My daughter Nicola was 34 last Friday. That’s how long I’ve been a mother and it’s how long I’ve been a freelance book editor, rather than an in-house full-time one. Just as I’m in some ways still experimenting on my firstborn, even though she’s a real grown-up now (as a firstborn myself I can empathise with my daughter at how firstborns are always the primary experiments in families), I’m still sort of experimenting with freelancing. Even after all these years. Yes, I’ve learnt self-discipline and when the pressure is on with lots of work coming in and deadlines to meet, I can work well and keep my head down over a set of proofs or a manuscript that I’m editing. What it’s taken me a long time to learn is to relax when the pressure if off, things are quiet and I have more time for myself. Finally, I’m getting the message and over the last few months have taken a break in work as an opportunity to go into London and be a tourist; to make the most of all the wonderful things this great city has to offer.
With a spare day between jobs I decided to head into London this morning and visit the Grayson Perry: Who Are You? exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and then find somewhere for lunch. My good friend Linda, who has just been visiting from Spain, told me about Yalla Yalla, a Lebanese restaurant in Soho that her daughter Lucy introduced her to on Monday; she thought I would like it. I did. I loved it. But first the art …
When I arrived at the National Portrait Gallery, I saw the Grayson Perry was a free exhibition while one on William Morris had an admission fee. I was keen to see that too and decided to buy Membership for just £45 a year. I’ve been to the gallery a few times over the past year; I must have paid that and Membership gives added bonuses as well as ‘free’ entry to exhibitions. Morris was a great Victorian artist, writer and visionary thinker. Apart from loving his work, I’ve always felt a special affinity with him because The Red House in Bexleyheath where he lived for many years is just round the corner from where I was brought up from the age of 5. I used to walk past it, along Red House Lane, for years on my way home from school. At the time it was privately owned and you couldn’t go inside, though I often got a glimpse through open gates at the front. It was all very tantalising. I wanted to know what it was like to go in. In recent years it’s been taken over by The National Trust and so I’ve been thinking I should return some day and actually go inside. Seeing this exhibition today made me feel that more strongly for a part is devoted to the house. The exhibition is called ‘Anarchy & Beauty’ because Morris believed in dismantling the existing structures of society and inventing a freerer, more equal and creative way of life. A socialist and member of the British Arts and Crafts Movement that flourished between 1880 and 1910, he strongly believed in the power of beauty to transform lives. He was friends with pre-Raphaelite artists and poets like Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Milais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The exhibition shows some of his beautiful textiles, wallpapers, furniture and other works and highlights the influence he had on many other artists and designers that followed, right into the middle of the twentieth century with Terence Conran’s early designs. It’s quite a small but fascinating exhibition and I really loved it. Next I went upstairs to the Perry.
This is a display of the 14 works that Perry made during the filming of the recent Channel 4 series, Who Are You? The programme explored people’s identity. He interviewed a wide range of people – including disgraced former MP Chris Huhne, a young transsexual, an X-Factor contestant, a young Muslim mother – and made pots, sculptures and tapestries to represent and tell their stories. It was a brilliant series and I really enjoyed seeing Perry’s artworks ‘live’. Janet Street-Porter recently referred to Perry as our modern-day Chaucer in the Independent, which I think is an excellent way of describing him. He’s a kind of hero of mine, although I’m quite certain he wouldn’t want to be thought of as a hero.
It’s a fairly short walk from the gallery up Charing Cross Road and into Shaftesbury Avenue and Soho. I was a little early for lunch so wandered round a bit. It’s always quite a nostalgic thing for me walking round this area for it brings back childhood memories of regular visits there with my parents; breakfast in Maison Bertaux in Greek Street and shopping in places like Lina Stores in Brewer Street for Italian breads and cheeses.
The Brewer Street market is a small affair now; not what it once was, but still a few stalls.
The area is such an amazing mix of streets and buildings: from sex shops (it is one of London’s red light areas), gorgeous food shops, well-known restaurants, little cafes and some surprising pretty and quiet little roads connecting one main street to another.
Just along from Lina Stores in Green’s Court, I found Yalla Yalla, which Linda had recommended; it serves Beirut street food.
I arrived quite early for lunch, anticipating it would get very crowded later on. And it did! People not only filling tables but coming in for takeaways too.
There were a couple of women serving and they were so friendly and helpful, one helping me choose my lunch. I didn’t want a big lunch and considered having one of the mixed platters. But then decided to go for a couple of mezze. I chose Fattoush (bread salad) and Samboussek Jibné (pastry parcels filled with feta and halloumi cheese and fresh mint). In a kind of holiday mode, I ordered a glass of prosecco and they brought it with some lovely olives & pickles and pitta bread.
I make Fattoush quite often (click here) but am not sure I’ve ordered it in a restaurant before. It’s ideal lunchtime food, this one made with baby gem lettuce, tomato, cucumber, spring onion, mint, radish, parsley and tossed crispy pitta bread with sumac, apple vinegar and olive oil.
So healthy – and gorgeously tasty too! It was quite a big portion (I didn’t completely finish it) and because of my other choice, the waitress had said 2 mezze should be enough for one. She was right; it was perfect. The little cheese parcels looked fantastic.
They tasted fantastic too! Slightly salty from the cheeses, creamy in the middle, crisp on the outside. Everything was so fresh and beautifully cooked and prepared. I wanted a mint tea to finish and looked at the desserts but didn’t think I could manage a whole one. Could I have just one piece of baklava, I asked, rather than a whole plate of selected pastries? Yes of course, the waitress said.
My little baklava was gorgeous: sweet of course but not too sweet; just right. The tea was made from fresh mint leaves and a perfect ending to my meal. I really loved Yalla Yalla. I like this kind of informal cafe-type restaurant serving good food with friendly service. It’s a place to feel quite comfortable on your own but I also know a number of people I’d like to take there because they’d love it too.
Then it was time to slowly head back to Waterloo station and home – before the rush hour! What a great day out – even sunshine too – and it’s amazing how much you can fit into a few spare hours in a great city like London.