Tag Archives: London

Greatness in the grind

Mo Farah, seconds after winning the men's 10,000m

Mo Farah, seconds after winning the men’s 10,000m

Winning is easy. If you’re Mo Farah, at least. The British runner made his final sprint to the finish in the men’s 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships look like a breeze.

He rounded the final corner and then – boom – after 26 minutes of running he easily dipped into his reserves and pulled out a final 200 meters that left the field scrambling in his wake.

That’s how it looked. In reality I’m sure it was likely anything but easy, despite’s the Briton’s ability to cheerily push through fatigue and pain.

While the final 20 seconds of Farah’s greatest race – or the one that cemented his standing at Britain’s greatest long distance runner – were the ones celebrated, repeated, and reported on worldwide, they weren’t the ones that won him gold.

As the most amateur of amateur runners (yours truly) knows, the end is often the easy – or easier – bit. Getting there is the hard part – the fifth and sixth kilometers are often where the race is run or lost, whether you’re competing in front of millions of viewers, or just hauling yourself around north Portland on a Saturday morning.

Farah’s greatness lies in these fifth and six kilometers, as he displayed in London yesterday. Under siege from younger competitors, who appeared to be running as a team against him, he was forced to step up the pace.

Farah's sprint to the finish

Farah’s sprint to the finish

Watching on, at times it seemed that the British runner was dropping back, only for him to rally again and again, responding to the faster pace, battling back.

Such running goes far beyond physical form or fitness – it demands deep mental reserves, an ability to remain focused and work to a plan, when every external (and most internal) factor wants to pull you off course.

If there’s a lesson to be read from the ability and greatness of Mo Farah, it lies here. Yes, preparation is vital; yes, performance is critical; of course, your finish is often key, but most races are won in the grinding, unexciting, off-camera, mid-sections.

This takes focus and self belief, two hard-won traits that are too easily and too often bandied about in life and sports. And even the world’s best athletes struggle to maintain them; as Farah himself said afterwards: “At one point in the middle of the race I wasn’t thinking I was going to lose, but I thought ‘this is tough, this is tough’.”

“Il faut d’abord durer” (“first, one must endure”) was a motto adapted – in very different circumstances – by a well-known American writer. It came to my mind in the final moments of yesterday’s race. If, like Farah, you can bounce back often enough the challenges – eventually – will dry up.

And they did, in those final 200 meters, when Mo Farah kicked into his sprint, the crowd roared, the flashbulbs popped, and history was made. But that was the easy part.

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I Left My Heart In An Irish Chip Shop

Haddock and chips at The Saltee Chipper

Haddock and chips at The Saltee Chipper

It was the dish that won the First World War. George Orwell argued that it staved off revolution in Britain the 1930s. It was one of the few offerings that escaped rationing in London’s Blitz.

Yet fish and chips arrived in Ireland by accident – it’s reputed – when Italian immigrant Giuseppe Cervi stepped off a boat in Cork around 1880, mistaking Cobh for New York. Undeterred, Cervi walked to Dublin and wound up selling fish and chips from a handcart near Trinity College – the first person in Ireland to do so.

He may have got the idea from fellow emigrants who’d passed through London, where the first fish and chip shop opened in 1860.

Despite Cervi’s ingenuity it took 70 years for the dish to become a staple in Ireland. When it did, in the early 1950s, the advent of trawler fishing had reduced the cost of fresh fresh (finding potatoes was rarely a problem). The food carts of the nineteenth century were long gone at this point, replaced by the ‘chipper’ – the canteen-like aesthetic of which has remained standard to this day.

Like most Irish people I grew up with the dish. The first time I had fish and chips they were likely bought from the long-departed Grace’s on Bride Street in Wexford (a place also renowned for that local staple, the rissole).

In the intervening years I’ve had fish and chips on the terraces at the old St Mel’s Park soccer ground in Athlone, at MacCurtain Street in Cork after a long reporter shift, on ferries to Britain for summer holidays, and after nights out in my college days in Dublin. The offering remained unremarkably unchanged. Over the years the wrapping moved from yesterday’s newspaper to a generic paper sheet – but it was still handed over, soggy with vinegar and covered in salt, in a steaming brown paper bag.

Old school

Old school

Then, about five years ago, fish and chips changed. Blame the Celtic Tiger, or April Bloomfield, or whoever designed those ludicrous small steel buckets, but fish and chips slowly started to appear on plates in restaurants. I now found myself eating it sitting down, at a table, instead of standing at the back of a packed chipper, or while dodging drunks on a street at 1am.

Gone too was the stodgy yellow flour and water batter, replaced by a lighter beer variety. The chips were now cooked twice over, a time-consuming trick that no doubt had Guiseppe Cervi turning in his grave.

And it was great. As others argued over Beshoff’s or Burdock’s I sat in L Mulligan Grocer or the old WJ Kavanagh and hailed the revolution, one serving at a time.

Until a few weeks ago, when my father sent me a text message from Kilmore Quay, a small fishing village in the south east corner of Ireland, renowned for its seafood. ‘Come here for the fish and chips,’ he wrote, sending a picture of the meal as I remembered it – all angle-cut chips and heavy battered fish.

And so, last week, I travelled the 100 or so miles to the Saltee Chipper in Kilmore Quay. My concession to civilised dining was opting to eat at a table there, swapping the brown bag for a plate.

The haddock I had was caught and battered that morning. The steaming chips were just as fresh. Mushy peas – marrowfats ground into a thick green paste – were an added bonus. To top it off it there was a howling, rain-flinging gale outside – proper fish and chip-eating weather.

There isn’t a moral to this fishy tale. I’ll still order the gourmet fish chips when I’m in the mood, and I’ll try to convince myself it tastes better. But last week, for the umpteenth time, I left my heart in an Irish chip shop.

Kilmore Quay

Kilmore Quay

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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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Thousand of books, nothing to read

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Shopping paralyses me.

Not in the ‘lost male in home furnishings’ way (although I once managed, embarrassingly, to lose myself in a Macy’s outlet), but more the ‘holding two items in either hand and sweating’ way.

The excess of choice, the thousands of single items to choose from – in this shop, on this day, NOW – jam my circuits and lead me to walk away, empty-handed.

Take last weekend. With an hour to spare in London, I headed to the Charing Cross Road to browse the bookstores. I’d even drawn up a short list of potential buys on my phone – what could possibly go wrong?

Some 45 minutes, and four bookshops, later and I am standing in the middle of Foyles, staring up at three floors of books above. Everywhere I look there is something I could read, hundreds of potential purchases within metres, including everything on my list. I thumb through the H’s of Fiction, make a half-hearted stab at browsing the wall-to-wall Poetry before I shuffle off, stomaching an odd mix of indecision and anger.

And it’s not just books. Every time I enter a record shop I’m confronted with this same tyranny of choice – hundreds of albums I want to listen to but will never have the time to hear.

debtA ‘first world problem’? I don’t think so. I want less consumer items in my life, not more (our apartment is crammed with books and CDs as it stands); a used album is just as good as a new one.

Shortly after my book trek, while picking through a pile of CDs in a Soho record store I thought of a tweet posted by Brian Eno days earlier: “I realise the reason I like playing records (as opposed to CDs) is that they’re short…I want less music.”

I never believed I’d reach a point at which I want less music, less books, less choice. But it’s happened. Faced with a tsunami  (and that’s before we get to the infinite distractions of the Internet) of writing and music, film and TV drama, my reaction now is to step back.

Walking back to my hotel last Saturday, along Marylebone High Street, I spotted an Oxfam shop. I stepped in and made straight for the books’ section, a small collection in a corner of the store.

The choice was minimal but there, on a shelf, was one of the books on my list – The Debt To Pleasure. Without the temptations of a dozen other titles, it stood out – a £2, 20-year-old paperback.

It was the easiest buy I’d made in months.

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Here Is New York – in five fragments

Central Park, October 2010. Pic: Cormac Looney

Central Park, October 2010.
Pic: Cormac Looney

It’s long been a habit of mine to read my way to a destination before I actually travel there.

Not using guide books, but novels or poems. And so, over the years I’ve come to associate certain places, cities in particular, with certain writings.

When I think of London it’s the city of Great Expectations, and Pip’s coming of age in the streets and rooms of Newgate, or the eerie East End gothic of Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor.

Likewise Haruki Murakami, whose The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle took me to a surreal, paranoid version of Tokyo in fiction, accompanied me on a visit to Japan earlier this year.

On occasion I haven’t, nor am I every likely to, be in the place I’m reading about. While I’ve visited and revisited the remote Gilf Kebir plateau in the Libyan desert, where Michael Ondaatje set part of The English Patient, I doubt I’ll ever see it in person.

But the literary place that’s mapped clearest in my mind is one I have visited – the city of New York.

Hence my interest the recent Reading American Cities series on the Guardian’s Books blog, specifically the entry on Manhattan.

I agreed with one of the titles recommended as a “literary companion” to the city – The Great Gatsby. But the others, DeLillo’s Underworld and Auster’s The New York Trilogy, while certainly books of the city, weren’t books of my New York.

And so I chose my own – here’s New York in five fragments, from five works.


410uN4RypVLCrossing Brooklyn Ferry, Walt Whitman (1855)

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

 

Gatsby_1925_jacketThe Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

 


a4afce26-ab10-42c8-9180-0a268a4b78f5-280x420Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)

I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

 


2f656cc7-40b4-4e5a-8917-d2ecdf6e9a01-273x420Netherland, Joseph O’Neill (2008)

 We were sailing on the Staten Island Ferry on a September day’s end…Everybody looked at the Statue of Liberty and at Ellis Island and at the Brooklyn Bridge, but finally, inevitably, everybody looked to Manhattan. The structures clustered at its tip made a warm, familiar crowd, and as their surfaces brightened ever more fiercely with sunlight it was possible to imagine that vertical accumulations of humanity were gathering to greet our arrival.

 

Finally, and despite my misgivings above about guide books, it’s impossible to avoid E.B. White’s classic love letter to his home city.

hereisnewyorkHere Is New York, E.B. White (1949)

The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.
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On a polenta pilgrimage

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Over the years I’ve made a few pilgrimages to London.

A decade ago I spent a long afternoon chasing the spirit of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at the famous Troubadour folk club in Earls Court.

A couple of years later I visited St Bride’s, the tiny journalists’ church on Fleet Street, where the ghosts of my trade lingered on, both in the pews of the church and in those of the nearby bars.

Another trip saw me sample the bitters in Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, following in the gloomy footsteps of Dr Johnson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the past my visits have been marked by music, history, London ales and, well, more history.

While I’ve eaten well in the city at times over the years I’d never, until last weekend, undertaken what I’d regard as a food pilgrimage.

And yet that’s what my wife and I found ourselves embarking as we walked through Soho last Saturday evening, to arrive at 21 Warwick Street.

This is the location of a restaurant called Nopi.

Plenty (sorry) has been written about Yotam Ottolenghi, Nopi’s co-owner, in recent years. A journalist turned pastry chef turned food icon, his London delis have attracted consistently good reviews since the first one opened in Notting Hill more than a decade ago.

He didn’t appear on my radar until I came across his 2011 TV series Jerusalem On A Plate and subsequently picked up the accompanying book, as well his earlier volume, Plenty.

There it was - the dish I'd craved a year ago. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

There it was – the dish I’d craved.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

After salivating over the books for a while my wife and I road tested some of the dishes, devised by Ottolenghi with his culinary partner Sami Tamimi.

Two in particular stood out: their puréed beet root with yoghurt and za’atar, and a mushroom and herb polenta.

Both were unlike anything I’d tasted before, in flavour (the za’atar) and texture (the polenta, served with Parmesan).

We immediately swore we’d visit one of their London establishments (a pledge I inscribed on our copy of Jerusalem); not least because, in the back of my mind (flipped past in their book or maybe from the series) I’d an image of a polenta chip dish there which looked incredible.

But then time passed and Ottolenghi slipped off our radar. We visited LA and Japan and the Ottolenghi’s salads were lost, smothered beneath a smorgasbord of Mexican, Californian and Japanese cuisine.

This was until a weekend trip to London came up and, with it, a reservation for dinner at the bar at Nopi.

And so we arrived last weekend to dine at the hub of the Ottolenghi phenomenon.

We took our seats and picked up the menu. There it was –  the dish I’d craved a year ago but hadn’t thought of since. Not just polenta chips but truffled polenta chips, by way of truffled aioli.

Cut a size up from the ubiquitous gastropub jenga chips, Nopi’s polenta variety combined a chip lighter than potato with a semolina-like exterior. The truffle sauce was served on the side.

It was all the glory of the Piedmont in one mouthful. Or four – as I proceeded to bogart the bowl.

The rest of the meal passed flavourfully – as we expected – but nothing hit the heights of the chips.

If Nopi was my first London food pilgrimage this was the grail. Get there, and get them.

All the glory of the Piedmont - polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

All the glory of the Piedmont – polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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In praise of okonomiyaki

A load of crepes. They tasted good, once a year. Pic: French Recipes

A load of crepes. Pancakes tasted good, once a year.
Pic: French Recipes

‘Cabbage pancake.’

Two words, like ‘low-fat sausage’ and ‘mid-strength Guinness’, that are enough to send most Irishmen running away in mortal fear – to the arms of their mammy or the local chip shop.

For years I counted myself among them.

I am part of a generation that was raised on cabbage one way – boiled. In salted water, if you were lucky.

It was green and floppy and it was served with bacon. It filled you up and then you went back outside for another three hours of football.

Pancakes?

There were something we had once a year, crepe-style, on Shrove Tuesday. They tasted better than cabbage and bacon but they were such a rarity on our plate back then that we forgot they even existed for most of the year.

Until that one February mealtime when we ate ourselves in a batter stupor.

But cabbage and pancake on one plate? At the same time?

Suggesting that in mid-1980s Ireland would have landed you some odd looks – and an instruction to finish the rest of those turnips (but that’s a post for another day).

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Fast forward to 2010 and I’m standing on Great Russell Street in London. After three hours wandering around the British Museum I’m hungry.

Luckily my then-girlfriend-now-wife has sent me a recommendation – a cafe called Abeno on nearby Museum Street.

Okonomiyakia at Abeno, London.

Okonomiyaki at Abeno, London.

And so followed my first experience with cabbage pancakes. Or, as the Japanese call the dish, okonomiyaki.

It turned out to be be more hands-on that I expected. My table was a hot plate (or teppan), I was handed two spatula and presented with the mixed raw ingredients: cabbage, bacon, pork, in a flour and water batter.

After a few minutes of pretending to know what I was doing I had something approaching okonomiyaki.

Using the tonkatsu sauce to cover a multitude of culinary sins I sized up, and quickly inhaled my first cabbage pancake.

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Four years on I’ve eaten some incredible Japanese food, from the sushi served at my wife’s favourite spot in LA to sashimi overlooking the Pacific at Big Sur to, best of all, my mother-in-law’s New Year’s Day feast.

Until last week, I never returned to okonomiyaki though.

That changed when Clare, having come across an easy recipe for tonkatsu sauce, decided to put a spare head of cabbage to use.

She shredded and mixed it with beetroot, courgette and prosciutto, producing a savoury pancake she topped with Japanese mayo and her homemade tonkatsu sauce.

The result was the incredible comfort food – tangy, moreish, salty, substantial. And not unhealthy either.

It was the answer to my hunger pangs, the Sunday blues, the question ‘what’s your death row meal?’ and, possibly, my dreams.

In fact it left only one question.

What would the six year old cabbage-eating me have made of it?

Clare's okonomiyaki. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Clare’s okonomiyaki.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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We walked them to the station in the rain…

In the 12 months to April 2012 87,000 people left Ireland. Ten years earlier the corresponding  figure was 25,000.

The dark days of the 1950s and 80s are back, albeit with Skype this time.

Londonlovesbusiness.com covered the exodus today, with a contribution from yours truly.

A London-linked aside – wonder how many will end up as Kilburn barmen this time round?

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