h a r r i e t m a y

a blog about figuring it all out in London

Feeling and Power

the_hedda_gabler_company-2578x1450We are at the National Theatre and the cast is on the stage, taking their final bows. Hedda Gabler has melted back into Ruth Wilson, Olivier Award-winning actress, and as the applause eases just enough she projects a few words over the crowd.

“Today is a historic day…” As she begins I am holding my breath, because she is using her platform powerfully and I am grateful. “We couldn’t march. But we march on stage.” The applause erupts again.

“How do you feel, after seeing Hedda Gabler?” As we exit the theatre into the bracing cold I know Sam is wondering because we have both been in a funk all day, wallowing in our January miseries. I did not go to the Women’s March, and I am wracked with guilt. “I feel better after that,” Sam admits, but I shake my head. “I feel the same as before,” I say, “Nothing.”

Over the last few weeks I have oscillated between feeling deflated and crushingly disconsolate, so I have not been much fun to be around. There is nothing wrong. It has merely been a feeling, like existing in a pot of tar: suspended in blackness with little ability to move.

Unable to move and at the brink of my vast irrationality. I say I want what I don’t; I throw tantrums when the innermost parts of myself are not correctly interpreted, through ESP or some other way. “Did you see yourself in Hedda?” is another thing Sam asks me, after she has flung several bouquets of flowers violently across the stage and confessed that she did not ever like the apartment in which her husband, stretched now to his financial limits, has acquired for her. Yes, yes of course. But surely a part of all of us is Hedda? (In the introduction to his English translation, the critic William Archer writes that “the Hedda type is not so common as all that, else the world would quickly come to an end.” If it should, with a view to recent events, I know it won’t be the Hedda-types who will be to blame.)

As we walk towards the Golden Jubilee Bridge on our way to the Embankment tube station, we discuss where power lies in Hedda Gabler. On the surface, Hedda herself has very little– every move she has made freely has served only to trap her further in isolation; in her marriage, in her home, in her thoughts. What power Hedda does have lies in the way she makes the other characters, both men and women, take to her, candidly offering her information she can then use against them. It is not until she attempts this with Judge Brack that she realises she is not the only one with this ability.

And there is a power projected onto her as well: the power to bear children. The insinuation and Tesman’s hope that Hedda may be pregnant is made several times, but a child would imprison her finally and completely. When Lovborg, on the other hand, refers to his manuscript as a “child”, he refers to the product of his intellect, hard work and freedom. What Hedda wants so desperately is to be her own woman. And yet she never finds the courage to live as brazenly and as deeply as she acts.  

And what if I’m failing to live brazenly or deeply? Going to work is easy; the commute, switching on the machine, answering questions and even asking them. It’s what is expected. What no one expects us to do is to fight, if we can find a way to fight for the right things in the right way.

Brand Hackney

finch

“Should we go somewhere else?” Sam asks, eyeing up each full table, one by one. It’s 10am on a Saturday morning, and we’d forgotten to eat dinner the night before after getting wrapped up in the after-party for the London premiere of Lady Macbeth. (“And how was your first industry event?” Sam, actor and screenwriter, had asked me afterwards.) So on our way to Broadway Market for a mooch we’ve beelined to E5 Bakehouse and I am only currently thinking in carbs.

It is a pillar in Hackney– in a borough built on artisan bakeries and market stalls, cafes boast about serving E5 Bakehouse bread, and it’s not uncommon to see the E5 Bakehouse cargo bike making morning deliveries. Started by a guy with no previous baking experience, just a love of great bread and the desire to pass that on, E5 Bakehouse now has a brand as tangible as the brick walls and curved metal roof in accordion folds of their headquarters, nestled in a railway arch by London Fields.

Sam and I often describe things as “so Hackney”, things like minimalist interiors shops next door to corner shops where patrons often appear not in pajamas but underwear, or dining out at 9pm on a weeknight at a local place that serves eel broth and bone marrow dumplings only to find ourselves next to the designated kids’ table of a larger group. E5 Bakehouse not only fits into this juxtaposition of effete and authentic, but knows its place there; it’s that self-assurance we are eager to bask in.

Usually when breakfasting at E5 Bakehouse, we order a simple round of coffee and toast, which we then slather with lashings of jam or peanut butter from jars that float from table to table. After all, the bread is the thing. We don’t mind first squeezing in then shimmying up to the bar that runs along the far side of the arch. Everyone who is in E5 Bakehouse becomes intrinsically a part of it. But today the only spare seats are out front. Although not intolerably cold, it is October in England– not the ideal time or place to be seated outdoors, and we’re not sure we fancy braving it. Sam shrugs, and we leave. I try not to be disappointed.

Just next door is Finch Cafe, a perfectly sound little spot, I think, but when we peer through the glass door it’s empty. “Let’s go here?” Sam asks while I gaze skeptically at lonely chairs. But the menu looks hearty, so we order scrambled eggs with tahini and halloumi. There has been an attempt at a granny-chic interior, books piled up and oversized picture frames that overstate the art, but it doesn’t quite jibe with the cuisine, and leaves the alienating feeling of being in the outdated, untouched childhood bedroom of someone you’ve only known grown up. When the eggs arrive they’re good, distinctly middle eastern (Palestinian, I discover later), although the accompanying flatbread lacks the ideal chew and swollen softness. Nothing is bad though, especially on an empty stomach, and we devour it all.

It’s not clear from the name or the decor or the menu what this place is about, and if they don’t know, I don’t know either. But it takes time to build who you are– nothing appears in the world fully formed. So there’s time for Finch, and I hope they grow into themselves. E5 Bakehouse is one (great) thing, and Finch Cafe could be something new entirely.

Taste Test

stourspace.jpgWhen I get there, Sam is locking up his bike outside Stour Space, where in just under a year we’ll have our wedding. It’s an art gallery and a community space that hosts evening yoga sessions and midweek, midday ping pong aimed at freelancers. We like it mainly for two reasons: it’s really close to where we live, in a cool part of London, still rough around the edges; and it has an element of surprise.

We knock loudly on the side door and hope we’re heard, and when we gain entry we’re introduced to the chef, Michel. He is French, lean and quietly amicable. Standing in the Counter Cafe the sun is slowly descending behind him, threatening to wipe out the views of progressing construction across the canal. He points to the only table that has been laid out for diners, and we drop our backpacks and our bike helmets and very nearly collapse into the respective seats. House white is promptly offered up; we are tonight’s drinking crowd.

Have you ever planned a wedding? We haven’t, not yet. Being of a certain age though, we have a growing number of friends who have. “How far are you?” sings the chorus, and– having already picked the venue and bought my dress— I confidently reply, “Quite far.” But I know that if we pull this thing off successfully it will most likely be due to the international team of doctors, lawyers, film directors, project managers, poets, architects, and accountants we’ve assembled to help. They call it a wedding party, but I hate the Shakespearean fantasy of the phrase, a mocking nod to the theatrical, sometimes tragic. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a stretch to use the oft misaligned “hashtag squad goals”.

When the caterer, Hugues (also French, but more emphatically amicable), arrives he approaches to say hello. Momentarily disappearing he returns with three additional bottles of wine, this time red, each referred to in terms of character and robustness that in our uncouthness Sam and I can’t quite associate with a taste. We are left alone with four bottles of wine, enough food for six, and a pen and paper with which to jot down our thoughts. Hugues returns to very little, just a splattered scrap of paper that reads in lazy scrawl: Yes, we like this.

Following a debrief with Michel and Hugues, Michel leaves for the night, and, pouring himself a glass of red (full of character, robust) Hugues tells us about managing the Counter Cafe of Stour Space. We love Hackney Wick; the fairy lit bars and restaurants here, the canal, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park– my favourite of London’s outdoor spaces. “We’ve been here for five years,” he says, “but it’s changing. Everywhere is being bought up, smaller places aren’t surviving.” And the arrival of West Ham? “The fans have not affected us, really. There have been one or two incidences elsewhere; a lot of the bars have simply banned colours.” There is a game on tonight, immediately across the canal from us. Every so often we hear a distant roar, but it is negligible.

Having now consumed a large ratio of the wine, I stand up and grab my helmet, as does Sam. Hugues winces. “I didn’t know you were cycling! I wouldn’t have let you drink so much!” I slur something that I intend as a farewell. Confident about our anti-destination wedding on the Hackney Riviera, we stumble to our bikes and zig zag home.

Repeat After Me

a lot of sorrow.jpg

We’re two and a half miles into a run when I feel it. “I’m going to stop and walk,” I say to Sam, who is running twelve miles today. We’re in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park along one of our usual routes, but I’ve been injured for three weeks so I’m only just remembering that the wildflowers have turned brown.

For those few miles I am in front of Sam, so cycling must be keeping my cardiovascular fitness at an ok level. It’s also keeping me bolshy: “I feel great!” I brag, running backwards to face him. He doesn’t mind. We get on so well because he ignores all the terrible aspects of my personality.

Initially I had thought that weeks of rest would make me a bit loopy, but actually it’s making me more sensible. I’ve taken off my FitBit (What is wrong?!, Thom had Whatsapped me on the first day as I slid down the weekly step count leaderboard), have added toning and flexibility exercises to my routine, and, having dropped the assumption that I can just eat anything, have actually lost four pounds.

I have been a runner now for nearly half my life. “What do you think about when you run?” asks everyone who has never tried. “Don’t you get bored?” But the secret is that running provides context for things that would otherwise be nonsensical: meeting at 6am every day in every type of weather for five miles and a tell-all with Pat and Vanessa; having a working dog with a quick-dry utility coat and no snooze button; earning medals just for taking part even as a bill-paying, newspaper-reading adult.

Running, like life, is largely repetition, and if you take it too seriously of course it’s difficult to say what the point is.

In 2013 the indie band The National played their song ‘Sorrow’ for 6 hours in a collaboration with the artist Ragnar Kjartansson. At Kjartansson’s exhibition at the Barbican in July, we wandered into a room where the recording of this event, in a piece titled ‘A Lot of Sorrow’, was playing in its entirety. We must have entered somewhere halfway through, because frontman Matt Berninger, although still steadily composed, is visibly tiring. We watched as two techies with trays of food enter stage left to offer burgers and fries to each band member; Berninger refuses but Bryan Devendorf eagerly accepts and crouches behind his drum kit to scarf down the offering.

Rather than stall the piece, this interruption adds to it. The band works to support one another and keep themselves interested, adding and subtracting various elements at various interludes, sometimes as a result of energy (guitarist Bryce Dessner’s nervousness, for example) and sometimes a result simply of time. But ultimately what the band creates is mindfully complex; many miles away from the reduction one might expect.

Why would anyone, in the first place, agree to perform a song on repeat for six hours? For the same reason anyone would take up long distance running.

We have to do something, to find out why we do anything.

Friend Request

netil-360

On a sunny Thursday evening in late August, I meet Ayesha outside Hackney Town Hall and we head to Netil 360. The rooftop bar just south of London Fields is cool, very cool; the view of east London is uninterrupted, while benches and beanbags atop the pea green astroturf are littered with people wearing muted tones, hidden behind round shades and sipping craft beers.

“Aperol spritz?” asks Ayesha, taking a side glance at me and expecting an “Obviously” in return. They’re served here by the pint, and if I didn’t before now I know that they are gently usurping the negroni. But I really love negronis, and someone once poured a ruinous amount of aperol into my Prosecco. I still haven’t quite got over it.

I suspect that very probably I do like them, or can learn. After some debate we order one and share it, like we’re kids attempting to savour the week’s pocket money. But Ayesha has won over the bartender by complimenting her dress, so she doesn’t mind too much, my indecisiveness, Ayesha’s sage compromise.

It’s paradoxically both difficult and easy to be social in London. There is lots to do but also several obstacles to doing any of them with people you already know. The first is simply geography; because when I first moved to London I settled in Brixton, south of the river Thames, that is where most of my friends live. Now I’m in Hackney there are 8 miles between us. Were this the American suburbs, that 8 miles would take approximately 15 minutes by car, but London’s streets are clogged and public transport– if you’re not a cyclist– is your best bet. Any way you slice it, it’s a trip that will take at least an hour.

Then there is calendar clash: if you live in London, you’re busy. It’s part of the reason you’re here. We are the easily bored, the ones who want to see around corners, both London’s and our own. Everything is either world-class or pop-up, and either way it’s usually transient, because people are experimenting and then they are moving on to something new. Recently we’ve seen Rebel Wilson in Guys and Dolls, Jonathan Franzen just after Purity was published, the Historic Palace’s limited-time-only Lost Palace “evening event” (which was really just a quirky take on an audio tour, but I really enjoyed it).

To combat this we invent concrete reasons to meet. Ayesha and I used to have dinner club, a given reason to cram into each other’s flats despite none of us owning enough chairs to accommodate. I’m not sure that in London anyone has dinner parties until well into their 50s, if ever; there just isn’t the room for sit-down hospitality. Dinner club had a good run until Jon spoilt it with 8 courses, which no one had the stomach to compete with.

And of course, everyone belongs to a book club, but with no time to read or to meet they are more formality than reality, even before you throw the meaty Magus into the mix (a book I loved, but everyone seemed to get stuck in. The key is to read using the Kindle app on your phone, when you’re making coffee at work or walking home late at night).

We split a second pint of aperol spritz (I’ve decided that although it’s no negroni, I like it enough), before walking to Dalston for dinner. En route we buy a bottle of Prosecco on Broadway Market and drink it on a park bench in London Fields. It’s good just to be our own pop-up event.

David Sedaris once wrote about the secret to success, in what has since become known as the Four Burner Theory. Picture a stovetop:

“One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

It’s difficult to want us all to be busy, successful Londoners, but not cut-off from one another. “I haven’t seen anyone, either,” Ayesha admits when I ask. Comforted by the knowledge that we’re all struggling with the same thing, we relish the rare sunny day in the city’s bustling outdoors.