Friday, 7 February 2014

Reasons To Be Thankful - 26/01/2014

Source: MJASmith
It's all too easy to find things to complain about in your life - endless automated menu systems on company phone lines, getting cut up at a roundabout, not getting enough sleep, you know the drill.

It occurred to me recently that the people who have the most positive impact on your life also tend to be the most optimistic, the ones who seem resolutely upbeat and untrammeled by any small inconvenience. So, in an effort to approach things more positively, I decided to look back on the last week and, if I could find five things to feel truly thankful for, I figured I'd be on the right track. When I put my mind to it, it wasn't that hard.

Migraleve and Nurofen

On Wednesday morning I woke up with a dull headache. By the time I'd got to work and fired up my PC it was evident to me that it had become a migraine, in all its nauseating glory. I don't suffer with migraines very often but a couple of years ago I woke up on a Saturday morning with one whilst on a weekend away with M. and the girls in London and I wound up buying some Migraleve from Boots in Canary Wharf which cleared it away really quickly. (Pleased though I was with that, I was shocked at the note on the packet advising that, because of its codeine content, more than three days of use could cause addiction).

Since that day I've always carried that packet of Migraleve in my work bag (as a preemptive measure against a potential migraine, not because I'm now addicted to painkillers). It worked on Wednesday, or well enough to get me through a meeting with my boss and the various conference calls I sat through that day. The well-it-would-be-a-shame-to-leave-a-trickle-in-the-bottle glass of wine that M. poured for me that evening may have been a mistake, or maybe it just took longer to get over the migraine, but I woke up on Thursday with another headache, but a couple of Nurofen took care of that.

I didn't plan to open this post by being thankful for over-the-counter drugs, but nevertheless they really helped this week.


My eldest daughter started Brownies last year, and each Thursday after dutifully completing her homework at school she goes off to our local community centre for a couple of hours. She loves it, and just completed the work for her first badge - the Booklovers badge, appropriately enough, given that at seven she has a reading age well beyond that and goes through novels like they're going out of fashion.

I pick her up from Brownies every week. It's only a two minute drive from the community centre to our house, but it's actually the only two minutes I get to spend alone with her each week. It's always a highlight, especially as she comes out of the hall positively bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm (for context, she's normally very calm and reserved). It's become one of my most cherished moments of the week, even if it means that she doesn't settle down to bed for ages because she's so excited about the fun stuff she's been up to with the group. This week she emerged carrying a shoebox which she'd decorated with a rudimentary decoupage from magazines, wrapping paper, old calendars and so on. I don't think I've ever seen her get as excited about anything else in her life, giving me some small ray of hope that she might always enjoy the simpler things in life.

Beigel Bake, Brick Lane

Every Friday lunchtime, two colleagues of mine and I leave the modern environs of the City and head for the infinitely more interesting Brick Lane, the sole reason for this excursion being to buy bagels from one of the two shops in the stretch of Brick Lane just north of where the old Truman Brewery used to be.

More often than not, I'm just picking up bagels for the following day's lunch, though quite when I got into this habit I don't know. It would be all too easy to pick up a packet of bagels from the supermarket close to home, but those bagels are poor synthetic cousins to the small, chewy rolls that you can only really get from a proper Jewish outlet. Plus at 25p per bagel, I can't think of many other lunches that come cheaper than that.

My colleagues and I started going to the first bagel shop you come to as you walk up Brick Lane from the old brewery. At some point we switched allegiance to Beigel Bake a couple of doors up, where the service is better and the staff friendlier. On our recent excursion I bought a slice of baked cheesecake, which, in all its firm, crumbly glory, was just about the best cheesecake I've ever had. A snip at just 70p. Most Fridays my friend Dan follows up his salt beef bagel with a coffee from Brick Lane Coffee next door, a funky place with a predilection for Lego, Star Wars and risqué posters and mugs with deceptive slogans that you'd never give to your parents if they popped in for a cuppa.

(In the picture above you can see my friend Anthony emerging from the shop; I like to think the smile on his face shows how much we enjoy visiting this place.)

Saturday Mornings

Time was, back when the girls were younger, when I would spend Saturday mornings in a terrible mood. For a while we attributed this to a pair of Mr. Grumpy socks that always seemed to be the next pair at the top of my sock drawer whenever Saturday came around; we now realise that this was a mere coincidence. None of us believe in magic, character-changing socks these days.

The truth was that I just didn't know what I was doing, or had no confidence in my abilities as a father, or both. M. would head off to the gym early Saturday morning, something which I never begrudged her doing after a week of looking after the kids while I went to work, but the mood that prevailed before she left the house may well have been construed as such.

Nowadays things are better. M. still goes to the gym all morning but I'm much more relaxed. This is probably because the girls have grown up a bit and my duties extend to simply putting out bowls for the cereal that they pour themselves or cleaning their teeth before we leave the house. I'm probably no more confident than I was when they were younger (I still can't tie their hair up in ponytails, for example), but things have definitely become easier. I'm still prone to bouts of grumpiness but I'm much more self-aware these days: it's true that you get out what you put in, and you can guarantee that if I'm in a mood then all I'm going to get back is two very grumpy little girls, and grumpy girls are indeed a force to be reckoned with.

My eldest daughter goes to a drama class for most of Saturday morning, leaving me to spend three hours with my youngest daughter. Those three hours have become among the most cherished of the week, something I couldn't have imagined earlier in her life. Our eldest is a daddy's girl through and through but it's fair to say that my relationship with our youngest was always a bit more strained, and I've never had as close a relationship as M. enjoys with her. Perhaps through me being more relaxed, or her growing up a bit more, Saturday mornings have given us a chance to enjoy each other's company and bond a lot more. It's only taken almost six years.

Most Saturday mornings we'll find ourselves running errands, either to a supermarket in Milton Keynes or taking a walk to our local high street shops in Woburn Sands to visit the tiny library we are fortunate enough to have in this small town of ours. We talk about whatever takes our fancy, play I spy, look out for cats, interesting buildings or just make small talk about school, work or sundry other things according to our moods. Just lately I've made a commitment to her that once we've done our chores we'll spend some time doing some sort of craft activity. A couple of weekends ago it was decorating a paper lantern she got for Christmas, while this weekend it was decorating a shoebox just like her sister had done enthusiastically at Brownies earlier in the week.

I've never been a big fan of getting messy, and for a long time we've been happy to outsource that sort of activity to their school teachers but I guess I've reached a point where I think it's fun, and certainly worth it for the happiness it brings my youngest little girl.

For the record, I still have the Mr. Grumpy socks, but they appear to have lost whatever potency they may once have had.

Breaking Bad

I am passionately averse to anything that's hyped. I don't know when this started, but over the years it's just developed into a sort of mantra; I don't mind 'cult' films or books, but such things often attain that cult status because they were roundly ignored when they were first made and achieve plaudits by slowly working their way into people's hearts. Hyped things don't do that; they have an impudent swagger, get five star ratings as soon as some reviewer has watched the opening credits, and get critics sufficiently hot under the collar to deploy billboard-worthy words with a fervent enthusiasm that all seems a bit daft. (I realise that in saying this I'm being somewhat ironic, given that my music reviews are published each month by Clash and I will confess to having deliberately worked up at least one sentence in a review with the sole purpose of seeing it quoted in an advert).

So it was with Breaking Bad: everyone I knew was gushing about it, and so I wanted to avoid it with similar enthusiasm. And then a colleague let me borrow the boxset of the first three series and, despite some initial reticence M. and I were both hooked (aided, in M.'s case by Aaron Paul, the latest in a lengthening line of men she confesses to having a crush on). Sufficiently hooked, I would say, to have found ourselves approaching the end of the third series with an addict's sense of desperation: we'd watched two or three episodes per night for going on three weeks and with series four not in our possession, we had a need for another fix but no real way of knowing where the next hit was going to come from.

I found myself at a kids party with my youngest daughter this past weekend where I spent a comfortable hour extolling the virtues of the show to another dad, who, in wearing a very cool Heisenberg t-shirt, had marked himself out rather prominently as something of a fan.
'Series four is the best,' he mused, perhaps sensing my desperation to get my hands on those episodes. I briefly wondered if he would exchange those episodes for one of my kidneys.

Perhaps I've been wrong about hype all along. I was wrong about The Wire and Girls and many other things. But then I think back to the hours wasted watching Kill Bill, some Oscar-winning ensemble cast film that might have gathered all sorts of risible adjectives or Comedy Central garbage like The Millers or Mike And Molly and reckon I'm not quite ready to slavishly follow the herd just yet.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Celebrity Spotting

My colleagues and I like to play a game of trying to spot famous celebrities, generally whilst travelling. My friend Dan likes to bend the rules slightly by calling out the names of famous actors he's mingled with after theatre productions in the West End, but, whilst there's no denying that spotting Dame Helen Mirren has major kudos, if you spend time with thesps in theatre land, you're quite likely to bump into a major board-treader.

Mike and I have a more purist view of the game: they have to be people spotted in an airport, on a plane or in an airport lounge. Mike's most recent spot was Sarah Ferguson. Mine was Noel Gallagher. My previous spots have included Richard Bacon and Sue Perkins. It's a mildly diverting game.

Outside of travelling, I have seen two major Hollywood celebrities on the street. The first was Kiefer Sutherland, who I saw at approximately 8.30 in the morning wandering through a deserted Covent Garden, dressed in a blue suit, wearing sunglasses, smoking a cigarette and bearing a facial expression that said 'Yes, it's me, and yes, I am way too cool for school.' My family and I had come down to London after our flight to Portugal had been cancelled thanks to that Icelandic ash cloud back in 2010; he, I would later discover from reading a newspaper, was stranded in London for the same reason, only whereas we had spent a civilised night in our Canary Wharf hotel, he had spent the night partying, and evidently whilst we were on our way out to breakfast, he was on his way home.

My personal favourite spot, and the one that prompted this piece, was last May while we were on holiday in New York. This was our second family trip to the Big Apple, and the third for M. and I. Whenever we head to NY I think we're going to be bumping into celebrities on every block, but of course we never do. They hide, evidently.

So it was our first night in Manhattan and we'd gone for a major wander to re-orient ourselves. Our aim was to find a branch of Whole Foods somewhere downtown, but we ended up getting thoroughly lost, and instead found ourselves in Greenwich Village - arguably the most confusing part of the island thanks to its London-esque jumble of streets - and popped into a D'Agostino on Greenwich Street for over-priced supplies.

When we came out, sixty-odd dollars lighter, it had started to drizzle. On the street we saw a big man riding a bike. He looked reasonably familiar, but it was only when he got off the bike and chained it to a lamppost that I realised it was Philip Seymour Hoffman. I think I probably whispered 'Look, that's you-know-who!' to M. in that vaguely star-struck too-loud voice you inevitably use on such occasions, which unintentionally caught his attention.

In response, he just nodded sagely, raised a hand and offered a small, slightly embarrassed smile. Later we found out he lived in that part of town and that he'd just come out of a spell in rehab. In the celeb spotting stakes, an Oscar winner riding a bike after time kicking drugs was up there with the best.

Less than a year later he was dead from a suspected overdose.

Rest in peace PSH.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

In The Early Morning Security Queue, Heathrow

Source: Wikipedia

It's just after five in the morning and I'm fourth in line at the fast track security search queue at Heathrow's Terminal 5. Immediately in front of me is a young girl who is dressed as if she's about to head off to a jungle somewhere - sturdy boots, practical clothes, heavily-laden rucksack. In front of her are two large African-American women with big handbags and scarves and hats.

The security guard is a brusque, efficient, unsmiling Australian woman who has a facial expression that suggests she resents having to work at this early hour. The trays on the conveyor passing through the x-ray are backed up and nothing is moving.

The first African-American lady puts her items into one of the large grey plastic trays when a gap in the conveyor appears and wanders off through the metal detector, swiftly followed by the second woman, only the second woman is wearing what might be boots, but as they're tucked beneath her jeans, it's hard to tell. The Australian guard calls the woman back and asks her, not unpolitely but certainly firmly, if she's wearing boots. The woman grunts something that I can't make out and hands her boots to the guard and then huffs off toward the gate again.

The Australian guard could easily have let it pass, but chooses not to, and says something officious back about rules and regulations that clearly winds the woman up further. She turns back, makes a complaint about why she should even have to take her boots off anyway, just at the point where the guard is lowering the boots into one of the woman's two trays, this one holding her coat. Still complaining, the woman grabs the boots and thrusts them into her other tray, the one containing her ridiculously over-sized handbag, presumably affronted at the way the guard could have dirtied her coat by placing her boots there.

It's clear that the Australian guard is not going to take this lying down and offers a perfunctory retort, bereft of any hesitation or pause for breath.

'Madam if you object to having to take your boots off I suggest you avoid travelling in the future.' It's a perfectly barbed response, but it's evident that this response has no real purpose whatsoever; it's just designed to antagonise, and that's exactly what it does.

The woman responds with some low growl or other and the Australian looks momentarily shocked. I honestly thought she was going to get a burly security guard over and have the woman denied the opportunity to fly, but instead she just responds with a defensive 'My God, it's not even six in the morning and you want to argue,' as if there is an official start time from which one is allowed to enter into disagreements with one another. The woman waddles off through the metal detector and the young girl in front of me mutely and compliantly removes her sturdy boots and places then in a tray.

The Australian guard is evidently not finished with the African-American woman and what she does next is both passive-aggressive and final proof that she absolutely maintains the upper hand in this whole business. I watch as she calmly wanders down to the guards at the other end of the belt, whispers something out of the side of her mouth to one of them and goes back to her station. I may have imagined a small smile on her face as she did so.

Soon, I'm on the other side of the metal detector, waiting for my own tray to descend down the rollers toward me. The jungle trek girl and the two African-American are next to me, and the two women are evidently moaning about what just happened. The first woman's tray emerges from the x-ray and teeters slowly down the rollers toward where she's waiting. When the other woman's bag emerges, it pauses momentarily before being mechanically shoved over onto a separate set of rollers, meaning that the bag is now only accessible to the security guards at this end of the belt.

'Why is my bag that side?' pleads the woman.

The guard responds blankly that it needs to be opened and the contents completely emptied and checked thoroughly. He glances back at the Australian guard who is beaming innocently. It's clear that the woman poses no major terrorist threat and that they'll find nothing remotely unacceptable in her bag, but in thinking she's got the upper hand when dealing with the authorities, she's misplaced where she sits in the pecking order of things, and now she's paying the price.

I wander off to the lounge to get some breakfast, wondering if they'll cart her off to a room nearby for a more comprehensive search for no other reason than to teach her a lesson. I wonder if she'll think twice before answering back next time.

Saturday, 30 November 2013


Source: BBC
I decided to give up drinking alcohol for a month. I'd seen the posters for Octsober, a month-long initiative to make people aware of alcohol abuse, similar to this month's Movember, during which time men grow their facial hair to raise awareness of testicular cancer; I'd seen the poster, but didn't feel terribly compelled to participate in a month-long spell of enforced alcohol abstinence. I'm not good at feeling like I'm being told to do something by a marketing campaign.

Be assured, I'm not a alcoholic, nor do I consider myself to have any sort of drinking problem, and in fact, in contrast to others I know, I barely drink at all. I never drink on a school night, I hardly ever drink if I'm at a work dinner or on the rare occasion I go out for after-work drinks, I can only think of a handful of occasions where I've shared a whole bottle of wine with my wife during the course of an evening, and my principal alcohol consumption is confined to a couple of cocktails on a Friday and Saturday night and a glass of wine with lunch on a Sunday. In this sense, I'm not that different to my younger self; I didn't drink that much as a student and I can probably count the number of times I've been properly wasted on two hands. In fact, I wrote a post for my first blog (The First Days Of My Thirties) a few years ago that covered my mild misdemeanours with alcohol, and I have no other notable additions to make to that list. When I had a compulsory medical in my first few weeks of starting at university in 1995, in response to the question 'Has anyone commented on the amount you drink?' I put 'Yes, people say I don't drink enough.' The doctor didn't see the funny side of this. So, in summary, I don't think I have a problem, but then again, I imagine that most people with an alcohol problem don't think they do either.

The opportunity to abstain for a month came with the confluence of the bottles of vodka, gin and Bacardi in our house all running dry at more or less the same time. These are the bases I use for most of the cocktails I make so it meant spending anything up to £70 on three bottles of booze in one go. Money being tight anyway these days and with Christmas coming up, the idea of that expenditure was hard to justify, in the same way as I'd find it hard to justify buying music or an expensive hobby right now.

So for the entire month of November not a drop of alcohol passed my lips. I'd like to say that I felt better for it, but for some reason the only real benefit seems to have been financial. The month of abstention seemed to coincide with a period of unsettled sleep for our youngest daughter, and so I still woke up on Saturday and Sunday mornings during November with a jaded feeling, just as if I'd had a few drinks the night before. I'm sure my body appreciated the detox on some level, but I suspect you need to drink a lot more than I do to feel a major benefit.

But maybe there was one major benefit of the month off: I didn't miss alcohol at all. I didn't drive home from the train station after work on a Friday looking forward to a gin and tonic, or idly look through my cocktail books on a Saturday afternoon looking for interesting recipes to make, and in spite of having a pretty stressful period at work, I don't remember once thinking to myself that I needed a drink after an especially gruelling day in the office.

Still, that was November. It's now practically December, the time for Christmas traditions; mulled wine, the first alcohol I will have consumed in a month is being prepared, its boozy, fruity, spicy fragrance filling my kitchen. The Christmas drinks cupboard is being restocked and festive cocktail recipes are being pulled out of the Saturday papers.


Monday, 10 June 2013

My First New York (Ecco, 2010) / A Return To The Bryant Park Hotel, New York

My First New York (Ecco, 2010)

My First New York compiles fifty-six bite-sized recollections of artists, models, film-makers, journalists, actors and writers, all detailing their first impressions of the city upon arriving as residents. The articles were first published in New York Magazine as part of a series.

The personal history of each of the contributors is, in a way, secondary to a sort of fragmented history of New York and what has made its appeal so great. Stories of immigrants like film-maker Jonas Mekas, arriving through Ellis Island from oppression in Eastern Europe, recount the sheer awe of arriving in the new world, Manhattan's southern topography being the first view of New York many arriving by boat would see. There are recollections of those constantly-shifting immigrant communities, illegal sub-lets, parties, coincidences, success and above all, an idefinable sense of what makes living in New York such a major aspiration for many people (despite being, as one person recounts, roughly five times as expensive as anywhere else).

Arriving in New York as a tourist brings with it a thrill of suddenly being forced into a giant movie set, the architecture familiar from countless uncredited cameo appearances. My First New York perfectly illustrates the magnetic pull of Manhattan that makes people want to go and live there, as well as the economic realities (the cost of a small apartment in most cases is frightening) and the challenges and risks - one depiction of hard drug deals being conducted on every corner in the outlaw yuppie Eighties is one especially vivid tale.

For anyone ruing their life's journey ensuring that they will only ever be a mere tourist in the city, My First New York allows you to see, through others' experiences, what it might have been like to live there, while also providing a fascinating compact history of the city over the past hundred odd years.

A Return To The Bryant Park Hotel, New York

The Bryant Park Hotel. Source: MJA Smith
It depends on personal choice - some people like the idea of always staying somewhere they've not been to before; others prefer the familiarity of somewhere they've previously stayed. As a generally risk-averse kind of guy, I know I definitely fall into the latter category. So when we got back to the UK after a week's stay at the Bryant Park Hotel in April 2012, we more or less straight away decided that we'd stay there again when we returned to New York in May of this year.

My review of the hotel from last year is somewhere else amongst the plethora of positive comments about this excellent hotel. At the time I regarded it as the best hotel I'd ever stayed at. That view was based on not only the accommodation (smart, minimal, great views across Bryant Park from the suite we had) but also, critically, the people working there. A crucial factor in being so impressed by the people working at the hotel was, first and foremost, their friendliness. I don't honestly know how many rooms there are at the Bryant Park, but to always have a smiling 'Good morning Mr Smith' as you walked past the lobby does make you feel right at home, and like your stay matters to them. The staff also went out of their way to make our two young daughters feel every bit as special and welcome as we were made to feel, something that I frankly wasn't expecting in a hotel that outwardly seems so trendy.

Two of the staff that made our 2012 stay so special - Chase and Sarah - were still working at the hotel when we returned to the hotel this year. Getting a personal, familiar welcome after goodness knows how many guests have passed by that reception desk was a really nice touch, and it set the tone for what turned out - predictably, I might stress - another great stay at the hotel. Sarah, who the girls had struck up a friendship with last year, went out of her way to make them feel special, going out to the Crumbs bakeshop just across Bryant Park to bring them balloons and cupcakes while we were getting unpacked in the room, for which she was rewarded with copious drawings and thank you notes on Bryant Park stationary from the room.

I don't intend to go into detail this time around as I think my previous review covered that just fine. However, suffice to say that the hotel truly felt like a home from home, our Bryant Park Suite on the sixteenth floor was perfect, the service from everyone was faultless, everything about our stay was spot on, and we've already come to the conclusion that come what may, we have to go back and stay here again next year; I can't honestly bring myself to contemplate a year where we don't stay at this very, very special hotel.

A big thanks again to everyone at the hotel who made the stay this year so memorable. Home suite home indeed.

This post originally appeared on TripAdvisor on 09.06.2013

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Another London Saturday - 16 February 2013

Source: MJA Smith

After a slow start to the day, we jumped in our car and drove down the M1 to Stanmore to pick up the Jubilee Line - one of the few lines actually running that day - to head into London. Mrs S's parents always used to use Stanmore and the Jubilee Line to get into London when she was a little girl, and so it's become our chosen means of getting into the West End on a weekend as well. Considering that most days of the week I catch a train from Bletchley into London, driving on the motorway and then using the Jubilee Line seems a bit odd to me, but equally Mrs S and I have had so many weekends, admittedly before the kids were born, where the trains from Euston were replaced by buses that seemed to take an interminable time to get home that driving and then taking the Jubilee Line doesn't seem that ridiculous after all.

As is more or less customary, we took the train to Baker Street. Daughter 1 (six) spent the entire journey reading a book from our local village library and Daughter 2 (four) sat next to me chatting away, fidgeting, trying to figure out where we were on the Tube map and generally getting excited about a trip to London. A few years ago she was intimidated by the Tube, hoping that every stop we reached was the one we'd be getting off at and getting a little freaked out after Finchley Road when the line goes underground, but perseverance and conditioning has paid off and she's fine now. Daughter 1 associates the Tube with reading, having read her first book all by herself on the way back one Sunday when she was four. The book was The Tiger Who Came To Tea, bought at Daunt on Marylebone High Street. A couple of years later and she's now reading lengthy classic novels. I'm both proud and more than a little horrified by her reading age.

At Baker Street we dodged the hordes of people queuing and making a nuisance of themselves on the pavement outside Madame Tussaud, not for the first time wondering what the appeal of that place is. Over Baker Street and through the parish church onto Marylebone High Street, stopping briefly at a market stall in the churchyard so that the girls could sample some very reasonably-priced macaroons that a pleasant young lady offered them. I regret not rewarding her generosity with a purchase but I'm sure she'll be there again.

We've been coming to Marylebone now for a few years. If I could live anywhere in London it would probably be here, and I really like the fact that on any given day you hear a curious number of American voices. It's like there's a book somewhere in the States that says any hedge fund manager, executive or well-heeled director should make a beeline for property in Marylebone if they find themselves needing to transfer to London for an extended period. People say Marylebone is like a village, and I guess it is in the sense that there's a distinct feeling of community that feels totally different from, say, vapid, commercial, gaudy Oxford Street only a few hundred metres away; perhaps it's a village in the same way that New York's West and East villages are villages, i.e. really expensive, still trendy but a long way from the small communities they once were.

In these more straitened times, we eschewed our normal browsing in the Conran Shop but Mrs S couldn't avoid nipping into Cath Kidston to top-up on mugs, presents and other stuff that I turned a blind eye to. While she was nattering to a member of staff, the girls and I played a game with the wall of loose buttons that they have downstairs, each of us asking to find a particular button based on briefly mentioning its attributes in vague details. An example: 'Who can find me a blue button shaped like a triangle?' Seeing buttons arranged like that reminds me of trips to a haberdashers called Fred Winter in Stratford-upon-Avon with my mother as a child; trips to town with her invariably involved a trip to either that shop or another one to buy wool, buttons or a pattern. The girls and I have played this game once before, and I think that it's one of the few things that could well hold their attention for a whole day.

From Cath Kidston, down Marylebone High Street to Daunt. Daunt is an independent bookshop that I've written about before. Its principal attraction today was the tiny wooden stools at the back of the ground floor's childrens' department, the girls both pulling books from the shelves, grabbing a stool and reading (in Daughter 1's case, quickly and silently; in Daughter 2's case, quickly, loudly and whilst making up her own story in spite of being able to read a lot of the words herself). Daughter 2 seemed to struggle with the concept that because we'd entered a bookshop from which we'd bought books previously that didn't mean that we would automatically be buying her a book today. The classic 'It's a week until your birthday,' line did little to assuage her, and so we left quicker than we wanted, one very disappointed little girl in tow. I briefly gazed in the window of Oxfam, knowing that at the back of the store is a really good selection of vinyl records; it took all my reserves of willpower not to fly in there to thumb through the racks.

From Marylebone High Street to Charing Cross Road, past swanky houses, offices, embassies and the various medical and therapy practices clustered around Harley Street, Daughter 2 and I counting cabs and disagreeing over whether the game should include the new Mercedes taxis or just classic cabs, catching glimpses of the BT tower and reminiscing about the time we saw James McAvoy filming a scene for a film that turned out to be Danny Boyle's Trance one Saturday afternoon on Harley Street. On Great Portland Street we looked in the window of Villandry, making a commitment that next time we spent the day in London we should either visit there, or somewhere else, and avoid the habitual trip to Giraffe. Passing through Soho Square we remembered walking through there in the summer, people sunbathing and relaxing next to a mix of old and modern statues that Daughter 2 found hilarious. On this particular Saturday someone chanting a very half-hearted 'Hare Krishna' made Daughter 1 furrow her brow and whisper 'What's she doing?' with teenage-esque disdain.

We reached Charing Cross Road via Manette Street, passing the unusual sight of a golden forearm jutting from above a doorway next to Foyles's side entrance which we all found funny to see, though the naturally inquisitive part of me wanted to know exactly what it was doing there (turns out it's the entrance to Goldbeaters' Hall). Mrs S and Daughter 1 being way too early for the matinee of Midnight Tango we'd arranged the day in London around, we ducked into Foyles and let the kids read books while we passed the time. Never mind that they'd done exactly the same in Daunt no more than two hours before; they approached it with precisely the same amount of zeal, and not for the first time did I hope that their enthusiasm for reading will continue beyond childhood.

Doors at the Phoenix Theatre, a beautiful but cosy theatre whose main entrance is tucked away on Flitcroft Street, opened at around 2.30, and so Daughter 2 and I said our farewells and set off for own afternoon of excitement in the capital. The idea had been to take her to the Transport Museum in Covent Garden, but having finally got into the main piazza after battling through the throng of tourists trying to squeeze into the Tube station on the corner of Long Acre - despite ample signs recommending walking the short distance to Leicester Square instead - and the crowds of people watching the gold-painted human statues, we discovered a queue outside the Transport Museum that easily consisted of fifty people. I'd wanted to take Daughter 2 to see the exhibition of posters marking the 150th anniversary of the Underground that had opened the day before, but I hadn't reckoned on its popularity being so great, and neither had I considered that it was the first day of half term for a lot of kids. Though I was a little deflated, Daughter 2 managed to maintain a cheery disposition in spite of the disappointment and showed that kids actually don't need that much entertainment after all when she said 'All I really want to do is go for a muffin at Starbucks, daddy.'

At The Strand we passed a Starbucks but it was too busy, queues up to the door and a solitary seat outside that was hardly appealing on a cold day, and before we knew it we were crossing Waterloo Bridge, the idea having formed in my mind to take her to the South Bank where cafes are generally less busy, where there's a bit more breathing space and where the possibility of a free visit to Tate Modern would make up for the museum trip I'd promised her.

The South Bank generally has a vibrancy and buzz that means it's more or less impossible not to see something interesting, quirky or downright daft as you walk along. That Saturday afternoon it took the form of a beach on the foreshore of the Thames, complete with a sand-sculpted sofa upon which two guys were playing guitars, bongos and singing for coins - and a guy in formal tails 'playing' a tuba to a CD while blowing flames out of the top of his instrument. Daughter 2 found that alternately hilarious and a little freaky. We stopped for the muffin she wanted at the Oxo Tower branch of EAT, covered her little face in plenty of chocolate while I sipped a latte and finally offered me the half she decided she couldn't quite manage.

Heading back onto the South Bank we got caught in the inevitable throng of people bottlenecking their way through the tunnel at Blackfriars Bridge. Blackfriars has been undergoing a major overhaul since I don't know when and now represents a fusion of the very old - the infrastructure of the bridge itself - and the modern, with the entire span of the railway bridge covered in fan-like solar panels, simultaneously providing Blackfriars station with a decent amount of its annual power requirement as well as providing passengers on the platform with some relief from the elements. In the tunnel, Daughter 2 danced to a South American band that was jamming out songs on really basic equipment, raising a smile from the drummer. Out of the main tunnel, she was fascinated by the wooden slats under the bridge and also the remains of an older bridge just to the west of the present Blackfriars Bridge. It's moments like this when constantly pointing out things that you personally find interesting feels suddenly worthwhile.

Source: MJA Smith

At Tate Modern I was hoping to see Kraftwerk's equipment being tidied away following their concerts earlier in the week. I have a habit of arriving at modern art museums just after they've played. I visited MoMA in New York immediately after they'd played in 2012, and the crew were still packing their set away when we were in the museum. Alas, this time there was no trace whatsoever in the Turbine Hall. We headed up to the Surrealistic exhibit up on the second floor and Daughter 2 spent the time seeing what was in the various pictures as well as doing a really impressive job of explaining what it reminded her of, what the shapes and obscure blurrings sort of looked like and in some cases how it made her feel. I was really impressed with her for being able to do this just before she turned five. We only looked at that exhibit while we were there, and we careered round that at pretty high speed, but it was brief time well spent.

Despite Daughter 2's protestations that she was tired, we had no real choice but to walk back to Charing Cross Road. On the Millennium Bridge we bumped into around thirty congenial people dressed, for no discernible reason, in animal costumes and on the north side, on the approach to St. Paul's, encountered a headless street performer. Walking along Queen Victoria Street we passed the ostentatious UK headquarters of the Church Of Scientology and the new Blackfriars station. 'Can we get a train from there?' pleaded Daughter 2 wearily, but even if we'd wanted to there were no Tubes running on the lines passing through the station anyway. As we approached Blackfriars, we were greeted with the strange vision of a mainline train emerging from behind the Bank of New York Mellon offices, having just come out of the adjacent City Thameslink concourse, ascending the bridge to stop at Blackfriars. It seemed totally out of place somehow, and ultra futuristic despite being old rolling stock on a far older bridge.

We passed the expansive former estate of the Knights Templars, now home to a complex of legal practices. The gardens at Temple are beautiful, but also more or less inaccessible unless you're privileged to have access to them. Perhaps I'm a conspiracy theorist after all, or perhaps I've started to believe the hokum in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, but I did find myself shuddering as I walked past both Temple and the Church of Scientology slightly earlier. Fortunately, walking a little further on any sense of weirdness in the air evaporated as we encountered the crowds of fashionistas queuing at the Valentino exhibition; it seemed to restore a sense of superficiality back to proceedings. In contrast to the well-dressed crowd, we were passed by a pack of boys pulling tricks on skateboards. 'I used to have a skateboard,' I told Daughter 2, now being carried for a few hundred metres. 'Could you do that?' she asked, as one of the kids flicked his board up, twirled it in midair and landed on it perfectly. I sighed, thinking back to my heavy, cheap deck bought from a toyshop in Westcliff-on-Sea in my youth. 'No,' I muttered. I could barely ride the thing, let alone do tricks.

Eventually we got back to the Phoenix Theatre a few minutes before turning-out time. As we approached the main entrance to the theatre, we took a look at the progress being made on the Phoenix Garden. The Garden, an old car park that was saved from being converted into luxury apartments, is a charity space run by volunteers. It's one of those places tucked away that retains a secretive, hidden quality in spite of being surrounded on all sides by busy roads. The four of us followed a guidebook to the garden once when looking for things to do in London with children, and at the time the space was populated by a mere smattering of people chilling out among the carefully maintained but overgrown plantings. If it wasn't for the vigilance of the volunteer workers and the absolute zero tolerance policy toward drugs and alcohol in the park, you'd think it would be a key destination for junkies and drunks. The day we were there a couple of years ago, there was one trampy-looking guy snoring contentedly under a bush, but otherwise it was a picture of conviviality and tranquility, a couple of indie guys strumming an acoustic guitar aimlessly at the back of the park next to some inoffensive graffiti, and the most dangerous things that we saw that day were a lazy pollen-covered bee, a tiny fieldmouse and a few ladybirds. The park was just a muddy mess when Daughter 2 and I poked our noses through the bars that Saturday, but I'm sure it will be returned to its bohemian splendour in no time at all.

Emerging from the theatre while Daughter 2 were topping up our energy levels with a couple of handfuls of Jelly Belly sweets, Mrs S was gushing about the quality of the dancing, while Daughter 1 explained that her favourite sequence was the cameo by Russell Grant, much to her mother's horror. The walk to Waterloo was dominated by Daughter 1 moaning about a stomach ache and Daughter 2 cheerfully explaining how much fun she'd had. As we crossed the river - for Daughter 2 and I this would be our third crossing of the afternoon - Daughter 1 was back to her normal, enthusiastic chatty and observant self, a pleasantly quiet Tube ride concluding another excellent afternoon of exploring and - I hope - memory-making.

Friday, 19 April 2013

'Just a New York conversation / Rattlin' through my mind.'

Source: MJA Smith

'Just a New York conversation / Rattlin' through my mind.'

- Lou Reed, 'New York Telephone Conversation', Transformer (1975)

'Bless you.'

- Bryant Park, Saturday afternoon

'Bless you,' said the woman sat on one of the metal chairs scattered around Bryant Park, reading the Saturday papers and wearing a pair of oversized sunglasses to shield her eyes from the warm April sun. My wife had just sneezed, and the woman had looked up from her paper as we walked past, smiled and said 'bless you'. In uttering those two words, New York City, where we'd arrived a couple of hours before, seemed suddenly less oppressive, more friendly somehow.

'I should go to a museum, a gallery or something, I know; but when you live in New York, when it rains you just stay indoors and, I don't know, do the cleaning or something.'

- Rock Center Café, Saturday evening

We were sat in the Rock Center Café, watching a mix of flamboyant wannabes and hopeless amateurs skating on the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, on the rink's last day until next winter. At one point the ice was cleared and a guy proposed to his fiancee; we have to assume she said yes. Everyone clapped.

After a dinner of crab cakes and seasonal vegetables, the girls went out with Mrs S to watch the skating, where a guy looking like Che Guevara was impressing and irritating the other skaters by turns with some quirky dancing. Paying the bill, I got chatting to the waiter, a big, cuddly sort of a guy with a friendly demeanour, no trace of snootiness in spite of the WASPy clientele at other tables. I explained we'd just arrived in New York from two weeks in Orlando. He told me he used to work at Disney World. I wasn't terribly surprised to hear that.

In exchange for his tip, I asked him if he could recommend anywhere in New York to take children. In response, he proudly reeled off a whole list of places and then took me over to a waitress, herself a mother to a son, who offered up some more places - the American Museum Of Natural History is the only one that springs to mind now - and the guy wrote some of them down on the back of a receipt. All of the places were already on our list of things we wanted to see or do while we were in the city, but it was the easy conversation and friendliness that made that post-dinner chat memorable.

'You wan' lox-cream cheese or lox AND cream cheese?'

- Cafe Europa, W33 Street
- Pergola, W40 Street
- Montague Street Bagels, Montague Street, Brooklyn
- Ess-A-Bagel, Third Avenue

Never ask for salmon. Well, not unless you want the server to give you a stern, uncomprehending stare and the brusque question above.

We ate bagels a few times while in New York. You have to really, and it's hard to go wrong. The best bagels we had? They were from Montague Street Bagels over in Brooklyn, eaten on a bench on the pretty esplanade overlooking Manhattan's Financial District, watching bankers, sundry execs and tourists taking helicopters from a helipad at the island's southern tip. On the night before we flew home, Daughter 2 and I cut across town to Ess-A-Bagel, a deli over on Third Avenue, whose bagels are highly recommended by locals. It turns out that they weren't a patch on Montague Street in Brooklyn, and we managed to lose Mrs S and Daughter 2 when we tried to regroup, instilling a momentary panic given that Manhattan suddenly felt very large indeed.

'Do you like poetry?'

- John's, W44 Street

We were in John's Pizzeria near Times Square, ordering a take-out pizza after a trip to a cinema on W42 Street. It was late and the kids wanted to be in bed, but we were hungry and John's was just around the corner from the hotel. This used to be the Midtown branch of the gruff Village location but is now totally separate. Mrs S and I had been to John's on Bleecker Street before the kids were born, so we had high hopes for the pizza here.

'Do you like poetry?' asked the young guy at the booth who took our takeaway order. By this time Mrs S and the girls were sat down on a banquette, waiting, and I was looking at the restaurant's business card, half-wondering why I pick these things up. The question caught me off guard and I didn't quite know if he was talking to me.

'Sure,' I responded. 'Sometimes.'

'I write poetry. I wrote a poem earlier. Could I read it to you?'

When I agreed, thinking how wonderfully odd this was, he read a short poem written on a scrap of paper, called 'Norway', which he'd been inspired to write after serving a young couple from that country about an hour before. After he'd finished, he meticulously explained what each line meant. I forget the message now, but it lead him on to tell me how committed he was to his studies and his academic endeavours. He gestured at the rest of the wait staff, telling me that they were all wannabe actors or performers, that he thought it was all fake and that few people wanted to make something of themselves through hard work and commitment. I wished him well, told him that being able to write was a gift, gave him my email address after encouraging him to seek a publisher, and left, thinking how typically New York it was to have that conversation.

'Children are people too!'

- Sixth Avenue

In a city of eight million people, seeing the same person twice is weird, let alone statistically mind-bending.

This utterance was hurled at us twice from a talkative black homeless guy on Sixth Avenue on a corner somewhere between Central Park and Radio City, in response to the four of us striding along the sidewalk. The second time he said it, toward the end of our stay, I turned back and offered him a smile. He returned my smile with a massive grin, a wink and a gentle shake of the polysterene coffee cup filled with quarters he was holding.

'It's good to still be here.'

- Other Music, E4 Street

That's what the dude behind the counter in Other Music said to me when I said how pleased I was that this East Village institution was still there. In the days before writing this section we've learned that independent record store Bleecker Bob's in Greenwich had closed its doors forever. Indie record shops in cities across the globe are shutting down as the influence of downloads and retailers like Amazon deliver a more instant response to our music-consuming needs. At least in 2012, Other Music was still there. I truly hope they'll still be there when we return to New York this year.

We'd walked into Other Music after I took Daughter 1 into the John Varvartos store on the Bowery. That trendy outlet is the site of the old CBGB venue. I wanted to take her there for several reasons, one being that she loves my CBGB t-shirt, and another being that from an early age I've been conditioning her to New York punk via Talking Heads, Blondie and others. I have some great video footage of her headbanging along to the first Ramones album, and Television's Marquee Moon was, for a while, her favourite album in her iPod. The former CBGBs was a curiously soulless place, the barest trace of the bastion of New York's music scene to be found in the exposed brickwork, no dirt or grit or energy among the racks of trendy clothes. Another reason for nipping in here was because of a well-publicised display of vintage vinyl. Considering the former venue was the revolution against bloated Seventies rock, seeing loads of LPs by godawful bands that the NY punk scene deliberately rejected was thoroughly dispiriting. As was the burly security guard breathing down our necks.

So Other Music was like a welcome relief when we walked in. I specifically wanted to buy Hurry Up, We're Dreaming by M83. Being far too untrendy to know my way round the modern musical maze of stratified sub-genres, I asked someone stacking new releases onto the shelves to point me in the right direction and she was really friendly and helpful, something you'll never get when shopping on Amazon.

'Do you need some directions?'

- Bleecker Street

We weren't especially lost, that was the thing. We'd been walking round Greenwich Village for most of the morning and had been enjoying exploring the wonky streets and haunts of Beats and other cool people from the Fifties and Sixties, looking for houses once lived in by Dustin Hoffmann and Bob Dylan, looking down the road pictured on the sleeve of Dylan's The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, drinking excellent cappuccinos in Caffe Reggio and watching people playing chess in Washington Square Park. A friendly man, with shopping bags and a beaming smile saw us meandering down Bleecker past the red canopy of the Village Vanguard, the important jazz venue that witnessed many an important gig in jazz's heyday, and he assumed we were struggling to navigate the complexity of the streets compared to the rest of Manhattan. He's clearly never been to London.

That said, it is a little confusing in the Village, and he seemed so keen, and almost proud, to help that we didn't want to say no. At that point we were on our way to the original Magnolia Bakery to buy lavish cupcakes that would later be consumed on the High Line in the shadow of the Standard hotel. He gestured down the street, gave us the directions and he then walked off, smiling and evidently pleased to have assisted some tourists trying really hard not to look like tourists. An elderly lady in Brooklyn on Montague Street had also gone out of her way to see if we needed directions while trying to find the bagel shop, whereas earlier that day when we gingerly approached two traffic cops to ask for directions on how to get onto the Brooklyn Bridge they were smilingly obliging, which was a relief of sorts. I thought they were going to arrest me for being so lost.

'It's our best selling item.'

- A Salt And Battery, Greenwich Avenue

Immediately before bumping into the helpful shopper by the Vanguard, we went for lunch at one of the most baffling places we've come across in New York - A Salt And Battery, an authentic fish and chip shop in the Village, owned and staffed by English people. Sitting in the window eating sustainable white fish and chips from little baskets while looking out onto the quiet streets, and hearing the steady stream of English and Irish accents of queuing customers, it felt like being back home perhaps, even though we don't normally go to the chippy very often.

Talking to the guy behind the counter, a warm guy that I swore was a dead ringer for Jack Whitehall, I alighted upon a poster advertising that deep-fried Cadbury Cream Eggs were back in stock. He explained that it was the most popular thing on the menu, which I was slightly aghast at. I took a photo of the poster and emailed it to a friend in Edinburgh, the message saying that I thought he'd be really proud to see Scottish cuisine making it to New York.

'Well, because you asked so politely... I love the English accent!''
'Do you like Only Fools And Horses?'

- Tony's di Napoli, W43 Street

We had decided to go back to Tony's di Napoli just off Times Square, regarded as one of the best family-run Italian restaurants in the city. We'd been there on the Saturday, and with no other plans for dinner, and it having been a massive hit with the girls (and us), we decided to go back. Previously we'd booked, but this time we were going in on spec, and having seen the hard-faced hostess brusquely managing the pre-theatre crowd a few days before, I was a little nervous. I needn't have worried, but in being a little apprehensive I enquired of the (different) hostess with a bit more pronounced politeness (remember 'please' and 'thank you' are not common currencies in NYC) as to whether we could have a table of four and despite being every bit as stern-looking as her colleague, her face suddenly lit up and she became really friendly. Perhaps I'm a little too conscious and embarrassed by my Englishness sometimes, and I clearly forget that people like to hear the accent when you're abroad, especially in the US.

The appeal of our accents seemed to prevail as we were taken to our table downstairs. After ordering drinks, including a fantastic Negroni for me, our waiter took over the table. I can't remember what he looked like now, but in my mind he reminds me of a blend of Adam Buxton and Carrie's writer boyfriend Jack Berger in Sex And The City. Asking us if we liked Only Fools And Horses in a Brooklyn accent was singularly one of the most unexpected things we heard in New York. It turned out his mother was English and so he'd been raised watching the sitcom, but even if that was an entirely logical question for him to ask, it was still pretty crazy to us. We all enjoyed our pasta and it's no surprise that we'll be going back there again in May; we won't, on the other hand, be going back to Carmine's on the Upper West Side, which we went to on our last day, and which was nowhere near as nice.

'Are you going to American Girl?'

- American Girl, Fifth Avenue

'Are you going to American Girl?' asked a former work colleague when we popped into our firm's New York office to say hello. The question was aimed at Daughter 1 and 2, who had been a bit grumpy and unruly for most of the afternoon. It was our last day, we'd been away for the best part of three weeks, and the week of walking around New York was beginning to take its toll. A few minutes before, we'd gone through the usual parental cycle of warnings that if they misbehaved we'd have to take away the thing they'd been innocently looking forward to most about New York; that thing was a trip to the American Girl store on Fifth Avenue, and we'd been talking about it for months.

So the question left us in a tricky position, since they seemed to take the enquiry as somehow meaning that, despite our warnings, the nice lady had given them permission to go. And of course we acquiesced, looked terribly inconsistent, and roughly three hours later we walked out of American Girl carrying two dolls and a couple of outfits with two very smug and satisfied young children. The dolls were promptly christened Lily and Jessica, or Mortgage #1 and Mortgage #2 as I call them. Another father in the queue and I shared our amazement at the audacious cost, but handed over our credit cards anyway. When the girls feel like it, they dress them and brush Lily and Jessica's hair lovingly. When they don't we tell them they're bad parents and that the dolls should be put up for adoption.