December 4th, 2005


A Guten Shabbos

The day starts peaceably enough. I'm in the bath, smarting a little over a email - incompatibility of lifestyles, instinct says, you seem nice enough - and looking out of the window at the winter scene. With my glasses off, it's easier for it to coalesce into a Song landscape of skeletal tree and mountain. Oh well. I've just finished watching Untold Scandal, a Korean adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses set in the late Choson (or Joseon as it is now written) dynasty. There's a moment in the film where the virtuous character Lady Sook (Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Tilly or Reese Witherspoon elsewhere) writes following her seduction:

"The poet Su Dongpo [aka Su Shi] said he is sad with the end of each spring, but that spring pays no attention and leaves. Many autumns have passed me by, but never have I had an autumn I might dearly miss. But this autumn being with you has taught what it is to miss autumn."

These final leaves hanging from the tree, I'm trying to remember the tune to Kurt Weill's September Song. If only this slight email had begun similarly, that a formalised etiquette required some classical reference to be entwined in it, for I might be quizzed over which character from Friends I most resemble (Kramer, I suggested) but I'm not required to display a knowledge of the Five Classics. But the sensation of being alone is in general a dull pain and mostly in the style of Steve McQueen bouncing a ball against the wall during yet another spell in solitary confinement. You get used to it. In my absence from London, two separate relationships have collapsed. This sort of pain is more immediate and present than the jail sentence. In the afternoon, I make my way down to Bethnal Green to meet one of the aggrieved parties.

We stop in at a new Korean cafe-delicatessen along the way. Kimchi jigae for the friend, dolsot bibimbap for myself. The shelves are stocked a little haphazardly (okonomiyaki sauce, French mustard, Dutch jam) but there's a decent range of home made kimchi and sauces. There's no soju, which would be a perfect drink for the emotional debriefing, so instead it's pear juice and green tea. I try to cheer him up with a selection of mobile phone straps I bought in Japan.

The first drink occurs in an markedly unpleasant bar on Brick Lane. It's not that there's anything that wrong with it: take a retail space, paint it, couple of fancy light fixtures, slap in a bar and DJ booth, crap sofas. It's a bottom-dollar operation repeated in any number of other establishments. But there's no love in it as there's also not one single appetising drink behind the bar. The man behind the bar visibly rankles when the friend surveys the beer selection (bottles of Carlsberg Export and BelleVue Kriek) and says there's not much there. Well, you can fuck off then says his look. The place is a contemporary shabeen with the minimum of outlay. Really, it's just a holding ground for a pre-club cocaine set. Welcome back to London.

The second drink takes place in the Golden Heart in Spitalfields. We get a seat by the fire and the place is soon enough filled with a Jack the Ripper pub crawl. Men as rapists, women as whores. One man's gone to the expense of hiring a real cap and top hat, rather than the toy shop versions the others wear. We don't get a third drink as we're ejected from the bar. I'm not generally prone to getting thrown out of places, but the landlady (a local figure of some reknown amongst the art set) has been trying to get past the friend and behind the bar and something in her brusque approach and lack of explicitly worded intent means she's been trying to shove the friend away from the bar with the phrase "I want to be standing there". He swears. She's not happy. Asked to leave. I apologise and try to get him to stop making comebacks as I ferry him down the road. You wouldn't let it lie. "I feel sorry for your friend, he's a gentleman, for having to have a friend like you." I guess that's a form of compliment.

Something has to be done to change the mood and leaning against a wall opposite Spitalfields I soon realise that the best thing to do is to feed him again. Alcohol is all well and good in these circumstances, but you want a pleasure that can cut through the heartache and anger. A real distraction, so St John Bread and Wine it is. A plate of foie gras, bacon and prunes does the trick. It's snails for me. Then pheasant and savoy cabbage for him, the sirloin with shallots and green beans for myself. By this point, he's prepared to admit the food is in a different league from his west London local (fussy towers, calligraphic drizzles, wild rice, more cocaine toilets...).

The journey home brings all the joys of London back. This train doesn't work, move to other train, this one not working either, move to other platform, this one does. A lubricated discussion with reference to the Toyko and Sao Paolo urban transit systems means we miss our station and walk back from Seven Sisters. A drunk Rasta is trying to give us his stash of weed amidst talk of his lost child and all women being bitches. Except mothers. Extricate friend. Return home, not much of note. Friend manages to collapse the table, the same table the Lodger collapsed in my absence. It gets them every time.