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From Berets To Fedoras: Hats Off To Laird Hatters

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FROM BERETS TO FEDORAS: HATS OFF TO LAIRD HATTERS

WORDS BY MEGHNA MUKERJEE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

Meghna Mukerjee steps into Laird Hatters in search of the elusive, perfect hat.

I’ve always liked hats. I suspect my closest friend was born wearing one. Growing up, she walked dogs wearing hats, went for tuition wearing hats (she did), played chor-police wearing caps (which is fair enough) and you could seldom find her without some paraphernalia atop her head.

In a city where the notorious “monkey-cap” made its annual appearance (whether you liked it or not), my friend carried off fancy hats all-year-round with aplomb. On entering her house, a wooden hat rack would greet me. I loved that hat rack and occasionally trying on the hats. I would imagine strutting to work in high heels, a long coat and a hat (beret specifically for some odd reason). The high heels and long coat eventually came together, but the beret remained elusive. You either have a hat-head or you don’t. I know from bitter experience that no matter how much you like a particular type of hat and take to it, you cannot change the way it takes to you.

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Every winter, without doubt, I try to get on with the humble beret. Every winter, I decide otherwise. That doesn’t stop me from admiring berets or hats in general, especially in London – the home of Sherlock Holmes, who would be incomplete without his natty Deerstalker. Be it flat caps or fascinators, the British love headgear, and Laird Hatters & Co. celebrates the best of British hats and caps.

Laird Hatters’ Covent Garden store combines two shop units. It has a ’50s feel even though it was set up in 2009. They don’t do fascinators – that’s a different ballgame. I had been past this shop a few times without going inside, but one summer afternoon I convinced myself I needed a hat, so there was one place to head to – Laird Hatters.

“Feel free to try them on,” said a friendly voice in the store. On expressing my shy past with hats, the gentleman said with complete confidence, “There’s a hat for everyone!” Right. I wasn’t as convinced.

Laird Hatters isn’t a big store, but their collection of hats and caps certainly is. All their products are made in Hertfordshire, and quality is of paramount importance. British textiles and materials are sourced diligently to craft traditional pieces with modern nuances. The quality of the Carludovica Palmate or palm leaves from Ecuador determines the prices of their hand-woven Panama hats. The Top Hats range from approximately £60 to £400. The fedoras cost an average of £95, the wool ones being cheaper.

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There are feathered and colourful hats adding a touch of fun. The Baker Boy, Duck Bill, Bowler, Homburg – you can find a variety here in tweed, felt, fur and more. Laird Hatters has also collaborated with several British designers. Reportedly, Keira Knightley and Yoko Ono, among other celebrities, regularly wear Laird Hatters. Also their hat boxes – bold and black with gold details – are most alluring.

I was drawn to the cloche and fedoras, and I tried on many. On a sweltering day in London, trying rich winter hats instead of going for straw hats felt a tad silly. But it was an invigorating experience, going from femme-fatale to feminine in a matter of seconds with just a change of hat. It ultimately felt right.

Did I buy a hat from Laird Hatters that afternoon? No. Will I give my beret another go this winter? Yes. But the impulse trip was not a complete waste of time, as I did scope out a potential hat to buy when the autumn arrives. It’s a camel-coloured fedora, and the more I think about it, the more it feels right. The beret may not be my thing, but at Laird Hatters they say there is a hat for everyone. And I like the sound of that.

Laird Hatters also has stores at The Strand and Soho.

Laird Hatters, 23 New Row, London WC2N 4LA. Phone: 020 7240 4240

 
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The Rock and Roll Lineage of Olympic Studios Cinemas

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THE ROCK AND ROLL LINEAGE OF OLYMPIC STUDIOS CINEMAS

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MEGHNA MUKERJEE

The glamorous history of Olympic Studios spans theatre to television studio to recording studio to today’s cinemas.

“Abbey Road had The Beatles. We had everyone else.” The words embellish the opening film that plays before any movie starts at the Olympic Studios cinema in Barnes. Clips featuring The Rolling Stones recording Sympathy for the Devil light up the screen. These are unmistakable faces with their ’60s hairstyles and bright clothing. Suddenly it becomes real. They were here. They were all here.
I don’t tire of that titillating realisation that my local Sunday-night-movie-fix cinema is where Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Madonna, Prince, B.B. King Pink Floyd, Arctic Monkeys and the Spice Girls, among many others, recorded music over decades. It’s true that arch-rival Abbey Road Studios did have The Beatles, but the boys from Liverpool recorded the original tracks of All You Need Is Love and Baby, You’re a Rich Man at Olympic Studios.
Olympic Studios’ story is one of life coming full circle. The building that started out as a cinema is, now, a cinema again, but it’s gone through its share of diversions. And what extraordinary diversions they’ve been.
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Known as Byfeld Hall back in 1906, it was a theatre for the Barnes Repertory Company. It was consequently known as Barnes Cinema (1910) and Barnes Picture House (1922). It had a stint being Barnes Theatre (mid-1920s) and hosting stage productions. In one of its incarnations, the building was called The Ranelagh. It made yet another comeback as a television studio (1950s) and was eventually bought by Olympic Sound Studios (1965) to become its most famous self. Olympic Studios, as I know it, came into its present avatar in 2013. The current owners have created a state-of-the-art, luxurious cinema that pays respect to the studio’s history.
On my first visit, I was awestruck. The Rolling Stones recorded six consecutive albums here, between 1966 and 1972. This is where Led Zeppelin recorded their debut in 1968 and Queen recorded the album A Night At The Opera. The music for films such as The Italian Job and the celluloid version of Jesus Christ Superstar was recorded and produced at the studio. U2 were the last to record at Olympic Studios as recently as 2009. Being awestruck was justified.
The handsome building, soft lighting at reception, potted plants and vintage furniture give Olympic Studios more of a boutique hotel aura than a cinema. There are two screens in this three-storied cinema complete with wide reclining seats that I love to sink into. The bulk of the furniture has been sourced from an abandoned cruise liner, and the chairs came from an Indian ship. The blood-red colour scheme and heavy curtains exude a sense of grandeur. At the Sweet Shop, I’m always drawn to the paper bags full of candy and popcorn in four flavours (salted, sweet and salted, sweet and salted toffee). There’s also homemade ice cream.
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The masterstrokes are the Members Club lounge and Music Room (bar). I’ll admit I’ve peeped into the Members Club, and it looks like somewhere you could casually run into Mick Jagger. The third floor Music Room is cosier, with retro furniture and a humongous disco ball that I want to take home. Another highlight is the sprawling Café & Dining Room, which I’m yet to try but is popular in its own right.
There’s history strewn around with care at the Olympic Studios cinemaa restored electric piano at the bar, a doormat saying “Olympic Studios” from its glory years framed elsewhere. Being here almost feels like being inside a film – one that hasn’t stopped rolling for over a century. Through its many makeovers, this building continues to add more entertainment and anecdotes to its already rich storyline. And at 110-years, another life for this iconic space has only just begun.
At £15 per ticket, Olympic Studios cinema is relatively expensive but definitely worth a visit as the movie experience is plush and it’s solidly part of music history.
Olympic Studios Cinemas, 117-123 Church Rd, London SW13 9HL. Phone: 020 8912 5161 
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Drinking Cream Tea At St. Anne’s Church Cemetery

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DRINKING CREAM TEA AT ST. ANNE’S CHURCH CEMETERY

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MEGHNA MUKERJEE

St. Anne’s Church in Kew is an unlikely – but charming – spot for afternoon tea and scones amidst the dear departed.

During my time in the UK, I have sampled high teas in quaint B&Bs, famed tea rooms in picturesque villages and high-end city spots such as The Dorchester and Fortnum & Mason- but churchyard teas resonate with me because of their simplicity.

Afternoon tea at St. Anne’s church in Kew Green is inimitable. Between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Sundays during the summer (May-September), you can enjoy home-made cream teas at this 18th century churchyard that faces the Green. If the weather is pleasant, it’s the perfect spot to enjoy the sun, read a book, have a chat or watch the cricket on the Green. There is often live music at the church to lure you in.

Sitting in someone’s resting place, having a cup of tea with cakes and scones is unforgettable.. It is a happy experience – being among the missed and loved ones of so many. But there is also a mysterious quality to it. So many unknown stories are buried underneath each of the tombs, so many memories floating between the graves upon which we casually place our tea cups.

You won’t miss dainty sandwiches or crafted pastries at St. Anne’s – the ambience makes up for the lack of them.

On our first visit to St Anne’s, we sat next to the grave of a certain George Goodman with our tea and cake (for which we paid no more than £5.50). A lot of George Goodman’s tomb stone has succumbed to age and is hidden amidst tall grass, giving away only snatches of information about his life and family. There are two Grade II listed monuments at the churchyard as well – the tombs of the artists Johan Zoffany and Thomas Gainsborough. The church building itself is Grade II listed.

These summer teas are about volunteering. Every week, a leader, four helpers and a cashier are required. The average age group of those serving and occupying the church tearoom, generally, is above 50 years. There is a sense of community as the volunteers and several visitors are church regulars. But this doesn’t stop passerby from giving this tea a go. With Kew Gardens at walking distance, there is a free-flow of guests from across countries and age groups.

There is no fancy bone china at St Anne’s. The tea is made using tea bags. The wholesome cakes do not have any fancy glazes or twists. The flavours are kept simple – chocolate, coffee or Victoria sponge – so if you’re looking for praline meringue cake with cocoa cream (or the likes) you’re better off going somewhere else. You’ll get chunky slices, though, and the taste won’t disappoint. The plain and fruit scones have rugged edges that don’t interfere with their scrumptiousness. The scones come with a selection of jams and clotted cream.

Tea was only introduced to England during the 1660s by King Charles II and his Portuguese wife Catherine of Braganza. The foreign princess and her affinity to tea had a lot to do with propelling the popularity of the beverage in Britain.

The reign of Charles II was crucial for the growth of the British tea trade, and he hugely favoured The East India Company. In fact, part of Catherine’s dowry to Charles II was the city of Mumbai (then Bombay). The valuable Indian port became the Company’s Far East trading headquarters. In 1840, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna, is said to have unintentionally cultivated the idea of “afternoon tea” and by the 1880s it became an upper-class social activity.

You won’t miss dainty sandwiches or crafted pastries at St. Anne’s – the ambience makes up for the lack of them. It’s a relaxed couple of hours spent in a lovely setting, for a good cause. And the experience is much like butterfly wings. Once the summer goes, it goes with it.

I find a sense of peace in churchyards, and adding tea and cake to it is a contented mix. It’s not on the tombstones but in all likelihood George Goodman alongside Johan Zoffany, Thomas Gainsborough and the others resting there enjoyed their cup of tea.

St. Anne’s Church, Kew Green, TW9 3AA. Phone: 020 8332 7156

 
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A Spot Of Weekend Cricket At Kew Green

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A SPOT OF WEEKEND CRICKET AT KEW GREEN

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MEGHNA MUKERJEE

London on sunny summer weekends sees players and cricket fans alike enjoy the game at Kew Green.

Sunny days in London, as and when they do come about, are a thing of beauty. Everyone seems washed over in a warm and happy glow. As millenials hashtag it proudly on social media, no filters needed. Out come the sunglasses and shorts, the flip-flops and tans. Cricket bats, balls, pads and gloves come out too.

I cannot overstate the importance of cricket in most Indians’ lives. We grow up watching and playing it. We idolise cricketers and spend long, hot days at stadiums loudly cheering our team on and doing the Mexican Wave. It is pure drama, insanity and joy.

I don’t know when I started loving cricket, but it has always been in my life. It was the first subject of conversation between my (now) husband and me, and it was a topic that he and my father bonded over. Cricket, for many reasons, is special to me, and I have a lot of time for it – especially on Sundays.

We often take our packed lunches and go along to watch friendly cricket matches at Kew Green in West London on Sundays. We always forget to carry along a picnic blanket.

The Green is lush and inviting all year-round, but on summer weekends it turns into a cricket lover’s haven.

Kew Green is the home grounds for the Kew Cricket Club, which emerged in 1882 as the merger of Kew Oxford Cricket Club and Kew Cambridge Cricket Club. The game itself has been played on Kew Green, reportedly, since the 1700s. The Green is lush and inviting all year-round, but on summer weekends it turns into a cricket lover’s haven. The League games take place on Saturdays, so the vibe on Sundays is light-hearted. Men in white can be seen playing their most enthusiastic game amidst an audience that cares in varying degrees.

I enjoy people-watching on Kew Green almost as much as I enjoy the cricket. It’s interesting to watch families cheering on relatives and club members encouraging teammates. Many regulars have their favourite benches to perch on and trees to lean against. Alongside these patrons who have eyes for nothing else but the game, you can also find a smattering of couples who’d rather look at each other while romancing over prosecco and strawberries, with cricket being just the backdrop.

With a selection of sandwiches, crisps and fruits at hand, my husband and I park ourselves on the Green for the entire afternoon. There are a number of options around if we get thirsty – several upscale pubs flank the Green, but the one closest to it is aptly called The Cricketers, and it offers a comprehensive selection of cask and craft beers alongside over 15 varieties of gin. The Cricketers feels like a traditional country pub out of anywhere but London. The terraced seating in the front faces the pitch and is a comfortable spot to watch the game from, and getting a seat here at the weekend isn’t easy as a lot of locals drop in for lunch or a snack. The pub used to be called Rose & Crown, but in 2013 it underwent an extensive refurbishment and was renamed in keeping with the area’s rich cricket history.

There’s also the Kew CC Club House with its lovely pavilion located on the Green itself. You don’t need to be a member to walk in and get a pint of lager or G&T. The glasses may be chipped and service maybe choppy, but the prices are subsidised and the Club House has a sense of community that few pubs can match.

Summer at Kew Green can be about a lot of things – sunbathing, lazing, going for relaxing walks – but over the weekend it is about cricket, and the game does what it does best: bring people together in shared hope and enthusiasm. There’s never enough of a crowd, but I’ve occasionally tried starting the Mexican Wave here (standing up, flailing my arms in the air and making that “Hey” sound…). It hasn’t quite caught on, to put it politely. I’ll keep working on that.

Kew Cricket Club, The Pavilion, Kew Green, Kew TW9 3AH. Phone: 020 8940 9155.

 

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The Italian Job At Islington

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THE ITALIAN JOB AT ISLINGTON

WORDS BY MEGHNA MUKERJEE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

I am about 70 per cent coffee 30 per cent water daily. Over the years, I have found my coffee sanctuaries in London – one of them is an artisan café selling organic fare in Stoke Newington, another is a modest Italian diner near Farringdon. The third – especially in the summer – is a drycleaner’s kiosk opposite Angel underground station.

It all began when, while visiting Rome in the summer of 2014, I fell in undiluted love with the Illy Crema – a delectable, creamy and refreshing drink – and consumed copious amounts of it. Like most visitors to Rome, I took away the grandeur of its history and architecture. But I also took away a new coffee muse.

Illy Crema lingers on your mind longer than it does on your taste buds. The Crema cups are compact as the ice-blended drink is heavy. You could slurp with a straw or spoon into the velvety goodness.

In London I had found no Illy Crema alternatives. No Italian café I had come across made it. I’m not even comparing the generic frappuccinos to it. But by a stroke of luck last year, I noticed Illy Crema being sold for £2 at this drycleaner’s kiosk – Fontaines @ The Angel. After a sceptical few minutes mentally debating what the quality of coffee from a dry-cleaning booth might be, I went for it. The first sip assured me that my favourite Italian drink had made her way to London in all her authenticity. The coffee sold in this tiny makeshift outfit makes a clean sweep, leaving fancy cafés out to dry (…I had to).

The first sip assured me that my favourite Italian drink had made her way to London in all her authenticity.

I made sure to pass by this dry cleaner’s daily. Eventually, Jeremy – who works there – didn’t need to be told what I wanted when I arrived. He even made an effort on busy days to save a cup of Crema for me.

Always with a smile on his face, Jeremy, a former golf professional, has had an interesting life, which I occasionally heard about. The last couple of years have been harsh and unfair to him, but I never saw him devoid of hope or positivity. His attention to the quality of coffee was also reassuring. “I think the machine was slow earlier today so I’ll give you this cup for free,” he told me one evening. Nobody would’ve noticed, really, but he didn’t want to sell something even marginally compromised.

As the familiar winter chills arrived (it does only too quickly in London) my trips to the drycleaner’s kiosk for Crema dwindled. I was keener on bundling up in woollens and sipping steaming mochas. And so passed 2015.

A sunny day always blends spoonfuls of enthusiasm in me. On one such day this May, I walked to the drycleaners to check on the return of my beloved Crema. Jeremy, still smiling, was surprised and then unsurprised to see me.

“We did the Crema for the Christmas week. Were you not here?” he asked. “I didn’t know!” I said. Dammit.

I’m happy to report that the Illy Crema is back and so are my almost daily walks by the Fontaines @ The Angel. Finding a delicious cup of coffee, especially where you least expect it, is a thrill. This is certainly one of them.

The drycleaner’s kiosk now proudly displays a banner saying “Dry Cleaning and Coffee” and does hot coffees starting at 8 a.m. It makes sense, since it stands strategically opposite a busy tube station. I don’t know how many Londoners will give their coffee a chance, but if you haven’t tried the Crema yet, you’re missing out. If that is anything to go by, the hot coffees there must be good too. Oh, and I’m sure the actual dry-cleaning services are not bad either.

Kiosk 3, Islington High Street, Islington N1 9LH. Phone: 020 7833 4521

 
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Laced With Love

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LACED WITH LOVE

WORDS BY MEGHNA MUKERJEE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

As part of our Kickstarter rewards, we offered backers the chance to have a story written about a place, establishment or person they would like featured on The City Story. Deborah Cohen recommended VV Rouleaux in Marylebone. Thank you, Deborah, for your support!

Haberdasheries are a thing of amusement for me. I grew up, luckily, watching my very creative mum turn old shawls and saris into dresses for my sister and I, coats for the stray dogs around where we lived in Kolkata during the winters, ornate table mats and pillowcases. If I didn’t like an outfit, my mum knew exactly where to add a pattern to turn it into one that I adored. We would often go pick up the trimmings together and the excitement I felt imagining what would eventually become of those supplies is palpable, even in memory.

I have unfortunately inherited none of that resourcefulness, but I know my mum will love VV Rouleaux. It sits at the corner of a street dotted with some interesting retailers – a buttons-only store, a shop selling all kinds of jams and chutneys. But VV Rouleaux is in its own league and is on a mission to make anyone feel unique. It’s the Marilyn Monroe of haberdasheries. You cannot help being drawn in.

You can find an overwhelming variety of ribbons on offer – silk, cotton, velvet, satin, and taffeta. Printed, monochrome or polka-dotted, this shop has all the trimmings and tassels you’d never think existed and didn’t know you wanted. Reams and rows of colours capture your imagination – a future cushion cover here, a potentially fancy waistcoat there and maybe some kitsch buttons for effect on a necklace.

Printed, monochrome or polka-dotted, this shop has all the trimmings and tassels you’d never think existed and didn’t know you wanted.

It’s not just the variety of ribbons and materials, though, that captive your senses at VV Rouleaux. There are the feathers – lavish and bold – that sprinkle glamour across the small store. The gorgeous hats, fascinators and hair bands make you want to throw a Great Gatsby themed party just to have an occasion to do them justice. These pieces are for the confident. There’s hardly anything understated about VV Rouleaux.

Annabel Lewis, the founder of VV Rouleaux, closed her flower shop in Parsons Green to open a ribbon shop in 1990. Her love for flowers, however, is apparent here as you can feast your eyes on a selection of beautiful, hand-made flowers of all colours and sizes. It’s an ideal destination to find statement corsages as well.

VV Rouleaux has won numerous awards for its impeccable style and its products adorn the pages of almost all leading fashion and interior decorating publications regularly. You can also buy these products at UK’s high-end retailers such as Liberty and John Lewis. But this store at Marylebone embodies what VV Rouleaux is about – individuality and panache. From its vintage, quirky lampshades to the glitzy window displays, it spells out exclusivity in every inch, giving you all the ingredients you need to create something special, something rare.

I now have a bunch of multicoloured lace and ribbons from VV Rouleaux occupying a shelf in my cupboard (I dare anyone to go in there and not spend a pretty penny). I don’t know how to use any of it but I’ll save them for the next time I see my mum. While I can only admire the rows of silks and satins and run my fingers across the different textures, my mum can bring them to life. She always knows exactly what to do with a smile and a ribbon.

VV Rouleaux, 102 Marylebone Lane, London W1U 2QD. Phone: 020 7224 5179
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speakers-corner-hyde-park-london-free-speech

Cliffhanging Off The Soapbox

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CLIFFHANGING OFF THE SOAPBOX

WORDS BY MEGHNA MUKERJEE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

I was introduced to Speakers’ Corner – the home of free speech – by my father. Whenever he’s in London we visit the north-eastern corner of Hyde Park, close to Marble Arch. Here, speakers are welcomed on Sundays to talk about any subject they choose. Speakers don’t enjoy any legal immunity, but the police and audiences are largely tolerant.
Created in the late 19th century after years of workers’ protests and riots at Hyde Park over the Sunday Trading Bill, Speakers’ Corner became one of the few places where socialist speakers could debate. Frequented by the likes of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell described it as “one of the minor wonders of the world”.
Some people stumble upon Speakers’ Corner while enjoying Hyde Park, but many others attend these Sunday sessions regularly. In my experience, people encourage robust commentary and even doses of heckling, but the main aim is to have a space to voice personal views. Many other British cities as well as countries such as New Zealand, Malaysia and Canada have created Speakers’ Corners of their own.
We have our ritual, my father and I. We stroll around the iconic park and make our way to Speaker’s Corner, specifically to its strategically placed refreshments cafe. Coffees in hand, we find an empty bench and listen. No matter what any speaker is saying, there’s a strong “live and let live” undercurrent. On my last visit, I remember a man speaking fervently about Christianity, another about the increase in the cost of living in Palestine and the country’s economic policies and yet another about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

If freedom of speech is in danger, a no-judgement zone is imperative.

In February of this year I followed the news from India about the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students’ Union President. He was charged with sedition over a protest and branded “anti-national”. I watched the theatrics in Parliament and the outpour of opinions across social and commercial media. Freedom of speech is one of India’s core fundamental rights – a definitive pillar of any democracy. I imagine students anywhere will debate, provoke and protest. You’d think allowing debate would empower and strengthen the foundation of a democracy, and yet, there are suddenly new rules to play by.
It seems to boil down to a group of people not being able to tolerate others’ choices or opinions. “Our-beliefs-our-laws-our-rules-are-the-only-ones-that-matter”. Unsavoury opinions have no place here.
This, however, is not an India specific phenomenon. A wing-clipped approach to freedom of speech has been a focal point of disagreement in Western universities for years. Many have pointed out how the protection of free speech is meaningless if that only entails freedom of speech deemed “appropriate”.
Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia University have faced criticism regularly for heavily censoring their students. Books such as Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate talk extensively about how restrictions at US universities have taught students the “wrong lessons about living in a free society”.
The extreme-political-correctness culture is an issue in the UK too with the 2016 Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) published by Spiked, an online magazine, revealing that 90% of British universities actively censored freedom of speech on campus – up from 80% in 2015. Some of the most prestigious UK universities, worryingly, feature high up on this list.
A few years ago I thought Speakers’ Corner was a place for eccentrics. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would need a designated area to speak their minds. But now I understand. A predominantly neutral, prejudice-free zone for one’s views is becoming increasingly rare.
If freedom of speech is in danger, a no-judgement zone is imperative. I think my father always knew this but let me evolve past my initial superficial perceptions into a realisation of the importance of the essence of Speakers’ Corner. I’m grateful to him for that.
Perhaps Speakers’ Corner has a lesson for everyone, everywhere – lessons of acceptance, respecting different opinions, allowing people to have diverse values and priorities, all while peacefully coexisting. If we are to counter a growing climate of widespread intolerance, the more Speakers’ Corners the better.
Speakers’ Corner, North East edge of Hyde Park, London, W2 2UH 
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Love Song For The Locavore

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LOVE SONG FOR THE LOCAVORE

WORDS BY MEGHNA MUKERJEE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

My flirtation with natural wines* is a 2016 thing. I don’t know if it will go anywhere but we’re in a buoyant phase, and it’s fun. I like its fresh-faced cloudy colours, its unrefined appeal – it’s not love yet, nowhere close, but lust it is.

For me, this lust is slightly unnatural as I am, generally, bored by oenophiles (or even meta- oenophiles). Over the years I’ve developed a taste for Merlots and Malbecs, but I start rolling my eyes right around the time others start swirling their tipple in their mouths with raised eyebrows and profound deliberations.

I’m genuinely interested in getting to know natural wines, though, and having seen those words in large font and muted pantones of white splashed across the glass window of Yield N16 on Newington Green, I could not pass by without some perusal.

Sourcing its products from independent bakers, brewers, butchers and vintners, Yield N16 aims to “celebrate the hand-made, home-made and personal passion” of these providers.

I noticed Yield N16 – the wine and charcuterie shop and bar – on my bus journey back home from work one evening. On days when the double-decker is not overcrowded, I enjoy the inadvertent anticipation of unremarkable corner shops and the two-up-two-down houses I glance at daily. The sights roll by, as I know they will, and anything out of the ordinary sticks out. Yield did too.

I know this corner of Newington Green well. I’ve been to the Trattoria Sapori that sits right next to Yield N16 and enjoyed its ambiance. Having caught a glimpse at what lay beyond Yield’s ceiling-to-floor glass window, I stepped inside to get a better look. Yield N16 also ranks high on ambiance and immediately feels laidback and lovely (it’s done a good job of its entrance area especially, complete with an idyllic tree and outdoor benches).

The look and feel is almost like a fancily adapted capsule of rustic country life. It’s rugged with rounded edges. A bicycle sits in comfortably, carrying jars of honey and boxes of crackers atop as sweet passengers. Dotted with wooden tables, large barrels, chestnut coloured sofa sets, candles, the space makes you feel welcome with no strings attached. You could stay a while or zip in and out with a selection of goodies.

There are several shelves and approximately 90 lines of wines to choose from – white, red and orange. They are not all natural, necessarily, but are created within the organic or biodynamic spectrum that characterises what constitutes as natural wine. Sparkling and sweet wines take up some shelf space too, but visitors can opt for cocktails and beers if they so wish. The nibbles and sharing boards boast a variety of cured meats and cheeses, pickles, pastes, and more.

Sourcing its products from independent bakers, brewers, butchers and vintners, Yield N16 aims to “celebrate the hand-made, home-made and personal passion” of these providers. It launched in November 2015 and is trying to engage with customers by hosting open cork nights and wine tasting sessions. I’ve pencilled the next one into my diary – naturally.

That evening I went back home with my new object of interest – a bottle of natural, Sicilian wine. I am going slow with it and developing my interest in the genre sip by sip. I doubt I’ll be sniffing and swirling around natural wines or offering expert opinions anytime soon, but this fling may well last a while.

*Simply put, natural wines are produced without adding or removing anything during winemaking. They ideally have no chemicals.

Yield N16, 44/45 Newington Green, London N16 9QH. Phone: 0207 354 5912

 
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chinese-laundry-food-islington-london

The Laundry List Of Delicious

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THE LAUNDRY LIST OF DELICIOUS

WORDS BY MEGHNA MUKERJEE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

I sometimes marvel at the nonsense we are told as children. My aunt used to say – in an attempt to stop me from overeating chocolate – that if I ate one too many, there would be a “chocolate-tree” growing inside my stomach.

As a seven-or-so-year-old, I believed this. I’d often worry – was there an actual tree growing? Would it entirely be made of chocolate? Would it come out of my ears? (part of me still judges that aunt for inducing these inane, chocolate-coated, Jack and the Beanstalk-like images in association with my internal anatomy).

If, however, her words have any hint of (absurd) truth, there’s definitely a “dumpling-tree” growing inside me. I can eat dumplings every day of the week and thrice on Sundays – I’ve probably done so while living in Singapore for a year. I could find a selection of good dumplings everywhere in Singapore, and there was no getting enough.

In London, I’ve missed this wide-spread availability of simple, tasty dumplings. You have to seek them out amidst busy China Town, and not always do they surprise or delight. This is why I’m glad Chinese Laundry has opened up on Upper Street, Islington. It gives you an opportunity to eat dumplings for breakfast – or at any time of day.

Importantly, even though it flags up “breakfast” food, there are cocktails on offer and with names like Drunken Concubine and Silk Road No Where – underpinned by grain spirit Baijiu – they are hard to miss.

Chinese Laundry is not about dumplings, though. It’s all about serving authentic Northern Chinese breakfast food that has a home-made appeal. I visited with a friend on a Saturday morning, and we were lucky to get a table. Several customers around us knew exactly what to order and expect. For a months-old outfit (it launched in October 2015), this is a good sign, especially considering it’s not the usual Chinese restaurant fare.

The menu is compact and interesting. The dishes are slightly obscure. We ordered a plate of Dumpling Stir Fry to share along with An Egg Hug Dumpling (dumplings omelette) each (we definitely had a “no wonder we’re friends” moment there). We also ordered some Braised Beef Loumei and Milky Little Buns.

My friend ordered congee (savoury Chinese porridge) while I made rude faces. Most of us, at some point, have cursed the fairytales we read as kids for giving us false hopes about something specific. It could be life-sized gingerbread houses or the idea of prince charming. For me, it was porridge. While reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I thought of porridge as this steaming bowl of scrumptious goodness. However, the fairytale-porridge lure never translated into reality. Congee is not for me.

I didn’t pull any impolite faces at the rest of the meal. The stir fried dumplings were tossed with crisp bacon and bursting with flavour. The melt-in-the-mouth beef was sharp and tempting. The milky little buns had a soft, comforting and pleasant quality. The stand-out for me was the dumplings omelette. With fluffy eggs perfectly framing the meaty dumplings, it was uncomplicated and satisfying. The congee was also eaten with delight – just not by me.

There are varieties of pancakes, omelettes and buns as well as sweet and savoury tofu curd and more on the breakfast and brunch menu that I will go back for. The Shrimp Cake Benedict has piqued my interest too. The dinner menu, with century eggs and soft tofu and slow steamed pork belly with fermented vegetables, is inviting.

Importantly, even though it flags up “breakfast” food, there are cocktails on offer and with names like Drunken Concubine and Silk Road No Where – underpinned by grain spirit Baijiu – they are hard to miss.

I doubt Chinese Laundry is for everyone. The rustic charm may not seem as attractive, the narrow menu options may be limiting and it’s not exactly cheap. It’s also still finding its feet as a restaurant. But it has all the ingredients – literally and metaphorically – to garner a loyal clientele. It also adds an original dimension to spiffy Islington, which hardly has any traditional Chinese eateries.

I can foresee that illusive dumpling-tree growing at a swift pace.

Chinese Laundry, 107 Upper Street, Islington, N1 1QN. Phone: 020 7686 6847

 

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London’s Oldest Pub Is Filled With History

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LONDON’S OLDEST PUB IS FILLED WITH HISTORY

If you’re looking for an old and cozy place to get a drink, it doesn’t get older and cosier than Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Rebuilt in 1667 after the great fire of London, the location is known to have been home to a pub since 1538. Four hundred and seventy eight years has brought this pub a fair share of famous patrons like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G Wodehouse, and Mark Twain.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet St, London EC4A 2BU. Phone: 020 7353 6170

READ MEGHNA MUKERJEE’S STORY

Stepping to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese turns back the hands of the clock. It transports you to another era when it was a regular haunt for the likes of Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse, Alfred Tennyson and W.B. Yeats among others. It has also cropped up in various literary works like Wodehouse’s Piccadilly Jim.

Tucked away in an unassuming and tapering alley just off Fleet Street, this Grade II listed establishment is a favourite among journalists (despite the newspaper trade having long moved beyond Fleet Street), bankers and lawyers. It is popular with tourists, but only those who seek it out. Many do.

Perhaps it’s the memory of my first visit that always colours my views around Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese – a clandestine date, close to work “but no one from work can see us”, a number of delicious corners and conversations to choose from. I remember being distracted on that visit. My attraction to this space had far surpassed my attraction to the person sitting opposite me for those couple of hours. It was unexpected for this low-key pub we’d randomly entered to be akin to something out of Diagon Alley in Harry Potter’s world. It would not surprise me to find a shop selling flying brooms next door – there’s a falafel shop in reality, but I ignore that.

Word has it that, in its golden years, a highlight of this pub was a particular “rude and talkative” character there.

That air of mystery persists for me to date, despite having returned to the pub numerous times. It continues to offer a pinch of marvel in the close to dozen rooms across four floors. In this narrow jumble of a building, full of constricted corridors and chunky staircases, one can find lantern-lit dinner dens and supper rooms, an old-fashioned Chop Room, several bar spaces – big and small – decked out in dark mahogany colours and the occasional fireplaces. In fact, a number of “sexually explicit” fireplace tiles recovered from the pub – testament to a colourful past – were exhibited in The Museum of London. The low, split-level, expansive cellar apparently belonged to a 13th century Carmelite Monastery.

The food menu is robust and an array of scrumptious Sam Smith beers, fine wines and spirits suitably satisfy. Whether it’s a blow-off-steam drink with colleagues (good excuse to dash for the pub early as it gets busy by 5.30 p.m. on Fridays), a romantic dinner or catching up with friends, there will be a distinctive nook within this warmly-lit pub to fit the need. I’ve lived out many such occasions there and more.

Word has it that, in its golden years, a highlight of this pub was a particular “rude and talkative” character there. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’s pet parrot, Polly, famed for having truckloads of personality, passed away in 1926 and garnered over 200 obituaries internationally. The taxidermy bird now sits in its favourite Taproom as an observer – like the pub itself – of generations drunkenly and invariably rolling by.

The pub was rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire of London, and in November 2015, another fire broke out, this time in a flat above Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Twitter went abuzz with concern. I, like others, remember being worried, and later raising a relieved toast (or five) to its good health. I take comfort in having stumbled upon this legendary place. If you’re not paying attention, you could end up at the Cheshire Cheese (also on Fleet Street) instead. It won’t be the same though. The “Ye Olde” history is crucial. No other pub can have the same charm as the first or (debatably) oldest pub in London. And the firsts have a way of sticking.

Photographs by Juhi Pande

 

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