Late (For) Tea

Month: October, 2012

A Clear Midnight (or Thought of the Day #6)

THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, and the stars.

Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass)

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The Comfort of Strangers, Ian McEwan (1981)

The first McEwan I read was On Chesil Beach and I hated it so much, I had to force myself to finish it. I believe that at the time I was too young to grasp the novel. I feel like I should reread it, especially after having read more McEwan works, which I greatly appreciated. It is peculiar, however, that despite hating that first novel I read, I kept getting back at McEwan. After On Chesil Beach, I read The Cement Garden. Then I read Atonement. Then Saturday and a couple of days ago I finished The Comfort of Strangers. Strangely enough, I liked all of the novels I read after On Chesil Beach.
McEwan’s novels all share a particularly oppressive darkness that can slowly stifle the reader. Sexuality, passion and violence are often intermingled. That might have been the reason why I was put off at first. A teenager might prefer reading lighthearted, uncomplicated novels with happy endings. However, it was also the reason why I got back to him. It was a bit like witnessing a terrible car crash. It’s a gruesome event, so you look away. Yet at the same time you want to stop and stare.

The Comfort of Strangers is one of McEwan’s darker works. It was published in 1981, a few years after the equally dark The Cement Garden (1978). It is about an unmarried couple, Mary and Colin, who are on a holiday in Venice, even though the city is never mentioned by name. At the beginning of the novella, it is clear that the passion in Mary and Colin’s relationship has died down. Mary misses her two children and she feels bad for having left them behind. One does not find out much about the couple. From the beginning on a clear line is established between the reader and the characters in the book. The reader can hardly identify with the couple. Mary and Colin live in a bubble, they hardly interact with anyone outside of that bubble. Even though the reader can look into it from the distance, like a voyeur, they are never allowed to enter it.
The couple gets lost in the deserted, narrow alleys one night when they are on the lookout for a place to eat. They run into a wealthy-looking, charismatic stranger called Robert, who leads them to a bar where they have a few bottles of wine. He tells the couple an unusual story about his childhood. Drunk and exhausted, the couple obviously cannot find the way back to their hotel so they wait until the early morning to get on their way. After the encounter with Robert, Mary and Colin’s passion is suddenly rekindled. They both sense danger, they feel an essential threat to their existence as a couple. They even realise at one point that Robert has been following them all the while since their arrival in the Italian city. When they get to know Caroline, his wife, they suspect Robert is keeping her as a prisoner, since she never leaves the apartment being hardly able to walk without experiencing pain. The reader knows early on that things aren’t quite right and that the couple is steering straight into their downfall.

I could not help but think of Thomas Mann’s (in)famous novel Death in Venice and I am almost certain that McEwan is refering to it on numerous occasions. For instance, at the bar when Mary and Colin get to know Robert a song called “Ha Ha Ha” plays in the background, reminding one of the street musicians laughing at the protagonist in Mann’s work. The song is a recurring symbol in McEwan’s novella and ominously hints at its horrible ending.

I cannot say I enjoyed reading the novella. It’s hard to enjoy something so terribly dark and negative but I liked it. It is extremely well-written. The story, though not unprecedented, is interesting. I’d recommend The Comfort of Strangers to those who appreciated The Cement Garden or those who like a good, short thriller.

Thought of the Day #5

My first business was to acquire some knowledge of the place whereof I am now become an inhabitant. I began to study the plan of London, though dismayed at the sight of its prodigious extent, – a city a league and half from one extremity to the other, and about half as broad, standing upon level ground. It is impossible ever to become thoroughly acquainted with such an endless labyrinth of streets; and, as you may well suppose, they who live at one end know little or nothing of the other.

Robert Southey, Letters from England (1807)

Maison Bertaux, Soho

A couple of days ago I met up with my friend Dario from Luxembourg near St Pancras/King’s Cross Station. Dario used to be in my class in secondary school and he now studies at the presitgious Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. However, this year he is an ERASMUS student at University College London, which is great because we get to meet up frequently, just like in the good, old days.

We planned on getting a Reader Pass at the British Library, which proved to be more complicated than we had initially thought. After some consideration, I decided to postpone getting that pass. After all the unnecessary and annoying hassle, I suspect the reader pass to be some kind of modern-day Excalibur. I expect it to be granting me magical, unfathomable powers like automatically getting a first in all my essays as soon as I enter the British Library reading room. More about that at a later date, though.

Frustrated and miserable, I suggested Dario to go to a tea room somewhere in Soho. We took the Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road and walked all the way to Maison Bertaux, which is located on Greek Street, near the affluent Shaftesbury Avenue. It wasn’t the first time I had gone to that place, however, I get lost every time I try to find it. Crazy. I suppose I am not very good with orientation but I have to admit that I love getting lost in London. You always get to discover something you haven’t seen yet.

After checking our maps like two confused tourists, we finally found the inconspicuous tea room. We were a bit early for afternoon tea as we were the only two customers on the first floor. I ordered a mint tea and a delicious-looking cream-filled éclair. Dario went for a traditional English Breakfast tea, which the staff referred to as ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ tea, funnily enough. The waiter was charming and endearing, to say the least. He pronounced éclair in the correct French way, which made me assume he was French. When he said Merci instead of Thank You, my assumptions were confirmed. I quite liked that because it adds to their French style. The tea was served in simple white China. My mint tea was perfect. It was absolutely delicious and I truly indulged in every little sip of it. The éclair was just as good and I felt satisfied and fulfilled. I had instantly forgotten about my British library frustrations.

Taken by Laetitia “Lee” Kaiser

The decor at Maison Bertaux is authentic. It isn’t a tacky, posh tea room. It functions as a tea room and a gallery at the same time. There are various contemporary paintings on the walls, which are on sale. The actual walls are covered in mindless comments and doodles from previous customers (and even more famous people like Noel Fielding). Colourful flowers ornate the tables. The toilet is extremely old and needs to be refurbished badly, yet it adds to Maison Bertaux’s typical Soho charm. The music in the background was inconspicuous but as far as I remember it was old Jazz music.

Taken by Laetitia “Lee” Kaiser.

Price-wise it is rather expensive but I don’t expect West End tea rooms to be cheap. My dear friend Dario came up for my tea and eclair since I had forgotten to withdraw cash from an ATM but I’ll make sure to return the favour soon enough. I know I will be returning to Maison Bertaux. Some might find the prices outrageous but I think the tea is worth the money because it is the best tea I’ve had in London so far. The decor is wonky and charming and fits nicely into Soho. I feel completely at ease whenever I’m there, which I can’t claim for every place I’ve been to so far. It gets a thumbs-up from me.

“So I Hold Two Fingers Up to Yesterday…”

YouTube ads are annoying, I know. However, I have recently seen and heard an ad that I wasn’t able to shake off as easily. The first time I saw the ad for Jake Bugg’s single “Two Fingers” I thought it was nice but for some reason I did not proceed to look him up. After hearing it about a thousand times, however, I decided to finally do it because I love folk music and I liked his sound.

I have to say, I am extremely glad I looked him up. Jake Bugg is one young, talented Nottingham lad. I’m not surprised Mercury signed him last year. If I had to describe his music, I’d say it was young Bob Dylan and Alex Turner’s love child, ha! Although Bugg’s lyrics are not as revolutionary as Dylan’s, his songs are great to listen to. Especially “Two Fingers” reflects the overcoming of a certain degree of teenage angst and it is tremendously catchy. I think I have listened to it over ten times already. I never seem to get tired of it. His debut album is coming out on the 15th October. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to having a listen to it.

If you like listening to Bob Dylan, Oasis, Arctic Monkey, The Beatles, I believe you will like Bugg too.