A Month of London Stories

We moved to London last month.

It’s beautiful, and full of stories, and people, and amazing food, and great coffee, and joy, and the weather is so much cooler than Saigon, I can really feel my brain flowing faster than before. So we are diving into as many stories as we can. These are some of the ones I’ve loved this month.

Writeclub @ The King’s Head, W1
A laid back group of writers who meet with no particular goal other than to talk shit and have fun. Delightful! Go: any time you want to laugh and chat to new people.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth @ The British Museum
Part of the BFI Science Fiction season, screening outside at the British Museum. It’s not for the story, or particularly for the acting, nor even the script that you might want to see this movie. In fact, there is little i can point to that explains why i enjoyed it. It’s twice as long as it needs to be, drowns under the attempted significance of its imagery and in parts is a third rate B movie. But it’s also an interesting examination of a man disjointed and out of place, and it’s kind of beautiful. Watch when: you’re doing the ironing.

Super Relaxed Fantasy Club @ Holborn somewhere
Okay, I admit it. I didn’t go to this one. Tiredness got the better of me. But it’s drinks and author readings, and it looks ace, and I’m totally going to the next on on the 30th. Organised by author Den Patrick, it promises laidbackness, so I’m in. Go: yes, I will. Promise.

Book Slam @ The Grand, Clapham
I love Josie Long. She’s funny and cool in the dorkiest of ways. She did some stand up, Simon Rich and Mark Watson read from their latest books, Sophia Thakur performed some poetry. Also, go for the amazing Australian MC Felicity Ward. She held the whole thing together with a kind of casual grace that got everyone relaxed and laughing. It looks easy when she does it, but I know it’s not. Go: every time you can drag yourself south of the river.

Liars League @ The Phoenix, nr Oxford Circus
A vague acquaintance had a story being read here, so we went, and it was beautiful! Six different actors reading six different stories, all were funny and charming and at least two mentioned the Britishness of tea. Go: every time it’s on (second Tuesday of the month)

Finally, did you know that London is now the centre of anthropomorphic animals? Move over Joan Aitkin and Brian Jacques, we have no time for your pastoral scenes here. This place is full to the brim of chubby foxes and bolder than fuck squirrels. Case in point: this morning’s visitor. He came to the third floor just to say hello.

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Stretches for Writers

And other desk workers, too.

Stretching in the outdoors

Stretch, 2, 3, 4 by E. G. Cosh

Nearly 15 years of sitting hunched over a laptop gave me a bunch of long term companions I wanted rid of.  Aches in the lumbar region, spasms in the shoulders and upper arms, tendonitis in my wrists. Slowly, over the period of about a year, I’ve figured out a programme of stretches that I do that seem to alleviate most of the pain. Have I missed any good ones?

Neck and shoulder tension is pretty chronic in desk workers— this video goes over some stretches you can do (sitting down, about 3 minutes). The stretches I found most useful start at the 2 minute mark. There are others here, but I haven’t tried them.
Time taken: two minutes.  Do: twice a day, while waiting for your tea or coffee to brew.

You might not feel the tension in your triceps, but trust me, it’s there, and it’s probably causing referred pain further down towards your hands. This is an easy stretch you can do every hour or two during the day to make sure you stay loose. Bonus points if you can look as excited as the guy in the video :)
Time taken: one minute.  Do: every time you open Twitter/FB

Lower back issues are sometimes the result of hip tightness. These stretches require a mat, but are totes awesome. You can add the pigeon if you’re feeling brave, too.
Time taken: six minutes. Do: when you get up, and before you go to bed.

For wrist and forearm pain relief, try these four stretches.
Time taken: four minutes. Do: every time you get up from your desk.

Do I need a disclaimer? Enjoy it, but don’t overdo it. I found the most important thing is to keep doing these regularly. A couple of months of this and you’ll feel like a different person. Possibly one that can hold their head at a natural angle for the first time in a while.

Writing Cafes in Saigon

Requirements for a good writing coffee shop:
1. Great coffee.
2. A cozy atmosphere. Or maybe a fresh one? The kind of relaxing vibe where I don’t feel stressed or hurried.
3. Pretty things for my wandering mind.
4. Less than five minutes from home.

These entirely subjective criteria, and an even less objective evaluation leads me to a little list:
My top three (ish) writing cafes in Ho Chi Minh City (in no particular order and verified by no-one).

1. La Rotonde (77B Ham Nghi, 2nd Floor, D1)
A deliciously light and bright space that overlooks a busy intersection and street market. The Vietnamese coffee is smooth and silky, there is an excellent lunch buffet every day, and a special vegan option for those with eating requirements.

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La Rotonde

2. 14 Thon That Dam, D1
This place is wonderfully different. Faded old Saigon meets the exuberance of young Ho Chi Minh City. A French colonial structure opposite the imposing National Bank, you enter through a grubby alley stuffed with motorbikes and climb a stairwell straight out of an Irvine Welsh novel. Don’t be put off: each floor holds little jewels of hope and modernity.

The first cafe you come to is Banksy’s. An ode to the British graffiti artist, decorated with intricate tiling and bold typography, it’s a design-lover’s dream. The americanos are tasty, there are plenty of art and design books for you to peruse and you can often watch young couples having their wedding photos taken here.

Alternatively, you can turn left in front of Banksy’s and follow the chalkboard pointing to Things. Cross a walkway between buildings and enter through a flapping yellow shutter. Adorably covered in Charlie Chaplin portraits and wall murals. It’s so relaxed, one of the seating areas is a double bed. This is a cafe to lounge in as long as you wish. I cannot vouch for the coffee, but it’s a beautiful place for your mind to drift.

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Things Cafe

Up one floor is Dan Tran’s vintage shop. Find unique clothes, bags and shoes in this delightful space and get the added bonus of saying, ‘Where did I get this? A little retro shop in Saigon, dahling’ every time you wear your purchase out.

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Dan Tran’s Vintage Shop

Across the landing is the Other Person Cafe. A maid cafe where staff cosplay manga characters and frilly maids with pink hair. They address you as master/mistress. Maid cafes are wildly popular in Japan, and starting to catch on here in Vietnam. If you’ve never been to one, imagine walking into a cartoon where you take coffee in a giant cat bus, or sit at a table that’s built like an enormous cake. Weird and dissociating? Yes. But something you should definitely try.

Mockingbird Cafe

Balcony – Mockingbird Cafe

Make it to the top of the building, and Mockingbird rewards you with a breezy balcony and views of the water

3. Velo de Piste Cafe (10 Pasteur, D1)
You can’t miss the bicycles hanging outside and the huge moustaches gratified on the walls around. Open 24 hours for those in constant need of mountain biking magazines. Go after dark and be charmed by the fairy lights and friendly service. Try the passion fruit juice for instant refreshment.

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24 Hour Coffee at the Velo

You can find other great recommendations for Ho Chi Minh cafes at Nomadic Notes and The Hungry Suitcase.

Lessons on happiness

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Watching Richard Linklater’s ‘Before…’ trilogy recently has been stirring up my emotional residue into a thick porridge of ideas. It is wondrous in conceit and execution. By turns a naive, funny, frightening, but ultimately hopeful view of a relationship stretched across many years.

One conversation I’m snuggling up with particularly often in the days since watching occurs in the middle film, ‘Before Sunset’. Celine and Jesse are discussing whether your disposition can change.

Jesse says, ‘I read this study that followed people who had won the lottery, and people who had become paraplegics. The study shows as soon as people got used to their new situation they were more or less the same. If they were basically optimistic jovial person, they’re now an optimistic jovial person in a wheelchair. If they’re a petty miserable asshole, they’re now a petty miserable asshole with a new Cadillac, a house and a boat.’

There are two glorious lessons in this:

- Go after whatever you want, don’t let fear of failing stop you. You’ll recover.

- And ultimately, whatever you chase won’t make you happier, so pick something where the chase fills you with joy.

Happiness is in doing.

The Joy and Pain of Pratchett

I was raised by Sir Terry Pratchett.

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Not in the literal way of ever having met him. Just in the way that I have read him for so long, his perspective on life has shaped my own.

Somebody leant me The Colour of Magic when I was eleven years old. It was silly and funny and I fell in love with the innocence of Twoflower and the way that his passion and interest seemed to shape the world around him. Look around, the book seemed to say, there is beauty everywhere.

Twenty-three years later, I am still in love with Pratchett’s Discworld and his deeply funny, deeply felt stories of the wonder and power of being human, whatever shape you come in.

At World Fantasy Con, Pratchett and his assistant Rob are talking about his new book, Raising Steam. Pratchett’s PCA seems to be progressing cruelly. His vision is impaired—his hands bang into the microphone repeatedly, eliciting a grimace each time. Frustration? Embarrassment? Even from my second row position it’s difficult to tell. Rob reads a section of the book for us which seems as funny and vital as ever. There are more details of the book and his struggles in this recent Telegraph interview.

Rob does all the heavy lifting of the appearance. He dangles morsels of information about upcoming TV and film projects, but the third member of the panel (Mike?) won’t allow him to give away much. Rob shares anecdotes about the writing and media development processes, pausing frequently to leave Pratchett space to contribute. Sometimes he does. Often, he doesn’t respond, or seems about to speak but decides against it. When he does land upon a small anecdote to tell, a thousand people in the audience hold their breath. We hang on his words like they are a rope dropped into the dark well of our lives, guiding the way up and out.

The joy of reading Pratchett, is that he knows the world is a slick smiling conman built from the lies we tell ourselves and each other, that pile up into a lie so heavy that no-one can move it alone. He knows we all struggle to see, let alone change our own realities. Pratchett twitches back the curtain and shows us how ridiculous it is—shows us the greasy machinery of prejudice and ignorance behind the scenes and inside our own minds. We don’t feel stupid for believing the lies. We’re all in it together, he says.

But we are left thinking that we’ll spot it next time. Next time someone tries to trick you with your own fear, with ignorance or vanity or shame, you’ll see it for the silliness it really is. You won’t feel angry or afraid or any other emotion that provides fertile soil for lies to grow. You’ll remember his stories and you’ll laugh. The lies will shrivel. Leaving space for a breath, for a lifetime.

That is his gift to us: a brief respite. A moment’s freedom for us to figure out what we want our own truths to be.