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Dishoom, King’s Cross

NOTE: IF YOU ARE READING THIS BEFORE 19 NOVEMBER AT 5PM, SKIP TO THE FOOD PICTURES AND SOFT LAUNCH INFORMATION AND THEN GO IMMEDIATELY.

I work half my shifts from home, and while our little study is a great space for Getting Things Done, I try to leave the house to do creative writing. Partially because a change of place helps you think in new ways, partially so that when I’m famous and dead, London tour guides will have somewhere to take people and go ‘and here’s the very place where she wrote Bard For Life: No Seriously The Globe Won’t Let Me Back In, in fact just at this table here’ and everyone will go ooh and imagine me sitting there thoughtfully crafting sentences about boners in Coriolanus.

This has mostly been Yumchaa in Camden, an excellent tea shop with a lot of light that is just not-busy enough that I don’t feel bad about parking it with my laptop for four hours, but they don’t do savoury hot food and I get grumpy when I’m hungry. I tried making regular writing visits to Dishoom in Shoreditch, where we had an amazing Christmas lunch last year, but the ten-minute walk from Old Street tube is a bit annoying especially now that it’s November and rainy.

Then Dishoom opened a branch right behind King’s Cross last week and all my problems in the world were solved, especially since it’s still in soft opening and everything* is 50% off, including drinks* which isn’t always true.

Dishoom (the Bollywood equivalent of “Kapow!”, the sound a punch makes when it connects – “DISHOOM!”) is the result of one of those wonderful culinary-historical things that happen in an open world: in the 19th century, large numbers of Persian Zoroastrians emigrated to Bombay/Mumbai and brought with them Iranian café culture, which was already influenced by European high-ceilinged all-day coffeehouses. Iranian cafés in Mumbai flourished in the middle of the 20th century, but have been falling off from nearly 400 in the 1960s to around thirty now. And in London eight years ago, three British Indian cousins opened the first Dishoom restaurant – in other words, bringing these cafés to London, from India, from Iran, from continental Europe. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being excited by the ways history makes food culture happen, and vice versa.

I’ve been eating at the King’s Cross Dishoom literally every other day since it opened (days it has been open: 7, days I have eaten there: 4, though I plan to bump this up to 5 tonight) and although reviewing a restaurant in soft opening is a bit like reviewing a play in previews, I feel pretty confident in saying:

  1. The food’s really good
  2. The service is really good too
  3. It’s definitely worth going while it’s half-off but also
  4. Even after it isn’t.

Here is what I have eaten there and photographed (photos behind cut):

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Two minutes’ silence

My office is near London Bridge, and most of us walked to the riverside this morning to observe the two minutes’ silence. The embankment at Hays Galleria is one of the most London-feeling places in the city, because you can see all different kinds of London from there: looking straight across the river and going clockwise, you have the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheesegrater skyscrapers, their superior predecessor the Gherkin, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, St Katharine Docks, City Hall, HMS Belfast, a few pretty good pubs, and London Bridge. It’s a lot of new and old London scrunched up next to each other, a very direct line from the city’s famous past to the history we’re making now by living here. I love coming here to eat lunch, have a midday walk and just feel like I’m participating in London.

So many people left our office buildings this morning to stand on the river bank and look out over the railings that it made me think of Enobarbus describing how “the city cast her people out” to see Cleopatra. Some people looked to the Tower, trying to see the poppy installation, or to HMS Belfast, where a row of uniformed sailors were standing at attention with their backs to us, or to Tower Bridge, which was slowly raising in salute. At 11:00 a piper played on the Belfast and we all went silent. It was cold and dry, and we could hear the river rustling.

I thought it would just be a nice moment but I was really surprisingly moved. I thought: I’m in the heart of this ancient city with thousands of people who have come outside to be sad together, and not only here, but everyone in the whole country is doing this same thing, at the same time, together. Silence is a powerful way of marking grief as a community because it only takes one person to screw it up, so everyone has to participate, but we can only participate inside ourselves; it’s being alone together, which is sort of what grief is, especially grief about such a tremendous world-affecting tragedy as the First World War. I had a little British lip-wobble and felt sad and angry that War still exists in the world and tried to be thoughtful about how to fix it but mostly just felt sad. The piper on the Belfast played out again and the people on the bank breathed and started to make eye contact and move away, back inside.

And then I heard – and hoped I was wrong, although I later found out I wasn’t – the faint sound of applause coming across the river from the Tower of London.

Guys.

This seems like stating the obvious, but: reflecting on the First World War should not result in applause. “Well done!” is the opposite of what happened. Feelings inspired by the First World War should be more along the lines of, “Never again”, or “Seriously that was horrible and pointless”, or “How do we work towards world peace in our lifetimes?”, or “Jesus, what a shitshow”.

When I first saw ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, the poppy installation at the Tower of London (in August, above), I thought it was a strong and painful image and a powerful way to memorialise the British military deaths in the war. It was designed by Tom Piper, who among other things did the excellent set design for the RSC Histories in 2000 and 2006-8, and knows a lot about making art to evoke bleak depressing futile war. But in British media this week, the poppies went past being a memorial and became a great national accomplishment – they’re being seen as a triumph. Again, I feel like this is obvious, but absolutely nothing about the First World War was a triumph except for the part where it ended, which is why we commemorate Armistice Day and not Millions Of People Dying Pointlessly: What A Good Idea! Day (otherwise known as every day of the previous 4+ years). It feels like we’ve moved from ‘being sad together in public’, well past ‘being sad together in public and doing visible things to mark how sad we are’ and all the way to ‘applauding ourselves for being sad in really ostentatiously impressive ways’. Applause and pride should be nowhere near the First World War, unless it’s pride at how we managed to knock it off that one time. The glorious stories to celebrate are ones about people finding ways to create peace, like the Christmas Truce, and (like we in theory do today) the eventual armistice.

I feel like I’m working up to “Newsflash: Peace > War!” which feels insultingly basic but is harder to put into practice, I think, because peace is actually incredibly hard because it means building and working with people, including people who you may not like very much, and war is dramatic and easy to have emotions about.

Anyway I wrote all this and then checked Twitter and found out that Siegfried Sassoon said exactly the same thing but 96 years ago and better and more concisely, which is why he’s one of the greatest poets of the past century and I’m not.

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World Travel Market 2014: what even was that

On Wednesday afternoon I’d just got off my 7am shift on the news desk when I got a message from my friend Katrinka Abroad, who lives in Turkey and whom I met at TBEX Dublin last year, saying she was in London for the World Travel Market and I should come over to hang out. I took the train to the ExCeL centre, flashed my NUJ press card at registration and received an entry lanyard, then went to find the Canadian tourism ministry’s hospitality room, which was hosting a reception for bloggers. There was wine. There were some kick-ass salmon brochettes. There were free bottles of concentrated beet juice to take home. I’d been up since 5:45 and was a little staggered, but made my way through a few glasses of chardonnay and had a really good catch-up with Katie and met some new people before deciding to spend a few minutes ‘walking the floor’ of the exhibition hall.

JFC guys there’s is a lot of money being thrown around in the travel industry! The ‘Global Village’ (…what) was basically like Disneyland’s It’s A Small World, but instead of singing, there was free themed food and alcoholic drinks. (And also singing, actually, there were a lot of local musicians performing near their stands.) Each country’s stand was decorated thematically, eg New England and Egypt:

I found Ye Olde England Row, where Shakespeare’s Globe/Historic Royal Palaces/English Heritage/Kew Gardens etc were lined up, and had the following conversation with each one:

Me: [makes eye contact] Hi!
SG/HRP/EH/KG: Hi!
Me: Hi!
SG/HRP/EH/KG: [waits expectantly]
Me: Hi! Um, I, hi. I…write? I write about travel and history and Shakespeare and I go to your theatre/palaces/heritage sites a lot.
SG/HRP/EH/KG: [takes in sweaty hair, up-since-5:45am eyes, breathy aura of chardonnay]
Me: I have a blog and I’m writing a book, kind of!
SG/HRP/EH/KG: Here is our literature. Please go away.

Which was fair enough, and I was actually really glad that their bullshit-o-meter seemed to be so well calibrated, especially when I walked through the rest of the hall. I know ‘marketers throw lots of money at making things look flashy’ isn’t news in any industry, but I was just floored by how glossy and big everything was, and how much free stuff was being pushed on attendees: at the Caribbean stand’s ‘happy hour’ there was a small mob for a huge cooler of pink rum drink, who all started pressing in on each other when the polite but clearly overworked server stepped away for 45 seconds to grab more cups, and there was a scrum for the Steenbrugge beer taps at the poppy-encrusted Flanders booth. An Italian tourism rep chased me down half an aisle to hand me a plate of ham.

Because it was the end of the day and most stands were closing up (or maybe the English tourism reps had radioed ahead about me), I did not get to visit the booths that looked most interesting – North Korea and Palestine – or that of my home state Oregon. I did get an invitation to the Brazil tourism ministry’s World Cup-themed blogger afterparty at Bar Kick in Shoreditch, where I played in a fun doubles foosball tournament with a nice Mancunian chap (we made it out of group stages, although my crap goalkeeping eventually lost us the title) and got to catch up with another blogger friend from Dublin, Ryan from Turnipseed Travel.

I did not, to be fair, go to any of the WTM talks, which might have given me a different view of the event – this discussion of ‘the invisible chambermaid’ seems encouraging – though the exhibition halls were so over-the-top that it’s hard to see how anything could have totally countered that and I’m sure there were a lot of wanky talks about eg social-as-a-noun too. I did feel generally glad that tourism ministries are state offices rather than private bodies so that in theory they can encourage all this expenditure to go in a way that helps the country. I was a bit baffled by how tourism stands were happy to aggressively throw free drinks and food (I mean, really nice drinks and food) at me but not talk about content/writing, although I’m sure a lot of that was again because it was the end of the day, everyone was going home and I was clearly neither polished nor prepared, nor the kind of industry attendee that most stands were aimed at engaging with.

I don’t have any conclusions here, I’m really still trying to process those surreal three hours; in the meantime I’m bumping Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism to the top of my reading list, because I hadn’t quite appreciated simply how much money is flying around in the travel industry until it was so visibly in front of me.

 

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“The Scottsboro Boys” at the Garrick Theatre

On Tuesday I saw “The Scottsboro Boys”, a Kander & Ebb musical about the nine black teenagers wrongly accused of sexually assaulting two white women in Alabama in the 1930s. Their long imprisonment and hard-fought retrials became basically the definition of ‘an international cause célèbre': although I didn’t study it in any history class, I keep coming across it in literature from the time. Langston Hughes writes about visiting them in Kilby prison and campaigning for them in his excellent second autobiography I Wonder as I Wander; on the other end of the spectrum Nancy Mitford writes Linda Radlett in The Pursuit of Love going to a benefit for “the Scotsboro’ boys at some boring old rooms or other, you know”.

In a sense the historical Scottsboro Boys had to be performers even while the trial was going on, even more than defendants at trials usually have to be performers. Not only because of the international attention directed at them, but because as black American men in the South in the 1930s, they were already required to perform as unthreatening and white-pleasing every time they were in public.

“The Scottsboro Boys” points to this extraordinary demand placed on the nine teenagers by framing the play as a minstrel show (a racist American theatre form historically performed by white actors in blackface). The twist is that in “The Scottsboro Boys”, the ‘minstrel’ performers are black – Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon) and Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) – although it is still hosted by a white Interlocutor (Julian Glover, the only white actor in the cast), ie it’s still a performance on demand for white people. Bones and Tambo flip the racist minstrel tradition of whites playing black stereotypes by being black actors playing exaggerated stereotypes of white people: a stupid Southern sheriff and his deputy, and the two shallowly scheming women who accuse the nine Scottsboro Boys of rape. (The gender politics of the show are not great, although since it’s a rare case that actually does involve a malicious false rape accusation, it’s hard to see how they could be without diverting energy from the injustice and racism aimed at the nine young men. There’s also a woman, played by Dawn Hope, who drifts silently around the stage looking horrified, sympathetic and angry at the action, and becomes the show’s stinger in the last scene.)

Pulling off a minstrel-show-that-isn’t-a-minstrel-show about an institutionally racist trial requires incredibly tight precision from the actors: when they are moving as the characters, when they are commenting on the characters, when they are criticising perceptions of blackness, or masculinity: there’s an incredible amount of commentary packed into every movement and facial expression. During a ‘straight’ scene, Haywood Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon), one of the accused men and the show’s main character, bitterly-jokingly starts to clown exaggeratedly in ‘minstrel’ style as a way of preparing for the trial – again throwing in our faces the need, which was true then and is true now, for black American men to perform in an over-the-top white-pleasing way simply to have a chance at not being unjustly killed.

And that’s all on top of the intense physical precision required by any musical, including some seriously amazing tap dancing. There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on about a London theatre audience, which remains mostly white for big shows, and how we’re used to scrutinising musical theatre performers’ bodies for perfection in movement so we can applaud them. We do it to white performers too, but musical performances in “The Scottsboro Boys” were part of a complex intercourse about audience expectations and demands, and what that means for the performer. The most impressive musical number was the youngest of the Scottsboro Boys (played by Keenan Munn-Francis) having a nightmare about the electric chair, his taps being driven and inspired by imagined shocks. It was incredible dancing. We applauded. But the show had made me, at least, extremely aware that we were an audience, again mostly white, applauding a black man for performing in a way that pleased us. I don’t think it was saying that’s unambiguously a bad thing (“Stop clapping for this talented 17-year-old, you racists!”) but to make us think about who is required to perform and in what way, and where, and why.

Below are spoilers, which you may want to avoid if you plan to see the show.

The framing device and attention to performance also points to a London audience’s desire for a night out at a West End theatre to end with some kind of feeling of closure. The show flirted with rejecting that, when the Interlocutor brings on the Scottsboro Boys for a ‘Grand Finale’ – for which they are, shockingly and effectively, wearing blackface – and orders them to perform a cakewalk, a racist dance that the Interlocutor says is “everyone’s favourite” (like a lot of older white men, by ‘everyone’ he means ‘white people’ and by ‘white people’ he means ‘me’). Instead, they wipe off their blackface makeup and silently leave the stage, refusing to participate and end the show in a way that will please the crowd.

After this is the final scene, a brief vignette featuring the woman who has observed the whole play without speaking. She sits quietly in a row of chairs that has previously been used to represent a bus. The Interlocutor takes the driver’s seat and tells her to move to the back: “Colored in the back of the bus.” She repeats a line from Haywood Patterson earlier in the play: “No. Not no more. I’m gonna sit here and rest my feet.” Of course she’s Rosa Parks – like the nine Scottsboro Boys, refusing to move in the way the white character has demanded. And at the curtain call the actors continued to reject the implied demands of the audience: they didn’t smile or wave, but looked out with neutral expressions veering on hostile.

Brandon Victor Dixon took a solo acknowledgment (he didn’t bow), and as the actors left the stage, the scrim lit up with text: The Scottsboro Boys were pardoned by the governor of Alabama in 2013. Dixon punched the air and kept his hand high as he walked off into the wings, leaving us with the image of a raised fist, a symbol of black power, solidarity, defiance and victory.

The text and victory punch are an oddly neat ending for a show that has been so complicated and especially criticising white demands for black performativity. It implies the Boys’ story is over, and has been tied off, their reputations rehabilitated and posthumous justice done. There’s no line drawn to the corrupt and racist justice system in the US that continues to wrongly imprison and kill black men, the fact that all-white juries continue in the South and elsewhere, to the latest young black men to die from violent American racism, Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. It also couldn’t have been part of the original show, which opened in 2010.

It’s a small thing, but it undermines the brilliant previous two hours, which were an extremely difficult, extremely successful piece of theatre about the complexity of racism in America – something that will never have a tidy, audience-pleasing ending. I wish the text had been left for the program, and the audience left with the discomfort of the show.

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Lekh-lekha and travel

This month I’m trying to ‘be a worse, more prolific writer’ and release posts into the world like little baby birds instead of hoarding them in my grumpy dragon cave.

This week’s Torah portion is one of my favourites, Lekh-lekha, the story of God telling Abram and his family to pick up and ‘go out’ (lekh) from their country.

Biblical Hebrew is very dense, and the two-word phrase lekh-lekha has few possible meanings. The easy reading is just a repeated command to ‘go out, go out’. But the second word plays on how the -kha suffix also means ‘yours’, so it could be read as ‘go out on your going-out’ – the journey that’s only yours – or ‘go out from yourself’, or ‘go out for yourself’, for your own good. Hebrew also uses double words for emphasis – like the title of Shir ha-Shirim (Song of Songs) – and the doubling of lekh-lekha could mean ‘go out – really go, don’t half-ass it’, or ‘go out, and go far’.

It’s one of my favourites because that denseness implies all those meanings are the same meaning, or at least overlap. Leaving your home to travel is going out from yourself: you don’t become a totally new person, but you make a journey out of yourself, climbing out of the self who had never left. It’s for yourself: you can’t travel away from the place where you’re settled without building up new knowledge about the world and resiliency in yourself. It can be a reminder to be attentive to make sure you’re travelling in the right way, both internally and in the way you treat other people. And each of us can only go on our own going-out.

The story of God calling on the Jewish patriarch to travel has been used as evidence to support some harmful ideologies: the antisemitic stereotype of the ‘rootless’ wandering Jew, and (since God later tells Abraham to settle in Canaan) religious nationalist claims to the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean. I still like it. It’s energizing and emboldening to read the refrain every year: “Go – go!

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Dover Castle and the White Cliffs of Dover

I was in Dover last week as the Shakespeare setting for King Lear, where I found a crumbling postwar seaside town with Roman history and lots of confusing nationalism (many asylum-seekers and migrants from Europe enter the UK here). It’s actually a pretty good fit for the apocalyptic play, if maybe not a first pick for an off-season holiday. When my B&B host picked me up from the station, she asked if I were headed to Calais or Canterbury for a day trip, as “There’s not a lot to Dover, Kerry.”

So off I went to prove her wrong.

Dover Castle

Like a music festival, Dover Castle gives you wristbands, not tickets, for admission, and pleasingly also like a festival when I walked in, there were tents set up with activities – face-painting, crafts, a tasting table of local ciders (!), beers (!!) and spirits (!!!), and ghost tours. Oh, because it’s half-term! A lot of parents and guardians were brightly tugging children around and looking anxiously at the low grey sky, and I scheduled a tour then made a straight line for the tasting table. I’m guessing it was aimed at helping those with small children take the edge off, but either way I made a dent in the sample shots of mead, ‘Turbulent Priest’ ale, butterscotch liqueur and toffee apple cider.

The ghost tour was pitched at kids (whoops) but was excellent fun for a grown-up too. I find kids’ events and theatre typically have a kind of playful collaboration with the audience that art for adults has just started getting into – if this exact tour were marketed for adults, it would be called a ‘site-specific immersive promenade production with historical and fantastical elements’ and Punchdrunk would be trying to charge £40 for it. As a kids’ event, it was free with admission and went every half-hour, and it was great.

Also if this were Punchdrunk you’d be in a cold warehouse wearing a beak mask and this man would be muttering Poe to himself in a carefully set-dressed office while you tried to figure out if he was going to snog you. Goofy spooky stories in an actual castle is clearly both better art and more fun.

 

Kids are also I think very happy to go along with stories they know are stories: as well as the actor leading the tour, there were extras paid to bang around, make us jump and scare us. Just by the Tunnel of Terror (great, right??), a door slammed open, an actor ran out and melodramatically exposited about witch trials, then cackled and banged away again.

“Can you imagine!” a dad said to his kid. “That’s his job, doing that all day.” He spotted a posed pirate skeleton inside. “Oh, look, Ben! OoooooOOOOoooo!” Ben laughed and hid his face in his dad’s shoulder. What I love about that is that there wasn’t any contradiction for either of them in joking about the actor’s schedule and then getting scared (or mock-scared) by the skeletal décor; you agree to participate in the fiction when you go on the tour, and you can’t puncture an illusion you’ve already consented to. It wasn’t just willing suspension of disbelief, it was active participation in disbelief, which I think is wonderful and something that grown-up theatre often doesn’t trust its audience to do.

Before leaving the castle I went back to the booze table for bottles of homemade mead and toffee cider, then headed off to walk along the coast to the famous White Cliffs.

White Cliffs of Dover

Annoyingly, it’s very difficult to get to the White Cliffs on foot – it involves half an hour dodging cars on a curvy two-lane road with no pavement. It’s frustrating that they cliffs are famous and advertised as a beautiful place for a Nature Walk but you can’t actually walk-walk there safely. I got the visitor centre an hour before it closed, and a guide pointed me to a twenty-minute walk with a good view and offered to call me a cab when I got back.

GLOUCESTER
But have I fallen, or no?

EDGAR
From the dread summit of this chalky bourn.
Look up a height: The shrill-gorged lark so far
Cannot be seen or heard: do but look up.

Dover does feel like the edge of the world, though it’s historically one of the best connected parts of Britain: the gateway to the continent, you can see France across the Channel when it’s a clear day (it wasn’t and I couldn’t).

When I reached the promised good view, it was cold and getting dark, but I didn’t want to walk back right away, so I sat on a little grassy ledge, tried not to fall off the two-hundred-foot drop and watched the ferries going out to Calais, and coming back. It felt wild and old, even with the modern port so close that you can hear the boarding announcements floating up.

And I thought, what would Ye Olde Britons have done right now? And the answer came to me: drink mead! Scencte scír wered! Gaéð á wyrd swá hío scel! So I opened the bottle (English Heritage – THANK YOU for making them with a screw top) and drank a bit, and made sure to keep WELL AWAY from the cliff edge do not fear. After twenty minutes of moodily watching the water and feeling highly Ye Olde, I walked back to the visitor centre.

They were closing up and the nineteen-year-old behind the till looked a bit concerned to see me, but she did call me a cab and offered to let me stay inside while I waited; I thanked her and went into a browsing holding pattern at the bookshelf.

Around ten minutes later I heard a whispered conversation across the shop.

“What’s happening with the lady?”

“Just waiting for a cab. She walked up here.”

“Is she all right?”

They fell silent and I suddenly became aware that I had been enthusiastically, audibly cooing to myself over a guide to Wars of the Roses battlefields for at least a full minute.

The manager came up to me.

“I’m really terribly sorry, but we’re closing the shop and, ah, about to start checking inventory, and I’m so so sorry but I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask you to leave.”

So on Tuesday I became one of what I hope is a very small number of people who have been officially kicked out of a National Trust property.

“What did you get up to today?” my B&B host asked when I got back.

“Oh, er,” I said. “Not a lot, you know.”

“No,” she said, satisfied, “I thought not.”

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Header art by Tod Wills.