The Gingerline dining experience

The heyday of rave may be some twenty years past, but it has left an indelible mark on the culture that spawned it. The loved-up beats and bleeps may have been supplanted by the urban uneasiness of dubstep, and the late-night cruises round the M25 given way to grime nights in Bow, but in members of a certain generation there seems to remain an almost atavistic urge to stay glued to their mobile phones, anxiously awaiting news of the evening’s chosen venue. Of course, the original cheesy quavers are a couple of decades older and, in some cases, wiser; the intervening years have seen the rise of the celebrity chef and a concordant, Jamie-led interest in all things gastro. The recent popularity of the pop-up restaurant phenomenon can perhaps best be seen through this prism, the desire for a proper banging night in a disused warehouse tempered by the twin pressures of work and babysitters.

Thankfully, alongside efforts from established names such as Bistrotheque, or the Nordic art extravaganza that was Hel-Yes, there are still folk out there keen to keep to the guerrilla spirit of the early parties alive, always on the move and in search of the next big high. The latest to enter an already crowded arena are the team behind the Gingerline, who have substituted the environs of the capital’s vast, constricting ring-road for the box-fresh pleasures of Transport for London’s newest addition, the East London Line.

The youthful associations of the ‘pop-up’ terminology were confirmed by the pilot event, with diners directed to follow a Hansel and Gretel trail to the soon-to-be-opened Still Moves gallery, the folkloric breadcrumbs replaced with strategically placed strands of orange string. The choice of a gallery as the opening venue was an apt one, as the Gingerline project is an intriguing mix of art and cuisine: the menu for each event is custom-designed by a member of the loose Gingerline collective, in this instance the charming, Tove Jansson-esque pen drawings of Alisia Casper.

It’s fair to say that the average art gallery is not well blessed in terms of its culinary amenities, but it is testament to food enthusiast and amatuer chef Susannah Mountfort’s skills that she not only negotiated use of the facilities of a nearby café, but managed to present a dinner of three fine courses, which began with a highly toothsome mezze of rice-stuffed courgette, cauliflower and cumin fritters, stuffed vine leaves, lime yoghurt and red pepper bruschetta. This was followed by a judiciously roasted, sumac-spiced chicken, served on a bed of expertly prepared puy lentils, the potential blandness of these ingredients offset by a piquant preparation of goats’ cheese and beetroot. A dessert of ‘chocolate delight’, accompanied by a delicious vanilla and cardamom ice cream, brought to a close a night that was, if slightly lacking in atmosphere, unfaultable in terms of execution.

If the pilot was a tentative, if well placed, first step, the latest event demonstrated the imagination and talent at work behind this venture. Given the participation of Rotherhithe’s Brunel Museum, it should have come as no surprise that diners were greeted from the train by a charming crew bedecked in top hats and crinolines. More unexpected was the move into the long-abandoned stairway that originally led down into the Thames Tunnel, the first tunnel in the world to be constructed under a navigable river. Having been plied with an excellent cocktail of champagne and homemade blackberry vodka, being plunged into sudden darkness was less of a discomfiting experience than might be anticipated, but any immanent sense of anxiety was soon amplified by a series of spooky projections of Victorian-clad women (put together by photographer Emli Bendixen), whose garb and gestures were reminiscent of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. This ghostly spell was further enhanced by the presence of Kerry Adamson, vocalist for up-and-coming indie band The Complete Short Stories, swinging an oil lamp and mournfully intoning Ewan MacColl’s “Sweet Thames Flow Softly”.

Although the foregoing was enthralling, thankfully dinner was held in the Thames Tunnel’s former engine room which, despite its industrial past, was transformed into a cosy and convivial dining space. The Victoriana theme was continued with the night’s menu, which was based on the sort of dishes which might have been served at the banquets which provided the funding for the Thames Tunnel’s completion. The effects of changing gastronomic fashions (and, perhaps more likely, culinary ignorance) led to many debates about the precise meaning of such terms as ‘coddled egg’ and ‘hogget’, but whilst opinions on semantics may have differed, there was a unanimous feeling that the cooking was both deft and satisfying.

Presenting egg as a starter combined with cream ran the risk of beginning with a dish whose richness would overshadow the following courses, but a light application of horseradish left diners (whose stomachs had possibly been emptied by the ghostly shenanigans in the tunnel below) hungry for more. Hogget (which, for those readers less familiar with Mrs Beeton’s work, falls between lamb and mutton on the ‘age of sheep meat’ scale) was cooked to a level of tenderness that made serving, if not eating, tricky, as it fell from the bone at the lightest touch. Whilst the supporting vegetable cast was a delight, the meat was the true star of this course, and saw some of the more carnivorous, if less delicate, of the assembled diners sucking on the shank bones like a crack pipe, desperate for more of the sheepy goodness.

To already stuffed patrons, dessert presented something of a challenge, if only in terms of its sheer size. A triumvirate of alcoholic jellies, including port, claret and ‘Russian’ (apparently a type of vodka,) served on a bed of cream and plums and garnished with candied grapes, it left even the hardiest of trenchermen floundering. Yet such griping seems churlish: it is rare that you can complain about a restaurant being too generous in its portions, and any discomfort caused by overindulgence is surely down to the individual, rather than the kitchen.

Upon emerging from the engine room, it appeared that the Gingerline enterprise had been blessed by the gods of coincidence, both by the proximity of the Mayflower (possibly the finest pub in the vicinity), and the presence of an almost Victorian peasouper of a fog which graced the surroundings, conjuring up the most pleasing of Dickensian spirits. Although it can’t be guaranteed that future Gingerline events will be visited by such meteorological serendipity, the artistic and culinary skills on evidence promise a hugely enjoyable evening.


Welcome to the fourth estate.

Apologies for being on the quiet side of late: aside from the unabating need to get my sorry ass into some sort of gainful employment, I have recently been granted the honour of submitting a few reviews to The Quietus and, gratifyingly, having them accepted. This is particularly pleasing, as I've been following the site pretty much since its inception, and consider it to be the best source of opinion on matters musical (and film, etc.) out there at the moment.

I'll try to avoid pinning medals to my own chest, but should anyone care to share my thoughts, my pieces so far are on the wonderful Tyondai Braxton (essentially a remix of the post below) and A Sunny Day In Glasgow.


Richard Milward: Apples

Although reading Richard Milward’s paean to Spacemen 3 in Loops didn’t inspire me to reappraise their music (I still think they had a better way with a title than with a tune: witness Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To), it did prompt me to check out some of his other work. To be precise, his first novel, Apples (Faber, 2007). Some slightly breathless press coverage had led me to expect great charm, wit and maturity from Milward’s prose, and to a certain extent it delivers, but this is not quite the dazzling literary escapade one might have hoped to be presented with: it’s certainly no Wasp Factory or Cement Garden. This is perhaps a slightly unfair assessment, not least because of the authors’ respective ages: Banks was 30 when he first hit the shelves, McEwan a slightly sprightlier 27. Milward, by comparison, is even now a mere stripling of 25.

This faint sense of dissatisfaction may in part spring from the book’s central cast of feckless teenagers, centring on Adam and Eve (you see what he did there?), respectively a geeky young lad with a penchant for 60s music and a mild case of OCD; and one of the school’s resident fit lasses, usually out and on the pull (and the pills). Indeed, with all the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll it’s like a story arc from a northern Skins (albeit with fewer ‘cool’ tunes).

Factor in Milward’s youth, and things make a little more sense: this comes across as a teen novel, a milieu he had left behind only a few years previously, and which he portrays convincingly. In this context, the book is far more successful, and bears comparison with Niven Govinden’s Graffiti My Soul (Canongate, 2007). Milward is to be considered lucky that media attention has been more effusive in recent years, rather than casting its shadow over his career from the outset. Such pre-emptive excitement tends merely to blight a writer’s career, as happened with Guatam Malkani, whose first novel, Londonstani, was brought out to great fanfare by Fourth Estate, the blaze of publicity obscuring the fact that the novel was essentially an oversold teen novel that by rights had little place on an adult list.

On the basis of this and the aforementioned press soufflé, Milward’s recently released Ten Storey Love Song is not too exciting a prospect. In all likelihood, this has less to do with the much-vaunted, single paragraph structure than with Milward’s baffling decision to name the novel after one of the Stone Roses’ worst songs. Let’s hope that the similarity in nomenclature doesn’t condemn the book to being an over-hyped disappointment.


Tyondai Braxton - Central Market

With no news of a fresh Battles release any time soon, it might appear that fans will have to content themselves with a smattering of upcoming live shows, most likely featuring much the same set list they've been kicking about for the last, ooohh, two years?

Thankfully, Tyondai Braxton (the chap with the wild hair and a winning way with beatboxing) is set to drop Central Market, a new solo album on Warp, which should quell the patience of the Battle-hardened. Braxton's aesthetic, however, is far more wayward than that found in the locked grooves of Mirrored, as befits the son of composer Anthony Braxton. The suitably named first track, 'Opening Bell', comes across as if orchestrated by Steve Reich following a gleeful trip to the fairground; a number of cuts feature that most rock'n'roll of instruments, the kazoo.

Lynch-pin of the set is doubtless 'Platinum Row', a galloping ten minutes of fantasy epic, featuring strings that alternately soar then slash, Psycho-style, and possibly the most infernal kazoo yet committed to tape. This is not the glam-rock stomp of 'Atlas', but a far more skittish affair, missing the motorik pounding of John Stanier, but ultimately albeit one that it just as bracing. The record is nevertheless littered with elements familiar from Mirrored: the effected vocals, the cheeky whistles and the looped guitars, used to greatest effect on 'J. City'.

Possibly the most informative comparison is with Profokiev of Peter and the Wolf, both in terms of the bouncing arrangements, and the way in which Braxton's music seems uncannily to soundtrack mysterious, yet not otherworldly, events. It's a trait he shares with Tortoise, particularly on It's All Around You, but where Tortoise can often convey a sense of melancholy, even lethargy, Braxton is far too energetic and playful, meaning even his most minatory passages retain an intimation of joy.

Thus far I've only managed to get my greedy little mitts on an advance release, missing the last of the promised seven tracks, and am now keenly anticipating plugging that final gap.


The Weight of Recollection

There are many advantages to life as a literary scout, not least amongst them the opportunity to read many fine works of fiction, frequently weeks or months before they hit the bookshop shelves. This is offset by having to plough through any number of duds, without the usual consolation of being able to fling the wretched thing aside in despair at yet another formulaic plot, or yet more turgid prose. A lesser evil is the occasional forgetfulness that such a rigorous regime can impose, wherein the basic information of title and author becomes divorced from the content of the book itself, leaving in its place a nagging notion that the novel in question is probably good, or bad, but with no indication of why such an idea has wormed its way into your consciousness.

Having moved on from scout camp, it took a slew of press coverage following her Booker nomination to remind me that I had actually read Anne Enright's The Gathering (although at least this recollection came before she eventually went on to win the thing). I say, however, that this is a lesser evil, as it does on occasion allow you to revisit a work that is well worth a second engagement, away from the pressures of time and a swiftly pieced-together reader's report*. One such is Simon Ing's The Weight of Numbers, which I came across in my local, hatefully named, Idea Store. (It's a library, ferchrissakes!) In a further example of the mental disorganisation that can stem from reading too much in too short a period of time, I was aware of him primarily as a science writer, having read the proposal for his The Eye: A Natural History (Bloomsbury, 2007), although I have yet to read the finished article. The part of my brain which attempts to keep track with the review sections was reminded me that he is also a novelist, and had received good notices, so I thought I'd give it a try.

It took only a few pages for a creeping sense of familiarity to set in, but by that time I was hooked for the second time. The Weight of Numbers (Atlantic, 2006) is a tour de force, both stylistically and structurally, encompassing some eighty years and three continents, and populated by a host of characters who, no matter how ephemeral, don't fail to convince. It would be unfair to attempt to summarise the plot in any great detail, both because it would be impossible to do justice to the tapestry of timelines, and as it would deny the reader the chance to nod appreciatively as each narrative element slides inexorably into place.

Focusing in the main on three characters, a mentally unstable maths whizz, a jaded ex-teacher in Africa, and a former child star nursing an eating disorder, The Weight of Numbers weaves together their disparate stories, whose most evident common link comes in the form of a disreputable seaman. In the hands of a lesser writer, the myriad coincidences and connections would seem at best trite, at worst implausible, but Ings handles them with aplomb, each fresh revelation adhering to the novel's internal logic, resulting in a mesh strengthened rather than undermined by its complexity.

It should not be implied that book is, as a result, a difficult read. In keeping with an underlying theme of fractal complexity, Ings is as confident with the minutiae as with the whole, each perfectly weighted sentence drawing the reader on to the next, and from one convincingly realised location to another. The overall impression is that of the clichéd perception of chaos theory, as events on one side of the globe have unforeseeable effects on lives and events many years and miles hence, but this is chaos mastered by inevitability, and marshalled into an edifice of wisdom and poignancy.

It seems that Ings is working on his next novel; he's remaining rather tight-lipped about the prospects, so in the interim I will have to content myself with finally getting around to catching up with The Eye. Going by his prose, and the proposal, it seems unlikely to disappoint.

*And yes, I'm aware of the irony inherent in the fact that I'm now reporting on this book for the second time.


Loop the loop

It's been a fairly fallow couple of weeks, culturally speaking. Aside from spending a little too much time wondering what the point is of Martin Amis's more recent work (a decision not entirely assisted by stumbling across a quote from the man himself, in which he stated that “I would certainly sacrifice any psychological or realistic truth for a phrase, for a paragraph that has a spin on it.”), we took a quick turn round the greatly improved Whitechapel Gallery. Little of the work therein lived up to its fine new setting, particularly not the facile daubings of Elizabeth Peyton, although some of the entrants in the painting edition of the East End Academy triennial were higly effective, most notably a sizeable abstract by Andy Harper.

Much relief, then, was to be found in the first issue of Loops, a new journal of long form music writing launched in a collaboration between Faber and Domino Records. Coming across like a Granta for the download generation, Loops boasts a score of features, incoporating fiction extracts, critical theory, tour diaries, poetry and interviews. In contrast to the hyperactive, attention grabbing efforts of more glossy music publications, there is an admirable lack of illustration (with the honourable exceptions of a gallery of photos from Kevin Cummins, a handful of David Shrigley sketches, and an odd wee cartoon strip from Liniers). Instead, the text is leavened with occasional typographic inserts based on pull quotes from the articles.

But enough of the appearance; the crucial element in such a venture is the quality of the writing, and on the whole, Loops succeeds. There are, unsurprisingly for such a broad selection, some clunkers (Hari Kunzru's impressionistic take on Moondog, whilst perhaps keeping close to the subject's eccentric nature, comes unfortunately close to the start of the magazine), but in general the articles are engaging and informative. Nick Kent's 1978 piece on Nick Drake, previously unpublished, manages to puncture some of the myths surrounding the young folk singer, whilst reaffirming his position in the English musical pantheon. Amanda Petrusich provides insight into the psychology of the serious record collector, conveying the notion that it is merely a few breaths away from a mental disorder. (Thankfully, her focus is on collectors of American 78s, the most famous amongst them probably being Robert Crumb, allowing those of us - mere amateurs in the eyes of the 78 collector - who dabble in vinyl, CDs or MP3s to feel slightly more relaxed about the music jones coursing through our minds.) It's also good to see extracts from Inky Fingers, the Observer Music Monthly's blog on the state of British music publishing, although it's perhaps an excerise in chutzpah too far to include the blog's thoughts on, yes, Loops.

This is not to suggest that Loops is, by any stretch, perfect. One primary concern regards the freshness of the music on which the articles focus: there is little here from the twenty-first century, let alone from 2009. James Yorkston, who provides a tour diary, is of course a current recording artist, but his oeuvre is firmly located in the folk idiom, and is far from ground-breaking. Even Richard Milward, an author whose youth and verbal dexterity can be seen as an irritant to those over thirty, reflects on Spacemen 3, a band who were defunct before he turned eight. Perhaps this is of a piece with the long-form nature of the writing, in that the hottest new sounds are not necessarily those worthy of the most in depth thought. The editors, however, would do well to avoid Loops falling too comfortably into Mojo, heritage territory.

The inclusion of the other recent arrivals, Wild Beasts, touches on the other issue: that of editorial partiality. Putting aside their offering - quotes from the Vorticist manifesto, refigured as poetry, and easily the worst section of the journal - Wild Beasts are signed to, you guessed it, Domino, as is James Yorkston. Matthew Ingram, who interviews DJ team Optimo, is a Domino employee. One has to hope that Laurence Bell is not looking on Loops as a handy way to promote his charges, and that future contributors will be drawn from further afield than the Domino stable.

Of course, these are early days, and Faber are to be applauded for entering into a endeavour of this nature, which leans against the prevailing publishing wind. Along with Hamish Hamilton (whose admirable Five Dials has been ominously silent of late), it is commendable to see mainstream publishers offering a platform for long essays of this type.

Aaaand we're back...

Well hello there. I've recently made the decision to emigrate from Wordpress; a decision made far trickier by Blogger's apparent inability to import Wordpress-originated XML files. Until they pull their collective finger out of their arse, previous posts may be found here:

Until then, let the games commence!