Never have I emerged from a play feeling physically battered, but that’s how I felt after seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter theatre on Saturday (battered in a good way, if that’s possible). Admittedly I was feeling more tender than usual due to having just been on a 5.5 hour wine tasting course where there was no spittoon, but in a way that helped me to relate to the play’s characters, who knock back an astounding number of drinks over the course of the action.
The play takes place in the early hours of the morning in the home of George and Martha, a history professor and his wife, the daughter of the president of the college. They’ve just returned from a faculty party and have invited a younger couple, Nick and Honey, a professor in the biology department and his ‘mousey’ wife, to continue the party at theirs. Nick and Honey are sucked into George and Martha’s toxic relationship; as more drinks are consumed the couples grow increasingly disordered, the arguments escalate and both marriages unravel. The entire play takes place in the living room, a drab, pistachio-coloured incubator for bitterness, resentment and disappointment. Yes, it’s a heavy play, but the dialogue is so full of wit and energy that it’s never a drag.
I loved this production. What astounded me most is how the characters’ conversations flow so naturally – exactly the way you’d imagine an increasingly drunken conversation at a party would unfold – in a way that reveals everything you need to know about the characters, their relationships and their pasts, without being clunky. For this writer, it was a masterclass in dialogue. It builds towards the climax – the revelation about George and Martha’s absent son, who always hovers awkwardly on the edge of conversation – with a sense of inevitability. Remember those times you’ve stayed later than you should have done at a party, long after the fun has departed, watching a friend (or yourself) getting drunker, knowing humiliation is coming but doing nothing to stop it? That.
Imelda Staunton plays Martha, and it would be easy to say she steals the show, swerving between vivaciousness and charm, Medusa-like seductiveness, banshee-screeching and child-like vulnerability – but she was perfectly matched by Conleth Hill as George. He is a cantankerous old history professor on steroids: from the get-go he eviscerates Nick, who threatens him as a representation of science and progress as opposed to George’s fusty old world of history. Martha, on the other hand, he treats with ironic scorn, knowing exactly how to get under her skin. Just when you feel he’s being too cruel, she retaliates with an attack so brutal he’s again reduced to a tweedy, ineffectual object of pity. Their toxicity infects Nick and Honey, who begin as an immaculately dressed golden couple glowing with youth and end looking as if they’ve gone through several rounds in a boxing ring. The actors playing Nick and Honey play it fairly safe, but perhaps that’s what makes them the perfect foil for George and Martha.
Nick and Honey aren’t merely victims: their marriage has its own fatal flaws which are brought out of the woodwork by their night with Martha and George, and in a twisted way I felt as if the older couple were doing them a favour by sparing them years of simmering resentment. As the younger couple stagger home and dawn light streams in through the window, you get the sense that Martha and George have thrashed their way towards a stark truth, where delusions have been shattered and a bitter cycle has finally been broken. It’s not exactly a hopeful ending, but it is resolution.
There’s not much to dislike about this production. It’s an astonishingly well-written play starring four strong actors, staged in a simple way which allows these elements to come to the forefront: what could have gone wrong? The play is running until the end of May and you should see it, though I wouldn’t recommend trying thirteen glasses of wine beforehand if you don’t want to come out feeling emotionally in shreds!
I get embarrassed talking about writing. When people ask me how my novel’s going, I assume they’re just being polite, blush and mumble and change the subject, or I downplay things: ‘Yeah, it’s coming along OK, but it might not go anywhere so I’m trying to just enjoy writing for its own sake…’ I’m afraid people will think I’m arrogant and pretentious, or just a bore (‘Oh, you’re writing a novel? You haven’t mentioned that before!’). Most of all, I’m afraid of setting myself up for an embarrassing failure. I’ve been talking about writing for years. If I don’t get published people will think I must be really bad and, even worse, pitiably deluded about my ability to string a sentence together.
Recently, a friend pointed out that I’m constantly putting myself down in conversation. It’s not just the writing; I’m afraid of admitting that I might be half-decent at anything. Rather than charming people with my modesty, this constant self-denigration is actually more irritating than just owning what I do. What’s more, it can come across as insincere – because I do believe I’m a good writer, regardless of whether I get published or not. Most of my writer friends aren’t published yet, and I don’t consider them ‘not real writers’ because of that: it’s their self-belief and their dedication to the craft that make them writers, not a six-figure book deal. In fact, one could argue that dedicating oneself to something when there’s no immediate payoff – just early mornings, lonely evenings, sleepless nights wrangling with your plot, but above all the sense of fulfillment that comes with expressing your creativity – is the purest, noblest form of writing.
Payoff would be nice too, of course.
It’s Lent, and this year I’ve decided I’ll try to banish the feelings of embarrassment, shame, self-doubt and fear of failure that constantly attempt to ambush my life (a nebulous resolution, I know). In that spirit, I’m going to tell you about my writing, proudly. So, here’s my latest novel update.
I’m almost at the end of my second draft, although that little almost feels like the last stage of a triathlon I forgot to train for. It feels like I’ll be writing this bloody novel until my teeth start falling out, and have been writing it since the day I learnt my first word (it’s been just over a year, but oh, how I’ve aged…). I write more frequently than ever, and yet it’s still never finished. I’ve never, ever found the writing process this torturous – and I suspect it’s precisely because I’m finding it so torturous now that this novel is the best I’ve ever written. This is the way it’s supposed to be. This is the way it will be again and again and again if I continue to write. It will never get easier; the journey will just be different each time.
Now I know why the previous novels I wrote weren’t good enough. This was my writing process:
Have a vague idea. Think myself very clever.
Plunge headfirst into writing and churn out a few chapters in a frenzy. Read them back and think myself even more clever.
Realise I need a plot and half-heartedly concoct something that I think sounds vaguely plausible.
Write more chapters. Edit each one immediately after finishing until I eventually reach the end. Piece the chapters together and, ta-da, it’s a novel!
Read through novel as a whole. I’ve already edited it, so think the writing is awesome. Tinker with it a bit. There, it’s perfect now!
Put the novel in a drawer. Read it back a year later. Cringe at the disjointed chapters, the inconsistent characters, the lack of a coherent vision or overall narrative structure. Think I’m not very clever at all and will never be a real writer.
Mope for a bit, and then pick myself up and move on.
Picking myself up and moving on was the most important part. For each of those crappy novels, I’m sure I learnt something, even if it was what not to do. For my current novel, largely informed by what I learnt on the Faber course, my process has been very different:
Have an idea. Start writing. When I feel it’s actually going to work, take a breather.
Write out a detailed plot, divided into a rough number of chapters, with a clear narrative arc, as well as brief profiles of the main characters. (This is not to say I stuck rigidly to this plot; it changed dramatically as I wrote, and had epiphanies while in the shower, so I was constantly editing and updating my plot document.)
Write my first draft. Write write write. Keep going. Never look back, however tempting. Churn out reams of crappy prose until I reach the ending.
Put it in a drawer. Don’t do any writing; live my life, see friends, cook proper meals, go to the gym… or mostly just end up sleeping. (I left my draft about a month, although some people leave it six months; I can see the value in giving yourself a proper psychological distance, but I’m too impatient!)
Self-publish a single copy, so I can read it as if it’s a published novel. (I found this stage painful; I was on a high when I finished the draft, a feeling that was crushed upon reading the crappy words that had seemed ‘raw’ at the time. The draft was pretty terrible, but I could see its potential.)
Write out the plot, chapter-by-chapter, in a grid. (In this grid I included the major characters in each scene and the time of year, to make sure characters received equal attention and the seasons changed appropriate… there was an awful lot of ‘pathetic fallacy’ rainfall in my first draft.) Overhaul the grid, making it more coherent and logical.
Go through the manuscript and cut, paste and delete to match the new grid. (In this process I cut out about 20,000 words.)
This is the stage I’m on now: rewrite. It’s taken months longer than expected, because this isn’t just tinkering: characters have had personality transplants (by which I mean, they now have personalities), new scenes have been written, darlings have been killed. I keep coming across the words INSERT SCENE HERE or MAKE THIS BETTER just when I think I’ve nearly finished another chapter.This can be disheartening when I feel like Sisyphus forever pushing his stone up a hill, but what keeps me going is that it will end – even if it takes three, four or five drafts.
A year and a half into this novel, I’ve come to accept that writing isn’t always a passionate, cathartic rush of images and ideas flowing effortlessly from my soul and my fingertips. Most of the time it’s a long, hard endurance test, and I’m determined to keep on running until I pass out. On top of my completed novel, I hope.
Two months, two new countries: I’m doing pretty well so far! (I don’t think I’ll be able to keep this up, sadly.)
My second trip of 2017 was to Dublin. I’ve never been to Ireland before and it seemed a pretty easy fix, so one rainy Thursday morning Omar and I hopped on a plane and crossed the sea to the Emerald Isle – which to be honest looked more grey than emerald as the plane landed, but what can you expect for February? February definitely isn’t peak season for Dublin, since Ireland has a reputation for being drizzly at the best of times, but that worked for us: the less stag and hen parties, the better!
Dublin is very much a city break – don’t go there if you’re expecting rolling green hills covered in shamrocks, leprechaun gold and taverns full of eccentric locals playing the fiddle, and even the city itself felt similar to London, rather than somewhere more picturesque like Edinburgh – but as city breaks go, it’s a fun one. I was particularly impressed by the eating and drinking options. We arrived in the evening, so of course the first thing we wanted to do was eat. We ended up in the excellent Yamamori restaurant, which has great Japanese food and even greater cocktails. Not very typically Irish, so after that we headed over to The Cobblestone pub, a place which didn’t look like much from the outside, but was packed inside – on a night when even Temple Bar was oddly quiet – and was the most ‘Irish-feeling’ place we went. It’s famous for hosting live traditional music every night of the week, though the music isn’t so much a performance as the musicians jamming in the corner while you sip beer and soak up the atmosphere. It’s a little way out from the centre, but definitely worth the trip.
The next day, the sightseeing began with Trinity College,where we paid the obligatory visit to the Book of Kells, an illuminated book of the Gospels produced from the 6th to 9th centuries. There isn’t much to actually see in the exhibition – you get to see the book itself at the end, but mostly it’s information about the book’s journey through history (it seems remarkable we still have it considering all the fires and Viking raids) – but we did spend ten minutes being utterly mesmerised by a video of someone making a book out of vellum using traditional techniques. I also enjoyed reading about perhaps the most famous cat in literature, Pangur Ban.
After that, we mostly just wandered around the surrounding area and St Stephens Green ‘being Joycean’ (Joycean strolls are probably more enjoyable in the sunshine), inhaling some monstrously calorific doughnuts from Aungier Danger before hopping in a taxi to the Dublin Writers Museum. It’s not a huge museum, but if you love literature, you’ll get a lot out of this. It contains the expected display cases dedicated to Joyce, Years, Beckett and Wilde, but also to Irish writers I wasn’t familiar with (and, I’ll admit, writers I didn’t realise were Irish…). From there, it was quite a contrast to go to the Guinness Storehouse, where you can join the shoals of tourists to learn how Guinness is made in an enormous corporate building full of flashy displays, where a peppy man with a microphone teaches you and 70 other people to become a ‘Guinness tasting expert’ in 5 minute slots and you can get a photo of you looking like a chump pulling your own pint (can you tell I wasn’t much of a fan?). It is one of those ‘must-do’ activities, though, and the free pint of Guinness you’re served in a bar overlooking Dublin almost makes it worth the ticket price. Finally, we had dinner in Fallon & Byrne, a food hall, wine basement and restaurant that unsurprisingly serves fantastic wine. It’s pricey, but good if you want to go somewhere a bit more sophisticated before hitting the rather less sophisticated (but more fun) pubs.
The next day we paid a brief visit to Dublin Castle; you can get tours, but if you don’t want to pay to see inside the castle – which we didn’t, though it’s not too pricey – this doesn’t take up a huge amount of time. We walked around, took some nice photos and then headed over to Ulysses Rare Books. Omar and I were planning on buying one another a second-hand book each as a souvenir, but we released each other from this pact when we realised the shop mostly sells first-edition signed books costing 200-500 Euros. Still, it was fun, to manhandle a first edition of Dubliners or a signed copy of Midnight’s Children – though it felt wrong that a greasy-fingered pleb like me was allowed.
Since it amazingly wasn’t raining that day, we decided on an outing to Howth, a fishing village a 30-minute train ride away from Dublin. If you want some fresh air and more picturesque scenery than you’ll find in Dublin, this is highly recommended; there are some beautiful walks, though we didn’t have time for the longer ones, so we strolled along the harbour to the lighthouse, visited the castle grounds and ate fish and chips in one of the many fish restaurants. It has the wholesome atmosphere of a posh Cornish village, and visiting was a great way to cleanse ourselves before heading back to Dublin for some final-night drinking. We visited the bustling pubs on Dame Lane and then progressed to The Brazen Head, which calls itself the oldest pub in Ireland (and was also hosting live music when we visited, though it was more of the dad-rock variety). Drinking isn’t going to cost you much less in Dublin than it will in London, so prepare yourself for that!
The next morning we flew home. I had a great time in Dublin; it’s a perfect place for a weekend, though if we’d had more time we’d have hired a car and driven around the more rural, scenic parts of Ireland. Dublin was less steeped in culture than I was expecting, but the culture is there – you just have to seek it out – and if you’re a foodie (and a drinkie), you’ll be spoilt for choice. Yes, the stag and hen parties can be annoying, and if you’re staying in the centre of town you may not get much sleep, but I was prepared for that and so didn’t let it spoil my experience of the city.
The next new country on my hit list: Poland. That won’t be for a few months, though, so I’ll have to think of something else to talk about in the meantime!
One of my aims for 2017 is to visit four new countries, and write about all of them. I’ve already ticked off country number one: the USA.
Yes, somehow I’ve never been to the USA before – I suppose I’ve always preferred to travel to places more culturally different to where I live – and I thought I’d better fit it in before January 20 and the dawn of the Trump dystopia. My first visit to the US was not to New York or Washington or San Francisco or anywhere obvious, but Denver, Colorado. I went there for work, not for play, which you might consider cheating, but I promised I’d write about every new place, and so here goes.
I mostly saw Denver by night, since during the days I was at a conference, and when we went out in the evenings we rocketed towards the bars we wanted to go to, because the -17c temperatures and heavy snow didn’t exactly make for pleasant strolling (and as always, I’d dressed for a mild winter’s day in England, unable to conceive of actual extreme temperatures). What I did see, I liked. Denver is great for beer – it hosts a massive beer festival every year – and we visited several tap rooms. I’m not usually a beer person, but in Denver I was, sipping my IPAs and my Ambers, feeling substantially more of a dude than I am. Our favourite was a place called Freshcraft: when we asked the tattooed and prodigiously-bearded server for recommendations, he’d launch into a passionate ten-minute speech which would inevitably end in us going, ‘Yes, that one. That sounds good,’ because ignoring his recommendations would have been like kicking a puppy (and they were always great, anyway).
Having said the USA isn’t that culturally different to England, I did notice some differences. In Denver there’s a very chilled-out vibe, and everyone is extremely friendly, whereas in London everyone you encounter on the street and/or on the underground wants to fake-apologise you to death for accidentally making eye contact with them. (I’m told I’d feel much more at home in New York or Boston.) If a taxi driver tried to talk to me in London, I’d consider opening the door and rolling into the gutter; in Denver, I just went along with it, enjoying my ability to charm people just by saying inane things in my accent. People in shops and restaurants are similarly effusive – I heard ‘you’re so welcome!’ many times when I thanked people for serving me – though I’m not sure to what extent that’s because people rely on tips more. I like to take a positive view of human nature, and so I’m going to say it seemed genuine and a result of everyone being more relaxed and getting more fresh air.
If you’re planning on visiting Denver, beware of the altitude; perched beside the Rocky Mountains, it’s known as the Mile High City. I’d heard people talking about how the altitude effects your body – someone warned me not to drink too much because my hangovers would be far worse – but I didn’t think I’d notice it. The nosebleed I got when I arrived immediately disillusioned me. As well as giving me worse hangovers (as I discovered on my final day, after trying a few too many beers the night before), the very thin, very dry air meant I was constantly gasping for water, and became a hideous scaled creature with cracked hands and lips that felt like two lumps of wire wool stuck to my face. Slathering my entire face in Vaseline didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
Although I was working, I feel like I didn’t make the most of my time there. I wished either that I could ski – I’ve never gone skiing but assume I’d spend most of my time falling over or face-planting trees – or that I’d visited Denver in the summer. If I smushed my face against my hotel window at a particular angle, I could just about see the Rockies, and they were stunning. Had it been sunny and warm, I’d have extended my stay and gone hiking in the mountains, and hopefully hung out with some moose (I’m so desperate to see a moose, it’s a bit weird – they just look so badass with their massive antlers!). But I’m sure there will be more trips to the USA to come, and I’ll have a chance to do all of these things. Except face-plant a tree, which I’ll pass on.
That’s all I can really say about my Denver experience. Country number two is already on the cards for the end of this month: Ireland. Yes, I’ve also never been to Ireland before, which is even more disgraceful. I apologise to all my Irish friends and will be righting that wrong soon. This time I’ll be going for play, so should have some more interesting things to say. Until then!
Well, 2016 is drawing to a close. I won’t join the myriad voices wailing about what a terrible year it has been. Neither will I join those who make the highly original point that personifying a unit of time as a cackling witch who kills off beloved celebrities for fun is meaningless, and that terrible events are likely to continue to occur in 2017, etc. etc. Instead, I will tell you about my resolutions for next year.
People are sometimes surprised that I make resolutions, because they think I am a deeply cynical person and killer of all joy. The truth is, I am sunshine in a bottle. Ha, no. Actually, I just think that since half-hearted attempts at ‘self-improvement’ abound at this time of year, I may as well join in and suffer through January alongside my friends. If I get something out of it as well, fantastic.
Like everyone in the history of forever, I rarely follow through on my resolutions, but I’ve come to embrace this quality in myself. I tell myself it’s because I’m a dilettante: my resolution to take up watercolour painting will come to a crashing halt when I get distracted by ukulele playing (or, um, Netflix). This may seem like a defeatist attitude but I find it helpful to accept that, even if I did achieve my unrealistic goals each new year, I wouldn’t be 100% happy. It’s like buying a shiny new iPhone and discovering there’s noheadphone jack. Human nature means we brood over what we don’t have compared to others, and invest all of our happiness in achieving or obtaining things which disappoint us when we realise those things aren’t perfect. This is what I’d do even if I managed to meditate at 5am every morning, virtuously opt for lime-and-sodas at after-work drinks and casually write poems in my lunch break. All of which will never happen.
That’s why this year I am simplifying things. My aim for 2017 is simply to try and worry less (emphasis on try).
Worry seems like a small, trivial thing, but it’s a big deal. I’m always worried about something, from whether I’m dying of an obscure disease to the fact I’m running low on shampoo. I’m an insomniac because I worry about pointless things; when I’m half-asleep, even a lack of shampoo expands to the size of a major life crisis. I worry about minor plot points in my novel, or that my novel will never be published; I worry about an email I need to send at work, or about my entire career and how I’m a failure in comparison to friends. Worry feels like an external force I have no power over, and knowing that’s not true doesn’t always help me to overcome it. In 2017, I’m determined not to let worry win and to have a year where I just enjoy my life, whatever may come, without comparing my experience to anyone else’s.
It seems a hopelessly intangible goal, but I’m going to try some practical measures to achieve it: good sleep hygiene so I don’t worry whilst unable to sleep; keeping myself busy with exercise, singing, writing and friends; avoiding Facebook where possible so I don’t compare my life to the filtered version of anybody else’s; books, candlelight, classical music and, since I don’t have a bath in my flat, really long showers.
Here are a few more specific things I’d like to achieve in 2017:
Read more in general – writing has overtaken reading this past year, but they go hand-in-hand – and especially more non-fiction, so I can learn things about the world and become an interesting dinner party conversationalist and person handy to have on a pub quiz team.
Finish my novel, by which I mean properly finish it, however many drafts it takes. Put it out there in the world and see what happens; if nothing happens, pick myself up and try again, and again.
Travel to four new countries. The US, Ireland and Poland are happening; country number four is a mystery, which excites me even more. Write about them all.
Keep up this blog, but try to make it more interesting and eclectic. It’s been going for about five years now, and even though I don’t have hundreds of followers (which was never my aim), I don’t want it to fizzle out now!
I haven’t written a book review in a while. This is partly because I’ve been writing instead of reading, and partly because I haven’t read anything good. But I just read Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which I thought was fantastic, and I happen to be plagued by insomnia (it’s currently five in the morning and I haven’t slept all night), so I thought I’d write a blog post about it.
A God in Ruins is a companion novel to Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life, featuring the same characters, and while it’s best to read both I think this works as a standalone novel too. It relates the life of Teddy Todd, a bomber pilot in the Second World War, before, during and after the war. There are many horrific flashbacks from the war but the novel largely focuses on Teddy in his old age, trying to cope with a future he never expected to have and a family who don’t understand what he went through – particularly his awful daughter, Viola. The book is clearly very well-researched – I remain in awe of anyone with the patience to write historical fiction – and feels authoritative, monumental even, without losing its closeness to its characters.
After reading a few underwhelming books, I knew I’d enjoy A God in Ruins. I’ve loved Kate Atkinson’s writing since I read Case Histories when I was a teenager and wrote this odd essay for my A-Level English class where I compared her to Dickens, based on the fact her characters are ‘quirky’, which now seems very tenuous. I dropped off at the Jackson Brodie novels, and was pleased when she returned to writing literary fiction. I liked Life after Life, but A God in Ruins is even better. One reason I like Atkinson’s writing is that she’s so effortlessly funny; I also love it when humour is mixed with tragedy, and I love novels about the Second World War, so the book ticked all the boxes for me. One of my favourite novels is Catch-22, and since Yossarian is also a pilot in the war, I suspect there were some homages to Heller (in particular, a grisly accident involving a low-flying plane and somebody’s head) which I appreciated.
Atkinson is a master characterisation. This is a long book, which gives her space to delve deeply into the lives of both Teddy and his family members, particularly Viola and his grandson, Sunny. Teddy is one of the most likeable and sympathetic characters I’ve encountered in fiction recently – almost inhumanly patient and kind – though Atkinson also explores the moral ambiguity of what he did in the war (for example, the bombing of Hamburg). For me, the most interesting character is Viola. She is absolutely awful to her father, bundling him off to a nursing home the second she can, and yet we also see the tough time she’s had, marrying a useless hippy and drug addict who forces her and their children to live in a commune and eventually kills himself by jumping in front of a train. I wasn’t a huge fan of the commune scenes, however, which contain a lot of clichés and caricatures; Dominic and the other hippies are very two-dimensional and seem only to exist so the author can poke fun at them.
Unfortunately, I spoiled the book for myself about halfway through. I have a bad habit of flicking to the ending. I like to pretend it’s for some profound psychological reason, but I think I’m just terribly impatient. Usually I don’t mind knowing the ending, because I read for the pleasure of the writing rather than to find out what happens. It was a big mistake in this case. My main piece of advice if you’re going to read A God in Ruins is: DO NOT flick to the end. The novel has an extremely powerful and emotional twist at the end, and knowing it affected the way I read everything before and completely changed its emotional resonance. I wish I could read it again without that knowledge. Unless you’re a monster like me, the ending will probably make you weep; it’s obvious once you get there, but also very clever – much more so than the ending of Life After Life, which is the ultimate cliché of all time travel/alternative reality novels.
I’d give this book something like 4.5/5, with my only real criticism being I felt it was too long and the pace a little too slow for me at points. I felt there were some scenes which, while wonderfully written, could have been cut without the novel losing any of its overall power, for example the unnecessary epilogue. I do get the sense, however, that Atkinson wants to stay in her world with the characters she’s created for as long as possible, and I can forgive her for that – especially since, as we all know, I struggle with brevity too!
I know I haven’t been around for a while – sorry. You must have missed me terribly. I’ve been busy working on my book, but I’ve also been on holiday to Hong Kong with Omar (who is no longer the Ruffian, which felt too silly – therefore his identity is revealed) and a couple of other friends. Let me tell you all about it!
When we arrived in Hong Kong, we hadn’t had any sleep on the 12 hour flight and had no idea what time of day it was – but knew we were hungry. Our hotel was in Mong Kok, the hectic centre of Kowloon crowded with market stalls and street food, so that’s where we ventured out in search of dinner. I was slightly delirious and overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of Mong Kok: muggy heat, raw fish, flashing shop signs, roaring traffic, the chatter of Cantonese. We stumbled into a restaurant we’d found recommended online, which specialised in Hakka cuisine, and were reassured to see we were the only tourists there. Eating like locals, we thought – but our smugness disappeared when we attempted to navigate the menu. Going by the prices, we ordered what we thought a reasonable meal in London would cost. Mistake. An embarrassingly huge banquet was laid out in front of us: a mountain of salt-baked chicken, a cauldron of rice with chicken and prawns, a vat of bean curd, vegetables drowning in a lake of sauce… though we barely made a dent in it, it was all delicious. We’d learnt our first lesson about Hong Kong: food is both cheap and good, an impossibility in London.
The next day, still jet-lagged, we eased ourself into sightseeing by wandering around the city, soaking in the atmosphere. We began with brunch at the Tasty Congee & Noodle Wunton Shop, a very different brunch to the avocado-and-egg affairs we’re used to in London. Congee is a kind of rice porridge or gruel which sounds disgusting, but is actually delicious. Accompanied by noodles and wantons in broth, it fuelled us for a day of exploration. We took the Mid-Levels Escalator – a bit like a normal escalator, but half a mile more fun – up to the Mid-Levels, which I can only describe as Hong Kong’s Soho, a trendy area full of international cuisine and hip coffee shops. Here we stumbled upon the Man Mo temple, the oldest in Hong Kong, built in 1848 to honour the god of War and the god of Literature (so of course I had to step inside). Dark and smoky, with giant incense coils burning slowly overhead, it was a peaceful oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. Afterwards, we walked around Victoria Park and the surrounding shopping malls, where I was introduced to Gudetama, an inexplicable children’s character whose tortured expression seems to represent a prolonged cry of existential angst and suffering.
To cheer ourselves up we had a drink on a rooftop bar (there are many in Hong Kong) and Japanese pork cutlets. We scrubbed up in our hotel before hitting the tallest bar in the world: Ozone, on the 118th floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the International Commerce centre. This building makes the Shard look diminutive, although it’s only about tenth in the ranking. The bar is so high that the view wasn’t that good, since we were literally in the middle of a cloud, but if you go on a clear night the views will be spectacular. Cocktails are about £18 each, which is similar to any London bar with an inferior view, and they’re good – the kind that don’t give you a headache the next morning.
Having grown accustomed to the life of luxury, we kicked off our next day with lunch in a Michelin star restaurant: Tim Ho Wan, which is sadly no longer the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world, having been beaten by some place in Singapore. My friend’s Cantonese parents ordered for us, meaning we could sit back and be presented with an array of wonderful dim sum. The steamed and baked pork buns were a highlight, and we also tried some more unusual dishes like water chestnut jelly and a sweet steamed egg cake. After this we hiked the Dragon’s Back trail, a coastal walk across the bumpy hilltops (hence a dragon’s back), which wouldn’t have been so strenuous had it not been for the 28 degree heat. Although drenched in sweat, we savoured the beautiful stretches of deep blue island-studded sea and cloudless sky, and especially the occasional ruffle of sea breeze. You can end the hike at Big Wave Bay and take a dip in the sea, but we got the bus back into town and opted for food instead: milk tea and thick slices of toast slathered in peanut butter and condensed milk, which I felt was well-deserved.
This was a busy day: next we headed up to the Peak to take in the view of Hong Kong’s skyline whilst the sun set and the skyscrapers lit up. It was heaving on the viewing platform, and we had to do some aggressive elbow-jostling to get a good spot, but it was worth it; the views of the glittering bay really are spectacular. Finally, we saw the skyline from a different angle by sitting on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront and watching the laser light show, A Symphony of Lights, which takes place at 8pm every day. I’ll admit we found this a bit of an anticlimax, but still worth seeing if you’re in the area. To finish off the day, we went to the Garden of Stars (usually the Avenue of Stars, but it’s being refurbished) to visit the Bruce Lee statue and join the queue to do bad imitations of his pose, like the typical unimaginative tourists that we were.
The next day Omar forced me to eat a McDonald’s breakfast, which is apparently much better than McDonald’s in the UK (I will not admit to secretly enjoying the trashiness). We then took the cable cars at Tung Chung to see the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery in the hills. The cable car is expensive but necessary unless you walk, which you don’t want to do if you value your legs. (Interesting side note: we were in the cable car with a horrified Japanese businessman watching his stocks plummet as Trump’s victory was revealed.) The monastery isn’t as peaceful as it should be due to all the tourists, but the enormous bronze Buddha statue, although built in 1993, has a quality of age-old wisdom and stillness that is awe-inspiring. We also had vegetarian meal in the monastery, which since I’m normally pescatarian I really valued, since it’s hard to come by a good vegetarian meal in Hong Kong. From there, we were going to get a bus to Tai O village – a glimpse of a more traditional world of stilt houses and fishermen – but sadly ran out of time.
Instead of a proper dinner, we decided to hit the street food stalls of Mong Kok and eat on our feet as we browsed the stalls of the Ladies’ Market, where you can buy a variety of knock-off designer goods and souvenirs. I also enjoyed walking down the streets selling pets (I had to be dragged away from the kittens in the shop windows) and the Goldfish Market where the shops have bags of live fish hanging outside. This area felt very different to the polished and more Westernised world of the malls full of designer brands and expensive restaurants, and I preferred it for that.
The next day, armed with our passports, we took the ferry to Macau. Like Hong Kong, it’s part of China but an autonomous territory, but it feels very different to Hong Kong; it was a Portuguese colony for many years, creating a unique fusion of Portuguese and Chinese culture. It’s also known for being the ‘Vegas of China’ and contains several massive super casinos. While it was an interesting experience, Macau wasn’t for us. We enjoyed strolling around the old town, looking at the crumbling Portuguese buildings and sampling the local specialities (including the custard tart), but casinos were pandemonium and we found their grandiosity and extravagance rather evil. The highlights were our Portuguese dinner – the African chicken is a must-try dish – and the House of Dancing Water show, a water-based circus show featuring divers, gymnasts and (bizarrely) motorbikes. If you’re going to Macau, you should book a show or a nice dinner, otherwise you might not feel it’s worth the journey.
Our last full day began with a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History, which covers prehistory through Hong Hong’s time as British colony, the Opium Wars and Japanese Occupation during the Second World War, up to the present. The lesson I took away is that Hong Kong has been through some bad times, but the residents always seem to just get on with things. We then had another Michelin star dim sum experience at Din Tau Lung, a Taiwanese restaurant in a shopping mall (the food in Hong Kong malls is very different to the sorry fast food offerings we get in the UK). This was followed by my favourite activity of the week: cycling in the New Territories, Hong Kong’s suburbia. We wanted a more local experience, so hired bikes and cycled the paths that run for miles alongside the waterfront, until the skyscrapers became hills and smaller blocks of residential flats. After about three hours, by which point we were ravenous, we ended up at a local barbecue restaurant. You pay for a table outside with your own barbecue, then choose from unlimited skewers of meat and stuff yourself with as much meat (and garlic bread, vegetables, barbecued bananas and pineapple) as you possibly can. We talked, laughed and drank beer, and it felt like a chilled evening in the summertime; a fitting grand finale to our week of extravagantand unashamed consumption.
The next day we just about had time to zoom around the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian garden. It’s a traditional Buddhist temple surrounded by a peaceful garden containing lily ponds and an elaborate red-and-gold pagoda, which felt more like the temples I remember seeing in mainland China or in Japan. The contrast of the elegant wooden architecture of the temple with the skyscrapers rising in the background summed up Hong Kong for me. I wished we’d had more time to relax in the gardens, but since we had a flight to catch we had to do power laps; I’d allow yourself a couple of hours to stroll around the complex instead of the 45 minutes we gave ourselves.
One more allegedly superior McDonald’s chicken burger in the airport and we were heading home. 12 hours is a long flight to endure for a week-long holiday (particularly when you’re sandwiched between two grumpy strangers) but I think Hong Kong is worth it. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves food, which I hope is everyone, or for anyone making a first trip to Asia, since it’s fairly small, easy to navigate and has some home comforts, but you can also have a very local experience if you want to – and there’s plenty to do, as the length of this post would suggest!