Wandering muse

As I walked down to Brick Lane with my portfolio on my back, heavy with words and responsibilities. I arrived at the Kahalia Cafe and made eyes with a wandering muse. Sitting underneath the skylight with her laptop, I remembered writing about her in 2012, how she sang so beautifully alongside a bearded minstrel in London Fields.

She became a passing bohemian fancy of mine back then, with her rose petal clippings and strung bow guitar. I’ve noticed her sing a few times in local flower markets, and looking back what made her so attractive was the serene purity of her voice.

After spotting her in the coffee shop, I recalled watching her at Broadway Market with her cello partner one lazy autumnal morning. There was something tangible in the air that day, the weight and tenderness of her voice was beautifully controlled.

Her spirit was free and she appeared (maybe somewhat naively) to live an innately gifted life, one far removed from the bearded entrepreneurs and fat posh mummies sitting next to me. Someone free from the ugly necessities and masks we must wear just to survive.

Alas, I kept on tapping away in the distance, knowing that someone – someone wonderfully talented can survive and prosper by making beautiful things.

London Ziferblat

Ziferblat Clocks

Having lived in East London for six years, I can’t think of a more vivid and evocative snapshot of millennial life than Ziferblat. In this utopian Shoreditch cafe everything is free apart from time. De-consuming is the future and there is no better place to start than a reclaimed flat in Old Street.

You can bring your own sandwiches or last night’s pasta, enter the kitchen and drink unlimited cups of tea or coffee. The Russian coffeehouse has a rickety old piano, chess set and bookshelves full of donated literature. It’s a place for sharing just like you do online.

Costing only 5p a minute, £3.00 an hour, you receive a miniature clock on arrival and fill your name and time on a card. Essentially it’s a local community centre where people come to chat, make friends and pass away a lazy Sunday IRL.

Ziferblat

With its flowery wallpaper and random assortment of 20th century chairs, Ziferblat is like a romantic cousin of the sixties. Did twentysomethings in the 1960s hanker for bygone eras too? Or did they live in the glorious present like the startup man wired into his Macbook Pro sitting next to me.  

Skinny with a meticulously trimmed beard and slim-fit cream jumper, the angry freelancer clearly means business. I do my best not to disturb him even though I needn’t worry. His headphones are proving so absorbing I barely register a wink of indignation.

The bearded entrepreneur is writing about music’s future on Google Drive. Everyone else around me is listening to the vinyl crackle of Neil Young. He looks incongruously focused, but he captures the essence of Shoreditch’s business drive.

For all its charm and utopian spirit don’t expect to find anything new at this co-working place. It’s the twenty-first century and everything has been done already. What you should be asking is whether Ziferblat is more rewarding than what has gone on before?

I can spend hours here and unlike in Starbucks, you end striking up conversations with people sitting next to you. It’s the living room I cannot afford to have.

Ziferblat Winter

Living in a glorified world of connectivity, the pay-for-your-time movement is an opportunity to join a new world order. We must stop buying things we don’t need. And remember you have a right to be here, but at some point you must leave.

Just make sure you stay long enough to have a good time.

Ziferblat London
388 Old Street,
London,
E1 6JE

Paradise City

The slippery side streets of Soho have entertained the capital’s residents for centuries and it remains one of the most seductive landmarks in Central London. Renowned for its trashy lingerie, drug dens and peep shows, the unofficial red light district is a honey pot of illegal activities. Despite frequent attempts to clean up its image in advance of the 2012 Olympics, the back alleyways of London’s West End retain a downtrodden appeal.

Blue tooth messages are sent to visitors walking past illegal brothels, and friendly Russian gangsters are fond of marching their customers to nearby cash points for bonuses. These are obviously not the type of establishments you check in on Facebook but anyone who goes for a “massage” at 5am probably does get what they deserve.

Although to dismiss Soho as a magnet for illegal vices would be extremely misleading. For while some men wander in search of foreplay with their trousers on, Soho is also home to some of the finest restaurants and bars in London. The relationship between sex and food is the belief that one tends to lead to another, irrespective of which comes first.

Soho luckily provides both in abundance and anyone caught stumbling along say Green Court will realise that Yalla Yalla is one of the finest cheap eats in London. The Beirut food court is notoriously difficult to find but one of the attractions of eating out in Soho is that you get lost every time and nothing ever feels the same.

Attending restaurants in Soho is a bit like going to the theatre, where customers find themselves auditioning to play the lead role in a make believe world. Foreign themed restaurants are fond of describing themselves as ‘authentic’ but the word is misleading. A murky back alleyway in Soho is nowhere near the Middle East and while the rural taste of Lebanon at Yalla Yalla has never been in doubt. There is nothing remotely authentic about Soho.

Whether its old men drinking in 1940s pubs, PR darlings sipping cappuccinos or film journalists scribbling inside darkened rooms; the Soho peep show continues to entrance and deceive its audience. Constantly on the run and never dull, the side streets are awash with sexual favours and androgynous ecstasy. Soho meanwhile remains as slippery as ever and will put on magic shows for its audiences longer after 2012. Whether the law authorities will continue to permit such activities remains to be seen.

Under the Bridge

After living in East London for three years, I am very familiar with its urban grime, Vietnamese restaurants and crime statistics. Undeniably pretentious and never dull, the gentrification process of one of London’s poorest and most ethnically diverse regions is a fascinating one.

While still largely working-class because of its industrial past, Shoreditch and Hoxton has been completely transformed since the 1990s. With the creative sectors establishing a foothold and middle-class students always looking for cheap rents, the East now celebrates vintage clothes stalls, street artwork and independent pop-up stores.

Amid the urban deprivation and human decay, I found myself walking along one of the oldest roads in England and discovered the Bridge Coffee House. While Hiram Bingham’s legacy is unlikely to be threatened by a new coffee shop in Dalston, I felt this unexplored venue deserved further investigation. The Bridge Coffee House is more like a vintage antique shop than a coffee parlour.

By taking their inspiration from Venetian coffee shops and lining their shelves with Italian caffè, syrup and cappuccino machines. The retro cafe is like a set from an Old Vic theatre production and their first act is an imperial vision of the 1920s.

On arrival I ordered a strawberry chocolate gatteau and began to visualise Ernest Hemingway drinking himself into a stupor at the bar. Surrounding my creation is a snapshot of 20th Century memorabilia including union jacks, trinklets and an original copper till from 1886. The proud Cypriot owner provides a warm and authentic service in stark contrast to the younger bars in nearby Shoreditch. On taking eight months to complete, the downstairs interior has been decorated with French regency chairs, vintage movie posters and Tiffany lamps.

Although as I listened to 60’s Motown music, I began to question whether this vintage chic shop is any different than any other East London venture. Counter-culture shops can sometimes be as equally homogenous as the H&M wearing masses in Starbucks.

And while the upstairs decor is bordering on the ridiculous with its insanely pink chairs, I found myself seduced by the theatre downstairs. Beautiful girls drink coffee on their own in a nostalgic fantasy land that should be seen now before they receive 4 stars from Time Out.

The Bridge Coffee House
15 Kingsland Road
E2 8AA

Images used with kind permission from Tim Boddy.