h a r r i e t m a y

Tag: Drinking

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

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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.

The Cheap Seats

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We are well-practiced groundlings, and as we sit cross-legged in the queue outside the yard entrance to Shakespeare’s Globe with our £5 tickets we begin work on the 5 litres of boxed wine we have brought between eight of us, shared out in plastic cups. We’re about to see Caroline Byrne’s adaption of The Taming of the Shrew, which none of us really have any reference for outside of 10 Things I Hate About You. We are (pop) cultured.

When we’re let in to the theatre we move swiftly to stake our claim at the front, and although we’ve been told off enough in the past to know not to rest our cups of wine on the stage, I twice catch myself about to do just that. I’m more likely to want to do what I want than what I’m supposed to; more Kate than Bianca.

When Bianca’s suitors are introduced to her, and to us, Lauren whispers, “They’re so old!” We can’t imagine being married off by our fathers. Neither can Kate: obstinate and unmanageable, she rebels by repelling. As Kate is married against her will to Petruchio, and literally tied into her wedding dress, we mourn for her, sadly sipping our wine.

But what actually happens to Kate and Petruchio is this: their relationship is forged from equality and companionship. Bianca and Lucentio, on the other hand, both wanting different things, get them, only to find they share no common ground once inside their marriage. Petruchio has sought out what he knows will make a worthy wife– Kate’s high spirit and boldness– and she returns an unmatched sexual love and fierce loyalty.

Marriage is more egalitarian than ever, but women still must compromise with the world in order to live on their own terms. Niki Nakayama, the subject of episode four of Chef’s Table, will work only in closed kitchens after a man once walked in to the restaurant where she was working, and seeing that she was a woman, left immediately.

When the play has ended, we head down to the stoney beach beside the Thames where we finish the wine, proving none of us would do well with the deprivation Petruchio uses to tame Kate. But we too are high spirited. “To the pub!” someone shouts.

At The Races

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“Wearing a hat-thing, it’s pretty awful,” I’m saying as I’m fighting to keep my fascinator on my head while walking down the stairs to see the Queen. A man just ahead is looking back to watch me, also going down stairs, with a drink in each hand. I catch his eye as he says to me in a response I didn’t ask for, “But it looks rather lovely.”

It’s mid-June and this is a British summer, wearing a hat at Royal Ascot in the rain. It isn’t freezing but it isn’t warm either, and I’m a little envious of the women in the Royal Enclosure who have to, as a matter of dress code, “cover up”; a conservative demand that keeps you warm when your optimism fails you.

While we wait for the Queen to arrive from Windsor in her carriage, we drink Pimm’s, obviously, except an English person with class would never say “obviously” about anything. I’ve never been classy though– I wear running clothes at every opportunity and don’t always shower and am mean about things I should be open to. Instead I’m hoping that wearing pink-on-pink and sipping champagne over lunch are good enough stand-ins for class.

Back inside at our table, when we’re deciding which bets to place, I choose a horse who shares her name with my future mother-in-law, which seems as good a system as any. Although I have a good feeling about her I place a very small, very safe bet, and when her race comes around I’m cheering for Jennies Jewel as I overhear people whispering her name and mentioning good odds. She wins by a neck’s length, and I’m first in line to collect my winnings.

Bar Crawl

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“What is nduja?”

We are sitting at the counter in Pizza East, having just ordered two negronis. Sam shrugs. “Ask the waiter.”

“What is nduja?” I ask the waiter. I get my reply: “It’s a salami,” and I quickly ask my next question before he can escape, “and girolles?”

“A mushroom.”

“And guanciale?”

“Pork cheek.”

I pause, glancing back down at the menu. “And…”

The waiter has taken this brief window and sensibly rushed away. “Let’s share the nduja pizza and the girolles and guanciale pizza,” Sam suggests, knowing how indecisive I am and how long it took to even agree on Pizza East (only once I had stared sadly at the enormous queue snaking from Dishoom).

Afterwards we walk back from Shoreditch, stopping for a drink at Redchurch and then Birdcage. On the way I am explaining how upset I’ll be if anyone calls me Mrs when we get married, or assumes I’ve changed my name. “You won’t be sad when I cry if someone calls me Mrs Bourke, or worse, Mrs Sam Bourke?” Losing my own identity would be a trauma.

Sam assures me he doesn’t mind. “We’ll put something about it in the save-the-date email.”

“I feel really strongly about this, but also I don’t want you to be offended. It’s just that it’s not about you, it’s about me!”

Sam laughs and squeezes my hand. “That’s a good line.” I don’t always know what I want, but once I do, I’m certain. By this time we’re in Broadway Market, just before London Fields.

“Want to go to the secret bar?” Sam is referring to Kansas Smitty’s, the bar in the basement of Off Broadway. There’s a neon sign in the window, so it’s not really a secret, as such.

But then once you look there’s often more going on, just below the surface.