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Photograph: Time Out/Shutterstock
Photograph: Time Out/Shutterstock

The unexpected things the Time Out team miss about London

From queer karaoke nights to the 38 bus, Time Out writers pay tribute to the details of the capital that mean more to them than they realised

By Kate Lloyd
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It’s weird, isn’t it? The experience of living in London but being so distant from all the things that make living here incredible. This is a city where an average Saturday can take you from wandering around Warhol’s highlights to tacos so good that you have to queue for them to the best damn nightlife in the country and everything inbetween. 

Of course, missing this stuff certainly isn’t the worst problem to have right now. There are far worse things to be experiencing in this moment than longing to lick excess cream cheese off a Brick Lane bagel or have a pint at The Clapton Hart. But it's probably safe to say that, while we all normally walk our own unique paths through the city, right now, we’re unified in missing it. Here, the Time Out team paint pictures of the details of London they long for, the places that suddenly mean more to them, the aspects of the city they can’t wait to go back to.

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‘I would give anything to hear the godlike voice of the guy who does Seal’s “Kiss by a Rose” at karaoke each week’

The question ‘what are you doing on Friday night?’ doesn’t mean all that much to me at the moment, because there was only ever one answer. Karaoke was what I was doing. Karaoke at The Victoria pub in E17.

Hosted by a beautiful, unforgiving drag queen, the karaoke arrives just as the space undergoes its weekly transformation from ‘slightly run down pub’ to LGBTQ+ party. That’s what makes it special. I would give anything to hear the godlike voice of the guy who does Seal’s ‘Kiss by a Rose’ each week, and kills every time.

But it’s not just the karaoke I am longing for right now, it’s the venue it comes in, because The Victoria is one of the most welcoming places in the world. I miss apologising to the lovely, patient staff as I awkwardly order another Guinness at a heaving bar. I miss signing up for ‘Zombie’ by the Cranberries, getting spooked, and changing it to ‘Never Ever’ by All Saints. I miss the audible squelch of the harp-patterned carpet by the toilet. I miss talking to people I don’t know, asking if I can have a cigarette, lying that I can roll it myself, and drunkenly rubbing the paper between my fingers until they get annoyed and take over.

That silly, spontaneous connection with strangers is the thing I think about most, the kind The Victoria fostered so well. It’s the kind I’m not sure we’ll ever have again, but have to keep hoping we will. Katie McCabe

 

‘I want to cuddle a huge chow chow in Highgate Woods’

I was going to write something very pretentious here, about how I miss being in the most packed bit of a club at 4am. Which is true. I would give anything to be squished between a load of gross, sweaty gurning lads right now. But what do I want more? To pet a stranger’s dog. Maybe even multiple strangers’ dogs.

Before lockdown happened I had started walking the Capital Ring with a friend who loves dogs even more than I do. It’s a 120km loop around London, linking different green spaces. Back then, our walks would be broken up by conversations with people walking their pups: big ones, small ones, ones with big ears, ones with squishy faces, very good ones.

I miss feeling my friend grab my arm at the site of a dopey golden retriever on the canal path in Clapton or stopping to have a nothing chat with a stranger about their bulldog: what’s their name, are they well behaved, can we pat them? I want to cuddle a huge chow chow in Highgate Woods again or ruffle a little terrier’s head in London Fields.

Of course, we can still walk now but those isolated strolls feel hollow. London is place where people’s paths cross all the time, but on canal stretches and park trails those meetings can have more meaning, even if it’s just ten shared words about a puppy. Kate Lloyd

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‘Over the years, jazz nights at The Royal Albert have become a home from home’

When I lived in New Cross as a student ten years ago, there was a wealth of watering holes to pick from, each catering to every sort of night out. Local institution Marquis of Granby was the unofficial students union; for sweat-soaked dancing The Amersham Arms was the ticket; New Cross House was the place to impress a date; and New Cross Inn was for wild nights headbanging to bands with at least one profanity in their name.

My friends and I spent a lot of time getting (very) tipsy in these spots, each one falling in and out of favour, but the one pub we would frequent every week without fail was The Royal Albert on New Cross Road, notably on Sundays for its weekly jazz nights. Being honest, the main reason we started going to the jazz was because it was free - catnip to students. But the trend stuck, and for the past decade my gang of uni friends and I have spent every Sunday evening (give or take a few) curled up on the pub’s leather sofas listening to the jangling sets.

Some gigs are raucous with trilling saxes and mass dancing, others are mellow, softer affairs, but each night is always a magical end to the week. Over the years the pub has become a home from home and arriving there each week feels like being nestled in a warm hug by an old friend.

As time has rolled on, our group has gone through changes: we’ve been through house moves, break-ups, career changes and grief, but through all the flux our night at the Royal Albert has remained a constant. This period of lockdown is the longest we’ve gone without our weekly jazz catch-ups. Sunday evenings feel empty without them and as soon as the pubs are open again we’ll be right back there making up for lost time. Alexandra Sims

‘Cinema pick ’n’ mix is a bad habit I can’t wait to resume’

I really, really miss going to the cinema – like loads of Londoners, I’m sure. Sitting alone in the dark in a cinema auditorium is alive with excitement and possibilities; sitting alone in the dark at home just means the fuse has gone again and everyone else has gone to bed. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate my sofa and I’m thankful for the bajillion or so things available to stream. If we’d had a lockdown in my childhood days of three terrestrial TV stations, it would have been repeats of ‘Pot Black’ on a black and white telly until stupor set in.

But as the cinema-less weeks go by, it’s the little things I miss the most: the smell of buttered popcorn, the often mystery-laden journey to your seat, the pick ’n’ mix... I know it doesn’t sound very Pauline Kael to say it as a professional film writer but I’m a sucker for fizzy cola-flavoured things, usually bought in bulk and rarely surviving past the trailers. It’s a bad habit I can’t wait to resume.

Most of all, though, I miss taking my toddler to the Saturday morning Kids’ Club at our local cinema. Just before lockdown, we watched two Pixar movies in quick succession – ‘Wall-E’ and ‘Onward’ (she calls it ‘Elmer’) – and the delight on her face as she gazed up at the screen filled my heart in a way I’ve rarely felt before. When the credits rolled on ‘Onward’ she cried, she was so sad it had finished. When all this is over, we’ll go again. Zero chance she’s having any of my pick ’n’ mix, though. Phil de Semlyen

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‘I want to be sitting in the park talking about last night’s antics’

You know those plans that begin with a single word in a WhatsApp group at 11.51am on a Sunday? ‘Coffee?’. Another soon follows: ‘Park?’. Then another: ‘PLS!’. Half an hour later, participants begin to form half-sentences: ‘Be there in 20’; ‘Soy latte for me thanks’; ‘The sun is hurting my eyes’.

Then, against all odds, you get out of bed. You manage to leave the house, and as you approach London Fields – with its French bulldogs, young mums and couples in matching activewear – you spot your mates huddling under the big tree near the basketball courts. You sigh with relief, because now, your hangover is not just yours to bear: it’s a collective experience to be nurtured amongst pals who are just as irresponsible as you. Your best mate – with whom only hours ago you were hugging goodbye in an Uber – hands you a coffee from Footnote. You are whole again. The day is yours.

Maybe you’ll go for a walk down the canal to Victoria Park. Maybe you’ll see how your favourite Indian runner ducks are getting on at Hackney City Farm. But for now, you’ll just sit here, reminiscing about the night that was as the sun moves across the green, green grass: that overly enthusiastic guy called Legs you met who invited you to his open mic night; the moment your mate decided she was going to quit her job to become a DJ-slash-counsellor; the ‘photoshoot’ you did outside the pub when it closed. You feel inextricably part of the city in all its weirdness, its unpredictability, its gentle Sunday embrace. And that is what I miss about London. Rose Johnstone

‘I love randomly dropping by Cafe Oto and exposing myself to whatever graces the stage’

Cafe Oto is still the best music venue in London. I should probably qualify that statement. Cafe Oto is still the best music venue in London, if you’re the kind of malcontented weirdo who doesn’t mind being subjected to avant-garde and terrifying noise in the name of art. Reader, I am that weirdo.

Unlike conventional venues, which place value on things like ‘comfort’ and ‘accessibility’, Cafe Oto is an uncompromising ordeal on every visit. Situated on a Dalston backstreet, and owned by experimental music mavens Hamish Dunbar and Keiko Yamamoto, the café-cum-performance-space plays host to a loyal audience of discerning (some might say unbearable) musos seven nights a week. I love randomly dropping by (after a pint in the Duke of Wellington) and exposing myself to whatever graces the Oto stage that night.

I say ‘stage’. It’s a clearing at the back of the room. But it’s the immediacy of the performances, the stripped-down presentation, that gives Oto its raw and unique appeal. My most memorable experiences there include: two mesmeric performances by The Necks; a free-jazz masterclass by stubbly legend Peter Brötzmann; and a barnstorming cassette-only DJ set by Awesome Tapes from Africa.

Hamish and Keiko are currently doing all sorts to keep Oto going. If you’ve ever fancied a membership (or becoming a patron) now’s the time. Supporting eccentric, uncompromising venues is paramount to keeping London special. Stay strong Oto, and when this is all over, I’ll be first in line to get blasted by your rotating cast of screeching saxophonists and maniacal white noise merchants. Joseph Mackertich 

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‘I want to stop at Saint Espresso and realise I've forgotten my loyalty card again’

The kind of morning I miss the most goes like this: I get up really early (for me, that’s before 7am) and catch a packed train into Essex Road. I’m crammed in with the suited, unlucky ones who start work hours before me. I do an exercise class. I stop at Saint Espresso on Pentonville Road – I’ve probably forgotten my loyalty card again and the barista will laugh at me. I order a takeaway oat milk flat white. It’s delicious. Then, I walk to work – legs wobbly, hair still a little damp – with crowds of Londoners all doing the exact same thing.

The casualness with which we all used to move through the city amazes me right now, as I sip crappy instant coffee alone in my kitchen. The bloody arrogance of us. I had the audacity to walk into a café (touching the door handle!) and stand tightly packed together with other germy human beings waiting for my order, my poorly washed, reusable cup having a social gathering of its own over by the coffee machine. When coffee shops and morning commutes come back into existence, I’ll appreciate the hell out of it, until, hopefully, I can take it for granted again. Ellie Walker-Arnott

‘I’m used to swapping sweaty-faced smiles with the fellow gym-goers’

One of the things I miss most is actually only a five-minute walk from my house. I pass it on my daily walks, the shutters firmly down. It’s, unexpectedly, Giants Gym.

I joined in October, even though I’ve lived in the area for about four years. I was intimidated because – wait for it – it’s called Giants Gym and I (wrongly) assumed that it was for bodybuilders and people with Really Big Biceps.

Once I joined though, I found it wasn’t intimidating at all. Quite the opposite, in fact – there’s a real sense of community there. Every time I go, I have a good chat with Onur, the guy who runs it. He pretty much does it single-handedly, but he always has time to give advice or say well done for doing a workout. I also swap sweaty-faced smiles with the fellow gym-goers who tend to work out at the same time as me (usually 7.45am, congrats to me.)

I knew I’d miss being able to work out at the gym – I’m very much a creature of habit. But I didn’t realise how much I’d miss the small things – the chitchat at the front desk, the feeling of achievement when I progressed on to heavier weights, or trying out equipment I’d been warily avoiding before.

In theory, it’s easier for me to get to ‘the gym’ now. It’s in the multipurpose space that’s also my living room and office and is right next to my bedroom – but it’s obviously not the same. I really hope my local gym reopens when this is over. I may never have Really Big Biceps, but working out there has become an important part of my life. Isabelle Aron 

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‘It’s like the Hackney hipster’s version of hurling abuse from the terraces of a football stadium’

If I’m honest the thing I miss most at the moment is going to the pub. Any pub. Any pub at all. But in the interest of sounding slightly cultural, the thing I miss aside from that is Moth Club in Hackney. In particular ‘The Honk Show’, its monthly comedy night hosted by TV’s Brian Gittins. It's bloody hilarious and although it’s not as brutal as ‘King Gong’ at The Comedy Store in the West End, heckling is still very much encouraged. It’s like the Hackney hipster’s version of hurling abuse from the terraces of a football stadium. Only the magic of performing under the floodlights has been traded in for a camp glittery gold ceiling in a gentrified working mens’ club.

Last week I attempted to watch a conference-call version of ‘Have I Got News for You’. It was awful. It made me realise that an audience is really important and, in this case, can actually be the star of the show. Even if said ‘star of the show’ is hammered and shouting ‘GET OFF, YOU'RE FUCKING SHIT!’ at the top of their lungs. Bryan Mayes

‘The woman took the ornament and threw it at the wall behind her. That’s the kind of thing I miss’

I miss Deptford junk market. Maybe it’s because it’s full of filthy tat. In an age of hand sanitiser and constant washing, the idea of pawing through mounds of ropey old shite suddenly seems very appealing. This is stuff that’s been dragged from the attics and sheds of the dead: house clearance chaff. Unemptied hoovers and cracked cassettes with their innards spilling out like roadkill. Warped photo albums, their wonky snaps of weddings and holidays curled and brown like old cheese slices. Blitzed dolls’ houses and odd shoes and things that have become glued to other things.

Best of all are the people: proper south London salt-of-the-earth types, with all their little grievances and wickednesses. There’s Sea Captain Man with his wrecked naval cap and flexible pricing policy (if you ask nicely, it’s more). There’s the permanently unsmiling Mr Jerk Chicken and his jerk chicken stall. There’s the harrowed man who loads and unloads. 

A friend of ours once saw a girl pick up a china ornament from a table and ask the female stallholder its price. ‘A pound,’ she said. ‘Would you take 50p?’asked the girl. The woman took the ornament and threw it at the wall behind her, shattering it. Then she turned back: ‘Now no one’s having it.’

That’s the kind of thing I miss. Chris Waywell 

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‘I miss riding the 38’

The 38 is the only direct route from the West End to my front door in tube-free Hackney. It’s not a romantic bus: it’s a functional, serviceable, occasionally frustrating part of my everyday life. Except that, as a very much non-key worker, it’s been more than a month now since I went on public transport – and to my surprise, riding the 38 is one of the things I’m missing the most. Not the standing-room-only, two-miles-an-hour, sweat-condensing-on-the-windows bus experience itself, obviously. What I’m pining for is the route: a four-mile showcase of central London’s almost insanely diverse built environment.

The shonky razzmatazz of Shaftesbury Avenue, with its glimpses into Chinatown and Soho’s Georgian grid. The ho-hum officedom of the Holborn-Bloomsbury borders. The Victorian institutions of Clerkenwell and the consumerist smear of Angel. Essex Road’s old-school shop signs: Steve Hatt (Fish, Game) and Get Stuffed. The tanning joints, Turkish off-licences and scooter shops of Ball’s Pond Road and Dalston Junction – and then the home stretch into the innermost layer of suburbia. My regular bit of the 38 route is an ever-changing cross-sectional trip through the layers of London – and a constant reminder of why I can’t ever see myself leaving. James Manning

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