd ordered nine personal urinal devices and a neon bumbag from Amazon. I had scoured the programme and worked out who I wanted to go and see. I had huge plans to find the cinema showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at 2.55am one morning. I had a mattress thing that inflated by itself. I had assembled wellies and big rucksacks and sleeping bags from a variety of outdoorsy friends. But I was not prepared.

Glastonbury is overwhelming - the size, the scale, the noise, the crowds. It's incredible, it's emotional, it's awe-inspiring and, honestly, it can be pretty tough at times. You'll walk miles and you'll get soaked to the skin and you'll wake up hot and hungover every morning, sometimes even in your own tent.

You first glimpse this temporary city over farmhouse roofs and betwixt garden hedges as you wind along rural roads, wondering what on earth people who live round here must think of it all as the millionth National Express coach troops past their humble abode. You start to understand as you stand in a giant queue while a potentially-stoned man carefully matches your face to the one on your ticket.

But you can't fully comprehend the scale until you get inside and up high - standing by the Strummerville area up on the hill and looking across the entire site as the sun sets is genuinely awe-inspiring. There are more people in this valley for the weekend than live in the city I was born in. There's enough food and drink to cater for a small country. There are a hundred stages, hospitals, universities, people making things, people getting married, a bloody newspaper press, people getting drunk and people having the time of their lives, everywhere you look.

We'd opted for the posh package and paid extra for a pre-erected tent ('You're glamping?', asked incredulous Glasto regulars before departing - not quite: we weren't even in a yurt, darling) in Worthy View, the campsite just outside the main festival arena which had a slightly calmer ambience for those who aren't so keen to pitch up next to the Pyramid Stage (which is kind of possible - unlike most festivals, you camp basically anywhere). Although our tent was still full of rain when we arrived, because after all it was, you know, outdoors.

Worthy View is up a hill (the ominously-named Hill of Hell) which isn't too bad to descend but a bit of a killer to contemplate climbing at 3am. But - what a view. It was from the Hill O' Hell, tramping down excitedly to the Park Stage to meet our friend (dressed as a king and celebrating his 30th, obviously) that we first took in the whole thing.

The good bits?

The atmosphere is electric. It can't not be, with over a hundred thousand people leaping around having the time of their lives. There's a sense of community, a shared desire to abandon our usual office-based lives and absorb ourselves in this new world for a long weekend.

Booze - you can take your own. We did. You know those boxes of white wine? Take the cardboard off, stick it in the freezer - next day you have three bottles' worth of the deliciously chilled nectar to carry about with you. Top tip for you there. Pour a bottle of Smirniff into a litre Coke bottle. Take what you like! Take plastic cups though. If you don't, there's a bar under every tree and in every corner.

Food - there is anything you could ever want. You want crumpets at 4am? Fine. Lemon meringue pie in the rain? Sure. Get in the queue*.

The entertainment. Where to begin? Where else can you see that much stuff? Abandon the map - we tried to find something specific for about an hour but instead ended up spending a not-inconsiderable-session dancing by an ice-cream van to a Yiddish jazz quartet.

Plan to see one or two things a day and then let the Festival sweep you away. My favourite experience was choosing a stage and staying put for several hours - moving only to fetch more cider or partake in the fabled Glastonbury Toilet Experience - and taking in everything that appeared on stage and all around you. Or stumbling into a marquee and listening to a newly discovered singer, or dashing to a nightclub and donning a sticky moustache donated by a drag queen because you just heard a rumour that Bananarama were playing a secret gig inside (lies!). Boy George with Mark Ronson? Amazing. Mary J Blige doing angry squats in stiletto heels to 'No More Drama' in the pissing rain? Unforgettable!

The hard bits?

You are at the mercy of the weather. We had two days of glorious sunshine (hello my friend Factor 50) punctuated with a few hours of rain - but that brief storm combined with thousands of plodding feet churns up the ground, so prolonged rain leads to instant mud [I've been rightly admonished by a survivor of 2007 that this year's storm can't be described as creating anything close to a mudbath].
So, take wellies. I felt my spirits plummet as the rain dribbled under the hood of my flimsy binliner-chic poncho and down my back whilst my halloumi wrap slowly disintegrated in my wrinkled hand. But, of course, like a vision, the clouds moved on and the sun came out again and on we danced.

*Queues. There are more people here than in bloody Oxford, and unlike the good people of Oxford, Glasto citizens all want to do the same thing at the same time, so you'll just have to wait. When an act ends on a main stage, all of those people want to get to the next stage. You'll probably queue to get in the place to start with. You'll certainly queue to get out. You'll queue in your car, or your bus, or at the train station, you'll queue for breakfast, and you'll queue for the loo. Get used to queues. Make friends.

Tiredness. You'll get tired. Even when you finally want to sleep, someone will be having an impromptu rave about a metre from your head with only a sheet of canvas for protection.

The bloody ticket buying admin. Short of hiring a factory of helpers to do this step for you in the style of Veruca Salt trying to find Wonka's golden ticket, all you can do is prepare to battle with the TicketDemons through several rounds of online chaos to buy tickets in the first round. Then your inevitably jealous ticketless mates will need your help in the impromptu resales every month thereafter.

Anyway, I'm so glad I went to Glastonbury. I came home exhausted and filthy and desperately craving broccoli but I had an amazing time with friends that I won't forget in a hurry. I'm not convinced it changed my life or made me a lifelong Glasto junkie, but it was definitely one of those things that everybody should do at least once.

Will I go back? Ask me next year. If I don't? I'll be watching the highlights on telly. In a warm bed. Near a toilet. With no queues. Possibly wearing a poncho, for atmosphere.

Finally, here are my GLASTO TOP TIPS!

  • Take booze in the lightest form you can. Distill it into plastic containers. Frozen white wine stays cold for ages! Take empty bottles so you can carry it round a bit at a time. 
  • Even if next June looks set to be hotter than the Sahara, take all the waterproof gear you can get hold of, because one downpour turns the ground to liquid which gets churned up for the rest of the weekend. Wellies and a raincoat with a hood are a minimum. 
  • Wet wipes and hand sanitiser. Just take them. Honestly.
  • Buy a £14 Nokia phone off Amazon. Mine lasted the whole five days. You probably won't be arsed to faff about with chargers, the internet signal is crap anyway, and you'll probably drop it into some mud or worse.
  • Don't take more stuff than you need. You don't need six complete outfit changes. You will soon start to smell anyway, as will everyone else. Wet wipes, my friend.
  • Eye mask, ear plugs, mini torch, bin bags to sit on. Those little personal packets of tissues.
  • Don't plan a full itinerary for the whole festival. Pick one or two things you want to see each day, with at least an hour between them, and see what happens.
  • If you're going on a bus, take snacks. You could be on it for some time. And leave early on your last day, because everyone else is going in the same direction. The shuttle buses between Worthy View and the coach park are basically an urban legend so just walk.
  • Don't buy stuff unless you'll use it again - there were so many abandoned tents and sleeping bags - the rumour they all get collected for charity isn't true and it's a massive waste. Borrow stuff or stay in Worthy View.
  • Seriously though, Worthy View is a good option if you want to have somewhere a little bit removed from the madness - it's a bit less chaotic, there are toilets that get cleaned regularly, and there's even a bar, cafe and shop. We didn't drive but it does have its own car park which is handy if you bring lots of heavy stuff in the car (i.e. alcohol),
  • Invest in a bumbag. Seriously. I'm considering wearing one in my day-to-day life.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Some thoughts on Tunisia

In November we spent a week at the Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Port el Kantaoui, Tunisia - it's an unashamedly tourist-aimed hotel catering to the all-inclusive market, and we were after a cheap holiday to have a break from work. The hotel is great, and the staff some of the friendliest you could meet (looking at you, Latifah the friendly waitress who always brought us two cocktails each rather than one).

Last week the hotel became well-known for the wrong reasons when an ISIS gunman shot and killed upwards of 30 on the hotel's beach and around the gardens - mostly British tourists enjoying a precious, trouble-free break just like we did. This was not the far-away, hostile place you imagine this kind of unprovoked attack taking place. It was a safe, fun, relaxing resort. Being able to clearly visualise the path taken by that gunman is really haunting. Imagining tourists like us - and families like my own - in his path is devastating.

We usually cram as much as we can into holidays, dashing around crowded cities and manically flicking through guide books to get as much done as possible. Tunisia was different - we deliberately picked a hotel where we had to do as little as possible and do whatever we wanted, at our own pace.

The town of Port el Kantaoui is essentially built to serve the needs of the tourists who go there - restaurants, bars, souvenir shops. But the locals rely on this trade to live their lives. And not much further afield there are beautiful ancient sites - El Djem Colosseum is one of the most incredible places I've visited, for example. The tour guides who took us there, and the locals we met in towns, farms and museums along the way, spoke passionately about the region - in the run up to the election, they were keen to explain why they were excited to vote for the chance to start making their country one of the best in the world.

This was a pointless and tragic attack. Attention now is rightly on the families of those who died. But I hope for the sake of the many friendly, welcoming people we met in that hotel and the surrounding area that people continue to visit and experience the incredible, picturesque sights of a beautiful, historic and embracing country.