This is England (Day 3 and 4)

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The gorgeous sight of St Paul’s reaching for the heavens.

‘Your seats are down that way’, the steward gestured us down the steps towards the Wembley pitch. I was expecting for me and her to climb steps upwards, only finding our seats when our noses bleed and lungs rupture. I’m not sure why that would be my posture. Perhaps it was a defence mechanism against disappointment. Then again, looking around the stadium, seeing half of it bathed in Chelsea blue, it would be hard for this fan to be disappointed today, even if I had to lose a lung as a result. But as it stood, we were sitting about 10 rows from pitch side, the manager dugout about diagonally 30 feet away, surrounded by Blues supporters and it feels absolutely surreal. Those lonely nights in front of the telly at mostly-witching hours, urging the team on with a cup of coffee in one hand while clenching the edges of the couch with the other has led me to this. Finally, fiction has become fact.

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Digging for gold, Solid Gold …

The day had already been pretty fabulous up till that moment. We had woken up early for a leisurely coffee stop, decked in our matching Chelsea kits, We chatted briefly with a stately-looking Chelsea fan at the coffee place who told us that his daughter named her hamster ‘Vialli’, after Gianluca Vialli, the once-Chelsea forward/manager. We then headed over to the Music and Video Exchange at Notting Hill Gate for a bout of vinyl-digging where I managed to find a Shadows compilation my dad used to have and a double LP Carpenters compilation for me to properly drown my sorrows in (should I ever need it). She managed to find a couple of classical ones for 10p each. We then headed across the main road to The Mall Tavern for their Sunday Roast. Actually, it was more like lunch had us. I had told her before the trip that one of the boxes I wanted to tick was to have food I’ve come to dub ‘medieval food’. In my mind, it was pornographic amounts of meat with vegetables and potatoes and downed with a nice bitter pale ale. The kind of food I would eat before a day of war-mongering (I am under no illusion that I am being insensitively general and thick here). What I got was more than I bargained for. Crackling-skinned pork slow-roasted to tenderness accompanied by sweet root vegetables, soft potatoes and a threatening-sized Yorkshire pudding. For a moment I thought my meal was going to come alive and devour me. Thankfully, I devoured it first.

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Unleash the Crack-en

The journey to the stadium was an experience in itself and I was determined to take it all in. We took the train from Queensway, following the Central line. With each stop, sporadic pockets of Chelsea and Southampton fans boarded, with the train gradually morphing from a hodgepodge of random colours into a forming sea of blue and red. As the train filled, I grew more self-conscious about wearing my jersey. We had this season’s matching away kits on. I thought about how we looked. Two Asian tourists, with new-ish kits on looking like this date with Wembley would be a one-and-only. I felt judged. I clearly did not look like I was reared in the bowels of Putney or Parsons Green. But I wished so much I was at that moment, only because it would embellish me with much needed credibility to wear this kit. I look to the left and see a young father and his son in a black Chelsea polo-tee and Hazard-10 blue kit respectively, enjoying their train ride to the stadium. The son was waxing lyrical about the rumoured return of Ramires and how he thought Cabellero is a better keeper than Courtois (the boy obviously has no idea what he’s talking about). It was a nice picture of what Sunday football is or could be.

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Doing the Wembley walk

Once we found our seats, it took us a while to settle into the occasion, to take everything around me in. When I eventually did, I noticed the Chelsea players warming up just a stone’s throw from where we were. Pedro was kicking a ball into a second goal behind the actual one, Gary Cahill was leading the starting lads on a jog-about in the foreground. She notices her favourite player Willian. Actually she probably noticed his hair before him. In many ways, watching these players in the flesh is more gob-smacking to me than catching an Arcade Fire concert. I’ve spent probably more meaningful time watching them in the last two years than I have listening to Win Butler and co. But these are not rock stars bathed in spotlight, designed to look more superior than the average human being. The one thing that immediately struck me was just how human they looked and moved. Stripped of dramatization from eager commentators, they just look like a bunch of athletic individuals preparing for a bout of sport. I found it doubly intriguing just how normal and approachable they looked.

It was strange to take in a top football match without accompanying commentary. I have been so used to watching all matches with the velvet-voiced Peter Drury guiding my eyes and thoughts that at first, I found it a little bewildering on what I should be focusing on. My eyes darted around furiously during the opening exchanges, going from the dugout where Chelsea manager Antonio Conte was typically doing his best impression of a corporate executive with a rat running about in his pants to the fans all around me back to the pitch where I just about caught Willian doing a typical mazzy run by accelerating himself past a couple of Southampton players. Quarter of the match in, it felt like my eyes had just participated in the London Marathon (incidentally, also happening that day).

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#ktbffh

There was also the ‘Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham’ song to keep things ridiculous throughout. Thankfully, my detention time in the closet of bewilderment was chopped short thanks to a bunch of hilarious Chelsea fans just behind us. No commentary, no problem, they came up with their own. No Drury like vocal warmness or even the monosyllabic droll of Beglin. What we got instead was snappy British humor without the watching eye of censors and powered by a pine or two. They went after Cahill first (‘Calm down Gaaraay’), were suitably incensed when Bakayoko was asked to warm up (‘Sit back down Bakayoko’), segwayed to how well they would do if they entered the London Marathon (‘I would just cab it to the end’) and even delivered some absolutely gob-smacking industry-changing ideas (‘personally, I think if you are earning 100,000 quid, you should not be offside, ever’). I was so entertained by their commentary that I was a little lost again when they came back late from half-time drinks. It was 0-0 at half-time, 2-0 at the end, thanks to Giroud and Morata. It had been a glorious afternoon, mainly because I was glad that I did not spend the monetary equivalent of my right butt cheek to watch my team crash out of the FA Cup semis

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The moment just before we discovered just how good our seats were.

It was a fittingly rapturous end to our London sojourn, and a nice shift of pace from the museum-filled day on Saturday, a day which began with a lovely brunch with Audrey and Guy, followed by a whole day of filling our minds with a bit of culture. There may or may not have been some delectable cod goujons and ale in between (there was).

The British Museum offered little intrigue for me. My travels have shown me that I have rather low affinity for historical museums. Then again, I should know this, especially when my Form Five history teacher chose to pinch me in the stomach when I asked her for my History forecast results. With each turn of her fingers, she was exorcising two years worth of nonchalance I have given her in the class. I suppose it was a big moment for her. For me, I guess it worked out well that I never headed to college immediately after secondary school otherwise I would have some difficulty explaining why I was able to obtain forecast results for all subjects except history, ‘I got a pinch instead’; ‘What’? ‘Yup’. I can see how something like the Rosetta Stone would’ve been a fantastic fast forward button in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs at the time when it was discovered, but that’s the thing, everything I am looking at in a historical museum is something that would’ve had its time in the sun a long time ago. In the now, framed against our current landscape, the Rosetta Stone looks well, like a large rock with inscriptions on it. I would’ve been just as excited to read about its relevance in a book. Looking at it offered little additional value for me. The sight of middle age tourists senselessly snapping photos of it with their flashes on, with phones on mounted monopods, just made it more of a turn off for me.

On the flipside I had a thoroughly enlightening time at the Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy exhibition at the Tate Modern. I normally would’ve been less than elated with an exhibition of this sort but the additional £4.50 we shelled out for the Audio Guides turned out to be a wonderful ROI for me. I am attracted to narratives, I need to see art within the context of its conception and not just as a piece on its own. I do not enjoy drawing my own subtexts from it. Perhaps I am lazy. I like it served to me, guiding me like a homing missile towards the intended target. The audio guides in the Picasso exhibition offered this to me in abundance. The narratives were forward and clear. The pieces I was looking at were created during the time when his first marriage was falling apart and he was obsessed with his new object of lust, Marie-Thérèse Walter. It offered a glimpse into the mind of a philandering genius who was struggling to cope with the expectations from the public and the forbidden lust he was feeling in his soul. It was a fascinating sojourn that unwrapped the crucial year of 1932 and what Picasso was feeling and being inspired by at that moment.

I spent a lot of the time I was in the exhibition thinking about motivations and inspirations and how they drive our expressions. Picasso had a wonderful medium to express himself, and the talent to do it. He captivated many with his creations, borne a lot out of his own desires, feelings and frustrations. I was wondering about the people who are not privy to such an outlet. What then happens to these feelings? Do they get filed into a deep cabinet in their mind and heart, left to fester like an infected wound over time. And what does that ultimately lead to? Well, dinner in my case. The one thing I’ve learned from age is that when storms hit your mind and you find yourself being bewildered by challenging existential questions, just feel yourself a lot of fried rice and go to sleep. I’ve found in most cases, it’s a new day when you wake.

Nothing resets the mind better than carbohydrates.

This is England (Day 2)

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To call this a lovely morning would be an understatement.

Good food, good mood

I can sometimes be the undoing of some of my most loveliest designs.

I had booked an advance dinner for the two of us, on the second day of our trip on Friday. It was meant to be a surprise dinner for her to celebrate her much-belated birthday and it was at a restaurant called London Shell Co. Nothing pulse-racing until you find out that the restaurant is actually on a boat, which on some dinners, actually takes a leisurely float down Regent’s Canal from Paddington to Camden and back again. That culminated with a five course seafood menu ensured that the prospect of the idea falling flat for my wife would be just slightly better than completely unlikely.

But a month before the trip, she casually asked me if she should book a lunch at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Just so you’re wondering why we would book a lunch at a place called Dinner, I would like to draw your attention to the pathetic exchange rate of our currency and something called ‘set lunches’. I was banking on their sets being noticeably better than McDonald’s.

Sure, let’s do it. ‘What day should we do it?’ How about Friday? I was under no illusion about what kind of restaurant Dinner was. Anything presented ‘by’ someone is always going to be a little fancier and nicer. Not ‘nice’ in a ‘this salted egg fried chicken is nice’ way but nice in a ‘this place is so nice I am prepared to have your babies here now’ way. Unless the thing is presented by ‘Adrian Yap’. In which case I bid thee flee. Anyway, slotting in a ‘nice’ lunch like that before the surprise dinner I had planned, as expected, turned out to be equivalent to sending a Pokemon into a death match against Thanos. Pokemons are cute, colorful and feisty in their own right but they can’t just finger snap half a universe away. It would be an unfair bashing.

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Cheesy shot, courtesy of the wife.

But before we get to the meal, let me just get you up on my little time machine and whoosh you to Friday morning before the day I’ve come to call ‘Ar-meat-geddon’ unfolded. We spent a very nice morning at a serene corner of Hyde Park. The sun was still shining, so the day before turned out to not just be tease but the start of what looks to be a beautiful summer. Weather like this almost seems fictional to me sometimes. I’ve been raised with a life ideology that life is just a series of trade-offs and nobody truly gets to have his cake and eat it as well. Being somebody who sweats as much as a grizzly bear (I am not even certain if they sweat but just humor me for a bit), I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with tropical weather. I love that we get a lot of sun, because cloudy weather can get me downer than a Wilco track 9, but I hate that it comes at the expense of me soaking through my trousers. So for me to be able to sit on a bench in Hyde Park, basking in the warm glow of a healthy summer sun, and be comfortably snugged in a cardigan thanks to the cool breeze with a cup of hot chocolate in my hand, feels almost unreal. Life is not supposed to be this good.

Another thing that caught my attention was just how well dogs are treated in these parts. They are allowed to roam, without fear or prejudice from master and society respectively. There are no boys hurling abuse and wanting to throw stones at them for starters. I have always been a dog lover. For about 16-years of my life, one of my closest friends was a dog. But I have been guilty of viewing their existence through a lens that has been brought on by the society I live in. These are symptoms that our community is not well, when we treat such largely-peaceful creatures so poorly. And for a long time, I have believed that we have to just turn sharp corners and negotiate our way through these obstacles. That they can’t be removed. But I was give a glimpse of what a dog’s life can actually be. My hope is that as our community heals with the change that has been brought on, that we will start seeing important people speak up against such senselessness as well. The good life a dog has in these parts would come to form one of the running narratives for this trip.

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Anyway back to lunch. This was like a school of restaurant apologetics compared to the fares I am generally used to, which generally involves a pint-sized waitress/waiter with a soiled note pad rattling off recommended dishes like a Gatling gun, mostly unconcerned with what you ordered but more importantly that you did it quick. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal was at the other end of that spectrum. There was a waiter who explained the structure of the menu to us. There was a sommelier who recommended wine pairings and ‘arranged’ our drinks. Yes our drinks were ‘arranged’, like how a rendezvous car is arranged for the secret service. There was a prettily folded brochure on our place mats that explained the philosophy of the restaurant. I half expected a bespectacled professor to come by and explain the five habits that led to them structuring the menu the way it was. There was an armada of cooks in the open kitchen, slipping in and out in well-oiled formations, like they were prepared to invade a small country.

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Up till then, my philosophy when it comes to food was probably equivalent to a bearded Southwest biker. ‘Just make sure there is a mountain of fries and we good’. ‘Good food’ sits a lot higher up her hierarchy (my theory is that it sits somewhere between Jesus and me), hence why we’re here at Dinner, having lunch (yes this is strange to me). After being served by the clergy of restaurateurs just a moment ago, I am under no illusion that this meal will cost as much to me as my left testicle. But this meal did re-orientate my philosophy when it comes to food. It gave me a glimpse of what proper culinary pleasure could be. That two generously-breaded chicken thighs and mountain of fries is no substitute for fresh ingredients and superior techniques. I’ve been kicking a ball into the stands at the Conference but today I had a chance to lick Messi’s boots and it tasted glorious.

Everything from the gorgeous Meat Fruit starter to the generous portions of the pigeon breast and Iberico pork chop mains, right up to the delectable Tipsy Cake was absolutely fantastic. This was a meal done to perfection. Like a midfielder who completed a season with a passing rate of 100 percent.

We were contented, despite us having to pay a bill equivalent to the value of my left testicle. I know what you’re thinking, but no, it’s not that cheap.

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It was with almost-bursting bellies and full hearts that we headed to dinner hours later. I was about as ready to eat dinner as Morissey would be to play bass for The Jonas Brothers.

David Bazan has a song called ‘Lost My Shape’ where he sings ‘But now you feel like a salesman/Closing another deal/Or some drunk ship captain/Raging after the white whale‘. Upon gazing my eyes on the ship captain that was going to steer us down to Camden and back, that second line in Bazan’s song came immediately to mind. Not that I am suggesting he is as ferocious a mythical figure as Captain Ahab, but that well, he looked and sounded drunk. He was more likely to jump for shore in Camden and get lost in the revelries with his shirt unbuttoned, leaving us floating slowly out to sea to a quiet and gradual demise.

London Shell Co. makes no pretenses for what it is. This is no-frills grubby soul food made from fine ingredients and cooked with heart. It’s the kind food my wife loves and it’s on a boat. Nothing could go wrong. Of course except me suggesting we go to Dinner for lunch (yup, not gotten over that). But we made the most of our meal. The staff were personable and friendly, the food was very good and the atmosphere was fantastic throughout. But the experience was slightly ashened by our fantastic lunch. Well, at least for me. I ultimately blame the Tipsy Cake. Fantastic dessert, but the eventual death of us.

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There’s an almost time jump quality to the drift down the canal. Like that scene in some movies where they show how someone has got on for a couple of years with their life after a tragic loss, through a slide collage of random things they’ve done while healing, like eating take-out dinner, sitting in business meetings and running in the park. How we went from pretty well-manicured parks with middle-class-looking patrons walking dogs and sitting on benches to admire the view, before gradually descending into the subterranean underworld that is Camden, as the graffiti increased in intensity and the revelers by the canal shore started getting shaggier, slouchier and grouchier ( I could’ve sworn one guy was ranting at a garbage can). By the time we reached the canal-end to turn the boat around, I felt almost compelled to throw a bottle of Guinness at someone because I thought that was what people did in these parts.

By the time we were dropped back in Paddington, the cold breeze buzzing mercilessly and us being a little under-prepared for it, we reflected on what was a day of uncontrolled but largely-satisfying feasting. Our bellies and hearts were full. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing? Not today. Although we would raise a thinly-veiled protest by adopting Oliver Twist’s oft-quoted refrain …

‘Please sir, we really don’t want anymore’.

This is England (Day 1)

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‘We can chain you to the rail’ – The Clash

Stepping out into the streets of London was like putting on an old unworn suit. It’s all vividly familiar but yet, not quite. I have spent a lot of hours listening to its sounds, drawing from the words of its musical poets like Strummer and Morrissey, watching through its celluloid eyes and I have been captivated even before I laid eyes proper on her.

I was compelled to take a picture of the first London Underground sign I saw like a wide-eyed uncouth boy, a brand so synonymous with the pop culture I have spent a large part of my existence reveling in. But I did not care. I merely watched and listened before, but here I am. And I can’t help smiling.

And London smiled back, with rays of sunshine, literally. Our concerns that we may have to brave the remaining gusts of winter proved to be unfounded as we walked into the first day of London’s summer. So zesty was the day that the waiter at the restaurant we had our first lunch in, briefly suggested I reconsider my order of a hot lemon tea.

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Fulham Road

Blue is the warmest color

It was Gandhi who said, ‘Actions expresses priorities‘, and if that is so, then it was obvious that one of my priorities was on Fulham Road, given that despite having just endured a 14-hour flight on the balance of a decent red curry rice and some sleeping pills not an hour ago, my focus after stomaching a lovely lunch at Mandarin Kitchen at Queensway was to head immediately to the place my eyes has feasted on every other weekend since I became a fan about a decade ago.

I was home. That is if we are subscribing to the old adage that ‘it’s where your heart is’. I however prefer a more contemporary notion that one’s heart need not be completely circumscribed. While it rests more often than not at the feet of my wife, she knows it occasionally strays. Not to the nearest pair of fetching legs, that she would not stomach, but to what happens at Fulham Road every other weekend.

It felt almost surreal to walk down that road. To imagine how the huddled fans decked in blue would walk down that road, how the residents who reside in the flats just next to the stadium would have to contend with droves of Chelsea fans invading their space. It’s a walk I wish I could make every week, and perhaps one day with a son in tow. But alas I would have to be contented with this weekend pass for now.

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I ‘cheat’ on my wife every other week here.

While the other tourists trigger-happily click in hundreds of pictures of the Matthew Harding stand, I find my eyes drawn to finer, quirkier details. A rusted balcony bar, worn from decades of sweaty palms gripping it for support and comfort, draws me in. It gives me an indication of the world-wearier side of this structure’s soul, existing long before the millions poured in.

Then there is the painfully lopsided press table, not unlike the war-torn ones you may find at your grandparents’ place – a chasm forming at the center of its top from years of hoarded magazines, newspapers and empty biscuit tins being piled mercilessly on it. Well in the case of the one sitting in the Stamford Bridge press room, from years of managers resting their weary, contemplative arms on them. I marvel not at the history that so intangibly hovers over it, but at the sentimentality that still exists in a club so often accused of being soulless. That such a grotesque state furniture is allowed to exist at the forefront of its media thrust suggests that perhaps not all heart was lost in the fires of the Russian revival.

‘They’ll never take Piccadilly’

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A pence for a song.

There’s palpable excitement in the air around Piccadilly Circus. Buskers line the streets, entertaining revelers who are only too happy to bask in some sunlight after a long hard winter. The famous West End bursts with color, vitality and commerce. I feel my attention being dragged to and from like a drunk lord being harassed forcefully by a pair of barmaids. There’s just too much to do, too much to see. Oh what I would have given for some egg yolk, grease and ginger to gather my attention’s dignity, girth up its pants and to calm the hell down.

All those more than moderately-budgeted productions being housed in these little street-side theaters charmed me to no end, like a fairy tale princess being whisked up a brutish stallion amidst the gaze of millions of tulips. And if you are now imagining a stocky Asian man being given the Cinderella package, well done to me.

The plan, well the somewhat plan, was to watch The Book of Mormon, that is before my wife balked at the ticket prices and the plan got floated out to oblivion like a kid releasing a paper boat into a storm drain. It wasn’t cheap, but cheaper thanks to a tip from a friend – never buy the tickets ahead but go at the last gasp to see if there are stray tickets available. The lure to pack out a show would be worth more to the theater than the 20-30 quid discount you end up getting. So we did it.

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Watch or be watched.

I have never seen spending money on experiences as being a waste. After all, experiences are what glues generations together. I can still remember my dad regaling me about those sweaty 60s nights where he would play Shadows covers with his band to dance-floor merchants. It was what eventually inspired me to be in a band as well. You could well take that cash and spend it on a designer handbag if that’s your poison but the nostalgist in me is thinking it’s not like I can sit my kid down in the future and regal him/her about the time I had ‘a beast of a clamshell Gucci with a herringbone pattern’. Watching a musical at the West End featuring a reoccurring chorus about having ‘maggots in my scrotum’? Now that’s what you spend your dosh on.