London, Day Two (Night): Fat Cats and Spinal Tap

It’s only Day Five of the NaBloPoMo and I’ve already missed a day’s posting. Sigh.

Well, pressing on…

One thing I never seem to be prepared for when I visit London: How early in the evening shops close, especially for such a large, major metropolitan city. Gods help you if you want a decent cup of coffee after 5pm, or dinner before six. At five, 5:30 if you’re lucky, the streets of London suddenly become the streets of Deadwood before a duel. Shopkeepers bring in whatever merchandise they had on the street. Market vendors pull the curtains around their tables. Most eating establishments have been long closed by this point, and people on the streets move with a focused determination. If, by some miracle, you happen into a shop during this pre-dinner limbo, you almost have to fight them to actually purchase anything– they mentally checked out hours ago.

[Case in point: The previous evening, Joe and I darted into a Phones4U to pick up a UK mobile for any necessary communications with people back home or, more likely, our B&B proprietors along the way. Although there were no other customers, the salesgirl only asked if there was anything she could help with after she several minutes of awkward silence had passed and she could presumably avoid it no longer. However, when I asked if she had anything like a coverage map for the different services so I could, I dunno, ensure that T-Mobile or Verizon or Virgin or Orange would cover the areas in which we’d be transiting (wild and crazy idea, this), she looked at me like I had asked her for the world. Or the golden fleece. Or the apple from the tree of knowledge. “No,” she said, “we don’t have anything like that.” So, would you have any general ideas if these carriers work in Scotland? Or if there are any that seem to be most popular or better here in London? “I really wouldn’t be able to help you with that.” Nor, I should note, did she offer any comparison of pricing plans, so you just had to blindly choose. Excellent. My favorite way to shop.]

Even the Starbucks and Prêts close, if you can believe it. For an American who is used to being able to get a decent cup of coffee at 10 or 11pm if I want to (and when I’m planning/hoping to be out late, I often do), this takes some adjustment.

And so it was in  this environment that Joe and I wandered the streets and alleys around Angel Tube. In several trips to London, I’d somehow never made it up to Angel to explore. As it was approaching the “dead time” by the time we left Loop and finished with the military surplus shop with the possibly strange preponderance of old Nazi memorabilia, our explorations were mostly limited to window shopping from the streets  [I should mention here that the Nazi gear was not over-prominently displayed, and there was plenty of other vintage WWII gear there to keep it in context. It just struck us as a little unusual because you don’t usually see that in America. Perhaps it’s the spatial proximity.]. Many of the shops in the area around Loop were adorable, small, unique shops we wished we could have had the time to check out. Some of them just had awesome names (and signs)– we especially loved Fat Faced Cat (above)– which charmingly reminded us of our own fat-faced cat, Mr. Merlin.

Although we passed a few antique shops, Joe was disappointed that he did not see any more surplus shops. He’d caught the bug, and thus added “Military Surplus” to his then-single list of objectives for the trip (“Land Rovers”).

“There’s supposed to be one a few blocks away,” he said, eyes glued on his phone.

And away we went.

The block in question was where a vegetable market was just closing up. Several laps around the block, and a few close calls with dodgy rotting vegetable rinse water later, we still couldn’t find the place. Moving down the list, we spent another twenty minutes fruitlessly looking for the next place before finally calling it a night. It was near six, by now, and we had some hope of getting dinner.

But where to eat for night two?

Only one of my other favorite places in London: The Big Red (Holloway Road, Islington).

The Big Red

As soon as one of my old pub friends from back in the day introduced me to The Big Red, I was in love.

It’s something of a pain to get to, to be honest. It’s in central London, in terms of zones, but in practice, it may as well be on Mars. There’s nothing nearby, except possibly Holloway’s Women’s Prison, and that’s hardly the kind of draw one is typically looking for. Still, it’s well worth a visit. (And, I mean, I haven’t gotten stabbed, mugged, or otherwise accosted walking there from the Tube, so it’s probably fine.)

The Big Red is strange but so, so awesome.  I can almost imagine SNL’s Stefan reviewing it…

If you’re looking for an American roadhouse without the bother of actual Americans, I have just the place for you: The Big Red in Holloway. Located just down the road from a women’s prison, this place has everything: Snooker, rebel flags, CHUCK NORRIS…

It’s dark, wood-paneled, and has 70s/80s-era movie posters and American license plates (“One from every state,” the owner boasted to me once.) affixed along all the walls, stopping short of the contrived kitsch of US chains like TGIFriday’s and Applebees. Mannequins boast toy revolvers above the bar and the barmaids tend toward Bettie Page-esque styling. The clientele runs the gamut from average Joes (and not-so average Joes) to hardcore punks, greasers,  goths, bike messengers, rockabillies, and hair band throwbacks.  Dark, high-backed booths line the walls, snooker/pool tables host games in the back, and large open tables fill the area in front of the stage. Best of all, they have food. Large plates of nachos, bowls of chili, and towering burgers (and plentiful veg options!).  Unusually, by european standards, they serve large portions for little money. Plus you get the ambiance:   exactly what you dreamed an American roadhouse should look like, except I’m not sure they actually make them like that in the US.

On this night, Joe and I got there too late for a booth but in plenty of time for our choice in table and for a generous plate of nachos before our dinner proper. As we sipped our pints, we observed several members of what was clearly the night’s band setting up for the evening. What gave it away? The instruments, speakers and too-tight trousers [It’s worth mentioning here that “pants” has an entirely different meaning in the UK than it does in the US]? Maybe, but I think first and foremost it was the hair. During the soundcheck they played some classic rock hits and were actually quite good, so we were exited to hear them play– continually.   Joe was hoping they were a Spinal Tap cover band (do those exist?).  We hung around for AGES waiting for them to play.

Seven-thirty came and went.

Eight.

Eight-thirty.

Nine.

With each half-hour we were convinced that it would be at the next one that they would start to play and we hung around a little longer. When it passed nine thirty, we finally gave up and went home. They weren’t showing any signs of playing anytime soon, so we finally left.

Jet lag. It’s a b-.

It was a bummer, too. We were hoping we could get them to sing “Stonehenge.” (Won’t you take my hand…)

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