Sunday, 2 March 2014

A Book To Read in Shoreditch

Posted By Daisy
LAST October, I spent a long weekend in Shoreditch with my friends. Below is a recent travel feature I wrote about it.
THERE ARE models everywhere.  Amazonian giants smoking in the covered porch beside the flower shop, and drinking plastic cups of green juice from the bar, skinny legs jutting out under the over-sized granny chic coats and checked blanket scarves thrown casually around their shoulders. At a cement block table, a couple feeds chocolate croissants to their toddler, middle-aged men in turned-up jeans and multi-coloured trainers stride past with clip-boards, and a twenty-something year old listens to music on oversized headphones, bending his head over a silver MacBook, customised with a Snow White sticker. In the background, the DJ plays chill out music against a backdrop of slanted Sunday newspapers hanging on the wall.

Recently opened on Shoreditch High Street (a formerly grim area of East London, until a renaissance began in 2000 with the establishment of the famous Les Trois Garcons restaurant in a converted Victorian pub), the Ace Hotel is buzzing. Having occupied the former Crowne Plaza building last year, the owner, Alex Calderwood, (who tragically died in one of the hotel rooms less than a month after opening) brought a host of cool-by-numbers accoutrements inspired by its sister hotel in New York – Bentwood chairs, dim library table reading lamps, vinyl records on display at reception, and a few snooty waiting staff. The bell boys wear baseball jackets and caps, there are vintage bicycles stuck to the walls, and the bill comes with a handwritten message ‘Thank you for sleeping with us, xxx.’
The hotel may not appeal to every taste. The bedrooms are prison chic minimalism, with props for sale throughout – impractical enamel mugs (too hot to hold when drinking tea), a hard-backed copy of Lolita or Wuthering Heights, a grey Ikea-like plastic box full of Pot Noodles, crisps and condoms, a wall-mounted pencil sharpener and grey sweat-shirt robes. The futon-like beds in our large triple room are very comfortable, but the Perspex windows don’t open and the air is slightly stale inside.
Outside, Shoreditch is a Richard Curtis film location checklist of what a trendy London location should look like. A stroll down the newly-gentrified Red Church Street displays graffiti as art on wooden hoardings below newly-renovated apartments, a converted warehouse sells designer clothes and tickets to its basement cinema, pumpkins tumble on a display outside a designer deli on one corner near another shop selling old-fashioned wire pot scrubbers and enamel ladles and a spray-painted grunge/thrift shop called ‘Sick’.
In the nearby The Breakfast Club (almost in the shadow of the Gherkin building), we eat brunch sitting on old metal bus seats in front of a Smeg Fridge, the unique portal to a secret speakeasy bar at night (if you know the password), and read the graffiti on the My Little Pony wallpaper in the toilets. A five-minute walk away is Spitalfields market, with beautiful handbags, art, cupcakes, and quirky, cheap jewellery, which the stall holder claims is sourced from Harrods suppliers. In the nearby Boxpark pop-up mall, (a shopping centre made of shipping containers), there is over-priced designer glassware, and a shop that sells neon Onesies.
At the other end of Red Church Street is Brick Lane. English and Bengali street names mark the bustling streets which host Eastenders-lookalike second-hand leather shops, BYOB curry houses, and 24-hour- bakeries selling freshly-made bagels for 60p. We attend an exhibition of erotic Japanese art in the Old Truman Brewery, and wander through the darkened rooms holding lanterns up to peer at paintings in glass cases while wearing 3D glasses. In a packed antiques shop (called ‘This Shop Rocks’) we read through a stack of old postcards. Remnants from the estate of a recently deceased woman, these vignettes of her private life are now on sale in wooden boxes between old typewriters and china Staffordshire dogs.
Later we join groups of platinum-haired girls in short skirts tripping down the cobbled streets of Brick Lane, and sharing fish bowl cocktails in Casa Blue bar, before having a few late drinks in the (slightly grubby) Vibe bar at the Old  Truman Brewery. There’s a different ambiance here at the other end of Red Church street – Brick Lane is more ten-straw fish bowls than custom-made cocktails, more platform-heels and short skirts than scuffed brogues and t-shirt sleeves rolled up a la Kevin Bacon in ‘Footloose’.
On Sunday morning, we meet people walking slowly back along Columbia Road, hugging armfuls of pink peonies and brown-paper-wrapped lemon trees. At the famous flower market, we push through crowds in the middle of a street flanked by stall holders selling huge bunches of willow, and green cabbage roses tinged with pink, before enjoying a leisurely tapas lunch in Laxeiro. Our flowers propped up on the windowsills, we drink Cava and watch the tourists outside taking photographs of the restaurant cat sitting on a car roof in the winter sun.
At night, we venture to Lounge Lover (located down a side alley off Red Church Street, and identified only by a neon pink flashing heart) for marshmallow cocktails in the shadow of a huge glass palm-tree chandelier and ten foot oriental vases, and afterwards join the hungry queues in the dimly-lit, nightclub-like Pizza East, where waiting times can total 90 minutes.
Love it or loathe its too-cool-for-school attitude, Shoreditch is a perfect spot to spend a weekend in London. With a host of bars and restaurants both on and near the high street, there’s no need to worry about catching the last tube back to the hotel, or to wonder where the action is. It’s here. And located less than a ten minute walk from Liverpool Street station, it’s also an easy trip to the more obvious London tourist attractions.
Although, you better get there fast. According to my cool colleague Dani, Shoreditch is so over now. Dalston is the place to be.
As an antidote to all that coolness, we also tried on soldiers' hats at the Tower of London, watched a gorgeous guy breakdance in Leicester Square and browsed the (inexplicable) M&M store
Don’t miss in Shoreditch:
·         Have the run of a three-story Georgian house in the beautifully-decorated The Commercial Tavern, complete with tiled bars, multiple chandeliers and antlers on the walls.
·         Whoosh up to the 38th floor of the Heron Tower in a glass elevator, and have a drink at a bar built around an orange tree or on one of the outdoor terraces in Sushi Samba
·         Eat gourmet pork scratchings with a view in the more affordable Duck and Waffle on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower
·         Say the password and walk through a fridge in The Breakfast Club to the secret speakeasy bar ‘The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town’.
·         Book your two hour slot online, and stare down the haughty front-of-house staff at Lounge Lover to try some of the best cocktails in London
·         Visit a plethora of bars in Hoxton Square
·         Stay local and have a gingerbread cocktail in Barrio East on Shoreditch High Street
·         Enjoy the roof gardens in Boundary
·         Book a night in a tiny hotel room in Shoreditch House and enjoy the (members only) club for 24 hours – we spotted Russell Brand walking his dog down the street recently
·         Visit M Goldstein antiques for a quirky seaside barometer, industrial neon alphabet letters, or an 8 foot robot.

TWO of my friends had mental health difficulties. One had a psychotic break while we were away on holidays. So Nathan Filer’s debut novel, ‘The Shock of the Fall’, resonated loudly with me. It disturbed and scared me. Filer previously worked as a mental health nurse and the main character's (Matthew) fall into deep schizophrenia seemed very real – his constant writing in notebooks, his filthy flat full of a structure he spent weeks building, his belief that his brother is still here, his dismissal by all of his friends after becoming sick, and his constant smoking on the psychiatric ward, were all very believable plot lines.
And there was also the double whammy of Matthew's brother who has special educational needs.
It was interesting that when I googled ‘The Shock of the Fall’, that Graeme Simpsion’s ‘The Rosie Project’ appeared under ‘related searches’. Two totally different books, but both about non-typically developing people, one with Downs Syndrome and the others with Asperger-like tendencies. One is uplifting (The Rosie Project), and the other, although it ends on a somewhat hopeful note, depresses me long after closing it.
Full of suspense and a foggy story-line that is slowly revealed over the course of the book, I was hooked. I understand why Filer won the 'Costa Book of the Year 2013' award. It's a complicated, clever book.
However, I'm not sure if I’ll recommend this book to anyone who has come into contact with any of the themes – it may simply cut too close to the bone.