Not The West End: An Insider’s Guide To Alternative London

Monday, July 7, 2008


There’s more to London than the Tate Modern and the bright lights of the West End. Follow this insider’s guide to some of the city’s alternative cultural experiences.

By Laura Bridgestock

London, like most big cities, can be frustrating. You diligently work your way through the “Must See and Do” section of your guide, and maybe you fit in a few spontaneous adventures (or at least manage to get lost a few times). You may even meet a couple of genuine local “characters” and notch up some comic anecdotes along the way, but at the end of your stay you still have a nagging feeling that you’ve barely scratched the surface. I know that’s how I feel — and I’ve been here six months now. However, if you do fancy stepping off the tourist trail for a few hours, here’s a few tips to seeing the “alternative” London.

Rhythm FactoryFirst, London has a thriving “spoken word” scene. On any night of theweek, there’s bound to be a variety of events going on, often combining performance poetry and prose with comedy and music. The best one I’ve found so far — for sheer energy and atmosphere — is Rhythm Factory’s “A Spoonful of Poison” open mic night every Monday. It’s what you’d call “rough nd ready”: uncovered floor, an improvised stage, randomly grouped collection of chairs and tables, and a dress code that can best be described as “unkempt.” The overall feel is of an impromptu street performance. The vibe’s great, and the enthusiasm and sincerity of the performers is infectious. As Maria shares her life in three musical languages and Du Jean smilingly transitions between ballad and rap, it’s hard not to notice the electricity in the air.

Rhythm Factory’s location in the city’s popular Bangladeshi quarter — on Whitechapel Road, just around the corner from the East End’s well-known Brick Lane — has historically been home to successive waves of immigrants and forms an eclectic urban melting pot with a flourishing youth culture and infectiousvibe. To check out the music coming out of this exciting scene, make for the top end of Brick Lane where 93 Feet East and Vibe Bar are some of the city’s best venues for showcasing great local talent.

Green CarnationAt the other end of the cultural spectrum (and town) is the area surrounding Tottenham Court Road (aka “theaterland”). Just beyond the musicals and bookshops is a network of backstreets where you’re bound to stumble across some highbrow gatherings, and you can’t get more highbrow than a “gay literary salon” at Green Carnation on Greek Street. Don’t be put off by the ridiculously pretentious name, it’s essentially a poetry reading. They also have cabaret nights, but even if there’s no event scheduled, it’s worth going for the luxurious and decadent

If “gay Victorian gentlemen’s club” isn’t quite your thing, the West End has plenty of other “alternative” venues and nights to choose from — if you knowwhere to look. Trash Palace, on Wardour Street, is easily missed: it’s accessed by an innocuous doorway squeezed in between the cheerfully garish restaurants of Soho’s Chinatown. It’s a gay bar popular with the young indie crowd and good for a reasonably-priced drink in retro-cool but comfy surroundings, and a bit of
old-school disco.

CellarDoor is even more well hidden — literally underground in what presumably
used to be a public restroom. Given the size restriction, it makes clever use of mirrors which can make things confusing after a kicking CellarDoorback a few cocktails. The décor is burlesque-themed, and I personally recommend the surprisingly comfortable giant-lip-shaped stools. If that’s not novelty enough, you can choose a track on the jukebox by text message (though when I was there I had to head outside to get reception) or make your way to the bathroom to check out the glass walls that become opaque when the light is turned on (again, maybe a little confusing after a few drinks).

For a less invasive experience, cross over the river to London Bridge and check
out Roxy Bar and Screen on Borough High Street. There’s absolutely no better way
to enjoy a movie than settled into a plush leather sofa, with a waiter on hand Roxy Bar and Screento take your drink order and a good selection of high-end snacks to choose from if you get the munchies. The theatre shows all type of movies including foreign
films, recent releases, cult classics, director’s cuts, documentaries and amateur shorts. Following the showing there’s usually a wine-fuelled discussion, often involving someone involved in (or with some link) to the movie’s production.

And finally, if you really do want to get off the beaten track, take the number 73 bus up to Stoke Newington to Maggie’s Bar on Church Street, where there’s a lively arts and music scene of the more “unorthodox” variety. Maggie’s promises a journey — via music, poetry and film — into the unknown. In my experience this means a man with a cabbage-shaped tea-cosy on his head performing a four-word, four-minute long “poem” to a teddy bear making noises like a frog crossed with Darth Vader, followed by a quartet from Istanbul featuring a cello, a percussion section made up of essentially someone’s garbage, and a women emitting guttural sounds to rival even the teddy bear. Meanwhile, this was all being transformed into manic, impressionistic paintings by the woman sitting next to you. Weird? Definitely. Welcome to the London underground.


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