Restaurant Review: Solita, Manchester

Food 2/5  Atmosphere 3/5

Nobody will like it, but it has to be said. I’d have said this earlier, but I hoped, nay feared, that I might be wrong. I’m not. I’m right. In fact, there are two things that must be said – because most of us have reached the point of no return and so it’s absolutely necessary to say it. No, wait, three things that must be said – I’ve just remembered. There’s probably more things that could be said, but don’t necessarily have to be said, I might mention them later depending on certain conditions and word count.

Needs must, so first things first. Firstly, ‘the restaurant scene’ or whatever you call it in Manchester is, with a few exceptions, universally ghastly. You’ve heard it here first. It truly is. On the scale of ghastliness, we’re fluctuating somewhere between pompous rubbish and over priced mediocrity with not a few diversions into bland, bewildering and raw. Nobody seems to realise it and that’s because, as I’ve said before, no matter how many trendy places they frequent and flutter with peacock like intent and determination Mancunians, almost without exception, no nothing about food.

So, unless you absolutely know for certain (and this does not include the opinions of your palate numb work colleagues, hipster friends, trip advisor, online sites etc.) – by which I mean you’ve physically gone and stuffed food in your mouth and swallowed it, don’t take the risk – just stay in; you’ll save yourself an awful amount of embarrassment, money and maybe even your soul.

Secondly, contrary to popular belief, Manchester is not the ‘best city in the UK’ or the ‘coolest place ever’ as those ubiquitous advertorial Manchester based ‘culture’ websites are continually informing us. And here’s why: the entire city has been raped and pillaged by humourless faux-liberals and hipsters, who, I’m guessing, spend their free time rimming empty hummus cartons, nodding in agreement over daft art installations, and calling each other white supremacists on the Façadebook.

If these idiots left, well that would be another matter – but we’re stuck with them for now. And so, over the past 10 years Manchester has exclusively been designed and billeted to cater for the whims of this tiresome sub section of society – who seem intent on dragging the rest of us down to hell with them. If, for example, the Northern Quarter were in South Park, it’d probably be called NoMoreNorth or Thereunto or something along those lines. The third point, I’ve concluded, word count and all, is a could be said rather than a must be said; but, being just too crude and nasty – although undoubtedly true – to put down in print, I’ll give it a miss. So, we’ll move on.

Moving on, as you can imagine, when the gourmet burger restaurant Solita opened up a third branch in one of the least trendy areas of Manchester: Prestwich – where I live – I was a little apprehensive that north Manchester would soon be over-run with iron clad morons and my rent would sky rocket and that’ll I’ll have to move to Oldham or possibly even Bolton – thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet; but we’ll see. It turns out that Solita make decent, if a little expensive, burgers. I’ve been three times to the joint in Prestwich, which has this odd exclusivity feel – a sort of, are you one of us moment hits you as soon as you enter the place, exemplified by the blacked out windows which has the effect of a memory wipe, making you forget that you’re in the north of Manchester.

The first two times were deja vu: initial confusion over whether I wanted a starter or not – I didn’t bother; followed by delight and stupefaction when they placed the thing in front of me; then the daunting realisation that I’ll never be able to eat it without a knife and fork; then the nauseating gasp for breath two thirds in – that second long-island tea, a terrible idea; and finally the emotional shameful walk home as you conclude that it’s just way too expensive for a burger; no matter what you slap on it to add ‘value’, a burger is a burger is a burger. A burger is mincemeat, squashed, patted, fried and stuck between two slices of bread – a sandwich.

Blondie came the third time, this time – and possibly the final time.  Blondie and myself have been on a quest to find a decent eatery in Manchester that doesn’t make us angry or regret we were ever born. I should also note that Blondie hates everything other than: pies, fish and chips, fresh southern Italian antipasti, gravy, rare-bit, and cheese. So when her burger came with only a shaving of cheese he wasn’t too pleased.

Blondie ordered the Jack Daddy (£10.90) it was dry, a few mouthfuls short of satisfaction and covered, I mean totally coated, it this awful, sickly reduced sauce, which gave the impression post-eating that she had just quaffed a huge sticky toffee pudding and then smudged her hand over the plate to make some sort of pretty pattern to amuse the other customers. It came topped with two cold and congealed onion rings. I, in no mood for unnecessary condiments, went for the bacon double cheese (£10.90) which also had barely any cheese, was a little on the small side, but not as dry as the Jack Daddy. The whole experience lasted about 40 minutes. On the plus side, the cocktails were superb – even though we only had one each. The place was heaving, noisy, covered in local art and undoubtedly the place to be on a Saturday night. The service was occasional, casual and unfussy – at one point I was almost expected the waiter to interrupt and apologise for not asking if I had any allergies. She didn’t, which was a relief.

I really wanted to enjoy my third time at Solita; I didn’t, which is a shame – because it was a decent way to flitter money and time on a good burger. Those days are over; it’s time to move on. What exactly happened, I’m not sure; maybe it was a Saturday? Is that even an excuse? Probably it’s just become too popular with all the inevitable consequences that follow. And so, the quest continues; I haven’t given up yet.

Solita (Prestwich), 401 Bury New Road, Prestwich, Manchester, M25 1AA (0161 710 2884)

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You can’t laugh at that! How the middle class liberals have hijacked British comedy

I don’t know when it happened exactly, but at some point during the last decade I stopped watching British stand-up comedy. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but rather a dawn get-a-way, tiptoeing with stealth and acuity out of a dodgy hotel room you might leave a whore in (I’ve been told) or a heap of hung-over drunken sailors after a night of debauchery. It just stopped-being-funny and became more of an angry pedantic lesson on how to think and what political beliefs were and were not acceptable in polite society.

Take, for example, ‘alternative’ comedian Stewart Lee in last night’s episode of Comedy Vehicle entitled ‘Migrants’ – go on, I bet you can guess what Mr Lee’s views are on migrants? Go on try it. You’re going to be right. You are right. He has exactly the same views on migrants as every other dinner party liberal; same as he does with UKIP, Islam, the Tories and a whole host of other stuff that preoccupy this narrow minded sub-strata of society. You know what they’re going to say before they utter a syllable and it’s boring.

In fact, Stewart is such a stereotype that he even has a regular column in the Guardian – the bible of the faux left chattering classes. It’s a shame, because he was, once, actually very funny and genuinely alternative (watch his stuff from the 90’s). Now, he seems to have fallen in line with every other comedian: stand-up saturated with rigid political orthodoxies, right-on, faux left and generally mocking of anyone who doesn’t share his twisted liberal view of the world – particularly the common muck.

Stewart, bizarrely, spent 20 minutes of his stand-up routine mocking Spectator and Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle (who is side-splittingly funny, by the way); which is fine, only, it wasn’t funny at all – which is a bummer if you’re a comedian. What is revealing is that he chose to mock not only Rod’s political beliefs per se but also his working class roots and ‘plebeian’ background (as he sees it); which, I assume, he believes is responsible for all of his awful uncivilised views.

Embarrassingly, the pompous wanker could barely conceal his utter contempt for the working class, as he rounded off his tiresome pageant of Rod being covered in gravy, angel delight, suet, jelly from a pork pie (not anything as middle-class and foreign as pate, he insinuated) and Tunnocks teacakes. The last ten minutes was particularly cringing as he mimicked Rod eating a poppadum in an Indian Restaurant – it went on and on, until I actually started to feel sorry for the guy. But hang on Stewart, isn’t that racist? You could’ve at least chosen an English chippy – you’re supposed to resent the culture you come from, right?

Anyway, Stewart Lee has spent his career being the anti-hero of comedy, but now, unbeknownst to him and his legion of smug Guardianista fans, he is no longer alternative but rather the choirmaster of a seemingly endless chorus of ‘comedians’ who advertise for the liberal establishment – there’s nothing alternative about him. He’s totally mainstream. And the same goes with practically all of them – except maybe Ricky Gervais – at least not yet.

Whether it’s the cross-dressing Euro-nut Eddie Izzard who used make brilliant surrealist observational comedy, but is now content with moronic jokes comparing Nigel Farage to Hitler. Or star of the brilliant Peep Show, David Mitchell, who now presents ‘soap box’ videos for the Guardian Website – guess what gets on his nerves the most? Go on guess. Even his co-star Robert Webb, again used to be funny, but now writes a weary column for the Guardian’s big brother – the endlessly tedious and humourless New Statesman.

Then, there’s Marcus Brigstock, who loathes working class culture and mocks ‘overweight women who tuck a copy of a women’s magazine under the pizza in their shopping trolleys’ and lazy builders who ‘need eight gallons of tea every five minutes’. (Maybe some of those builders are Polish – the coward wouldn’t dare mock them). Even risqué standup Frankie Boyle has a Guardian column in which he slags off the Tories and hurls insults at Americans – the only nationality you can mock without being called a racist – again, another coward.

So, you see there’s something a lil’ bit fishy going on; but don’t be fooled – this isn’t just a troupe of annoying elites spitting bile at anyone who has the audacity share an opinion other than what they deem acceptable; no, this is much darker and has more wider cultural significance.

A few years back I attended a Christmas party and as is the norm on these occasions I, along with my co-workers, got pebble-dashingly pissed faced. The conversation turned to British Comedy and why it isn’t funny anymore – because you can’t laugh or joke about anything – a wry and fellow piss head observed; someone even suggested that Thatcher put an end to jokes about the Irish – this, though, has yet to be proven.

Anyway, I can’t entirely recollect what happened next, but I recall putting a serviette on my head and performed my embarrassing gay Jesus routine – this went down well (everyone was hammered); then I pretended to be Mohammed and the scene turned nasty – that’s offensive, that’s racist, stop it, they all cried – even though nobody was Muslim and everybody was, supposedly, a Christian.

Make of that what you will – but when society at large, and increasingly the state, starts to police jokes, we’re in very dangerous territory indeed. Old working class pub stand up, Bernard Manning, was probably a bigot, but I’ll take him any day over this new breed humourless, PC, patronising bien pensants.

RIP, Ronnie Corbett

TV Review: My Failed Novel and Grantchester

You’re a writer, people often proclaim, why don’t you write a novel about all the places you’ve visited, all those characters. But the truth, when push comes to shove (as it so often does), is that hacks are not really writers. Only hacks, editors and the cleaning ladies in newsrooms know this unpalatable truth – but it’s good to play along. Obviously, the ladies love a writer – dark, mysterious, eccentric, grey shallow bags and thin wristed. The contrary is true of hacks. Almost no one likes hacks, not even hacks. We killed Princess Diana, remember – and almost everyone liked her.

What hackers and writers do have in common is the constant unedifying steady sludge of rejection, disappointment, failure and moments (or sometimes weeks) of that dreadful paranoia that at any moment you’re going to be caught out, uncovered, for the obvious fake that you undoubtedly are. And even when you do reach the dizzy heights of a daily national, I’m only guessing here, there’s still that nagging sensation that this is merely a stop gap, a day job – imagine an air hostess pretending she’s anything other than a glorified cocktail waitress and you’ll be close to the mark.

The remarkable thing about Giles Coren’s new documentary Giles Coren: My Failed Novel (Sky Arts) is that it captures all of the insecurities and nagging self-doubt of a wannabe writer perfectly – but only just, and almost certainly not intentionally, more as a natural matter of course.

Giles – we should get this out of the way – is one of Britain’s most successful restaurant critics and columnists; but it turns out that none of this matters, when you’ve always dreamed of being a novelist, and your first and only novel was a commercial and critical flop selling only 771 copies in hardback and 1400 copies in paperback – everyone from his agent to Jeffrey Archer smirks at the dismal sales.

So, Giles goes around in his annoyingly affable boyish way, meeting lots of publishers, authors, critics and women in book clubs to find out what makes a writer successful and why his novel was such a disaster. And what begins as a resignedly jaunty exploration into the publishing world bizarrely turns into self-analysis and pursuit for the soul of the artist (ok, I exaggerate – this is Giles Coren we’re talking about, but you get the idea.)

I have to say, I did feel sorry for him when his book was being scrutinised, ridiculed and ultimately tossed on the bonfire by a group of awfully patronising creative writing students; who basically said it’s all bollocks and you were only published because you’re a famous journo (and hacks, as we know, are not writers) and you should stick to your day job.

The usually confident and opinionated Giles was at pains to read it out loud and red-faced when they tore it to pieces. “If you can’t live through the failure, then your screwed,” Howard Jacobson said to him. Maybe, but he isn’t a failure – it’s just that his first novel wasn’t very good. I was ambivalent about Giles before this, now I quite like him.

Since everyone now accepts that all men (especially noble prize winning scientists, and those of a catholic disposition) are sexual deviants, predatory rapists and just all round nasty misogynists, apart from, of course, Arab, Muslim and North African men, who are all just lovely, thank you very much. It’s quite fitting that we should kick off this year’s spurge of new detective shows with a drab crime drama set in the 1950s, to remind us that men were just as awful and sleazy back then and fifteen-year-old girls just as randy.

What is baffling about the new series Grantchester (ITV, Wednesdays) is why the village vicar Sidney Chambers (James Norton) – who was at the beginning accused of sexual offences against a child, who then turns up dead – plays at being sleuth with local detective DI Geordie Keating (Robson Green); are the police low on staff, or is this just how it was back then? And back then is just another problem. I’m tired of back then. I want a back to the future, or a Phillip K Dick style drama set sometime in the next 5 minutes.

It’s not that Grantchester is particularly bad, and isn’t a perfectly amiable way to flitter away a Sunday afternoon (only it’s on Tuesdays – which might make you think twice). It’s just that it’s so dreary, laboured, been-there-done-that and certainly on a period (so to speak) that it made me want to either scream to wake up or hit myself to pass out. The best character was the dead girl’s father played by Neil Morrissey – I haven’t seen him for ages – because he looked like Hitler – if Hitler had decided to swap his trademark toothbrush moustache for a more socially acceptable variety of facial hair. But other than that, I’ll give this one a miss.

 

Why does Manchester hate dogs? Are we androids?

Something ridiculous happened at this year’s hideously over managed, tiresome and predictable Christmas markets in Manchester. An employee of the dog Stasi, aka Manchester City Council, prohibited me from entering Albert Square (a public area, by the way) because I was carrying my beloved Chihuahua in a bag. I’ll say it again: a Chihuahua in a bag.

That wasn’t the worse bit though (and came as no surprise considering how increasingly regulated our lives are); no, the worse bit was the look of horror, and near panic on the official’s countenance. As though I’d strapped a suicide vest to the poor animal and darted toward one of those silly mock Disneyesque beer huts screaming Allah-Akbar.

‘Why’, I asked. ‘Don’t know, council ‘ave banned them,’ she replied, in your typical dim bat council employee fashion. But why? What’s the precedent? What possible disturbance could my Chihuahua in a bag inflict on the hundreds of already loud, mouthy drunken Christmas revellers?

In typical patronising fashion, here’s what the council say on their ‘we-know-better than-you-poor-peasants’ website: ‘Sorry pooch, but Albert square’s market area has a strict ‘no dogs’ policy…We love our canine friends but the enclosed space is just too busy and crowded, which isn’t a very suitable area for dogs…You can bring your dogs to other markets though…but it’s probably best to leave them at home while you visit the Christmas markets.’

Is it really probably best? Thanks nanny for informing me what probably is or isn’t best for my dog. The hundreds council pen-pushers (probably) who were paid to come up with that drivel are (probably) ignorant idiots. And here’s why: as any dog owner knows, the best way of bringing up a well behaved dog is by ensuring it is well socialised; in other words, by introducing it to a variety of social situations no matter how raucous, busy or enclosed, the dog will adapt and therefore behave more agreeably outside of the house. Restricting dogs in every conceivable arena of public life, as we do these days, is more likely to produce a problem dog.

The council though, in their new designated role as public life-coaches, have decided that it would probably be best if they legislated our dogs (along with smokers) out of existence.

Take, for example, the Metrolink, which has had a bye-law prohibiting dogs since 1992. Despite recent public consultations, which revealed that a majority were in favour of allowing dogs on board, they still refused to have the ban lifted – citing the usual waffle about health and safety, fouling damage, stress induced behaviour and allergies (By the same logic, you might as well ban children, the elderly, people displaying flu like symptoms, vomiting drunks, the agitated and infirm).

Bizarrely, dogs are now being discriminated against in the city’s parks. Certain restrictions apply in designated areas; or you must walk them on a lead, and a very short lead at that, or else. Some parks, including Platt Fields, have designated dog-walking areas – but watch your mutt like a hawk, in case they frighten an innocent bystander or maul a pigeon to death.

Anyway, I was reminded of all fascist big state stuff when reading Phillip K Dick’s brilliant dystopian novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? (Later filmed and renamed as Blade Runner.)

In the novel, a simple empathy test is performed to determine who among the populace is an android. ‘Subjects’ are given hypothetical situations relating to animals (such as pulling the legs of a spider and lots of other weird stuff) and tested to see their reaction.

As you might expect animal empathy is pretty much a hard-wired human emotion, so naturally none of the androids pass (schizophrenics also fail, so it’s important to differentiate). The point being that loving and caring for animals is a basic human emotion; and since our city’s leaders clearly hate dogs, it naturally follows they too must be either androids or schizophrenics (I’d proffer the latter – in the novel androids have really high IQs).

So, the wonderfully diverse city of Manchester that caters and panders to every conceivable minority – no matter how ludicrous – has stuck two fingers up at the dog owning population, which you know, only accounts for between 200,000 – 300,000 council tax paying households in the region; 52,000 of whom live within 80 metres of the dog hating tram. And yes, of course, there are some skin headed hoodlums out there straining a pit bull on a lease – but these surely are a minority. Get a grip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TV review: The Jihadis Next Door

Don’t we live in such a vibrant multicultural country? Don’t we? We do, don’t we? I’m sure, like me, it gives you a warm fuzzy feeling – a sense of stability and security, that we’re all basically human beings underneath the facade, pulling in the same direction.

What can one say about Channel 4’s new documentary The Jihadis Next Door, other than: how did we allow our country to sleepwalk into such a terrible mess? And: Islam again, bored now.

The kind of footage aired in the documentary is pretty much the usual stuff we’ve grown accustomed to in our perpetual state of 24/7 Islam: radical hate preachers subsidised by the tax payer, roaming at will through inner city London; blokes with beautifully moisturised beards; footage of the odd Muslim condemning it – never a mass rally mind or even a moderately attended street protest, just the odd one (I’ll guarantee this will be the focus of most of this week’s reviews, along with something about the programme dividing communities); the odd infidel beheading and, obviously, how we’re all going to burn in hell fire.

So, pretty much your average weekday in the religion of peace (you should see what they do for New Year’s, crikey).

Having said all that, it doesn’t make it less shocking to watch – we’re not completely desensitised, yet. The range of emotions you go through watching the documentary is quite remarkable, I counted: fear, concern, sadness, helplessness and anger; I laughed twice, nearly cried once, and vaporised about 20ml of my super strength blackjack e-liquid. The most interesting bit however, is how articulate and goal orientated these people are and, of course, how stupid we are.

Clearly, your average bog-standard Jihadi isn’t stupid; they know how to manipulate the law and exploit the weakness, as they see it, of our democracy; they understand how decadent our culture has become and how to use it to their advantage.

“The people in this country are living in ignorance, their country is involved in war,” says Siddhartha Dhar (aka Abu Rumaysah), a bouncy castle salesman and the man now suspected of being the new Jihadi John in the latest Islamic State execution video. He continues: “If they continue to have this indifferent approach, it is not going to help them.” Check! I totally agree, albeit in a different way, but you get the idea.

Another radical, YouTube sensation Abu Haleema, tells a group of reporters outside of court that Islam will eventually dominate the UK and the flag of Islam will fly above Downing Street. A reporter shouts out “You’re joking?” “No, I’m not,” Haleema replies. And he isn’t, and it will, if we carry on like this.  Bored now.

The Jihadis Next Door, Channel 4, 9pm, Tuesday 19 January

 

Restaurant review: The Beagle (Manchester)

Food 0/5     Atmosphere 3/5

So it’s settled then. Manchester needs a kick up the arse – a how’s your father, an eke-name, a moniker, a diminutive term of endearment. London has Londonistan, Las Vegas went for Sin City; Bangkok pegged the City of Angels and Berlin The Grey City. It’s more of a US of A thing, isn’t it? We’re not as grandiose, freewheeling, riding off into the sunset to the beat of Fleetwood Mac as the ‘ol gas station smudges into the vista. That’s not us. We’re more subdued. Don’t want to blow our trumpets – didn’t know we had one.

But it’s time here in Albion that our reserved cities, towns and even small hamlets, buckled up and promoted their very own affectionate appellations – Manchester in particular. So, here goes: what about Madchester or Gunchester? (been there, done that) – never again, too nineties. The Rainy City? Boring, and besides, I think Seattle got there first. Cottonopolis? Reasonable and has a nice ring – but out of date. Granadaland? Forget it. Manny. Man Many Manny. Manchesterford? Spluttering and too eighties. Warehouse city. Manky. Manky mess. Manky mess messy? Manky messy public transport?

Obviously, nothing works.

How about a nod to our illustrious musical heritage? Again, out of date – nobody likes music anymore. What tickles our fancy? Drinking – yes that’s it! We love drowning our sorrows; lurching out of watering holes four hours too early, staggering into our hangovers as we hunt down some questionable halal certified eatery.

Eating, do we like to eat? Tough one that, it appears we do. There are restaurants popping like acne all over the Cottonopolis these days. Baying like jackals, a siren call of chain Italian restaurants, fusion street tapas, cocktails with hefty burgers, NQ this that and the other, New York inspired bold cartas brimming with hope – promising anything but Fish and Chips, black pudding, hot pot, anglicised curries and shepherd’s pie. And at 12 quid a smack it better be good – especially if it’s on an Ikea wooden chopping board – rimmed perfectly for collecting those lukewarm crimson juices.

It happened about 10 years ago. Mancunians decided they didn’t really like depressingly authentic public houses, music, bands and all that stuff to do with being a miserable Northerner. No, what really got their rocks off was playing at being restaurant critics – connoisseurs of the palate. The problem is, they’re awful at it. Watching Mancunians go out to eat is like watching partially blind lemmings stumble about in total darkness (obviously with a decent pair of night vision goggles).

Is it a bar or a restaurant? It’s a…look love, there’s some sort of la-di-da fusion food on offer if you can be bothered – the bar’s on the right, near the entrance/exit. Be sure to have a few pints on the way out. In fact, The Beagle in Chorlton, Manchester advertises as such: craft beer, cocktails, terrace, wine and vibes. Notably, there’s no mention of food, and for good reason – it’s awful.

It also appears to be Mexican, which is bizarre considering it’s called the Beagle, instead of the Chihuahua; and the walls are decorated with birds – not obese Mexican birds (I’m talking about women here), just your average bland English variety. ‘The birds’ bring plates of food to you, and the service is…well, they managed to bring it to the table without dropping it among the boozy revellers, which I suppose is commendable. The problem is what they stick in front of you makes you regret not spending it on booze.

The Al pastor pulled pork burrito was bland, stuffed with red cabbage, way too expensive at £8 (two beers, imagine) and almost definitely not spit roasted as advertised. We also went for the Lawndale burger – another £8 – a terrible idea of halloumi and soggy aubergine – the less said about that the better. The pick n’ mix snacks (3 dishes for £9.95) looked like pre bought frozen convenience lumps of charcoal.

After that, we decided like everyone else in the place, to just buy drinks. Only avoid the cocktails, they have really stupid names like Tommy’s Margarita and Jalapeno and Cucumber Margarita and ‘classics’ like Godfather and a whole list of other waffle. By closing time, we were all authentically pissed. I can’t remember, I think we went for a giant £4 greasy pizza at some nasty takeaway – you know, the kind that’d make you cringe if you were the opposite of paralytic. But what could I do? I was starving.

The Beagle, 456-458 Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton, Manchester, M21 0BQ. (0161 8818596)

 

Restaurant review: Urban Cookhouse (Manchester)

Food 0/5     Atmosphere 0/5

What is commendable, and indeed ‘unique’, about this place, is that everything they put in front of you tastes of nothing at all; and when I say ‘nothing’, I truly, from the bottom of my heart, mean no-thing.

With a mind-boggling array of new dining experiences seemingly opening up at the rate of one an hour in Manchester, the city is currently in the throes of an eating revolution. Although with abstract names like Artisan, Scene and Poop (that last one’s mine) the casual eater can be forgiven for being somewhat confused even after they’ve paid the bill.

So, once you get over the initial ‘What does that mean?’ and ‘What is this?’ – then comes the even more difficult soul searching question of whether you like any of it. Because it used to be easy didn’t it. Deciding whether you like Fish and Chips. The fish is moist and succulent. The batter light and crispy. The chips nicely seasoned. Or a steak – was it juicy? Cooked just how you like it?

It is of course more difficult deciding if a Japanese twist on Spaghetti carbonara sates your palate; or whether drinking a cocktail with a burger is a good idea; or indeed, whether forking out a tenner for fusion street food, in a restaurant, inside, is really worth the hassle.

Anyway, with a new menu, Urban Cookhouse, located on Princess Street, on the fringe of the Gay Village, definitely falls into the ‘baffling’ category. Baffling, because it claims to bring: Inspiration from New York’ and ‘a taste of downtown Manhattan to central Manchester’. Yet does nothing of the sort.

As you’d expect the place is nice enough and has the sort of urban feel that we’ve come to expect – shiny Meccanoesque patterns; ghostly, slightly camp purple haze with the occasional hint of classical Greece; shiny grey everywhere; high stools you’ll need a stepladder to access; purple candles and dangling energy efficient lights. It’s lunch hour on a Thursday and the place is almost empty.

In fact, it is so dim that we opt for a window highchair. The menu is grey and bleak and surprisingly contains very little. I opt for the Gin Cured Salmon for starter. If it was ‘gin soaked’, then it soaked any flavour out of this sweet delicate fish. It is mushy and bland. (And I’m guessing defrosted about a half hour before we arrived.) The pecans, being earthy and crunchy, make no sense at all, the same with the accompanying pancakes, which were dry and added nothing to the dish. My companions choose the Potato Gnocchi – which was drenched in oil – and the Sweet Potato Soup, which was bland, way too grainy, and came with two dry half bitten morsels of coconut.

For mains I went for Rhode Island Chowder, which contained no clams and tasted – when push comes to shove – of tinned vegetable soup. It came with a side order of cock and bollocks, that is: two balls of some tasteless starchy substance and a burnt stick of streaky bacon stuck in the middle. We also had the Seared Duck Breast, one piece of which was raw, the dish was covered in a sickly sweet marmalade sauce; a burning cinnamon stick completed this uninspired dish – the ash gracefully fell all over the meat.

As I said the menu is sparse, but the dessert option contains almost nothing. With three options, none of which was slab of New York cheesecake, it doesn’t look promising.

Now, I don’t know what the chef was smoking when he came up with Mexican Rice Pudding, or whether I was high when I ordered it. But, it was undercooked and went doolally on the cinnamon. The lovely waitress – hands down for staying positive throughout the whole experience – informed us that the tequila in the accompanying chocolate paste made it Mexican. Maybe, but I couldn’t taste it; and besides, I was expecting something with chili anyway. The Midnight Manhattan, strawberry soufflé, was nice, but the Pumpkin Panna Cotta, you’ve guessed it, missed the mark, and didn’t taste of anything.

Even more baffling than the food, is that the kitchen seems intent on arranging your food into various phallic symbols – possibly a talking point – but personally I only found marginally funny.

The Mancunian weather: The rain falls hard on this humdrum town

When Mr Manchester himself, Tony Wilson, said ‘Jazz was the last refuge of the untalented’, what he really meant to say – to quote Oscar Wilde – was that ‘conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative’.

Tucked away in a precipitous bowl shaped area of land, bordered to the north and east by the Pennines and to the south by the Cheshire plain, here, every day is like Sunday – we are forever destined to be the umbrella capital of the country

But the mercurial nature of Mancunian weather isn’t just an icebreaker. It’s a mood, a memory, a sound, an errant child and a naughty mistress. It’s an atmosphere, an emotion, an expression and era – and in this age of globalisation, it’s the weather that still ties us down to one specific place. It’s who we are and where we come from.

The relentless drizzle of our beloved city has inspired our greatest writers from Thomas de Quincey – who described his mental landscape as a terrifying cloud structure bubbling up beyond control – to our greatest painter L.S Lowry, whose unforgivably bleak, grey and unchanging skies were the expression of a generation of matchstick men destined to toil in this most industrial of cities.

Without the rain, Manchester would never have been the powerhouse of the industrial revolution (the damp air means the cotton is less likely to snap) – there would be no decaying mills and silent chimneys – which haunt, like ghosts, the psyche of our city’s writers, lyricists and artists. Rumour also has it, that the damp air is responsible for our slight nasal diction.

When Morrissey sang – “The rain falls down on this humdrum town, this town has dragged you down” – he owed much to the post-industrial romanticism of the city and the people that roamed its damp wet streets. The lethargic Well I Wonder, another Smiths song, ends with the sounds of falling rain, evoking the sense of a lazy rainy day. The same with Joy Division and their bleak claustrophobic mechanised melodies – both bands could only have come from the manufacturing capital.

But is it all a myth? Does the city really deserve the accolade of the ‘rainy city’?

That beacon of climatic common sense – The Met Office – defines a ‘rain day’ as being a day on which one millimetre or more of rainfall is measured. Manchester has on average 86.7cms of rain every year, compared to Britain’s wettest cities, Cardiff (115cms); Glasgow (112cms); Preston (103.36); it even rains more in Blackpool (88.27cms). In fact, Manchester barely makes the top ten – we do, however, have more rainy days than most with 150 sodden days a year (Glasgow still beats us with 170, as does Preston with its commendable 153).

If it is a myth, then where does it come from? Perhaps a document, dating to 1926, can provide the answer.

Discovered by researchers a few years ago, the 90-year-old record contains a map showing that some parts of what is now Greater Manchester experienced 139cms of rain a year, but only 78cm fell over Manchester. In 1926 the average rainfall in England was 91cms. The map was shaded blue – one of the first of its kind in the North West – to denote annual rainfall. It was printed widely in the press, including the Manchester Guardian, and experts believe it was instrumental in reinforcing the city’s reputation for dismal weather – and of course, once something sticks it’s difficult to shake off.

But then, myths are more potent than history; and if it’s a choice between legend and fact, always go for the legend.

Some rain enthusiasts disagree with the naysayers, pointing out that Manchester has, in fact, been getting wetter over the past 100 years – even going as far to suggest that Tuesdays are the wettest, Saturdays are getting wetter, and Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are the driest.

And besides, if you count any form of wet like: drizzle, sprinkles, mizzles, dew, light showers, intermittent spots, mists, sprays, breezes, splashes, puffs, scuds and even a squelchy ground – it is ‘technically’ always raining in Manchester, even if you don’t necessarily get soaked.

So, there you go: the rain – the tippling, the pelting, and the plothering – luttering from clouds the colour of cigarette ash. It has inspired, amused, dampened our hair and spirits, razed our sense of fashion to the ground, besmirched our weekends, muddied our floors and revolutionised our textile industry. Whether we are the ‘rainy city’ or merely the ‘somewhat rainy city’, the rain still deserves a place in all Mancunian hearts. So, you see, Mr. Wilde, there’s nothing unimaginative in conversation about the weather.

(Published here at ilovemanchester.com)

A brief encounter with an African in Cairo

I’m not one who’s ever been able to sleep on long tortuous bus journeys. The intermittent light of passing streetlights punctuated by desolate clusters of makeshift homes, then a stretch of darkness longer than you’d hoped, as you desperately try to gather your bearings – how long left?

The anonymity of the bus traveller, a gilded cloak acting as a protective blanket shielding one from the strangeness of the surroundings. Nobody likes turning up free style in a foreign country, no matter what they tell you, and I’m no exception. No matter how much I’ve tried to convince myself, I’m human too.

Anybody who’s spent a significant amount of time in Cairo – although most won’t admit it – will attest to the sear palpable sexually energy which oozes it’s narrow streets. A good half hour stroll around the block is enough to sate any sexually starved deviant. One can physically feel the repression. Furtive glances of covered wives verses the seemingly rampant homosexuality of, it would seem, most Egyptian men.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Cairo is one big massive gay club. Groups of skinny Muslim boys skip hand in hand through Tahir Square, massive grins plastered on their faces; all they’re missing are the daisy chains. Apparently, I’ve been told, they only consider themselves gay if they’ve the receiver rather than giver – I can understand why William Burroughs spent so much time in Morocco.

The 80 pence a night hostel I found was conveniently located on a 24-hour market street in the centre of Cairo. Situated on the second floor of a dilapidated British colonial building that also housed, it later transpired, two other hostels, one of which seemed to be home to some bizarre Japanese cult. The lift had stopped working since the Suez Crisis and was now home to a group of stray kittens that survived on day-to-day handouts from the tourists. Ironically, modern day Egyptians have no great fondness for cats – or animals of any nature, from what I understand.

The sleeping arrangements resembled more a stable than a hostel. The mattresses were as brown as mud mixed with coffee, and were the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen in my life. Clearly the last time the place had been cleaned was when the British pulled out in ’57. I scattered my 80 pence in front of the ‘receptionist’ and within a few minutes slumped on the bed – I was sharing a room with two Africans and young Japanese guy.

When I awoke the next day, one of the Africans was staring blankly at me – a distant resigned expression. I was a little apprehensive. His name was Coco and he came from Togolese. He explained he’d travelled to Libya but was unable to find work and so came to Egypt.

“There’s nothing here for me here either,” he said with a pompous French air, “I’ll go to Israel, but I don’t have the money yet.”

Coco’s native language was French – Togo being a French colony – it was remarkable how he’d actually acquired that French arrogance: expressive, moaning, arms in the air, bottom lip sulking. He was well dressed, groomed and clearly middle class. He wandered around the place in these lurid colour garments, a striking contrast to the black and white monotone of Cairo’s streets. He was funny, smart and friendly, but also prone to long spasms of depression; he’d lie in bed staring at the broken ceiling fan, which rotated intermittently like an abandoned propeller attached to a rusty helicopter from some forgotten war.

He wasn’t particularly impressed by the hostel living standards either. The 80 pence was supposed to include breakfast – taken on the balcony in the morning with a cup of sweet tea; breakfast was really just stale flat Egyptian bread with jam.

“What do you think I am? An animal?” he flipped out one morning. “I’m a tourist, and this is not a tourist hotel. It’s a pig sty.”

He stood up and started pacing around the place, pointing, “look at this mess, clean it, I’ll call the tourist police on you.” He never did.

Poor Coco also hated eating locally – you don’t know what those people put in it, he explained. Preferring to cook sardines in tomatoes with a handful of chilli chucked in for good measure.

One evening, as we ate, he explained to me that my grandfather was a thief.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“He came to my country and took everything, he’s a thief.”

“My Granddad was a history teacher in secondary school.”

“Well, his father then.”

“We’re not French.”

“Always, Washington and London,” he made a whispering sound, “planning and plotting. One day I’ll come to your country, you’ll see.”

A month later, he managed to pay a trafficker to smuggle him into Israel. It was, as he said, his last chance.

“I don’t know why, but I feel like we are brothers,” he told me, “We’ll meet again one day, I know it.”

I never saw him again.

Cairo, Egypt, 2008

King of The North: Could the North West be an independent country?

It’s official. The people of The North have spoken. A spate of various online petitions suggests it is time we seceded from the United Kingdom, joined the Scots and walked off into the sunset.

As one embittered online comment put it: ‘It would solve all of this country’s problems if we could dig a big trench around London and push it out to sea with a long stick.’

Another wrote: ” Lets isolate the self centered trash and build a new country together!” Crikey!

All agreed that something must be done about the Tories and their endless pageant of austerity.

Even Mr. Manchester himself, the late great Anthony Wilson believed it. A supporter of regionalism, he kick started a campaign for the North West to be allowed a referendum on the creation of a regional assembly, called ‘The Necessary Group’ after a line in the US Declaration of Independence.

And a recent online poll in The Manchester Evening News found that 72 per cent of readers clicked ‘yes’ to leave the UK and join our Scottish Brethren. The same goes for readers of the Liverpool Echo (73%), the Lancashire Telegraph and Chester Chronicle. Another online petition by change.org (#takeuswithyouscotland) has over 46,000 signatures.

So it is settled then – at least online. But why join Scotland? Why not an independent country altogether? Admittedly, how this would take form and function hasn’t been fully devised, but a few ideas have been circulating.

Firstly, all prospective independent nations, to be taken seriously, need an official obscure minority language, preferably spoken by no more than, say, five academics. We all know about Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and some obscure version of Celtic spoken in Cornwall, but what do we know about Cumbric?

Google tells me it’s a common Brittonic language spoken 500 years ago in the north of England or ‘Hen Ogledd’ as we shall now call it. Although extinct, probably through the hidden machinations of the Westminster London elite, I proffer forthwith it becomes our second official tongue and forcibly taught from age 3 in primary schools; be emblazoned on our new passports; inscribed in massive bold letters on road signs, so people get the message.

Secondly, we need a new national flag. After wading through the obvious boring stuff like roses, castles and coal pits, let’s liberate that flying witch from the Borough of Burnley and Pendle use it as our national emblem and bring back the old witch trials for heretics – besides, everyone knows that witches are roaming all over the moors and dales of the North West.

Naturally, we need to appoint a monarch. Who this new ‘King of the North’ might be is causing particular upset among our ruling families. Some have suggested House Gallagher or House Hucknall, while others favoured the late Cilla Black – now it’s a standoff between Karl Pilkington and Morrissey.

Thirdly, since the climate of the north is bitterly cold, veering to the subarctic in the wild lands of Scotland, I suggest we deed poll Manchester and rename it Winterfell. It might also be wise to extend Hadrian’s Wall to the Midland rift – just to make our borders sacrosanct to any interlopers. Anyone to the north of this wall shall henceforth adopt the demonym ‘Northerners’ or alternatively ‘Northpersons’ – to avoid causing offence.

Then there’s the question of currency. Probably best to do away with money and its corrupting influence altogether, perhaps return to a barter system. Squirrels anyone? The north is full of them and they’re long overdue a cull. We’d also need to establish foreign embassies; a military; a parliament; the list is exhausting.

Finally, the most hotly disputed dispute: our new national anthem. Some have suggested The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead, others Take That’s Mancunian Way or even Ewan MacCall’s Dirty Old Town. But it’s Pere Ubu’s Non-Alignment Pact, which is the clear winner – how all this would play at global sporting events isn’t clear.

Our adopted Latin motto shall be ‘Credo quia absurdum est’ – translated, as ‘I believe it because it is absurd’.

Although Tony Wilson’s campaign was initially successful, it was later thwarted by the North East and abandoned. But what more of an endorsement can you want? Since independence isn’t coming anytime soon, for now we’d just have to make do with the ‘Northern powerhouse’, greater fiscal autonomy and a new mayor. It’s not much, but it’s a start.