Monthly Archives: November 2009

Sophie Calle: Talking to Strangers at the Whitechapel Gallery

Hell hath no powers of analysis like a woman dumped. That, anyway, is the message I got from Sophie Calle’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. Calle has made a career out of recording her journeys and experiences, and creating strange experiments and inviting strangers to participate. The first one I knew of was Sleep, when she invited strangers to sleep in her bed, photographed them and asked them to talk about the experience. It’s the kind of art that makes some people roll their eyes. The same people, I imagine, who ‘don’t read poetry.’ What’s the point? they ask in frustration, to which the only answer is, what’s the point of anything?

This project began when she received an email from a lover telling her it was over. He sounds like a real bounder – one line was something along the lines of ‘you always said you didn’t want to be the fourth girlfriend and I am sparing you that indignity by dumping you’. So, like any artist worth her salt, she cannibalises her heartbreak unflinchingly, and comes up smiling – or at least, no longer weeping – with a brilliant new exhibition. Good for her.

She chooses 107 women of various professions and ages to analyse the letter. Sort of what you do with friends when this kind of thing happens, but taken several stages further. And the exhibition is a record of their responses – images of them reading the letter, written reactions to it, video footage of an actor reciting it, even a short story written by a children’s author that makes it into a sort of fairytale. A proofreader marks up repetitions. A young writer boils the email, eats it and declares: it tastes of cowardice. Continue reading

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Ed’s Shed in De Beauvoir Town by David Adjaye











If you’ve visited The Idea Store in Whitechapel or the Dirty House and Rivington Place (here’s my review) in Shoreditch, then you’ll be familiar with the work of David Adjaye. And in 2007 he designed this private home for photographer Ed Reeve 

A sunken cube clad with stained cedar, it was partly prefabricated so the builders were apparently on site for only one week. And, one a bright Sunday morning during London Open House he opened it to the public. I admire the simplicity of it, and that decking looks like a lovely spot on a summery day, but as I write this – surrounded by books, notebooks, magazine clippings, teacups and an overflowing bin – I know I never could, and indeed never will live in a house like this…. I mean, where does Ed put all his crap? 

















And, as a fine example of the many characters of East  London, just around the corner from Ed’s Shed is the home of William Lyttle, aka The Mole Man, who – for reasons known only to himself – has spent the last forty years digging a 60ft network of tunnels around his huge, dilapidated Georgian mansion.

It is now covered in scaffolding and Mr Lyttle has been placed in a hotel while the tunnels are filled – apparently structural engineers had warned the council that a double-decker bus could go through the road if they didn’t deal with the situation. 


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The Brick Lane Bagel Shop

When I first moved to London someone told me that this is where you can get ‘the best bagels in the world’. I have since been informed by a born-and-bred New Yorker (in extremely weary tones) that this is in an exaggeration, unfortunate and misguided, and one that she has the unenviable task of correcting on a regular basis.

They are still pretty good bagels though. If the mark of good street food can be measured by long queues, even at 3am, and reliably unsmiling service then we’re onto a winner. I usually go for the smoked salmon and cream cheese one with a cup of tea on the side, but the salted beef with mustard and pickle is also pretty good, as are the cheesecake slices. 

Prepare yourself well in advance, don’t dither, speak clearly and have your money ready promptly. These people have bagels to serve. 

159 Brick Lane, Brick Lane, E1 6SB

PS Not only does he take away the 38, he’s now ramping up bus fares, and in a borough without a tube this is unfair. Send our golden-haired Tory toff of a mayor a postcard with some advice:


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A walk to the Vietnamese cafes, Kingsland Road

vietThe Vietnamese restaurants along Kingsland Road are legendary. And somehow, the competition means they all – at least of the seven or so I have tried – are excellent and honestly priced. Usually, for big groups, my choice would be Tay Do or its sister restaurant across the road (both have big, dead lobsters on the walls). 

Until the recession began, we had a Vietnamese-Aussie friend who would order for us and all we had to do was sit down, watch her in action and then wait for the most delectable dishes to arrive – green papaya salad, steamed fish with ginger, pork chops, chilli salt squid and something called shaker beef, which is small cubes of chewy beef, marinated in some delicious sauce, then quickly cooked rare and served with a bowl of salt and lemon slices. God, I’m getting hungry just thinking about it and it’s only 11am.

Anyway, in her absence we muddle through, but the magic has gone. And then, just recently I rediscovered Loong Kee, which I used to go to years ago. It’s right up the quiet end of Kingsland Road and just next door to the lovely Geffrye Museum (read about my recent visit here).

P1020795Loong Kee’s speciality is banh cuon, or steamed rice flour rolls, which arrive stuffed with either a beef or prawn filling and have a sweet sauce to pour over them. This is a slightly calmer restaurant, and it’s particularly nice on Sunday afternoons when you see families having long lunches and dishes of all sorts of seafood and meat arriving. Everything comes with lots of fresh coriander and chilli and they also serve freshly squeezed juices.

Actually, sorry, but I’m going to interrupt this blog to go there for an early lunch. Life is short, the the sun is shining and my belly is rumbling. To be continued.

Right, back now. That was well worth the walk. Vermicelli noodles with beef and lemongrass and a fresh juice. I also stopped by Oxfam (for more on this wonderful place, read here) and found three new books – Lucky by Alice Sebold, Caravan Thieves by Gerard Woodward and In My Skin by Kate Jennings, a Melbourne writer – it’s a book about her experience of working as a prostitute to support a heroin habit and it’s brilliant, I read it before but lent it to someone and never got it back, usual story, so now I’ve got another copy. Sounds depressing and somewhat tired, but isn’t. Which reminds me, I am thinking up a manifesto for book buying, which is an minefield these days.

 I also noted a few things on my walk:

Winter is here, but not in a bad way. The trees are bare and the ground is covered with leaves, dogs are wearing little coats and I may have finally discovered the perfect black faux fur jacket number 3 (I gave my first one to a friend when in my cups and then left its replacement on a bus).

Hidden Art is on December 5-6, a chance to sniff around the many artists’ studios that are dotted around the East End & do some Christmas shopping in a relaxed environment rather than the pit of hell that is Oxford Street in December.

Columbia Road is opening its shops late on Wednesday nights in December. 

And my local bus stop has disappeared. Just gone. Where there was a shelter with a display telling you when the next bus was due there is now just pavement. Bastards. Just in time for winter, too. I blame Boris.

Plus, the 38 bendy buses, where you could get on right at the back, are getting ditched this weekend. Back to double deckers. So no more of that drama of the bus stopping and about twenty transport cops getting on and busting fare dodgers. It was always rather exciting, except when you were unlucky enough to be next to the yellow validator thing and half the bus lunged towards it to zap their Oyster and you nearly got crushed by the stampede, of course.  See this article in The Londonist for details. 

Loong Kee, 134 Kingsland Road Tel: 020 7729 8344

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Mysterious windows on Bethnal Green Road


It’s damn near impossible to make it to the end of Bethnal Green Road without stopping for a snack. Even the fried chicken shops sell curries and shish kebabs, and the smell is so delicious I usually succumb just before Brick Lane. Having said that, I am yet to try Gourmet San, the Szechuan restaurant that turned down an Observer review saying, ‘No thanks. We don’t need any extra custom. Almost all our clientele are Chinese, and they don’t read the Observer.’ Here’s the review anyway….. it’s definitely high on my to-eat list, although the stuff they ordered – pigs’ trotters, sliced beef tongue and tripe – sounded slightly intimidating to my tame Western palate. 

So this time I almost made it to Brick Lane before being halted in my tracks by a five-quid thali deal at Maida (also reviewed by the Observer). The service was friendly – they brought me tap water without being asked, and the food was good for a quick lunch – two small silver pots of vegetarian curry, some yogurt, dhal, pita, rice and chutney. Apparently it’s got lamb chops to rival Tayyabs, but we’ve been hearing this for a while now, haven’t we?

Anyway, what really intrigued me was the view from my table, of four windows hung with greying lace curtains, a few red-geraniums on the ledge and no view of what or who was within. It didn’t look abandoned, but it did look strangely out of time, and I’m still wondering about it.

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