Monthly Archives: February 2016

What a two-decade old photo taught me

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Nevada was in the news this week.

And not the good Nevada – the 24 hour, ‘where’s my credit card, actually where’s my trousers?’ Vegas Strip Nevada. Or the eerie lunar landscape Nevada, beloved by hippies. Or even the escape-from-everything-and-start-anew Nevada.

Nope. Instead we had the Nevada of furious politicking, of promises and press conferences, of caucuses and crackpots. Of, worse still, Donald Trump.

But the headlines from the Silver State put me in a nostalgic mood, as did a picture I came across, taken by a friend en route from California to Nevada almost 20 years ago.

It shows a 21-year-old, tired and likely hungover, Irishman posing on a sandy hillside in bleaching sunshine, the desert floor in the distance. My recollection is that this was taken in August 1999, somewhere west of Death Valley on Route 190, shortly before a group of pals and I drove into the basin and on to Las Vegas.

The previous evening had been spent sleeping in the backseat of our rental van parked somewhere on the edge of Yosemite National Park. The following night was a sleepless one, which started with a spectacular thunderstorm on the Vegas city limits and ended at 6am the next morning, sipping refreshments in the dollar slots and wondering where the last 12 hours went.

Then, after a couple of hours’ sleep, we drove out of Vegas and across the United States.

As can probably be gathered from the picture above, my worries at the time barely extended beyond the ensuring 24 hours.

I recall that I had to get to New York City by a certain date to catch a flight back to San Francisco. I had nowhere to stay on the West Coast but I figured that would work itself out. In the end it did, via a payphone call from a Greenwich Village bar to pals in the Sunset who had a spare mattress on their floor.

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After that I had a flight booked out of SF to Dublin. Friends were returning to college or work but I didn’t have a job lined up, or a place to live. It didn’t bother me much. It worked itself out too. The rest, as always, is history. Here I am.

That brief, blazing roadside stop on 190 came to mind this week as I spent too much time testing my blood pressure limit, reading about megalomaniacal politicians, the cracks in the Chinese economy, the weakening of the euro  – all the good psychic dread stuff.

As I did it occurred to me that I need to balance this stuff up. I need to let go more often, to let the future happen.

Above all, I need that guy in the photo to swing by for an hour a week, to set me straight. And I need his hair.

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London – five ways

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

“Go to London! I guarantee you’ll either be mugged or not appreciated. Catch the train to London, stopping at Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central and Shattered Dreams Parkway.”

Dr Johnson drew one of these conclusions, Alan Partridge the other.

London’s usually been more Johnson than Partridge for me, mainly because I visit and don’t live there, thereby avoiding the huge rents and long commutes of a life spent living in or near the British capital.

Having seen most of the sights over the years my visits nowadays are weekend breaks with my other half, or to visit friends. Over time I’ve found a number of tried-and-tested spots in the city, tried and tested. Here, in the spirit of a recent post about New York, are five ways into London.

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Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Waking up in Soho

With my dignity intact, hopefully. We usually stay near Portland Place, an office-tastic enclave that’s just five minutes’ walk from Soho Square. A year or so ago, walking along a side street off the Square we came across Milkbar, a small brew room serving coffee hailing from the unlikely bean hotspot of Stockholm. A flat white order necessitates a hipsterish 10-minute wait in a mostly-empty room, but it’s worth it.

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Bookshopping, Edwardian style

If I’d a Ulysses first edition for every time I’ve heard a store labelled ‘a temple of books’ I’d be, well, probably buying armfuls in Daunt Books. Less a temple and more a neatly-kept church of reading, the bookshop – on Marylebone High Street – boasts an impressive gallery-style main room, lined with travel and history books. Daunt Books is known for the two genres, but elsewhere there’s plenty of the usual fiction, literary tea towels, pricey Moleskine-type notebooks and posters too. The main room’s the gem, though.

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A pint, a paper and a pooch

Away from the crammed dens of Soho the gentlemanly Masons Arms in Fitzrovia is the type of London pub you read about but usually find full of tourists or stressed office drinkers. Come here on a weekend and you might meet Hector (ab0ve), a French bulldog and regular. Aside from his company the bar offers four cask ales, four storeys of floral displays to the building and oddly (or perhaps not so oddly, all told) also does a sideline in Thai food. And the counter tops are perfectly-sized for newspaper reading – a vintage pub all round, then.

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Nose-to-tail nibbling

It’s not big and it’s not clever – which is why I try make it to St John Bar and Restaurant whenever I’m in London. Fergus Henderson’s ethos and reputation is well documented, as is his roast bone marrow and parsley salad. This time we skipped the restaurant, opting for a table in front of the bakery and a nibble through the bar menu. What to order after smoked mackerel, black pudding under fried egg and Welsh rarebit? How about the plate of Beenleigh Blue, Innes log, Federia and Riseley, washed down by the house’s own label cabernet-syrah? Which left just enough room for the burned cream at the end.

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Sweating it off in the royal circle

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”, said one of the city’s famous sons. In my case the palace of excess on St John Street led to a road of martyrdom around Regent’s Park the following morning. The Outer Circle run clocks in at 4.5k, but any dawn excursion should go straight through the park itself, taking in the lake and gardens. You could walk, of course – this being a city known for its genteelity – but where’s the excess in that?

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Listening between the lines – books and music

Reading at Big Sur, 2011 Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Reading at Big Sur, 2011
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words

So said Victor Hugo, whose 1,400-page tomes suggest he might have had an easier career as a songwriter than a novelist.

But are the two forms mutually exclusive? Or, to look at it from the perspective of the sofa, what’s the best music to read to?

None? Something unobtrusive? A solo piano recording or an ambient soundscape? Or something louder or noisier, a barrier to block the outside world?

The thought occurred to me as I read an article this week which – very specifically – paired books with albums (The Pet Shop Boys and Stephen King’s It being one of odder suggestions).

Over the years I’ve seesawed on the issue. While certain reading environments demand music (a packed-to-capacity long-haul flight, for example), others benefit from silence. Blasting Aphex Twin while reading in a pacific yurt in Big Sur a few years back, for instance, would have been a no-no.

Certain books still bring to mind certain albums of course. When I worked newsroom night shifts in the early 2000s I’d return home at 4 or 5am to pick up Don DeLillo’s weighty Underworld; Sigur Ros’ Ágætis byrjun was the soundtrack of the few weeks it took me to dig through it.

Likewise, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II provided the soundtrack to Michael Smith’s account of Tom Crean’s famed trans-Antartic journey.

The scientific jury’s out on whether either of these albums helped or hindered my comprehension of nuclear dread or icy heroism. It appears that lower-information load music aids cognitive tasks, while recordings with more going on – particularly those with lyrics – hinder them.

This may explain why I find Brian Eno a better reading companion than, for example, Sonny Rollins. That said, I can read anytime to Bach’s Cello Suites – which are hardly low-information compositions.

In recent years, perhaps due to daily digital overload, I’ve cut music accompaniment altogether. Now I read to the sound of the refrigerator, kids playing outside or low-flying aircraft.

That said, the research above has found that listening to music before you read can increase cognitive processing.

Mind you, this also risks a tumble down a streaming site wormhole, as you waste hours compiling exhaustive lists of John Lewis ad soundtracks or 1964-66 Bob Dylan covers (email me for that playlist).

Perhaps music and reading don’t mix after all. If Victor Hugo had Spotify would he have churned out Les Misérables?

Don DeLillo/Sigur Ros Pics: Thousand Robots/Jose Goulao

Don DeLillo/Sigur Ros
Pics: Thousand Robots/Jose Goulao

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Travelling 4,600 miles for a decent sandwich

Luc Lac pork banh mi, with salad and broth. Pic Clare Kleinedler

Luc Lac pork banh mi, with salad and broth.
Pic Clare Kleinedler

Want to try the world’s best sandwich?

Fly to Portland, Oregon, take a cab from the airport direct to the corner of 2nd Avenue and Taylor Street, walk into Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen and order the grilled pork banh mi.

The commute might cost a few hundred euro but the sandwich itself is just $8. If it’s the middle of winter (as it was when I ate there) and you’re feeling flaithulach, go for a bowl of broth on the side.

This is a lunch which could restore your faith in many things – the much-abused art of the sandwich, pork with proper flavour, humanity itself (if your visit follows 17 hours of  flight and a chilly morning dodging showers blown up from the Willamette).

We discovered this when we hit Luc Lac a day or two before Christmas, our heads still somewhere over the mid-Atlantic, in need of sustenance.

Our knackered palettes rejoiced. The moist pork was mouth-melting, the part-rice flour bun the right side of light, the broth a restorative to rival Jameson’s finest. It was the Greatest Sandwich In the World.

Ok, I may be exaggerating. Just a little. I’ve had plenty of good sandwiches in recent times, and even a few good Vietnamese ones (not least at my father-in-law’s LA staple Golden Deli) – but none of the latter in Dublin.

It’s not for want of shoe leather. For the past couple of years my wife and I have sought out a banh mi whenever we’ve spotted a new Vietnamese place in our home city. Finding these eateries is easy because there’s so few of them – Vietnamese food hasn’t made the same inroads on the Irish palate as Chinese or Japanese.

All about the baguette. Pic: chrisandhilleary

All about the baguette.
Pic: chrisandhilleary
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My favourite in Dublin, Pho Ta in Temple Bar, serves banh mi but not on a rice baguette. The situation is similar at Aobaba on Capel Street – the filing’s the familiar pork but the bun’s all too Irish. Walk up to Parnell Street’s Pho Viet and you’ll get a great pho ga (chicken noodle soup) but won’t find a banh mi on the menu.

A discreet ‘what’s up with the bread?’ enquiry to a staff member at one of these places yielded the answer that no bakery in Ireland makes baguettes using rice flour. Yet.

Given Dublin’s bread revolution this situation will surely change soon. After all, 4,600 miles is a little far to travel for a sandwich.

Unless you’ve tried Luc Lac’s grilled pork baguette.

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