Ash “Free All Angels” 21st Anniversary Show – 18/09/22

I’d like to begin by pointing out a massive administrative flaw with this whole show. The premise is that it’s 21 years since Ash released their third album – “Free All Angels”. However, I was at university when it was released and there is no way that it has been two whole decades since I was at university. I expect they actually mean 2 years or 5 at a push?

We’d left the kids in the care of my nephew who I remember (erroneously as it turned out) babysitting just before an Ash gig at Frog in December 2004. It seemed pretty nifty to me that he was babysitting our kids for an Ash gig when we’d babysat him before a different Ash gig but I seem to have got my years mixed up. We definitely say Ash in 2004, as this ever-so-grainy picture proves:

And we definitely drove back from Wales for it because that’s when we ran out of petrol just before Junction 13 and had to get towed to Reading (incidentally, the place where I bought “Free All Angels”). We were very pleased with ourselves for managing to get back in time for the gig, even if running out of petrol was a stupid thing to do. Anyway, the fact that the nephew himself is now at uni kinda debunks my theory that I only left a couple of years ago. Dang, the passage of time.

Anyway, let’s talk about “Free All Angels” for a moment. As I said, I bought it in Reading – specifically in the Virgin Megastore in Broad Street Mall, which I believe is now a Metro Bank. Ash were signing copies instore and I got one for me and one for Nathan, which meant we had two signed copies of the album when we married and combined our assets

.

I mainly remember how lovely Tim Wheeler’s smile was and how blue his eyes were as he signed my copy. It’s not a surprise that the album holds a special place in my heart (possibly less so in Nathan’s now I’ve said that bit). It also came at just the right time to be on heavy rotation. While I loved “1977”, it was an album I got amidst the flurry of wonderful Britpop music coming out at the same time and there was a lot to take in. “Nu-Clear Sounds” came out in 1998 when Nathan and I were busy partying every Saturday night and hanging out every day. We didn’t have much attention to pay to it. But “Free All Angels” came at a time when I was slacking off in the second year of uni and so wasn’t doing much work. I had also fallen out with my housemates so was hiding in my bedroom as much as possible to avoid them (Note: not you Juan….the ones in the second year). The music scene had been barren for a while and it was just before “White Blood Cells” and “Is This It?” came out later that summer. So a new album by Ash, with the ink still wet from the bank’s own signatures, got played on repeat a lot.

So as soon as I saw this tour advertised on Facebook, I booked tickets. It was just after Nathan’s birthday and it was relatively affordable. The questions of whether I was physically fit enough to go to an Ash gig or whether I’d survive work on the Monday morning didn’t really occur to me. As it happens, we now have a Bank Holiday Monday which is extremely well timed. And I survived but am *feeling it* this morning. Maybe it really HAS been 20 years since uni?

Also, I like gigs where they play straight through an album. It’s the third time we’ve been to one of these – the first was Suede doing “Suede” in 2011 and the second was SFA doing “Radiator” and “Fuzzy Logic” back-to-back in 2016. I don’t think I reviewed either of them here…Suede must have been pre-blog and I was so deadly tired after SFA, having been to a team Christmas lunch that same day and a magic show the night before, that I probably fell asleep drafting it. But I like the concept  – you know roughly how long the gig is going to go on for, even if they usually add some extra songs at the end, and you know pretty much what you’re going to hear. Of course, it has to be the right album. Much as I love blur, I probably wouldn’t pay to hear them play through “13”. But any of the previous four albums? Yes!

I should probably get on to the gig itself. I might have gone overboard on the context there but yknow, gigs are a rare occurence for us nowadays. And you can tell because there were New Ways that baffled me a bit.

The first thing that had changed since we last went to a gig was that we didn’t get paper tickets or even pdfs….the tickets had to be shown from within the SeeTickets app. Luckily I realised that before the day itself otherwise that would have been a faff on the door. The second change was that the Kentish Town Forum – which was sponsored by HMV last time I went there – is now sponsored by O2. Which meant that Nathan, as an O2 customer, could download a “Priority” app and get free cloakroom access. Result!

The third thing was that – as soon as we walked in – we had a minute’s silence to remember the Queen. I think that might have been unique to last night but it was respectfully held and felt pretty surreal to see the whole arena descend into silence.

After that, we went to the bar and watched the support, The Gulps. I’m gonna admit that I may have pre-judged them as they looked like arrogant hipsters when I googled. The music was alright but I don’t think they will ever be my new favourite band. The lead singer had a bit of Mick Jagger complex, except at the end where he inexplicably changed into Johnny Rotten to croon “No future for you” as they walked off. I get that rock n roll has always been anti-monarchist but it felt a bit like it missed the mark with the crowd who had, after all, just stood quietly to honour the Queen. It was the first of two such “seize the moment” moments and neither quite hit home in the way that I think they were intended. I’m not hugely royalist but I suspect most of the crowd were feeling similarly to me – not overly bothered one way or the other and certainly not about to join in with the anti-monarchist statements from the stage. We were all a bit too middle-aged to stage a coup, quite frankly. And we just wanted to see Ash.

Lucky that they turned up not long after then! All four of them. Yes, four of them.  I had wondered whether Charlotte would be there but the sight of three mics gave me hope. The crowd definitely appreciated that – towards the end, Tim introduced the band and the cheer for Charlotte went on way longer than the cheer for anyone else. I’m not sure how the rest of the band felt about that but the “Free All Angels” songs definitely wouldn’t have sounded the same without her harmonies. I think I sing her part more than I sing Tim’s when I’m listening to that album….it just hits my ear more naturally. Not that she’s just a vocalist – in fact, I noticed how she moved away from the mic every time she stopped singing and only returned for the next chorus. It was almost like she was making the point that she was brought into the band primarily as a guitarist and vocals were just a bonus extra.

Those with a good knowledge of the album – or the ability to use Wikipedia – will have guessed already that they started with “Walking Barefoot”. On the album, this is a slightly slow burner as the drums don’t kick in until the “why don’t we just quit?” at the end of the first chorus. But people had started to bounce about at the start anyway  so hype levels only built once the whole band was at maximum noise levels.

The hype continued over the next two songs, which were the big singles of the album – “Shining Light” and “Burn Baby Burn”. I really liked what they did with the lighting so that “Shining Light” was played under a white beam but it turned to a fiery red-orange for “Burn Baby Burn”. Everyone went wild for both songs but it calmed a bit for “Kandy” (blue and pink lights). I think this was the song where Tim made a split second change between different guitars so that had his flying V for the solo. It was impressively quick. The lights changed to an appropriate cherry red for an appropriately riotous “Cherry Bomb” and we were almost halfway through the album without even feeling it.

Well my feet were feeling it but, as discussed, I am getting on a bit.

The second half of the album is a bit more blurred for me than the first. I couldn’t sing “Nicole” or “Shark” to you if you asked but I could sing along with every song they played. The album fluctuates between high-energy songs and slower ones like “There’s a Star”. I knew it finished with “World Domination” but it was barely 10pm by the time they got to that point so it seemed obvious that they would pull a few more hits out of the bag. But what would they be?

I was super pleased with the first couple. They introduced “A Life Less Ordinary” as the first song they ever recorded with Charlotte but it was almost the theme tune of mine and Nathan’s first date in October 1997. So that was a little bit special and it’s an absolutely belting tune too.  The next one was “Wild Surf”, which is possibly my favourite Ash song ever. It’s just got such a nice melody and sounds a bit Beach Boys-like. I’m not saying that just of the “surf” in the title but that helps too. After the gig, I remembered how much I also loved the B-side, “Stormy Waters”, and how I haven’t heard it for years. It’s worth a listen if you’re not familiar with it.

I might have got the order wrong here but I think it was “Goldfinger” next, which was one of only three pre-Charlotte songs they played. Then a couple from the Nu-Clear Sounds era – I think they were “Orpheus” and “Projects” – followed by “Clones” from “Meltdown”. Us middle-aged folk were getting a little tired by this point but luckily, Tim had the perfect thing to liven us up  – a screaming contest to “Numbskull”! Each member of the band had a chance to show off their screaming skills…from Charlotte’s banshee howl to the resonance of Rick. I did wonder why Tim had very deliberately taken his earpiece out mid-song but that explains it. After that, it was just a boisterous rattle through “Kung Fu” – with Mark joining us in the audience – before the band left the stage or, in Mark’s case, left the moshpit.

Of course, we knew they were coming back cause the lights weren’t on and besides, they hadn’t played “Girl from Mars” yet. They hadn’t played the puking song yet  – and I had speculated to Nathan that they might – but Tim referenced it during the set, which was a nice touch.

What we weren’t expecting was a special guest. When they came back, they welcomed Steve Ludwin onto the stage, who had written the “Shining Light” b-side “Warmer than Fire”. For a crowd who were expecting the big hits to finish the night off with, this was a slight change of pace and there was a bemused feeling hanging in the air. Still, the man who apparently injects snake venom as healthcare put on an energetic show, lending his grungey vocals to a song which normally sounds quite sweet and straightforward. For me, his vocal didn’t quite blend with the tunefulness of Charlotte’s but it certainly made things interesting. He finished with a similar flourish to the guy from the Gulps – singing the verse from “The Queen is Dead” about Charles dressing in his mother’s bridal veil. Morrissey has been a bit problematic of late, so isn’t quite the darling of a North London middle-aged indie crowd that he would have been 20 years ago. And again, mocking the royal family on the eve of the Queen’s funeral didn’t quite land with the audience as he’d perhaps hoped it would.

But then Ash played “Girl from Mars” and everything was all alright again. I wondered what else they’d pull out for the final song – would it be “Oh Yeah”? “Jesus Says”? “Angel Interceptor”? Tim explained that their sound tech had had a “cool idea” and that the last song would be….”Burn Baby Burn” again. I wasn’t totally sure why it was a cool idea but Nathan explained to me that it’s the song that Ash usually finish their sets with so it did kinda make sense. I’ve seen Ash as many times as Nathan has so I really ought to have known that but it just didn’t click.

After the reprise, they gathered together to bow and left the stage to a storm of applause. Us old people dragged our aching limbs through the lovely Art Deco foyer and out into the night, which was  – like us – far from young.

We wanted to get some food afterwards and there was a bit of a queue at the kebab shop so we wandered a bit further down Kentish Town Road in search of other options. As we passed the tube, there was a queue to get in so we thought we had plenty of time to go get a McDonalds and then catch the tube. We probably should have checked what time the last train went as, once we returned with food, there was a sign that the last southbound train had gone already. The station guy told us we actually had two minutes, so we ran down the escalator and managed to jump on just in time. So, make a note of that all of you – Kentish Town McDonalds opens late but the last tube goes at 23:30. Still, we got food, we got the train and Nathan even bumped into a 2000AD friend while we were doing it so it all worked out well.

And there we end…it’s been a mammoth post so apologies to those of you who have trawled through in search of three elusive words. So I’ll end with them again just in case you missed them in the haze:

Charlotte was there.

Thank you Ash for an awesome gig….see you again for the 30th anniversary!

 

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Escape Rooms, Art Shops and the Elizabeth Line – 10/09/22

Yesterday was Nathan’s birthday so we decided to go for one of those Nice Family Days Out you hear so much about. Nathan was clearly in a celebratory mood, as his neck-to-ankle black suggests. It might be that he was dressing out of respect for the Queen, which would explain wearing all black apart from a pair of corgi socks. Or maybe he’d just had his birthday orchestrated by that Summer character.

Anyway, we were off to an escape room in Aldgate. It seemed like an ideal family bonding experience and the room we chose was for 10+, with medium difficulty. Of course, even medium difficulty would prove difficult without coffee so we stopped at Costa next to Aldgate East on the way. We also passed this very cheerful piano in Devonshire Square:

Bolstered on caffeine and sugar, we were in peak mental condition to firstly find the AIM escape room and then escape from it. I feel like the area around Leman Street has been a bit more developed than it was when I used to walk past there but if you spot these horses, you’re pretty much there.

I won’t be sharing any spoilers but we did the Spy Heroes adventure and…..we failed. Sorry folks, we faffed around too much and accidentally destroyed the world. Mea culpa. The medium difficulty is pretty tricky for two kids and two middle-aged brainfogged people but the Gamesmaster was on the other end of a walkie-talkie and he helped us as much as he could. It helps to keep an open mind about what you think certain household appliances *might* look like. It was fun although stressful at times and requiring skills I’m not great at, like reflexes and visual reasoning. Previous experience in intel will not help but experience in AV and computer gaming definitely will. We were near the end when we ran out of time so we didn’t do badly but neither did we ace it.

Nor did I ace the next stage of the day, which was getting from Aldgate to High Street Kensington. Now I’ve been beating myself up quite a bit about this because my reputation as a tube-maestro is in serious peril. But the Circle Line is confusing now it’s no longer even pretending to be a circle and Aldgate tube is confusing. I’ve just found this blog post, which agrees on how confusing it is, and illuminates why and where I went wrong.

When we went into the station, the sign to the left said “High Street Kensington” on it so naturally, we went that way. But when we got to the platform, which was shared by Circle Line and Met Line, there were only Met Line trains departing and the wait for those was either 1 minute or 15 minutes. So we jumped on the one that was waiting and I rapidly calculated what to do next. Nathan suggested that we go in the opposite direction around the Circle but I swear the sign for that direction did not list High Street Ken. And thanks to a picture on the aforementioned blog post, I’ve managed to discern that there is nothing listed past Gloucester Road….just an ambiguous arrow:

Copyright 150greatthingsabouttheunderground.wordpress.com

Bless you, Ian Jones!

Anyway, we probably should have taken our chances on the ambiguous arrow because even Gloucester Road is a heck of a lot closer to High St Ken than anywhere on the Met Line is. But my brain was very tired after cracking all those spy puzzles so we ended up sitting on the Met Line for a while, jumping off at Kings Cross so that we would have “options”, waiting 5 minutes for very crowded Hammersmith & City Line train and then changing again at Edgware Road to finally pick up the Circle Line.

But we got there. And our reward was a Five Guys burger:

The reason we’d come to Kensington was to meet our friend Chusty – she of the pink hair on the left. She was coming from South West London so it seemed somewhat of a mind point. Plus, she wanted to go to Cass Arts which was exciting for all the artists of the family.

As Eva excitedly told Bunny today, there were pencils of EVERY COLOUR there. She restrained herself to buying just two in the end – a gold one and a violet one – but she also found a hairband craft kit in the kids’ section downstairs.

There was also a massive drawing table downstairs, which kept them all occupied for a bit. We were lucky to emerge with only Eva’s things and a sketchbook for Roo – I’m sure they could have happily bought most of the shop.

After that, we went to sit on a bench in Holland Park, which is literally next door to the shop. We didn’t feel like walking far, so set up camp just next to the main path and let the kids run off and find stuff to do. Holland Park is amusingly quirky but we have explored it before and we had lots of catching up to do with Chusty. Plus, we were in prime position for drive-by dog pettings as there was a constant canine parade. We disappointed a labrador who was sniffing around for food and complimented a spaniel on the ball she’d brought over to show us. So many good boys and girls!

When we went to leave, creatures of another kind were gathering. I blame Hitchcock but flocks of birds creep me out slightly. What are they planning? And do they mean us harm?

By this time, it was 5PM and Nathan had to be getting home for his birthday curry. We said goodbye to Chusty and headed back north on the Circle Line to Paddington. It may not seem the most logical direction for us to be going but we had an opportunity to finally try out the Elizabeth Line and it seemed like an appropriate week to do that.

It did not disappoint! From the vertigo-inducing escalators to the Art Deco-style lighting, it was magnificient:

Surprisingly Eva, who largely dislikes the tube, was the most excited about all this. I think it’s just the novelty of it:

But once aboard she waxed lyrical about the purple seats and the movable armrests and all manner of excitement. She’s not wrong.

It’s very swift to get from Paddington to Liverpool Street – around 12 minutes I reckon. But I would say that there’s a fair trek through Liverpool Street once you get there. I think it was around 8 minutes from Elizabeth Line to London Overground Platform 6, which doesn’t sound long but can easily result in a missed train if you miscalculate. At this point I could mutter something about Leon at Liverpool Street for a few days ago but I’m trying to move on from that.

It is lovely though and we were all wowed by the lift which goes up alongside the escalator. That’s futuristicky right there.

And like every tube line, the walls were adorned with portraits of the line’s namesake. I most admit I found these disconcerting when I first saw them on Friday night, especially as one kept glitching, but you kinda get used to them.

So happy birthday Nathan, hello to the Elizabeth Line and farewell to Her Majesty. Big week!

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Roald Dahl Museum – 27/08/22

The Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden is somewhere I’ve been meaning to visit for ages but I’ve just never really had a reason to be in that part of the world. Well, the Hollies lived around there once but that was before any of us had kids so I’m not sure that’s helpful. It did meant that the A41 looked vaguely familiar from all those bygone-age parties though.

Anyway, today I found an excuse. My brother and his family have moved to the south-ish and wanted to meet up somewhere midway between us and them. And it turns out that Great Missenden was almost exactly halfway. Score! Mission to Missenden was Go.

We weren’t sure where to park for the museum itself, so chose the first car park we came to, which was just on our left as we turned off the main road. We could use the RingGo app to park and it cost a very reasonable £2.75 for 4 hours. It was also right next to a playground, which I figured might come in useful later.

We met the fam just outside the museum, bought our tickets and went straight to the Lower Babbling Room for storytelling. Tickets are £7.95 per person for over 5s but are valid for a whole year so worth a revisit. Also, make sure you Gift Aid if you can.

The Lower Babbling Room was decorated with a woodland theme and references to lots of Roald Dahl stories around the walls. I forget how many of them feature a wood at some point or another but the story that day was from the one of most woodlandly Dahl tales – “Danny, the Champion of the World”. The storyteller told us a bit of context around the book and how we could go and see the petrol pumps that inspired the filing station as they were just up the road. And, of course, it was the woods all around Great Missenden that Dahl based the woodland setting on. Then she coached us in all the sound effects we needed to know for the story before reading the chapter where the pheasants escape. Spoiler: lots of cuddly “pheasants” get thrown around the room. It was pretty riotous, but in a good way.

After the storytelling, we started on the museum proper. The first room was, appropriately enough, themed around “Boy”:

Although it also had two giant chocolate bars at the entrance and smelt of chocolate too. I’m guessing this was a nod not only to Dahl’s most famous book but also the inspiration behind it – his childhood experiences of chocolate tasting for the Cadbury factory. There was a dressing up box in this room, so you could see how you’d look as a 1920s school child:

I think it kinda suits him. Obviously, Eva needed to get in on the act too:

She appears to have three legs in this one. I told her not to try the experimental candy from Wonka’s Inventing Room but did she listen? Did she Beauregarde.

I must admit, I find parts of “Boy” quite disturbing – the primitive surgery, the liquorice, the mouse in the sweetie jar – but this room didn’t delve too deeply into the book’s darker moments. Rather, there were photographs of Dahl’s life and family including some adorable dogs.

We later found out that one of the dogs was called Eva. You can guess who was pleased about that:

The next room was  – you guessed it -“Going Solo”. And beware, there is a picture of a very large spider in between the two rooms. Not quite as adorable as the puppies.

Again, I think my kid kinda suits the retro look:

And his worryingly rapid growth spurt meant that he and I were both a “Miss Honey” on the Roald Dahl height-o-meter:

Eva was still a reassuringly small “Grand High Witch”. And oh yes, that’s a book that freaked me out even more than “Boy” did.

In the middle of this room was a recreation of Roald Dahl’s writing hut, which used to stand in the garden of Gipsy House before the contents of it were painstakingly transferred to the museum. It’s interesting to see that Dahl was a bit chaotic in his own personal space – squishing kitkat wrappers into a silver foil ball over the course of decades and rigging up a dangerously precarious heater by attaching to the ceiling with string. It gives hope to all us chaotic people out there.

Onto the third room and this was possibly the most interactive yet. Eva and CousinZ spent ages making a stop motion film involving toy dinosaurs:

And Reuben spent almost as long writing a story that is then projected onto the floor:

There was a BFG dream-recorder, a couple of fridges’ worth of fridge poetry and yet more dressing up:

There was also a version of the writing chair from the writing hut that the kids could try for themselves:

Wes Anderson fans will note that this carpet was faithfully recreated in “Fantastic Mr Fox”:

Although this behind-the-scenes shot made it look like Bill Murray voiced the badger by just following the model around very closely:

By this point, we’d been at the museum for around an hour and a half and it was pretty much lunchtime. We could have spent longer there but we were all pretty hungry and I had somewhere on theme in mind. On the way up the high street, we passed the petrol pumps we’d been told to look out for:

And just opposite the road we’d come in on was our lunch destination – the aptly-named Matilda’s. I’m still not 100% sure on whether the name was a coincidence or a deliberate Dahl reference but Eva certainly liked the idea of eating somewhere on-theme. And Reuben liked the fact that they did all-day breakfasts. It’s a smallish cafe but they managed to fit seven of us in, including wheelchair, so that was good. I didn’t see any loos inside but Roo and I walked to the public loos in the car park, which were only two minutes away. There was a bit of confusion around CousinZ’s order but eventually everyone got what they needed and very tasty it was too. The portions were a good size and the kids particularly liked the milkshakes.

After lunch we only had an hour or so left on our parking time so we went to the playground just by the car park, where the kids ran off all that sugar. It’s for kids 14 and under so there are some decently tween things to do, like a zipwire and an assault course. I think I saw a smaller toddler playground at the other end of the car park too.

So overall, a lovely day out in a very pretty village. Considering it’s only an hour’s drive from North-East London, it does feel like a complete change of scene. Driving through Chesham it blew my mind that you could hop onto the Metropolitan line from here – it really does seem like you’re in the Countryside Proper. Even more rural than Highams Park.  We’ll have to get back there again in the next 12 months to make the best use of the museum tickets but I think there’s more to explore in the village as well – a walled garden and another park with a paddling river. All very idyllic and you can see why such a great writer found his inspiration here.

Doesn’t mean I’m over my countryside phobia though. It’s just nice to visit for a day.

For more information and tickets to the museum click here.

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Mallorca ’22

 

We’ve just come back from five nights in Mallorca. Well, five and a half nights but we’ll get to that. I know you’re expecting unbearable smugness but don’t worry. It still had a LWAT-chaosy edge to it all so I’m gonna tell you the good and the bad. Don’t get me wrong – I’m hugely grateful to be able to leave the country after nearly three years of confinement and I’m very aware that being able to afford a foreign holiday is a massive privilege during a cost of living crisis. I was just as grateful to go to Wales last year and see my sister and her family after a year and a half. I was also super grateful to go to Harwich in 2020 after six months of not leaving London. So I am totally grateful for a few days in Mallorca. But it was far from perfect. Buckle in…or should I say “seatbelts on”?

The Good:

Alcúdia Beach:

Absolutely lovely warm water and soft sand. Shallow enough for a non-swimmer to confidently scamper about and deep enough for a swimmer to have a decent splash. All the sun loungers and shades were taken, which was a challenge in the direct sun but some a sweet German lad gifted us a parasol which would have been very helpful on our return trip. Pity our return trip was in the rain…

All the swimming pools:

I love to swim and the resort we were staying in had eight of them. Well, only seven were open but it kept the kids occupied trying to track them all down. We spent most of the day in them when we weren’t walking to the beach or eating. They weren’t perfect and I found a lot of discarded plastic cups in them but they were clean enough. The big water slides were closed but Reuben enjoyed the ones that were open.

All the eating:

We decided to go for all-inclusive because it’s not a proper holiday if you have to do the washing up. The food wasn’t fancy but we’re not fancy folk, so that’s fine. And Eva agreed to eat something at every meal, which was quite the bonus. Free, self-service soft drinks and slushies were definite pros for the kids

The mountain views:

I do love being surrounded by mountains even if I defied the Reverend Mother and didn’t attempt to climb even one mountain, let alone every mountain. Sorry Reverend Mother.

 

The Bad:

Wizz Air check in:

I don’t know whether it’s Brexit or Covid or just choosing a bargain-basement airline but it’s a bit unbearable to queue for an hour just to check in our hold luggage (which obviously we paid a fortune to take with us). There was no information at all on flight times at check in at Gatwick and the information at Palma was inaccurate. Both queues were chaotic – Palma slightly better than Gatwick – and you definitely need to factor that time in when flying, as well as the usual two hours before departure and time for car parking etc.

The four-hour delay on the way home:

That evening flight which got us in at midnight? Forget that. We spent seven hours at Palma with very little information and a paltry 4 euros each in compensation. I can’t relive it too much but it meant we needed to book a hotel in Crawley so that Nathan wasn’t driving 40 miles at 5am with no sleep. I’m not best pleased with Wizz Air right now, in case you can’t tell.

The coach transfer:

Two hour flight. Two hours on a coach visiting some very random parts of the island. Bed at 1am. Remind me to book a taxi next time.

The mosquitoes:

I think I counted 100 bites and that was after dousing myself in citronella. If you’re planning a visit, pack the industrial stuff (and not in your hand luggage). I don’t have any photos to illustrate this point, but you should probably be glad about that.

The power cut:

Six hours without running water or power put something of a crimp on our second night, after spending most of the first night on a coach. It might sound moany, but power is kinda vital when you’re on the fifth floor and neither the lifts nor the aircon are working… I don’t have any photos for this one either cause it was…well…dark.

Anyway, I asked the kids and they said they had a lovely time. And we did too, really. I realise I sound moany but I got to swim in a warm sea and many, many pools and eat cake at every meal so it’s all good. There was just quite a lot of complications to deal with in a short space of time. I think we might not leave London for the next few days….

 

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“Cinderella in Boots” at Chickenshed – 06/08/22

 

A panto in summer? Oh no they didn’t! Oh yes they did. Who said that panto is just for Christmas? And since when have Chickenshed played by anyone else’s rules anyway? The summer panto is a fun show for all ages and just loves to subvert your expectations. But we’ll get onto that in a bit because we had to get there first. And TfL were also subverting our expectations.

We had a whole complicated plan around the show as we had a long-lost relative visiting from Australia. The plan was to meet at Cockfosters station and go for breakfast before splitting into two groups – girls to the theatre, boys to the comic shop. All this seemed doable and, as we got on the Piccadilly Line at Finsbury Park, we were well on course to reach Cockfosters by 9. It seemed implausible, given how early we’d had to leave the house, but we were doing well.

Until Oakwood. Hands up if anyone can tell me where the Piccadilly Line terminates. Is it Oakwood? No! It’s the next stop. And if it was Oakwood, wouldn’t you expect some kind of announcement telling you to “all change please”?

Apparently that is not how the Piccadilly Line rolls. After a long time sitting in the station, we leaned out to see that the first train on the display was to Northfields in 14 minutes. Neither of those things sounded promising for people who were hoping to head northbound in the next minutes. We got off the train and then the doors started to beep, so we jumped back on, thinking it had all been a blip and it was carrying on its journey for one more stop.

Anyway, as we pulled into Southgate station for the second time morning, we decided to give up on this plan. We’d get off the Piccadilly Line and go and find a bus that would take us to Cockfosters to find the Aussie. That would be straightforward enough, right? Eva and I had caught the 298 and the 299 from this bus stop hundreds of times on our way to Chickenshed.

At first, it was promising. The 299 was due in 10 minutes, which jumped down to 6 minutes and then 4 and then it was due. But didn’t show up. Instead, a 298 showed up which *surely* would be the uncomplicated way to finally reach Cockfosters. It’s basically one straight road between them, right? The cursed Oakwood station is randomly off to the East on a kind of weird spur but Southgate>>Cockfosters is a straight line. All we needed to do was to get off at the correct stop.

Which is obviously easier when the bus you’re on doesn’t panic and try to say all the stops at every stop. So for the first stop after Southgate, the bus tried to tell us we were at “SouthgatePoliceStationSouthgateAsdaAvenueRoad” By the time we were passing Chickenshed, it was saying “BramleyRoadFrestonGardensCockfostersStation” which made my entire family try to get off the bus right there and then. Luckily, I kept my cool and wouldn’t let them get off until we were at “CockfostersStationTrentCountryParkCoombehurstClose”. Or in other words, our destination:

Turns out that the family were running late so we now had 15 minutes to kill. Lucky we’d used up all that time going backwards on the Piccadilly Line. The “Trent Country Park” part of the bus stop name had reminded me that there might be a nice place for a runaround nearby. It wasn’t as close as I thought it might be and getting there involved crossing a very busy road, almost walking into a cemetry and trying to work out where to walk on this segregated but unmarked piece of pavement:

But it was worth it for the full five minutes we spent in the park. We saw some ducks. Eva compared it – favourably I think – to the five minutes we’d spent at the Tate Modern last week.

As we walked back to the station after our five minutes in the countryside, we saw a familiar car beeping and overtaking us. Family were in the hood and the part of the plan where they left the car at Cockfosters station – £6 for the day, plenty of spaces – worked very well indeed.

The way the morning had gone so far, I was barely even surprised when my first choice of breakfast place was closed for a refit. It was pizza in Finsbury Park all over again. But we’d passed a place called Miracles on the way down the road, so we doubled back and ordered fast. We were running out of time before the show now so would they be able to cook and serve us a breakfast with enough time? And would Eva be swift enough to stick to the schedule?

Miracles do happen!

Eva didn’t quite get through all her chips, mainly because the portion was the size of her head, but she ate her hash browns, halloumi and artisan bread remarkably efficiently. She also made a good dent on her Oreo milkshake before we left it for Nathan to finish. The rest of us had tasty set breakfasts and coffee (except for Roo) and by 10:40 us girls were back out on the road and ready for a panto.

The show was in the Studio Theatre, which is a smaller and more intimate space than the main auditorium. It meant that the smaller kids could sit on mats in the front and join in with the songs and dances. Eva chose to dance from her seat. There was a routine for everyone to learn before the show even started but I was definitely too full of bacon to stand up and do it properly. Like Eva, I stayed in my seat and just did the arm actions. There was no pressure to get on your feet but the little kids who did were absolutely loving it.

Then the cast explained the premise of the show – they were a band of travelling actors and they were looking to put on a play that was a twist on one of the classic fairy tales. After some interesting suggestions from the audience, they unveiled their title – “Cinderella in Boots”.

Copyright Chickenshed

The plot picks up at the end of the original tale. Cinders is trying on the shoe, it fits, there’s a wedding photo complete with sulking sisters and then happily ever after…..right?

No, of course not! What kind of plot would that be? Of course their happiness is derailed by an evil baron who declares himself King, inflicts a cruel and unusual punishment on the Prince and puts his plans for world domination into motion. Much more fun. Cinders is forced to work in a shoe shop, which obviously resonated with me from the Clarks’ days though I don’t remember my boss being a neon-pink Scottish yeti. Might have been more fun if they were.

So there’s a heroine, a villain, a slightly arbitrary hero who gets created by the Fairy Godmother near the end..everything a panto needs. Plus lots of shoe puns (when the villain appeared, the whole audience booed “Shooooooe”) and a lot of fourth wall breaking. But there are some twists….the Fairy Godmother is a bit ineffectual, the sisters are revolting social media junkies and the Prince is out of the equation for most of the story. Cinderella is the only character who consistently makes good decisions so it’s easy to know who to boot for. Sorry, root for. This shoe pun thing is infectious.

Being as rubbish at research as I am at catching the Piccadilly Line, I don’t have a cast list to hand. I was pretty sure we saw Lucy-Mae Beacock as Cinderella as I’ve seen her in Mr Stink a couple of times. She certainly sings like Lucy-Mae, which was shown off to great effect in a gorgeous number called “Princes and Pineapples” where the lights were dimmed and the cast used glow-in-the-dark hula hoops to create a magical effect.

The rest of the ensemble looked familiar too and certainly had the trademark Chickenshed energy and inclusivity. They weren’t at all phased when the toddlers invaded the stage and wanted to join in with the action…although the villain did have to break character briefly to ask them to stop throwing shoes at him. Well, if you tell an audience of kids that you wanna steal their shoes, what do you expect?

As you can tell, it got rowdy at times. Eva enjoyed the heckling and when asked to choose between Options A, B and C shouted out “Option H!”. Of course, she had no idea what Option H was but that was her preference. It was a joyous and freewheeling experience, with kids encouraged to participate as they felt comfortable and not just sit quietly and watch. There was an opportunity to have photos with the cast at the end as well, though Eva wanted to and then changed her mind. As ever with Chickenshed, it was a welcoming spaces for all types of kid – the ones who do want to sit quietly, the ones who want to dance and the ones who want to sit but heckle. All this audience participation never quite derailed the plot and there was an ending that was as happy as you’d expect from a panto. Don’t dig too deep into the logic of it all but just accept that everything seems to have worked out OK. And no shoes were harmed in the making of this show.

Also, I forgot to mention earlier how fancy the toilets at Miracles were. But they really were:

“Cinderella in Boots” runs until 13th August. For tickets and more info, click here.

Disclaimer: I received free tickets in exchange for a review. All opinions remain honest and my own.

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“Midsummer Mechanicals” at the Globe Theatre – 31/07/22

As soon as I heard about the premise of this play, I was intrigued. I’ve doubtless mentioned it on the blog before but I played the part of a mechanical in MSND when I was Reuben’s age (which yes, is terrifying now that I think about it). Here’s the only proof I have that this did, in fact, happen (with live dog no less):

So a play exploring what the mechanicals did next sounded like exactly my kind of thing. Would the writers be able to recreate the riotous rehearsals for Pyramus and Thisbe with all the accompanying Freudian slips? Yes, as it turns out they pretty much did. But let’s now jump the gun. This is an LWAT review and so a bit of rambling preamble is mandatory.

We were at church this morning, obviously. We have been at church pretty much constantly this week. But today was a Sunday so I guess we were meant to be there today. Eva and I had lunch at My Favourite Cafe in Essex Road  – Set1 for me, halloumi, toast and chips for her – and jumped on the 56 all the way to St Paul’s. Eva chose bus over the speedier tube option but was complaining even before we got to Angel about how long it was taking. So I let her play games on my phone while I looked out of the window and wondered why I still had a massive blank spot when it came to Farringdon being just down the road from the Barbican. I also smiled wryly as we passed Little Britain, which I’d last visited on 12th December 2019.  A very Little Britain kind of day.

When we rounded St Paul’s, I remembered that Eva now had a phobia of bridges. I can never keep up with what she’s scared of when but apparently it started when I made her cross Westminster Bridge in a thunderstorm. The Millennium Bridge can be challenging for people who don’t have a bridge-phobia and it was windy today…so you can imagine how that went. The scene in Half-Blood Prince where the Death Eaters blow the bridge up didn’t help but, somehow, we made it across in just over five minutes and entirely un-blown-up by Death Eaters. Phew! Next, we nipped into the Tate Modern to use the loos – although I’d like to come back for  the Uniqlo installation – and then found our way to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the back of the Globe.

Eva’s been to the Globe before – for Macbeth with Bunny – but I haven’t. Both theatres have the same main entrance, with the main Globe to the right and the Playhouse to the left.  It’s the indoor theatre and is mainly seated but with some standing rows at the back. It’s built in the Elizabethan style and we were in the Upper Gallery – “a perfect view of the whole stage”, according to Eva.

As we took our seats, the actors were already on the stage setting things up and chatting to the audience. The best seats for the bantz were probably in the pit, although they waved and talked to all the different levels of the theatre. The official start of the show came with the announcement that the Duke and Duchess were on their way and the mechanicals only had 45 minutes to get their play ready. And chaos ensued.

I won’t spoiler too much of the plot but the basis is that Theseus and Hippolyta enjoyed Pyramus and Thisbe so much that they’ve invited the mechanicals back to perform again for their first wedding anniversary. It’s good to know that the pair of them made it to that milestone as it was a bit of a rocky start, what with the whole “doing thee injuries” courtship. And it nicely ties together the three different groups of MSND as the new play the mechanicals have chosen to put on is a version of what happened with Bottom and Titania in the woods. So although the mechanicals are the main parts in this production, the fairies and the court are woven in too.

It’s a show that seems to be aimed at theatre kids and Shakespeare geeks. Eva is rapidly becoming both, so that’s good. Not to say that other kids won’t enjoy it but when they asked if anyone in the audience liked acting and a number of hands shot up….well, that was my clue as to the key demographic here. There were several opportunities for audience members to participate, such as providing the sound effects for the play-within-a-play and, for three lucky people, performing a “fairy dance” in the roles of Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed. Heckling was, I feel, encouraged and there was even a space for punters to offer their most vicious insults for Bottom and Oberon to throw at each other. Come prepared!

Rehearsal photo, credit Manuel Harlan

I mentioned earlier that the show managed to capture some of the riotous energy of the original and I stand by that. The writers – Ben Hales and Kerry Frampton – clearly know their source material well and cleverly weave quotes into songs and dialogue. Some of these quotes are paraphrased and some virtually intact but they never jar with the new material. Kerry Frampton also plays Bottom and really captures the preening, self-involved buffoonery needed for the role. I feel extremely stupid that I didn’t realise Bottom was played by a woman until I saw her in the foyer afterwards. It plays into one of the major plot points about women on the Elizabethan stage so I really should have clocked that but it just shows how convincing she was as a man. Eva still won’t believe me on this point though.

Rehearsal photo, credit Manuel Harlan

One of my favourite nods to the original was all the wordplay where Quince and Bottom kept saying almost the right words in just the manner that Quince does in the prologue. This new play had two prologues, one very much in the same style and the other lifted from a different Shakespeare play. Again, no spoilers here as to which play that was but you might be able to guess. Some of the wordplay verged on adult content – you don’t often hear the word “impotent” in a show aimed at primary school kids – but none of the kids in the audience noticed. They did all notice the wordplay around the donkey’s head and absolutely howled with laughter. Eva was laughing so loud that other people were turning round in surprise and I had to shush her a few times. But it was very, very funny.

Rehearsal photo, credit Manuel Harlan

I mentioned the songs briefly and there were a highlight too  – the four actors played a variety of instruments between them (from memory; double bass, accordion, xylophone, guitar and ukulele) and again, there was an opportunity to join in with one of the recurring tunes. Lovely harmonies, even with Flute’s voice not as ladylike as it once was, and very well executed, often for comedy effect. It’s probably harder to sing deliberately out of time with someone else than it is to sing in time, right?

Overall, a great laugh and a deserving successor to the original. And you know that I don’t say that lightly. It gives the air of perfectly-planned chaos and although the runtime is longish for the audience age (2 hours including interval), it flew by. I think all kids will enjoy it because there’s plenty of slapstick and silly jokes in there. I mean, there’s a literal banana skin at one point. But if you have one of those kids who’s particularly into Shakespeare they might get a bit more from it. They will quite possibly think it’s as “A-MAZING!” as Eva did.

Heading home, we chose to go over Southwark Bridge as it seemed a bit more solid than the Millennium Bridge. And it had some lovely views too:

What it doesn’t currently have is any bus stops because the road itself is being dug up. I’d planned to catch the 344 back to Liverpool Street as my feet were knackered after a heavy week’s activity. But we ended up walking past Cannon Street and catching the 11 just on the other side of Bank junction. Which then took an unexpectedly southerly turn towards Monument before grudgingly allowing us to get off at Liverpool Street. It definitely would have been quicker to walk from Bank but I’d told Eva we would get the bus and occasionally I like to deliver on my promises. Some people reading this might now be smiling at the combination of “Promise” and “Bus stop” but that’s so niche I’m not even going to unpack it for you here. Soz!

Let me just say this though – some promises are not worth keeping when they involve an overheated bus taking you three sides of a square. The promise to take Eva to shows she loves every weekend though….that promise is going well so far.

“Midsummer Mechanicals” is on until 21st August – for more tickets and info, click here.

Disclaimer: I received free tickets in exchange for a review. All opinions remain honest and my own. 

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“Twelfth Night” by East London Shakespeare Festival- 23/07/22

Now, I mentioned in my last post that we were off to a second theatrical production, almost straight from “Room on the Broom”. If this sounds like madness, let me assure you that it was. This second show wasn’t one I was reviewing so just attending as a normal, paying punter. Which means that this won’t be a proper review as I was part-relaxing and part-child-wrangling. But it’s rare that anything like this comes to Highams Park so I couldn’t let it pass without a mention.

The production was staged by East London Shakespeare Festival, whose mission is to “merge the contemporary culture of East London with the inspirational storytelling of Shakespeare’s plays in outdoor parks and community spaces across East London.” They take Shakespeare out into the community, in the hope of reaching those who wouldn’t naturally access the plays. Of course, this isn’t super-applicable to this one, who insisted on wearing her “Taming of the Shrew” outfit to the performance:

She’s already read Twelfth Night as well and claims it’s her “favourite Shakespeare comedy”, so had some idea what was going on – more so that Reuben, who asked me quite a fundamental question about the plot (“are they the same person?”) surprisingly close to the end . Still, I think he enjoyed the slapstick and banter between Toby Belch and Sir Andrew. There was a lot to enjoy about this production – from the 80s music to the audience participation – so didn’t matter too much if the younger audience members weren’t 100% following the plot.

And let’s face it, Twelfth Night does ask you to partake in a pretttty big suspension of disbelief, doesn’t it? If I grew a beard, I don’t think I could convince my sister in law that I was in fact my brother. Might be worth a try sometime though.

A few practical things first  – the production was in a fenced off area in the Highams Park next to Humphreys. I’ve maypoled danced there most weekends over Spring and sang there last week so I, of all people, should know that there is no shade in that bit of the park. Eva had brought her umbrella with her but got tired of holding it up so eventually went to sit basically in the blackberry bushes at the side. You can guess how those Tudor sleeves fared among brambles. Roo kinda ducked behind our camping chairs for shade but I think we were all relieved when it clouded over halfway through. So if you’re going to an outdoor production, probably best to get there early to get a good shady spot. There was an aisle to our left that the actors were using to get to the stage so no one could sit in that bit, which was a shame as it was one of the shadiest parts. The camping chairs were also a good move, even if we had to stop at Tesco on the way to buy them. I do own some, but they’ve been off on vacay with a choir member since Christmas so it seemed worth £15 to buy a couple more. We also stocked up on drinks and fruit to keep hydrated while we sat in the sun and some sweets to try and keep the kids happy.

Onto the play itself. You might have guessed by the reference to 80s music that this was not the most traditional Shakespeare ever. I’m normally a bit of a purist when it comes to these things but, as I say, I was just there to relax and a frothy, fun version is sometimes what you need. Malvolio’s yellow stockings – neon fishnets – were certainly striking and the use of “Don’t You Want Me” just before the interval fitted surprisingly well into the characters’ emotional states at the time. There were still the more traditional Twelfth Night songs (“With hey, ho, the wind and the rain”) but this version definitely took a “more is more” approach when it came to music. After all, if music be the food of love…play on!

The ensemble worked well together and there was some great physical comedy, especially in the scene with the plants. Malvolio, played by Philip Honeywell, was fittingly unlikeable and I really liked Ursula Early’s interpretation of Olivia as clingy and desperate for love. Olivia is often a bit of a bland character but she was infused here with a kind of nervous energy that made her much more interesting. I believe it was Arysha Kelly’s professional debut as Viola/Cesario and, if so, she did a magnificent job holding the whole twisty plot together. As well as acting, the cast sang, played guitars and even did some vogueing. What a multi-talented lot.

I missed a large chunk of the second half because Eva had wandered off in search of a drink and found a puppy. But we were back in time for the ending where, in classic Shakespearean fashion, everything worked out just fine. Even if the Duke was struggling to tell which twin was which.

If you’re looking for a laidback, family-friendly version of Shakespeare this summer, this is just right. There are still a few dates left –

27-29 July at Clissold Park, N16

05-07 Aug at Springfield Park, E5

For tickets and more info, click here.

No disclaimer needed as I actually paid for this one. All opinions do remain honest and my own though. 

 

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“Room on the Broom” at Lyric Theatre – 23/07/22

credit Mark Senior

If you’re not familiar with Julia Donaldson’s “Room on the Broom”, let me give you the gist. It’s a story about a witch on a journey who picks up a random cast of characters along the way…a bit like a road movie or “Wizard of Oz”. She’s one of the good witches, though. Eva was fully committing to a theme, so in 25c dressed head-to-ankle in black and glitter for that witchy look:

We were heading for the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. Not to be confused with the Lyric Hammersmith. I did get slightly confused trying to find the right exit at Piccadilly Circus because there were signs for Shaftesbury Avenue pointing in both directions. Also because it’s circular and I’m easily confused. We did get to revisit this tribute to Frank Pick tho:

Lyric is a few minutes away from the station. The signs outside are for the Bob Marley musical but it’s where “Room on the Broom” is on too as the two shows are sharing the space.

As I say, I’m easily confused but the gaggle of parents and toddlers outside persuaded me that we were in the right place. And it’s all set up for little ones – there’s a designated storage area as you go in for folded buggies and a pile of booster seats in the theatre itself.

Eva was mainly absorbed with looking at the “very fancy” decor and specifically the giant chandelier:

But soon enough, the light were dimmed and the show started. As you might guess, the plot is expanded out a bit from the source material to fill the 60-minute runtime. It starts with a group of campers who spot something suspiciously broom-like streaking across the sky. I really like how the actors in this scene had little hints to the parts they would play in the main story. One of the men had a Welsh-flag hat with a prominent red dragon. And Jessica Manu wore a grey hat with a pink bobble, which matched the pink flower that would later appear on her witch’s hat. Also, next time I go camping I want a sleeping bag suit.

credit Mark Senior

The set was simple  – probably because of the timeshare with Bob Marley – but effective, with broomsticks woven into the background. The actors were high-energy and always seemed to be in motion, especially once the puppet characters were introduced. The more characters that appeared, the more complex the logistical challenges must have been but they were passed seamlessly from actor to the other with only one noticeable glitch, which was more amusing than offputting (a good ad lib from Jake Waring made this possibly my favourite part of the whole show)

Apart from that, the show flowed perfectly. I enjoyed the dynamics between witch and cat particularly as they verged from affection to annoyance and back again, usually with a peace offering of a jelly baby. As I mentioned earlier, the plot was hugely fleshed out from the original book and all the characters given a bit of depth and motivation. The dog, who I seem to remember is only described as “keen” in the book, gets a whole song about wanting to howl at the moon, on the moon. Similarly, the bird (originally only “green”) has a song about being left behind during a migration….and an accent that seemed straight out of EastEnders. There isn’t a lot of closure around whether the bird ever made it to the French Riveria or whether the dog made it to the moon but you can’t expect all the plot threads to be tied up within 60 minutes. The dog’s story did prompt a reference to Laika the space dog, though, which made me sad for a full week last time I thought about her (thanks Bridget Christie!) I’ll try and move on more quickly this time.

credit Mark Senior

On the subject of the dog though, you can guess who Eva’s favourite character was. As the dog was playing fetch with the witch’s hat but refusing to let go of it, Eva leaned over and whispered in my ear “that is so realistic!”. And she very much agreed with the dog’s song where he said that he was a Good Boy. Most deserving of tummy tickles.

Eva was slightly older than most of the audience but there was plenty of action to keep an older kid’s attention and she enjoyed some of the gags that were aimed at the adults, such as the Bohemian Rhapsody reference. She enjoyed joining in with the “Whoosh”es as the broom took off, and the “Iggety ziggety zaggety zoom” song at the end. It was a show that never took itself too seriously, which is perfect for the start of the holidays where I think all our kids are just ready to kick back and have some fun. And this show has fun by the broomload. Whether it’s sassy frogs or adorable dogs, there will be something to love.

After the show, we got to have a witch-some cupcake and meet the cast, which was awesome. You’ll be pleased to know that I made sure Eva washed her hands between the purple icing and attempting to tummy-tickle the dog.

As we left the theatre, we were stopped by some tourists asking where the theatre for “Wicked” was. Clearly, they thought that Eva’s witch’s hat made her an expert on all witch-related musicals. I said I thought it was at the Apollo in Victoria and pointed vaguely at a number 38 bus. I realise now that there’s an Apollo theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue and they’d probably gone to the wrong one. Told you these same-named theatres can be confusing!

McDonalds was also confusing as there were no ordering screens so I had to order Eva’s McPlant burger from a real live person and forgot all the customisations she normally does. And the stairs were being constantly mopped and I had too much in my hands to hold on, so that was a challenge too. But somehow, I got the child fed and myself fed and we even picked up some cool new shades for Eva, which she modelled on the way to another theatre production this afternoon.

I did go the wrong way on the Bakerloo line though. The train was there and we jumped on without really looking where we were going. The only time I’ve ever gone the wrong direction on the tube before was also on the Bakerloo line and possibly even at Piccadilly Circus or maybe Charing Cross. That was about twenty years ago and I was reading a book while walking. Today I had no such excuse….I’m just a doofus.

I’ll leave you with something delightful I heard on the escalator down though as the girl behind us had just realised for the first time where the name “Bakerloo” came from.

“That’s amazing” she said “I can’t believe I never knew that. But why don’t all tube lines work the same way. Why isn’t it….I dunno….the AngelBridge line?”

Genius. I’m calling the Bank branch that from now on. Who’s with me?

 

Room on the Broom is on at the Lyric Theatre until 4th September. Click here for tickets and more info.

Disclaimer: I received free tickets (and a cupcake!) in exchange for a review. All opinions remain honest and my own. 

credit Mark Senior

 

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“Immanuel” – A Book Review of Sorts

With the carelessness you’ve come to expect from me, I totally missed the 11th anniversary of the blog this week. Yes, it was in the week in July 2011 that I first decided you all needed to know just how slapdash my parenting was in a series of loosely-connected ramblings. 700 and something of them so far.

But it just so happens that I did have a fun trip out on the day itself. I went to a book launch, to celebrate a book that emerged from a different blog that I contributed a post to in 2011. The blog was about a Nigerian pastor called TB Joshua who I really knew very little about but I wanted to help my friends so I wrote a little musing about the church we grew up in. I linked to it on this early-days post.

My little article was pretty flimsy and received the most lukewarm of all reviews from a regular commenter:

“I honestly believed this post was a bit of a non-issue”

But there was a germ of an idea in it, which the founder of the blog has now turned into a fully-fledged book. It’s been a surreal experience, seeing people write about a book that described my childhood but, post-launch, I thought I should contribute my own review. Which hopefully won’t write the whole thing off as a “non-issue”.

Some scene-setting first though! The launch was at the lovely bookshop Ink@84, which is somewhere between Finsbury Park and Clissold Park. I was on a tight timescale, thanks to my most slapdash piece of parenting yet, so leapt on to the tube as the doors were closing, giving myself a most impressively Londonish injury.

The grime of it all!

When I got to Finsbury Park, I knew where to get the bus from as I’d packed a couple of tweens onto it after Reuben’s birthday expedition to the Sobell Centre in June. Finsbury Park is an extremely confusing interchange and we’d ended up charging down the middle of a bus lane that one of the tweens assured me was “perfectly safe” to catch a bus that then didn’t move for hours. There’s also a whole other bit of bus station behind the station which is now linked up with a shiny new bit and a giant M&S Food Hall. I feel like I wrote a blog post about the last time I was there, on my way back from Muswell Hill but apparently I didn’t. Neither did I blog about the futile quest to find a place that would feed the tweens and teens pizza pre-Sobell Centre. Eventually went to a Greek place. Long story.

Anyway, all of that meant a good swift change onto a bus at Finsbury Park and I arrived slightly sweaty but in plenty of time for the reading. Ink@84 has a drinks counter as well as lots of books. Much as I was tempted by a glass of wine, I thought a rhubarb soda was much more sensible when it was so hot and I’d been running. Very nice it was too.

Do you actually want me to get onto basic information about the book now? Well, in the words of Isaiah 7:14, it is “called Immanuel” and it’s written by a childhood friend of mine, Matthew McNaught. It’s about the same prophet that we discussed endlessly on that blog in 2011 but its main focus is the small provincial church we grew up in and how that church came to entangle itself with the prophet.

It’s really hard to objectively review this book, which is probably I rambled about pizza and bus stations for so long. Matt’s text brings Immanuel back to life in a way that made tears spring to my eyes as I read it. It was waiting for me as I got home from work drinks a few weeks ago and I was trying to hold back from immersing myself in it but it was impossible. As I absentmindedly ate chips with BBQ sauce (so much for that snowy-white cover) I tried to watch Taskmaster but kept picking it back up again. I read late into the night and on the train next morning. Unusually for me, I avoided sitting with someone I knew just so I could read. Walking through Liverpool Street, I reached the evocative section about the old ads in the church magazine and pulled my sunglasses on in case anyone spotted the tears welling up in my eyes.

I walked past a more recently-left church of ours, still immersed in the 1990s version of Christianity. I went to Pret on the corner of Great Winchester Street, smirking to myself at the coincidence, and read about eating homemade rice krispie cakes while awaiting my soy latte and croissant. My body was going through the motions of a 40-something London dweller but my mind was back to being a 10-year-old in Hampshire. It was only when I reached my office that I pulled myself together and decided I needed to put the book away and focus. Otherwise I could easily have kept reading all morning.

Matt’s always been an extraordinary writer. At the age of 8 or so, he was writing poems about flowers for the church magazine that put the adults to shame. His father is also a gifted poet. We’ll skim over the attempts at worship songs Matt wrote in his teens but I still have the lyrics in my head. And, while we’re on the subject of Matt as a teen, I still have the embarrassing photos. Oh yes, I do.

The book had drawn me in and I felt disconnected to the real world for days. As my Facebook news feed and inbox filled with ex-Immanuelites wanting to discuss it, I could think of little else. Even with a pair of choir gigs and the aforementioned child’s birthday trip the weekend after I’d started reading, my mind felt elsewhere.

And now here I was, in a room full of people who were here to learn about my childhood through the lens of someone else. As I say, most surreal. I was glad of the company of a current church friend to keep me grounded and who I could whisper asides to – “That’s my brother’s name!”, “Yes, there really were a lot of courtesy drops in our church”, “so what he’s saying is he basically plagiarised my blog post”.

Matt read a little from the preface and Chapter 1 of the book before being interviewed by author and journalist Samira Shackle. She asked some really insightful questions and managed to draw Matt  – who is a modest guy – out a little and really talk about the meat of his book. He’s endlessly self-deprecating but it’s a fascinating read. Just from the variety of people who’d gathered in the room, you could tell it was a subject that interested Christians, agnostics, atheists, people of other religions….we all came from different viewpoints but the ideas that were being discussed were universal. The importance of community to your sense of self. The momentum that comes from corporate movements like worship and how it’s easier to be swept up than to be the one slamming on the brakes. The longing for something in your childhood that’s missing from your adulthood.

Having said that, it is a challenging read for evangelical Christians. It’s written from the perspective of someone who’s lost their faith and many of the people in the story have found themselves embracing a quieter, simpler kind of Christianity. The scars left by the extremes of Immanuel run deep and there’s so much more that wasn’t in the book. Since I’ve been having these conversations with people from my old church, I’ve learnt about what went on between adults that us kids were never aware of. It’s been fascinating getting reacquainted with people who were the grown-ups in the church when I was a teen and who had a different perspective on it that I’d been somewhat shielded from. I’ve started writing about my own experiences in the church but I have no idea whether I’ll publish it on the internet anywhere. Certainly not here on LWAT, which isn’t usually a place for theological naval-gazing. But I’m making an exception today because this did at least place in London and there was a slightly-past-toddlerhood child there so it’s on London With a Toddler turf. Plus, they had some lovely children’s books there. Go visit!

But if I can indulge in a touch more naval-gazing for a moment, I do believe that Christians should read this book. It sets out a roadmap for what churches shouldn’t do. It looks at the issues of putting too much store in prophetic words and dreams, especially when those words become divisive and what Matt calls “passive-aggressive”. I’ve long been averse to untested prophecy and this only reinforces why I feel that way. The hurts in this book are immense, and the broken families left in the wake of the church’s demise are a warning to us all. Immanuel was the best of churches and the book paints a vivid picture, alongside the beautiful postcard designed by Matt’s brother Jonathan. This image just *is* the Immanuel I knew. I assume Jonathan is not quite the tiny cute blond boy I knew but still, he’s done an amazing job:

Original graphic by Jonathan McNaught

I should say, I have not heard from everyone I knew in those days. I’m guessing some have chosen not to read the book and some might have read it and are feeling hurt or betrayed. I don’t know. I don’t speak on their behalf. I only speak for myself when I say I’m glad he wrote it. It’s been an emotional journey but the overwhelming feeling I had at the launch was pride. Not the sinful kind, the good kind. Pride in the wonderful community we once had and pride in Matt’s achievements. But of course I didn’t wanna say anything slushy to him and instead just bullied him into writing me a formal apology for the plagiarism but also for using my actual name for a person in the book who clearly is not me if you know me well enough but at a glance might raise a few eyebrows.

So that’s righted those wrongs.

Where to go from here? Well, it’s certainly inspired me to write about my own experiences with the church which were devastating at the time but also formative. More though, it’s inspired me to reconnect with people from my past. I’d love to go for a coffee with them and chat over this stuff. So if you’re one of them, please do get in touch either through the contact page of the blog or through Facebook or Twitter if we know each other there. It might not be cathartic writing a whole book about this stuff but it’s certainly cathartic to talk about it.

“Immanuel” by Matthew McNaught is available from Fitzcarraldo Editions now. Believe it or not, I actually paid for this one (twice!) rather than trying to blag a review copy so no disclaimer needed but in case you were in any doubt, all opinions remain honest and my own. 

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A Waterside Wander – 25/06/22

 

I seem to remember writing about hanging out in Kings Cross in the early days of the blog. Back then, Kings Cross was no place to linger. It was basically just a seedy main road and a very cramped station. Nowadays, it’s practically a neighbourhood.

We had reasons to be in Kings Cross. We had a wedding to get to at 5PM, which was at the Baptist church nearby. But first, we were planning to squeeze in some time with family who happened to be nearby. They were having lunch in a pub in Camden Road so we caught two overground trains (which were running perfectly at the time) and met them there. My plan was to walk down the canal from there to Kings Cross, stopping off at Gasholder Park along the way.

The plan worked pretty perfectly. I nominated one of the nephews to dive into the canal and rescue Eva if she fell in but I’m happy to say we didn’t need to resort to that. It was a sunny afternoon and there were some pretty boats and a few ducks bobbing along, in amongst the plastic bottles and assorted debris. Ah Camden, never change.

After about half a mile of walking, we came across Gasholder Park. We’d been there in February a few years ago but this was a much sunnier day. If you like taking photos, as the most hipster of my nephews does, it’s a good spot. The contrast of the canal and the train line makes a good backdrop and then there is endless fun playing around with the mirrored pillars.

Although you might end up with something like this, which Reuben calls “the stuff of nightmares”:

Kings Cross seems to change every time I go there and I swear there was a whole load of shops and stuff in Coal Drops Yard that have spring up post-Covid. I seem to remember going clubbing around here in the early 2000s but it didn’t look like this:

 

Plus these flower beds that the kids seemed determined to push each other into:

Our wedding formals weren’t exactly suitable for water-play so I gave the fountains a swerve and headed on towards Kings Cross itself. That meant passing by a hipster gelato van, which caused Eva to sigh “now I’m hungry for ice cream”. We went for a swing in the birdcage, which also had an ice cream van parked next to it. Luckily that one looked shut.

But I couldn’t ignore the pitying pleas of Eva’s ice cream tummy for long. The family had a long drive ahead of them so they left us just next to the station, where we bumped into an HP mum who was childfree and fancyfree. We were neither of those things and we still had an hour or so to kill before the wedding. I thought about getting some McFlurries but couldn’t quite face the McDonalds chaos.

So instead, we went to hang out at Creams instead. It was surprisingly affordable – much more so than the hipster ice cream vans – and delicious gelato-style ice cream. After half an hour or so we might have been starting to outstay our welcome but there was plenty of space so we ordered coffees as well and the kids entertained themselves by taking photos and applying “detective filters” for that Film Noir style.

If you’re observant, you’ll notice that the one of Eva wasn’t taken at Creams at all but at Five Guys post-wedding. Our friends had plans to go to a nice Portuguese cafe but it was 7ish by the time we’d finished at the church and our children were only suitable for places with quick service and wipeable surfaces.

It was a lovely wedding, in case you were wondering.

So the kids were full of chips and had refills of their drinks to go. The journey home was going to be a swift one on the Victoria Line and all was well….wasn’t it?

Well, not quite. You’ll notice that Eva is wearing quite the dapper trilby in these photos. She’d spent the whole week wearing it – taking it to Sports Day, using it as an impromptu bandage when she cut her knee, and now a wedding. That hat had lived a full life that week.

We were on the Victoria Line platform when it happened. A freak gust of air as the southbound train went through, a very piercing scream and suddenly the trilby was on the tracks.

Obviously, we did not retrieve it. As soon as we’d established that it wasn’t Eva herself down there, we started working on the “acceptance” part of the grief process. It’s not the first item of Eva’s clothing to be lost on a train track but I felt for her this time because she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Unlike last time. But I think some of our fellow passengers possibly had a heart attack when she screamed like that.

You’d think that would be enough drama for one journey home but no. A food fight in a different carriage saw us all chucked off the train at Finsbury Park and we had to wait for another one. We got to Walthamstow Central and realised that the Overground trains that had been running so smoothly earlier were part of the “reduced service” that was operating until 6PM. We started trudging slowly towards the bus station before breaking into a run when we saw our bus waiting. As we dashed through the bus station, Eva still mourning her lost hat, a tiny girl dressed as Mary Poppins yelled at us “You can do it! You can catch the bus!”

And we did. A surreal touch at the end of a nice day of family, friends, legally binding ceremonies and hat loss. Classic Saturday.

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