"Look here, steward, if this is coffee, I want tea; but if this is tea, then I wish for coffee." - Punch, 1902.

June 13, 2015

U.K, Manchester: The Richmond Tea Rooms

Wave to the city, wave to the sky, wave. On a pilgrimage to see the poet rock musician Patti Smith we ventured west from our home city of Sheffield across the Pennines to Manchester.

We'd already seen her perform an acoustic set upstairs at The Millennium Galleries in Sheffield in 2010 with the gradually darkening sky and cityscape visible through the galleries' vast plate windows. She moved like a panther, her hands playing out the stories of her poetry. In this gig she was to appear with her band and deliver the entire Horses album.

We were also due to meet Spooky's niece, Elizabeth, to celebrate the end of her finals over a meal on Rusholme's Curry Mile. We had also planned visits to The Manchester Museum and The Whitworth Gallery.

But first we lunched down a backstreet in the city's gay village, near Piccadilly station.

The Richmond Tea Rooms occupy a former cotton mill but their decor could not be further from this industrial past. Pillars and wooden floorboards are disguised by a dream world theme from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Everything is candy coloured and Spooky thought it a "bit girly". Animals and birds burst from wallpapers, cushions and fittings, and chandeliers dangle from the ceilings. Lewis Carroll, or Charles Dodgson to use his actual name, would probably have approved of the location in this reactionary city. Born in Cheshire, he wrote political pamphlets in addition to penning poetry, lecturing in mathematics and practising photography.

I expected to find a giant white rabbit somewhere among the ornate chaos. There was none, but the waiter pointed out rabbits lurking on walls and seats everywhere. I just had to look a little harder.

From pink menus we chose Dragon Well and Jasmine Green tea, and to see us through the museum visits, a mushroom omelette with chopped herbs and a Tweedle Dum Croque Madame.

We ate them to the crackling tinkling sounds of jazz age hits, watched from the wall by a portrait of the young Dodgson.

Mid way through the lunch, an email arrived from the PR for Hurtigruten, who was sorting out our next trip to Norway, to say the dates we had hoped to travel on weren't available. This meant we had to check flights and match up new dates and the flurry of email activity made carrot cake necessary.

We didn't manage to resolve the departure date for Norway, but satisfactorily full, left the tea rooms to make for the museum.

En route we were distracted by the newly-refurbished Central Library on St Peter's Square and a quick detour proved much longer than anticipated.

The ground floor has been converted into a buzzing, interactive archive space with records of Manchester's social history displayed electronically and in the form of original documents in cabinets, such as records of the occupants of workhouses and photographs of the back-to-back slums.

Upstairs on floor one is the silent reading room lined with leather tomes. An ornate gilt clock stands in the centre of the great hall and an extract from this passage from the Old Testament runs around the rim of the dome ceiling.
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her and she shall promote thee; she shall bring thee to honour when thou dost embrace her, she shall give of thine head an ornament of grace, a crown of glory she shall deliver to thee.

Proverbs 4:7

There is a small display dedicated to Anthony Burgess, which includes first editions of his novels since Burgess studied English at the University.

The library, which opened in 1934, was modelled on the Pantheon in Rome which Spooky and I visited in 2012. It's colossal size and highly advanced engineering combined with its age, left me open-mouthed. Alongside the Alhambra in Granada, I rank it among the world's most outstanding buildings.

Manchester Central Library is not on this scale but still inspires awe, as well as a thirst for knowledge.

At the museum in the old redbrick part of the University, we only had time to pop into a temporary exhibition on the statues of Rapa Nui, which includes the Moai Hava, one of the smaller 'half statues', and visited the Vivarium, where we watched four tiny orange rainforest frogs smaller than my thumbnail playing out a love drama on the rough bark of a log.

We had to miss The Whitworth Art Gallery, but as we walked down Oxford Road towards Rusholme, I showed Spooky The Faculty of Arts where I studied French and a quadrangle of grass where I would revise in the sun.

Rusholme has flourished into a destination in its own right.

Traffic calming islands have been introduced in the centre of the Wilmslow Road and dozens of restaurants Indian and Arabicfight for custom where once there was a handful of small Asian grocery stores. In between, Arabic jewellers with their intricate gold dazzle. And pastry shops add neatness and colour with their cubes of pink and green marzipan.

After meeting Elizabeth and her boyfriend, Tom, and a fish tikka which was far too big for me to finish, we took a taxi to The Apollo.

Patti Smith astounded her audience and critics alike. She would have approved of The Richmond Tea Rooms as a lover of Rimbaud's visionary poetry.

Perhaps she took tea there before her anarchic and brilliant performance. Gloria.

February 03, 2015

France,Paris, Montparnasse: La Rotonde

Paris was in the grip of terror once again in its history. Two days earlier, 8 journalists had been executed in their offices, police had been gunned down in the street and the city was holding its breath to await the outcome of sieges in which hostages were held.

But the cafes and bistrots were busy. These were the refuges of the Parisians during this bloody and bewildering period - the daily visit to the cafe a part of life they were determined to continue. And in the cafes, no-one spoke of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, saving the emotion and anger for demonstrations in the Place de la Republique.


In the 1920s and 30s, Montparnasse was where writers gravitated and around the Vavin metro stop you can visit many of their haunts.

We were staying in the upper Marais, and forewent breakfast at our hotel so we could take it instead at La Coupole - one of Hemingway's chosen brasseries. 

Before he acquired fame with his novel The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway was living a hand-to-mouth existence on the Left Bank with is wife, Hadley, and infant son, Jack, often walking hungry through the Jardin du Luxembourg. But he still did much of his writing in cafes, tolerated and befriended by the proprietors.

As he writes in A Moveable Feast, everything changed when notoriety arrived, and he took up with a rich second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer.

Whatever La Coupole was like during that formative period, today it would be more suited to Hemingway the world-famous author. It was elegant, exclusive and rather intimidating.

Spooky was looking forward to a sumptuous Parisian breakfast. We were shown to a table on the terrace fronting the boulevard Montparnasse, squeezed in beside a Parisian gentleman enjoying a coffee. But things went downhill from then onwards.

Croissants were off and they didn't do omelettes - the one dish Spooky had been relying on. By now his stomach was angry and so was he. We ordered tea, which we drank as quickly as possible. 

Behind the terrace was a huge and empty restaurant. Waiters in bow ties bustled around, perfecting the art of being busy doing nothing, or so it seemed.
La Coupole was indeed striking with art deco mock marble painted columns and acerulean blue dome. But we really did need to eat.

The Perfect Breakfast

A few minutes away on the other side of the boulevard, we found an unpretentious brasserie, La Veronese, offering a four course breakfast for 13 Euros. It comprised freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, croissant with jam and omelette. The croissants were large and we were able to order a grand creme. This mini feast thankfully served promptly, was consumed with rapture.

I still had several more cafes on the boulevard to call at. Since they are all close, eating at each one was out of the question, so when we arrived at La Rotonde with its vermilion canopies, it was only for another coffee.

This luxurious cafe was where feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir played truant from school with her sister - and what a place to hide.

Low mirrored ceilings, fringed lamps, candles on the tables, crimson velour padded seats - a seductive combination of shiny surfaces and womb-like softness. On the walls, elongated portraits of Parisian men and women in the style of Modigliani.

Our coffee came with a carafe of water and jug of hot milk at the side, served by a waitress in full black and white uniform. But the real surprise came when I visited the Ladies toilets, mounting a wide, curved staircase over which a giant egg-shaped silk lampshade hung like an inverted airship.

Unlike my mother, I do not have a preoccupation with WCs - their location, size of cubicle and comfort - however, those at La Coupole deserve some lineage. Rose marble sinks, gold taps, spherical glass lamp shades, large mirrors and a view through the window to Rodin's statue of Balzac at the rear.

Later in her life, de Beauvoir was joined at La Rotonde by her husband, Sartre, who continued to lunch there even after he suffered strokes. Picasso, Lenin and Trotsky were also customers. And the brasserie was on Hemingway's drinking trail - a stopping point en route to his favourite venue up the road - La Closerie des Lilas.

We really did have to draw the line at this final brasserie. La Closerie has become so upmarket we'll need to write a best-seller ourselves before we visit. Even Hemingway was disgusted when it was transformed into an American bar in1925. The two waiters were forced to wear white jackets, and one of them, Jean, who had been decorated for gallantry during the First World War and whom Hemingway had befriended, was ordered to shave off his distinctive military moustache.

I will return to La Closerie some day - with room for lunch, a pocket full of sous and maybe a book of my own under my belt.

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