Sunday, 20 December 2009

So This is Christmas...

...and what have you done?

2009 was definitely a year of changes for me and if you'd asked me this time last year if I'd have settled for that it would have been a big, fat, definite YES.  I needed a change.  It feels good to keep moving; if things stay the same too much I get bored.  Most significantly, it was the year that I moved in with my girlfriend after getting some psychotherapy to help me deal with the impulse to bolt.  Not funny at the time, but funny to think of it now.  Happily, co-habiting has worked out like a dream. It's like breathing - no effort and it keeps me alive.  Although I was South London and proud for ten years I have found out that West is best, at least for now.  I'm a terrible one for believing that the assumptions I make about a place or a person are true but I'm trying to change that.  There are probably as many twats in Notting Hill as there are any other part of town, its just that they drive more expensive cars and drink more cocktails.  I've even started drinking them. I know £8 is a lot for a drink, but then I think £3.50 is a lot for a pint of Guinness.  I love both, its just that cocktails work faster on me, are more interesting to drink due to my rare ingestion of them and they don't make me fart as much.  You can't beat a Chocolate Flip from the Electric, I'm telling you. 

I'm coming off the back of 3 days of pre-Christmas boozing in the name of catching up with friends before we all leg it for Christmas.  A Thursday night in a Maida Vale pub complete with a big fire, the smell of mulled wine and big fat flakes whirling around outside was contrasted sharply by a curry and a Friday night in an Islington gay bar.  The set was completed yesterday with a panto, Thai food, good friends, reflection on what has passed in the last 12 months and thoughts about the one ahead.  It's that time of year, right?  I flicked back through my emails and it became obvious that it's time for some thanks.  As usual I never got round to sending Christmas cards and it probably would have been a whole lot more professional to do so, therefore I hope that turning over the blog to being grateful will do.

Although there are countless people that didn't reply to enquiries or pitches (and I now know, that's just how it is), there are numerous people that have given me advice and encouragement.  You are; Emma Powell at Grifco, Matt Hill, Sarah Graham at the Mail, Struan, Rosie and Ellie at Salad Club, Ky at Musio for letting me write for her, Ed and Alex at Wideworld for publishing me, Eva Gizowska, Will Gray, Katy Salter, Jane Graham,Vicky Frost, Rosie Swash, Carla Bevan at Marie Claire online (apologies for fucking up the opportunity Carla), Rosalind Ryan for showing me where I went wrong, Paul Dunn at ES, Liz for helping with the book, Amanda Astill for honest words about my strengths and weaknesses, Jenny for teaching me how to write 'real life' stories, Craig at NFT for being so supportive, Dan Frost at SLP, Nicola at the Observer and Sophie at the Indy for replying .  I'd also like to thank Sian, Jamie, Sharon, Ali, Liz and John for the freelance work this year.  If I've forgotten you, then sorry and thanks!

Enjoy your time off and I'll be back in touch in the New Year.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Landlord Joys and Progress Update

The realisation that this blog is not really addressing the question it asks made me finally sit down and think about it in between trying to make some money to pay for Christmas and finding a tenant for my flat.  Both were stressing me out.  It's back to picture research for the time being (at Look magazine) to fund both the present hoard and suddenly having to pay for a mortgage on a place I don't live in. Several years ago I didn't have any sympathy for people like me as home ownership seemed so out of reach.  Little did I know that it would seem even more insurmountable now and thank God I scrimped for two years to make the deposit back in 2006. So: can I write for a living?

Not yet, not by a long chalk.  My contributions to a website are earning me a little bit of money but apparently they're not paying other contributors so I have to keep schtum about who they are.  There's also a good story idea that I've got, complete with good case studies (curious commissioning editors, get in touch now) but I'm finding it hard to make the time to pitch it to people.  Is there a difference between an excuse and a reason?  My reason (ahem) tonight is that I spent 3 hours missing trains and cursing a prospective tenant that never showed.  Karma will do for you, French girl who works at Chelsea FC.  Never mind that your accent felt like silk on my eardrum, only being a gentleman stopped me from venting my frustration when your phone went straight to voicemail as I called to find out where the bloody hell you were.

To get back to the point, I have to take some positives from what has happened so far this year.  Though it needs a lot of work, the first draft of a novel is completed and there have been bylines both online and in print, which is a foundation to build on.  The next quandry will be about turning down freelance picture research work as the redundancy cash has all but run out.  I've learnt a lot from working with people at good titles like Marie Claire, the South London Press and Look magazine but I can't help thinking that I could have done things differently (and better).  That you have to make mistakes in order to learn is some solace.  I'm doing the thing that I always wanted to do but never got around to and when I'm doing it, I find it exciting, which is pretty much all I ever wanted out of a job.  Now all I have to do is get paid for it.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

South London MC Skandal

Collecting plaudits almost as fast as he can rhyme, 25 year old Skandal, from New Cross, is one to watch.  Airplay on both Choice and 1Extra has now led to a forthcoming mixtape called   'Hunger Pains' with DJ MK, host of Kiss FM's Hip Hop Show and regular Roots Manuva collaborator.  After twenty minutes we've talked about everything from roast dinners to political activism but he starts off by giving South London Press some props.  'It's the only paper that I will pick up because I want to know what's going on in my area.'  Skandal is South London through and through.  A Millwall fan since he was a boy, he speaks fondly about both the Old and New Den, the Pie n Mash shop in Lewisham and also about an early influence.
'Blak Twang man!  He's from Deptford and he really flew the flag for us.  Rodney P from London Posse early on too.  But when I first got into hip hop it was all about Wu Tang and De La Soul.' In terms of commercial success, the UK hasn't produced a rapper that's achieved the success of Eminem or Jay-Z but Skandal sees a positive future.
 'I think we are going to see that change in the next 5 to 10 years because the majors have now started realising that we can produce talent like Chipmunk, Tinchy and Dizzee.  They've had great success in this country.  UK artists are being embraced over there.  MIA is doing quite well, Jay Shawn, who's gone over there and done his thing so I think once the majors get behind us then the success is going to come.'

Skandal's style can sound very in your face and he's particularly virulent on the track 72 Bars (which kicks, incidentally) but he denies that the aggression in the music translates to the streets. 'I do believe music influences the youth, but not only music - that's a cop-out. We need to look closer to home.  There's a whole lot more that's affecting the streets and I would put the government, schools and parenting way above the music.' 72 Bars' is boast rap, the hip-hop tradition of putting down your peers to prove your rhyming prowess, which he sees as essentially innocuous. 'Its almost down to a playground mentality isn't it?  I'm better than you, my Dads better than your Dad.  Its a way of me holding on to my childhood and being as immature as I can for as long as possible!' he says, laughing.

Being down to earth is very much one of Skandal's qualities.  One of his videos shows him rapping on the toilet ('I was with my mates and it was just a stupid idea I had...') and he reckons that his ability to remember thousands of words for his live performances is just a case of honing his craft like any other occupation. 'Over the years I've got better at remembering my lyrics to the point where now I've finished a rhyme, its in my head.  It's like any skill, it’s like being an electrician or a plumber, its not something that comes to you overnight.  You have the ability to improve like any other man.  It'll take 3, 4 or 5 years to become competent as an electrician and its the same with the music.'  Certainly more than competent, watch out for him. 

See 'Hunger Pains' is available on, and from Itunes from 23rd November.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Beets and Limes and Waistlines

It feels like I'm getting somewhere with this writing lark - the South London Press are publishing this on Friday 13th November.  I'm superstitious in a good way now...going to start walking under ladders and stuff.  Anyway, here's the feature:

When I turn up to meet Rosie and Ellie, the force behind Salad Club, a supper club in South London, they’re not there.  ‘Sorry’ says Tom, Ellie’s tall boyfriend, looking a bit sheepish ‘They’re out getting some food.’. Of course they are.

Salad Club is one of a new breed of ‘supper clubs’ that have sprung up this year.  It’s a similar experience to visiting a restaurant, the difference being that you go to someone’s home, you don’t have a choice of what to eat and there’s no official prices, just a suggested donation of £25 which Ellie & Rosie tell me most people are happy to pay.  The two have been friends for 6 years since meeting at University and host the evening in Ellie’s front room high above Brixton market, the sounds of which are bubbling through the open window when I arrive. As we speak , they busy themselves peeling and coring apples for the dessert that evening: Tarte Tatin.

Salad Club was born out of a regular weekly meeting for an exercise class. ‘Soca aerobics it was’ recalls Rosie, ‘the most aggressive class set to carnival music, a teacher that would kill us every week and we could hardly talk or walk after, all we could muster was a salad.  But good salads – we were obviously starving afterwards.  We wanted something healthy and virtuous and we started experimenting, getting adventurous with the ingredients and to show off to each other and then we jokingly started referring to the whole experience as Salad Club and that’s where it came from.  We don’t just serve salad at Salad Club though’, she adds, emphatically.

So how did they go from meeting up for the gym and salad to inviting 16 people into Ellie’s house for 4 course dinners?  Ellie, a web Editor by day, says it was down to embracing new technology and a visit to one of the earliest pop up supper clubs as the inspiration for their own. ‘The blog was the start. Rosie and I initially used it to share with each other what we were cooking. We are both keen writers as well as Rosie being a photographer so the blog was a great place for us to put our ideas down. Rosie takes up the story, ‘Fatefully, we got some coverage for the blog in the Guardian on the same day that we went to the Secret Ingredient, a supper club in Dalston.  We thought ‘we could do this….’

The coverage came because they responded to a tweet from the Guardian on the website Twitter, asking for good breakfast recipes.  Rosie sent in a shot of asparagus wrapped in bacon for soldiers, which was printed with a link to the blog.  The supper club was started at the same time so ‘we timed the opening of the restaurant perfectly without knowing it.’ says Ellie.

The buzz about Salad Club has resulted in there now being around 400 people on the waiting list and it seems that people are happy to wait their turn. ‘Some have been on the list since June.’ Says Rosie.  Most are really happy to wait, we tell them we can take them in December or January…’

 Both Ellie and Rosie hold down full time jobs as well as doing Salad Club so how long do they think that can last? ‘The dream is to make our living from this.’ admits Ellie.  ‘Salad Club makes a small profit but if we added up our hourly rate it would be less than minimum wage.’  ‘About a pound an hour!’ Rosie says, laughing. ‘Our ideal would be cooking 1 private supper as well as 1 or 2 secret suppers or collaborations a week (more of which later).  It’s difficult to know when the best time is to stop (by which they mean quit their current jobs) and take a risk.  We feel so confidently about what we want to do and we have found something that we love doing. The time is really right with people very interested in food right now, especially home made food’.

Another attraction of running Salad Club has been the enjoyment of being in control. ‘We both feel that we have been motivated by being our own bosses.  From the beginning to the end everything is ours.’ Says Ellie.  Rosie, warming to the theme, expands on this. ‘At the moment we line the pockets of already quite wealthy men and it’s very empowering to have complete control over the finances and the food and the daily schedule, absolutely everything.’ 

Rosie also notes that the partnership serves to motivate them. ‘ If there was just one of us it would be very easy to think ‘I cant be bothered this weekend’. Everything is now planned until Christmas but Ellie has got permission to go dancing one weekend in November!’

It seems obvious to me that the natural development would be to one day run their own restaurant but they disagree. ‘The bureaucracy and red tape would take the spirit out of it.  We’re not interested in that.’ Rosie says,  ‘It’s about getting people in and feeding them.  Things will change, Ellie is not going to live here forever so the space we have is going to change but we will always do it somehow.  We’ll either make it smaller or we will go to peoples houses offering tailor made menus for private clients.’ So the future might be in catering?  Ellie screws her nose up at the word ‘When I think of caterers I always think of vol-au-vents’.  Rosie agrees. ‘We make food that people want to dig into.’  Though they might not like the word, they do concede that they like getting booked to cook for people ‘We did a group of 12 recently.  It was a surprise birthday party for this guys wife; we spent all day in his lovely kitchen.’ 

Like the unusual nature of their own enterprise they also like the thought of collaborating on other original events.  They tell me they will soon be collaborating with a furniture designer friend, which will be like visiting one of the restaurant/shop hybrids that are on the rise. ‘Not only do you eat the food, but you can buy the table it sits on, should it take your fancy.’  They’ve also thought about it themselves. ‘We’d like to get into having a ‘buyable restaurant’ where we can sell things like the crockery we use – we find a lot of interesting things at car boot sales.’ 

With so much to do I wonder if the working relationship has affected their friendship.  Do they still have a laugh? ‘Yep, we’re off for pizza in a bit, that’s always good!’ says Rosie.  Ellie thinks about it ‘I usually get really stressed late afternoon…’ And you don’t fight if you have a bit of a testing moment? Rosie dismisses the idea.  ‘We just sit down and have a beer!’  Despite the work they have to put in, it’s evident that their creation gives them a lot of joy. ‘The best bit is when everyone has left and all the plates are empty and we’re buzzing off the compliments’ Ellie says,  ‘People have left really happy and then we sit down, have a drink and stop and think about how it went and how much we liked everyone.’  Rosie nods her head. ‘At that moment we feel like we ‘ve made some really good friends.  For that moment you feel close to them.  You’ve made the food that they’ve eaten and they’ve loved it.  Much better than meeting someone in a bar…’

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Driven to Tears

Sting has long been a figure of fun for journalists, though a lot of the criticism has been mean spirited.  After all, don’t the rainforests need saving even if it takes a yoga mad millionaire tantric sex practitioner to advocate it?  The Department of Health would no doubt applaud his commitment to a healthy body and frankly whatever he gets up to within his mansion walls with Trudie is up to him.  (I’m going to have to go and do some serious web-surfing to get that image out of my head.) The Police were a great pop band but their former lead singer’s latest incarnation as a sort of wandering hairy minstrel is pretentiousness on a grand scale that is likely to invoke more mockery from journalists, starting with this one.

‘If On a Winter Night’ is his latest project, one inspired by, you guessed it, Winter, which Sting tells us (on a video promo on his website – you have to see it) ‘is the season of the imagination, of mystery and storytelling’.  There he is, wandering through the snow in a massive coat and boats with his dog, stroking his Grizzly Adams beard, looking for all the world like he’s a man weighed down by the great questions of life, before the video cuts to him singing in a candlelit room accompanied by his guitarist.  He is swathed in a chunky knit cardigan, singing a verse as if reciting a Shakespearean sonnet.  A further cut reveals the assembled musicians around a table playing 17th century compositions by Henry Purcell on harps and mandolins while candles flicker and the ghost of punk wanders noiselessly through the room, no doubt wishing it could die all over again.

The promotional tour that he’s embarked on to flog this latest work is ruthless in targeting the middle England demographic. He was on the Alan Titchmarsh show yesterday for folk’s sake.  The One Show must also have been surprised to get him, but not as surprised as the bassist he paid to accompany him on Later…Live the other night.  The salary to note ratio can only have been good, given that he only had to play three of them.  Foo Fighters started up their glorious racket over the dying notes, breaking the ethereal spell Sting had been working hard to conjure.  This surely must have been down to the time restrictions of the live show and not because Dave Grohl was as bored listening to him droning on about snow and squalls as the rest of us.

But it’s the look he’s sporting that is most irritating.  It’s as if he has grown the beard to appear more sage and (perhaps in a tantric sense) more potent.  His facial hair seems to be not so much the result of the boredom of shaving but to cement his new incarnation as philosopher.  His muse is the season, his focus pastoral.  This image is further cemented by his new found love for a certain style of cardigan – the sort of thing an out of touch Aunt would give you for Christmas. It’s unlikely, even given his 58 years, that he is starting to feel the cold; too many yogic breathing exercises at hand to warm the body.   All the plaid and wool seems intended to say, I am a simple man at heart, I wander the country and am moved to sing of the glories of nature. It’ll be hairshirts next. Sure he’s aging and his changing interests are bound to result in new musical directions. The irony is he seemed so much less ridiculous when he was singing about prostitutes and walking on the moon.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Rustle Brands

One of the legacies of my University education was a pretty appalling memory, more down to my extra-curricular activities than cramming lots of facts into my brain. A trip to the Museum of Brands was therefore refreshing, given the amount of 'Oh yeah, I remember those!' moments it triggered. Weirder recollections from somewhere back in my psyche included remembering that 'Imperial Leather' was my Dad's brand of talcum powder and incidentally, who uses that anymore? The man behind the collection is Robert Opie who must have been a nightmare to live with; in 1963, aged 16, he starting collecting and is now reckoned to have more than half a million items, 12,000 of which are here. You can just imagine the trips to Ikea for more storage can't you? Walking through the time tunnel, you can find everything from cans of Mock Turtle Soup (made from calves brains, head and feet to duplicate the texture of turtle meat apparently) to pre-kid Milky Bars. Sections are split into decades and the displays are densely packed to the point of being overwhelming but if there are some black holes in your history then a visit here might help fill in the blanks.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Boozing in the Corridors of Power

I went for a drink at the Houses of Parliament last night. To get into the Palace of Westminster you go through a security check at Portcullis House opposite and then you go back under the road and into the Houses. It'd be a great place for a game of Hide and Seek; there are 1100 rooms, 100 staircases and 3 miles of corridors.  A friend who works there had invited me and she told me a couple of stories about getting lost in its labyrinthine layout.  As we looked about we speculated about secret passageways that surely must exist in there. It only adds to the air of intrigue about the whole place. Firstly, the amount of security makes you feel important as you walk around. The place is crawling with coppers. Secondly, to state the bleeding obvious, the people in this building govern everything that we do.  I know they work for us but often it feels like we have to do what they tell us to do, which brings me to the third point: it feels a bit like school. The older boys are condescending to the younger ones and have more privileges apparently. It's almost like a caste system. The colour and design of your security pass determines the access that you have and this includes the bars. Even in the canteen there is a section that is reserved for those with real clout (the Lords presumably). I guess they don't want to have to mix with the researchers, cooks and cleaners that have to be there so that the machine runs effectively.

We had access to the Strangers Bar. It was only as recently as 1994 that a modernisation committee recommended that visitors were no longer referred to as 'strangers'. The bar was like a small pub from the 70's with a few water-colours and caricatures dotted around the walls.  It felt like people should be smoking in there. There were two TV screens: one showing Sky Sports and the other informing imbibers who was currently speaking in the House and which bill they were proposing should anyone having a drink want to dash back to the chamber and cast their vote. Outside the bar was the terrace that you can see from the other side of the Thames with the green and white striped marquees that seem so at odds with the majestic exterior. We tried it for a while before the rain started and it felt really surreal having a Guinness right by those famous walls that are forever illuminated by orange lighting. Strangely, it made me think of the time that FHM projected a naked Gail Porter onto the side.

Disappointingly I didn't spot any brown envelopes bursting with £50 notes being passed between people surreptitiously in the bar.  Pleasingly though, there were a few old duffers drinking pints of bitter, one of whom looked a bit like Rupert Murdoch, but his suit wasn't up to much so it probably wasn't him.  The Strangers Bar seemed very much the right environment for them to be in.  It was only after we'd left that my drinking companion asked me if I had recognised the bloke sitting to my right.  Finally, the whiff of scandal that I'd hoped for.  It was Elliott Morley, who is probably going to be the first MP to face police investigation into his expenses claims for a mortgage that he'd already paid off.  He put it down to a 'genuine mistake' but was suspended by Labour at the time and won't be standing next time round. Despite paying back the £16000 he mistakenly put through expenses, he still had enough for a drink.  Which is nice.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Feedback from the Guardian

The best thing about this was getting constructive feedback.  I'm here to learn.

Hi Rosie

I called yesterday to see if you needed a review of Spiritualized at 
the RFH and you told me you had commissioned one.  I thought your 
review was pretty good but mine was at least as good.  Its here;

I'd be interested to see what you think and please think of me should 
you need anything else reviewed.


Lee Mannion

Hi Lee,

Have to say your email did the trick in getting my attention, as stating that your own review is just as good as Maddy's is quite bold. And If I'm honest, not true.

Maddy's opening lines very succinctly capture exactly what is so special about Ladies and Gentlemen, which in itself sets the reader up to understand why this gig is extraordinary. She is able to capture the pros and cons of the evening in one paragraph, before delivering her final verdict.

I think your review is far too descriptive and too long. Instead of explaining why, you simply state that it is a special occasion and leave mention of the album till paragraph two. You need to work on your tenses "so there would be no room for anything less than perfection when it came to hearing this one live. If Jason felt the weight of expectation, he didn’t show it." And you need to trim the fat. You make plenty of valid points but not all of them are interesting. Judging by your final paragraph, both you and Maddy seemed to have been left with the same impression of the show. I like the personal touch you give the review, but then Maddy wouldn't be able to use "I" in her piece.

I like the title of your blog a lot, what a great idea. I thought the bit about Samantha in your Sex in the City post was very funny, and I'm sorry to hear your bank is being such a bastard.

Hope my criticism doesn't offend you, the first rule of trying to be a writer is that it takes a lot of practice and a lot of constructive criticism to get good.

all the best, Rosie

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Spiritualized Royal Festival Hall 12/10/09

Going to see Jason Spaceman put together a faithful rendition of the rich tapestry that was this 1997 NME album of the year feels like a rare and special occasion. Albums are usually judged on their merit as a wholly satisfying experience (with no fillers), so there would be no room for anything less than perfection when it came to hearing this one live. If Jason felt the weight of expectation, he didn’t show it. Often during the show it seemed as if he were more part of the audience than the band, looking on and listening, hearing the rich, all-encompassing glory of it as performed by 33 musicians and singers. You can hardly blame him. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that you can ask a few musician mates to come over and bash out. No wonder then that at times he looked like he was trying to concrete every minute of it into his memory. He also looked curious to see how it would all pan out.

What made both the original album and this performance great is that they feel like a very complete experience. Lyrically, despair and elation are simply and pointedly described (‘love the way you smile, stay with me’); musically there are moments of translucent beauty and tortuous pain. ‘Electricity’ in particular, always something that exudes velocity and fight when played live, was accompanied by such a barrage of strobes and white noise that at one point I was convinced that I could hear the screams of devils in amongst the myriad layers of sound. It felt like a horribly delicious sort of madness. If that was a masochistic kind of aural hell, tracks like ‘Broken Heart’ were heavenly; emotional and touching, made spiritual by the glorious voices of members of the gospel choir who, clad in white robes, even appeared like angels.

If on each track there were moments where one section of the ensemble felt particularly skilful and virile (rendering others redundant), they played gloriously together on the final track before the encore, ‘Cop Shoot Cop’. A 17 minute long, swampy, trance like bluesy number on the album, the string section initially lulled us, the horns then kicked in with unannounced body blows and the choir shone a light out of the darkness that Jason’s regular band members had concocted from feedback and screech. Perhaps with a nod to his own pharmaceutical indulgences in an effort to ease the pain of a relationship break-up at the time of release, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen…’ was packaged like medication with the instruction ‘Spiritualized is used to treat the heart and soul’. It’s not really like going to see any other band; when the music stopped, it felt a little like you’d been transported somewhere, that you’d gone on a bit of a journey and come out the other end reborn. Which I think is exactly how Jason would like it.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

First Byline

Sunday 11th October; that's the date I got my first byline.  Click the title of this blog above ('First Byline') to have a look. My delight at finally getting one and being published is tempered by the fact that I think what I submitted is actually better than what ended up on the site.  This is probably a common complaint for writers though I think - I remember a lot of argument and bitching between subs and writers about what should and shouldn't go in when I was working at the Mail on Sunday.  In this case the bloke who edited the copy has more than ten years experience so I have to presume that he knows better than me.

Anyway, its a good start to a sunny Sunday.  And there's still Sunday lunch in a pub in North London at the The Old Queens Head in Essex Road to come later on.  A good friend of mine is sensibly avoiding the English winter by jetting off to Africa. There's always a twinge of envy when people I know do this, given that its been me doing it in the past.

Lastly, really good meeting yesterday with the ladies of the Salad Club, a pop up restaurant in Brixton. Once I've transcribed it, I'll post it here in the next few days.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Park Life

What to do with that lunch hour? Hammer down a treadmill in the gym? A quick squiz at the newspaper and a sandwich at your desk with one eye on Facebook? Forget it; you're better off taking a break and relaxing by getting yourself down to Mint St Park. If the sun’s out you can park your bum on the terrace and watch the world go by; if its not so warm you can have a stroll around, let your nose enjoy the scented garden and set your eyes on the crazy acid house mural you'll find on one wall. You can even shoot some hoops if you’re feeling energetic. This part of London is building heavy so any bit of green can be a bit of a godsend. Once the site of a children's hospital for over a 100 years, the space is still a boon to the local community with local residents and volunteers from the nearby St Mungo's homeless hostel helping keep the park pleasant for the public. Do yourself a favour; get away from your PC or Mac and go and find it. It's a little gem.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Insurance - An idea that prays on insecurity

Before I got made unemployed in April I took out a loan to purchase the freehold on my property. At the time I thought it prudent to get insurance on the loan as recession and unemployment were forecast. Well, whaddya know? I got made unemployed and Lloyds refused to pay out, citing a clause that if I was 'notified of' unemployment within 30 days of taking out the policy all bets were off. I argued that I was notified of only a 'period of consultation'; notice of unemployment would only come at the end of that period. So far, so boring. We have been back and forth since May and in the end the mundanity of it wore me down. I hope the following amuses; its the letter that I wrote to Lloyds cancelling the insurance. Maybe its petty, but it made me feel good. The suit on the left is Lloyds Group Chief Exec Eric Daniels, who claimed this year that his million pound wage was 'a modest salary' to the Treasury Select Committee.

Dear Ms Horton

Thank you for your letter dated 15th September.

I took loan protection insurance out with you as it seemed the sensible option given that the media was full of stories of financial meltdown, mass redundancies and general impending doom. Frankly, we could argue all day long about what constitutes being ‘notified of employment’. I still hold the view that I was initially notified about a period of consultation, not unemployment, but I’m sure that Lloyds lawyers are very good, diligent and expensive. Frankly I can’t be bothered to enter into what would undoubtedly be a very prolonged and boring fight which the massive organisation you work for would inevitably win.

It seems far more sensible to just cancel my insurance with you, which I’m notifying you of forthwith. It is much more satisfying to think that I wont be paying you around £2000 for the pleasure of you finding a clause in the terms and conditions that stops me from enjoying the benefits of the insurance should anything else go wrong.

Yours disillusioned,

Lee Mannion

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Eating Sea Urchins on the Greek island of Milos

Spike Island

I’d never even seen a spiky sea urchin before, much less eaten one. How would something that looks armed against being eaten taste and more importantly, which bit do you eat? These thoughts occupied me as I watched them slowly moving around inside a plastic bag, pulsing their spikes looking like they were fidgeting to get comfortable. They’d been prised off the seabed by our host Andreas whilst snorkelling during a boat trip off the north coast of the Greek island of Milos. Andreas fitted the cliche of a Greek man I’d assumed existed ever since Shirley Valentine came out. He steered his kaiki (a traditional greek fishing boat), named Perseas, into Pollonia bay to pick us up and hopped onto the quayside clad only in a pair of shorts sporting a deep tan, eyes as clear and blue as the water he would later take us to and exuding a welcoming and relaxed nature. As he steered away from the harbour to show us some of the geological wonders of the smaller neighbouring island of Kimolos, an almost meditative contentment emanated from him. Our journey took us past weird sights; volcanically formed rock cliffs streaked through with rusted iron reds and sulphuric yellows. Lots of money is made by the mining companies who extract the minerals from Milos and the thermal heat from this former volcano still warms some parts of the sea on the south coast; there’s even a restaurant at the resort of Paleohori that cooks its food by burying it in the sand.

Milos is part of the Cyclades group of islands and lies 100 miles away from the massive port of Piraeus in Athens. We’d arrived a day previously by ferry into the handsome port of Adamas but elected to escape North to the quieter town of Pollonia, 12 km away. There’s a cute little beach, lots of cats and a high street that probably numbers a dozen establishments; a small supermarket, a good bakers, a car hire place and several restaurants. If you can hear a bell ringing somewhere about Milos as you read this, its because the Venus de Milo was found here on the island in 1820, swiped by the French and then stuck in the Louvre. The easy-going nature of the Greek islanders may have had something to do with the loss. One can imagine them shrugging their shoulders as if to say ‘If they want it that much, let them have it.’ Whilst there I certainly felt my shoulders drop an inch or two and my usual London operating pace slow up satisfyingly.

Our stop for lunch on the boat trip was at the kind of beach idyllic because of its isolation, hidden by the cliffs until we were about 100 metres away. The only other life we saw during our 2 hour stop was a couple of disinterested goats, who plodded past us away up into the hills as if in a trance. Once Perseas had been anchored in the bay, our group of 10 all launched ourselves whooping into the aquamarine water, the clarity of which was startling. Meanwhile Andreas pootled to the beach in a dinghy loaded up with the grub and set about getting the barbecue going in his capable way. While the marinated pork steaks were sizzling he donned his snorkelling mask, crossed himself 3 times for good hunting luck and went under the water, plastic carrier bag and serious looking knife in hand.

Coming back ashore, he’d also found some moss to surround the urchins with to keep them wet and alive, the idea being I suppose that fresh is best. Once we’d dusted off the meat and washed it down with some wine, Andreas set to work opening them up. Though some people use gloves to hold them whilst doing this and travel guides warn of the dangers of stepping on them and getting the spines stuck in your feet, Andreas (in his manliness) seemed unbothered by gripping them as he stuck the knife in. My girlfriend asked him if it hurt, to which he replied cryptically, ‘This is my hand for this.’ with a shrug of his shoulders. Once the urchin was open and the sea water tipped out, the orange insides were given a quick squirt of lemon and scraped away from the shell with bread. It’s a bit like eating a very good salty fish paste and it tastes good, if you can forget that you’re eating their ovaries. Poor little urchins.

With full bellies and the gentle bobbing of the boat as we headed back to Pollonia, it was easy to give in to the temptation of a snooze as the light on the day faded. After being dropped off at the quay at sunset, we fell into a taverna and idled a couple of hours away getting acquainted with Metaxa, waiting until it felt like the right time to eat (Greeks eat late, from 9.30pm onwards for supper). By the time it came around, we needed the food to soak up some of the booze and a few sardines, a hunk of bread and a Greek salad later, we took a slow stroll back to our lodging, and bed.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Go Large

If the script-writers of the new Sex and the City 2 film are short of ways in which to have Samantha push new sexual boundaries, they could always have her opt to get her G Spot enlarged during her lunch hour. It puts my usual lunchtime practice of hopefully discovering a new sandwich at Pret firmly in the shade. Paris Aesthetics, just off Park Ave in Manhattan, is currently offering the service with the assurance that no recovery time is necessary and that you can resume normal sexual activity after 4 hours. Because you’re going to want to try it out as soon as you can, right? Given that the larger medical community continues to disagree over the Grafenburg spot, to give it its full name, this seems nothing short of miraculous.

Most interestingly in their description of the service on their website, before it gets enlarged, ‘the doctor will locate your G-spot’. Samantha Jones would surely see this as an unintended bonus and it would seem that Paris Aesthetics is missing a trick here. Wouldn’t a service for couples that claims to identify this mystical and magical patch be a sure fire winner? We can only hope that some enterprising entrepreneur gets hold of the technology and pitches the idea on Dragons Den. Then we’d see just how far Deborah Meaden really can raise those eyebrows.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Will Gray Interview

As I'm trying to write for a living I thought it made sense to talk to someone who does so here's an interview with Will Gray. He writes across several genres (Sports, Travel, Technical, Lifestyle) for publications such as The Independent, FHM and Eurosport. To see Will's work and read some of his features go to

Did you do a journalism degree or related qualification?

No I didn’t. I did write for the University newspaper but I was doing a degree in aeronautical engineering for 4 years. At school I never knew which way to go, it was either going to be engineering or journalism, eventually deciding on the former. From ‘A’ levels and from University you can get a good knowledge of engineering and technical stuff and then write about it. That’s far easier than getting a good qualification in journalism and then trying to understand the technical side to write about it.

When you qualified which field did you initially go into?

Whilst I was at University I was working for Jordan GP in their aerodynamics dept and then realised that engineering wasn’t for me. Working for Jordan was a work placement as part of thhe degree, 10 weeks a year over 3 years. I enjoyed writing too much and enjoyed the interaction with people as a journalist more than we were getting as engineers. As an engineer I was going into the office in the morning, sitting in front of a computer, then going home at night having hardly spoken to anyone. I preferred getting out and meeting people. The good thing about journalism is it gives you a whole different variety of aspects to look at whereas with Jordan for example, we were focusing wholly on making that car that we had a little bit faster. As a journalist writing technically about F1 there’s a much bigger spectrum of things to write about, investigate and learn about which I find more interesting.

How did you make the jump into journalism full time?

For a nominal sum I started writing for a website. The sum was good for a University student at the time. I was at a good point with my degree because I would have had to do pretty terribly to get anywhere near to failing. So I could cruise the year to some extent and had more time to do writing. I did a 32 part series, (each part being 1000 words) on every technical aspect of an F1 car you could get. It was for which ultimately merged with, now one of the biggest motor-sport sites.

Did you write it or pitch it first?

Pitched the idea. I couldn’t have written that just for fun! It took a whole University holiday period researching and understanding bits that weren’t my specialist area. I pitched it, they liked it, we agreed on a fee and then we went forward. I was very fortunate. It’s not easy to get that opportunity. I was also writing to a bunch of different magazines and websites to see if they wanted specific technical writing. And I got another one which was for a magazine called F1 Sport International which lasted for a few years and I ended up being Deputy Editor there whilst I was still at University. Really it was because I offered something different (the technical angle) that made me stand out from all the hundreds and thousands of others that wanted to write about F1 and enabled me to get in there. That’s the thing that’s key, to have a unique selling point.

You mentioned that you were fortunate; do you think luck played a part?

I always think luck plays a part in everything but you make your own luck. If you don’t get out there you don’t get the chance to get that luck that might turn it for you. I got my placement at Jordan by getting out there and handing my CV to everyone in F1 paddocks and eventually got interviews with 2 of the team technical directors and got in that way. I was lucky to be there but once I was there I made the most of the opportunity.

You write for many different publications now. How did you expand your contacts list and start freelancing?

I started off with a journalist agency called Collings Sport which already had a bunch of contacts. The agency worked for every UK national. Once you have been published by some well known publications, commissioning Editors can see your experience and give you a chance. I got into travel firstly with Real Travel. They’d just launched and were looking for writers. I wrote to the right people and rang them up and got my first piece in there. I then went to Travel Weekly and said I write for Real Travel. They understood that I wrote for a magazine that was relatively selective and gave me a chance. When I pitch now I'm able to say that I have written for some well known publications. I’ve written for most of the nationals but haven’t written for them all for travel. But by being published you have proved that you can write to their style and the Editors liked you and then you have a stepping stone into the other sections.

Have you been affected by the credit crunch?

I had been working in a PR company for two years for Ford on UEFA Champions League Football Sponsorhip Activation and Land Rover on the G4 challenge adventure race. Both of those budgets got cut so I left in January. I rang up a few publications at that time and several told me that they had stopped taking any commissions from outside. A staffer I knew at the Times had been taken down from 4 days a week to 2 days a week. Straight away if a company does that they will feel obligated to put some work the way of that person if a story needs to be written. So yes there’s no question that reduced staffing levels and budget cuts have had an effect for freelancers. Magazines are trying to reduce their freelance rates but if freelance journalists stand up and say no then it will help.

What advice would you give someone who was trying to get into journalism or trying to become a writer now?

If we take travel journalism as an example its hard to stand out. Look at the way TV has gone. Five years ago Discovery would put on an extreme volcano programme, for example. Now everyone has seen something like that so they’re constantly trying to invent, get wilder and wilder. I went storm chasing in May and they’re constantly thinking of more and more dramatic storylines that can keep the viewers enticed. It’s the same thing with writing. When a big pool of writers exists you have to think differently and come up with unique angles to familiar subjects. There will always be a story on say, France or Chile in a travel section but its only if you can come up with something original that you’re onto a winner. Once you have that one commission with a decent title it will help to get published by the next one.

Last question: do you still enjoy it?

I love it. I did two years in PR and its not dissimilar to journalism, you’re just sitting on the other side. To my mind, PR needs a journalist’s knowledge to work, you need to know what journalists want. Coming back to journalism I’ve now got more variety in my work than I had when I was last a journalist because of the different things I’m specialising in. Its reminded me how much I love sitting down and writing a piece. There’s nothing more enjoyable than sitting down at the start of a day with a blank page and finish the day with something you’ve spent a while composing but you’re happy with and its going to give people enjoyment when they read it.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Hungover on a sunny day

The BBC says it might hit 30 degrees today.  Just time to keep my hand in with this blog before going out into the sunshine.  I'm meeting a mate in Kensington Gardens for lunch before heading over to the Daily Express building for a quick meeting with the Deputy Travel Editor Duncan Craig.  I met Duncan last year in an airship of all things.  At the time Stella Artois were taking journalists for flights over London in the hope that readers would want to travel out to Essex and take the flight themselves.

I've been pitching a trip to Bruges around with no luck.  Peter Carty let us know on our travel workshop that we would have to start at the bottom but the PR that invited me requires a solid promise of editorial content.  I'm lucky that Emma at Grifco PR seems to want to help me out and seems to be very much on my side.  There's a press day tomorrow so I'll be going along to that and trying to make as many contacts as I can.  It can get disheartening when people are not responding to your pitch but I cant really fall at the first hurdle now can I?

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Travel Writing Workshop

Saturday at the Indian YMCA in Fitzroy Square at a travel writing workshop with Peter Carty, a freelance travel writer. I went more out of curiosity than an obsessive desire to be a travel writer and Peter revealed the path in a very orderly and knowledgeable fashion. For me the fun part was the challenges he set us. After his words on 'avoiding cliches' he asked us to write a description of a sunset/sunrise or view, scenes which often lead writers to trot out the same tired old phrases. Later, he challenged us to go and find a travel story at lunchtime that would fit on two sides of a blank postcard. Lastly, after we'd dissected a few pitches, we each had to write a pitch and have an 'editorial meeting' in small groups to select the one we wanted to commission. I hadn't been asked to produce writing at short notice and I enjoyed it because I felt that I could do it. It felt good to be equal to a challenge.

One of the things he spoke about was Commissioning Editors only replying to pitches they are interested in. Up until now (and documented on here) I have been taking offence at any non-reply, feeling that even a very busy person had time to write 'Not for me but thanks for your submission.' Peter pointed out that, as a Travel Editor, he would often receive up to 200 emails a day on top of the work he had to do and simply did not have the time to reply to everyone. It was the same when I was a Picture Editor when portfolios became electronic. Most portrait photographers can light and shoot a picture; the ones that stood out had a certain style or good ideas for the shot. I would receive plenty of punts, complete with the photographers website address, but would only get back to the very few whose talent stood out.

I took offence this week at the Travel Editor for Wallpaper, Sara Henrichs. My pitch was about a resort in St Lucia that was architecturally very interesting that had been passed onto her by Jonathan Bell, who is the very polite and friendly Architecture Editor. Her reply to the pitch was 'We won’t have space until Dec issue and I fear it will be too late by then sorry'. I checked with the PR if the Caribbean had a 'season' as such, who confirmed that its pretty much year round sunshine and particularly popular around Christmas. I replied to Sara pointing this out, got no reply so assumed it wasn't for her and asked for feedback if she had 5 or 10 minutes. In reply I got 'Sorry Lee I already told you that we won’t be able to run'. This felt a bit condescending. However, having experienced Peter's workshop yesterday, and given the brevity of the reply, I finally get it. It still feels like a bit of a smack in the face but I've got to learn not to take these rejections personally. As Peter said, with a bit of a wry smile on his face, 'Every rejection is one step more towards success.'

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

In the Thirties

Its hot in the library today. Its an old one on Ladbroke Grove and air conditioning is the last thing that would suit it. Instead the windows are open and the roar of traffic passing down the Grove is the background to my blogging, along with the whoops and screams of the kids in the school next door. They're probably going mad because of the sun and the heat. Hopefully we're in for a cracker of a summer if the weather right now is anything to go by. Its the first one for years when I havent been trapped in an office wishing I was outside so I'm hoping so. Instead I have to find the discipline to get some writing done in this library...

Last week I was at Marie Claire doing my old job of picture researching. I did this mostly to help my friend Sian out (who is the Photo Director there) but also because I wanted to break up my routine as I was getting bored of it. The money will also come in handy of course. I feel guilty complaining about the thing I always wanted, which was the freedom to write what I want, but the fact is that I was getting stale coming to the library in the morning and chasing up writing leads in the afternoon. Going to IPC was good for making a good contact on the features desk and making me remember that working on a picture desk, as lovely as it was there, is not ultimately what I want to do. Breaking up my routine also seems to be good for my writing if today is anything to go by. I've gotten into the habit of naming names of good contacts. Two you should know about on the features desk at Marie Claire:

ellie_o' (Acting Features Director)

The week before that I met up with a lovely woman called Emma Powell who is a travel PR. I confessed to Emma that I was new to the game and we talked through some ideas. Now I just have to put the work in. She's given me a stack of press releases that I need to get through and then come up with some ideas about how to market them. All I need to do now is not be tempted by the sun and get on with it!

Friday, 12 June 2009

John and Struan and David

'It's not what you know, it's who you know' is often repeated in media. Though there are many talented people out there, a lot of work often comes through good relationships. For example, I didn't expect to get a lead when I popped out to get some paint for the walls of my flat last Saturday. A former colleague had told me that he was often in the Prince Bonaparte on Chepstow Road and following a wave from Struan through the window, the only decent thing to do seemed to be to stop for a beer. He's engaging company so 1 pint stretched to 2 and a few stories about how he got into the business. Struan advised me to stroll into John Brown Publishing and ask to see David Roberts. Once I found out he was Editor in Chief, I thought I should ring first. The temp on reception wasn't sure who he was or if he was in so I was put through to the Chief Executive Andrew Hirsch. He was good enough to forward on my mail to David.

I know people who have bluffed their way into a job but I'm hopeless at lying. Besides, Struan had advised to be straight with him and I'm glad that I was. I wrote telling him that I'd worked on picture desks but was now trying to develop a new skill as a writer, that this was my first step and that I could work for free for the time being. Given that I'm getting used to chasing people up for responses I was surprised he replied but he did, offering to circulate my details to Editors at his company. He also advised that 'free and willing are two good places to be starting from' which I hope proves to be true.

This positive experience, where the people concerned actually gave me the time of day even though they are obviously important and busy contrasted strongly with the one I had from Christine Walker, the Editor of The Sunday Times travel section. Its hard to know what is going on with people you have never met before; they could be very busy, very unhappy or just having a bad day. When I phoned her to chase her up for a response to my email, she sounded uninterested, dismissive and patronising. She might be a very lovely person, but she sounded as if she wondered why she was even bothering to talk to me and couldn't wait to get me off the phone. Unlike David above, there were no suggestions of where to go next, no encouragement, just a a brick wall coming down. I felt like Joseph trying to find Mary a place to give birth in. There was very definitely no room at the inn. Maybe my naivety irritated her, who knows?

Thursday, 4 June 2009


OK, time to name some more of the good guys. Two more replies, but unfortunately two more rejections. However, the 'at least they got back to me' awards go to Lydia Williams, who writes for The Resident, Grove and NW ( and secondly Liz Hunt, who writes for The Telegraph ( It is disheartening getting rejections so to try and put off the blues that potentially come with this I've told myself that I'm going to wait until I have had one hundred rejections before I let them get me down. Some target! I'll keep you posted (here) to let you know if that works.

I feel like I'm doing as much work as I did when I was employed, the only difference is that I actually get up and look forward to the day now. The morning is spent working on a book I'm trying to write and that will usually last 2 or 3 hours depending how the inspiration is flowing. After that I break to eat and then the afternoon (and sometimes the evening) is spent trying to work up the contacts book and writing up ideas for features. In some ways its better being away from an office, in other ways not. Breaks were difficult at Live Magazine due to the relentless work flow and also because you were looked upon as a slacker if you disappeared for ten minutes. Now that I'm my own boss I can go for a walk, or a run, or a bike ride whenever I want and I like the freedom of that. Breaking from the screen also makes me work better I think. Thats fine when its the summer; wonder if I'll still be thinking the same thing in December?

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Post Bank Holiday Tap Ups

The sun hits our living room around 7pm showing up how dirty the windows are. Rain was lashing down on them through the night and this morning and you'd think this would clean 'em up but not in London. City rain is so skanky. Martin Deeson, who writes for GQ among other notables, posted on Facebook today that he was wondering where all the freelance work had gone so things must be bad. Those still in possession of a staff job must be wondering if its their turn next, something I don't have to worry about anymore.

I'm hitting up everyone I know in search of a lead for work while sitting on our couch in the evening sunshine. My sister in law's sister (is there a term for that relation?) has got a 4 month contract on the BBC news channel and I've asked her if she can ask around. Even people that I've been in the same room as, but haven't actually met; I'm wondering if they can help me out. For example, a guy called John Beach. A sunny Bank Holiday Sunday meant that our neighbourhood was still lively at dusk over the weekend and, well, you have to join in when you can hear the laughter coming in your window. We headed up Portobello and followed a crowd to what was 'Neighbourhood' under the westway where we surprised to find lovely lady called Chloe instead of the usual door Nazis. She let us in gratis even though our names weren't down. A free party in a club in West London? I don't know how he did it in these lean times but I wrote to John to say thank you and let him know about this blog just in case he knew of anyone. Is that mercenary? I don't know. If it lead to anything I'd definitely feel like I owed him one and would try and help him out in return. His night is called Electric Santa and worth checking out, though from what I can tell its sporadic.

One honourable mention before I go. In the last post I was bitching about people making excuses not to get back to me. Vicky Frost at the Guardian did. It was a 'no' but it was still good to get any reply at all. Thanks Vicky.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Chasing for answers

When I was a Photo Editor, I used to regularly get emails from lots of people wanting work. Because of the sheer number I would only reply if one of them really struck me. Some photographers, agencies and PRs would follow their emails up with phone calls to check I'd seen it, at which point I'd scroll through my inbox, wondering if I'd deleted it. At any one point, even with deleting about 100 a day, I regularly kept around 1500 emails in my inbox.

Now I'm on the other side of the fence. I've submitted something to both the Guardian and the Telegraph and its me who is having to do the chasing for answers. I was having a meeting with Kysha from today and we were discussing how you could tell who the people were that wouldn't call you back. 'I'll give you a call next week.' 'I just need to have a meeting with my Editor and I'll let you know then.' 'I'm sorry I'm right in the middle of something can I call you back?'. I'm getting very familiar with all these phrases.

To name one of the good guys (yes I know she's a woman) has been very helpful. I've written something about the irony of learning to love photography again after getting made redundant from my job as Deputy Photo Editor. Kate runs the photography blog for the Telegraph and has returned emails and forwarded on my work to other departments and then given me the names of the people to chase. For that I'm very grateful. I got hold of Kate through an old friend called Martin Beckford who has been doing the good work of exposing the MPs who have been fiddling their expenses. Here's one of his stories with one of my favourite headlines.

Knowing Martin got me to Kate which might lead somewhere; it proves that its often who you know that counts. Its bank holiday weekend and Portobello pubs are already starting to hum. I've got a mate coming in to town from Bristol and we're heading to All Star Lanes. See you on the other side.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Reason for this Blog's existence

Here's what happened. About 10 years ago I decided that I would quite like to write for a living. I fluked a job working for a magazine on the photo desk and thought that was a way in; that once I was there I would be able to switch roles. What happened was that after learning the ropes on the photo desk for a year my boss left and they asked me to take her job as Photo Editor. Given that I was working for a 'Gentleman's Lifestyle' magazine this meant doing shoots with girls mostly in either underwear or bikinis and also the occasional famous person. And more money to boot. I was 27 years old and quickly forgot about writing for a living as, to be honest, I was having too much fun. Three years later I was bored of it so I quit and went travelling for a year. On my return to the UK I started freelancing as a picture researcher and after about a year I ended up getting a staff job at the Mail on Sunday. You're probably starting to realise that I seem to end up working for titles with very dubious ethics. The silver lining to all this is that, when I got made unemployed at the end of April, I got some cash to tide me over. So for the next few months I've decided I'm going to give writing for a living a good go. Join me for the ups and the downs. Hopefully there'll be more of the former and not so much of the latter. And feel free to offer advice along the way. I'm new to this remember.