Nights on the town

From Brixton to Pimlico, I’ve been having some unusual writerly fun out and about recently.

BrixtonBookJamAllFirst at the famed Brixton Book Jam held at the Hootananny, Brixton. I’d never been to the Book Jam and was surprised when a friend and fellow writer remarked on how scary it was. The Hootananny is, I discovered, a live music venue, a big room with a full height stage, sound system and spotlights. Suddenly I understood what she meant. On a freezing Monday night in March it seemed very daunting. There was a mixed line-up of writers. I got there early and sat chatting to one of the most experienced performers, Paul Eccentric and his wife Donna Ray. They were live Festival veterans (seven Glastonburys) on the poetry circuit, Paul being half of the Antipoet. The other half, a bassist, came along to watch.

The really enjoyable part of appearing was the chatting with the other writers in the Green Room off to the right of the stage, a Hootananny Brixton GreenRoom fabulous side room wall-papered with posters of previous performers. It’s terrifically nostalgic and much time was spent spotting bands we recognised or knew from more youthful days. Zelda Rhiando, herself a published writer and the organiser of the Jam, was there to calm our nerves and point out the beers in the little fridge and the bottles of wine. I swore not to touch a drop before I went on.

I was not, I discovered, the only one with nerves, yet all of us were used to discussing books, our own and others’ in public. It was that high stage, the single mic and the coloured spotlights (which ran the whole spectrum) which looked so terrifying. The hall was filling up and Zelda said we were off. The first writer’s hands were shaking as he waited at the foot of the stairs to the stage. I was on fourth, to end the first set before the interval and I managed. I even got a laugh at my wry comment at the beginning about my cardigan. Phew, it was over. A big glass of wine later I was back in the Green Room to support the others. Ashley, West and Zelda were all  tremendous.

Millbank1Brixton Book Jam was not my only interesting night on the town. Only three days later I attended the first meeting of the London chapter of the Crime Writer’s Association since before the pandemic. Held in the fantastic Morpeth Arms on Millbank a great group of fellow scribes chatted books, publishers, contracts, remuneration and anything else we fancied. Then Anthony, intrepid manager of the pub, asked if we would like a ‘tour’. A tour of what? It transpired that the public house had used to stand adjacent to the notorious Millbank Prison and that, beneath the ground, elements leading to that place still existed. Down steep stairs and beyond the barrels and machinery we entered a long corridor with archways on one side. The corridor had once been open to the air, the dividing line between prison and pub.

At the end of the corridor was a dark arch leading to a tunnel. This was the route used to bring convictsMillbank2jpg out of the prison down to the prison hulks moored on the Thames. They would then be removed to the transportation ships bound for Australia. The pub was, Anthony informed us, one of the most haunted in London. But the writers’ imaginations were already hard at work and one of us was already speculating aloud about a crime plot using the tunnels. This is, I guess, the sort of thing that happens when a group of Crime Writers gets together. I’ll be looking forward to the next meeting.

Writers appearing in the photos on this blog are, from the top, left to right, Just Dennis, Paul Eccentric, Leo Moynihan, Paul Bassett Davies, me, Ashley Hickson Lovence, West Camel and Zelda Rhiando. Subterranean we are Victoria Dowd, Matthew Ross, Jonathan Rigby and Anne Coates. The hands belong to Vaseem Khan. Thanks to Katie Allen for the multiple pic.

Sherry Week

InernationalSherryWeek21The word ‘sherry’ is derived from the name of the the town of Jerez in Andalucia, southern Spain, formerly spelled Xeres and pronounced ‘sheres’. This year International Sherry Week, a celebration of the town’s most famous product, ran from 8th to the 14th November and I happened to be there for much of it.

And, this year, the biennial Copa de Jerez 2021 coincided. An industry conference, promoting sherry but also hosting discussions about the latest in the world of sherry production, marketing and the rules governing it, it includes a competition for chefs and sommeliers from across the world, the winners being the most successful at pairing sherry and food. This competition has been going for six years and is getting a very good reputation. The entrants come from the best restaurants in Europe. This year the UK’s entry was a team from The River Cafe – Mattia Mazzi was the sommelier and Vincente Raffone the chef.

It’s a high pressure competition, with national heats, before the grand final in the Teatro Villamarta in Jerez and it’s all done against the clock. This year’s judges include Josep Roca, the sommelier and co-owner of the triple-Michelin-starred El Cellar de Can Roca, London restaurateur José Pizarro, Quique Dacosta, owner and chef at his eponymous three-starred restaurant, Andreas Larsson, named the World’s Best Sommelier in 2007, Peer Holm, President of the German Association of Sommeliers and leading Spanish food critic, José Carlos Capel. Not an easy bunch to impress.

The winners were the Belgian team of sommelier Paul-Henri Cuvelier and chef Fabian Bell of Paul de Pierre in Maarkedal, who also won the awards for best sommelier and best chef. Their menu began with mackerel, dashi, chorizo, artichoke, pak choi and lovage oil, paired with Fino Viña Corrales from Bodegas San Francisco. For the main course, lamb, hazelnut, celeriac and sesame purée, zucchini flower stuffed with Manchego, shiitake mushrooms and rosemary-infused potato confit was matched with an Oloroso from Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia. The pud, of pear in tobacco and spice syrup, lemon cream and goat’s cheese ice cream, accompanied by Medium Old Harvest from Bodegas Ximénez-Spinola sounds amazing. Actually, the whole meal sounds amazing.

Please note, I wasn’t invited to any of this – the photos are from the PR. Yet this didn’t stop me from tasting, though not the super dry finos and manzanillas, for me the Autumn is a time for amontillado or, my current favourite, oloroso. (N.B. readers should note that my favourite changes from day to day.) So, meeting friends before going to lunch – a cafe solo and an oloroso goes down very nicely thank you. Some ice cream and a coffee after lunch, what better to accompany both than an oloroso ( though Pedro Jimenez poured over good vanilla ice cream is a delight ).

I was also pleased to discover that the ‘international’ element of Sherry Week was going strong with over 1,750 tastings world wide, including in Vancouver, Sydney, Colombia, Greece and in the UK.  So here’s a shout for The Tapas Room in Peckham, Ambiente Tapas, York, Bar44bristol, Bar Estaban, Crouch End, Rincon Bar Espanol, Richmond, Curado Bar, Cardiff, to name but a few. Now where did I put that bottle of Palo Cortado?

Chelsea in Autumn

Chelsea-2020-Header-DesktopChelsea, or the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, happens in May. It has happened in May for as long as I can remember ( and I’ve been going, on and off, for thirty years or more ), but in 2021, thanks to COVID-19, it took place in September. I went along.

First impression – there were far fewer people at the show. This was a huge plus for those of us who were there! Only people who’ve attended this show realise just how crushed and sometimes unpleasantly crowded it can be. There was still excitement, but much less stress. Numbers had been restricted and, even so, all the tickets had not been sold.  That didn’t surprise me – at almost £100 per day ticket and taking place at the ‘wrong’ time of year. This is too expensive, oh RHS. It’s supposed to be a show for gardeners, not just for the wealthy who can afford it. Plenty of folk will simply have decided to watch the BBC’s blanket coverage on the TV instead and they won’t be returning.  Aren’t you trying to appeal to more people not fewer? This is how to make your (currently very popular) product into a ghetto (albeit a well-heeled one). 

Second impression – this was a somewhat underpowered show. There were fewer contributors of all kinds, fewer show gardens, no ‘artisan’ gardens, fewer Grand Pavilion stands. The RHS had tried to fill the gaps, but, overall, rather unsuccessfully, I thought. I’ve never seen the Grand Pavilion so empty and, while it was undoubtedly the case that there was a real attempt to spread things out because of COVID, there were also some of the usual stands missing. I understand that some of regular exhibitors weren’t there because of, they said, the difficulty in preparing blooms for September, but how can it be more difficult than preparing blooms in the early and cold part of the year for display in May? So I missed stands like Bloms Bulbs, David Austen and other well-known growers.

What about replacements? It’s Autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – there was even a Harvest Moon on Tuesday night. Where were the stands celebrating that? Pumpkins and squashes appeared as a theme, but what about some of the other seasonal produce? My fig tree is producing. My roses are still blooming, in what has been a fabulous year for roses, at least in the south east of England, where were these? Didn’t the brains at the RHS come up with alternatives?  Or did they do so, only to find that growers and supporters weren’t going to play ball? Missed opportunity.

There was, nonetheless, much that was interesting and new. A stand from Penzance specialising in Restios which look like grasses, but are as a species, many millions of years older. They were stunning. There were new garden categories too, which needed less preparation time and construction, the Balcony Gardens and the Container Gardens, the latter more successful, in my opinion.

Of course a good time was had, meeting up at Chelsea is an annual ritual and especially welcome after recent restrictions. Pimms was drunk, new people were met, the sun shone and the band played. Not quite back to business as usual though and it was interesting that we were contemplating other garden festivals where we could do all this and be rather better serviced (lunch has become impossible, even getting seats in a cafe/tent for a group of more than six is difficult). We all moved north to Chatsworth when that began, maybe next year it’ll be Hampton Court, or Malvern, or Rosemoor? I love Chelsea, but our relationship needs a serious looking at. Who knows what will happen next year.

La sonida del mar

Or the sound of the sea. There is nothing quite like that ever repeating, calming background pulse of water falling upon sand. Or indeed the fierce cacophony of wind whipped breakers on rocks or cliffs.  Last week I was enjoying the former.

Twenty minutes drive from Jerez de la Frontera is the sherry town of El Puerto de Santa Maria. It sits at the mouth of the Rio Guadalete, although it would be more accurate to say that it sits upon the river delta, because there is as much sea and marsh as land.  Nonetheless the river is in part enclosed here as it runs into the Bay of Cadiz. The town is an old one, it was from here and from Sanlucar de Barrameda that Columbus set sail in the seventeenth century and El Puerto was already old then.

It has its medieval castle and ramparts and many familiar bodega-style buildings, although these are largely symbolic today. It also has a smart central shopping area and a grand Plaza de Toro ( the people of El Puerto are keen on the traditions of old Andalucia and old Spain ). There are plush modern suburbs, like Vista Hermosa, full of large villas built in the traditional style each surrounded by private gardens, often rented out to officers from the American Naval Base at Rota. There are also holiday apartments, in Las Redes and at El Manantial, owned in part by locals, but favoured too by visitors from Madrid and Sevilla.

El Puerto is much more of a holiday destination than Jerez, with its many beaches which, like all Spanish beaches, have names (see above). There is the town beach, with children’s play areas, soft golden sand and tiled promenade with gardens, Vista Hermosa’s beach, beyond what had used to be the Club 18 -30, which has been raised and is about to be replaced with a five star hotel; and there’s a glossy marina called Puerto Sherry. The Spanish Olympic Yachting Association sails out of here and, on the day when I visited, there were some rather expensive, ocean-going yachts moored behind the lighthouse mole.

There were some rather expensive bars too. Sotavento is superbly positioned just where the marina meets the Bay (see photos, courtesy of Deborah Powell) with a view across to Cadiz and one pays a premium for the location. When we visited there was the bonus of a tall ship. The people frequenting the bars along here are, largely, wealthy holiday makers and yacht owners, Spanish and foreign. The locals work in them. They were, however, extremely welcoming of Thai and Goa, Deborah’s two labradors. We sat and watched the sun set and the lights of Cadiz begin to glow.

Twenty four hours later I did the same at El Manantial, half a mile further north, a beach which lies up against the perimeter of the aforementioned naval base. On that occasion I was with my friend from Jerez and her three dogs. She has a beach-house there, where there were few foreigners, but plenty of Spanish folk enjoying the last of summer, once the ‘tourists’ have gone back to the city. The beach bars are few and far between, though the clam sellers (and sellers of sweets and snacks) push their gaily coloured carts along on the hard sand, crying their wares. Much less smart. And soon they too would pack up and leave, the season having finished. The beach would become much quieter, the bailiwick of locals only.

Again I watched the sun set and the lights of Cadiz twinkling on the horizon, before heading back to a Jerez still celebrating the Vendimia (with a ferris wheel in Plaza Arenal!). Two beaches, both in El Puerto and so close to each other, but so different. In both there was the sound of the sea.

Being Afraid

A personal piece this week, I hope it’s not too depressing.

Thus far, into its eleventh month, and 2020 is the year of fear. It began well enough for the UK. The out-break of an unknown ‘flu-like virus in faraway China making only the end of the foreign news. After all, we’d had bird-flu SARs and MERs and it seemed that the ebola outbreak in West Africa was now under control. Nothing to worry about in Europe. Our concerns were of a different kind, for many just dealing with the daily grind in an society increasingly uncaring and nastily polarised, for others the approaching exit from the EU.

Of course this was a fatal miscalculation, with the UK currently recording over 50,000 COVID related deaths and who knows how many more as an indirect result of the pandemic. It is a small and interconnected world and no amount of fulminating about maintaining borders can keep out a virus for long.  Our response cannot be isolationist and self-centred, as Albert Camus said, ‘…the only way to fight the plague is with common decency.’

People were, and still are, afraid, though not with the uninformed fear of March and April. We know a lot more about the virus than we did and, it seems, there is a vaccine coming over the horizon sooner than was at first thought possible.  With the defeat of Donald Trump in the recent US Presidential election it seems that those who deny reality, thereby both belittling and increasing the suffering and death of many, are in retreat. There was much rejoicing (and some relief) in this house when Pennsylvania declared for Biden.

The winter of 20/21 will be hard, without the escape and solace available outdoors in the Spring/Summer lockdown. We will be unable to celebrate as usual the traditional, often family-centred, festivals, Christmas, Hannukah, Eid and Diwali. Yet by Spring there may be a vaccine,  a game changer, and the US will again take its place in the international community. Reason may again determine actions, not populist rhetoric. Science will, it seems, prevail.

So, where is my optimism? Shouldn’t this sustain me? I am cautious and doubting. Conversations with friends and neighbours suggests that this attitude is shared. In part this could be sensible, why count one’s chickens? Trump and the husk of the Republican Party may yet disrupt the electoral college and defer the transfer of power, he is already refusing to share vital information with his successor. We have what looks like a hard exit from the EU to come with all the chaos that will bring and we are without meaningful leadership during a pandemic. In part my caution could also be a corrective to the complacency of January.

But this doesn’t sit well, I am a glass half full sort of person. On a personal level this year has been good.  My first crime thriller was published and well received. I have almost completed the revision of the second. My life, albeit indoors at home, is full and, generally, rewarding. There are many worse off than me.

Yet being afraid isn’t easily abandoned, the niggling restlessness and the anger close to the surface. Life is still restricted ( watching the southern hemisphere TriNations Rugby yesterday was poignant, it had a stadium crowd, unmasked and happy, like it used to be here ). That sensible inner voice reminds about the touching and the distance, the confined spaces and so on. We’ve done this all before, now we have to do it again.

So what to do? Hunker down and enjoy the little things. The wit and kindness of friends, via zoom if not in person. Carry on with work as best one can, taking as few risks as possible. It really is ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, maintain one’s human decency and not give in to fear. That’s all one can do.

And there’s always schadenfreude.

I’ll be back to writing about books next week. Promise.

The mock-up of the government poster is by the brilliant Dan Mogford, graphic artist and book cover designer extraordinaire.

To the Lighthouse

… the lighthouse or faro at Bonanza in Andalucia, to be precise, not Virginia Woolf’s Hebrides set novel of 1927.  The fishing village of Bonanza is on the estuary of the Rio Guadalquivir as it reaches the Atlantic, just north of the Bahia de Cadiz. The derivation of its name is from the Spanish (and Latin) for calm sea, or tranquil waters, though it has come to mean a windfall, or unexpected piece of good fortune. It was our good fortune to be there last Sunday.

I doubt Ms Woolf ever visited, though the place itself is small and charming, with one main street running parallel with the river, houses backing onto a deep sandy beach. Bonanza does feature elsewhere in literature, however, in The Confusion, the second in Neil Stephenson’s rip-roaring and erudite Baroque Cycle (2005) as the location for an audacious piece of thievery. There are no grand mansions to be found there now, though fishing boats bob on the swell and there is, at the Alguida end of town, a port area with docks and factories. There are, unsurprisingly, good places to eat fish, which was what we were there for.

Beyond Bonanza is farmland, now often given over to poly-tunnels, interspersed with houses whose architects certainly had exuberance and imagination, though they didn’t tend towards understatement (the Baroque featured here too, though attached to flat-roofed bungalows). If you continue along the single road you eventually gain access to that portion of the Donana National Park which lies on the south eastern side of the Guadalquivir.  Here there are wonderfully tranquil forests of Iberian pines and a lagoon, complete with bird watching hides.  The flamingos were displaying and we saw not one other human being.

Or maybe head back to Sanlucar de Barrameda, of which I have written before ( see Contrasts ) the rather larger port and holiday town. Both Columbus and Magellan set sail from here, their voyages being recorded in sculpture and tile work around the town. The former completed his first circumnavigation of the globe from Sanlucar, while the latter returned to his own discovery of Hispaniola. The town is intensely proud of its hugely influential maritime history. On Sunday afternoons the Plaza de Cabildo is the place to be and be seen, amongst the bougainvillea entwined palms, as the inhabitants drink manzanilla or eat ice cream at the square’s two competing ice cream parlours.

Maybe visit the Castillo de Santiago the fifteenth century fortification on the edge of the Barrio Alto, with its two museums and excellent views over the Barrio Bajo or take tea in the gardens of the 13th century Palacio de Medina Sidonia, now a hotel/hostel, for similar views.  There’s an interesting monument between the two, indicative of today’s desire among many Spaniards for the truth to be told about what happened during the Fascist era and commemorating just some of those killed or ‘disappeared’ during that time for opposing Franco. The Duchess who owned the aforementioned Palacio was one of those who was imprisoned, although she was, presumably, too eminent to do away with quietly.

If you’re in this part of the world Sanlucar and Bonanza are worth visiting – we will do so again.

Chelsea 2019

The day dawned bright and this south Londoner rose early, if not quite with the lark.  It was the first day of this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show and I was to rendezvous with a group of friends at the Royal Hospital.  I set out, in my English linen and sensible shoes, along side the commuters, checking the weather app as the 137 bus crossed Chelsea Bridge. Yet I wasn’t the first of our group to arrive, some hardy souls were there when the gates opened at eight o’clock.

Programme purchased, I headed to the River View Cafe for an absolutely  necessary shot of  caffeine and a chance to text other members of the group.  I could even see the river.  Meeting up was always going to be something of a logistical issue, given that we were from all parts of the UK – from the West Country, North Wales, the south coast and Scotland.   Plus, my phone seemed to throw a tantrum.  Why don’t they work properly when you need them to?  No matter, there was nothing for it, I would just have to wander around until I found the others – amid a crowd of thousands!

At this time of day the betting was that some, if not all, would be on Main Avenue looking at the Show Gardens, before it became too congested to see them. And so it was.  I met the West Country contingent by the Resilience Garden and we were shortly joined by those from Wales and some from Oxford, via Putney.

It was time for some serious garden viewing.  The planting this year was natural, but not quite the garden meadow and sprinkled wildflower natural which has prevailed in recent times.  There were a lot of mature trees, including a glorious Scots Pine, and green predominated.  Andy Sturgeon’s M & G garden deservedly won Best Show Garden, in this humble gardener’s opinion, with its burnt timber formations resembling ancient rock and setting off the jewel-like colours to perfection.

Thence to lunch. Fizz and smoked salmon on the grass, picnic style, where we met the Scottish and south coast contingents for some chat and catching up ( and lots of talk about this year’s Clapham Book Festival ). We disperse again in the afternoon, it being impossible to keep over a dozen people together in the growing crowds.

The Grand Pavilion is always worth visiting, with its wonderful displays and, this year, a Show Garden, the IKEA Tom Dixon; Gardening will Save the World garden.  This was intriguing, if not the most aesthetically pleasing garden, with the science on display beneath the raised ‘garden walk’.  Here were hydroponics, artificial light stimulated growing and lots of other clever ways of nurturing food plants.  Very interesting, but it couldn’t compete, in terms of impact on the eye, and the nose, with the traditional stands and their carefully chosen cultivars in riotous display.  ( This year the Bloms Bulbs man was in full tartan rig. ) Serious purchasing was done.

Time for a quick swing around those gardens which we hadn’t had the chance to visit, before meeting at a Pimms Bar – but which Pimms bar? There were several groups by now, all doing their own thing and lots of Pimms Bars, it was lucky that other people had functioning mobile phones.

A word for my favourite gardens, the Silent Pool Gin garden ( alas no gin, but excellent planting and lovely use of copper ) and the Greenfingers Charity Garden, not for the double storey so much as for the planting, with liberal use of fennel and angelica.  The D-Day sculpture garden was also immensely impressive in its own quiet way.

Another Chelsea over – though it goes on until Saturday of course and the sell-off.  It’s expensive ( £75+ for a day ticket and steep prices for everything once you’re in the Showground ) but then a ticket to a Premiership football match is not much cheaper and you only get ninety minutes ( at least the cricket goes on all day ).  I wouldn’t miss it.

For articles on Chelsea’s past and other gardening try                   London Summer Starts Here            Under Canvas                  RHS Chatsworth 

Hello and welcome

Thanks for visiting my web-site.

I’ll be blogging here occasionally about things which interest me.  Places of interest, topical subjects ( and rants ), reviews of plays, books and exhibitions in London and elsewhere.

There will be articles about the Clapham Book Festival and Clapham Writers, which also appear on the relevant web-sites and

I’ll also be writing about the Festival de Jerez an annual festival in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, the home of flamenco. sherry and lots of other good things besides.

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