London Tourists – and other Summer Holiday complaints

telephone boxSummer holidays mean one thing for us Londoners – hell. Why, we ask, are these swarms of people descending on our turf/tarmac? Maybe it’s time to escape the big smoke…

 

The ability to spot a tourist comes as second nature after living in London for a few years. If it’s not the tell-tale backpack (with optional front-pack) or the matching caps, it’s the M+M souvenirs or London hoody. If you spot a snaking line of confused looking individuals following a lady waving an umbrella in the air, these are no doubt also tourists. Likewise, chances are that anyone standing on the left side of the escalator is probably on holiday in the capital.

And then there are the children – taken on a day trip to London to visit a museum, see Big Ben, or generally get in the way. These are more easily spotted by looking for a frazzled Mum: key signs here are the frizzy hair from tube-induced heat; darting eyes attempting to keep track of all four children; or the look of shock that they have just spent a small fortune on sandwiches from Pret.

Why, when we Londoners are trying to get to work, or pick up a pint of milk, do these tourists and families make it harder for us, I hear you complain. I think we forget, living in this vibrant and cosmopolitan capital, that London is actually a pretty cool place. We take the Tower of London, the Southbank and the V&A for granted; we see the Shard as a piece of the furniture; and being able choose from twenty different cuisines on one street is frankly our right. Isn’t it? This is what London does to a person – we become blinkered. We see London as the norm and everything else as the exception, when in fact, London is a flippin’ special place.

So cut the visitors some slack. If they are struggling with their Google maps trying to find the British Museum, point them in the right direction. If they look fed up queuing in Starbucks, suggest a cheaper and quieter alternative round the corner. If they are walking on the right or standing on the left, mention the laws of the land.

And when you yourself are on a city break in Paris, Berlin, Milan, and the locals there are probably viewing you with the same annoying glances and frustration; or when you yourself are occupying the role of parent-on-edge, making sure that the kids are fed, watered, all accounted for, and that they haven’t stolen anything from the museum gift shop, you may think differently. It’s all a matter of perspective. But in the meantime, take a breather and accept that people just want to see our capital. Let’s share the awesomeness of our city, and think, hey, we are immensely lucky to call London our home.

Overwhelmed at Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the V&A

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Slip petticoat, designer unknown, 1955-1964. Photograph: V&A

The V&A’s latest offering in the realm of impressive and quirky exhibitions is one which covers issues that are usually, well, covered up. After the success of previous retrospectives including the David Bowie Is exhibition, Hollywood Costume, and the Alexander McQueen tribute, the V&A has been firmly put on the map where exciting, and often fashion-focused, spectaculars are concerned. Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is no exception.

Undressed focuses on the evolution of underwear throughout history; the developments in style, shape and material, as well as the social implications and variations, of what we all wear under wraps. Both men and women are covered, or shall we say, exposed, in this comprehensive history, and a wander round Undressed is far more exciting and informative than your average trip to M+S’s lingerie section.

Whoever had the bright idea of opening the doors on an essential, yet often ignored part of our daily lives is a genius, I say. After all, underwear is our uniting staple, forming the foundation of anything we wear. It only seems right, then, to dedicate a whole exhibition to the development of what we put on underneath our clothes.

Looking at the changing styles and materials of underwear from the 18th century to the present day is more than just about lingerie. The exhibition brings up the unavoidable issue of women’s body shape, and the evolution of the ‘ideal’ silhouette. From the rigid steel-cage crinoline from 1856, to the bottom-enhancing horse-hair bustle, it is clear that wide hips and a generous behind were hugely desirable back in the day. Not only did these items, which enlarged and accentuated elements that today’s females generally want to minimise, seem costume-like and ridiculous, they make going to the loo look like an ordeal to say the least. Corsets from the 1890’s that shrunk the waist to a tiny 45cm seemed shocking in comparison to today’s 71cm average. The obvious health complications and damage to internal organs were not brushed over, and frankly made the whalebone corset seem even more undesirable.

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Corset made from whalebone and cotton c1890. Photograph: V&A

From the ideal of the voluptuous lower-half which populated the 18th and 19th centuries, the 1930’s saw a change to a slim and feminine physique. The curvy Marilyn Monroe-esque figure became fashionable in the 50s, whereas going without a bra was a political statement undertaken by many women during the 60s. This evidently changed when the conical bra clad Madonna, and later the Kate Moss waif-look were en vogue: consider this your figure-timeline.

What was noticeable, amongst other things, was the fact that a great deal of the underwear looked wholly uncomfortable. In fact, I looked at a lot of it and thought ‘give me an M+S soft-touch T-shirt bra any day’. However, as items of art, as objects of beauty and intricate design, much of what was on display was unbelievably beautiful. Hand stitched garters, detailed embroidered corsets, lace-edged robes – some of these items looked almost too pretty to wear, and certainly hours’ worth of painstaking work. On the flipside, there was no forgetting the perhaps boring-looking but utterly useful items. The functional ‘Bridget-Jones’ shape-wear, lycra sports bras and padded boxers for men that wanted, um, more to show, were more about what these bits of underwear did for what was on top. Clearly, we need a mix of pretty, but painful, and plain but practical.

The ‘underwear as outerwear’ trend was homed in on, much of which was fairly risqué and revealing, yet being from high-end designers such as Dolce and Gabbana and John Galliano, absurdly expensive. Personally, I’m not sure I would feel entirely comfortable donning a negligée down the red carpet, but then again, if I had the chance to walk down a red carpet, it would probably be an alternative universe, and I may have drastically different opinions in that world. But, going to back to this world, to the world where I have apparently spent over an hour looking at a variety of bras and knickers, I have come to the realisation that underwear should not be ignored. It should not be an embarrassing topic, a bottom-drawer you are ashamed of; it should not be disregarded as something that no-one sees.. Underwear should be embraced, celebrated and marvelled at. And we should all be grateful we are not laced up daily in a whale-boned corset, whilst simultaneously wearing a metal framed skirt, working out just how to go about negotiating the toilet. Amen to that.

 

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is on at the V&A until 12th March 2017.

Changes: New Year, London and Bowie

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(picture courtesy of V&A)

 

January, they say, is a depressing month. Christmas is over, money is tight and strict regimes are being imposed to tackle the festive overindulgence. Personally, I am taking the ‘Dry January’ message to mean that this month, my alcohol choices will be mainly Dry Gin. The ‘clean-eating’ trend the masses are adhering to this year also seems to me, quite sensible – if dinner is eaten in the bath, chance of inevitable spillages on clothes is eliminated. This is what they call a win win situation.

But having got used to the lights, sparkles and decorations, London looks fairly naked. Christmas away from the capital begins as a novelty, and then you realise that actually, being able to get a pint of milk in two minutes, have decent coffee on every street corner, and not be affected by insane amounts flooding is pretty appealing. In line with the depressing fact that is the rise in travel fares, a bleak sense of ‘back to work’ reverberates in the tube carriages –  the only vague source of consolation is the fact that Tottenham Court Road station is finally open (it’s the small things people).

And to top it all off, two of the country’s most talented stars sadly passed away this week: David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both at 69, sadly lost their battles to cancer. This just may be the icing on the cake, the thing to tip those already struggling with the new gym routine, the lack of alcohol, and the utterly depressing weather, completely over the edge. No wine, no sun and now THIS?  The reaction to Alan Rickman’s and particularly David Bowie’s deaths  has been phenomenal, especially in the capital: perhaps because Bowie was a Londoner through and through; perhaps because he made such an impact on music; probably, too because Bowie showed that to stray from convention and to define yourself as an individual was not only possible, but admirable and inspirational. I had the pleasure of visiting the V&A’s ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition a few years back, and to this day I think it is one of the best museum exhibitions I’ve seen.  Not only did I see the epic Ziggy Stardust bodysuit, on show were also handwritten lyrics and even Bowie’s diary entries, offering a snapshot into the innermost thoughts of the superstar. It was clear from ‘David Bowie Is’ that there isn’t a great deal that David Bowie Isn’t , or, now, that David Bowie Wasn’t.

On Monday, Brixton, where David was born, was awash with fans who wanted to show their respects to the Starman. An area which (for now, at least) exists as an un-gentrified hub of culture and colour that still maintains a sense of the ‘real London’ was suddenly centre stage and thriving. Indeed, the star and his achievements are very much tied up with his life in the city: there is even rumour of the fourth plinth being dedicated to Bowie. We can but hope…

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Not only Londoners, but the world, were and still are, devastated. Having heard the news, I couldn’t help bring it up when I met a friend at London’s Barbican Centre.

‘Aren’t you really upset about Bowie?’ I asked her, ‘I can’t believe he’s died!’

‘Not really’, she answered. ‘I never knew the man. He’s died, but my life’s not changed. I can still admire him, enjoy his music… What’s the point of wasting time being upset about someone we didn’t know – we should be celebrating him, and just continuing to listen to his songs’.

I have to say, these are words of wisdom: our lives are none the poorer for having lost an icon like Bowie. Of course when someone loses their life, especially to cancer, it is no doubt an intensely sad event: but shouldn’t we just be grateful that Bowie made his music in the first place? The fact that we all have the benefit of being able to listen to his songs, enjoy his films, just as before, should be at the forefront. The world may have lost a London born superstar, but this is not cause for tears: this is time to say ‘Let’s Dance’.

London in a Day

Only got one day in the big bad city? Don’t waste it getting mowed down by school trips and tourists, seeing the obvious attractions (that you’ve probably seen before) or being disappointed by mediocre meals. Check out my suggestions for when time is tight…

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24 Hours in London

London is about far more than Big Ben, the London Eye, M+M world and Piccadilly Circus. Away from the black cabs and tourist traps, avoiding the Steakhouses and Starbucks that litter the streets, there is a London with quirky cafes, hidden museums, historical pubs and scintillating stories. But is it possible to get a taste of this underground-London in only 24 hours?

A sensible starting place would be Liverpool Street; a perfect doorway to the city. Begin with a hearty breakfast at the Bishopsgate Kitchen (if chorizo hash or eggs Benedict appeals), people-watch by way of the café’s glass front , and pick from a selection of teas to set you up for the day ahead. Old Spitalfields, which is right outside, is a haven of crafts and creatives; depending on the day, this could be the home of a rotating flea market, vintage record sale, or art stalls. For a peek at Hipster Central, take a nose up Brick Lane, and try on a couple of 70’s outfits in Rokit if you’re feeling brave.

A tube journey to Charing Cross will site you in the perfect location for a free lunchtime concert at St Martins in the Fields, where a spot of classical tunage will add some cultural scope to your day. Heading up to Covent Garden from here is a short walk, and allows you to take in Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, and the ever-changing Fourth Plinth. The BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is a chance to absorb a variety artwork without trekking around the entire place if time is tight. By this time, I imagine a nibble might be in order: sample an array of salads, divine cakes and bakes (ginger and salted caramel loaf, anyone?) proper coffee and friendly staff at Black Penny Café to fuel you up for further exploring.

Explorers keen on bizarre Korean and Japanese nik-naks should have a deco in Artbox, a crazy stationary shop off Neal’s Yard where you can buy a notebook unlike any other to jot down your memories of the day. At Holborn, step back in time with a trip to Sir John Soane’s Museum (free), where worldly treasures and an insanely cool picture room (authentic Hogarths, and opening walls) is enough to make you feel as if you are in a novel. The first Tuesday of each month offers an evening candlelit tour of the place, which, trust me, is definitely worth a half hour queue (and surely queueing is part of the London initiation?)

A swift pint in The Princess Louise, a pub with nooks and crannies that are ever appearing provides the ideal precursor to an imaginative cocktail at Merchant House, where jazz music and a speakeasy feel accompany concoctions featuring everything from chamomile tea to chocolate bitters. Sit back in the vintage Chesterfield sofas, soak up the Mad Men vibe: exhausted, satisfied, enlightened and enthused, you’ll wish you had more than a day to spend in the Capital of Capitals.

Night at the Museum

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It’s one of those things I’ve always meant to do, but when it comes down to it, the pub on a Friday night somehow always wins against the ‘lates’ events at many of London’s museums. After a busy week, a glass of vino in the comfort of a (cheap) pub seems less effort than a trek to South Ken. and having to use my brain.

However, once I’d finally made the journey to the Westest of West London (aka the Posh Bit), had a cocktail in my hand whilst admiring various dinosaurs and scary looking beasts, I wondered why on earth I hadn’t flippin’ done it before.

London is famous for its museums and galleries: it is a city that is not short of cultural institutions waiting to be explored. The best thing is, most of them are free. Gratis. Even a cash-strapped student can broaden their horizons – no excuses. On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, however, these museums are a prime spot for small children, buggies, tourists and noise. Well, what else is to be expected?

I say, postpone your trip to see the dinosaurs, the marine biology, and the various other natural artefacts you may wish to admire, absorb, and then consequently forget. Patiently wait until the last Friday of the month, then saunter to the NHM for an evening of after-dark learning and exploring, which is for the most part child-free. There is a bar waiting to be visited in the main entrance hall, and trust me, dinosaurs can only be improved by alcohol.

*details on the NHM Lates can be found on the museum’s website: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/