Category Archives: British life

What price gentrification?

Starbucks

The new Starbucks at Finsbury Park

When I arrived in London almost 18 years ago this October I really didn’t know what I had coming in that first year. Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have boarded the plane. Some of what I discovered shocked me. I do have this memory of walking around either in open-mouthed wonder or bafflement.

By accident more than design, I eventually crash landed in a place called Finsbury Park. How do I explain this place about 10 minutes to central London by train? To an American, it might have a lovely ring. Expansive green spaces, surrounded by independent shops, perhaps? Or an Agatha Christie English village relocated to north London? Hardly.

The only thing Finsbury Park had going for it when I moved in was the fact that you could very quickly leave and get somewhere else, thanks to its excellent transport links. Rent was pretty cheap, too, by London standards at least.

My early memories are dominated by snarling, traffic-clogged streets, pollution and dirt. To get to my flat I used to have to walk by a rotisserie chicken place, where the meat turned on a stick in the window, giving off an unusual sickly smell.

There was also the man who lived in the phone box – remember those? – with some leg condition that made walking nearly impossible. He also smelled, worse than the chicken I’m afraid to say.

Then there were the prostitutes on the corner near our flat. They used to hang out at the bus stop. One of them even showed up wearing a bandage on her head one morning. That didn’t stop her from trying to drum up a bit of business.

The only shops were depressing-looking places, badly lit, selling a variety of basic food staples: bread, tinned food, milk and of course alcohol. Almost every shop sold cheap beer.

Finsbury Park Theatre

The new local theatre

You could get coffee, but only if you were willing to walk into a place guarded by chain-smoking North African men who lingered in doorways. Women weren’t exactly welcomed into these establishments.

Once, someone tried to steal my wallet at the bus stop, only to scream obscenities at me when I caught him going through my bag. Yes, the thieves were brazen, but I always felt pretty safe because the streets were rarely empty.

The bright spots were the bagel place, with its smell of fresh bread wafting out the door, and a cavernous stationery store. It wasn’t exactly like Staples in the US, but I could find many things in there and it was run by a very cheerful Indian family.

‘It will improve one day,’ the English Husband used to say about our down-at-heel neighborhood. And we would both nod and talk about how it’s so close to zone 1 and so convenient for trains. As predicted, Finsbury Park has undergone quite a transformation.

The latest and most absolute sign that it’s totally gentrified is the opening of a brand-new Starbucks right across the street from the tube station. It has replaced a tatty old pub frequented by hardened Irish drinkers and the colourful locals.

They are gone, swept away by the new cream walls, tasteful furniture and the smell of fresh paint. Also gone are most of the coffee shops filled by idle men who called to you sometimes as you walked down the street.

You can now find a thriving local theatre, occupying what was once the mouth of a back alley; new restaurants, including a busy Korean; and an arts building with a café on the ground floor selling food and artisan bread. It’s probably organic bread too.

There are plenty of delis, some of them even offering wine-tasting evenings. There are still Afro Caribbean shops selling row upon row of wigs, but I suspect these will soon be gone, taking their smell of chemicals with them.

The old pubs have been tarted up and the shops that previously sold cheap beer have mostly been replaced by supermarket chains, all of them well lit and welcoming.

Arts Building

The ground floor of this building has a cafe and bakery

We own a small flat in Finsbury Park and undoubtedly we have benefited from this gentrification. The irony is that we can no longer afford to bring up our family here because the gulf between the price of our flat and a house might as well be as big as an ocean.

Where once I would have happily packed up and left, now I can’t afford 1,200 square feet.

According to the latest Land Registry figures, the value of property in London has increased by 21.6% since last year; prices have risen five-fold since 1995, the year before I got here. Needless to say, my salary has hardly kept pace.

So we continue to rent a slightly bigger flat than the one we own, and I can console myself with the knowledge that now at least I can find a coffee on almost every street corner – and Starbucks coffee at that.

Progress? It’s hard to say.

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A slide fit for a royal

Blue Whale slide

Jupiduu’s artwork shows what the slide looks like at the royal residence

I don’t have much curiosity about the royal family in England. I don’t spend my days wondering how Kate Middleton keeps her hair looking good in high humidity. But I couldn’t resist this little piece of royal tittle-tattle.

Prince George, the heir to the throne, will turn one on July 22. According to a press release that landed in my email, the lucky birthday boy will be getting a new blue whale slide from a German start-up company called Jupiduu.

The company is clearly happy to trumpet this announcement and have backed up their claims by saying that the order was placed by Prince George’s nanny. They supposedly name-checked her by going to various British tabloids.

I guess what tipped them off was the delivery address of ‘Kensington Gardens’.

So I thought I’d let you see what a baby slide fit for a king looks like. And you can treat your prince or princess to the handmade slide, too, since it’s available to buy from Amazon. I am in no way endorsing it, though, since I’m far too big to test it out.

 

 

 

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American supermarket food comes to London

jar of peanut butter

At least we’ll always have peanut butter

It’s not always easy being an expat in city like London but it has got easier. I went through a phase when I felt totally out of place. It was like looking at a work of art hung crookedly on a wall. Everything felt slightly tilted on its axis. I got dizzy.

I’ve lived here for so long now that I don’t even think of myself as an expat anymore. I seem to have a vague cultural identity these days. I’m neither this nor that. I try to come to terms with it.

According to the last census, in 2011, there are about 180,000 Americans living in London; these are people who were born in the United States. It’s not, for instance, people born in the UK to an American parent.

Perhaps because I believed my stay here was temporary and bound to end some day, I’ve never sought out places where I’m likely to encounter Americans en masse. Where would that be anyway? I don’t have a clue because everything here labelled ‘American’ seems to be massively stereotypical. It’ll be a sports bar or a place serving ribs, burgers and hot dogs.

If you want to find places with an American identity in London, your best bet is to hit the high street. There are Gap stores and Starbucks aplenty, more than I have in my hometown of San Diego, for instance. If you want a grande caramel mocha frappaccino with whip cream, you won’t go without.

Then there are things that remind me of home – like the sudden proliferation of Mexican food chains selling everything from burritos to enchiladas. There are no Taco Bells here, but you are likely to stumble across a margarita at some point. None of it is truly authentic, but that’s beside the point. What these places are selling is the Mexican experience for Brits. In other words, the food is barely one step above Tex-Mex most of the time.

The trend for Americana has invaded supermarkets too, even in my little enclave of north London, which is not particularly touristy. I recently visited my local Tesco and discovered a small section dedicated to American (junk) food. In fact, it’s the worst representation of American food you could assemble – and there is quite a lot of bad food to choose from.

Box of Twinkies

If you want American junk food, you’ll have to pay

Should I despair that some buyer in Tesco seems to think that pink marshmallow spread qualifies as a product worth exporting to the UK? It makes pretzels look sophisticated. You can get Lucky Charms cereal, new varieties of M&Ms and Twinkies for a price. A box of the yellow sponge cakes will set you back $13 here. If you’re lucky you can find Aunt Jemima pancake mix and the syrup, also at inflated prices.

I wonder if other nationalities here feel the same. Do the Spanish cringe every time a new tapas restaurant opens on the corner with patatas bravas on the menu? Are the Italians sick to death of pizza and pasta restaurants claiming to offer an authentic experience? Do Indians get sick to death of serving creamy kormas to spice-averse Brits?

At least their food choices are vaguely palatable. It’s not easy to make a meal out of the ingredients you’d find in the American section of supermarkets here unless you’re happy to overdose on sugar.

I did give a large Tootsie Roll to my two hybrid kids after coming across it at Tesco. They weren’t complaining. And that’s pretty much in a nutshell. American food here seems to cater only to children.

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My flimsy theory about the English

English Husband and I

The English husband and I at Windsor Castle in spring 1997. I am wearing Stinky.

Spring has sprung in England. This is what it means: it’s hot, it’s cold, it’s windy and wet, there’s sunshine and hail, all within minutes of each other. It’s more unpredictable than trying to make a living from gambling.

I’ll tell you what this means from a wardrobe point of view, it’s impossible to know what to wear. This causes a crisis for me every year – one that has me staring at my closet with an increasing level of despair, flinging clothes this way and that until I settle on something that is vaguely unsettling.

Growing up in the warmer, predictable climate of southern California, I had few wardrobe worries. I rarely wore socks (imagine the joy of that), didn’t own a single scarf and could pretty much get away without layers of any kind.

I could wear dresses without worrying about bare legs, almost all year long.

I was an innocent child when it came to dressing for a cold climate when I first arrived in London all those years ago. Which is why I wore an ugly coat from Macy’s that first bitter winter. I’d bought it in San Diego, a place where winter dressing is not high on people’s priority list.

Hence, there’s not a huge amount of choice.

I eventually migrated to a coat with the name of ‘Stinky’. I bought this brown sheepskin ‘beauty’ at Portobello Market in London. It got its nickname from its rather unfortunate musty smell, which seemed to permeate other clothes worn under it.

When I tried to get it dry cleaned, I learned that it would cost more than the coat was worth. So I forgot about it and tried to forget about the smell.

Years later I learned to love 60 denier black tights, a favourite of the English woman and worn by millions of them. They are so dark and thick it’s like trying to see through soupy fog, but they’re an essential for skirts and dresses and can even be worn under jeans on really cold days.

I wear them for about five months of the year, which leaves my legs looking like the colour of a jaundiced baby by spring. This is the colour my legs are now.

Come April, however, there is something rather wrong about walking around in bright sunshine with tights that are as dark as a December evening, even if the weather is hardly conducive to the beach look.

Fashion magazines here will tell you that springtime means putting the dark tights away until next autumn. But the fashion pack behind these column inches must literally freeze to death every April, facing the capricious month with an army of bare legs and – dare I say it – strappy sandals.

Some of these fashion-forward women have recgonised the plight they are in. The more practical among them have started advising wearing socks with sandals (I kid you not). This gives me recurring visions of Birkenstocks teamed with white socks. It makes me shudder more than the stiff breeze blowing from the northeast.

But you have to hand it to the English: they are creative when it comes to dressing for their unpredictable climate.

No wonder they are known for their fashion worldwide. They’ve had to get good at it. They’ve had to learn to reinvent fabrics, to layer their clothes like champions and to make tweed look chic.

Their weather has forced them to be good at tailoring and to become masters of the cutting edge.

It’s not like they can just wear a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops for most of the year, a look that requires about as much thought as boiling an egg.

So this is my flimsy theory: the nearly year-round cold and damp has led the English to be excellent tailors and inventive dressers.

I just wish some of the inventiveness would rub off on me when I’m frantically looking for something to wear in the mornings.  

 

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The Californian dream

Chatterbox and Raging Bull

We could swap long winters for warm ones

It could be mid-winter blues, but I’m craving a bit of Californian sunshine right now – and there’s been plenty of it. California is going through a terrible drought at the moment, said to be the worst since records began over a century ago. There’s been very little rain for three years, so the land is parched where it isn’t irrigated.

Meanwhile, in London and the UK, there is so much rain that some people are having to be evacuated from their homes; there are whole villages and towns under water; and there’s allegedly worse yet to come. It has caused all sorts of chaos, and sparked emergency meetings with worried-looking government officials, who have been accused of not spending enough money on flood defences and basically being complacent. They tend to blame each other while images of people carrying sandbags flash across television screens.

I’m now ready to take a bit of drought over perpetual, soul-destroying drizzle and gale-force winds. I return to my Californian fantasy at regular intervals, usually at least once or twice a month. It goes something like this: I get fed up with life in London for whatever reason and then start dreaming about how much better life could be in the paradise that I imagine lies waiting for me near the Pacific. I have hazy daydreams of beaches, owning a small house and sitting on a patio eating food outside, even at Christmas.

I don’t imagine the traffic-choked freeways that look like concrete arteries from the sky; I don’t think about the cost of our healthcare; or spend time contemplating the reality of upping sticks and moving. Why let real life get in the way of dreams, right?

But my dream got a sharp does of reality this week when I casually told the seven-year-old Chatterbox that we might go to California one day. (I tell myself this in the vain hope that it will suddenly come true.) To my surprise she burst into tears and said she didn’t want to go and preferred to stay in London forever. This is the first time she has reacted this way. Up until now she has been dragged this way and that, flapping around as casually as the sails of a boat in a squally storm. She’s been in four schools in four years and coped remarkably well, but I sense a bit of resistance.

Friends and other parents warned me this would be happen. It makes sense that she would get more reluctant to leave the place where she was born as time marches on. At the age of four, when we left for California for a year, she was happy to follow me around. Now this seems less certain.

I ask why the tears and she tells me, while choking back great sobs, that it’s because she will never see her friends again. I can relate to this. My parents moved to the house I grew up in when I was about seven years old. I thought this was the end of the world, because I had to leave the school I’d got used to and my two best friends. I still see one of those friends every time I go to San Diego; I’ve known her since I was about five. It’s a small miracle we are still so close.

But moving countries is far worse. It’s not like living a few exits off the freeway. I always knew that asking the kids to leave London could lead to problems down the line. But I thought I’d have more time than this. If a seven-year-old is this distraught, how is a 12-year-old likely to act?

This is the inescapable truth about parenting: as much as I want to live in California, as much as I dream about setting up a new life, I have to come to terms with the fact that it’s not entirely about me. Am I letting my dreams get in the way of what’s best for the kids? It’s hard to know. I have some degree of certainty in the UK right now, and I would be facing an unknown future in California. My feeling is that it would all work out eventually in the United States after a period of adjustment, but would my girls still be speaking to me by then?

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Isabella Blow exhibition – London

A poster advertising the Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House

A poster advertising the Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House

I’ve been in hibernation – and the blog has suffered. In London the winter months are categorized by shades of grey (not like the bestseller book). The sky goes from bruised purple to whitish grey, the colour of a string of dull pearls. So I spend many days lacking motivation. But today the sky was bright blue, sharp and hopeful. If I swallowed the sky today, it would taste like a refreshing and cool mint. So I’m writing again.

A few days ago I went to the Isabella Blow exhibition in London. If you don’t know Isabella Blow, she was a famous fashion stylist and editor, friend to British designer Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy. She was rebellious, outrageous and fearless. Her fashion sense was inimitable and daring. She wore stunning hats that were more like pieces of art. She loved textures and colours and mixing things that you wouldn’t necessarily think would go together. She was, for want of a better word, original.

What do you wear to the exhibition of a fashionista? I felt distinctly dowdy in my parka coat and comfortable boots. More like a mother going to the park than a woman who wears clothes because she utterly loves them.

A brief biography (excuse me if you already know it): Isabella Blow came from an aristocratic family, extraordinarily privileged. But her grandfather – who was accused of murder but acquitted – had squandered much of the family’s vast wealth. He committed suicide.

The tragedy didn’t stop there. Isabella’s little brother, Johnny, died at two years old in a shallow pool in the garden of the family home. Isabella, only five, was in charge of watching him at the time.

Despite her connections and her family’s name (she was born Delves Broughton), Isabella went to work because her father essentially cut her off from the inheritance. With her pedigree and eccentric tastes, she ended up working at Vogue and Tatler, becoming an assistant to THE Anna Wintour.

The exhibition showcased some of Isabella’s incredible clothes and reflected on her collaborations with many of the industry’s hottest young talent. According to one report, she bought all of Alexander McQueen’s graduate collection for £5,000 and paid it off in £100 instalments.

She loved Manolo Blahnik shoes and pink pens. Isabella was flamboyant and exotic, so it’s little surprise that she favoured bold colours and feathers – these were costumes more than clothes.

I was particularly struck by a hat – made by her lifelong friend Treacy – that was shaped like a huge ship with several billowing sails; it was made out of delicate black feathers.

There was also a beautifully cut Galliano jacket; a dress that resembled armour; and a hat shaped like pouty lips. There were lace corsets and early gothic McQueen designs that had a lock of hair sewn into the inside, a small reference to Jack the Ripper.

A spiky ankle bracelet that looked more dangerous than dainty had apparently left Isabella with several lacerations when she wore it. This was fashion for those who aren’t faint-hearted.

The most memorable and unbelievably beautiful dress was made from bird of paradise feathers, part of a collection made in tribute to Isabella after her death. The McQueen creation swished at the bottom, fanning out like a tail. It was stunning. It was topped off with a jewel-encrusted bird hat. Animal activists would probably want to stay away.

Isabella killed herself by swallowing weed killer at the age of 48 in 2007. She was diagnosed manic depressive and also had been told she had ovarian cancer. It was not her first suicide attempt. (McQueen, a close friend, killed himself three years later, in February 2010.)

Her husband Detmar Blow had told the fashion icon, on their very first meeting, that his father had killed himself by swallowing weed killer. One can only speculate…

(Note: no cameras are allowed inside the exhibition, which runs until March 2014. It’s half price on Mondays).

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Pulling a sickie

Kids at British Museum

The girls on an official day off school

I’ve never been much of a rebel. The most anti-establishment I ever got was blasting Nirvana in my car, buying Doc Martens and once dyeing my hair a deep shade of purple. It therefore follows that I tend to break out in a cold sweat at the thought of doing something I know I shouldn’t. This includes pulling sickies at work.

I’ve done it. Haven’t we all? I have faked the croaky voice and sniffles; I’ve probably called in with a mysterious stomach ailment – but this is something I’ve not actually done in a long while. I always fear getting caught. I spend the entire day I’ve called in sick gripped with guilt, which kind of defeats the purpose of enjoying a rare day off.

That’s the kind of person I am. I guess some people would call it responsible, others might say it’s boring. But turning 40 makes me wonder if I’m just too old to go through the whole painful charade of sickies.

The answer is no and it surprises me that it’s because of the kids. For about a month I knew that we were visiting a friend in Manchester over the weekend. The train fare is extortionate on a Friday evening – about double the price – so I thought very simply that I would pull the kids out of school a couple of hours early. No big deal, right?

But as the Friday approached, I started to panic. What if the school asks questions about why I need to take the kids out? I hear from someone that the school has the right to fine you.

I wonder what excuse sounds plausible, especially for a Friday afternoon. Should I say we are going to a funeral and risk their pitying looks? Might a well-meaning teacher ask the kids how they are coping with death? Do I tell them that I have a hospital appointment, an excuse on a par with ‘my dog ate my homework’? I fret about it.

On Thursday night I decide that I will just keep the kids home all day and avoid the lying in person, which I’ve never been able to pull off convincingly. I take the coward’s way out and get the English Husband – who had a misspent youth – to call the school on Friday morning. He leaves a vague message on an answering machine about discovering lice in both kids’ hair. It’s possible. Hell, it’s happened before.

This brings up all sorts of moral conundrums, of course. The kids are liars by association. I’ve made them unwitting accomplices in my web of deceit.    

I feel like a teenager all over again and part of me wonders if I might end up being dragged into the principal’s office for a chat. Ironically, I was a model student when I was a child and never did anything that would have landed me there. This good behavior hasn’t translated into adulthood.

On Monday morning when I drop off the Raging Bull at school, her teaching assistant gives her a hug and says, ‘Where were you on Friday? We missed you.’

I dash to the door. Shame is prickling my skin and I don’t hear the Raging Bull’s response. It’s a good thing that most of the words coming out of my four-year-old’s mouth are lies anyway. If she happens to tell the truth about ‘Mommy the liar’, not many people are likely to believe her.

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