h a r r i e t m a y

Category: Living in London

On greed

IMG_20170312_121600We’re young and urban and busy, so not much about our lives is about ritual, and when it is, it’s the ritual of morning coffee from Pret or of cramming ourselves into a Victoria line train before someone with greater mass pushes us back out (“Pull in your bags and jackets from the closing doors!” the train drivers bellow across the PA and then a beat later, predictably dismayed, “Somebody didn’t listen!”). We were raised with various half-hearted religions, or none at all, and whatever spirituality our parents hoped we’d gain has now been replaced with YouTube videos. “I think running is your spirituality,” Sam tells me, when I declare I’m not at all spiritual. “It occupies a lot of your mind and your time.” Does this mind-space and time-taken equate to spirituality, or distract from it? “It’s spiritual,” Sam assures me, “the way you use running to focus, to connect with yourself.” I’m not certain. All I know is I’m glad I have no obligation at all to pretend I believe in anything beyond stardust and electricity and sure even dark matter.

We meet Amy at a workers caff for eggs and toast before making our way over to Conway Hall, a beautiful art deco building that houses the oldest freethought organisation in the world. On the surface it’s church-like, but rather than bible verses the walls remind its congregation TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE. It’s the kind of place where I can forget I’m hungover, rather than be made more aware of it. We are here for Sunday Sermon, another reminder of what we owe to those who normalised weekly meetings around the world to share ideas which is not, by itself, a terrible idea. The theme is greed and the first order of the day is to belt out the hymn, ABBA’s ‘Money Money Money’, before Jack Monroe, fresh from legal victory, takes the stage. I’m a little greedy, for success, for Karen Millen dresses, certainly for sourdough bread. I’m also a marketer whose work is based somewhat on manipulating the greed of others. I need this.

“I apologise for the general state of me,” she says, smirking beneath a flash of orange hair. Even suffering from a cold and not, like me, the consequences of the previous night, Jack is vibrant and rebellious and it’s easy to see how she has made a career out of appealing to the public, pushing back against modern pressures to be anything other than herself. The pressures to be aspirational, as she says. We can be successful without taking up all the space, all the resources, we can want things without damaging ourselves and our communities and each other. And this is the difference, as she tells it: following on from the success of her first book, A Girl Called Jack, her publisher had plans to grow Jack from “the face of modern poverty” into an aspirational success story, with a high-gloss, hardback book retailing for £26.99, more than double the £10 maximum selling price she had demanded for her first book. “The only way you can take every one of my readers on this journey with me,” she recalls saying, “is to give every one of them a book deal. Can you do that?” Yet at the time, Jack was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, in a flat with five other people, a stark contrast to the space the publisher had arranged in which to take the highly stylised photography for the book. And in the end it didn’t become Jack’s book, it was something else entirely, not made for Jack’s audience but in spite of them: “and it flopped.”

Jack doesn’t manipulate greed but questions it. I resolve to question my greed, turn it into creativity and curiosity–focus is called for, and connection, and suddenly spirituality doesn’t seem so outlandish– and maybe then it’s even ok to want more.


Don’t be afraid, be disobedient instead

cnyIt is first thing in the morning, and I am watching a YouTube video over my morning coffee. This one happens to be on Thoreau, who in 1849, in the midst of an unjust war against Mexico and fifteen years before slavery was to be abolished, published an essay called ‘Civil Disobedience’. I have just spent a weekend angrily scrolling through Twitter, and calling my parents at their home in North Carolina to ask, how is it in apocalyptic America? So I am feeling, like a great deal of the world’s population, civilly disobedient.

Although we were incensed by Trump’s sudden Muslim Ban, the weekend was not, for us, one of protest. Instead, Sam and I ran the five miles from our flat to London’s Chinatown to join the Chinese New Year festivities and see in the year of the fire rooster– audacious dragons dancing to the beat of drums, while overhead products are sold to us in Chinese via LED screens. We remain hopeful that a year of luck and prosperity lies ahead of us, despite the signs that Trump is preparing for a coup. Hopeful that in the rich and colourful world we choose to participate in, ancient and modern all at once, our diversity will be a source of strength and not one of division.

In his essay, Thoreau writes that

The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognising and organising the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognise the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

Any fears of globalisation and technology are being misaligned, to make the rich richer and the powerful almighty. Governments (the US government is now notable although certainly not alone) are using those who are ready to bend, not even to just its will this time, but to its whims. It has long been our job to demand discussion, progress and constant re-evaluation, but now we must go further, and endure all injustices as if they are acted out against us personally. When told to be afraid, refuse; choose to be disobedient instead. Know your neighbour, let your representatives know who you are and where you stand, and organise. More than a hundred years ago Thoreau decried a government that refused to strive to improve, to uphold the humanity of those it was formed to serve, and yet here we are.

“Cast your whole vote,” Thoreau insists, “not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” Well, I am a fire tiger: restless and independent. And ready to fight.

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.

Friend Request


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.

Inner Tube, Inner Peace


I’ve just walked my bike, Beyoncycle, with a flat rear tyre, up the hill from Battersea to Clapham, so already I’m not impressed. Because it’s my lunch break I’m in a rush, and in Evans, a cycle shop where no one seems to care what you are, cyclist or customer or otherwise. But on the phone they told me they had the inner tube I need, so here I am.

A man, wearing an Evans T-shirt and the same expression as my brother’s when being talked at by our parents, asks me what I need, glances at my bike, and hands an inner tube off to someone else. This someone else has a “trainee” badge and a permanent look of confusion.

“Is this all you need?”

“Uh, what size is that? I’m not sure that’s right.”

He glances, for the first time, at the small black box in his hand.

“700 x 18-23cm?”

I don’t know as much as I should about my bike, considering I cycle at least 18 miles a day, back and forth between Hackney, which is littered with chicken bones, and Battersea, which is one ginormous construction site. Well ok, I don’t know anything, but I do know how to read the numbers on the side of my tyre.

“That isn’t correct.”

He looks at the inner tube box, then me, then back at the box.


“Is there someone you can ask?” I try to use my most encouraging tone of voice, the way I used to talk to my dog Ninja during thunderstorms, but my patience is wearing thin. And he doesn’t have Ninja’s eyes, or her imagination.

The man who had guessed my inner tube size in the first place pops back up, and actually looks at my tyre this time. “Nah, we don’t have it,” he says, shrugging. He doesn’t look at me. He walks away.

I grunt angrily and exit the store. I know there is another cycle shop just across the road, Apex, but I had called them too and they didn’t have my inner tube, either. Not sure what to do, I think perhaps the man I spoke to on the phone will at least be receptive to my rantings on about the incompetencies of his local rivals.

When I walk through the door I’m met by a warm, bearded man in an orange polo shirt. Flustered, I don’t even know how to begin, but he says hello like he’s been expecting me. “You called about an inner tube!”

“I did have one, after all,” he says, plucking a small box from the shelf. He wheels Beyoncycle to the back, where they don’t mind changing it for me because I’m not confident enough to do it myself. “Ten minutes!”

“You’re not the first person to say that,” he responds when I tell him how awful my experience was across the road. “They had one good person work there, ever. He works for us now!”

At 5:30pm I’m glad I’m able to cycle home, rather than abandoning my bike at work and getting on the tube, with all the other sweaty, dissatisfied commuters. I see a man in a navy blue suit on a Dutch city bicycle run a red light and get pulled over by two policemen on horses. And then on the final stretch home I find myself trying to keep up with a man who has a slice of pepperoni pizza tattooed on his right calf and think, that’s good motivation, I wonder if he did that intentionally? There’s so much you see when flying through the city streets. I’m glad I’m a cyclist.

Apex Cycles
40-42 Clapham High St, London SW4 7UR
020 7622 1334