Music in my kitchen: the weird & wonderful world of K-Pop

Recently I fell down a deep, dark hole. Its name was K-Pop.

It started with a joke on American Dad about boy bands with ridiculous amounts of members and lead to this video.

If I felt anything after watching EXO’s Overdose, it was deeply perplexed. I had so many questions. Did the pretty lady make it out of the maze? How many people are in the band and who’s the main singer? Did they steal that opener from Labyrinth? Who thought that a blonde bowl cut was a good idea?

This lead to more videos and more questions, but, slowly, one video at a time, I’d worked my way through BIG BANG, 2NE1, Girl’s Generation, Orange Caramel, B.A.P, SHINee and finally BTS. And so began my love affair with K-Pop – a sort of socially inappropriate boyfriend that you’d call if you were home alone but would never dream of introducing to your friends.

Quick facts about K-Pop

  • K-Pop is an entirely manufactured industry. A conveyor belt of pop that recruits future stars in their early teens using country-wide auditions. They’re then sent to bootcamps and rigourously trained before the best are divided into man-made groups, given a makeover (which can involve the K-Pop plastic surgery triple threat: eyelid, nose and chin surgery – yes, there are sites dedicated to spotting the surgery) and then debuted. Sort of like The X-Factor on steroids.

“We’re sick with work for half our days
We live sickly in our studios, our youths may rot away
But thanks to that, we’re running to success.” – Lyrics from BTS’s Dope

But hey, sacrificing your youth in pursuit of your popstar dreams, being put into a group with strangers that you have to share bunk beds with and spending evey minute of your life either training or performing must be worth it for the cash, right?

  • With Korea’s leading record label, SM Entertainment, posting a reported annual revenue of $1 Billion in 2013, you’d think that its stars would be banking the mega bucks. Not true, apparently. Unless you’re a megastar like BIG BANG’S G-Dragon (the undisputed daddy of K-Pop who, at 27 is worth around $8 million), the average K-Pop idol income is around 47 million won (£26,718) so, less than a London tube driver…and K-Pop stars will work nights.

Ah. But, when that magic formula works, it REALLY works. According to Forbes, SM entertainment’s artists played to a total audience of 2.5 million in 2010-2013 and their YouTube page got 1,000 views a second.

  • One of the most recognised K-Pop songs ever, Gangnam Style, has more than 2.5 BILLION views on YouTube. To put that into perspective, that’s more than Beyoncé’s Put a Ring on it, Love on Top, Run the World, Drunk in Love, Crazy in Love, Halo and If I Were a Boy combined.

And, with armies of fans across the world – due in part to the fact that Korean popstars can perform in multiple languages, including English, Japanese and Chinese – K-Pop is only going to get bigger. So you’d better brace yourself for the bonkers bubblegum, bullet-ridden onslaught.

10 reasons to love K-POP

The styling


To be honest, this could have just been a gallery of Korea’s leading trendsetter, the solo artist and BIG BANGer, G-Dragon, but that wouldn’t have been fair to some of the other exceptional efforts from bands like EXO, 2NE1 and SHINee.

The high production values

No one watches music videos anymore right? Well, we would if they made them like the Korean’s do. All you need is a loose theme, an acre of glitter, six costume changes and, as my friend put it, a banging donk. Oh, and an absolute ton of cold, hard cash. Some of the most expensive music videos outside of America have been K-Pop ones, like T-ara’s Cry Cry – a 20-minute musical soap opera that cost around $1,000,000 to produce or B.A.P’s gangster-themed gun-toting kidnapping montage for One Shot

The elaborate dance moves

It isn’t enough to be able to sing in a K-Pop group, you have to be able to dance like the lovechild of Michael Flatley and Usher. Every music video has a complicated routine, often involving some sort of gimmick like the shiny-gloved human centipede dancing in a pool of milk in TVXQ’s Catch Me

And, even when only a fraction of the actual routine is shown in the resulting video, the bands still release their full practice videos. You know, incase you feel like learning them of an afternoon…

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Let’s take a moment to appreciate this beautiful moment of symmetry from BTS’s Boy in Luv studio session

The obligatory rapping

Every K-Pop band has at least one rapper. It’s imperative, because how else would they sample American tracks and channel that oh so 90’s desire for, as Suga (BTS) puts it: “Big house, big cars and big rings” (and bitchin’ hood threads, too, obvs).

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However, no one does it better than Korea’s answer to Busta Rhymes, Outsider, or T.O.P from Big Bang. At least, I think so, I still have no idea what he’s saying, but I appreciate the Twin Peaks madness of his video.

The sheer volume of members in bands

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If K-Pop had a motto, it would be more is more. I mean, why have five people in a band when you can have ten and up the choreography difficulty to infinity? Also, bonus, with that many members, fans are bound to find someone to obsess over and, if a couple have to drop out to complete their obligatory military service, you’ve still got enough to maintain the vocal harmonies. Smart K-Pop, smart.

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The cultural mash-up

It’s no secret that K-Pop likes to imitate American and British culture. Sometimes it’s a little nod like a Sid Vicious T-Shirt or an overuse of the Union Jack, and sometimes they take it to the edge of too far, a la Big Bang’s gorgeously garish bedlam that is BANG BANG BANG.

The glittery gimp on a leash and THAT lacy shirt aside, this track is packed with a back catalogue of cultural appropriation, from Indian headresses and cowboys to lowriders, astronauts and American football shoulder pads.

It’s like a drinking game – take a shot every time you see a piece of Americana.

The English language fails

K-Pop is littered with token English words…usually used incorrectly. But then again, what isn’t sexy about being told “I really want to touch myself”, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know but I’m hard” or “you look like a door”.

The fan service

K-Poppers are treated almost like public property in Korea. On top of their shows they do endless promotional TV stints and behind the scenes programmes, from a wacky show invoking random choreography challenges and a plastic toy hammer called Weekly Idol to embarrassing shows like Intimate Moment, where stars who are perceived to not have close relationships with other brand members are forced to play games with each other all day until their pride is battered into non-existence and they’re the best of friends.
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Can you imagine any Brit pop star letting anyone have this much access? although…I wouldn’t mind seeing Noel and Liam Gallagher being forced to re-assess their relationship through two-person limbo and feeding each other…

Oh, and then there’s this advert from EXO-K for Baskin’ Robbins, which deserves a special mention…Strong.

The fact that they’re idiots

There’s a universe of #derp memes and macros out there celebrating the stupid side of K-Pop.

And can we talk about Aegyo?

Aegyo (Korean: 애교, hanja: 愛嬌) in Korean refers to a cute display of affection often expressed through a cute/baby voice, facial expressions, and gestures. Aegyo literally means behaving in a coquette-ish manner and is commonly expected for male and female k-pop idols to behave this way

If anyone was worrying about BTS’s mental state after their ‘we work like slaves’ lyrics in Dope, don’t. They’re fine.

Their videos MAKE NO SENSE

One of the most appealing things about K-Pop is that their videos. As beautifully produced and choreographed and manufactured to within an inch of their lives they are, they’re also, sometimes, bat shit crazy.

The most obvious example of this is Orange Caramel’s Catellena, which involves mermaid sushi, tears and cannibalism. I’ve watched this five times and am still none the wiser but have become unnaturally disturbed by the octopus and the feminist in me has become increasingly annoyed at the fact that they’ve slapped a price tag on their sushi bodies.

Surrender to the K-Pop, you know you want to…

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To The Lighthouse: A Day at Trinity Buoy Wharf

As I’m sure you already know, (what with all the pictures of kids dressed up at their favourite fictional characters being posted all around the world) yesterday was National Book Day and, in honour of one of my best-loved books, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I decided to go to London’s only lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

“She felt… how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.”

So I ventured far out east, through the scrabbling phalanx of suited office workers scuttling like ants around Bank station and out on the DLR to East India Docks.

Walking past the mud-churned waters of The Thames, along the edge where tiny moorhens and hulking seagulls were nosing through the debris that surfaced as the water peeled away from the mud at low tide, I discovered that it’s actually quite hard to miss Trinity Buoy Wharf.

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Even more so now considering that the whole area here near London City Island is undergoing a major facelift and the under contraction areas are currently fenced off with iron gates and patrolled by high-vis wearing sentries.

The site has been a workshop for crafting beacons, marks and signs for the sea since Trinity House’s corporation of mariners and shipmen moved in in Tudor times. TBW was closed more than 450 years later in  1988 when it was purchased by the London Docklands Development Corporation.

In 1996, Urban Space Management took the site on a long lease and today, this industrial enclave has taken on a decidedly cultural edge with everyone from design students at the University of East London to opera companies making their home in the cavernous warehouse studios, old stone houses and Crate City – lego stacked and primary colour painted metal crates. It’s even home to the London Parcour Academy.

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As I wandered around, the brackish breeze with its edge of burning rubbish rising up from the water and swirling around me, I realised that TBW has managed to achieve something rare in London.

They’ve made a place that’s interesting without being heaving with tourists; historic without being pretentious; gentrified without feeling privileged and cool without feeling remotely hipster.

I could have spent all day here, but only had a morning, which was just enough time to squeeze in the following.

10 things to do at Trinity Buoy Wharf

1. See London’s last remaining lighthouse

Designed and built by James Douglass in 1864, this elegantly-wrought lighthouse is the last one standing in modern day London.  The caramel-coloured stone edifice with its honeycomb hat of metal and glass was dubbed the Experimental Light house after the work done in its eaves by the scientist Michael Faraday.

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2. Experience The Faraday Effect

Designed by Fourth Wall Creations, The Faraday Effect is a tiny, multi-sensory and interactive museum and one of the smallest collections of curiosities in London. Despite its diminutive size, you’ll be surprised at how long you can spend in this tardis of a museum learning about the life and work of Michael Faraday, the famous Scientific Advisor to Trinity House.

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3. Seek out the sculptures

Alongside the wood that’s been painted cobalt and burgundy and around the scarlet and banana yellow metal crates, there are softly rusted and worn metal sculptures to be found.

Many of these are moving machines made by Andrew Baldwin and are scattered around the wharf, but below piece was created by Yoshie Jujioka using items found lying around LBW and now sits on the side of the Boiler House.

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4. Check out the big red boat

This colossal crimson ship moored behind the Big Boys Diner isn’t quite what it seems. It’s owned by Ben Phillips, an engineer who bought the 500 tonne lightship at an auction and converted it into an audio recording studio, renaming it Lightship95 along the way.

You can’t exactly just hop aboard if you feel like it, but you can book a recording session on the boat by emailing ben@lightship95.com.

Besides, even if you aren’t a budding musician, this brute of a boat makes for spectacular viewing from the safety of the dock.

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5. Liston to tides of The Thames with the Floodtide Listening Post

As I was standing and admiring the view in front of the Aluna clock, I was jolted out of my reverie by the metallic whispering that grew in volume until it sounded like the chirping of a steam engine. Turning around I realised that the noise was coming from a rust-covered post that dripped gleaming steal pipes like a trident.

The ingenious Floodtide Listening Post is a mechanical music machine that plays notes determined by the rise and fall and the sweep and wash of the river Thames’ tides.

The sweet, reedy lament of the pipes wasn’t exactly how I imagined the oily, clouded depths of The Thames would sound if it spoke, but this siren song shouldn’t be missed.

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6. Take in the view

From the docks, across the chocolate-coloured water, the sky opens up and you can see the spindly, latticed bridges stretching out and clutching on to cobalt blue cargo boats; the hive of activity smashing around the adjacent industrial sites and the spikes of the O2 building stretching upwards, where the cable cars of the Emirates Air Line dip and sway between fat, fluffy shreds of cloud.

It may not be the prettiest view of London, but it’s definitely one of the most interesting.

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7. Spot the details

My favourite thing about TBW was its smattering of curious objects and adornments, from the abandoned carcasses of super-sized letters and sumo wrestlers locked in battle on barrel lids to easy-to-miss carvings and decorations.

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8. Go on a graffiti hunt

As well as Electric Soup – the zany under the sea mural painted by New Zealand Artist Bruce Mahalski over a former shop front on Orchard Place – there are lots of ever changing and vividly-coloured tags and paintings all along the walkway from East India Docks DLR station to the water’s edge at TBW, just keep your eyes peeled to spot them.

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9. Learn to tell Alunatime

Sticking up from its stone foundation like a rusty lollipop, the Alunatime is the city’s first (and probably only) moon and tide clock.

Powered by the tides, the intricacies of the lunar phases and tide cycles are etched into its circular base and chart the natural rhythms of the Earth. It’s rumoured that this Alunatime is acting as an early version of the huge one that’s planned for Greenwich Peninsula, so you’d better get to grips with your lunar cycles now.

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10. Satisfy your hunger pangs at Fat Boys Diner

Nestled amid the box crates and beached boats is Fat Boys Diner, an American incongruity that seems curiously at home at TBW.

Designed and decked out like a real diner with cream and maroon leather booths, table-sized jukeboxes and a long stretch of formica bar, this natty little place serves up Americana classics like cheeseburgers, malted milkshakes, grilled cheese sandwiches and, of course, gigantic slabs of apple pie.

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Fatboy Diner

As the weather was so gloriously lovely, I couldn’t resist filling my camera’s memory card with a whole reel of colourful images from the docks.

Here are just a few more of my favourites.

 

My Favourite Things: February

The book I couldn’t put down; the drink I could drink forever; someone’s wise words that stuck with me; the place I didn’t want to leave…sometimes all you want to do is fall in love all over again with the things you lusted after, adored and coveted last month.

The Album

Jungle by Jungle has been the backing track to everything this month, from drinking and dinner parties to frantically typing up work at my kitchen table.
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The Book

I rediscovered my love of Angela Carter in this little masterpiece. Beautifully written, heartbreakingly raw and fully explored in my review for February’s books coming this weekend.

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The Drink

There was no contest last month, it had to be this ridiculously healthy yet naughty tasting Sloe Beet cocktail from my favourite new south London haunt, London Grind.

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The Food

Last month it was more of an ingredient that I simply couldn’t stop eating, pomegranates!

The Images

In February I rediscovered Pinterest, which has lead, naturally, to hours being spent creating and curating colour-coordinated boards and little collections of dreams and loves. The board that grew the most was my pink one, Pretty in Pink. For some reason I couldn’t stop finding endless images of beautiful rosy things, so here are a few of my favourites.

The Movie

Last month I finally caught up on the final few Oscar nominated films I was yet to see. The last one I watched was Whiplash. I had put it off until the end, honestly thinking that I wouldn’t like it much.

I was wrong.

Whiplash may just be the best film I have seen in years, let alone a month. A powerful, brutal, bloody war epic of a music film with a throbbing, insistent and unflinching soundtrack that left me breathless and my jaw on the floor in awe. Full Metal Jacket with drums…although much better than that sounds.

See it. Now.

The Place

It was a close call between the wonderful The Word on the Water and Keats House in Hampstead, but in the end my happy place last month was in the salon at Keats House listening to historical flautist Yu-Wei Hu and guitarist Johan Lofving perform a programme inspired by Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale.

The Video

How could it be anything else other than this heart soaring video of Sergei Polunin dancing his flesh coloured tights off in an abandoned church?

Sergei Polunin, “Take Me to Church” by Hozier, Directed by David LaChapelle from David LaChapelle Studio on Vimeo.

The Want

I want these Alice High Heels from Boden. I want to wear them with ripped skinny jeans and a chunky cream knit and with black cigarette trousers and a crisp white shirt or worn-out denim dresses.

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The Words

From the mouth of the wonderful Angela Carter. Amen.

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Header Image: Julien Haler/Flickr

In pictures: Ten stories from Postman’s Park

I’ve been meaning to visit Postman’s Park ever since I moved to London but, somehow, something has always got in the way. Sometimes the weather, sometimes work, sometimes my own laziness. But last week, I finally made the trip to this little slice of solemn London to read about stories of sacrifice from ordinary, extraordinary people.

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Just a short walk from St Paul’s, this tiny park sits wedged against the walls of The Aldersgate Talks church and got its name because the workers from the old General Post Office used to eat lunch there everyday.

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In 1900, Victorian painter and philanthropist GF Watts installed a memorial to recognise and commemorate the heroic acts of Londoners and set their stories into glazed Doulton tiles for all visitors to see.

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On the day I visited there was a cold, weak sun like an undercooked egg leaking frigid light through the bare, skinny trees. Council gardeners were spreading fertiliser, striding through the damp and undernourished flowerbeds in eye-searing high vis jackets; wheeling barrow loads of foul-smelling muck to throw over the churned, red and raw scented earth.

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Workers were hunched against the benches in front of the plaques, scattering crumbs and sweet wrappers to the breeze and shifting either with irritation or discomfort as tourists, like myself, leaned over and looked past, studiously ignoring them to focus instead on the people pinned behind them.

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As I read about people I didn’t know and has previously never heard of, I became drawn in by simple, shared emotions: grief, fear, admiration. I read about children who died saving siblings and friends. Mothers who gave up their lives saving their babies. Men who sacrificed themselves in a single, split second decision to save someone else’s life.

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As I stood there and stared, slowly absorbing these lives, I started to forget the other people around me. I forgot to be annoyed when someone’s son started screaming about chocolate to a mother who was half-heatedly trying to interest him in the stories of kids not much older than her own who were suddenly, all in a moment, not here anymore.

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Instead I looked left and caught the eye of the elderly woman next to me and we smiled. Short and sad. A shared, paper thin sort of smile that acknowledged both how wondrous and wretched these stories were.

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It’s hard to read these stories yet you consume them tirelessly standing there in that small little patch of ground. It’s also hard to not to cry in Postman’s Park, not only from the sheer selflessness of it all, but also because of that awful, sneaking question that bubbles up and that you can’t quite quiet: could you do what these people have done?

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I couldn’t take pictures of all of the stories in Postman’s Park and these aren’t by any means favourites or ones that I have somehow deemed ‘most worthy’, they’re just ones that caught my eye.

In Pictures: Word on the Water

I’ve just opened a book that I levered off the heaving shelf in the next room, unconsciously perching on the threadbare pew that’s nudging the backs of my knees as I turn the bruised and pleasingly used pages.

“The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda. The hour was approaching six, and up in the compound’s solitary tree the sparrows began to call. Gustad listened to their chirping every morning while reciting his kusti prayers. There was something reassuring about it. Always, the sparrows were first; the cawing of crows came later.

From a few flats away, the metallic clatter of pots and pans began nibbling at the edges of stillness…”

Certain pages are bent and folded; stained where fingers have traced over the ink of complicated passages or favourite phrases that have been memorised and pocketed away for later. Music from Porgy and Bess is spilling around, warming the whisps of the dank, winter’s day that are seeping in through the open door, dragging themselves along the dark floorboards to sit grey and heavy on my chest.

When the wind changes the air is flooded with an acrid tang of burning fuel that briefly masks the comforting smell of old dust and second-hand paper. Someone’s feet startle me out of the corner of my eye, stamping through the passage I was reading as they pause, somewhere between my head and the low ceiling.

As they continue past, I realise that the floor underneath me is moving. It lurches gently as the books on the shelf that were once perfectly level are suddenly and disconcertingly skewed and my stomach takes a slow tumble. Although I should have anticipated that really, because I’m on a Dutch book barge, where words float on water.

Keats’ chosen epitaph was “here lies one whose name was writ in water”, but luckily this watery writing hub has a little  more permanence. Founded by affable owner Paddy Screech as a solution to the threat of rising overheads involved in owning an independent shop in the capital,  this 100-year-old barge has been converted into a book-lovers’ paradise with shelves groaning under the weight of reasonably-priced (two paperbacks for £5, if you were wondering) books penned by everyone from philosophers and criminologists to Booker Prize winners.

Word on the Water changes location every so often, but for the time being it can be found moored on the murky canal just below Granary Square in King’s Cross. Marooned on the greyish waters, this is a little shop quite unlike any other and is full of little eccentricities that make it disarmingly charming – like the resident little buddha with its tattered prayer flags or the forlorn Noah’s Ark bookends propped against the encyclopaedias above the old, coal-blackened stove.

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Word on the Water might not have such a happy ending, however. The Canal & River Trust, which awards permanent moorings to worthy applicants, has just decided to give preciously rare trade moorings in Paddington away to a multi-billion pound property company British Land instead of this floating world of literature.

There’s a petition on Change.org you can sign if you think the council should reverse its decision. I’ve already signed it and urge others to do so – they only need 313 more signatures and it would be a real shame if this unique shop had to close.

Last Words…

The book barge is cash only – I stupidly forgot to bring any so couldn’t leave with the book I started.

If you get peckish, there are lots of brilliant places to eat a stone’s throw from Word on the Water. Try Caravan for exceptional coffee and brunch grub; The Grain Store for interesting all-day nibbles like spiced lentil cake with cucumber salad and banana ketchup or my favourite, Dishoom.

Sitting in one of their summer house cane and leather chairs sipping chai and smelling incense feels like visiting the days of the Old Raj. Don’t leave without trying one of their impossibly creamy mango and fennel lassis or their chargrilled paneer and green chilli Roomali roti rolls.

Beautiful Books: January

At the start of the year I set myself a challenge to read more in 2015. So I picked five books on everything from celestial signs and teenage abandonment to adulterous wives and mystical circuses for January and got stuck in.

Here’s what I thought of January’s beautiful books.

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

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“We spend our entire lives thinking about death. Without that project to divert us, I expect we would all be dreadfully bored. We would have nothing to evade, and nothing to forestall, and nothing to wonder about. Time would have no consequence.”

The Luminaries has been on my intimidating must read list ever since it won the 2013 Man Booker Prize…and also because I knew it was written about a place in New Zealand that I visited all too briefly but fell quickly in love with: Hokitika. Set in the 1866 gold rush, the story navigates around emigré Walter Moody and the twelve, strange men (like the twelve signs of the zodiac, get it?) he meets on his arrival. The twelve are trying to uncover the reasons behind a series of local crimes and, along the way, a rich tapestry of drunks, whores, opium dens, missing men and discovered fortunes weave in and out of the complex story line.

Structured like the waning and waxing cycle of the moon, this book both transported and frustrated me. The sheer volume of plots and characters took time to get to grips with and Catton has an irritating knack of ripping the rug out from under your feet just as you’ve got settled in. At times bewildering, at times brilliant and, at times, frankly boring; this isn’t a book to take on lightly. I wasn’t sure what to make of Catton’s tome when I finally turned the last page on the final, diminutive chapter, but, perversely, I am thinking about reading it again…because something about this extraordinary book has stuck with me.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

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“The denigration of those we love always detaches us from them in some degree. Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.”

After I started this canary yellow copy of the classic French novel I began to wonder why I had never read it before. It was Flaubert’s debut novel and followed a mild mannered, vaguely boring doctor called Charles Bovary, who met, fell in love with and married Emma Rouault – an adulterous, tempestuous woman obsessed with the romance and luxury she has absorbed from years spent devouring fantastical works of fiction.

As she embarks on ever bigger affairs and begins to loose herself to her self-concoted idea of love and luxury, everything begins to crumble around her; while her husband remains staid and loyal to the bitter (very bitter) end. This is neither a story with a happy ending nor a cautionary tale on the dangers of being immoral and lustful; it’s  a beautifully written, tragic story of the pursuit of romance at all cost that perfectly shows off Flaubert’s never-ending quest to find le mot juste – the perfect word.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

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“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

This gorgeous book introduced me to a lovely new word – phantasmagorical – and had me gripped from page one, which doesn’t start with a block of prose but with a poetic stream of consciousness that begins: “The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”

In the beginning, two magicians make a bet as to who can raise the best assistant. Prospero the Enchanter chooses his daughter, Celia Bowen and the enigmatic Mr A.H. picks an orphan, Marco Alisdair; sequestering him away in a world of books and rote learning until he is ready to challenge Celia in an epic battle of will, might and magic to the death.  This was utterly immersive, with each story, line and word interwoven with the ever present spectre of the night circus; a place of mysticism and wonder populated by tattooed contortionists, eerie white fires, floating cloud mazes and impossible magic tricks that seems to appear and vanish at will, swallowed into or simply becoming part of the night itself.

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

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“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”

This was the book I couldn’t wait to start reading and one that everyone and their dog had recommended to me. Plus, when you’re given a particularly beautiful hardback copy like the one I was, there’s an extra incentive to want to grab it at the earliest opportunity. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, Jessie Burton has created a historical masterpiece where every detail and nuance has been impeccably researched. The story revolves around Nella Oortman as she settles into the house of her new husband, a rich merchant called Johannes Brandt.

He gives her an exact replica of their house as a present and she begins to fill it with tiny furniture and miniature things, however, as the story moves and the tiny house fills, a sense of some unusual power at work pushes itself to the forefront. I don’t want to reveal or ruin any of this novel’s creeping unease, but all I will say is this is a powerful story – full of exquisitely crafted passages and plot twists – that grabs you and refuses to let go. I demolished this book in two days.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, Haruki Murakami

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“The truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand. As time passes, the sand piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what’s below is revealed.”

I have been in love with Murakami since I read Kafka on the Shore while travelling years ago and was over the moon when a good friend gave me Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki for my last birthday. I’ve been saving it for just the right moment, and waking on new year’s day seemed just the right time to start. There’s something about Murakami’s writing; his measured, restrained prose; his pared back explanations of everyday Japanese life; his inscrutable characters and his stark, unexpected injections of frenetic sexual activity, which often pop up in wild dreamscapes.

This book felt very much like a classic Murakami. It follows Tsukuru Tazaki, a high schooler in Nagoya with a close-knit group of four friends, each who have names that mean a colour: Aka/Red, Ao/Blue, Shiro/White and Kuro/Black. Suddenly, without warning or reason, these four friends cut all ties with Tazaki and he is set adrift, grey, depressed and very much alone. The book follows his gradual return to some semblance of normal life and the journey he embarks on to discover just what happened all those years ago.

As Murakami books go, this was a slow burner, seeped in sadness and full of long, drawn out, contemplative discussions. Although it still had all the familiar accents – the frequent simple suppers, the cameo from Cutty Sark whiskey and the background of jazz and classical music – that keep me wanting to read Murakami’s novels.

Getting through these books in one month has been a challenge, especially since I stupidly picked The Luminaries, which is a whopping 832 pages long. To save my eyes, and my face considering how many times I fell asleep and dropped The Luminaries on it this month – February’s five books are all a little slimmer and I can’t wait to get started.

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I’d love to hear if anyone has read anything so far this year that they recommend, I’m always on the hunt for new books to get my teeth into!

Beat the block: five things that help me write

“If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” – Keats

Writing can be a tricky thing. Especially if you end up writing for a living as well as for pleasure. It can very quickly seem like a chore, one that doesn’t even give you the opportunity the throw an artistic hissy fit and refuse to do anything because, as a freelancer, my words are my bread and butter.

And it doesn’t help that impressively prolific romantic poets like Keats and Wordsworth set their standards for writing so high. I’m not too sure how naturally Keats’ poetry would have come to him if he was on deadline and writing mind-numbingly dull copy on a pay-per-word basis. Wordsworth once called his writing “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, which sometimes it is, but then again there are always times when the words aren’t even trickling out, let alone overflowing. When this happens for me, I try one of the below to help ease that dreaded writer’s block.

b78bea2088c7e3afce571a3472817b55 1. Sort your life out. Trying to write when you’re surrounded by mess that has built up because you’re trying to ignore it while you write is, for me anyway, pointless. If I’m sitting in a kitchen that hasn’t been cleaned for weeks or in my room when it’s decorated with used clothes and empty cups, all I can do is fret over having to tackle the mess at that indefinable point in time ‘after I’ve done some work’, which invariably means I don’t get anything written because I know what’s looming post work.

If you have tidy surroundings before you start you’ve got no excuse to do anything but write.

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2. Get inspired. When you can’t get the words out and you’ve been staring at a blank page for the last hour and a half it’s easy to despair. Sometime looking around my room all I notice is peeling paint or that messy drawer that could be re-arranged…I don’t see potential stories or article pitches. Sometimes I see nothing at all. Everything goes completely blank and not in the pleasing black canvas ideal, more in the black hole of nothingness sense.

If I can’t think of anything I’ll fill my head with the thoughts, images and words of other inspirational people and hope somethings rubs off and I have a eureka moment during the process. When I need inspiring I go here:

BoredPanda.com – like buzz feed but with more art and incredible imagery. It was also where I found the work of Erik Johansson and JeeYoung Lee.

Messy Nessy Chic – a blog on offbeat travel destinations and photo diaries of the unusual and the obscure. See the inspiration vault for an endless source of joy like this post: A Compendium of Abandoned Greenhouses.

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The National Portrait Gallery – From the crowds of tourists and locals who visit to the thousands of pictures on the walls, it’s hard not to loose yourself in these images of faces past and present.

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The British Library’s Reading Room – I don’t think there’s a better way to be inspired to write than being surrounded, from floor to ceiling with words.

The British Library Reading Room inside the British Museum, Bloomsbury, before the move of the British Library to its current location at St.Pancras.

If all else fails, these writers never fail to inspire me:

3. Take a dance break. Ok, so this will probably sound utterly ridiculous, but when I’ve been scrunched up writing furiously for hours I often feel like a corpse riddled with rigour mortis. There are also times when words won’t come; when I’ve spilled a fifth cup of coffee down me or over my notepad; when a feature falls through at the last moment; when I can’t find any work at all and I think about the looming rent…times when all I can do is stand up in my kitchen, put a song on and engage in that most mental of alone time activities: the dance like no one is watching dance.

I’ve been caught out many a time doing these dances. Mainly by flatmates coming home early and once by a bemused window cleaner, but all I know is I feel immeasurable better for having done them…even if I do have all the smooth moves of a chicken having a seizure. These are the songs that never fail to get me moving for three minutes.

4. Get out of the house. When I’m freelancing I can often be found sitting at my kitchen table, usually in my dressing gown, desperately looking for things to do to distract myself from work. I’ve found myself doing everything, including cooking elaborate three course meals for one and scrubbing the underside of chairs, to avoid getting onto the task in hand.

There’s a very unique sort of embarrassment that comes with this territory that often involves answering the door semi-dressed at three in the afternoon to delivery men who assume you’re off sick from work; or facing your housemates who trot in suited and booted from work at 6pm to be greeted by the sight of you, still in your dressing gown (which potentially has food stains down it by now) in the same position they left you in ten hours ago.

There’s only one way I can beat this writing-induced rut and that’s to escape. Nothing clears my mind or focuses me like a walk around one of the Commons (Clapham, Wandsworth or Tooting) near me or an afternoon spent in a coffee shop typing away. Not only will it give you a change of scenery and rescue you from ironing every sock in the house, it will also force you to get dressed, which is always a bonus.

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You wouldn’t be alone either, other famous writers like Ernest Hemingway and JK Rowling have all retreated to cafes to get their work done…although I haven’t quite found anywhere as inspirational to write in as Hemingway’s Les Deux Magots in Paris.

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There are lots of lovely places to hide out in London, my favourites are The Lido Cafe in Herne Hill, where you can watch the swimmers do lazy laps as you type on their sunny terrace; The Black Lab on Clapham Common Southside, which has divine coffee and a quiet bank of seats at the back that’s ideal for freelancers and The Wellcome Cafe on Euston Road, which has the added benefit of letting you explore The Wellcome Collection’s latest free exhibit for inspiration. The current one is an intimate look at sex called The Institute of Sexology and is running until September 2015.

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5. Just write. Write anything. This sounds simple, but when you’re faced with an intimidatingly blank page, that flashing curser can seem as terrifying a spectre as Edgar Allen Poe’s raven  and it’s often hard to scribble anything. When this happens I always try to write around what I am meant to be writing. I write adjectives I like, sensations, memories and names and their surrounding semantic fields. I write to do lists; I pen fragments of short stories, I simply write phrases that I like the sound of; emails to old friends or random thoughts that do – with a little coaxing and a lot of editing – eventually turn into finished articles and posts.

There’s nothing harder than starting to write if you’re out of practice, but if you force yourself to write for a few hours each day you’ll be surprised at how naturally it begins to come…perhaps even as naturally as the leaves to a tree.

Life lessons and writing wishes: Looking back at 2014 and forward to 2015

As a wise man (or character if you want to be pedantic) once said: “Get busy living, or get busy dying”, so here are my five life lessons learned from 2014 and five writing and personal goals for 2015.

This morning, when it was still dark enough to hide my shambling form from the new year resolution joggers on Clapham Common,  I dug around under my bed and pulled out my old trainers – and believe me they were rammed back there so far it involved a lot of digging and crawling.

And so I went for a run, something I never do but have decided to do more of in 2015 as I feel one’s exercise shouldn’t just consist of opening biscuit tins or tottering in high heels as you approach your thirtieth year.

As I rambled along, breath white against the murky black of a London morning and ripped from my unsuspecting lungs by a bitter January breeze, I decided it was about time I addressed one of those dreaded yearly round up posts – very slow off the mark I know, but then I’ve always been a late bloomer.

There was also a lingering fear of actually writing one and officially letting go of 2014. I’m silly like that. You see, 2014 was a very good year. A year of travelling and food and friends and consistent work and new houses after a disastrous 2013; and I can’t shake the feeling that a bad year MUST follow a good one.

But then my vaguely more sensible side kicked in and I remember that there’s no point in moping around at my kitchen table sipping endless cups of tea and waiting for good and/or bad things to sweep into my life this year. As a wise man (or character if you want to be pedantic) once said: “Get busy living, or get busy dying”, so here are a few life lessons learned from 2014 and some writing and personal goals for 2015.

Lessons learned in 2014

Early on in 2014 I travelled to Dubai, somewhere I have never wanted to go and thought I would hate with a passion, but, after a little digging through the brash and the bombast, I discovered that Dubai can be a beautiful place if you look hard enough.

….and it’s also home to massages that can transport you to nirvana, the height of decadent eating and one of the strangest sports I have ever been given the chance to try.

That some of the most challenging projects can be the most rewardingeven the ones that feel like they might kill you in the process.

That Malaga is more than just a gateway to the horrors of the Costa del Sol 

That it is possible to see too many musicals, plays and operas. I took on a role late in 2014 as the interim editor of the Ticketmaster UK blog, which meant that I spent my days doing fun things like chatting to Lulu and going backstage at Urinetown and my nights watching back to back shows, from Wicked and Cats to The Marriage of Figaro and La Boheme. After a while, all this lovely theatrical stuff gets under your skin and you start to wonder why no one is singing on the tube or why you haven’t fallen in love by 10am and been torn apart from your new beau an hour later in dramatic circumstances.

By the end of it all not only was I exhausted, but every morning was starting to feel as though it should begin like this:

That cooking keeps me sane and I love writing original recipes for tasty treats like pain perdu, lemon polenta cake and ice cream sandwiches and that Rachel Khoo is one of the most fun people to cook with.

That London can still surprise me with secret jazz salons and hidden, half-forgotten graveyards.

That there is such a thing as the perfect girly weekend destination…and it’s Cologne…more on that in 2015, but for now, here’re some pictures of that fabulous city.

Wants and wishes for 2015

To run more, which is, as goals go, the one I’m looking forward to least as I am miles away from breaking through that barrier and starting to enjoy it.  On the other hand, I still have the ‘run a marathon’ goal on my ancient 30 before 30 list hanging over my head…let’s see how close to this I get by the end of the year…

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To cook more, and I’ve got two new projects about food in the mental pipeline that I’d like to tackle…more on that soon.

To read more. I lost my ability to devour books in a single session somewhere midway through last year. Instead of automatically reaching for a book, I’d find myself ploughing through box sets on Netflix or Amazon Prime or playing Candy Crush on the tube instead of leafing through newspapers and scribbling in journals.

This year I’d like to try getting through a minimum of four books per month, and here are the chosen ones for January:

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I’ve decided that 2015 will be the year I try my luck at living in another city, perhaps just for a few months to start with. High on my wish list is Paris, so I can finally improve my French and simply because writing about it for Flight Centre made me realise just how much I love it.

And it’s being in that foreign city for a few months that will, hopefully, help transform my ideas for a book into an actual book. Which brings me round to another goal: to finally write up all the snatches of short stories I’ve collected from all my travels, starting with a series scribbled in a succession of Viennese coffee houses.

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Finally, my only other personal goal is to stop letting London life get to me. London is a strange place. It’s beautiful in parts, heartbreakingly ugly in others. It’s a place of random kindness, but also of horrible brutality. It’s a place that simultaneously throws you into contact with an international crowd yet holds you apart and often alone from making any real connections.

I often find myself teetering on the edge of agony and ecstasy, one brilliant exhibition or one mind numbing commuter crush away from happiness or depression. It’s the sort of city that offers you everything on a platter then holds it just out of reach unless you’re that magical combination of cash and time rich. It makes you feel bad for spending evenings and weekends indoors and berates you for missed opportunities. Well…it does me anyway, so this year I’ve decided I need to give London a break.

– I will be patient and understanding when tourists block any and every road/station/escalator in the capital

– I will smile when shop assistants/cashiers/waiters are surly to the point of rude and act as though helping you is a massive favour, not their actual mode of employment

– I will stop rushing. I will stop running for tubes/dates/dinners and leave earlier and start walking more instead of grabbing that lazy bus or train

– I will stop beating myself up if I miss exhibitions or if it takes me a little longer to see the latest films or if I can’t always afford to eat at that ‘must try’ restaurant. These things are not a necessity but a treat.

– I will visit different boroughs outside of my comfort zone

And finally, I think I will definitely make a ‘Good Things 2015 Jar’ – an idea that I stole from Frankie (As the Bird Flies):

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Image: As the Bird Flies

In the spirit of my new, slightly more magnanimous and London-loving self, a happy new year to you all. Bring on 2015.

A Song for the Day and a Short Story Extract: The Electric Chair

I was recently in Vienna on a strange, pre-birthday solo trip; pushing the boundaries of how comfortable I felt being in a foreign country on my own in different circumstances. Seeking out a dimly-lit jazz club is something I try to do in every country I visit and, luckily for me, Vienna has Porgy & Bess, one of the best venues I’ve ever sloped into after dark. This red-lit pit of a place is lined by plush, velvet stuffed chairs and benches that are filled, nearly every night, with dedicated locals and a smattering of curious tourists.

What I loved most about this place was the sheer diversity of the acts on show. You’ll find more on stage there than just crowd pleasing swing jazz and cuban beat classics, because this Vienna haunt supports a slew of local and lesser known international artists of the more avant grade variety. The Vienna Roomservice session I dropped into had three acts, the frighteningly hypnotic Manon-Lui Winter, who doesn’t exactly play a piano…she strums it, the heart stopping funk of No Home For Johnny and a solo guitarist called Julien Desprez.

Desprez’s performance wasn’t exactly comfortable for me. From his first clashing roar of sound I was taking sneaky peeks around the room to see if anyone else was a little nonplussed by this violent synth mash up. But soon I was overpowered and pinned to my chair, transfixed by the force of his playing. Mainstream it wasn’t and still, even after the room burst into expected, rapturous applause, I was left shaken and vaguely disturbed by his music; by this electric man and his strangled guitar. So I did the only thing that I knew would make me feel normal again, I grabbed a pen and scribbled this little chunk of rambling prose into my Vienna guidebook.

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The Man in the Electric Chair

His arms contort, thrust themselves forward to tear at the empty air as his body is taken up by the infernal machine. The rhythm he writhes to is a twist and a shake, a scatter gun of shudder and stutter like a broken toy soldier. Every twitch is agony, but that sound, that sound must be fed. Deep and raw and brutal it gushes from his quivering limbs, moving and clenching as it creeps its way upwards, up from his locked knees, his rigid stomach, the sinews in his throat taunt as a bow’s string with the tension of it, with the musical rigor mortis.

His eyes are shut against his corporal horror, his mouth stitched closed by the sound. The sound that hits him, beats the hands that are throttling the neck of the guitar. It’s a violent sound, a red sound. A wall of vibration from the guitar he clutches, the guitar he is lashed to by wires the colour of old veins.

He stabs at it, a glancing blow to the sound, but he comes back again and again. Slicing until the next convulsion of that sodden sound ripples over him again. And then he’s still, heaving into the absence as the sound stretches out and away into the darkened room beyond.

If you’re heading to Vienna anytime soon I urge you to check out Porgy & Bess. You can book tickets, in English on their website: www.porgy.at

And here is the man in action on youtube:

A behind the scenes song for the day with a digital difference: The Kronos Quartet

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“Virtually any composer that we’ve encountered has said that the string quartet is the most personal and expressive medium that they know of.” – David Harrington, Artistic Director and Founder of Kronos.
Listen, delve into and experience the physicality of a the brilliant Kronos string quartet from the outside in with this beautiful virtual rendering of the communication between symbiotic performers, which reveals a visual representation of how the individual players connect as one.

“When four people are doing very complex rhythms, we talk about a heartbeat right in the center of the group, and I do think of that image, too.” – John Sherba, Violinis

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Full and original article on the Arts section of the NY Times, found here.

All Aboard the Afternoon Tea Bus

Forget a ride on the magic school bus (for those who feel a bit generationally challenged, have a look here), the only bus to catch this August is the one featuring the glorious combination of tea connoisseurs from Afternoontea.co.uk and the pastry masters from BB Bakery.

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Because, for one week only during Afternoon Tea Week (11-17th August), this red bus will carry you around the prettiest parts of London and serve you a full high tea while its doing it, including as many glasses of Laurent Perrier that your travel tummy can stomach.

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I hopped aboard last week with a fleet of fellow food writers and bloggers to test our mettle on a portable afternoon tea with a difference. There’s something quite special about this tour, and it isn’t just the array of slightly warm (it was one of the hottest days of the year so far) tea treats that was spread out on tables between the vintage leather seats. It was this very odd sense of delightful privilege you get when ensconced high above the bustling streets, watching London’s seething crowds and phalanx of traffic snake past from the lofty viewpoint of the top deck of a London bus, chilled champagne in hand.

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In fact, it was all I could do not to start waving like a regal berk at the minions below – a sensation that lasted about as long as it took me drop some exquisitely-made coco-rich, black truffle chocolate tart down my skirt. Anyone worrying, as we all were, about the saftey and practicality of trying to pour hot tea on a moving bus will be pleased to know that the teas are all served in sealable china mugs and the waiters seem to have been hired for their ability to say perfectly upright in jolting traffic while expertly pouring champagne – I’d like to know what the interview process involved for that job!

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The route weaves itself around some of London’s best-loved landmarks and iconic sights, from Westminster’s Big Ben to The Royal Albert Hall and Marble Arch – places that are infinitely easier to take in when you’re looking through a bus window than trying to navigate the tourist tornado.

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There’s plenty of time in the one-and-a-half-hour slots to scoff your way through the full range of sweet and savory treats on offer, from cream cheese sandwiches, salmon blinis and light as a feather quiches to cupcakes, macaroons, burnished scones with strawberry jam and Roddas clotted cream and some of the best little lemon meringue pie-lets I have ever eaten. What’s more, you can even hire the whole bus for parties or hen dos, and specify if you need a gluten free or vegetarian tea.

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At £45 per person it falls into the middle ground of high-end afternoon tea prices in London, but what other place can offer you quite the same experience? Exactly! For more information and to book, see the Afternoon.co.ukwebsite.

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As well as the Afternoon Tea Bus, Afternoon Tea Week will be featuring a vast array of traditional and unusual teas. See my pick of the best below.

  • Celebrate the Great British Summer with the Intercontinental London Westminster’s Summer Holiday Afternoon Tea, which features The Beach – a true work of art by their talented pastry team – Chocolate Fudge Beach Huts, Cherry Cheesecake Bucket and Spades, Peach Mousse Sandcastles, Toffee and Chocolate Wheels and Jivara Chocolate Cones all of which sit on an almond sand.

  • Afternoon tea gets the rockstar treatment at Sanctum with the Gentleman’s Afternoon Tea. Forget dainty china and pretty pastries – this is all about attitude and big flavours with Poached Oyster, Lamb Hotpot, Seared Steak, Smoked Salmon served up alongside Jack Daniels ice cream and a cigar.

  • The Mad Hatters Afternoon Tea at The Sanderson includes British food, English ceramics and a large dash of our renowned eccentricity including a tick tock Victoria sponge clock and strawberry and cream homemade marshmallow mushrooms.

  • Park Tower Knightsbridge has put together a special Take Away Strawberry Afternoon Tea for you to pick up and enjoy al fresco in one of London’s parks or back in the comfort of your own home.

  • Top London chocolatier paul.a.young is launching his Cream Tea at his Heal’s store during the week. Pop in for scones topped with clotted cream and his famous Sea salted caramel sauce served with tea by the Rare Tea Lady and an award-winning truffle of your choice.