Tower 47

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I went out the same way I came into London: with a bang. Or, more accurately, in a drunken stupor. My almost last weekend in the city before heading home for Christmas was more action-packed than the whole month of November. On Friday night, I went back to Barfly and saw A Tribe Called Red, a Canadian electronic trio who fuse First Nations powwow music with dance music. Saturday, my cousins from Wales arrived and we spent the morning wandering around Camden market, the afternoon in Trafalgar Square where we found a shrine for Nelson Mandela and a group of people dancing and singing in celebration of his life outside the South African embassy, and the evening having a drink Leicester Square before seeing The Woman in Black. Sunday was spent lying in after a late night out and then heading down to Oxford Circus for a couple of hours to do some Christmas shopping. And then early Sunday evening my best mate from Australia arrived, as he was in London and we had planned to get a drink. Lots of time to kill and enjoying catching up resulted in more than a few drinks, as we went from beers in pubs to 2-for-1 cocktails at the local cocktail bar.

We ended up where I’ve ended up after so many big nights out in Camden: the Regent’s Canal, sketchy as ever on a quiet Sunday night. And now I’m lying in bed, hungover as I ever have been my first semester in London, wrestling with the knowledge that I have three papers to write by the end of the week. I’m really looking forward to going home for Christmas. After I get back to Vancouver I’m going over to Victoria for a couple of days to stay with my best friend there before heading up to Whistler with my family for Christmas itself. And then back to London in the New Year for a second semester in this great city. There’s still so much more of this experience I feel like needs time to sink in, and I haven’t even been anywhere else yet. I’m looking forward to being here when Spring turns to Summer and the weather gets warmer again before taking off to see some more of Europe after exams.

I’ve been writing most of these blog posts from Tower 47, our closest little coffee shop. It’s also a fantastic music shop, and even, as I’ve only just discovered recently, does lessons in its studios on the second floor. If I find a job and have a little more money in the New Year I’m hoping I can take at least a couple of drum lessons there. As much as I’ve become sick of how touristy Camden is in some ways, I couldn’t have picked a better place for music, where I am on Chalk Farm Road. The Roundhouse across the street, Barfly on the corner, Tower 47 for all your music gear and for live jazz on Sundays; I’m really happy to be getting to spend a year here.

Living by the canal in Camden, I’ve slowly become more aware of the effect it’s had on me. Having somewhere to go that’s a little bit removed from the crowdedness of the High Street has been a wonderful thing. Life abroad has been about getting around to things slowly, but the most meaningful experiences aren’t the ones that you plan meticulously. They’re the ones that take you completely by surprise.

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Mojo

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I have a bit of an obsession with Harold Pinter. So when my girlfriend booked us tickets to go see Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre on the West End, I was more excited about seeing the theatre than I was about seeing the play. As it turned out, the two went hand in hand. I hadn’t done any research before we went, so I didn’t realize that Harold Pinter actually played a minor role in Jez Butterworth’s film adaptation of his 1995 play. From the curtain, it was obvious how much Mojo was indebted to the man himself. 

The first moments of dialogue immediately reminded me of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, in which two hit men wait in the basement of an abandoned café for the orders to carry out their next job, receiving information through the speaking tube of a ‘dumb waiter,’ a lift for delivering food orders to the restaurant. The language is fast-paced and often full of expletives, much like the opening conversation in Mojo. After ‘Silver Johnny,’ the first characters we’re introduced to are ‘Sweets’ and ‘Potts,’ played by Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fandom and Daniel Mays. The conversation is ‘Pinteresque’ in every way: lines beginning before the previous one is finished, intentional pauses and silences, heavy use of gesture, and a foul, foul mouth. It’s obvious who is Ben and who is Gus from The Dumb Waiter. Potts is Ben, a somewhat controlled, more authoritative character, and Sweets is Gus, a paranoid nervous younger character (which seems to have worked well as a transition from the young Ron Weasley for Rupert Grint in his stage debut). This juxtaposition is characteristic of Pinter’s work: one stable directive character to counter a fumbling nervous wreck of one. Both, it becomes increasingly apparent in the first moments of Mojo, are in a shitty situation.

Like The Dumb Waiter, Mojo also makes excellent use of the upstairs/downstairs distinction that is characteristic of Pinter’s plays, and create tension by setting itself in small, claustrophobic rooms. The first half of the play is set upstairs, above the seedy Soho club, and characters would disappear downstairs to attend to various matters, but it wasn’t until after the intermission that we got to see what that actually looked like. Throughout the second half of the show, we were right in the bar, and there was a spiraling staircase that went up to the ceiling with a sign that said “Private” strung across the bottom of it. Characters would disappear upstairs, but we now had an image and an idea of where it was they were going.

Jez Butterworth, like Harold Pinter, understands that language is power, and the result is a black comedy that packs a hard punch. Pair that with a fantastic cast that also includes Downtown Abbey’s Brendan Coyle and Merlin’s Colin Morgan, and you’ve got one hell of a show. I don’t want to give too much away because it’s definitely worth going to see, especially if you’re a fan of the Pinter brand of comedy, but the ending’s twist evokes The Dumb Waiter, a bleak suggestion that can only be attributed to Harold Pinter. 

Tate Modern

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I’ve been to the Tate Modern a couple of times since I’ve been in London. It’s actually right by where I was staying when we first arrived, with a family friend who owns one of those amazing lofts opposite the Holland Street entrance to the Tate, overlooking the river. Walking over the Millennium Bridge from St. Paul’s at quarter to ten on a cold, windy November morning, I remembered what it was like just a couple of months ago, in mid-September, watching the Great River Race from the South Bank in the cloud-spotted sunshine. And I realized for the first time just how long I’d been here for, and how much had changed in that time.

I wondered if the M. C. Escher-esque endless staircase would still be on the lawn in front of the Tate. I couldn’t see it from where I was. It probably wouldn’t have survived in the rain. The wind blew the water around on the river now, the waves forming white caps. I still loved walking across the Thames though; it’s so picturesque. The Tate wasn’t even open by the time I got there, and for the first half an hour or so until the schoolchildren arrived there was hardly anyone else in the galleries. I found some pieces I hadn’t before, and enjoyed getting to look at them without anybody else around.

Waiting for Tear Gas was a series of photographs projected on a wall in a dark room. It made me jump the first time the projector changed slides, making a loud whirring noise and clicking into place on the next image. I waited for it to do it again, making me jump again, although not as badly as it had the first time. I got addicted to the feeling. The format of the piece contributed to what it was trying to do: create suspense. The images depicted people that were waiting for something to happen, and were so intriguing because they weren’t in action. They, like me, were waiting for a noise; a whir and a click, a loud bang or explosion, the sound of tear gas being deployed.

The neon light displays on the top floor made my head hurt, so I found another dark room video display that interested me, a project by Aleksandra Mir called ‘First Woman on the Moon.’ I was a little disappointed that we never actually got to see the film she made, but I found the artist herself fascinating. She decided to recreate the moon on a beach in Denmark, and in the film you see her, drawing out what she wants to do in the sand, with about ten big construction guys standing around her. The footage is sound tracked by an audio recording of the first actual moon landing, but it sort of makes strange the event. She just looks weird, standing on the beach in an astronaut suit, with diggers and cranes around her creating a fake moon.

I sat on one of the couches overlooking the Turbine Hall to write for a bit. The massive space makes the people look very small, particularly the construction workers on the platforms below. I think that art benefits from being in a big, high-ceilinged space. It makes the viewer feel small compared to the artwork and makes it more striking.

A while ago, I stopped going to Camden Town station on my way to class in the morning and started going to Chalk Farm instead. It’s actually closer to where I live, and I got bored of battling my way through the crowds of tourists every day. I don’t feel so small in this city anymore. But walking across the Millennium Bridge again and seeing St. Paul’s stretched out in front of me reminds me of how much there is to take in in London. I still have a lot more exploring to do.

The Reflektors

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Last night I saw Arcade Fire at the Roundhouse. I missed out on tickets in the original sale, but went across last night to try to find someone with a spare. When I got there, I immediately located the scalpers: English replicas of the old guys I used to deal with when I was about 14 or 15 at Malkin Bowl in Vancouver. I’d go down with friends and we’d try to hold out the scalpers until they had to sell us the tickets as cheap as we wanted. We once saw the Flaming Lips for 10 dollars. It would always be the same two guys. They’d tell us they’d give us tickets for our bikes, and threaten to throw us over the fence for 10 bucks when we’d offer that for a ticket.

The two guys at the Roundhouse had thick northern accents that boomed over the crowd already gathered waiting for the doors to open.

“Tickets! Anybody got extra tickets?”

They jostled each other.

“These guys are pretty big at the moment, aren’t they?”

“They’ve got a new album out I think.”

“I remember when U2 did something like this, back in the 90’s. That was a good show.”

I asked one of them if he had any tickets and he just looked at my dirtily and said, “Wots your budget?”

“100 for 2 tickets,” I replied.

He looked at me again.

“No.”

The show was billed as ‘The Reflektors,’ a name that the band’s been using to promote their new album. There was a red carpet laid out from the front of the line down the steps and into the lobby of the Roundhouse, and from inside trumpets sounded, welcoming people. Up in the window of the bar on the second floor a neon sign read ‘Arcade Fire’ in the lettering the band’s been using to promote ‘Reflektor:’ all capitals, like it was written in chalk, and a diamond inside the ‘C.’ The whole thing had the feeling of a carnival. It was a big event, and everyone was dressed up, as per the band’s request.

I made friends with a guy from LA, who was also looking for a ticket, and after going up and down the line, which now stretched up to the Morrisons parking lot on the next block calling out ‘Spares,’ he and I eventually found them. He got his off two girls who had already gotten inside, but one of their tickets had been rejected so they had to sell the other one. It was only one, so I let him take it, as I was ideally still looking for two. I had to wait with the girls and give them the money once he sent me a text to confirm that he had gotten in. Moments after I got the go-ahead and handed over the cash, I found a guy also selling one ticket, and made the call home to my girlfriend to ask if I could go ahead without her.

The Roundhouse had been transformed into ‘after the disco:’ a foggy, bassy, dubby dancefloor with disco balls refracting light across the mass of faces waiting for Arcade Fire to come on. A screen dropped to reveal the stage and the Haitian voodoo drumming began…

The Regent’s Canal

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The canal has become one of my favourite places in London.

Underneath the busy street, the canal was a place of peaceful serenity. It was quiet down there; it was natural. The occasional ding of the bell of a bicyclist going under a bridge was all that broke the silence. People sat along the edge of the water to each their lunch, on benches, on steps, their feet dangling over the edge of the pavement. A barge putted by.

I was in Bethnal Green the other day and ended up wandering along a stretch of the canal there; the same canal that runs through Camden. The Regent’s Canal seems to wind its way through the whole city, like the underground, but a place you go to slow down rather than to be teleported from one end of the city to the other in a few minutes. The barges look like slow train carriages, the locks like stations, and the bridges like the tunnels of the tube, but they function in a very different way. The people who sit outside on their floating houses, like conductors, look different too. You’d buy a barge probably because you’re nuts, but also because you want to get away from the city, without ever having to leave it. The canal is somewhere where you can still find the natural amongst the rush of London life.

I’m more aware of time, living in London. I guess just because everyone else is. I break everything up into chunks: half an hour to read; an hour to relax and eat dinner; twenty-five minutes to get to class in the morning. When I’m writing, though, I lose track of time and it always takes me twice as long as I thought it would.

The same thing happens when I walk along the canal. You can sort of get lost down there. Back when it was warmer I found a guy who runs a little bookshop from his barge. He’s never in the same spot that I found him before, though. I guess he moves around. He’s probably in Oxford by now.

This serene picture of the canal is deceptive, though. It completely changes at night, taking on more sinister characteristics.

Beer cans float in the dirty canal. Music rises us seemingly from underneath the street. Groups of people sit around, talking loudly. A guy stands by the path leading down to the canal. “Need weed?” People spill from the streets down into the alleyways that the canals of the city form at night.

The other day in my creative writing class we had to think about one of our favourite places in London as though it was one of our least favourite places in London. This was mine:

Rubbish sprouts from the cracks in the pavement along the banks of the dirty canal. Beer cans float in the water where people come to piss. The canals of the city act as the sewers for the streets. Filth spills over from the bridges and locks down into the natural drains. Nature is underground and underwater.

Don’t Go To Dalston

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Stepping off the train at Dalston Kingsland overground station, I didn’t really know what to expect.

Taking the overground is a different experience to taking the underground. I took the train from Kentish Town West, which turned out to be closer to me than Camden Town tube station, and was a straight shot to Dalston Kingsland; four stops. Taking the overground feels more like taking a real train. The station was in a gritty, residential part of Camden, and it didn’t feel as though I was anywhere near the high street anymore. I sat down on a bench on the quiet platform in the crisp morning air and gazed down the train line that seemed to stretch over the tops of houses endlessly. The large wall across from the platform was covered in graffiti; tags placed as high as the daring criminals could get, in an attempt to make you wonder how they could have possibly put them there. That’s the art, for them.

I liked being able to look out the window and see the tops of houses pass by below. It was as though the whole of London was going by beneath me, and I was in a plane desperately trying to take off but not really ever getting off the ground, dangerously skimming across the buildings.

I don’t think I really had an idea in mind of what a big food market like Ridley Road looked like, but when I got there it seemed to imitate in my perception something like the way Regent Street sort of curves around, seemingly endlessly, because you can’t see where it ends before you get there. The overpowering stench of fish permeated the air, interspersed with the wave of incense that would come over you each time you passed one of the little stalls selling rolling papers and playing reggae music. The light smell of the fresh fruit and vegetables settled it a bit.

Don’t Go To Dalston is the name of a drink you can order at a bar in Shoreditch called The Book Club. I assume because they want you to stay in Shoreditch. Dalston’s pretty fucking cool. I’ve been meaning to go back to wander the market and get some fruit and vegetables, as well as go at night to check out The Nest. Mostly because I want to take the train there again. I think the overground is probably my best connection to East London, and it’s a better way to see London, travelling above ground. You sort of feel like you’re flying over it.

Gold & Youth

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I really like talking to bands. I fancy myself a bit of a music journalist at times. The local music scene in Vancouver is incredible, and I feel like I should be championing the bands that make it across the pond to play a gig or two while I’m here. I recently saw Gold & Youth at Barfly in Camden, a great venue for up-and-coming music. They were opening for PYYRAMIDS, the side project of one of the guys from OK Go, and rounding out the bill was Pilot House. Both were sound live acts, but neither seemed to me to be doing anything different.

Layering dark, textured synths over catchy indie pop hooks, Gold & Youth’s debut album ‘Beyond Wilderness’ places itself perfectly at the intersection of alternative and electronic music for my taste and still manages to be original. And it translates beautifully live. It’s amazing that bands will fly across the world for these 30-minute sets, but I guess that’s just what you have to do for exposure. Still, Barfly was about 30 sets of ears by the time Gold & Youth came on, a pretty lame turnout by any standards. Their set didn’t falter in any way because of it, though; rather, it added power to their melancholy vocals and presence on stage. When Louise Burns took the microphone for ‘Jewel,’ she called out the audience, saying, “I’ve played a lot of shows and this big gap in front of the stage isn’t necessary.” ‘Jewel’ reminds me of a Grimes song that I’d actually listen to, and the effect of it live, even in that tiny space above the bar in Camden, was trance inducing.

After the show, I ended up talking to the guitarist, Murray, for a bit. I love when bands are genuinely interested in talking to their fans. I apologized for the shitty turnout, and he said they had had worse. I stuck around for PYYRAMIDS, who to be honest I was pretty happy to get away from when their set finished. The vocals were nasally and they were just overly loud for a band I had heard nothing of playing in such a small space. I headed down to the bar and found Murray again. I told him I had seen Hey Ocean! a couple of weeks ago and he said he didn’t realize that they were in London as well. That’s something else about Vancouver bands; they all know each other! You can have a conversation with any of them just about other Vancouver bands.

I called it a night and told Murray I’d either see them again here or otherwise back in Vancouver. I headed back to the flat, two doors down. Gold & Youth flew all the way from Vancouver to play a show next door to me in London. Whether they blow up or not, ‘Beyond Wilderness’ is definitely worth a listen. It’s an excellent album, and Gold & Youth’s live performances live up to the standards they set on their debut.