Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Scotch Egg Challenge, 25th September

“No tickets, no entry fee, no reservations, and as many Scotch eggs as you can eat”. The Scotch Egg Challenge at The Ship promises much but failed to deliver. The idea is good, and I still like it, but the execution was severely lacking. This was only it’s second year and I’m sure it will get bigger and bigger. I hope it also gets better.

I’d been hearing about it on twitter for ages, and then on Monday decided to actually look up what and when it was. Turned out it was the very next day and I didn’t think I could go, so I put it on my List for next year. However, late Tuesday afternoon my boyfriend said he could get out of his plans early, so we could try to get there for 8. And this is what we did.

Perhaps we didn’t get as much out of it as we could have because we arrived late, and I admit, ended up leaving before the end. By the time we arrived, the room in which the eggs were being cooked and plated up, and the room in which the judges were sat, were seething masses. It was clear that our chances of getting any of the eggs being cooked were slim-to-none. Everyone was crowded around the two areas where eggs were likely to be ‘gettable’ - the service counter, and the judges, meaning you couldn’t see much of either. The only people who seemed to be relaxed and had eggs that looked like they might even be going spare, were the people who had reserved tables – the PR, press and sponsors.

For everyone else it was a free-for-all.

The crowd getting ready to pounce

The challenge is between 20 or so (I think this year it was 22) chefs/establishments to create and make the best scotch eggs. Condiments and accoutrements are allowed but will not be judged. The merit of the egg is judged on the egg alone. I was able to see the judges’ scorecards and they had three categories – taste, texture and appearance. This might well have been explained at the beginning of the night, but as I said, we were late.

Each team gets 15 minutes in the kitchen which must be strictly adhered to. They are to cook 2 eggs for the judges and then 10 extra eggs for the throng. Each egg is cut into at least 4. That’s around 880 pieces of egg for the public. It should have been more than enough for the numbers that were there. It could almost have been ‘as many Scotch eggs as you can eat’. Unfortunately it was more like ‘no Scotch eggs for you, unless you’re standing by the counter, refusing to move even after you’ve had some, in which case you get as many as you like’.

I have been to a few things where free food is on offer. It makes me question society and humans as individuals. What is it about free food that makes people turn into hyenas squabbling over a morsel of carrion? Things got heated at the Shoreditch Literary Salon for free pizza, but last night was a whole new level. Platters would be practically snatched out of whichever unfortunate (or fortunate) it was first handed to. We saw not once, but twice, people stooping to the ground to pick up the scotch eggs that had landed there after everyone had assaulted the person with the platter so aggressively, it had been surrendered to the mob and fallen. Seriously people – eating off the ground?! And it’s not like these are deprived people. I would say most of the people there were squarely middle class to whom a posh scotch egg was probably pretty standard fare of an evening spent sipping craft beers. But it was free, and therefore civility went out the window. This will always be a problem when the system assumes people will take a share and then move on for people to get their go. People are greedy, and when the next offering is slightly different to the first, second, etc, they will want a piece of that too. The system falls down.

The best place I’ve been that offers free food was Are you Sitting Comfortably? which gives attendees free chip butties. You’re asked if you want one when you come in, and when you’re seated, one is brought to you. Supremely fair and well organised. Could something like this be done at the Scotch Egg Challenge? I think so. Instead of letting the eggs come out batch by batch, maybe they could keep them all behind and then, during the 20 minute break, set up the 400-plus portions of scotch eggs on a table, buffet style. I think people’s queuing instincts would kick in and they would be far less inclined to take more than one or two quarters when everyone can see them, and when everyone is reassured that most people will get some. This could then be done towards the end of the evening as well for the remaining 440 portions. Or even saving up three or four batches at a time and having people mill through the crowd with them would avoid the bottle-necking and savage lunging.

This would also mean that people actually concentrated on the judging, rather than anxiously looking around, distracted by worrying they are missing out on the free stuff. Because isn’t the judging what it is supposed to be about? Before I even got there I had resigned myself to likely not getting any egg (and I didn’t) but I hoped to enjoy the competition.

Even this was a bit of a letdown. The judges were sitting down, barely visible amongst the standing observers. After each egg, they didn’t even really comment on it (unless the compere happened to ask one of them a direct question). They just quietly wrote down their scores on their own piece of paper. Unless you were standing right by them, you didn’t know what that score was. It would have been nice if the judges had a bit of a raised dias to eat on, and for their scores to be projected, or at least called out so that there was more focus on this. Behind the judges there was a screen so people watching the judging could still see what was going on in the kitchen, but I think that, if you made more of the judging (I hate to condone X Factor, but a bit more like that), then it should be the other way around.

The eggs are judged ‘blind’ so that the judges can’t favour a particular chef or restaurant, which is kind of a shame for the rest of us as you don’t know who you’re watching in action. But they are told what each egg is made with. I wanted to take a picture of the scorecard to remember all the different types but my camera battery let me down. Some of them sounded amazing, and the one egg we managed to get a good glimpse of looked amazing too. This was created with truffled ham, chips, duck egg and more truffled something. It looked amazing when it was cut into as well. I NEED to find out who made that egg! Presumably all is revealed at the end of the night, when the trophies are presented but for Stephen really took against the evening and demanded we leave early. If I find out that the end of the night turned into some kind of free egg orgy I shall be sorely disappointed. But please do tell me if it did, as all will be forgiven and I will be sure to go next year!

On a positive note, the Ship seemed like a lovely pub, with a barbie going full swing in the vast beer garden. Definitely a place to bear in mind for whenever summer graces us again. And Oliver Peyton was there, which can never be a bad thing.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rebel Bingo at Village Underground, 14th September

Bingo is not my game. When I went to Musical Bingo I didn’t win a single thing. When I’ve been to normal bingo ‘down the club’ with my boyfriend’s mum, I have had similar scant success. And Friday night at Rebel Bingo was no exception. I didn’t cross off a single line. It didn’t help, that despite it being a bingo night, very little bingo is actually played, thus further slimming my chances. It’s clearly just a ruse for a piss up.

We got there at about 8:30 as instructed and upon entry were given our book with our bingo lines in it. This consisted of two sheets of paper – one sheet per game. That's right. Only two games of bingo in the entire night are played. An hour or so later, the seething mass of revellers were called to attention and the first game of bingo began. I seem to remember it followed the usual pattern – prize for a line, two lines, full house etc. All very conventional. Except that most people are pretty drunk by now, and probably not paying that much attention. How to focus them? Well, firstly there were some very desirable prizes on offer. I particularly coveted the shiny disco ball (having no regard to the fact I would have had nowehere to store it at home) but alas, as you know, I wasn’t successful. The second way to keep the rabble paying attention, is to come up with the filthiest bingo calls imaginable. You know the thing – what you say so you know which number has been called - ‘Two Fat Ladies’ for 88 etc. Of course, the traditional bingo calls are supposed to have some relevance to the number that has just come up. These ones . . . not so much. I can’t now recall specifically any of the terms. I tried to write down on my hand a reference to the more lurid ones but as you can see, that didn’t work. 

You can probably just about make out the word ‘cunt’ at the bottom there

Basically, if you think along the lines of “26, sweaty flaps, 26” or "48, my boyfriend licks my greasy minge juice, 48", you won’t be far off.

After the climax of the first game there’s more drinking and more dancing, and then the final game of the evening. By this point everyone is pretty pissed and the markers that have been handed out for crossing off your numbers, have been put to more creative uses. Why do people like drawing on each other so much? It’s a mystery. 

Christ, who are these bozos?
The bingo was all over by 11 but you were strongly encouraged to stick around for the party. I had plans to go to the rugby the next day, and go out Saturday night so I didn’t want to stay for too long. However, every time I got ready to leave, they put on another song that I wanted to stay and dance to. They were playing crowd pleasers, but without straying too far into cheese, so it was actually stuff I like (yes, I’m aware that sounds a bit pretentious). For example, they played Chase & Status, but not their big hit Sweet Sensation – instead they played No Problem, which I much prefer. And there was a bit of Marilyn Manson thrown in, and Here Comes the Hotsteppter. A broad range to suit all tastes. Eventually though, the music seemed to be descending further and further into dubstep which was good motivation to finally leave, way too late to get the last tube home.

Rebel Bingo was held in Village Underground, which is also on my list. I have actually been here before, and so could have technically crossed it off, but I wanted to come back and experience it when it was being used as a club venue. The last time I went it was for a much more sedate special Book Slam event. Village Underground is quite a cavernous space when there aren’t lots of tables and chairs set out, which is good as there was a lot of people. There was a stage area at one end of it from where the numbers were called, a bar set back somewhere in the middle, and then the entrance at the other end, which was a little bit raised. This was where we were and provided an impressive view of the throng below. God knows how you could make yourself heard (though people did) once you had Bingo, or how they managed to get to the stage to claim their prize. It’s a pretty ‘cool’ space that is used to hosting parties from the Blitz to Mixmag nights so they obviously know what they’re doing for busy nights and have a good sound system. Drinks weren’t any more expensive than you’d expect at £3.50 for a can or £4.00 for a spirit and mixer – we stuck to cider in a can.

I met someone in the pub beforehand who had been to Rebel Bingo before who said the success of the night seemed to go hand-in-hand with the venue.  As this was my first, I can’t compare it to other nights, but I had a really, really good night and Village Underground seemed to complement Rebel Bingo.

Rebel Bingo used to be called Underground Rebel Bingo, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s gone overground now. They only do a few a year and it is so popular, the online tickets sell out in minutes. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next one.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Shoreditch Literary Salon, 12th September

It has taken me longer to get into a Shoreditch Literary Salon, hosted at Shoreditch House, than it has for some people to get a table at Dabbous. The night is held only semiregularly and spaces are strictly limited, and free. Which means that you have to be quick off the mark to be one of the first 250 to RSVP to the Facebook invite if you want to be reasonably sure of a space (priority is given to Shoreditch House members). But finally the stars aligned and I got the notification that another one was being hosted while I was actually on Facebook and I RSVPd straight away.

Stephen and I arrived at 6:25 and there was already a queue. Despite all the warnings about not turning up if you hadn’t got your name down before the magic number 250, no one was checking names on the door so they couldn’t have had a clue whether or not those who were supposed to be there really were, or if there were interlopers. I had thought we were being extra cautious getting there so early because I knew numbers were limited, and I assumed (wrongly) that there would be enough seats for everyone. By the time we got in to the area, there were none left and we had to stand. And still more people streamed in!

As with other literary nights, the success of them depends quite heavily on the calibre of the guests, in terms of entertainment value. If you have a boring speaker or reader, then the night is going to be slightly marred. This night, unfortunately, did suffer from this with the second speaker Bharat Tandon. He is one of this year’s judges for the Man Booker Prize, the shortlist of which was announced Tuesday. On paper, this must have sounded like an excellent guest to have, and very topical. He’s also a lecturer on post 18th-century British literature and so would be used to speaking publicly you would think. Unfortunately he came across as quite awkward, rather pretentious, but worst of all he wasn’t able to speak off the cuff very easily. His pre-planned talk was fairly painful to stand through as it was, but when it came to the question and answer part, it was nigh-on excruciating as he stuttered, and hesitated through his answers.

The previous guest, Shirley Conran had been an excellent and rather raucous, steamy start to the night. Regarded as one of the pioneers of racy literature, she was clearly used to being on stage and the centre of attention. Approaching 80, she had the wit and sparkle of a much younger woman, so that hearing her say ‘thrust his cock violently into her mouth’ was not as shocking or as grotesque as it would have been if, say, your nan had mentioned it in conversation. She came across as a very interesting lady, forthright and frank. I hadn’t heard of her before the evening and was left wanting to know much more about her and her life and read her most famous book Lace, which seems to be a thinly veiled memoir (even less well cloaked now that she has included an afterword confessing who the characters were in real life).

So, we had started on a good note, but then things had stalled and people were getting restless. Luckily after Bharat it was time for an interval so people could reinvigorate themselves at the bar, or try to get a slice of the free pizza on offer. Besides being free to get in, Shoreditch Literary Salon also provides free cocktails on arrival and free pizza at the interval. But not enough. When we arrived there were still free vodka and tonics lining the bar. However, if you turned up closer to 7 than 6:30, you were out of luck. As for the pizza, there was no way near enough to afford even a slice to everyone who was there. This lead to what felt like almost a free-for-all as people were determined to get their free slice. It’s amazing how free food turns us into base animals. I happened to actually be ordering a drink at the bar when some of the pizzas were presented and managed to get myself and Stephen a slice. If you had been sitting down until the end of Bharat’s piece, you were out of luck. In fact, the pizza was brought out not quite before the Q & A with Bharat was over, and some astute people realised this and also that they wouldn’t get a look-in if they didn’t move soon, so started to shift and move toward the bar. This, I thought, was a little rude and disrupted what was happening on stage. Bharat was already a disjointed speaker, I think people getting up and moving around didn’t help his concentration.

I know people appreciate free stuff, but when there’s not enough to go around, I think sometimes it’s better not to bother offering it at all, as it just leads to crowds and unpleasantness as no one wants to miss out. Leaving the pizza at the bar also had the unfortunate consequence of people waiting for drinks being able to help themselves to as much as they wanted, or to people who had no need of a drink clogging up the bar to get to the food.

Having said that, the scarcity of it meant I was extra pleased I got some, and everyone getting up to get some presented the opportunity to move to a better position for the next half.

I must confess that I didn’t watch as much of the Olympics and Paralympics as the rest of my fellow Brits seem to have, and therefore I didn’t get swept up in the national crush on Clare Balding. Until last night that is.

Clare Balding took to the stage to read some of her forthcoming book My Animals and Other Family and she completely captivated and charmed the audience. She was warm, very spontaneously funny, open, and her chemistry with Damian was excellent. I did wonder if they had met before as they were so at ease and comfortable with each other. The chapter she read from was humorous and entertaining and learning about her background was equally interesting. I know she sounds posh on TV but I had no idea she had such close ties to aristocracy and royalty. And did you know she’s a lesbian?! (Kidding, she’s not really) (No - she is.) She was completely in her element and I could see why the nation had fallen for her over the summer.

What is different about these nights compared to other literary nights I have been to (apart from it being free) is that the guest doesn’t just read their excerpt and get out – Damian does a bit of a ‘chat show’ session with them, and then the audience can ask questions, so you get to know more about the author. Damian is an excellent host, a little bit cheeky, funny and asks questions we’d actually like to know the answers to. He very much deserves credit for making the evening so enjoyable.

Part of me hopes no one reads this as it is hard enough to get on the guestlist in the first place, but it was fun and deserves to be read about. Highly recommend.

Oh – and Jon Tickle from Big Brother was there, which is always nice.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cirrik, 7th September

If you’re familiar with my Food List, or if you take a look now, you’ll realise Cirrik isn’t on it. But what is on it is ‘Turkish place in Stoke Newington'. I think you can guess where I’m going with this...

While I was in the States, Stephen and his friend Nick went in search of some Turkish food in Dalston. They apparently had a specific place in mind but it was no longer there and instead they ended up somewhere else, in Stoke Newington, the name of which Stephen could not remember, but he raved about it. There was so much meat! So many salads! A huge grill at the back! And it was on a corner. I definitely wanted to try this place. And on Friday I decided I was in the mood for some Turkish.

We headed up to Dalston and walked from Dalston Junction up. Stephen was sure this place was on a corner, but we could not see anything that fit his memory of it. I noticed Cirrik as we walked by, because since coming back from the States, I’d heard from a couple of sources that it was a really good place. I clocked it, and thought, if we don’t find the place Stephen knows, maybe we can go there instead. But it wasn’t busy at all, so I wasn’t if it was the same Cirrik I’d heard of. Especially as further up there was another one, albeit closed.

We got practically all the way to Stoke Newington, Church Street without seeing the place we sought. Dejected and disheartened, I suggested we try Mangal Ocakbasi instead, and we did the same journey in reverse. Only this time when we passed Cirrik, there were several people inside, and the grill at the back was aflame. This is it! Stephen announced. Not on a corner at all, which is why it had been tricky to find, but it was the same in every other detail, and I was rather pleased that Stephen’s place turned out to be somewhere I had kind of wanted to try anyway. 

Well, the meal did not disappoint. My only regret was that I couldn’t finish it! We ordered the same meal that Stephen and Nick had had before, with Stephen warning me not to bother with a starter because there would be so much food. We each got a mixed grill for one, which comes with three different salads, plus a basket of bread, which they replenished even before we’d come close to finishing the first. This was utterly delicious. Light, slightly greasy and seemed to be lightly spiced as well. Even when I couldn't fit in all the meat I still managed to squeeze in a few more pieces of bread. 

We could see the chef cooking our meat on the grill behind us and it arrived all stacked on a plate of rice on top of very thin bread, which soaked up all the meat juices. It was all fantastic, but I especially liked the little lamb ribs – a little crunchy and charred on the edges, with amazing flavour. But I also had adana kebabs (minced lamb), chicken sis kebab and cop sis - cubes of marinated lamb. And so much of it, as I said, I couldn’t finish it and just concentrated on my favourites. 

As much as I loved the meat, the salads deserve a mention as well. You are served three different kinds, and if you don’t like onions you’re out of luck. The first is large chunks of grilled onions with parsley and sweet pomegranite juice. The second are thins strips of onion covered with spices, I preferred this savoury salad. And the last is a fresh green, tomato and pickled cabbage salad again with lots of parsley. They were refreshing and exactly what you needed to cut through the heaviness of the meat. All this was only £13.50. 

Also, top marks for seating us on the edge of an empty table. The restaurant is a bit communal, and you may end up sitting next to people you don't know, but whereas with other restaurants like this, I find they try to herd everyone to the same table, no matter how few customers there are, here were were given as much space as possible.

I'll be back.

19 Numara Bos Cirrik on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

McQueen, 5th September

I love it when things transpire in my favour (who wouldn’t?). McQueen was on my list and then lo and behold, a couple of months ago, Time Out had an offer for a discount on a meal there! What better excuse could I need to finally go and check it out?

I stumbled upon this place during one of my strolls through London and was intrigued by its location slightly off the beaten track of the Shoreditch triangle, and also its sleek look. I investigated what was on the inside and decided I wanted to try it.

McQueen, named for Steve McQueen has the lot – a restaurant, a bar and a downstairs club. Its design is supposed to emulate American cool, in homage to the coolest of cool cats, Steve McQueen himself. I think they do achieve the look they’re going for, the space is pleasing to be in, and the odd quirky, slightly gothic touch such as the candelabra or bizarre human tree sculpture gives the place a bit of personality. I do wonder if the clientele it attracts are quite what they had in mind – there were a lot of City types in there; young guys doing Sambucas on a Wednesday night and then patting themselves on the back after each one. (Well done guys, you can take a sugar hit.)

Sorry, poor quality picture!
The restaurant was pretty empty when we got there at a little before 7, but it did get busier through the course of our meal. Our voucher was for a meal for two, for £25 for three courses and a bottle of wine. What a bargain! It was of course a set menu, basically one choice for meat eaters and one for the veggies, so Stephen and I had the same as each other for our starter and main. This was, a salmon and haddock fishcake on a bed of lentils, and then the bavette with thrice cooked chips and a turnip puree.

The fishcake was good – nice and crisp batter on the outside with big flakes of fish inside, the lentils were cooked perfectly for me and it all tasted great. I could have eaten more of it. 

The bavette was decent but not the best steak I’ve ever had; it will take a long time for anything the beat the bavette at Vinoteca. We weren’t convinced that the chips were triple cooked, but they were fine as far as chips go, a little on the thin side. What really stole the show was the turnip puree. What a discovery! It was incredibly rich and pungent tasting, reminding me almost of truffles. Definitely miles above your normal creamed potato. When spooned onto the steak, it added a touch of luxury to every bite. This should be on more menus.

For our desserts Stephen and I diverged on choice. I had the chocolate fondant and he had the pecan pie. At first he proclaimed his very good, but then he decided that it could have been more moist. I certainly didn’t have that problem with my fondant, which oozed as a good fondant should, the moment I pierced it with my spoon. Stephen had food envy and with good reason. My dessert was rich, gooey, warm and tasty.

I asked for the bill even though we had prepaid and she said ‘no bill, you’ve paid already’. I had thought they might present us with one so that they could charge us for service and I was interested to see if it would be 12.5% on our voucher price, or what the meal would have cost normally. The fact that they did not even give us a bill was a big plus for them, and inclined me to leave a tip anyway.

We then went next door for a drink. The drinks were a leetle pricey but not too far above the average for Shoreditch. I enjoyed the setting despite the Suits, and we had a couple of seats at the bar, which is my favourite place to sit. The only seats available in fact as even though no one else in the bar was sitting down, they had festooned all available sitting surfaces with their bags and accessories. We only stayed out for one drink, as we had unexpectedly ended up drinking both the night before and the night before that so the visit was brief but enjoyable.

I don’t know if this will make it into my repertoire of regular drinking establishments, but it is very close to XOYO so good to bear in mind for drinks beforehand if I’m going there. And of course, they have clubnights themselves which I plan to try out some time as well. 

McQueen on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Highgate Cemetery, 28th August

I do rather like cemeteries, especially the old, grand ones. They’re peaceful and often hold beautiful and interesting sculptures. When I was in New York I went to the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, home to the remains of Bill the Butcher amongst other notable figures. So when I read about Highgate Cemetery, it was a no-brainer that I would want to go.

Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward to just pop along any time you like. Access, at least to the West side is restricted to being part of a tour (with fee) only, and you have to pay to enter the East side as well, which put me off for a while. But, both sides, I think, are worth the money, and doing the West side as part of a tour is probably a lot more informative and entertaining than wandering around on your own trying to make sense of it.

Westside graves
Firstly, the place is huge. There are 17 acres of graveyard on the West Side and almost as much on the East. And the Victorians did not waste this space. The graves are absolutely crammed in, creating some areas which are inaccessible as they are so overgrown and have so little space around them. The place is so big that our guide (a very knowledgeably, friendly but of course, slightly eccentric lady) said that even she made new discoveries such as a little pig statue by a grave.

The tour of course takes you around the cemetery and points out the graves of well-known people or those with stories connected to them, for example the very first person to be interred there. She also explained what various features of graves mean – the fact that a lot of decorations are related to the person’s career or interests, and that they’re often depicted upside down because the deceased has no need of them anymore. A broken column symbolises a life cut short, and an angel with her arms open is beckoning the deceased towards heaven. A lot of the graves have just plain headstones, but those with more money went in for elaborate carvings and statues. It made me feel like I was walking around the backyard of the Addams Family.

No more so than when we went into the catacombs. It was cold and dim in there and while some of the catacombs had concrete over their fronts with inscriptions about who lay within, some of them had had only glass fronts, long since broken, and the slightly decaying coffins were clearly visible. It definitely gave you a creepy thrill.

Egyptian Avenue
Equally as impressive was the Egyptian Avenue. Right in the middle of the cemetery (I use the term ‘middle’ loosely, as I had no idea of my bearings) was a huge entrance, styled, well, Egyptian-style. I felt like I was in a scene from Tomb Raider, what with the obelisks and ornate columns either side of the ‘crypt’ and the feeling that anything could be lurking inside.

The tour is supposed to last an hour, but it actually spilled quite a lot over that, and even then our guide had to reel off a bunch of graves we didn’t have time to get to or were inaccessible at the moment. All the places on the tour were booked – you must book ahead if you go in the week and woe betide you if you don’t! Two people had turned up, traveled all the way from Kent to get a spot, but we were full and there was no changing anyone’s mind about it! On the weekends, you just have to turn up and hope you get on a tour without waiting around for too long. They're clearly popular.

Photos are allowed in the main, but there were some instances when it’s not permitted – sometimes families request that photos not be taken, as in the case of Litvinenko who is buried there, or the grand mausoleum that we peeked in which ‘houses’ Julius Beer and his descendants. Julius Beer was a Jew who technically shouldn’t be buried in consecrated ground but who allegedly converted on his death bed. He owned the Observer and had a lot of money so I imagine not too many people objected, even when his mausoleum, which is the biggest in the cemetery, blocked the sightline over the other graves. This has recently been restored and is quite incredible inside. Its ceiling wouldn’t look out of place in a grand house or church. 

Eastside graves
After the hour and a quarter or so that we spent in the Westside, we were a little fatigued. But we wanted to check out the East side as well. The inhabitants of this side are more varied than the West - none of that consecrated business over here. (In fact, people who wanted to be buried in Highgate but weren't of the correct religious persuasion would be driven in to Highgate West and then transported via a lift and tunnel to the other side where they were allowed.) We didn’t really give this side the attention it probably deserves as we were flagging. Instead we just used the map we’d bought to locate the people we were really interested in, looked at those graves and then skedaddled. Here are some of their graves.

Karl Marx's grave

Douglas Adams's grave

Richard 'Stoney' Smith's grave - inventor of Hovis

George Eliot's grave

I liked this grave but though I assumed he was a partner
at Penguin, I can find no evidence supporting that

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Panorama, 25th August

My family and my parents have been going to Notting Hill Carnival for years, but for some reason my parents never took it upon themselves to tell me about Panorama. No, I had to discover it for myself via Time Out’s 1000 Things to Do book.

But what a discovery. I can’t believe this feel-good night is so little known. I hadn’t been to Carnival for a few years now, and although we were going on Monday, I was worried it wouldn’t be as good as I had remembered it (this turned out to be a needless fear – if you stuck to following the parade and ignored the static sound systems, it was as if nothing had changed since I was 18). But after I went to Panorama, I realised it didn’t matter how good or bad Carnival was – everything I liked about it was to be found right here.

Every year,since 1978,  before Carnival (the exact date changes) the National Steel Pan Competition takes place. There are six finalists who are judged on a variety of factors on their ten minute interpretation of a steel pan classic. It has been held in Hyde Park a couple of times, but its ‘home’ is Horniman Pleasance Park in Westbourne Grove and that’s where it was this year. This year, it was taking place between 7 and 10 pm but it is sometimes held in the daytime.

We got to Westbourne Grove and made our way to the tiny Horniman’s Pleasance Park. There were people going in the same direction as us, but not enough to make it obvious that they too were going to Panorama, and not just residents going back to their flats, as the park is in the middle of quite a built up area. But soon we heard music and knew we were heading in the right direction.

In my head, I envisioned a little park, with a little bandstand, on which the bands would set up and play for a few people dotted around it. When we got there we were surprised by the charged, party atmosphere. We walked into the park and there was a huge screen showing photographs and music blaring. But we couldn’t see any sign of a live band. I noticed a little kiosk in one corner of the park and we went over there but they weren’t selling anything that took our fancy. We had arrived at 8:30 pm and were nonplussed to say the least that we couldn’t tell where the bands were. Surely they should have been in full swing by now – we were an hour and a half late!

After 10 minutes or so of the same song being played, the screen changed and a live video feed came on, with an MC welcoming you to Panorama. But where was he? He was gone almost as soon as he was on and the same song was looped again. Puzzled and slightly frustrated, we decided to leave the park and go for a walk around it to pass some time. And that’s when we discovered the food stalls! One one side of the park, several stalls selling just the kind of food you’d expect from Carnival were set up, their wares including curry goat, jerk chicken, patties and dumplings. We weren’t actually hungry but we made a mental note to be sure to buy something before we left. 

The food stalls

We carried on walking up around the park and discovered – the ‘stage’! The competition wasn’t taking place inside the park at all – it was happening behind it! Unfortunately, we had realised this quite late and there were plenty of people in front of us with better views. The public were only allowed to observe from the sides (or the big screen in the park). The best, front-on views were reserved for the judges. We watched one band, and when they were done the MC apologised for the late running and said that they were the second band on! God knows what we would have done had we actually turned up on time. (Gone to the pub.)

One band's finale from the first side

Knowing how long it seemed to have taken them to get even two bands on, we decided to investigate the other side of the park. And this is when it all became clear. When we went to the other side, we saw the next band ‘waiting in the wings’. Each band was set up on a truck as they would be for the Carnival, and after the previous band was done, would then drive their float through into position before the judges. Any extra pans needed were then set up in front and to the side of the float. What seemed to be hindering the whole night was that the road that the floats were using to get into place, was also where people were congregating to watch. Every time a band finished, the audience to the side had to be persuaded to move to the side to let the next band on. It was taking a while.

A band moving their drums in

Naturally we joined this crowd and when the next band were through managed to get quite a good spot to enjoy the music. 
Down this side was yet another set of stalls selling Caribbean food. We bought a selection to take with us – some curry goat, a couple of patties (Me: what’s in these patties? Stallholder: Meat. Me: I’ll take two.) and a dumpling. Didn’t think much of the dumpling which was a bit dry and chewy after having been reheated in the microwave, but the beef patty was deliciously savoury with just a bit of spiciness to it and a crisp pastry shell.

Better view from the other side

But before we went, we went back in the park to get a front view of one of the bands. People were constantly going back and forth between the big screen in the park and the live action at the back. Unfortunately, neither places provided a completely satisfactory experience. If you were at the back watching it live, it sounded great but you couldn’t see much. If you were in the park, you got a great view, but the sound was very poor. It sounded like they were playing miles away, not mere metres. Panorama has been going for years so perhaps this really is the best solution they can come up with, but it feels like there is room for improvement.

This aside, we were there for a couple of hours in the end, watched about four bands and got some great food. The atmosphere is really relaxed yet lively. Everyone is there to hear some good music and have some fun. It’s not widely publicised so it’s not crowded. People there seemed to be mostly residents of the area or people who knew a band. It had a local festival feel to it, and people had brought along something to drink and sometimes chairs as well to settle in for the evening. It basically combined two of my favourite things about Carnival – steel pans, and food, but without the crowds, litter, queues for toilets, and minor threat of violence. Even if I go to Carnival but once a decade from now on, I will head to this more regularly.