Right coffee, wrong cup

Antwerp

When did doing things differently become more important than doing them well?

A coffee in a cafe this morning; first things first – the waitress was lovely. Second: the coffee itself was fine.

But.

It came in a sort of stoneware-pottery-cup without a handle. Aesthetically not my thing – each to their own – but who thought it was a good idea to un-invent the cup handle? This cup contained very hot liquid. I couldn’t pick it up.

Did the person who chose this vessel for coffee think a handle was superfluous? Simply unnecessary decoration? An optional feature on a coffee cup?

While sitting there patiently waiting for the dumb thing to cool sufficiently for me to pick it up, I had visions of a future tv antiques program, a man in a bowtie holding up cup with handle: “Ah yes, an early twenty first century coffee cup. In those days they still used handles!” cue applause and laughter from audience with thick skin on their fingers. And scald marks.

At least the coffee was hot, which it had to be to dissolve the lumpy brown sugar they gave me; de rigueur these days but utterly useless in anything smaller than a mug And certainly no good in an espresso, a fact which has escaped all the twenty year old guys in check shirts and tattoos who think they invented coffee.


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Get ahead, get a hat

Antwerp

Time was, in my youth, that my hat habit engendered derision among passers by – while the late 70s and early 80s were certainly something of a sartorial kill-zone, it’s also true that the young are exaggeratedly sensitive to criticism, so it’s very possible my recollections are clouded.

There’s also the remote chance that I looked like a twat.

Nevertheless, I persevered. I may not be an everyday hat wearer – in a world unused to hats they can be an inconvenience; have you noticed that hat racks and hooks have disappeared? – but I’ve always had hats and I do wear them, so it’s good to see something of a hat renaissance occurring.

Granted, most of today’s gents, if they wear anything, wear a cap; but it’s still a step in the right direction, and it’s led to a headwear rehabilitation. How much of this is due to Peaky Blinders is unclear.

My most recent hat is definitely not a cap. It’s the aristocrat of daytime hats, distinguished by association with the likes of Winston Churchill and Al Capone: a homberg.

It instills nothing but awe and admiration in today’s passerby.


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The unforgivable sin

Brussels

There must be people who can speak with authority about railways. State owned? Private? Build more? Subsidise fares? Rip them all up?

I’m not one of them; all I can offer is opinion. Although clearly my opinion would be more important than anyone else’s.

But one thing is obvious: without exception privatisation has led to visual cacophony. Each company tries to out-dazzle the last and the result is the only unforgivable sin: crafted ugliness.

I had the privilege to stand in the concourse of Brussels Central Station this morning. A beautiful piece of modernism from, I assume, the 1950s – several squadrons of British and American bombers having conspired against the previous building. In its proportions, scale and fabric; a building of stature. A confident building, proud of its purpose and of the railway it represents. Built to last by a company thinking of the long term, not of the next quarter’s balance sheet.

And beautifully free of garishly competing corporate identities.


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Knowing

Brussels

I bought a pair of gloves today. From a glove shop. That would seem unremarkable enough, but it’s an impossibly in London.

Specialisation has disappeared from most aspects of life now. Retail workers are not employed for their knowledge of merchandise – in fact any understanding of what they’re actually selling appears to be irrelevant. I recently asked for a polar-neck jumper in a clothes shop on Regents Street only to be met with a blank, slightly frightened expression from the South American teenager purporting to work there. He was pretty enough, which seems to be enough to get the job. That and a willingness to work for minimum wage.

But strolling through the grey insistent rain in Brussels, feeling the chill breeze and remembering I needed new gloves, I wandered for all of 10 minutes before finding what I suspected I would: a shop that sold gloves.

Just gloves: masculine or feminine. Staffed by a woman who knew about gloves, about the relative merits of the various leathers available, the different linings, who could tell my glove size just by looking. A professional.

Not gloves with a logo; there’s no branding involved here. No labels to be seen. Just knowledge, understanding, humour and polite efficiency.

I was close to tears.

On the other hand, central Brussels is devoid of cafes. Seriously. Kebabs and pizzas I could have had surfeit of; but a good old cafe, with tables and waiters? You’d have better luck in London.


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Generation Security

Eurostar

The rollers at St Pancras security hungrily swallowed my modest suitcase, my briefcase, my umbrella, my hat and, at the polite but insistent Eurostar uniformed woman’s behest, my jacket. Apparently she didn’t need my brass cuff links, my watch or my shoes.

I was one of the lucky ones. The unfortunate gent in front of me made the mistake of having a bad knee on which he wore a bandage, which had to be removed and separately scanned for… who knows what? Assault rifles? The small woman behind me had two large and heavy suitcases; they had to be lifted onto the rollers.

Are we going to live with this crap forever now? The first wave of security psychosis has thankfully passed, but we’ve settled into twenty-first century normality – and we’re putting up with it. Almost 20 years have passed since the authorities went into overdrive with all this and the technology hasn’t improved our convenience one jot. Build a machine that can scan us and our luggage as we walk through, why can’t you?

The fact that I can board a train in London and get off in Brussels, though, still fills me with awe. It’s not that I don’t like flying, but if the hassle of St Pancras is bad, flying is a lot worse. Strolling to the station as if on a day trip to St Albans but instead arriving at the chocolate waffle capital of the world is a simple pleasure.

My millennial travel companion, however, was less impressed. Never having travelled by Eurostar before I thought she might be impressed by our swift and seamless arrival in France. “Thank god for that,” was her reaction. “The Internet connection is better now. I’m watching a movie. It was really slow in the tunnel.” Of course.

But why do they trust train staff with a public address system? I don’t need to know the train manager’s name; and I know where the bloody train is going. The delivery of a decent cocktail to my seat would be a much better use of their time.


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London cold

London

The dead sky becomes so slowly lighter. Not even a noticeable eastern glow, just a slow, slow brightening from starless black to dark battleship grey. And cold: gentle breeze cold. London winter cold. Tedious cold.

Not like the cold of Berlin, with it’s ferocious eastern ice-blast sending you scuttling from warm shop to bakery to Straßenbahn while your brain-stem aches with it.

Or Budapest, with that cliff-edge plunge through snow, then sludge, to deep, horror-filled freeze.

The London cold is just tiresome. Sometimes cold enough for a real coat, when standing in the bus queue (who am I kidding, no one queues for a bus anymore; there’s just a shapeless pavement blocking crowd), then appalling t-shirt summer once you enter a shop, and autumnal mildness on the Tube. It’s a coldness designed to irritate, not intimidate, and a city designed to ensure you are never suitably dressed for it.

A city where conversations always start with the weather despite us getting so little of it; never much below freezing or much above temperate, rarely snowing, never baking sun and, despite the myth, not even really that much rain.

London maintains its mild-mannered, even-handed composure; it doesn’t want to cause offence.


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Time’s vacuum

London

Days vanish into the Internet’s virtual cesspool, one after the other, each spiralling deeper until slipping from my grasp only to be replaced by the next.

An intricate, expensive system devised to suck away time, as if powered by all those hours spent by billions of people every day. As if driven by time itself.

Are you hunched over your laptop, internally debating the merits of a four-pack over an eight-pack on the Tesco website? Those minutes are driving it. Weighing the three day weekend in Rome against the minibreak in Lanzarote? Grist to the mill. And which hotel would be better? This one has a prettier spa, but that one’s in the centre of town. Tick, tick, tick, the smiling face of the Internet demon is relishing your time.

Or are you standing on the morning tube reading this on your phone? Tick, tick… Or the hours spent trying to unfuck what it’s done to your book of holiday snaps? Tick, tick, tick…

And we do this to ourselves, no-one compels us. We do it because we have convinced ourselves we’re being productive, or that more choice is, obviously, better.

So here I am, writing this, staring at a screen. Tick… tick… tick…


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A pub’s life

London

A cold afternoon in Soho and I have an hour.

A statement, not a question, but nonetheless there is an answer; and the answer is pub.

The age of the pub is over. Thousands are closing monthly, we’re told; and those that remain don’t feel like actual pubs. More like bars, cafes, restaurants.

And it’s our fault. My fault and yours. If we don’t go to our pubs they will close. A simple truth. One could blame the corporatization of pubs, big money’s simple desire for more and the dull conformity it nurtures, but the fact is that the attraction of a bottle of wine and Netflix is stronger than the desire to go out and drink in the company of strangers.

Or — god forbid — actually talk to them.

Inevitable, of course, that such a proud tradition should end. Society changes, influenced as it is by our apathy and unconcern, our misguided wantings. And thus pub dies.

And yet from my stool at the end of the bar, as I wallow in the warmth of a blended scotch, voices break through my self-grown keratin shell. Just ordinary conversation. Three men, standing, pints in hand, their dust covered clothing betraying a day spent reshaping the city, discuss women.

Their appearance may seem incongruous in all this neo-gothic Victorian mahogany, but here they are, doing what generations of young men before them have done: sharing a drink and idle chat after the day’s toil. This afternoon, at least, pub is alive and well.


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Juicy

London

Cocktails do not consist of more than one part fruit juice. I’m sorry, but they simply don’t. If you’re sitting at a bar now and resting before you is a large glass containing pineapple juice, lumps of fruit impaled on a stick, some undefined crystals around the brim, a shot of tequila and, in all probability, a miniature paper parasol painted in gay colours by an underfed child in the developing world – then what you have is a mocktail.

Oh, and you probably have a straw too. You can throw that away right now.

I’m not saying fruit juices have no place in a cocktail; there are several examples of fine and distinguished libations for which juice is an essential – the Sidecar springs to mind – nor am I only a regressive old bastard who refuses to recognise change. I am a regressive old bastard, but not only that. I recognise the skill of a good barkeep, and enjoy sampling the fresh harvests of their imagination; they do great things on the Prairie Oyster theme at The Bar with No Name in Islington, for instance.

But ultimately the old bastard in me comes to the surface, and I’ve never found a new cocktail to compare with a properly made Negroni, Pink Gin, Old Fashioned, French 75 or of course the one true king, the cock in cocktail: the Dry Martini.

I won’t linger here, because the question of how to make a good Dry Martini has no simple answer and I suspect I’ll be returning to this subject in future. Ad nauseam. Suffice to say that being delivered in a triangular profiled glass does not mean your drink is any form of Martini whatsoever.

But if your Martini anxiety is getting the better of you, have Tom Lehrer‘s recipe as a primer: six parts gin to one part vermouth. And never, ever, on pain of being forced to listen to Guns’n’Roses in perpetuity, shake it.


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What a fuss

London

Media – old, new and undecided – is flapping about like a turkey that survived Christmas. There’s a new social media chick in the neighborhood, and her name is Vero.

We’ve all heard it before: We’re giving power back to the people! We’re not going to use you as blind and willing canon fodder, as fat sacks of data to be bought and sold and traded with whomever we wish. We’re different!

We’ll see. To be fair to her, Vero has started off well if a little shakily; but then that’s part of the fun of being in at the start. No ads, we’re told, and we’ll be trusted with a timeline un-fucked by cash hungry algorithms. She’s not a free date though; Vero expects to be paid by her users. Which is fair enough. And her first million dates get a free ride for life, so get in. I’m told a girl never forgets her first million.

And yes, your intrepid correspondent has taken the plunge. Will Vero remain true to her virtuous vows or sell herself to be gang-banged by the cynically grinning social mafia thugs? In the words of Mr Fats Waller: one never knows, does one?


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