You may never have contemplated the existence of Moroccan female motorbicyclists adorned in wildly hued and patterned hijabs and djellabas, but their vivid reality is unavoidable with the first steps inside the Embankment terrace rooms of the venerable Somerset House-photographer/stylist Hajjaj (in his first UK solo show in 7 years) celebrates and exalts the “Kesh Angels” as they are known, in a series of aesthetically bold images (many of the subjects are friends and associates of the artist, or “found” individuals who profoundly piqued his creative interest). Centrepiece in the space is the kitted-out motorbike seen in the photos, a bearer of extravagance-there are even Barbie doll versions of the angels on a set of plinths near one of the room’s windows. Often referred to as the “Moroccan Andy Warhol”, Hajjaj’s influences range nimbly across the worlds of fashion, music, consumerist culture, photography and traditional art (after moving to London in the 80’s, Hajjaj worked in record stores and as a dj, organising club events and warehouse parties, that wonderfully manic and creative period in which several fields and disciplines clashed in brash, freewheeling symmetry). Very playfully (and assertively) he recontextualises given assumptions of Arabic culture, such as a reductive stereotype of a common Moroccan street scene, and smashes it up with Western branding and design. His bespoke frames are created using food and drink tins in repetitive sequence in rhythmic conversation with both content and colour of image. On view in the second room is the exuberant nine-panelled video work “My Rockstars Experimental Vol. 2” in which a series of street musicians, positioned in front of strikingly patterned canvas backdrops, meant to evoke the flair of traditional woven mats, take turns performing a piece (anything from rap to folk to instrumentals to belly dancing). Although filmed at various sites, anywhere from Morocco to London to Paris, Hajjaj has each performer turn towards the individual performing in respectful repose, as if in audience of one another. The costumes, the props (all designed and manufactured by the artist), as in every work, are a rich flamboyant kick of abundant oversaturation. His admiration for these liberated individuals, their untamed and unconventional energy, rings true and clear across the gallery, a feeling which effortlessly transfers on to the viewer, who leaves the show giddy and exhilarated. La Caravane continues through 07 January






Although nominated for the Turner Prize in 2011, I was not familiar with artist George Shaw’s work until I happened by his Study for the Painter on the Road 1 as part of the current Melancholia:After Sebald exhibition at the King’s College corridor at Somerset House. I was immediately arrested by the chord of light inherent in the frame, a pensive suffuse of red-ochre that queasily referenced dried blood, suggesting the presence of apocalypse-it’s less the colour of any known reality than the emotional tenor of unease or discord. It transforms an otherwise ordinary scene of an idyllic rural lane into a locus of troubling and cryptic menace. The charged bend in the road, an inexorably approaching void, promises a Stygian threat-in every crevice is the stir of abandonment and oblivion. Shaw almost exclusively uses Humbrol enamel on MDF boards, which gives his paintings a hallucinatorily photorealistic quality, and he has for years used as his subject the environs of the Till Hill estate in Coventry, his place of birth and where he spent much of his youth. Entirely absent of any human presence, the eerie images foreground waste, mess, rust, desertion-the vacant is extolled. The imagery brings to mind Gregory Crewdson’s staged photographic tableaux of suburban spiritual anomie and quiet despair , although Shaw references a wide range of artists from all throughout history in his choice of palette and perspective, and remains more disturbing for being much less theatrical than Crewdson. I haven’t been able to shake this picture from my mind, although neither the shot I took of it nor any image online can with any authority reproduce the complexity or depth of its physical bearing.

Study for the Painter on the Road-this reproduction does not do it justice



The painstaking processes of compulsive repetition are glaringly, thrillingly present and immediate in the work of the two artists on display in this show dedicated to the sprit and formal aspects of the term “infinite”. Close inspection piques awareness of the tremendously precise physical exertions involved in the construction of the works, while a step or two back allows for the more meditative features to resolve themselves, leading to an intriguing composed duality between a noise and calm in the pieces that avoids any disruptive or dissociative quality. Gemma Cossey’s intricate, near-mathematical studies of line repetition, (allowing for “faults” of concentration, instruments used, sudden inspiration) attain a bracing sense of movement and texture, bringing to mind the warp and weft of weaving, the intricacies and delicacies of lace and fabric fold. Grid(Blackwhite and Continuum) could be topographical studies of bisected landscapes and bodies of water; SQ4(Square Root), with its forceful squall and surge of motion from the right side of the frame, could be computer data, the cold flame of binary code visualised. Large Circles/small circles iv(Continuum) explodes outward from the forensic intensities of the majority of Cossey’s works by contemplating the celestial, an orbit of controlled white circular slashes around a globe of line transmissions. Various treatments on the canvas surface also determine the flow and development of design elements. Jane Ponsford’s handmade paper sculptures may incorporate elements of earth and other found objects collected from walks through landscapes which often are the starting point of inspiration-thus, the soil fragments composition of A Short Walk, a quartet of mounted wall pieces that effortlessly recall a series of cross-sections of trees, with their suggestions of timelines and history, of endurance and inviolability. Also addressed are natural systems of decay and alteration as in the main room’s Accumulate, a pin-prick convergence of butterfly-like wings upon the wall, the edges of the fragile paper starting to turn in soft rusted corruption from their anchors. From above, Assemble’s field of gaunt pin figures, each fitted with a twist of ebon-stained gampi paper, reminded me of a passage from“War of the Worlds”, with its march of hostile alien colonisers, vulnerable looking but lethal-or a field of flowers gone to plague and ruin. Always available is the exquisite tension between buoyancy and strength (embodied clearly in Material Drawing 1, twisted and knotted paper given the appearance of rugged netting). It’s best to just surrender yourself to all the works, with their unique properties to seize upon your senses, drawing you well inside their beautifully arranged vortexes. Infinity runs through 2 December




Emilia’s Crafted Pasta 

If you’ve ever nursed a desire to visit the picturesque St. Katherine Dock in Wapping, you now have absolutely the best excuse. Located amongst a run of charming independent businesses (a local coffeehouse, wine bar, Mediterranean eatery, deli, tapas bar and the effusively beflowered front of the Dickens Inn, a former timber warehouse now repurposed as a pub with multiple restaurants), facing the marina, is this intimate, bespoke pasta palace. With a very succinct menu (7 mains, simply prepared with a modest two or three ingredients each, 2 salads, and a choice of 3 antipasti-including a decadently, impossibly creamy burata guaranteed to induce addiction with the first bite) and fresh pasta rolled out for each individual plate, this provides a clean, precise and piquant culinary odyssey. Service can be a bit leisurely, and the trim space, although warmly lit and appointed, can possibly be a bit too snug at peak hours (I’ve dined here twice in the summer months, so I’ve been spoiled with an al fresco seat), but with views so stunning and a location so elegant (perhaps angle your perspective so as not to include the unfortunate Brutalism of the Guoman Hotel at Tower Bridge), this will unlikely be too disruptive. For a similar experience, with much more boisterousness and bustle due to its position just outside Borough Market and near to London Bridge station is Padella, another smart, affordable bistro with a tidy menu and a brevity of ingredients-take a stool at the counter and watch the hustling cooks prepare the vegetables and meats that go straight into the pots and pans and onto plates. It’s a tad more hectic than Emilia’s, and the view is a bit more brusque. 






You no longer have to venture to the environs of Golders Green or Stamford Hill to sate the craving for beef brisket or corned beef (although plenty of  folks find satisfaction at the primarily takeaway Brick Lane stalwarts Beigel Bake and Beigel Shop, both cheap and cheerful, beloved of bleary-eyed students, ravenous tourists and tweaked-out clubbers): Hoxton now has its own modern, proper sit-down institution devoted to Jewish staples. The owners founded their business, as so many do today, as a food stall at Maltby Street Market, steadily growing their enterprise and reputation (a Michelin-starred chef visited their arch quite randomly and declaimed the virtues of their salt beef sandwich). Desiring to bring back a traditional deli to the East End, a spot became available on a rapidly gentrifying Hoxton High Street, and the restaurant was opened just this past spring, a 65-seater in the recently shuttered space of the long-serving Anderson’s Bakery (after 150 years, the family that ran it through several generations decided to retire altogether). Monty’s has retained the weathered porcelain features, installed a black-and-white block tile floor, a smart, sleek modern bar that runs the length of the space, stylish wooden booths (each capped off with classic globe lamps) and a minimalist gathering of tables just inside the door. The fare is tasty and prodigious in portion, and will gratify any desire for this particular comfort food.


Plaquemine Lock 

A traditional corner pub lot in a cosy nestle of beautiful Georgian properties in Islington, just off the Regent’s Canal, the Plaquemine offers a new menu devoted to the influences and flavours of Creole and Cajun cooking. The space is a glory of gold tones and glazed wood, colourful murals and a few lush curves. I visited for Sunday brunch, choosing a spin on eggs Benedict (eggs Sardou-in addition to the traditional poached eggs and spinach, artichoke hearts were included, the base a piece of cornbread, smothered in a Creole hollandaise sauce), accompanied by a side of fried okra. Collards, grits, fried green tomatoes and biscuits are all on hand, as well. Dinner offers crawfish, po’boy sandwiches, cracklings and gumbo, with beignets for the sweet selection. You would be forgiven for believing you were dining perhaps in the U.S. state of Georgia (or Alabama or Tennessee). The new mangers are fully invested in the cuisine and sensibility, so for those with a fond taste for this tangy regional style have a new, welcoming place to gather. It couldn’t be a more inviting area of London in which to immerse yourself.


Vanilla & Black 

The most established business on this list (opening in 2004), a recent visit confirmed for me that this is the spot for London’s most stylish, sophisticated vegetarian cooking. The owners insisted that the menu would not in the least rely upon soggy meat substitutes, (easy) heavy spicing, or overrely on the base of cheese and pasta. The dishes are wonders of imagination and creativity and design (precise placements of components, stellar swirls of sauces), but the plates are not just the sum total of their artful arrangements: the multiplicity and complexity of texture and flavour left me and my companions unable to not voice our pleasure and awe at every bite. Innovation with vegetables requires quite an artistic commitment, and in this regard the chef(s?) are terrifically restless in their studies.We were stunned at the marvelous deconstructions of ordinary ingredients-my peanut butter cheesecake appeared as if turned inside out, each aspect individualised, but combining to perfection with the sweep of the spoon. It’s not exactly inexpensive (£41 for three courses), but it is the perfect choice for a special occasion or for when friends visit, and the ambience is terrific-for all you know, you could be dining in someone’s parlour. The feeling of exclusivity extends even to the location, an obscure side street off of Chancery Lane-but once inside, a guest is treated warmly and unpretentiously. The meal included a tart amuse-bouche of apple juice and celery, a swift little kick to the senses, opening the channels for the transporting meal to follow. 









Full disclosure: I booked this inaugural production at Nicholas Hytner’s and Nick Starr’s brave venture at the One Tower Bridge development (arguably the most significant new commercial theatre of scale in London in several decades) less for the play then for the experience of the building and space-and in this respect, I was not disappointed. It’s modern and sleek without going overboard on design features, an elegance of economy and modesty ruling throughout. The foyer offers an appreciable spaciousness, a nest of pendant lamps wrapped in scrims of gold fabric casting a honeyed light upon the surroundings-even when quite populated, as the floor was on the Saturday matinee I attended, it’s possible to sculpt a personal space without feeling the crowd bearing down upon you. Inside the 900-seat performance space, the seating of which is adjustable for each production (amenable to traditional proscenium, promenade or thrust staging), it’s warm indirect lighting, lush curves of comfy seating (a rust-tinted blend of traditional fabric with flecks of leather) and soft bridgework of steel and wood, an unfussy and classy utilitarianism. The theatre is a private enterprise, funded by a group of investors, and will in no way chase after government or charitable subsidies-profit will depend solely on revenues generated from their programme (quite a world and challenge away from the founders’ previous tenure at the National Theatre, justly celebrated for the innovations and progress they brought to the august institution, and their ability to abundantly increase audience numbers). Hytner and Starr intend for equal representation for female playwrights and directors-the initial season features new pieces from Nina Raines, Lucinda Coxon and Lucy Prebble, and Laurie Sansom will direct the upcoming Nightfall.

As for the opening work, Richard Bean’s and Clive Coleman’s befuddling Young Marx, which seems to want to degrade Marx’s early life and struggles in London’s Soho neighbourhood to the level of farce or pantomime, I’m mystified. Suggesting that in his experiences in impecunious straits as a refugee Marx located the raw material for his future titanic work of socioeconomic philosophy Das Kapital is evocative, but the headlong, madcap pace, with every action pitched at a degree of hysteria, more often resembles a routine episode of Friends relocated to late 19th century England, constant streams of grand entrances and exits from the Marx flat with ample helpings of gesture and stage business (a disheartening majority of peripheral characters are broadly proportioned). So much of the material is pushed to such comic extremes that by the time the playwrights address more somber themes (a death, a burial, an outpouring of grief), it’s difficult to feel very moved, as the emotional foundations of the script haven’t been properly built. Bean and Coleman insist that all action and incident is based in what is accepted fact (Marx lived in poverty in a small flat with his family, he impregnated his housemaid, he and his wife lost children, Friedrich Engels supported him financially for a great part of his life and somehow agreed to name himself as the father of Marx’s lovechild, he duelled on Hampstead Heath, squabbled in the reading rooms of the British Library), but I can’t believe these life events tumbled along with the comedic tenor they assume here (the less said about the atrocious scene of the screwball brawl in the British Library, the better-like a very misjudged sequence in an earnest, but wayward, university production). It’s a reduction of a complicated and faceted life to an easily digestible trifle. Rory Kinnear bounds across the stage with selfish aplomb, a figure drinking his way through local pubs, cheerfully oblivious and ungrateful towards the loved ones working hard on his behalf-he’s meant to be a monstrous symbol of the overweening artist, a solipsistic behemoth, somehow excused because of perceived genius. Nothing here suggests the revolutionary man who will go on to write a landmark work. The handsome revolving set morphs smoothly from the squalid interior of the Marx residence to the back room of a pub where the league of rebels plot against the establishment to the streets and byways of Soho, capped off by a gray roofscape of chimneys and vents, which get a surprisingly fair amount of use. The material strains towards contemporary resonance with its themes of refugee crisis and border issues, the suspicions of authority towards foreigners, but the lightheartedness defeats the attempt. I could have done with less of the boisterousness of Marx and more of the reflection and steadiness of Engels (embodied with grace and integrity by Oliver Chris). One of the most effective scenes is of a late-evening drunken confessional conversation between the two combative friends, the play easing off for a brief moment from its incessant hectic thrust-otherwise, it treats their relationship like a music hall duo. The closing scene, with its underscoring of domestic tranquillity, Marx finally sat down, in the nascent stages of writing his opus, alludes to the idea of collaboration, discussing ideas and fielding proposals from his family and close friend. Young Marx continues through 31 December





Opened on 28 July, 2017 (but around in some form and structure from the early part of the 20th century, overseen by the Postal Heritage Trust), this museum devoted to the rich archival history of the Royal Mail and British postal system offers full immersion in the seismic and pioneering social experiment that led to the first revolutionary shifts in the scale and reach of communication. From its origins as a delivery scheme exclusive to the King and the Royal Court to the first public charters to inaugural days of transport (first by foot, then crude carriage vulnerable to atrocious road conditions and highwaymen) to its peak as a business through worlds wars (ferrying letters of love and grief), tremendous social upheaval and cultural shifts from the native to global, through to its evolutionary decline in the age of ever-more immediate technologies, all eras are covered. To the generation suckled on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Snapchat, the stodginess of this once-dominant format must seem awfully quaint. The museum is rampant with interactive displays (many of which, curiously, had already broken on my visit), and is housed with intriguing historic examples of transport vessels, various designs of post boxes through the ages, poster art (and issues of an in-house trade periodical), and a philatelic archive of particular interest to stamp collectors. There are also a surprising amount of wildly dramatic incidents and accounts to be read on display boards, more than you would imagine possible for such a seemingly conventional and straightforward business. The real draw for most will be the opportunity to experience a ride on the Mail Rail (for an additional price), located just across the road from the museum in the bowels of the Mount Pleasant sorting office, offering a 20-minute journey through the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels used by the Royal Mail between the years of 1927-2003. A relatively obscure bit of London lore, the tunnels encompass a 6.5 mile wide track running from Paddington Station to Whitechapel, criss-crossing tube lines, once an efficient way to carry loads of mail (somewhere in the vicinity of four million letters per day, operating on a 22-hour schedule!) between sorting stations without having to navigate congested London streets. Visitors board either of two recreations of original trains for a fairly truncated journey (the ride covers just over half a mile of track, solely within the parameters of the Mount Pleasant depot), stopping occasionally at platforms to hear personal accounts of former employees or to watch timeline videos and, unfortunately, have to endure for the length of the journey a fairly pedestrian and infantile commentary (try your best to shut it out of consciousness and simply enjoy the movement through the tunnel). I also caution those who may suffer claustrophobia, as the cars are of very snug dimensions-you feel keenly the cramp of every limb. Otherwise, you are free to amble around the space and try your hand at being the engineer or traffic controller or sorting employee for the line through the collection of artefacts on display. 

On my Instagram account, for those interested, I have posted two videos from my experience of the Mail Rail, one witness to a train arriving back from a run, the other a quick sensation of moving along the tunnel.