Brixton Book Jam

3 Jul

Peer in the door of many publishing houses at the moment and you’ll notice that the onward march of eBooks is shaking up and dusting down what can be a pretty foot-draggy industry. It means that anyone can publish a book and sell it through Amazon, without having to jump through the hoops of finding an agent and getting a book deal. Pale and shaken publishers claim that without their quality control and marketing budgets the internet will become a hideously democratic cacophony of pseudo-literary ramblings, causing everyone to throw up their hands and stop reading books altogether. Of course this assumes that, with the kind of innovative Darwinian solution for which it is known, the interwebz does not come up with some way to sort the wheat from the paff and we all adapt and survive. If you could see my slush pile at work you’d certainly hope so. (Although this will be academic when Amazon eventually takes over the world and all thinking.)

The greater, and often fatuous, debate aside, what eBooks are undisputedly great for is giving talented writers a platform to try out their material and connect more directly with an audience.  And what live book events are great for is getting those writers out from behind their laptops and face to face with their readers; preferably in a noisy pub, stuck three intimidating feet high on a stage. And so it was at Brixton Book Jam last night.

Many of the writers at the first Brixton Book Jam did have physical books to promote, but a noticeable number were download-only.  The intention of the night, organiser James Wallis announced ambitiously in his opening gambit, is to create ‘a belle époque, a fin de siècle salon in the Hootananny’. ‘Yeah, bon chance on a dark and soggy Monday evening mate,’ you might think. But in piled the audience to drink beer, eat tacos from El Panzon, and hover pleasingly between ‘attentive’ and ‘rowdy’. When asked to ‘stick up a hand if you’ve written a book’ (published or unpublished) about a fifth of the room did.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as all the authors were fairly local, many of the books were set around London. Chris Chalmers opened with a reading from his eBook Five to One, the story of a helicopter crash on Clapham Common. Glen Mehn’s ‘The Unkindness of Ravens’ and Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son both featured a darker, more fantastical London. Zelda Rhiando – co-organiser of Book Jam – read from her novel Caposcripti which is about photography, London, and shrunken heads. Independent columnist Rhodri Marsden spoke about Crap Dates; many of which will have inevitably taken place in London. And the ‘Bard of Brixton’ Alex Wheatle brought the house down performing his poem ‘Uprising’ about the 1981 Brixton riots.

It apparently took just four weeks (although slightly frenzied ones I imagine) to set up this month’s event. The team are hoping make it a quarterly occurence, which, once word gets around, I’m sure will be in great demand  from both writers and readers. If this is the future for books then I for one am ready to embrace it. I just need to, er, buy a Kindle.

Market Row Wines

26 Jun

I sense the doom-heralds might be getting out their gentrification trumpets, for a wine shop has opened in Market Row.  Ok, I’m sorry, I am being facetious about a serious issue, but I do really, really like wine. I probably deserve to be drowned in a vat of hummus or nailed to a gazebo or something.

David Simpson opened Brixton’s first proper wine shop about a month ago. After he was made redundant from Oddbins  a year back, David thought about getting out of the wine business all together, but soon found himself up the road from his home in Streatham, scouting out premises in Brixton. And so Market Row Wines came to be.

Small but perfectly formed, it’s friendly and unpretentious. Prices are chalked up slightly illegibly on a blackboard, or written on post-it notes stuck to the wall. I spotted a verdejo for £6.50 – around the cost of a bottle of wine in my corner shop. A rather fetching bottle of cava priced £9.99 looked like a lovely treat. And £8.99 got me the best bottle of wine I’d had for ages: organic, biodynamic unoaked rioja Gran Cerdo, or ‘big pig’. So called because brilliantly-named winemaker Gonzalo Gonzalo has dedicated it to the bankers who refused him a loan to make it. Bloody bankers, eh? First global financial meltdown and now this…

Few restaurants either arcade still have a BYO wine policy – Kaosarn and Elephant are the only ones that spring to mind – so passing trade from those wandering past in search of dinner is probably small. However, David has turned the concept somewhat on its head with BYO food nights. The idea is that you bring along some food you’ve bought, most likely from a nearby restaurant, and he’ll whip out some trestle tables and uncork some wine to go with your meal. The July BYO event is sold out, but fingers crossed for more. Other future plans include making a delivery service available for those who have got a bit over excited and bought a whole case, and some potential cooperation with the Heritage Deli over in the Village…

Vino is obviously the thing here, although I did also see some Manzanilla sherry that has apparently been selling well, and a few beers, including Australian lager Coopers which is available one at a time or by the case. Mr Liz will be thrilled.

So a very warm welcome to Brixton, Market Row Wines. I’m very excited that you are here. Although I’m sure both Sainsbury’s and Jacobs Creek will be devastated to lose my business.


Closed Mondays; 12–6 Tues, Wed; 12–9 Thurs, Fri, Sat; 10–4 Sun

Octopus Adventures – a Very Brixton Lunch

12 Jun

Sometimes when you meet someone you just know that you’d like to cook an octopus with them.

Nikky is one half of the team behind NorthSouth Food. As her alter ego Miss South, she writes on various topics related to urban eating, while her brother in the rural North contributes posts of a more pastoral sort. Kind of like the town mouse and country mouse of food blogging.

Nikky is what most would call an adventurous cook. Undaunted by unusual ingredients and totally au fait with offal, her previous culinary adventures have included brain nuggets, squirrel satay and pig’s heart.

But back to the octopus.

I’ve no idea what started us talking about octopuses (octopi?) when I met Nikky at Meet Brixton, but it turned out it was one of the few species not to have made an appearance in her kitchen. And so a plan was formed to acquire one and, er, find out how to cook it.

First stop was awesome fishmonger Dagons in Brixton Village. A fixture in the arcade for more years than anyone seems able to remember, Dagons is friendly, helpful and inexpensive. Our multi-legged victim was but four quid. A handful of samphire to go with it? One Great British pound. A whole mackerel for that night’s tea cost just £2. And I could have bought three sea bass for £7, but at that point we decided to step away from the dead fish before it all got out of hand.

The Spanish butchers on Atlantic Road furnished us with some rather nice baby tomatoes. And with some parsley from Wing Tai, a bag of lemons from the stall under the railway bridge and a box of Alphonso mangos from Dannys for pudding we were good to go.

So to cook our floppy friend. And it couldn’t have been easier really. On the advice of Rick Stein we wanged him into a pan of simmering water; retrieving him about 45 minutes later firm, white fleshed, and remarkably edible-looking. Triumphant, we chopped him up and chucked him in a pan with some spiced, fried potatoes and sat down to eat lunch.

So, dear reader, if you are ever lucky enough to find someone who wants to cook an octopus with you, embrace it. It tastes great.

Brixtonia on Holiday – is the East Village New York’s Brixton?

7 Jun

Travel broadens the mind, apparently. Or perhaps it narrows it, making you compare everything with something more familiar at home. At uni in Canada I knew an Australian called Dave who couldn’t see anything without telling us about its equivalent ‘back in Adelaide’. So, forgive me if I sound a bit like Adelaide Dave, but New York’s East Village did sort of remind me of Brixton.

Originally part of the working class and largely immigrant Lower East Side, the term ‘East Village’ was coined in the sixties, when artists and musicians started to move in. But the first residents of the tenements built here from the 1840s onwards were mostly German, to the point where the area was became known as Little Germany. Which is somehow not as poetic as Little Italy, but the omnibuses probably ran on time.

Further groups of immigrants arrived after the Second World War, from Poland, Ukraine, Puerto Rico and many more. Allan Ginsberg lived here in the fifties. In 1966 Andy Warhol showed his work here, using music by the Velvet Underground. In the 1970s Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and the Ramones played the famous CBGB club. But by the eighties Tomkins Square Park was mainly attracting the homeless and disenfranchised. Policing was heavy-handed and in 1988 a riot broke out. To a tourist like me, the East Village now seems like an exciting and energetic neighbourhood, but I’m sure it’s been a difficult process, with long-standing residents finding themselves priced out along the way.

So, an area that owes much of its vibrancy to groups of immigrants; nucleus of the punk scene; the setting for protests and clashes with police; somewhere that’s had its share of social problems; was once branded ‘edgy’ but is increasingly referred to as ‘gentrified’. And a lot of people here seem passionate about their community. Sound familiar?

Well, of course the East Village is in New York, not London, and they do things differently there. But still it’s an interesting comparison. And there are definitely some things I’d like to borrow for Brixton. For example, according to Wiki there are 640 community gardens in NYC. Tucked behind wire fencing and greenery on Avenue B, we could just catch a glimpse of one, with kids playing, sunbathers and, later in the day, some sort of festival. Space might be at too much of a premium for the likes of Brockwell Park, but it was great to see these scraps of land being used and enjoyed by so many people, who evidently see it as their own in a way a larger park can’t be.

If there was ever anything on the scale of the Brixton Academy in the East Village, I imagine it would have long since been lost to the city’s notoriously ruthless developers. The area’s once pioneering music scene has dropped off considerably in recent years, so points to Brixton for Hootenanny and the Windmill. However, the small East Village bars are individual and quirky in a way we don’t have so much in Brixton. Many even have a street terrace or even a garden out back that, oddly enough, give a laid back, European feel that I wasn’t expecting to find in Manhattan.

Of course, I’m sure someone visiting Brixton from the East Village would have a completely different take. I’d love to hear their thoughts on gentrification for example: so many in Brixton feel strongly about the issue, and the East Village seems to be some way further down this path. Perhaps during the Olympics I’ll try to flag down a passing New Yorker and ask.

(They can keep the bloody subway though. Victoria line – all is forgiven.)

How Does It Feel To Be Loved at the Canterbury Arms

1 Jun

How Does It Feel to Be Loved is back at the Canterbury Arms tonight for one last time before a three month hiatus, while they play at festivals and go on holiday. So why not grab the opportunity to start the weekend as you mean to go on and head down for a bit of a dance to an eclectic mix of cheerful tunes at this essential Brixton night.

From the Smiths to Dusty Springfield, Hole to The Temptations, via Aztec Camera and Dexy’s Midnight Runners; How Does It Feel is essentially an indie and soul night, although the music policy is hard to define exactly. The emphasis is on indie pop rather than indie rock with northern soul, Motown and a load of sixties stuff thrown in. Requests are encouraged.

It’s £6 on the door, but if you email them this afternoon with your name there will be a PERSONALISED, LAMINATED membership card waiting for you on the door, which will earn you admittance for the valueous price of £4. The lamination alone wins me over. Oh, and seeing as how the Canterbury Arms is a pub, the drinks are pretty reasonable too.

Brixton resident Ian Watson first brought How Does It Feel To Be Loved – named after the closing lyrics of ‘Beginning To See The Light’ by the Velvet Underground – to the Canterbury Arms back in November 2003. I always thought that the pub’s deco was a hundred percent unreconstructed 1970s, but this photo from the first Brixton HDIF proves that that its current look is in fact an update! Bring back the green flock wallpaper and illuminated New York skyline I say. (The year-round Christmas lights are still there of course, contributing the essential Phoenix Nights factor).

These days Ian also puts on HDIF at the Phoenix in Cavendish Square, Central London, but he says that the combination of having a bit more space to throw some shapes on the dancefloor, and the fact that people seek out the Canterbury Arms, rather than stumbling on (and into) it makes the atmosphere at the Brixton night particularly great.

The uninitiated might associate Brixton exclusively with reggae or punk, but How Does It Feel’s long tenure at the Canterbury Arms means it’s right at home here. Ian says, ‘I remember on the first night someone saying that they’d never danced to Simon And Garfunkel in Brixton before, and that made me really happy. It feels good to be putting on something in Brixton that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

‘The night’s perhaps not something that people would expect from Brixton, but that diversity is what makes Brixton so exciting for me. It’s somewhere where anything can happen. And we’re living proof of that.’

So head on down tonight, or you’ll have to wait til September.

And to get into the extra-long weekend spirit Ian has kindly recommended some appropriate songs to listen to as you get ready to head down to How Does It Feel tonight:

A Sweet Summer’s Night On Hammer Hill by Jens Lekman – upbeat, feelgood … and people singing and dancing in the background 

Let’s Dance by Jimmy Cliff –  Jimmy Cliff might be more familiar from reggae classics like ‘The Harder They Come’, but this is a supercharged northern soul dancer

A Summer Wasting by Belle And Sebastian – a carefree start with a big, euphoric end. Very summery indeed.

Parklife: a summer’s day in Brixton’s historic parks

30 May

 Finally FINALLY it feels like summer. Good weather in London makes us disconcertingly chipper, sending us scurrying to the nearest ‘outside’ to drink Pimms, get strap marks and examine the blisters from our new sandals. I’ve written about my favourite beer gardens here already, so below is a bit of a celebration of three lovely parks in the Greater Brixton area, all originally created between 1889 and 1907, and all more than worthy of a picnic.

(Just remember, barbecues are not allowed – you don’t want the fire brigade coming to douse your sausages.)

MYATT’S FIELD opened as a Victorian urban park in 1889, and still retains enough if its turn-of-the-century charm to want to make you skip around it with Mary Poppins and Dick Van Dyke. Amongst the pleasingly formal ornamental flower beds stands a bandstand and a summer house, as well as community greenhouses and a sweet little mock Tudor café.

The land was donated by local do-gooders the Minet family, but is, rather democratically, named after Joseph Myatt, a market gardener who once grew his veg where the park now stands. Interestingly, they layout was designed by a lady called Fanny Rollo Wilkinson, who was Britain’s first professional female landscape architect. Cool, eh?

Food?: The community-run Black Cat café, which uses fresh produce from the park’s own greenhouses and sells cake baked by locals is by the bandstand. It didn’t always seem to be open during its advertised hours in the spring, but hopefully it’ll be more reliable over the summer.

Sporty stuff?: There’s (free) tennis courts, a basketball court, and a children’s splashy pond thing, if that counts as a sport. It probably does if you’re two.

Anything else?: On Sundays throughout the summer there’s a programme of music scheduled in the band stand, more info here. The cafe also runs a number of food-based community events, such as cooking classes and lunches.

RUSKIN PARK is an Edwardian gem. Named after opinionated Victorian and mummy’s boy John Ruskin, Ruskin Park it was opened with the help of strong local support in 1907 and enlarged just three years later. During the First World War the park was covered in tents and temporary huts to house the wounded from the trenches who couldn’t all be treated in nearby King’s College hospital (interestingly this happened at Myatt’s Field Park too). Nowadays you’ll still find lots of the features that would have been familiar to the park’s first users. There’s a rather snazzy band stand, a nice pond, and over 40 species of tree. A portico (porch thing + wall) and sundial from one of the houses demolished to make way for the park make for quite unusual garden ornaments.

Food?: The cafe opened for business on 16th May. It’s next to the playground and serves drinks, snacks and sandwiches. (There was a mention of halloumi.)

Sporty stuff?: There’s an all-weather five-aside type pitch, tennis (free at the weekend), basketball and one of those things where you practice hitting a cricket ball.

Anything else?: The website for the community gardens is rather lovely – it features regular updates about what’s been planted and how you can get involved. 

Beautiful BROCKWELL PARK is of course familiar to all Brixton dwellers. But it’s also the best park in London so it would be a shame to leave it out. The land was bought for the public and opened in 1892 in response to the growing population of Brixton and the Victorian belief that Parks Are Good For You.

The campaign to create the open space was led by Thomas Bristowe, and MP for Norwood. However, he didn’t live to see visitors enjoying the new open space, dramatically dropping dead of a heart attack on the steps of Brockwell Hall after the park’s opening ceremony.

Food?: There’s a functional and inexpensive café at the top of the hill with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. Although sadly its rather tired interior doesn’t match the stature of the prepossessing Brockwell Hall. John Blades, a wealthy glass manufacturer, built it in 1813 – having knocked down one at the bottom of hill in favour of something with a bit more of a view. For something a bit more substantial, the café/restaurant in the Lido is all about British produce, nice booze, and unfussy cooking. (It’s also all about queuing on a sunny weekend, but hey ho).

Sporty stuff?: Tennis, volleyball, basketball, a bowling green, a bmx track, and then there’s a path round the park’s circumference is a veritable running circuit at the weekend. And of course there’s the lido (unheated) and a gym there too.

Anything else?: The walled garden is a particularly lovely spot. And there’s a brand spanking new adventure playground finally due to open at the start of June. On summer weekends you can even visit the model railway at the Herne Hill gate for the hilarious spectacle of two grown men travelling about 100 metres balanced on a really tiny train, while looking a little angry. Brilliant.

Up on the Roof at Brixton Clubhouse

25 May

The crowd on the roof terrace – pleased to escape the heat at street level ­– tapped their feet to the jazz band while sipping some quite lethal cocktails, as the Jacuzzi burbled in the background. It was all very Gossip Girl – rather surprisingly, as we were in fact on a roof above Brixton KFC.

Technically the party was to launch the Gold Room, a bechandeliered new VIP area in Brixton Clubhouse. And very smart it is too. But on the hottest day of the year most of the guests naturally headed straight for the roof.

The Clubhouse is unashamedly pitching itself as a high-end venue, with an international flavour. The main club room with its small stage is capable of hosting cabaret or comedy, but it sounds like glitzy club nights will be the thing. Sunday roof parties – called, er, ‘Up on the Roof’ are kicking off soon and the midweek Discotec night is taking up residence as of September. It’ll be nice to have the gays back in force. Please someone correct me below if I’m wrong, but has Brixton hosted any regular gay club nights since the heyday of the Fridge?

Theatre producer and Clubhouse owner Bronia was keen to tell me how much she loves Brixton. She’s proud of the work she’s put in over the last year and a half, and that she now employs 14 members of staff. Different to anything else currently on offer in Brixton, the Clubhouse is certainly going to bring something new to the area’s nightlife. And the roof terrace absolutely rocks.



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