Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Where: Natural History Museum, SW7
When: Every day (until 11th March)
Website: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/temporary-exhibitions/wpy/
Price: £9 each
Rating:

If you had told me under-10s could produce such imaginative and impressive photos as those on display at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition I would never have believed you. Indeed it’s impossible to turn your head without finding an incredible photo, detailing the magnificence of the natural world.

The exhibition has two main sections. The first showcases young photographers, and is a fantastic display of emerging talent. The second, for professionals, is divided by theme. Insects, polar bears, wolves, hippos and chimpanzees were all gloriously captured on backlit screens in a darkened room.

As well as being visually striking, the exhibition also has a great interactive element. You can select your favourite photos from a touch screen monitor and scan your entrance ticket so you can save then to be digitally retrieved at home. A few of our favourites are below.

An additional upside for us was that we got in for free. Colin held a talk on space as part of Nature Live, and got 2 free exhibition tickets. A Nature live show involves hearing from a scientist about their specialist subject. There are daily talks on a range of topics and it’s free to attend. I would definitely recommend going along if there’s a topic of interest and you fancy learning something new.

Verdict: A visit to the Natural History to see the exhibition is highly recommended, particularly if you’re passionate about photography.There’s also plenty to see and do while you’re there and the cafe’s nice.

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Graphic Bar

Where: Golden Square, Soho, W1F
When: 17/01/12
Website: http://www.graphicbar.com/
Price: £7 – £8 a cocktail
Rating:

There are times when only a cocktail will do. Tuesday night was one of those nights. After a long day, at the beginning of a long week, and after seeing Steve Pretty regale us with the musically comedic tale of attending his own wake, Ruth and I headed for Graphic.

I had known about this bar, tucked away on the side of a square nestled behind the hustle and bustle of Soho’s main streets, for a while. It had been introduced to me by the blogging tour de force that is the Gin Monkey, who took me along last year. She is a much better reviewer of cocktail bars than us, and so you should really read her blog post on the place. However, here is a flavour of what we thought…

Set out in a spacious bar, with plenty of room between the old rustic tables, and art exhibits on the walls, Graphic boasts its own cocktail gimmick – drinks served in paint tins. In addition to the well established fixtures on the cocktail menu, you are able to sample Graphic’s very own Paint Tin Punch. All based on gin – the house specialty – it comes in five different incarnations, each assigned a different colour. Ruth went Green (Hendrick’s Gin, Fresh Cucumber & Mint, Fresh Lemon Juice, Lemon Bitters & Apple Juice); I went Blue (Plymouth Gin, Briottet Blackberry Liqueur, Fresh Blackberries, Lemon Juice, Orange Bitters & Cranberry Juice).

At £7 they are reasonably priced for a cocktail and boy did they hit the spot. Refreshing, tasty and very very easy to drink. So much so that we had two before disappearing back to Charing Cross for the train home.

Verdict: Mouthwatering cocktails, that don’t cost the Earth, in a great venue that wasn’t too crowded. Top tip would be trying to avoid a seat by the door as it quite often sticks open, exposing you to the bracing cold. Come summer, however, you’d be hard pushed to find a drink more refreshing than Graphic’s Paint Tin Punch.

How I attended my own wake and have the mix tape to prove it

Where: Lounge Room, Leicester Square Theatre, WC2H
When: 17/01/12
Website: http://www.stevepretty.com/
Price: £8
Rating:

It is not everyday that you hear someone claim to have attended their own wake, or that their friend had knocked together a mix tape for the event. What is more likely is that if these things had happened to you that you’d want to tell someone, or everyone, about it. So on Tuesday night we went to see Steve Pretty’s account of How I attended my own wake and have the mix tape to prove it. Not really knowing what to expect, we went along mostly because we thought it sounded a bit random (and I still hanker for the good old mix tape days). Due to the scourge of delayed trains, we walked into the tiny room to find the only remaining free seats were on the (empty) front row, only a few inches away from Steve’s performance area. It would be Colin’s undoing.

The show’s premise is that in 2004 the Daily Mail reported Steve dead. Despite the paper’s reputation for grave inaccuracies, his best friend subsequently organised a wake for him and put together a mix tape of meaningful songs to be played to gathered friends and family. Steve turned up to the wake, but then lost the mix tape – he recently found it in an old Ethiopian lunch box (!) and decided to write a show about the songs. To avoid any licensing obligations, Steve played excerpts of the songs with a trumpet, melodica (or keytar) and loop machine. We even witnessed, probably, the world’s only percussion performer of 3.5″ floppy disk against antique motherboard. He simultaneously played a tape with a voiceover commentary, explaining why the songs were important, with plenty of amusing anecdotes.

The show involved lots of audience participation, including singing along, playing the tambourine, and blowing whistles. Being on the front row we were inevitably picked on. Well Colin was. In order to demonstrate the ability of music to lighten up any situation, Colin was asked to stand at one end of the room, while another member of the audience shouted insults at him though a megaphone until he was extremely sad (although it did take a while to break him). Steve then played a circus tune through a teapot (yes a teapot) into his ear to cheer him up. Just like magic it worked!

As well as being great fun, the show also had extremely poignant moments, especially when Steve described the circumstances surrounding his death being reported – the 2004 Boxing day Tsunami. It also was very effective in making me think about the influence of music on mood, and how songs can transport us to particular places and memories.

The night ended with everyone joining in with a kazoo song and letting off party poppers. Despite it being a cold, dark January evening, I don’t think there was a single person who didn’t leave with a smile on their face. My only criticism was our proximity the to the front, as the trumpet was a little loud for my delicate ears. But in a small venue, and with delayed trains, what can you do.

Verdict: Steve Pretty is a talented comic and musician, and if you’re looking for an unusual comedy show this is perfect. Hopefully if you go and see one of his shows, like us, you’ll leave with your spirits raised, having had a great night.

Hummus Bros

Where: Southampton Row, Holborn, WC1B
When: 17/01/12
Website: http://www.hbros.co.uk/
Price: £3.50 – £5.30 for a small main course.
Rating:

When leaving a meeting in Russell Square on Tuesday my colleagues and I set off in search of lunch. The others decided to head to Hummus Bros on Southampton Row down near Holborn Tube station. I can’t say my first impressions of the idea were favourable – hummus has never been particularly high on the list of my favourite foods.

However, always open to trying new things, I relented and decided to join them. I am glad I did. Hummus Bros was a delight and, with outlets in Soho and St.Paul’s to boot, I urge you to get down there to sample their wares, even if like me you aren’t immediately drawn to chickpea cuisine.

Dishes are served in two sizes – regular and small – and consist of your own individual plate of hummus acting a base with a variety of toppings. Regular meals come with two pieces of delicious warm pitta; small meals are joined by a single slice. I plumped for the chunky beef combination – slow cooked chunks of tender beef to accompany the fresh, homemade hummus dusted with paprika. It was scrumptious, as was my drink of warm, spiced apple juice.

After our meal the really friendly staff brought us two small portions of malabi – a milk based desert with date honey – on the house. We also got a small glass of mint tea each for free. That was a great touch and a great marketing technique. Why spend money on expensive advertising when looking after your customers ensures favourable word-of-mouth? I would certainly recommend a trip.

Verdict: Delicious. Despite being highly sceptical at first, I was happy to be wrong as it was a great lunch and I will definitely be going back and taking Ruth. They also do takeaway and have several delivery options as well. I look forward to trying the other toppings, such as mushrooms, chicken or guacamole. Yum!

The Masters Snooker

Where: Alexandra Palace, N22
When: 15/01/12
Website: http://www.worldsnooker.com/page/TheMasters
Rating:

Snooker is sport’s answer to Marmite. For every person like me who loves it, there’s a significantly higher proportion of people who hate it. This merry band of disbelievers find the behaviour of people who can sit and watch 22 balls being knocked around a few square metres of baize mysterious at best. Others complain about their favourite daytime telly usurped by the sport on a handful of occasions throughout the year.

If you’ve reached this second paragraph then it should be safe to assume you, like me, are in the former, smaller group of snooker disciples. If so, you probably already know that the second most prestigious tournament in snooker is arguably The Masters – an elite, invite-only competition in London for the world’s top 16 players. No ranking points are offered in the capital; players compete for pride, glory and the £150,000 first prize.

The 2012 tournament sees The Masters depart from it long established home at Wembley and shift across North London to the lofty heights of Alexandra Palace. I sit here writing the start of this post from my seat in the audience before the opening match of the tournament – a mouth-watering clash between Chinese defending champion Ding Junhui and Ronnie O’Sullivan – snooker’s Mr Unpredicatable. That match will be followed by Williams vs Maguire tonight.

Having attended the Master’s twice before, at the Wembley Conference Centre in 2005 and Wembley Arena in 2011, my first impressions of the new venue aren’t good. I can’t help but feel the tournament has been downgraded. The inside of the arena, where the table is, looks identical. However the venue itself falls short. The box office is a table; the merchandise stall has all the appeal and organisation of a school tuck shop. There is insufficient catering for the 1,500 spectators and these have to be shared with members of the public. As do the 10 urinals and two toilet cubicles.

Hopefully these are fixable teething problems at a fledgling venue as it would be a shame to tarnish snooker’s showcase of the best of the best.

For the record:

O’Sullivan survived a late Ding comeback to clinch a 6-4 victory with a break of 125.

Williams soared to a 4-0 mid-session interval lead before Maguire fought back to trail 5-4, before being snookered by Williams who used the opportunity to take the win.

Verdict: Despite the concerns over the venue, I came here to watch some of the best snooker players do battle and for that the Masters is London’s only chance to witness their talents. At £25 for an all day ticket, taking in two matches, the value is brilliant. I ended up seeing 20 frames – £1.25 a frame. You’d struggle to play the game for yourself for that price. I’d take O’Sullivan’s meticulously compiled, match-winning century break over my mediocre mid-30s efforts any day.

Fire and Stone Pizza Restaurant

Where: Covent Garden, WC2
When: 12/01/12
Website: http://www.fireandstone.com/pizza/coventgarden/index.asp
Price: £7 – £11 for a pizza.
Rating:

It is often a fruitless exercise to reinvent the wheel. Unless that wheel is made of dough and covered in curry that is. Fire & Stone in Covent Garden is a pizza place with a twist: conventional toppings are replaced with a wealth of different worldly ingredients to create a range of truly different pizzas.

The menu is divided between five of the seven world continents – South America has been combined with its northernly neighbour into simply “the Americas”; Antarctica was probably omitted as not even Londoners could stomach a penguin and walrus steak pizza with ice cube shavings.

What remains is a potential trip around the globe in 23 different pizzas, ranging from Jamaica and Jakarta to Melbourne and Marrakech. The cheapest destination on your culinary travels is Naples – the bog standard mozzarella, tomato sauce and basil at £6.95. The stop that will leave the biggest total on your bill (£10.55) is, unsurprisingly perhaps, Texas – BBQ sauce, mozzarella, BBQ rump steak, roasted red onions, roasted field mushrooms and sun-dried tomato salsa.

For starters we split a dish of grilled bruschetta with Parma ham, melted brie, caramelised onion jam and pesto. It was delicious and washed down with some of the tasty wine we shared at a not too pricey £14.85.

When it came to the pizzas, Ruth went East and I stayed a little closer to home….

Ruth: Jakarta – satay sauce, mozzarella, satay chicken, spinach, aubergine and red chilli, topped with slow-roasted tomato chutney, roasted peanuts and coriander.

If I had to pick a last meal it would probably be satay chicken. So while I’m not normally a fan of mixing cuisines I couldn’t resist the Jakarta pizza. The base was lovely and crispy, but unfortunately the topping didn’t quite meet my expectations. Without a tomato based sauce, the pizza was a little dry and the chutney was an odd addition. Overall it was good to try something different, and the satay sauce was perfect, but I think I’d stay closer to home next time.

Colin: San Sebastian – mozzarella, tomato sauce, spicy chorizo sausage, garlic and rosemary roast potatoes, roasted red peppers, topped with aioli and chives.

The pizza was nice but be warned the potatoes are deceptively filling – halfway through I was already getting full. The chorizo was gorgeous, and, instead of by diced up really small, was fanned out in half sausages across the pizza. A nice touch. My only complaint was the aioli, of which there was far too much and at times it came to rule the roost over the other subtler flavours.

Verdict:

The pizzas were good although a little overloaded with ingredients that didn’t always compliment each other as well as you might hope. At the same time, though, that is also the reason to go to Fire & Stone: to try a different sort of pizza. Roast dinners, curries, English breakfasts can all be found on top of pizza bases and the prices don’t break the bank. If it weren’t for the round-the-globe gimmick, it would clock up 3 stars. It gets an extra half for daring to be different.

Micha Fine Foods (Takeaway)

Where: Old Spitalfields Market, E1
When: 07/01/12
Rating:

Fast food may see your stomach full minutes after parting with your pennies, but it is often a disappointment. Nothing could be further from the truth at Micha Fine Foods on the edge of Old Spitalfields Market.

We could smell it before we saw it. Intrigued, we turned the corner to find a variety of amazing looking food all laid out immaculately. From pasta to pies, soups to salads, they boast a wealth of choices many with a Mediterranean theme. You’ll also find falafel, kofta and the ingenious bread bowls – a clever cocktail of pasta, sauce and freshly-baked bread casing. In fact, it was a tough decision to choose from the plethora of options on show.

I went for the fajita wrap. Sounds a little mundane, but this was a fajita with a difference – gone was the thin tortilla casing, replaced with grilled flat bread. The simple substitution made such a difference; every mouthful was a delight. Despite the toasting of the flat bread on the outside, the chicken was beautifully moist on the inside. Ruth had the Crispy Chicken Wrap, complete with sweet chilli sauce, and was soon joining me in a chorus of superlatives.

Verdict: Amazing. Best fast food in a while and certainly the best fajita I have ever had. At £3.50 it left my stomach full without emptying my pocket. Will definitely be going back to try some of the other amazing looking grub on offer.

Judy’s Affordable Vintage Fair

Where: Spitalfields Market
When: 07/01/12
Website: http://www.vintagefair.co.uk
Rating:

We went along to Judy’s at Spitalfields on Saturday to try and pick up some vintage bargains for our new flat. The majority of stalls were for clothing and jewellery, and if that’s what you’re going for you’re in for a treat. Lots of unusual things at cheap prices. It was a bit limited for what we were looking for – most things we saw were 60s/70s, and the market was smaller than we expected, but it’s still absolutely worth a look. We ended up leaving with two 1960s Vogue prints of Donna Mitchell by photographer Jean-Loup Sieff (see below). The shops around the market are also really interesting – full of old furniture, melting clocks and globes.

Verdict: Perfect for those looking for vintage clothing bargains. Rest of Spitalfields a great place to pick up a bite to eat and/or grab a coffee. Pop down there for an hour.

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Kino London – The Monthly Open Mic Short Film Night

Where: Vibe Bar, Brick Lane
When: 05/01/12 (and every first Thursday of the month)
Website: http://www.kinolondon.com/
Rating:

We wanted to start 2012, and our plan to make the most of London, with something a little bit different and unusual. What we didn’t expect to find was Shoreditch’s answer to Keith Lemon in a trilby. Let me explain: on Thursday we went to Kino – a monthly open mic short film night where anyone can screen films under six minutes.

Arriving at Vibe Bar, we were asked by two separate people where Kino was – obviously we looked the part. The bar is classic shabby chic, mismatched chairs/sofas and very Shoreditch (there was even free popcorn). The night started off with a screening of ‘His Haunted Laughter’, a silent film about a deranged clown introduced by film-maker Jamie H. Scrutton, or as we will forever know him – Keith (could easily have been Leigh Francis hiding behind a hat!). We, and perhaps the rest of audience too, weren’t entirely convinced by the film. It was visually interesting but fell slightly on the pretentious side of innovative and we were a bit concerned about what the night would bring.

However, the films that followed allayed our fears and included ‘The Event’, a film about a mystery vision in the sky, and Colourvision, exploring relationships and race. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, an excellent animated film with no dialogue, and a trailer for our favourite, ‘Daydreams’, by Yemi Barimo, are embedded below alongside Scrutton’s effort. Barimo’s story of elderly people in a care home expertly conveyed poignancy, humour, sadness, memory and loss in 7.5 minutes (breaking the rules!) The audience was transfixed and Yemi received a deserved huge applause.

Other highlights included Molly Brown’s very funny ‘Guide to Fine Dining’, which included the amusing abbreviation of CYH-SEO (Careful You’ll Have Someone’s Eye Out). The food theme continued with ‘Dining’ by Johnny Pratt, a film about a woman with a Zombie husband attempting to live a normal suburban lifestyle. ‘The Spy’ by Andy Lewis (a Kino regular) was shot entirely on an iPhone 4. The biggest laugh of the night came during ‘A Game of Monopoly’ by Gusack Movies, a trailer for a film based on Monopoly in the style of Ridley Scott – very funny and a great idea.

There was also an opportunity for anyone in the audience to come up with film ideas to be made for the London Short Film Festival. Made in one week, with anyone involved in the filming, they’ll be screened on Thursday 12th. Our favourite ideas were ‘Dolphin in a coma’ and ‘Because today we are remembering grass’. ‘Occupy Yourself’, a previous Kino challenge about sex line addiction (and an angry miniskirt), was screened by a group of people who had only met for the first time a month earlier.

The night provided some fantastic examples of innovative film-making and exciting new directors, and certainly provided something different. The films were a little hit and miss, but at an average of 5 minutes per film, this really didn’t matter. The audience participation for the Kino challenges was also great fun. There is a full bar upstairs where the films are screened and, while the prices were cheap, there was a single, fairly useless barman for around 100 people. Get your drinks for the night early!

Verdict:

If you’re interested in film and looking for something different to do in London this is a great night, and for only £4 each it’s really cheap. Go with an open mind, and I’m sure like us you’ll appreciate the talent of the film makers and actors involved and see something a little unexpected.

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