Thursday, 23 January 2014

The January Man

A new year should be all about new resolutions and January is the time to start acting upon these, a time of remorse and self-pity where everyone feels compelled to tell everyone else that they are ‘detoxing’ and ‘being good’... until February! How sanctimonious!  That is why I have taken the opportunity this month to shun convention and carry on as normal... and what fun I have had. So while these ‘holier-than-thou’ carrot munchers quaff their wheatgrass smoothies and pop their cod liver oil tablets, I declare ‘boo-ya-sucks-to-you’ in this joyous post focusing on some of the hedonistic highlights of this month. 

Nothing is more comforting on a chill winters evening than a quiet pint of tepid bitter in an old fashioned boozer, and while such establishments are few and far between in South London, there are a small few that still offer a very convivial and warm setting for a civilised drink. The Alexandra (or the ‘Ally’ as it is known locally) is one such place, a large but friendly pub fifty metres from Wimbledon Station with a killer selection of bitter which includes my favourites: Young’s Special, Winter Warmer, Wandle and Junction as well as a few craft ales from the Meantime Stable along with the ubiquitous selections of commercial lager. Okay it might not be the gastropub that so many now crave but it served a lovely, frothing pint in a jolly atmosphere which is helped by great staff. 

For those looking to step back in time even further, I recommend a seedy, scummy little pub in the grand surroundings of Duke Street St. James, Chequers. A regular haunt of mine this pub is perfectly positioned being a five minute walk from Green Park Station, JJ Fox and Dukes Hotel’s legendary bar. Only last Friday you would have found me there under the searing blaze of their outdoor heaters indulging in a fine cigar, a NUB Sungrown. The stogie was full bodied and rich smoke with a thick plume of smoke wrapped and filled with some very fine Nicaraguan tobacco, well worth the £13.00 it cost. I coupled this with a very reliable pint of London Pride and a little nip of brandy to warm to cockles of me heart with, of course, some great banter. Inside it is somewhat dated with beer stained carpets, badly kept urinals, gin and tonic served in goblets and no room to swing a cat. Hear of ‘Tavern’ brand crisps? Neither have I and, after sampling them I cannot say i will be recommending them to anyone! 

Looking a little later into the evening London in January offers no end of entertainment, a veritable mix of iniquitous dens where one can dance and drink the nice away. Bart’s Bar is one such place, a ‘speakeasy’ on Sloane Avenue it is a room in an apartment complex decked out in weird objet d’art and hunting memorabilia. Potent cocktails and spirits on the rocks are the order of the day at this late-night watering hole as well as the presence of many uber-chic glamour pusses. Far too cool for me but sometime riff-raff like me are allowed to make an appearance.The same could not be said of Sugar Cane on Lavender Hill, a far from salubrious place, in which the smell of stale mojitos mingles uneasily with an atmosphere of passive violence and cracking knuckles, not the place for a drunken, shrinking violet like myself! After too too many badly made cocktail it was difficult to remember much of the decor, and indeed some of my more riotous and dangerous dance floor moves, but needless to say it was like a Tiki bar designed by someone devoid of all sense of taste! But then again, what do you expect of a place by three AM in the morning? 

Well that’s your lot for this week, but if you, like me, have decided to stick two fingers up at the broccoli brigade then please feel free to comment below and tell me about some of the places that you have been this January, I am always on the lookout for recommendations! 

Friday, 10 January 2014

Freedom Overspill: Episode #4

After a long absence the fourth part of the gripping cop saga, Freedom Overspill is now up for your delectation. I was thinking of posting the whole story but, at a staggering 6,000 words I thought i might be a little bit too large for the blog’s feed so, if you are a newcomer and want to get into the groove from the beginning, here are the links to the first three parts: 

In a nutshell, the year is 1986 and two cops, the redoubtable Hall and Lomacks are on a case against the backdrop of The Westland Affair, Iran Contra and the release of Genesis’s seminal Invisible Touch.

Back at the Hand & Hand, Hall and Lomacks approached the Landlord, as a couple of locals, by the name of Ben Cross and Linley Harrison look on, State of the Nation  by New Order was playing in the Background, lending an uncomfortable, paranoid edge to the whole affair. Cross turned to Harrison.
“I think they might come over and talk to us in a minute Lin, they aren’t going to get much out of Dave.” Harrison looked puzzled.
“What do we say though? All we’d done was played a round of golf on the common and come in to have a few pints here. As I remember we were talking about John Martyn when the explosion happened.
“Fact is Lin, I hardly knew Niven, I mean, I lived next door to the man for 10 years and never once was I invited round, we never shared a pint in the pub. Nothing!” Spotting the two golfer in tense conversation, Hall and Lomacks crossed over to them, Hall spoke first.
“Excuse me, do you mind if we interrupt? The thing is we don’t like to drink alone.” With a brush of the hand Harrison acquiesced, what choice did he have?
“Please detectives, and don’t worry, we know why you’re here.”
“Oh?” Lomacks gave him a suspicious look, but Cross interjected
“Well…we can only guess that you want to talk to us about the Nivens.”
“In a nutshell!”
“Well there is really little I can tell you. I mean, as I was just explaining to my friend, although I lived next door to them for ten years we, by that I mean my wife and I, were never invited around. Perhaps if we had been able to have children it might have been different, as I am roughly the same age as Digby Niven, but that wasn’t meant to be.” Hall did his best attempt at empathy, he’d never had children, married to the job as he was.
“quite understand, Mr…”
“Mr Cross, I don’t suppose on the rare occasions that you bumped into Niven he discussed his business.”
“It was a few chance meetings at the Delicatessen or the Newsagent really. Besides, High finance has never been my forte. I’m and artist by trade.” Something suddenly clicked with Lomacks.
“Oh I know you, didn’t you exhibit at the Serpentine Gallery a couple of years ago?” Hall was always impressed by his partner’s urbanity but would never admit that to anyone, let alone some strangers in a pub
“you’ll have to forgive my partner, he’s something of a dilettante when it comes to culture.” Cross laughed.
“None taken, it’s nice to meet a fan. Look, I don’t know what help it would be but come and speak to my wife, as she knew Mrs Niven better that I ever did Mr...” But Hall cut him short.
“Thank you Mr Cross for your time. We’ll grab something to eat and then we’ll be over.”
“Oh you haven’t eaten yet? Well, it would be a pleasure to give lunch to one present appreciator of my work and perhaps a future one.” Hall never liked to take freebies off the public.
“We couldn’t impose.”
“I insist! I live just over… well you know where I live by now I’m sure (Laughs). I am afraid I can only offer you cold cuts and some salad, but I do have a nice bottle of White Burgundy which is in dire need of consumption. I do take it you drink?” Lomacks eyes lit up.
“Does the Pope shit in the woods?” Hall scowled.
“Shut up Lomacks. That sounds very nice.”

Soon they were in Cross’s dining room and following a rather convivial lunch of cold lobster with mayonnaise they set down to the business in hand, police work. 
“That was an excellent bottle Mr Cross.” Said Hall, wiping his mouth on his napkin. Cross concured.
“Yes, I quite agree, I drove over to Burgundy last year and picked up a shed load of the stuff.”
“I’m sure customs would have had something to say about that.”
“Well, if they had known. I have a few friends at customs and excise who turn a blind eye. Well, selling paintings abroad you’ve got to ensure some flexibility.” Cross tapped his nose in a conspiratorial way. Hall knew this as the trademark of the white collar smuggler. He laughed.
“Well, Mr Cross, I think you are safe on this occasion!” 
“well that is a great assurance detective!”
“By the way, Where is Mrs Cross?”
“Oh she’ll be back in half an hour. Look it’s such a nice day let’s have coffee and Brandies in the garden. Are either of you interested in flowers.” Once again the young dilettante chipped in.
“ I grew up in Devon and as you can imagine the range and variety was amazing.”
“Indeed,” Cross was impressed, “well, you must come and see my foxgloves.”
“Ah Digitalis...” Lomack mused, “beautiful but deadly.”
“like so many things in life Mr Lomacks, like so many things…”

In the garden, Hall, Lomacks and Cross walked around a long, attractive border looking at the remarkable array of plants that Cross had. Bees were buzzing and birds were chirping away in the trees, you wouldn’t have guessed that just 20 metres away there had been a massive explosion, it all seemed so tranquil. Suddenly Lomacks saq something flashing in the flower bed.
“One moment Mr Cross,” he caught artist’s arm, “I think I see something in the flower bed. It looks like a piece of tooling equipment or something.” Hall, who had been rather bored by the nature trail was roused from the lethargy that the booze had inflicted.
“it looks like part of a lathe or something. Used to hollow out metal tubing, quite specialized equipment. My father used something of the sort when he worked in the motor industry.” A frown came across Cross’s brow. 
“How very strange, I certainly don’t use such stuff, industrial art isn’t really my thing”
“Was it Niven’s?”
“Search me, you seem more the expert on this.”
“Very strange indeed, Lomacks have you got a biro.” Lomacks handed a Bic to Hall and used it to pick up the tooling part and drops it in his jacket pocket. From the distance there came the sound of the front door slamming shut, Cross turned. 
“Ah! I think I can hear Mrs Cross coming in now.”
“Thank you Mr Cross, we shall go and speak to her now?”
“Happy to be of what little assistance I can be.”


Digby Niven’s was sitting in his office, sitting at his desk with a Black Label on the rocks and a recently used mirror and credit card augmenting the rather vulgar alabaster ashtray and desktop lighter. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a Dunhill, lit it and drank deep of its various flavours and toxins. He had four packs delivered each day to his desk and there would be four empty packs in the bin by the time he left for the days. The phone rang, he answered.  
“Niven here”
“They brought it.” came the unmistakable voice of Cross. 
“That I have had nothing to do with you, as far as they know, you’re just someone that I bump into every now and then at the Newsagent.”
“Excellent, it seems that all is going to plan. And you gave them lunch I suppose.”
“Oh yes, they got through two bottles of the White Burgundy.”
“This gets better and better, drinking and scoffing on the job at a potential witness’s house. They better not dig much deeper or IA will be getting a well placed and of course, anonymous phone call.”
“There’s just one thing...” Cross hesitated. 
“What, what could there possibly be? This is too perfect for words.”
“It seems the explosion sent some debris from your house flying into my flower bed.”

“Well, it was a piece of tooling, and Det. Hall identified it as part of the lathing process used to shape the gun barrel. Granted, it was small so he won’t have known its real purpose.”
“And you told them.”
“I feigned ignorance, told them that I hadn’t had you down as an industrial artist.”
“Good, great Cross, you’ll be an even richer man before the month’s out! Now have you talked to the shippers?”
“I have, in my capacity, of course, as a non-exec director of Lansing & Tolsen Building materials.”
“Well I think it is only right that we do our bit for social reconstruction in the Middle East.”
“You mean re-configuration.”
“hahaha, you are learning my dear Cross, We should have had you in Grenada! Excellent! Well, just stay on your toes and let me know if those two stooges come sniffing around the Common again. By the way, what did your wife say?”
“They are right that ignorance is surely bliss, almost as if I had drafted her statement for her. Your late wife was an upstanding member of the local community and member of Conservative Association, avid horse rider and of course the classic line: ‘I don’t know who’d want to kill her’.”
“You sly dog! Look, I’ve just seen my secretary come in so I will end it here. Until next time.”
“Until next time.”
Looking up, Niven recognised his secretary, a long-legged saucy young thing with a pronounced Essex accent.
“Sorry to disturb you Mr Niven.” She chirruped. Niven was in a good mood but he tried to hide it behind false grief. 
“Not at all Susie, what’s up? I was just talking to my lawyer about my Wife’s effects.”
Susie looked puzzled as the tone of the previous phone conversation, although muffled through the frosted glass wall, sounded a bit too jovial to be about his late wife, he has been acting erratically recently. She merely put it down to sheer emotional stress. After all she wasn’t being paid £60,000 a year to ponder Niven’s mental state.
“I have General Adnan Khairallah here to see you about the Macarthur account.”
“Indeed…please send him in.”

Saturday, 4 January 2014

That was quite a Christmas!

Those of my readers who saw me over the break will attest that I had quite a Christmas, jam-packed full of good wine, good food and great cheer. In fact this might have been the most boozy and certainly the most sociable I have spent this year. So now, in the dark depths of January, as I lean upon a coppice gate (like Hardy in his Darkling Thrush) munching on a stick of celery and drinking a glass of oh-so-healthy carrot juice, I think back to that hedonistic Christmas season and all the fine riches that it brought to me...

December 24th - Christmas Eve began ominously, the wind and rain battering our Sceptred Isle with all the force Mother Nature could offer. A quick call to the office and I was warned to baton down the hatches and work from home for the rest of the day. Tasks completed and work finishing at a generously early 15:00 I was set to make the most of my Christmas Eve. A quick trip to Waitrose to purchase some last minute Christmas groceries provided the first cigar of the period, a very pleasant Montecristo Petit Edmundo (for more info check out my collected Sketches from a Cigar Smoker’s Album) and a pretty generous tumbler of Grant’s, ginger liqueur and Canada Dry with a twist of orange peel over ice. To keep me entertained as I braved the elements I had Trevanian’s excellent Shibumi a rip-roaring thriller about the world’s best assassin and his battle against a consortium of the world’s oil and gas companies. 

Dinner soon came around, a beautiful pheasant gratin (large morsels of game bound with a stock and white wine infused roux, topped with crisp-fried bacon and breadcrumbs and set under the grill until bubbling) with fine green beans accompanied by an excellent bottle of Villa Maria’s Gewurztraminer (Waitrose, £9.99). It certainly brought about some tidings of comfort and joy, a perfect start.

December 25th - I woke up to a plethora of very useful and much needed presents including Thomas Keller’s fantastic book on baking (which would knock the socks off anything produced on that tosh on the BBC) some very welcome NUB Cameroon cigars and a fantastic bottle of 1949 Madeira! ‘Lucky fellow’ I hear you cry. 

Following a bit of prep work and and some sous-chefing in the kitchen, I heard the first pop of a Champagne cork around 11:00 and enjoyed a chilled glass of Christophe Herbelet with some delicious smoked salmon sandwiches as I trimmed the sprouts. 

Lunch was a veritable feast, and, as I had to do two Christmas meals that day (the inevitability of divorced parents), served at the far more civilised time of 13:00. The turkey was complemented with the usual suspects as well as two stuffings (basic herb & Chestnut, bacon and mushroom) and lashings of delicious homemade gravy. To go with this there was a healthy selection of good wine including: 1982 Chateau Talbot, Gew├╝rztraminer Reserve 2007 Trimbach and a 1977 Sandeman’s Silver Jubilee Port... simply heaven. I topped all this offer with one of the NUB Cameroon’s I had received, savouring the heady smoke and rich, spicy taste of the stogie ahead of round two of Turkey later that evening where I polished off another line-up of goodies at my aunt and uncles house!

As I fell asleep at the dinner table, party hat at a jaunty angle, fit to bursting with food and booze, I drowsily reflected that this had been a very good, if excessive, Christmas Day. 

December 26th - Boxing day hit me hard, my head hurt and I was reminded (Waugh fans must forgive me if I misquote) of that great line from Brideshead Revisited: ‘It was neither the quantity, nor the quality, but the variety that was at fault’. Feeling somewhat woozy, I shakily made myself a cup of coffee and readied myself for another influx of guests. 

I noticed another couple of bottles of the 1982 Talbot on the table and realised that I would have to buck up before a lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. A cold shower followed by a strong espresso and a well appointed Plymouth Gin & Tonic at midday kicked me into action before the guests arrived.

Lunch was another affair full of jolliness and lots of laughter, The Talbot and a bottle of 1985 Graham Port slipped down very nicely after a feast of rolled sirloin with all the trimmings. Another cigar followed (NUB Cameroon), before I felt decidedly knackered and longed just to sit with my book and sog out... 

Christmas had been and gone for another year and I felt decidedly decadent as I sat enjoying a 1941 Armagnac as my cigar gently burned in the dying embers of the main part of the Christmas holidays.