Gosh, after claiming that this time around my London life would be different; inspired by my zen travel times, where yoga and plenty of time to contemplate was a regular feature in my life… crikey have I been busy! I think it’s slightly impossible to press the pause button when living in the big smoke. Especially in the summer! I zoom off to work and when I escape into the sunshine at the end of the day, I can’t wait to take a walk by the river, or go meet friends that I’ve been missing and just really enjoy being completely plonked back into the thick of it. There’s always somewhere new to go, something nice to eat and some bubbles to be drunk. It’s so hard to say no! Those shaky reverse-culture-shock stuttery days have long passed and I’m nose-diving super speed into London living, part 2. That’s not to say it’s all been this way; on the odd night that I do come straight home, I have dissolved into a drooly sleeping mess by 8.30pm (still oh so light outside! childhood me would be outraged that this has become a desirable thing!) because I am still suffering massively from new-girl brain drain.
When I am at home, I am so happy. It’s lovely to finally have a bit of London that is just ours! As much as we have loved previous house mates, after staying in a different hostel every night for 7 months, it was time to have some privacy. Our flat has really exceeded expectations. Sure it’s fun-size, but it still has everything we need, and plenty of sneak space for hiding junk you don’t want out on display. It’s the third floor flat in a converted terrace, so it feels a little like we are living in a treehouse. Our views are pretty much 90% sky, which is lovely, and every time a big truck or lorry passes a rattle passes through. At first I felt like I was about to topple out, but now I’ve got used to them I quite like the daily mini earthquakes! It’s strange to think this time last year I was working in Cannes, with the unknown of travelling and this mammoth life change all ahead of me.
Anyway! What has been keeping me such a busy Bee? Well one thing I have to share, is that a couple of weeks ago one of my loveliest friends Oli celebrated his birthday by inviting a gang of us to the Barbican. We took part in tour that was based around the Barbicans’ Brutalist Architecture. I confess, before rocking up, I had to do a quick Google of “what the heck is brutalist architecture” (read: am I going to have pain inflicted on me during the tour) and the quick answer is no. Brutalism was a fragmented movement in architecture that flourished from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, perhaps as a post-war reaction to some of the frivolity in the architecture of the 30s/40s. Brutalism isn’t as bleak as it sounds; it just reflects the lack of bells and whistles in the look of these buildings. They are very functional, often with a dominance of concrete and rather than hiding them; the architects express in the external elevations the functions, people-flows and general bits that are usually kept hidden. Some famous examples are Park Hill in Sheffield, Western City Gate in Belgrade and the J Edgar Hoover Building in Washington.
We totally lucked out with the weather for our tour. It was warm enough to lig about in the cold for two hours (you definitely get your moneys worth on this excursion) and the sky treated us to pinky, golden, magic hour hues for the whole time. It was as if the Barbican was really putting on a show of just how beautiful it can be. Our tour guide was a super enthusiastic Irish academic, who wore an amazing batman cape-like coat and stomped around in big clompy heels, whilst blowing our minds with facts, figures and LOTS of secrets. The first thing she was keen to inform us, is that there is a misconception that the Barbican was created as a council housing estate (something I certainly thought was true). The architects who created the Barbican did work previously on a council estate just up the road, but the Barbican certainly wasn’t built as one. In fact, it was built to attract city-types and yuppies! As during the time it was built, there was a huge housing crisis and a demand for more professional housing close to the centre of London. That isn’t to say it didn’t serve the community though; there was a YMCA, a library, a girls school and a church within the estate.
In my head, I wondered how much more there would be to learn, as I naively thought that in my 7 years a Londoner “I’ve been to the Barbican loads of times”. I’ve actually only really visited the Arts Centre, and briefly scuttled to and from the tube station. What I hadn’t realised what how vast the Barbican estate is. Our wise-owl tour guide told us to start thinking of it less as a building, and more as a town. It houses over 4000 people; which is actually half of the City of London’s population. We started off taking a good look at the bit EVERYONE knows about… the famous towers. They are so dizzyingly magnificent up-close; no matter how you feel about the marmite aesthetic. At the time of being built, they were the tallest building in Europe. Something I found remarkable, is that despite having slightly different heights (2 towers are 43 floors, 1 is 44 floors) they are identical in every other way. When you view them from the ground, this fact seems impossible! They all look totally different angles, directions and shapes. Our guide informed us that the architects did this on purpose, and it’s one of the most amazing feats of the architecture.
Something that was instantly noticeable on the tour was the quiet. Sitting smack in the centre of London, surrounded by chaotic rush hour hustle and bustle, at most parts of the Barbican all there was to hear was peace and tranquillity. This is another feat of design; with the architects focussing on sound-proofing the Barbican by building it raised high above the streets and noise. This also gives more opportunity for light and views to trickle in to every bit of the estate. We trailed around the nooks and crannies of the residential areas, and peered enviously at the secret gardens and secluded jungle-like patches that are nestled between the buildings. These are private so we couldn’t go in (I need to make friends with a Barbican resident stat) but our guide assured us that they are so sprawling that once inside, you feel like you could be in the middle of Hampstead heath!
This is an original map from when the Barbican was first built, and it lists the Museum of London as “building in progress”! I think the map is an example of one of the key perks of paying for a guided tour, as this is something you could so easily march past without paying the slightest bit of attention to. I have previously thought the rather dingy subway style tunnels around the Barbican were quite intimidating, but our tour guide laughed that off, claiming there has never been a street-crime on the Barbican estate so it’s safer than basically anywhere else in London. I need to remember to head there next time I’m drunkenly staggering about after a night out. (What am I saying, I am 30 now, and definitely don’t partake in those shenanigans anymore!) Something I found quite sad as we walked around this incredible chunk of London history; is over half of the flats look un-lived in. Curtains closed, blank window faces, ghost town exterior (I think we saw 2 residents, max). Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t empty and up for grabs – sadly – they are just second homes. They are city crash pads or a novelty piece of real estate. I guess that’s actually in-line with the market they were initially aimed at, but I found it quite sad that they don’t get sold to the tenants who’d love every second of the experience but aren’t necessarily the wealthiest.
I’m sure the question on your lips is… Is the Barbican Brutalist (!) and the answer is well, no, not exactly. See that photo above? After using concrete on the whole estate, which is dead easy, the nuts architects then decided they wanted to add the texture that you can see in this close-up. So, they created that texture using a hand held machine. Yup, on every millimetre (even the high bits!) of this sprawling monster of a creation. Pretty fiddly really, and not quite in line with the anti-ornate simplicity of Brutalism. And now you know! At the end of the tour, raring for more and not wanting to leave, we were snuck into a very secret plant room. This was the most exciting bit, as we headed deeper into the Barbican underbelly. Down in the dank dingy darkness, we could see a patch of wall where the architects sampled different looks for the finish of the building. Fun fact: they gave serious thought to covering the whole lot in white marble! You can still see the sample of it there today.
I can’t recommend this tour highly enough. Versions of this tour run on a pretty regular basis all year round; you can book your tickets here.
And now for something completely different! Saturday 7th June had been a date engrained on my brain for a pretty long time. Whilst I was travelling, someone I missed horrifically was my gal pal and bridesmaid extraordinare Kate aka Kasia Basia. Epic emails were exchanged, attempted Skype calls melted into frustrating pixels and darth vadar voices, and we generally pined a lot for each other. When Craig came over to meet us in Guatemala he bought me a letter from Kate, and inside was a IOU note saying she had bought us tickets for Arcade Fire in June. At the time, sat in a sticky sweaty Guatemalan hostel and off the back of 5 months of living in the wild, my brain could barely process the information. Gigs? Was that something I did? I was so disconnected from my “old life” and found the whole thing almost impossible to imagine. All I remember thinking was “I’ll have to travel up to Brighton for that” (when in reality I had a 20 min tube journey home). Anyway home we came and the date rolled around, and it had extra special meaning given that it was so loaded with travel memories and was a really special celebration of being back together. So special, I had to wear my new Twin Peaks nerd dream tee-shirt.
The gig had a whole other layer of nostalgia, as it was at Earls Court which is due for demolition in the probably not too distant future. Gigs there tend to be a bit pricey, so realistically Arcade Fire is the last time I’ll step foot in there. Emotions were riding high! The support was stellar; Lorde and a DJ set by 2 Many DJs, who were joined on stage by an amazing human mirror ball man.
I last saw Arcade Fire on the Neon Bible tour in 2007, the gig was at Alexandra Palace, it was pouring with rain and I trecked all the way there from Streatham. I knew they were fantastic, and liked them enough, but in the past 7 years they really have taken on a pretty iconic position in my favourite-music charts. Every album so perfectly encapsulates the time of my life it was released. I was so happy to be there with Kate who I know feels exactly the same. I had been apprehensive about the gig for two reasons. The first was that it was in such a mega dega venue, and we’d be sharing the gig with over thousands upon thousands of other people. I quite like to be near the front and in the heart of the action at gigs, but I knew that wouldn’t be an option here (as we were too busy tucking into pizza and chugging wine and nattering to bother queuing for early entry). I also thought I might get a bit irritated by annoying crowd etiquette ignorers and hooligans. Secondly; (shhh) I don’t exactly love the new album. In fact, I pretty much don’t like. So there was that…
Luckily, my fears were unfounded. From the first beat of the first track, Kate and I were completely in our own world of Arcade Fire joy. We carved out a decent sized dance floor, marked it with our empty pint glasses (top gig tip) and then bounced about madly, arms slung around each other and crooning along every lyric. It’s such an exhilarating experience when you see a band you truly love. The memories attached to each song seemed so much stronger and more powerful live, than when I listen to them on my commute or during a bedroom private disco (everyone has those, right?). Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) reminds me of Lol so much. I was lucky enough to have a best friend who worked at Virgin Megastore (RIP) and therefore we got into every weird, eclectic and obscure band that came along thanks to her work discount and impeccable taste. Before Arcade Fire had really got out, I can remember really clearly going to an indie night at Stylus (Leeds Uni student union) and the DJ playing it early on in the night. Lol and I raced onto the dance floor, which is sunken below the bar and therefore everyone was looking down on us as we danced completely alone and like absolute idiots! Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) reminds me of my uni boyfriend, who lived on the other side of Hyde Park to me and was on my course, so our pretty short relationship was a constant haze of walking to campus or walking to and from each others houses. I don’t know why but I have such a strong memory of walking through the park one time, wading in inches of thick snow, and stupidly wearing converse with no socks (my teen brain had somehow decided socks were not sexy? I guess?) and I was listening to this song. So my feet basically half froze off, and even now I still get chill-blanes every winter and it’s all because of that one fateful day. This is the weird way my brain works, and every time I hear Tunnels I think about him and Hyde Park and snow and frosty feet.
When they played Ready To Start Kate and I held clammy hands, and spun around, and generally existed in a shiny twinkly perfect world of me-and-her for those 3 minutes. The good part was that even when they played the new songs that I’m not so keen on, there was incredible stage production and dancers and light shows and it made it all fit seamlessly in with the older stuff. It was hot in there, so hot that you could basically see the steam rising off the writhing dancey bodies around us. When they ended on Crown of Love (of course) the room exploded into a burst of glitter ticker tape. Which was as magical as you’d expect! Look at beautiful Kate’s happy-face-happy-place.
All in all, it was one of the best gigs of my life. Thanks so much to my Kate date, for making it the best London night since I moved back. It really reminded me just how on top of the world and super human a good gig can make you feel. I definitely need to stop being scared off by the cost and eat beans on toast in order to go to a few more shows this year. That’s just a taste of the new news for now, I still need to write a double whammy about Craig and I’s 30th celebrations which involve life size emojis, wobble chops (!) and Nick dressing as the goblin king from Labyrinth. Yup…