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Thursday, August 19th, 2010

A few people have asked about ways to keep updated with this blog. If you’re too old-fashioned for an RSS feed, then I’ve set up a handy page where you can just enter your email address and you’ll be emailed when I add a new entry! Technology, eh.

Anyway, if you’d like to add yourself to this list, click the ‘subscribe’ link at the top of every page – simple. If you decide you don’t want to be notified, you can unsubscribe at any time. Could it be any simpler?!

Lesson 5: Making friends in London

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

reddit alienSo after the struggles of finding somewhere to live in London, the trials and tribulations of commuting to work by tube and by bike, and figuring out the tourist hotspots and cultural arena, I came to a realisation of sorts: firstly, that I could use the first sentence of this blog entry to handily sum up everything I’ve posted so far, and secondly,  I needed some friends.

Sure, my long-suffering girlfriend Maddy is good company, but occasionally I yearn for the nerdy discussions and obscure internet meme references that she just can’t provide me with (I still love you, Maddy). This is where the magic of the internet steps in.

Obviously it goes without saying that I already had friends in London before committing to moving. Everybody knows somebody who lives in the capital, and in my case I knew quite a few – either university friends originally from London, or people who had since migrated down here already. But, as someone famous probably once said, you can never have too many friends.

But I digress: the internet. You may have heard of the “social news” aggregator, reddit (it’s like Digg, but better). I’ve been a member for almost three years and it’s one of my most-visited sites. It has sections (or ‘subreddits’), and of course, it has one for London.

Browsing the site one evening I saw an optimistically-titled thread discussing the prospects of London “redditors” meeting up for a pint. I was initially wary – I’d already been to one reddit meetup back in Leeds which ended up just being me and one other (admittedly cool) guy. Drinking on an empty stomach, and downing expensive and very strong Belgian beers, I managed to finish the evening spending an hour hugging the toilets in the bar. Stay classy, Matt.

Vowing to handle myself a little better this time, I headed off to the agreed rendezvous point to meet my fellow London internet geeks.

Sean, our illustrious organiser, was stood outside the meeting spot (a Sam Smith’s pub, hooray) clutching a paper printout of reddit’s alien mascot logo, like a kind of nerd equivalent of the Bat signal. Like moths to a flame, we converged upon him, and soon there were six of us pondering where to go.

At this point I’d better stop to reassure those of you who have their doubts about the safety of meeting strangers from the internet (hi mum!): it’s all pretty safe stuff, really. There’s obviously a few minutes of awkward small talk as you first meet and acknowledge the fact that you’re all stood on a public street clustered around a drawing of an alien. But once you’re over the initial nerves, and you’ve had a bit of alcohol inside you, everything warms up and suddenly it’s like you’ve all known each other forever. Obviously it helped having the common ground of reddit as our unifying feature, but we were were all around the same age and were either current or former students, so there was lots of common ground.

I also should acknowledge that posting on mildly obscure geek-oriented websites isn’t for everyone, either. That’s where comes in. It’s useful for finding people into your obscure hobby, passion or fetish (probably). If you don’t fancy committing to something like reddit, where people can mercilessly “upvote” or “downvote” everything you say and do, then this probably a friendlier route.

Still not sure about the prospect of sitting down with weird beardy geeks off the internet? Let me leave you with the knowledge that after our initial meetup that night, we all got on so well we agreed to do it all again the second night. Wandering along London’s South Bank with people who were strangers 24 hours previously felt really great – London is a place to meet new people, try new things and experience a different lifestyle. I’m confident the guys (and girl!) from reddit will be people I’ll be seeing again – as long as my own weird beardy geekiness didn’t put them off, that is.

Today’s lesson? Have a go at meeting new people. Once you’re out of university, your chances of bumping into random strangers at parties and gatherings is massively reduced. Unless you’re lucky enough to have an enormous social circle in London already, or you don’t mind only socialising with your work colleagues, or indeed, you don’t need friends, then don’t rule it out. What’s that old proverb? Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet, right? Or possibly deranged, murderous, internet psychopaths, but come on. Live dangerously.

Lesson 4: A bit of culture

Monday, August 16th, 2010

This one is easy. You’re living in the UK’s biggest city; arguably Europe’s capital for sheer variety of events, groups, museums and exhibitions. Paris might have the art, Italy the food, Germany the… okay, I’ve exhausted my reserves of pretending-to-know-anything-about-culture. But in any case, London is pretty damn exciting.

Borough MarketMarkets

With that in mind, it can be a bit daunting knowing where to start. A quick glance over the pages of Time Out reveal almost too many things to do. In last week’s edition alone there was a bar that sold thermodynamically cooled ice cream and an exhibit of art made by penguins with paintbrushes strapped to their beaks. (I may have made one of the latter items up, but I wouldn’t be surprised).

Like anything else, the best thing to do is get out and try some of it.

Elephant & Castle boasts a ‘weekend market’, occupying the same spot that the day traders use surrounding the local shopping centre. This normally consists of a jaunty hat store, some suspect-quality fruit ‘n’ veg, and an apologetically-titled “ETHIOPAN [sic] COFFEE” store. It was with mild trepidation that I headed over there on a Saturday morning to see what was going on.

Culturally, it was, well, half-hearted. There were a few more exciting stalls, namely a Hungarian ‘deli’ (some dusty looking cooked meats) and a table of Caribbean foods including plantains and saltfish. The rest was slightly less inspiring, with one bloke sitting on the ground alongside his wares, which consisted of ancient-looking hifis and LPs that Oxfam would have rejected. So it goes.

Just a mile up the road is the world-famous Borough Market, the high-quality but highly-priced menagerie of fancy cakes, pastries, cheeses, meats, fish, fruit, vegetables, and everything else in between. It’s a food nerd’s paradise, but a costly one. It’s also extremely busy, but well worth the crowds. I queued for almost 20 minutes to spend £5 on a cajun prawn/cod tortilla wrap, but the fish was incredible and well worth the price.

Brick LaneEating Out / Curries

Next up on my culture trail was a visit to the East End, in the shape of a curry on Brick Lane. This street features a huge majority of London’s Asian businesses and is famous for its curry restaurants. Wandering along the street was an experience in street marketing, with eager waiters and door staff attempting to enticing us into their venues. Apparently it’s common practice to haggle and agree deals before entering – our well-informed friends who met us at Monsoon has agreed a deal that got us any starter, any main, rice, a naan bread and 2 beers – all for £8. Of course, this was very no-frills: a waiter came over and swiftly removed my side portion of rice upon noticing that I’d ordered a biriani (which contains rice), telling me I didn’t need it. Probably true, but more upmarket venues wouldn’t do this. Still, for £8 I wasn’t complaining.

The Globe TheatreTheatre & Stage

London’s theatre industry is something that a more well-versed blogger could tell you more about, but from my limited perspective there’s still an enormous amount on offer. Shakespeare’s famous Globe theatre on the South Bank sells a limited number of tickets for just £5 (although these are standing only), and we managed to get near-front row seats at the Old Vic to see As You Like It for just £10. If you’re lucky enough to be under 26 then the Arts Council are running a promotion for young people to see plays for free – check it out.

Peace Pagoda, Battersea ParkArts & Green Space

The aforementioned South Bank has already seen several visits from us since moving to London: it’s a short walk from the flat and features the famous London Eye if you’re that way inclined, along with a variety of street performers (some of whom literally beg for money, particularly embarrassingly, before performing their final acts). There’s even a regular book market with a huge collection of heaving tables laden with second hand books – I still haven’t given this its proper attention yet. Further along the Thames is the Royal Festival Hall with its free art and performances, and the Tate Modern. Just wandering along here once I was lucky enough to stumble upon a free exhibit of the work of Storm Thorgerson, the artist behind famous album covers for Pink Floyd, The Mars Volta, Biffy Clyro, Muse, and tons more.

We also visited Battersea Park, which although situated in a rather ugly bit of South London, was absolutely gorgeous inside. We checked out a free comic exhibition that was genuinely interesting and moving, and watched a Greek/Turkish band play jazz fusion outside the picnic area. Kids were cycling round on those crazy recumbent bikes and people rented out pedal boats for £8/hour on the big lake. London might be an enormous, monolithic city, but it has plenty of green space when compared to other British cities.

In conclusion…

So what’s the lesson here? Mainly that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what London has to offer culturally. Expect more posts on this topic as I expand my palate! But in my new-to-the-city notes, the definite conclusion is to try as much as you can and to keep active. London’s critics moan about its high prices, crowded streets and moody citizens. Prove them wrong and find the free stuff – Time Out has a great list – connect with people, look at interesting, strange things. You’re in the right place for it.

Lesson 3: Being a tourist in London

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Just like being an alcoholic, the first step to tourism in London is to accept you’re a tourist in London. Unlike being an alcoholic, however, being a tourist in London means that you’ll be short of friends for a while.

Tourism in London is something else. Every meaningless nook and cranny is prime photography fodder for excitable Japanese visitors or over-eager Americans keen to document every park bench that’s older than their country (that’s probably quite a lot). They’re everywhere and always will be in London, and moaning about them and huffing and puffing about how they get in the way is a pointless waste of breath.

It was with this in mind that I decided to adopt that classic aphorism: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Let me backtrack a little here: at no point did I don inappropriate footwear, ill-advised headgear and enormously-sized photography equipment before taking to the streets of London. I made an effort not to stand in busy public spaces and tried hard not to get lost in the vicinity of famous landmarks and exposing my ignorance to my fellow Londoners by asking for directions. What I did do, though, was stop worrying and enjoyed myself.

First up was the British Museum. It’s amongst the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen thus far in London, and its reputation is well-deserved. The big attraction is the famed Rosetta Stone, occupying a prominent spot as you enter the museum proper.

Somewhat depressingly, I could barely get near the thing for the crowd of fellow tourists hungrily stretching their arms towards it. For a second I thought I’d stumbled upon some strangely-dressed Muslims embarking on a localised version of Hajj before I realised that they weren’t reaching out to touch the stone, but to take photos of it using their phones.

Sure, all very 21st century. But I couldn’t help notice that a fair proportion of them, once they’d taken their sweatily-framed shot, immediately backed out of the crowd and wandered off in the direction of the Elgin Marbles. Was that it, then? No need to actually look at the priceless artefact on display, as long as you’ve grabbed a blurry snapshot of it? I was bemused.

Still, being a tourist wasn’t so bad. People gave me a wide berth, noting my backpack and distinct lack of ‘local’ appearance. Normally pushy salespeople avoided my eyes for once, possibly afraid I’d corner them to ask where the Alaskan ice floe exhibit was. My fellow tourists even avoided me, jealously guarding the exhibits they thought were best from my prying eyes. It was actually quite fun.

More of the same followed as I visited other places: the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Imperial War Museum. All were the same. However, when leaving the safe surroundings of London’s museums, I was on my own. Wandering London’s ancient streets and gazing up starry-eyed at famous buildings and epic monuments wouldn’t cut it with London’s citizens. The capital is a fast city and it has no time for romantics (or at least, not romantics stood gazing up at Grosvenor Place as travellers bustle past to Victoria).

How long can you keep it up, though, before you become an authentic, tourist-hating Londoner? I’m two weeks in and already finding myself internalising frustrated thoughts at the crowds of people milling around, apparently ignorant of my need to walk past them. How dare they get in my way?! I’m a Londoner! Maybe today’s lesson should be something zen: respect those around you and cherish the experience they’re having, remembering that you too were once a naive, rosy-cheeked London virgin. Just try to avoid Covent Garden on a Saturday though, because it’s fucking mental.

Lesson 2: Commuting/Cycling in London

Monday, August 9th, 2010

So, after a couple of days settling into my new flat in London, it rapidly became time to work out my journey to work. It was time to address the fear that had occupied the back of my mind ever since accepting a job in London: the morning commute on the tube.

Of course I’d used the tube before. I was familiar with all the classic unwritten rules: stand on the right, don’t clog up entrances/exits, let old people have a seat, invade people’s person space, etc. What I wasn’t quite ready for was rising to the challenge that the picture (below) aptly illustrates.

Packed commuter tube train in London

On my first day of work I started at 12pm so boarded a relatively empty Northern Line tube, breezing along and thinking “this is easy!”. All that was to change the following day.

Tuesday I was in at a more normal time, and found myself waiting on the platform at 9am with a bunch of other grey-faced commuters. One thing that’s not exclusive to London commuting is the unfailing way that every passenger glumly stares at their shoes, or keep their eyes fixed on the nearest wall or surface, willing themselves not to make eye contact with strangers and definitely not to smile. There’s exceptions to every rule, of course, but there were none today.

A rumble, and the train arrived. I was greeted with the sight I had wanted to avoid: a packed, sardine-like tube pulling into the station, squeezed with commuters.

“What’s the protocol here?” I wondered. Was there some kind of unspoken queue in place, like at the Post Office or supermarket? Would I be risking cutting in on someone who’d been there for ages and earning the silent wrath of my fellow passengers?

While I stood there pondering this and other issues, my dilemma was swiftly solved as the more mercenary commuters quickly filled the flimsy gaps in the bunch of bodies, and the doors squeezed shut as the train departed. That was that. I stood around with other the failed boarders, feeling slightly deflated like I’d just came last in a Mario Kart tournament, or was picked last for the football team.

Minutes later another train pulled up and this time I was ready, stepping quickly onboard and squeezing myself into the armpit of a particularly fragrant traveller. This was going to be a long week.

After 5 days of tube commuting I knew that I couldn’t keep it up. While it wasn’t too expensive (only £1 more per week than my bus ticket in Leeds used to cost) and the journey was fairly fast (30 minutes door to door), I was finding it stifling and stuffy, arriving at work or at home ready to go back to bed again.

It was time to pull out my bike, my trusty steed in times of need, and upon which I used to commute 10 miles a day on in Leeds. This time though I needed to exercise security. London traffic has a reputation all of its own and I was a little nervous of stepping right into it.

I decided to take a practice ride to work on Sunday, just to figure out the route and see how it felt to ride. I needn’t have worried. The roads were fairly quiet and all had dedicated bike lanes, and seeing the city on a bike felt so much more right. Several times I had to force myself to concentrate as I realised “so that’s where that is” or “I can’t believe this is only 5 minutes’ ride from the flat”, compared to my blind ignorance when squeezed into the tube.

Besides managing to get a puncture on my test ride and having to phone my girlfriend for money (I forgot my wallet) in a thankfully-nearby bike shop, the journey was fine and took me about 18 minutes to cover the 4 miles, much quicker than the tube, not to mention cheaper.

Riding on a Monday morning was slightly different, though. For one, I felt like a rider in the Tour de France. So many cyclists! At one point there were over 8 of us occupying almost the width of an entire lane together. I’ve never felt so empowered on two wheels before. Traffic was busy but manageable and the exhilaration of riding over the Thames with the wind in my hair was awesome, as cheesy as it sounds.

It wasn’t all fun and games though – I arrived at work to find that my bike wouldn’t stay upright when stood in the strange vertical bike racks. It seemed that it was too heavy at the back due to my panniers. I locked it up stood horizontally and gave it no further thought. Later that day when I came to get my lunchbox from my saddlebags I spotted a piece of paper stuck to my bike.

Some friendly fellow employee had written:


I felt a bit upset but found a pen and added a little note clarifying that a) my bike wouldn’t stand up in the stands and b) it was my first day riding to work and thanks for the friendly welcome.

So what’s the lesson from all of this? Let’s have a list:

  • The tube’s not bad, but it quickly sucks the life out of your mornings/evenings
  • Cycling in London isn’t as intimidating as it might seem, but still needs to be approached with confidence and carefulness
  • Passive-aggressive notes aside, locking your bike up at work is serious business

So endeth the sermon.

Lesson 1: How not to go househunting in London

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

It had to start somewhere.

Armed with the smug knowledge of Gumtree and RightMove, I felt like an expert. Years of being led around poky student digs in Leeds by fresh-faced letting agents barely older than myself had given me a false sense of security. I knew this stuff. No smooth-chinned salesman was going to rent me a flat with a broken chimney stack, I told myself. I wasn’t going to fall for any carefully-worded pitch telling me about the ‘cosy’ living room or the ‘colourful’ neighbourhood. How hard could it be?

Of course, pride comes before a fall. We found a few nice places online that looked like they were nice enough, in fairly respectable areas, and within our price range.

Price range? What’s a London price range? Was £200/week a bargain? Extortionate? Compared to my £266/month house in Leeds this seemed unbelievable. Were the streets paved with gold in London? Maybe the ones outside estate agents’ offices.

Without quite knowing what we were getting in for, we made some bookings to look around a few places. There was one North London property in particular that we had our eye on. It looked gorgeous, was in a good location, and seemed about right price-wise. Admittedly, the website photo gallery featured a shot of the living room which contained a Twilight/Robert Pattinson poster, but I suppose that wasn’t the letting agent’s fault.

Friday dawned and phone calls informed us that 90% of the houses we’d booked to see that weekend had been let. Doh. London moves fast. Travelling down from Leeds on increasingly extortionately priced East Coast trains, we only had one day to get this right. Luckily, our Twilight house was still available, although, somewhat confusingly, we’d seen the (3 floor) property advertised on at least a dozen different websites.

Reading around, we discovered a page on one estate agent website which described the process for making an offer on a flat. This particular letting agent required the usual references from previous jobs, landlords, etc. They also required a non-refundable £600 ‘signing fee’ in order to remove the property from the market. In cash. I guessed this was just how they did things in London.

How could I get six hundred quid in cash, I wondered? Incremental withdrawals from cashpoints? Or maybe one awkward trip to the bank, which is what it turned out to be. Wandering around Leeds with over half a grand in my back pocket was a scary prospect. We bundled it up along with passports, letters of recommendation by tutors, bosses and landlords, and hit the train to London.

Upon arrival we managed to make our way to the first viewing, showed around by a friendly young agent who did the stereotypical thing and tried to talk to us ‘on our level’.

“Students, eh? Leeds is a great night out. Loads of fit girls!” he winked knowingly at me, as I gamely tried to nod along, grinning a kind of “yeah, we’re both lads out on the town” conspiratorial grin as I tried not to catch Maddy’s eye in the back of the car. He pulled out a bunch of keys as we arrived at the property and let us into the Twilight house, the one that we were ready to sign for there and then, and had brought the £600 cash to put down as a deposit.

The basement flat door opened to reveal a grim and cramped apartment. The photographer taking snaps for the website must have been a genius in the art of trick photography: every shot he had taken had managed to disguise the fact that the main living room was about the size of a banana crate. The ‘kitchen’ was more of a corridor-with-an-oven-in-it and the bedrooms looked like they’d formerly been warehouse storage rooms. Conversions are all very well, but when a ‘basement flat’ still looks a bit like a basement, you’re not quite there yet.

It took around 8 seconds for him to ‘show us around’ and the atmosphere in the room wasn’t great. For a second I felt badly for the agent for having to spend his days flogging properties like this, but then I remembered that he wanted £1200 of my hard-earned wages a month for this place and lost most of my pity. We mumbled vague sentiments along the lines of “oh, there’s the bathroom” or “I like the… cupboard”. We filed back out and that was that.

We looked around another place, including a former council-owned property in the middle of a concrete village reminiscent of a Cold War-era Europe. The flat was passable but the prospect of paying to live in an environment that looked built to withstand a nuclear war didn’t thrill me. I began to feel even more aware of the £600 floating around my pocket somewhere.

After that, it was off to South London, where expectations were even lower based on the dread-imparting tales I’d heard beginning with “don’t go south of the river”. We got on a Northern Line tube and disembarked at the mysteriously-named Elephant & Castle.

We were met by another friendly letting agent, this one explaining to us that due to a heavy night out the previous evening, he was a little worse for wear. We looked around the small but airy flat and instantly knew it was head and shoulders above the rest. We told him we’d like to sign up.

He drove us back to his office and pointed out where local celebrities lived.

“Jack Straw lives down there,” he gestured, explaining that the close proximity to Westminster attracted MPs, “and Kevin Spacey drinks there, he’s running The Old Vic just up the road.”

Once inside he mentioned a £400 signing fee. “Do you take cash?” I asked, hunting for the envelope of notes. “Cash? No, no,” he said, a little taken aback. “… We’d been carrying this round for deposits” I finished lamely, indicating the envelope. “You’ve been carrying all that around London? Wow…” he said, perhaps amazed at our greenness. I was too, now we were sat inside the professional surroundings of the letting agent. We’d pay by card, or cheque. That’s normal. Who asks for £600 in cash? “Some landlords get into money laundering schemes” he told us by way of explanation. Oh.

We paid the signing fee and walked out of the office a few hundred pounds poorer, but slightly richer having learned our first lesson in London.

First things first: What the hell is this?

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

Welcome to Lessons Learned in London – let’s keep this short and sweet. My name’s Matt, and I’ll be your blogger.

Cheesy introductions aside, this project is a space for me to a) keep my friends and family informed on my life in London, and b) offer some advice (or perhaps examples of ‘how not to do it’) on living in the capital.

A little background on me: after graduating from Leeds University in 2008 and sticking around for a couple of years working for a small media/publishing company, I decided to make the big trip down south and take a new job in London. I’ve moved in with Maddy, my girlfriend of two and a half years, in a little flat in Elephant & Castle.

This blog is going to feature tidbits about the day-to-day processes of settling in and living in London. I’m calling it ‘Lessons Learned’ to imply that I’m most definitely not claiming to be an expert – quite the opposite. I’m essentially hoping that other people thinking of making the transition to the capital might be able to figure out better solutions to some of the problems and challenges they’ll face along the way, hopefully by learning from my (inevitable) mistakes. Also, it offers the opportunity for me to self deprecate at my typical displays of social awkwardness and misunderstanding. Probably.

Anyway, enjoy the blog, and let me know what you think – I’m always up for recommendations, advice, local knowledge and hints. Or, you know, just laughing at me too.