It could have been so easy for Rogue One to just have been another cash in. But it wasn't - it was rich, well produced and respecting of both the franchise and its target audience. Of course the main value is for the Star Wars fans, but I can see those who aren't so bothered enjoying a pretty decent science fiction movie too.
The context (ie, that it's a prequel) both allows and forces the film to take some pretty serious risks as well, and in both cases I felt that the film benefited from the chances that were taken.
A small note to talk about Riz Ahmed - before we start gushing about the first prominent Pakistani in a Star Wars role, it's worth thinking about exactly what that role entails. I was slightly disappointed myself, but hey, baby steps.
All in all though Rogue One was a great film and one which manages to vindicate the tick tock release schedule Disney has come up with. I'm already counting down to December 2017 for Episode 8.
Monday, December 26
It could have been so easy for Rogue One to just have been another cash in. But it wasn't - it was rich, well produced and respecting of both the franchise and its target audience. Of course the main value is for the Star Wars fans, but I can see those who aren't so bothered enjoying a pretty decent science fiction movie too.
Wednesday, December 21
Passengers was not the film I walked into expecting to see. What was supposed to be a sci-fi thriller turned out to be more of a romantic drama.
What's really surprising is that the film was probably better for it. The "escape room" in space would probably have been way too predictable and although the resulting themes here weren't entirely original either, the context and placement were more than enough to keep things novel.
So although not deep and pretty familar Passengers is a solid offering in a time when everything else tries so hard to be fancy. Recommended.
Friday, December 9
There's a pretty explicit qualifier at the start of this film warning no one to take any medical advice from any of the story of scenes to follow. This is a good thing since, right from the start, Dear Zindagi sucks as a film about mental health issues. It treats the subject with such shallowness and cliche that it's probably worth ignoring that whole facet of the film altogether.
What the film is good at is 1) being cute, 2) being philosophical about life and 3) Alia Bhatt. Which if you're keeping track makes it a great Bollywood film.
The music is largely forgettable (although that was more due to it not being to my taste), but the production was good, the actors and their acting equally beautiful. It's all also paced rather well, something which the industry seems to be getting better and better at.
All in all, it's a great romp if you're looking to enjoy yourself and have a good time. On the other hand if you're looking for something to challenge you and make you think about a serious topic... it's probably best to look elsewhere.
Tuesday, December 6
Yes, it's a Harry Potter film, and yes it's very American. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - in fact it's nice to have the HP universe expanded some, and differing perspectives given. The wizarding world now has more colour, more scope and that's a good thing.
What's not so great is the quality of this film. My immediate thoughts were of how rough around the edges it was, with some really bad acting, production and editing. Unfortunately this was all enough to ruin the film for me, which is a shame since all the magic, mystery and adventure you'd expect is all there too if you look hard enough.
Still, it's Harry Potter so gets a recommendation. Whether it's one to watch in the cinema or not I'm having a harder time to decide.
Sunday, December 4
This year's trip to Karachi marked a little bit of a failure on my part; my intention was to visit at least annually going forward, as Pakistan becomes a bit more of a staple destination for me. And yet it has been a whopping two years since I last visited, having missed a trip earlier this year (I was in Vegas instead).
The trip was different for a couple of (related) reasons. Firstly, I had some Canadian (ie English speaking) cousins there with me. These are a bunch who, although I had only seen earlier in the year, I haven't been in Karachi with for almost 20 years. The trip was also different due to the scarcity of time - a wedding took up most of the first week, which left things compressed during the second, if not lacking altogether - I already feel that I need to return in order to make up for the shortcomings. Oh and the resulting late nights meant that I didn't really have to deal with any jetlag issues on my return to the UK.
New things then? Well there are a few. Careem and Uber are now relatively well established, giving us a level of independence and freedom we might not have had before. It remains to be seen how long the initiative lasts.
I saw a fair few Chinese in the malls, a sign of the ongoing investment coming in from the country. So far the effect is a positive one.
Clifton is becoming more and more built up as I visit. You don't have to squint too hard to imagine being in a place like Dubai instead. Again, a positive sign... and again, it remains to be seen how long it lasts.
The rest of Karachi appears to be relatively stable in its ongoing decline, and yet there is a renewed sense of hope as cracks start to show in the incumbent rotting of the place. That said, I was woken each day by a young girl shouting down each street asking for food. Change will take longer than the one year I hope to leave before my next visit.
Tuesday, November 15
Oh no, oh no no. How did this happen? The book was a short one, so in theory there was no reason to mess with it or edit it. Okay sure, there was enough peculiarity in the story to warrant some creativity in the film making process, but the amount of dilution and irreverence introduced to such a fantastic story has done nothing except spoil the whole thing. The character development has been trashed, the twist up ended. I might almost be able to see why they did it (accessibility) but really, the price was not worth the result.
A real disappointment. Read the book instead - it will probably take you as long as it would to watch this.
Yes: another book to be read before the film, but perhaps this time it's a little different. The Story is a short one, having taken only a few hours to read. But those few words presented such joy that I'd have recommended the book regardless of the context.
I personally enjoy exploring the themes of free will and predestination, and ideas like having a whole conversation before uttering a word resonate with me. The story here doesn't give any answers... But like all good books it does present new ideas and a new perspective. The subject matter also implies deep characterisation, again impressive for such a short story.
Tuesday, November 8
Ready Player One isn't a great book. It has a skinny plot, one dimensional and flimsy characters and takes almost no risk in telling its story. It's put together pretty flimsily too - it ranks above some of the more recent young adult readings for sure, but doesn't really push the reader too much (which might be a good thing). The flow is trashy, as page turning as you can get.
In fact, the young adulty vibe of the story is a bit confusing considering who the book is aimed at. The thing is that Ready Player One is almost purely fanservice - a compendium of references to all the hip songs, movies and games from the 80s and 90s which only those of us now in our middle ages will appreciate to any real extent. It reminisces, remixes, remasters and mashes up these nods... and once you appreciate that is all it really is the book does become enjoyable of sorts.
It's also why I'm really looking forward to the film (the actual reason why I thought I'd read it now). If the film manages to pull it off, it'll certainly be great, and ironically it's the aforementioned attributes that make it a bad book that will probably make it an awesome flick.
In short, the book isn't a total waste of time and is cheap enough to read and enjoy.
Friday, November 4
Once there was Stax, a burger place sat in Soho, reaching legendary probably because of the lack of covers it presented. I think the max capacity of the place was 20 or 25, which although paltry I suspect helped boost the exclusiveness of the place. That's not to say that the place wasn't good - it was - but things change and options present themselves as time goes on (I won't mention which I mean). Social media reputation isn't enough in these cases and so it's not surprising that the same team which brought us Stax looked to present the same food in a more accessible venue.
Boondocks is that place. Situated around Old Street, the location makes a refreshing change, as does the large venue - there was no problem getting a reservation for 8 tonight, although they did insist on a £15 deposit which I found quite unacceptable in this day and age. The food was good, with the menu 90% that of what we had seen before while the service was even better, enhanced by the fact the servers could actually move around without stepping on people. Otherwise this was Stax through and through - I found it to possibly be a little more pricey than Stax, but that could have been due to our decadence: we even tried the Smores which were both novel and delicious (although not all enjoyed).
So quite positive so far then? Well yes, except I felt awful afterwards and will expect that feeling to continue tomorrow morning. This is less the fault of Boondocks and more due to my recent change in lifestyle and diet which seems to have affected both my taste and ability to consume this kind of stuff. That may or may not be a consideration for most reading this, but still perhaps something worth bearing in mind.
Wednesday, November 2
I think I quite liked the first Jack Reacher film - not that I can remember much. And that's pretty much how things stand with the second in the series: a paint by numbers crime thriller with Jack and co trying to get to the bottom of some quite villainous frame ups and betrayals, all while kicking bum on the way.
The story, acting and production all pass to an extent. As long as you don't go into this with too high hopes you'll more than enjoy it. Recommended.
Friday, October 28
Yes, I've already established Proper as my go-to gourmet burger place... so my drive to find alternatives has since diminished. That said, food standards do go up and down and geography (not many people like to come to East London for some reason) means it's always worth looking for other options too, and Burgista Bros happens to be a fine choice for food in the West End area.
The counter service was quick, the place clean and not too busy for a Friday night, although I can see the limited number of covers becoming a problem at popular times. Price wise it was pretty expensive overall - my burger meal cost over a tenner (with free soft drink refills), although the portion of four chicken wings were a definite bargain. If I have a complaint about the menu it's that it was pretty small - there were only a couple of precanned burgers over the plain one (we ordered the spicy one and a BBQ sauced one, the latter of which was great) and although I do sometimes appreciate a simple menu I did feel that a few more creative options would have been great.
Which brings us to the food itself. The meat was of a decent quality, cooked well and juicy to a tee. It was almost like a well done Sloppy Joe, which sounds odd on paper but worked wonders on the plate. The fries were okay - but it's a shame that they couldn't be switched out for something non-carby (which essentially meant I had to break the nutrition rules I've recently introduced to my diet).
But overall Burgista was a fine place and one I heartily recommend.
Tuesday, October 25
I went in to watching this film expecting to hate it. I've never really had any level of affinity with Doctor Strange as a comic book character - it all seemed a little hocus pocus in a world filled more with aliens and mutants. Still, it is part of the MCU so had to be watched regardless. Which turns out is a great rule to follow since Doctor Strange was actually really good.
Leaving aside the normal ingredients of fun, action and plot progression, what really surprised me is firstly how awesome a character Doctor Strange is and secondly (and perhaps even more surprisingly) that I can actually enjoy the acting of Benedict Cumberbatch, someone whom I previously considered to be pretty overrated.
But otherwise the film is a solid one, with some great visuals, good humour and a decent story to it. If you're an MCU nut then you'll watch this anyway, but even if not I thoroughly recommend it.
Thursday, October 20
Book eleven (2005) and things are finally getting back on track - by this I mean the actual real progress I found was desperately missing in the last volume is now back in spades, which is probably not surprising considering I only have three volumes left to read. It actually feels like a race to the finish now, or perhaps more accurately the beginning of the end, as plots are finally appearing to lead to their conclusions. Battles are raged, heroes are born and twists uncovered, leaving a pretty pacy book with not many slow bits within.
Having said that I found myself searching online for help while reading this part in order to figure out the nuance of what was going on - something which I alluded to in previous WOT reviews. Since I probably won't ever read the epic again I felt that using guides was acceptable - and valuable as what I did read did clear up a fair few plot lines and developments I didn't even realise existed. In hindsight I should have read explainers at the end of each part in order to compensate for the sheer size of the story as well as Jordan's habit of leaving a lot left unsaid. On a similar note, I can't stress how important it is to read books like these with a map handy - probably due to its popularity ASOIAF had a few searchable mobile apps available which made that series a joy to read but unfortunately WOT doesn't appear to have anything similar.
All in all I enjoyed the return to form seen in Knife Of Dreams and it has left me both hungry for more as well as a little aware that it's all coming to an end soon.
Wednesday, October 12
It would be so easy to call this travesty of a film bad only for those who had read the book before watching it. But no, it was bad for reasons all of it's own, and those reasons were both internal and external to the film.
Although possibly superficial, the creative licence taken in the change of location pretty much destroyed the soul of the film for me. Although the main themes of the book could have played out anywhere, there were certain subtleties lost in its resetting in New York.
But geography aside, the film quite sucked for a host of other reasons, most of them which can be filed under "badly made". The production was bad, the acting dire, the presenting of the plot rushed and clumsy. There really wasn't much to enjoy about this film.
So yes, one to avoid - but I will take this opportunity to recommend the book again.
Tuesday, October 4
The film about the 2010 disaster is pretty much what you would expect from a dramatisation of a real life event. It's actually largely "middle" with not much of a beginning and certainly no end - but that is forgiven since what is presented turns out to be a pretty tight retelling of what went on during that day.
Everything else comes second - the production, the acting, the script. But the topic is gripping enough for the film to carry itself well and what we end with is something that keeps you gripped till the end. Oh and yes, they even manage to make the non British bad guy British.
Wednesday, September 28
It's fair to say that the zombie genre is pretty saturated now. It's becoming more and more difficult to come up with anything original, and so filmmakers are starting to look at storyline and plot instead to differentiate - so we now have moral dilemmas, the breaking of taboos and philosophical arguments as well as the usual scares and thrills that come with films about the undead.
The Girl with All the Gifts is about the relationship between a half-zombie-in-the-making girl and her teacher, and asks questions about the greater good and even zombie rights. That in itself was enough to make the film a pretty decent watch, but some good acting by the child star of the film and some genuinely scary moments also helped.
For those of you who have played The Last of Us, you'll find plenty of parallels here. And in the same way as the game was, it's also recommended to check out.
Thursday, September 15
Sometimes it's tough being of subcontinent origin. Amongst the many challenges we face, trying to remain objective and impartial when visiting an Indian restaurant ranks up there with all the worst.
Take Mint Leaf for instance. It would be easy for me to poo poo the place as a typical posh-but-not-really Indian place designed to extract as much money from an expensed City dinner as possible, resulting in a low quality high price experience which is very easy to forget... but instead I'll spend some time explaining exactly why this place sucks so bad.
First of all it was too hot. As in the place. Maybe the air conditioning wasn't working or maybe we were all just having so much fun (not really) but the place was quite uncomfortable at times. The drinks were expensive and boring, mainly consisting of heavily sugared water that didn't really hit any spots. The food was okay I suppose, with the tandoori broccoli something I'd never had before. The daal and paneer were above average, the lamb and prawns not as much. The amount of food was pretty stingy - we had to do the unforgivable and ask for more which tested the service (which was also passable).
But the real nail in the coffin was the price. At £55 per head (excluding drinks) I'm hard pressed to think of any other meal I've ever had that was of such poor value. It was enough to put me off ever going back, even if the bill was being covered. There really is no need for a place like this in London anymore.
Wednesday, September 14
Quite probably the scary movie of the year, Don't Breathe is as refreshing in premise as it is in execution. For a start, we have three delinquent teenagers (boo) who decide to rob a blind (aw) man's house. The set up is upside down from the start, and it takes a lot for the film to flip the roles by the end of the movie. But that's all part of the thrill really, seeing exactly how far we're willing to go to allow ourselves to root for a bunch of annoying teens.
Film studies aside, Don't Breathe does all the right things - the scares are both shocking and tense, taboos are offered and broken, and the plot isn't thin by necessity. My heart was in my mouth a fair few times, and it was great for each. The acting sufficed for the genre, with The Blind Man doing an awesome job of being pretty darned scary.
For those who enjoy a decent scary romp, don't look any further than Don't Breathe. For anyone else I'd still recommend the film unless you know you're of a nervous disposition (again, boo)
Wednesday, September 7
You would have thought that there would be a fair amount of cognitive dissonance watching a film like this. You have the visual of an (albeit low quality) children's animated cartoon, but with the language and references which belongs to something for a much older audience, but the truth be told it didn't really jar as much as I thought it would. Which is a good thing really as you get to enjoy the film for its fundamental comedic value, and not just because of the contrast of expectations we have from cartoons these days.
That's not to say the language and content in the film didn't have issues. It was pretty gratuitous most of the time - much more than something that would have usually come from Seth Rogen and the like. I wouldn't say that it spoiled the film altogether, but there were times when even I had to cover my eyes.
But if you manage to look past (or even enjoy) the vulgarity, you are actually left with something that manages to tackle quite a few of the more important social issues of our time - more so than many other grown up films. In the 90 minutes or so that Sausage Party runs for, we debate religion and science, ethnic prejudice and racism, friendship and love - and all without the compromise you would otherwise expect from film. It's almost as if abstracting away from real life and people allows us to magnify the issues with more clarity.
Overall though the film was both fun and funny, so gets a recommendation from me - but perhaps it's one to watch at home with trusted company (and no, that definitely doesn't mean your parents).
Monday, August 29
Sometimes there's a type of restaurant that I will always hate. But sometimes there are exceptions to that rule. In this case, the type is buffet... and the exception is Maha.
The place is quite new so there isn't much detail out there but essentially £13 gets you all you can eat access to food AND soft drink (although strangely enough water is extra), as well as desserts. Maha is located on the tail end of pedestrianised part of High Road, Ilford.
The food is slightly better than what I've had in other similar places, but where Maha shines is in its service. Granted, we did visit on an empty bank holiday but we were allowed to pray (they even offered to turn the music off while we did), were able to request freshly baked naans and even got a plate of cooked to order chops (albeit after dessert).
The icing on the cake was the price. £13 is just about right for what we had, but after a discount we paid £11 which frankly was a bargain.
Maha doesn't have the most amazing food, but it did provide a decent enough experience. One which at the very least nets it a recommendation from this blog.
Wednesday, August 24
Perhaps it's because I was reading this after the debacle that was the last book, but I really quite enjoyed The Girl on the Train.
Yes, the "diary of dates" format was a headache - this was definitely not an ebook book - and yes, the plot did labour quite a bit (the book should have been 100 odd pages shorter, right about where it became obvious what was going on.). But the characters were fab and real, the storytelling gripping, and read suitably easy while remaining of a high standard.
So in short, no, it's not the best book in the world, and neither should anyone say it is. But it was enjoyable enough without costing a lot, and so I do recommend giving it a go.
Tuesday, August 23
Maybe I'm getting old (okay fine, there's no "maybe" about that), but I do seem to be getting scared more easily as time goes on. I don't think it's because of any development in film making or story telling - I mean the premise of Lights Out is pretty wonky to tell the truth, and the scares quite silly. In aggregate however the film does the trick and does it well, with a fair number of stifled screams throughout.
In all other aspects - production, acting - Lights Out was adequate enough. I'd suggest skipping the cinema for this one, but perhaps watching it in the safety of your own home instead.
You know, I do actually think that I've hit a bit of a turning point recently. I'm not sure why - perhaps I'm enjoying writing again or perhaps I have more time on my hands or perhaps my current outputs just aren't cutting it anymore? But I do think that if this blog is going to once again host content similar to how it did many years ago it might actually happen now that year twelve is over.
Maybe the trick is to start small and, I dunno, commit to one post a month? However it turns out, I am optimistic. Of course chances are that I'll be here in a years time wondering what I was thinking... but hey, positive thoughts please.
Saturday, August 20
Oh dear. It's not often I feel bad for a place, but Riversound Lounge was a bit of a sorry sort. Apart from us being the only ones there (on a Saturday!), it had a bit of an unfinished vibe to it. It's a bit of a shame really, since it clear that the people working there (I assume it was a family run business) did have their hearts in the right place. With a bit of work the place could be great.
Still, at a fiver a head (for two steaks and two grilled chicken burgers) we really couldn't complain.
As much as one can resist prejudging a place, a steakhouse in Stratford was never going to really impress. Alas clientele is key, and the audience just wouldn't be found in our beloved East London Olympic Host Town.
That said, the place wasn't terrible either - large and roomy it easily accommodated our birthday party of 20+, and the service was decent enough to not get in the way of a good time. The food, however, was lacking... and that even though we got to eat duck on toast (how posh). The steak was a let down; it remains to be seen (tasted?) whether the burgers are any better. A qualification though: we were limited to the set menu. The £20 per head was as expected.
Still, I can't but help feel that I won't be coming back by choice.
Thursday, August 11
There's only so much you can do with a doner, so the only real way it can ever be good is if the meat is. Antepliler Doner (across the road to Antepliler proper) gets the basics right, with its beef and lamb doner meat hitting just the right balance between processed and textured.
But Antepliler gets points for presenting the doner well too; I went for the Iskender, where the sauce and yoghurt were very welcome additions. Otherwise Antepliler was fairly standard stuff, with the decor and service all lending themselves to an upper end take away vibe - the only real issue here was with the price: paying more than a tenner for any kebab is a little bit insane. It's on that basis alone that Antepliler missing out on a recommendation, but it's definitely worth celebrating, I dunno, a lottery win at.
Tuesday, August 9
After my disappointment with the last instalment of Trek, I'm pleased to say that with Beyond the franchise is back on form.
Beyond is essentially a long episode of Star Trek, and brings in all the various parts that made the show so great. It had a good plot, some decent enough action and a walloping of humanity in the way the characters were made to demonstrate comradeship.
There are complaints however; some of the effects were very rough around the edges and characters didn't quite develop as much as they should have done. Beyond is no epic for sure, but it does deliver on what Star Trek has always promised and for that reason it gets a hearty recommendation from me.
First of all, some disclosure: reading this book was a mistake. By this I don't mean that I regret it. I mean that I thought it was another book, one that had been recommended and become a bit of a talking point in some circles recently. The fact that they both sharing two words says more about me than the books themselves, and I put my hands up to the mistake.
That said, The Girl Who Wouldn't Die really was a dire read. So much so that I do regret having read it. In fact I dislike the book so much that it makes me angry just writing about it.
It managed the unholy trio of being badly written, having some magnificently unlikable and shallow characters and of having a plot that makes you wonder what the agent who commissioned the book was on to have passed it. Honestly I don't think I've read anything this bad since Twilight - I'd even say that Twilight was better.
Anyway, I write this review purely for completion - please do not read this book. Read The Girl On The Train instead... that's what I'm going to do.
Friday, August 5
Two and a half weeks is a long time and amongst the many things I brought with me to entertain myself and others were a couple of table top games. The two I chose were picked due to both their compact size and compact play times, but both were social games - which is effectively a polite way of saying they involve a lot of interaction, talking and, perhaps by implication, lying and bluffing.
I wasn't sure if either would be taken up by the locals but both turned out to be pretty solid hits. I don't have an exact play count, but each game of Werewolf would take around 8 minutes, while each game of Avalon around 20... and we must have played for over 20 hours in total over the two weeks we played. The worst (best?) session was the one where we went to sleep just as dawn was breaking (and yes, embarrassingly we cut Fajr pretty close).
It was a great way to bond and end each day and wreck our sleeping patterns, and a lot of fun was had - the kind you can only really find while on a family holiday. So no, it doesn't happen enough... but it has convinced me to make more of an effort in organising specific games nights.
Tuesday, August 2
It was always difficult to imagine what, if anything, Dory could add to the adventure that Nemo had oh so long ago (2003 if you were wondering). After all, there's only so many ways that a fish can get lost really.
But originality isn't necessarily the first thing one goes to watch a Disney-Pixar for, and in that sense Dory is a solid enough of watch. It's funny, touching and entertaining and worth anyone's hard earned.
It's just not as good as Nemo was. But that's okay, it gets a recommendation anyway.
Saturday, July 30
It's rained almost every day since we returned from Jasper.
But it hasn't just been normal rain. The day would usually begin with sunshine and temperatures that would hit 25C and sometimes more. But then for 30-60 minutes each afternoon the heavens would open up, presenting some of the most heavy stormy weather I've seen over an extended period of time. We're talking multiple booms of thunder, sheet lightning, running water and constant flooding. It was pretty biblical at times, yet wonderful to witness.
Friday, July 29
When we were asked to pray in the parking lot this Jummah, my cousin's first attempt at explanation was that it was the holidays and that we had arrived late. Still, even he suggested that the rush was unprecedented given those circumstances, so we were a little bemused at the crowd at the Markaz Ul Islam today.
It was not until the video feed begun on the projector screen that I realised the real reason for the rush: Nouman Ali Khan was the guest khateeb for today. Obviously the increase in volume in the women's section was the reason the men were pushed out. These rockstar imams eh?
Seriously though, I saw it as a good spot of luck that we had inadvertently found ourselves listening to Ali Khan today. I've never had the opportunity to listen to him, but I have heard many good things from those (again, mainly women) who subscribe to his works (both figuratively and literally) so I was interested in checking him out.
But to be honest I was pleasantly surprised at what I heard. Yes, there were platitudes and yes there was a bit of overt feminism, but both were in good measure. The message - which was on self control mainly in the context of interacting with others - was less prescribed than advisory, and was open enough for those listening to build their own paths forward. It was deep and nuanced yet presented well, with humour and clarity, and not the simplistic unilateral messages I've come to expect from the more populist khateebs.
Of course I won't be following him on Twitter quite yet, but as khutbas go this was a good one.
 if your reply to that is "check YouTube" then you're misinterpreting my diplomacy.
Monday, July 25
Ah, Jasper. And equally: ah, Banff. I'd like to say that there'll be a time where we won't have to offer pilgrimage to either of the two national parks closest to Edmonton, but I seriously doubt that will happen. And of course I'd certainly miss them if they were omitted. This time we were taken to see both parks, so the whole affair was quite packed.
As implied above most of the places we visited had been seen before, memories (both vague and otherwise) flooding back as early as the parking lot. It's hard to pick the highlights - everything (including the fifth waterfall) is pretty awesome - but the Colombia Ice Field will always be on the list of the most striking of memories. It's busier now, and more expensive.
Another fixed point in our Jasper tours are the Athabasca Falls, if only for the series of walkways that allow you access to explore the views. Lake Louise is the final of the three biggest memories that I hold, and the place was exactly how I remember it. What I don't remember are the bears - we saw both Black and Grizzly, some getting rather close to the car we were spotting them from.
The biggest change was definitely in volume of people. Everywhere was pretty busy and it was a rare occasion where we got to park without waiting. Most striking was the increase of visible Muslims around - where by "visible" I mean "hijabis". The last time we visited I would only see a maximum of two across the whole tour - and I'd be related to both of them. There's also a lot of tourists from further afield, particularly China.
I guess a lot does change over seven years.
Wednesday, July 20
It's been a whopping seven years since our last visit to Alberta, Canada, a time frame I'm still trying to come to grips with. I'm not sure why it seems like much less - the family I have here are still familiar, the town still the same. And yet there are differences: more babies mostly. Oh and we flew via Reykjavik which was something.
So it's unsurprising how at comfortable and at ease I find myself, and we immediately get on with the whole reason we travel here: to enjoy the company of the family we know and love. I imagine the novelty will be thin on the ground for this trip, but as someone who has long grown bored of exotic travel having something domestic and familial is exactly what makes me so excited about being here.
Friday, July 15
Sometimes its the basics that matter. Five Lads has a limited menu both in selection and pricing and so isn't really outstanding in this current sea of gourmet burger joints, but manages to present their food with such excellence and quality that it doesn't really matter. There's a striking feeling of homeliness in the place, a care and attention that only comes from these kind of indie run joints.
If there was one complaint it's on the number of covers; Five Lads may not be the place to go for a quick sit down meal. It's a classic case of being a victim of success really, which is unfortunate as part of the enjoyment of the meal was eating it fresh - take away might not have quite been the same.
Still Five Lads was a decent place and a definite pick for the area. Recommended.
Tuesday, July 12
Aaaaaaaaaaaah. It was always going to be a risky proposition going to see a remake of Ghostbusters. The fact that it would shatter any cherished childhood memories was a given really, all that remained to be seen was whether we would hate ourselves for even trying.
As it turned out the remake wasn't that bad really. The gender change worked well, as did the modern setting. It was still fun and zany, and the ghosts were able to walk that fine line between scary and amusing.
No, the main issue with the film wasn't the concept or the attempt, but with the film making itself. Ghostbusters was badly edited, the plot underdeveloped and half baked, with the characters not progressing much at all throughout. It's a shame because if these basic fundamentals (which had nothing to do with the concept itself) had had a bit more attention paid to them Ghostbusters could have been really great; even as much as the originals. As it stands it's a little forgettable and unfortunate.
Saturday, July 9
Sometimes you eat in a place that would have been great if not for a pretty major flaw. Umami is the latest place that manages to confound in this way - the Asian fusion menu was pretty outstanding both in choice and quality, while the vibe and decor of the place lent itself to our party of seven or so having a decent enough time. Pricing was midrange and as a result we may have underordered a little.
But the main issue with Umami was with the service. We're not sure if it was a one off, but the kitchen closed at 9:45pm which was pretty incredible. Food took a while to arrive, with us having to ask multiple times for basic things like cutlery.
It was enough to put us off, which was a shame because as I mentioned the food was pretty sublime. As such Umami just falls short of a recommendation for now.
Thursday, June 2
The thing is that Fatburger is actually kind of different. It's more basic than some of the usual joints (Stax and Proper being the benchmarks really) with a flat menu and a "pay before you eat" queue at the till. I guess that places it somewhere around the Nando's level of service. You'd think that this would manifest itself in the price, but no - I left Fatburger after having paid a colossal £17.50 for a meal, albeit with a milkshake.
Okay so it's pricey - surely the food justifies the cost? Well no. The meat wasn't actually too bad, but the burger itself was bland; confusingly there were no variants in the menu either. The fries were hard, and possibly stale, while the chicken wings must have come from a really small chicken. All in all it was pretty disappointing really.
So yes different from what I'm used to... but alas not in any positive way. Faced with competition that makes burgers look easy unfortunately Fatburger is one to avoid.
Wednesday, June 1
New Spring is a welcome change to the saga that is A Wheel of Time. It's short, digestible, coherent... and pretty much fixes all the issues I've been having with the current volumes in the main series that I'm reading. It's also a surprise to find what it is about: after being warned that it was full of spoilers for the main timeline I was excited to start it... only to find that a lot of it was pretty redundant. That doesn't make it a bad read - on the contrary in fact since it make it less vital and more of a pleasure. That said, I'm a bit reluctant to say too much in case it does spoil it for anyone reading.
I liked it, and in some ways I'm a little cautious of having to go back to the slog that is the main franchise - and yet it has me eager to continue on that journey. Which is pretty much the whole point of a prequel really, so the job's done here.
Friday, May 27
Although this wasn't my first visit to The Savoy it was my first time at The Grill, the smaller of the two headlining restaurants within the hotel proper. I have to say I was slightly disappointed at first glance - the place was cramped, dark and perhaps even a little sleazy... but in hindsight this was only in the context of the particular party of six we arrived in - we're used to more well lit and vibrant places. That said, we quickly adjusted and easily managed to enjoy the lush atmosphere.
We had the pre theatre menu to pick from and although pretty comprehensive overall it didn't leave much option for those on a halal diet - we had to request at least two menu changes to satisfy everyone present. The food itself was good - not great - and as always at these places deceptively small. The service was, again as expected, astonishingly good and perhaps even better than the food.
The final price came to a well measured £33 for two courses and some shared sides. It's not the most memorable figure in terms of value, but not too bad considering the number of times I visit The Savoy. With the right party and context I can imagine the place being pretty fantastic actually.
Thursday, May 26
On the one hand, Apocalypse could have been so much worse. The last time we managed to get to X-Men-number-three the series had degenerated into something that almost mocked itself... and thankfully the new teenage version has managed to avoid that particular pitfall.
On the other had, Apocalypse could also have been so much better. I can see what the makers were trying to do - to link together a series of amazing set pieces while also building up a sizable plot (you know like a real MCU film would attempt to do), but it does fall short on a fair few levels. I could blame the lack of talent in the cast, but I suspect that they didn't really have much to run with in the first place.
But as far as comic book adaptations go X-Men: Apocalypse is okay. You wouldn't be missing much if you chose to save this for the sofa.
Wednesday, May 4
The MCU is a funny beast. Despite the titling, it's now become pretty difficult to isolate any single film as standalone - in my view they should have just stopped messing around and named this film MCU 13. That's not to say the labouring of the MCU is a bad thing; on the contrary really since Civil War really is one of the best film to have come out of the franchise so far. And yes, that includes Assemble.
Despite being the easiest way to explain, it would be unfair to directly compare it to that the lynch pin movie of 2012. CW is mature, grown up, relying less on gimmicks and set pieces. There's more to the film than just the action and fan service. And yes, it does make you think (well, kind of). All of the characters come into their own (another reason why calling this a Captain America film could be seen as odd), and have been given more than enough potential to grow even more.
The downsides include some shoddy filming, especially during the fight scenes. Overall though the movie does get away with it, as it injects the blue, red and gold blurs into your eyeballs.
I won't go on because it'll just end up being gush. Needless to say Civil War is a great film and very much recommended.
Sunday, May 1
Sometimes I feel like a very lucky chap. Without being too wet, this luck stems from knowing various groups of friends, all of whom are drivers in a particular field. Some know about board games, some about religion, and some in this case for instance, have a knack of finding some amazing places in which to eat.
Pictures is a relatively posh hotel restaurant situated on site at the Dorsett in Shepherd's Bush. It's clean, quiet and classy. The service is as you would expect, the food of a high quality. Granted, the place was empty but for our party of 12, but I put that down to ignorance rather than reputation.
And the best bit? With the assistance of a diners club membership the bill for a wonderful soup and fish mains came to the princely sum of £10. Like I said: amazing.
Saturday, April 30
Oh man. Yes, another East London grill... one of many situated on Cranbrook Road. Is it different? Well maybe. I would suggest that the spices are spicier perhaps.
Ultimately with such optimised menus the unique selling points come down to a few things - cost, decor, service. Sultan manages an above average mark on all these things and so remains a choice out of many options.
Friday, April 29
Alex Woods is a fun book. It's well written (and by that, I mean it's laugh out loud hilarious), the plot is adequate enough and the pacing is just about right to keep the reader engaged. What it lacked is depth. In particular, characterisation. "Formulaic" isn't quite the right word, but the characters as they stood were pretty shallow and one dimensional - there wasn't much development either.
And so the book sits at "fun", which is ultimately a shame because it could have been so much more. In passing (or between two heavier books) however you could do much worse.
Sunday, April 24
And just like that, our ten days in the two holy cities come to an end. For many this is a sad time - I can't remember anyone ever not saying that they "wanted to stay forever". I've already written about my relationship with these cities perhaps being a little more academic and comfortable and as such I do feel content and fulfilled with the time I've had here.
It's been a good trip in terms of the ever important worship but also in acclimatising to the continuing ongoing changes Makkah is going through. I feel that my approach and relationship with the haramain evolves each time I visit, and this trip has been no different.
It's also probably due to my relative familiarity with the place that I, Godwilling, feel confident that I'll return. There's really no reason for anyone to ever consider this a once in a lifetime trip... so all that's left to do now is to restart the countdown to the next trip.
Saturday, April 23
Suggesting to ban anything will always be controversial, but I'm particularly proud of this one:
- Ban all children under 5
I'm sorry (well not really) to say that it's pointless and puts the will of one (usually the mum, most certainly not the kid themselves) ahead of a whole congregation. And all for that WhatsApp picture of chookidums in front of the Kaaba in an Ihram. It's a waste of money and experience, so do the right thing... leave your dear little ones at home.
I mentioned the other day how I like the Clock Tower precisely because of the glitz it brings to the area. Of course the flip side is that this glitz permeates itself into us, the audience. I've suddenly realised that Makkah is now seen as a resort by many.
Which explains a lot of the issues we see now - the selfies, the self-preoccupation, the behaviour, the videocalls. If you consider something a fairground then it makes sense you'll play in it. Add to that the current obsession with the validation of life by recording it (see here) and you have the typical pilgrim in Makkah.
The irony is that the self control can be seen in the most decadent of places - you won't see photos being taken in a Vegas casino for instance simply because it's not socially acceptable. Neither would you do the same in your local place of worship.
In short: it's a mosque, stupid. Put your phone away.
Despite initial reactions, crowd control in and around the Haram is actually improving. It can be frustrating as first, the constantly changing routes and variable barriers a little bewildering - with the natural reaction being to just go early and avoid the mess.
But once you understand the reasons and the methods it does make sense. And what more, it enables one to avoid crowds and leave the hotel room later.
Of course it'll be another reason some use to berate the Saudi overlords, but it is clear that the mosque remains comfortable and safe mainly due to the restrictions on entry.
As the trip winds to an end, our thirst to complete tawafs increase. Today was an especially good day for me, having been able to complete three tawafs, the quickest of which was 19 minutes long. So a bit of a win then.
It wasn't completely uneventful either, with us feeling at least two drops of rain (unless it was actually sweat in which case ew). The eternal battle to kiss the black stone was also carrying on as usual, this time with a poor little pretty girl in tears during her own post-aswad attempt. I'm not sure if she actually managed it, but she sure learned that looks and gender don't count for much in the face of religious zeal.
I wrote before how much of an... experience breakfast can be in the haramain. Aside from the usual advice (which more or less reduces to "keep your head and manners even if nobody else does"), I do advise sticking to the prepared scrambled eggs over the custom cooked eggs. It's faster, you get to have as much as you need and you don't have to queue alongside the great unwashed.
Friday, April 22
I have no point of reference, no link and no way of even describing how to get there... but Fardoos near Aziziyah (perhaps) really is the best Pakistani food in Makkah.
The saag was worth the entry price alone. IF you can hunt it down make sure you give it a try.
I noticed something today which has always been the case here - there are no women to be seen working. None behind the counters, none leading groups and none in hotels be it in front desk positions or in providing services like housekeeping and the like. I did get a courtesy call to our room to see how we were doing, and that was made by a female and some of the security services in the haram are made up of women (for practical reasons)... but otherwise nothing.
This shouldn't be surprising - the situation here in Saudi is well documented and known. But what I actually found more interesting is how it hadn't been noticed before. I certainly haven't missed it.
I actually like the clock tower.
I think it gives a Vegas like feel to the place. I don't think there's anything wrong with that - it's not like it gets in the way of worship or anything. In fact I'd suggest that it's only if you keep a superficial approach to faith that it would ever be a problem.
Thursday, April 21
After having discovered that a part (albeit a small part) of the currently under construction third expansion was open to the public I just had to go check it out, camera in hand. Now there's plenty of photos and videos of the current progress online so I won't bore you with how amazing it all looked - I'll leave finding those as an exercise for the reader.
What might be worth writing about is the rest of the extension, otherwise closed off to the public. After accidentally (honest gov) taking an unfinished staircase I found myself wandering throughout the rest of the complex pretty much at my leisure. And I got to say, the place is awe inspiringly huge.
The extension takes a different approach in a few things - more thoroughfares and mezzanines on each of the six floors. Whudu facilities are also dotted around the upper levels, something which will be welcomed I think.
The views from the roof were just as amazing - the height above the Kaaba gives an unparalleled view, although one spoilt by the ongoing construction.
I think I mentioned before how although it seems finished it really isn't - I think there's at least another couple of years, if not three, left before it can be considered done. Maybe I'll get to see the final product on my next visit?
The thing is that there's just way too much of it. Between the haramain and the volumes shipped out, I just find it incredible that so much volume can be extracted on a daily basis. I mean hey, either it's all fake or it's a miracle eh?
Wednesday, April 20
In an outstanding example of how you see something new every day, today was a first for me. I mean despite my "observations" I do believe that the haram belongs to all of us, and I do feel I'm less sensitive than most to some of the behaviours seen here.
But nevertheless seeing a woman breastfeeding today did stop me in my tracks. Thankfully I resisted the double take. I don't even know if such an act is legal in the haram, but needless to say I jogged on anyway.
I've had the good fortune to have visited the Cave of Hira a few times in the past. I remember it being quite the adventure, a fairly decent hike up a mountain to the inconspicuous space where The Prophet used to meditate and received his first revelation.
As expected, it's changed quite a bit now. The most striking is that we now have concrete steps heading all the way to the top of the mountain - something which makes the whole thing more accessible while also detracting from the sanctity of the place accordingly. The obvious correlation is that the place is much busier now. What hasn't changed I remember very clearly - the little shacks and drinks stalls at the peak always made me smile.
Approaches have adapted too: whereas before people may have visited for academic reasons, it now has become a place of worship for many, with some even going as far as to offer two units of prayer in the cave (qiblah direction notwithstanding). I imagine it not taking long for the authorities to clamp down on this by cordoning off the whole mountain. People are indeed why we can't have good things, but I suppose I should feel lucky to have seen it at all.
Oh and in other news, I dropped my phone at the cave's entrance.
Tuesday, April 19
Or for my hipster readers: "Hacking the Kaaba".
The trick is to avoid the sheep and not be a passive pilgrim. A simple example of this is to pick the higher floors for salah - if a view is what you're after you're much more likely to have a good one from up there.
Secondly realise that the tawaf has plenty of short cuts and can be seen as being on a bit of a bell curve. Going in deep will slow down your pace but also reduce the distance travelled by a far large amount. Alternatively you can go wide and breeze around a longer track. It was the latter strategy that brought my tawaf down to 19 mins from the 35 yesterday.
This isn't about being clever, but about quality and opportunity. The easier and faster these things become, the more you can do them. I expect to get in at least a couple of tawafs a day now.
Here's my list of things to ban from the Haram (I may settle with just the mataf):
- Smartphones. This one is probably (hopefully?) obvious.
- Prayer books. First because they're impractical and stop people from looking where they're supposed to, ie where they are going. And secondly because sometimes scripture defeats the point of why you're even there.
- Groups larger than four. Crowds of this nature need to be fluid, not lumpy.
Monday, April 18
Now look, I know I can be a both bit of an elitist and anti-elitist sometimes. But that doesn't mean any observation of the masses can be totally rejected outright.
For instance I'm amazed at the behaviour of some of the pilgrims here. Breakfast is a sight to behold - I don't mind stockpiling as long as stuff is eaten, but it rarely is (and based on my conversations with some of the staff there is zero inclination to address this behaviour).
And the treatment of people is, for want of a more fitting word, pretty dire. I'm not just talking about mataf violence, but even simple manners towards people on the street or in service leaves much to be desired.
Muslims should really know better, but ironically I suspect this is the issue; once you've seen yourself as a member of a special club a sense of entitlement and immunity against any wrongdoing is pretty difficult to avoid.
Our fear of heavy rush and busyness turned out to be pretty unfounded. We managed to find a decent, less travelled spot with a good view. That alone is a bit of a win since over half of every floor (including the roof) here has a wall that blocks any view of the mataf.
We came super early today but I feel we have room to optimise our timings.
If any one thing demonstrates the dissonance amongst Muslims, it's the Kaaba.
For some it is simply a pile of man made bricks, continually maintained with hard work - albeit a symbol for something much bigger. It's aim is to unite and inspire.
For others it's a miraculous shrine, almost idol like, and is to be adored, rubbed and wept upon - just by being in its presence is one closer to god.
For others still, it's the background for a selfie due for some heavy duty WhatsApp sharing action.
Many paths of Islam or what?
Makkah has changed loads over the years. The pace of change is both speedy yet agonising: the clock tower was being built two trips ago now, and although the extension I first saw being constructed in my last trip appears to be finished I reckon there's a good year or two left before it's completely done.
Back in the Haram main we saw that the mataf has been (impossibly) extended, with the various floors of the doughnut shaped masjid now unrecognisable and routes throughout ever shifting.
The saddest part is that our spot for a decade, on the first floor just outside staircase 28, has gone now. This may seem inconsequential (it is) but it's more a sure sign that nothing really stays the same, even the most strongest of religious based symbols.
Today we finally reclaimed our deferred Umrah. Most of the day was taken up travelling to Makkah, even though we felt we left as early as we could. We actually made it to the Haram a little before Esha, but various roadblocks and policemen made it impossible for us to reach our hotel in time to attend the jamat.
The Umrah itself wasn't the least painless, but went relatively well with only the tawaf being pretty slow due to ongoing construction work. This will probably be our only Umrah this trip (despite becoming popular in recent times we don't entertain the position of Masjid Ayesha as a meeqat, nor feel a compulsion to rack up the Umrahs), and so it does feel like a bit of a burden has been lifted.
Regarding the visiting Madinah vs Makkah first, I think I prefer our old way of doing things.
Saturday, April 16
Yes yes, technology is great. Its democratising, it grants those usually unable to do so the ability to communicate. It brings people together. Yada yada yada.
I do pray that eventually some kind of maturity will kick in and pilgrims will all leave their mobile phones Skypes and WhatsApps in the hotel room. The most high tech thing I have on me during jamaat visits in my trusty F-91W.
Oh actually no, perhaps it's actually my room key.
If there's one piece of advice that I can pass on to those unfamiliar with the two holy cities, it's not to be too hung up on the rituals. This is impossible advice to take of course, since religion is like that, especially if its a first or second visit.
Instead one should learn how to offer the janazah salaat since you'll be needing to do that almost 5 times a day.
Many criticise the Saudi authorities for being too heavy handed and directing when it comes to individual worship in the two holy cities. This of course is unfair: when dealing with the many people, the wishes of every individual can't be respected.
Personally I quite appreciate the processes - both because they are as a result of optimisation (read: justice), but also because it allows those who are willing to understand the process to take advantage. For example, although my father and I queued this morning for the Riadhul Jannah, once we got our turn we really did enjoy it to our fill. And once we understood the pattern of exit and entry phases for the shrine of the Prophet we were able to pay salutations to him at our leisure - a tip would be to avoid placing yourself along the barrier (as you'll quickly be rushed onward), but to simply stand a few feet across it in peace for pretty much as long as you want.
Unlike our experience during the free for all earlier this week, this was an absolute joy.
Friday, April 15
Today I figured out what I think is the only way I will be able to accept the incessant need for the unwashed masses to take photos of everything (either with or without themselves in the frame). Yes, that's right - photobombing is now officially a thing here in Madinah.
I figure I'll either annoy a lot of people or make a lot of new, but transient, friends. Either way it's the only thing keeping me sane while surrounded by such point-missing behaviour.
Hotel buffet breakfast really is an indictment on Islamic Society and culture. I won't be doing anyone favours (not least myself) by delving too deeply into the observations, but it really does demonstrate how little hope there is for us as an Ummah.
See also: filling up empty bottles with Zamzam.
The irony of course is how otherwise we all take care of our images. No one is dressed poorly, and everyone has the right jewellery and shiny phone. Well, except maybe for yours truly who as usual is dressed as a tramp... but the cognitive dissonance demonstrated by hotel staff after I speak to them is totally worth it.
So here's something I've not done before: visited the nearby Valley of Jinn.
Now I'm not sure of the significance of such an area, but on the way we did come across some "magnetic" hills that made our neutrally geared car roll UP THE HILL. Needless to say it was all a little silly if not a bit amusing (did I mention that we visited after Fajr?).
The actual valley was very... rocky. Erm. And yeh, that was about it really.
Thursday, April 14
For the last five trips or so to the Holy Cities, I've always bumped into friends whose visits I had no prior knowledge of. It's gotten to the point where I'm no longer surprised to recognise them, and even expect it to happen.
Today my father and I bumped into a fellow attendee of our local mosque back in London. Despite not being surprised, it was nice to see a familiar face and have someone to share the excitement and memories with.
I recently wrote about how blessed I feel at having had the opportunity to visit these places of worship previously. That I first came over three decades ago is also a blessing, if only because I remember a time when access was total, security was low and crowds were non existent.
Two examples come to mind: for congregational prayers, we would be able to head to the mosque on hearing the adhaan, and getting the 3rd or perhaps the 4th row doing so. Coming ten minutes earlier would have gotten us a place on the first row. Now, if you come 20 mins before hand you might get a place in the first extension courtyard - you wouldn't even be allowed any further since the classic mosque space would have been fenced off by that time.
The second example is regarding paying salutations to the Prophet. We used to be able to casually do this as a family - and in family I'm including my mother. Now ladies will not be allowed less than 15 metres and a corner from the shrine, and that only during two phases in the day. And even if we leave aside the access for ladies, as a man it's not much easier: we tried visiting after Asr and it was a big mistake and almost pointless. Even if you manage to ignore those taking photos, the behaviour of the masses is just insane - if I'm feeling particularly uncharitable I would describe it as just jahilness. This isn't even a numbers thing really - Madinah is pretty dead on the whole outside the mosque. No, this is about behaviour and approach, things which seem to no longer have a place in these modern times.
I'm sure I'll be noticing more as my trip unfolds but the changes I've noticed here in Madinah after one day are already quite visible.
People are younger for a start, smaller, shorter. Photos have been taken for a few years now, but now we see video chats and live direct broadcasts of supplications to friends and families - the only redeeming feature is that most seem to own phones other than the Apple default. Silver linings eh?
There are also more people sleeping in the mosque - I can only think this is because they are living further and further away from the shrine and so it makes little sense to return to hotels between prayers.
Quite embarrassingly I seem to have lost count of how many times I've visited Saudi for Umrah. I can definitely identify 6 trips (excluding hajj), but I suspect the number is actually 7, possibly 8. Whatever the actual number, it is definitely a blessing to have had the chance to go, even more so since such a young age (my first trip was when I was five or so).
As a result the cities are very familiar to us. I wouldn't call us pros, but we certainly have less of a hassle of a time while offering our pilgrimages. The geography is well known despite the ever accelerating change, and we can expertly navigate the two centres both physically and spiritually (ie we know where the nearest KFC is).
We also are more secure in our expressing of our feelings of being here. This means we don't need to take selfies every two minutes, and don't need to participate on the typical ziyarat tours others feel compelled to.
On the other hand, I suspect we have a reduced sense of awe, zeal and euphoria too - it's not as exciting for us as it clearly is for most of the people here (who would have come for the first and possibly last time in their lives).
On balance I prefer being a veteran - as I said, it's a blessing and I feel my relationship with Makkah and Madinah is quite mature now.
I really don't think my pessimism when faced by a group of Muslims is some kind of manifestation of self-hate. I've just seen our ability to fail at community and social etiquette so often that it's just safer to manage my expectations before they're proven correct. The higher the number of Muslims in one place, the higher the chance of being let down.
Today's demonstration was our plane having to re park and have police come on board, all because some douche in two white cloths didn't want to turn his phone off during taxi. All in all, our flight left an hour later than it should have. The great thing was that the festival nature due to us heading toward the holy land was more than enough to make us laugh about the whole thing. And for my family in particular, it made the otherwise four hour layover in Jeddah one hour shorter.
But yes still, Muslims innit?
Wednesday, April 13
The traditional Shaikh way of doing this trip would always be to travel to Makkah first. I guess it's the normal approach for a family who likes to get the hard work out of the way first - Makkah is seen by many as the crowded, busy, intense phase of any visit to the two cities, while in contrast Madinah is peaceful and easy going. I'm not sure where we got the idea of trying Madinah first but here we are travelling directly there.
The benefits have already materialised: the main one being not having to don an ihram on the plane. The stress saving alone might be worth the change.
Otherwise the trip will be a vanilla ten day tour, split between the two great cities in order to offer a Jummah in each. As is becoming our preference, we stuck to the part-DIY approach, where we research and book our own hotels directly. Not only does this allow us to exercise more choice in accommodation, it's also cheaper and allows us to have a direct relationship with our hosts. There'll be no nightmare room changes for us this way.
Sunday, April 10
The obvious things first: Zootropolis is a solid film. It's fun to watch, the characters are endearing, the plot sophisticated enough for the adults but accessible enough for the kids. The visuals are lovely and overall the film presents a neat little package which really doesn't have much that needs improving upon. You should all go watch it for all the usual reasons you should watch a Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks joint.
Digging a little further however and we find much more; the plot isn't just sophisticated... it's also topical, of substantial depth and full of moral dilemmas and guidance. Compared to the usual lessons presented - you know, that it's okay to grow up, that friendship is great, or that bravery comes from within, etc etc - Zootropolis is almost multidimensional in how it handles issues of prejudice, victimisation and politics of hate.
That alone makes this film more special than its peers. Definitely recommended.
Saturday, April 9
I really wanted to hate this place. Any restaurant that makes me queue up automatically gets demoted, although once we actually got in I was less upset - the place is positively tiny. I think there must have been 40 covers maximum, including those squeezed in at the bar and window benches. Okay, so maybe queuing up was necessary. Doubts continued to linger though - despite having visited the place I'm no expert on Sri Lankan cuisine... and at first glance the menu did seem a little ordinary. Dosas are cute, but plentiful here in London, and my immediate thought was "oh man, I hope this isn't just another hipster gimmick joint".
Any remaining fears I had evaporated when the food came. It was good. Really good. We ordered a decent enough spread of mutton rolls, dosas and meat and fish curries (the chicken and lamb here being halal), and everything was spot on. It tasted good, weighed in well, looked great... it was almost as perfect a meal as one could have, which is quite a statement. Everything else fell in line too, with the excellent service and perfect buzz.
And we didn't even have to pay for this quality - £15 ensured that everyone was well fed with a variety of food. Hoppers really is a gem and is very much worth a try (you know, despite the queuing part).
Wednesday, April 6
The big one-oh (year of release, 2003) and quite frankly I was disappointed. I think this volume was always going to fall short, not least because a large part of it happens simultaneously with book nine which gave the impression that not much plot had progressed by the end of it. Which of course is silly; lots did happen, but I guess someone like me needs things to be overt and explicit to be appreciated. It's hard to write about what was essentially filler, yet I am excited to move on to the next parts; if anything it feels like the middle of the epic is winding up so the promise of a thrilling final few volumes is there - there are only four left; five if you count the prequel which according to the publication order is what I'm to read next.
Sunday, April 3
Apparently Aizzah Fatima was so frustrated with the lack of diversity and imagination behind Muslim characters, that she came up with Dirty Pakistani Lingerie, a one woman play apparently about what it's really like to be a Pakistani Muslim Woman these days. It's ironic then that we end up with a bunch of stereotypical stories which demonstrated anything but imagination. So yes, once again we saw the Pakistani (in this particular case - it may have been Bangladeshi elsewhere) women who are surrounded by loser guys. Oh yes, and the ones who are always being rejected on the marriage market due to their ages and skin colour. Oh and let's not forget the ones who have "broken free" and taken charge of their sexuality. Such heroism.
If I'm feeling charitable, I'd say that the play only lacked novelty in a London theatre - angry brown women have had platforms here for the past decade and have used them relentlessly. Maybe this is just fatigue talking. The fact is though that there was nothing really new here and no new ground trodden - perhaps in the USA this stuff still feels fresh.
Aizzah Fatima as an actress was okay, and the production okay. There were some funny moments. But really, for those of you who had missed this (it was only playing the one night in Ilford) you didn't miss much. There was a Q&A with Fatima and her producer after the show but I chose to have Nando's instead - the theme for the evening was the treading on well worn cliches after all.
Saturday, April 2
I spent this morning training to fight zombies. To be honest I went into the session blind, not knowing anything about what was to happen, except that there would be a virtual reality session with the newly released HTC Vive... which to be honest was the reason we had even booked in the first place.
The morning was actually a mixture of theatre, live action and practical jokes, and overall it was pretty fun. It wasn't the scariest thing in the world, but it had some cool moments... most involving zombies who had escaped confinement.
Despite only having spent a disappointing five minutes or so with the aforementioned virtual reality headset, that also was quite impressive to play with. I was ready to claim it a total failure, but it was responsive and engaging enough to be quite effective, and the addition of dual hand held stick thingies made the whole thing even better (we were shooting virtual zombies in the head). It remains to be seen whether or not it's worth £800 plus a decently spec'd PC of course.
The tour ends on the 3rd of April and looks to be fully booked, but I'm guessing there'll be more of the same popping up in other parts of London, so keep an eye out. For £30 I can think of worse ways of spending a Saturday morning.
Sunday, March 27
I'll take the strange approach of starting with my conclusion - I actually rather liked BvS. I went in relatively blind and not already having decided it was going to suck, although I did detect the growing post release hate the movie was getting. I may have had slightly low expectations, but as someone who doesn't believe in the whole "it will be bad if you look forward to it" theory I don't think that mattered much. So yes, I think I genuinely enjoyed the film.
I won't bother mentioning things like acting or plot (both sufficed). The action was good, the fun factor surprising given the dark theme chosen for the DCEU, and the superheroics... well, super heroic. There just wasn't much to complain about.
All in all, you'll probably already know whether you'll like BvS or not. From me however it gets a recommendation and I'll even go as far as to say I'm excited for the DCEU movies to come.
Tuesday, March 22
Well is it a sequel or isn't it? The producers of 10 Cloverfield Lane were very careful in not telling us, and neither will I. I will say that answering this question does add to the enjoyment of the film - it's something meta that adds to the general psychological thrill of the whole thing.
Three actors stuck in a bunker is always going to be a petri dish for fun, but 10CL could have been much worse than it is. This partly comes down to the acting: Goodman is creepy and Winstead heroic, but the plot and direction all lend themselves to the whole jolly good romp too.
If there's one thing to complain about it's that the pacing is a little off part way through the film, but since it's so short anyway that's really no big deal. All in all a hearty recommendation from me.
Sunday, March 13
Am I really writing this post? I have to say it seems pretty surreal - after all it's been over six years since the last Rebel Muzik and most regular attendees had made their peace with its transiency: in fact that was almost what made it all so so good. I didn't even really believe that it was back at first: perhaps some hipster upstart was trying to be original or something... after all it was being hosted at the Rich Mix. They were even selling tickets in advance for heaven's sake.
But no, it turns out that this was the Rebel Muzik we all knew and loved... and yet it was also very different. The new location was the most visible difference, with the more grand stage and space losing some of the intimacy you'd have found way back in the Inn On The Green. Most of the old faces we all knew and loved were there, but joined with a more fresh crowd - a show of hands put us who had previously attended Rebel in a clear minority. The stalls were more elaborate and varied - but it was criminal to have no halal chicken pies. So yes, different but the same.
But it was the performances that immediately threw us back to the old times. The proceedings opened up with a screening of Hip Hop Hijabis, a mini documentary that provided an insight into the life of Poetic Pilgrimage. This was followed by the open mic, which as always both impressed (with the sheer talent of this so called amateurs) and depressed (with the realisation of exactly how talentless I am myself).
And then it was the featured artists.
First up was the both-inside-and-out-beautiful Rukeia who blew us away with her acoustic soul haunting sound. We were then treated to some classic yet still relevant spoken word courtesy of Amen Noir. Amen was followed by a set by Poetic Pilgrimage themselves (accompanied by the adhoc band "Soul Brothers", because, well, that's how Rebel Muzik rolls) which as always was worth the entry fee alone - and this was when I finally accepted that Rebel Muzik was back. I'm grinning just writing about them.
The evening was rounded up by the most wonderful Son of Ee whose effortless performance honestly left me wondering how the heck talent shows like the X-Factor even exist. Liza Garza was up next for some more spoken word and then finally we (well, those of us who remained anyway - the Rebel Muzik crowd obviously need warming up before the next event) were treated to a few hip hop tracks by Shay D.
All in all it was a brilliant night out, in vibe and effect if not scope and exposure. To be frank in a landscape of pretty safe and totally unradical (DYSWIDT?) corporate sponsored cultural roadshows it's equally refreshing and vital to have a deeper level of conversation when it comes to the almost hijacked and agenda laden topics of Islam, the environment, spirituality and social commentary. I'm so glad that Rebel Muzik is back and I look forward to all the shows, support and engagement to come.
Tuesday, March 8
First we were excited: a sequel to the best White-House-gets-taken film of the past five years (just about mind, I liked White House Down too). Then we were disappointed: London Has Fallen hadn't reviewed that well - it was so bad that we decided not to give it a go at all. Then the twist: we ended up watching it since we didn't have any other options. And then finally: I actually quite enjoyed it.
I'm not sure why to be honest: perhaps it was the lack of expectations, or maybe it was fun seeing London play a big part in the film. The ensemble were just as good as before, but I guess the plot could have had more meat on it, but this was always going to be a jock of a film really. The action wasn't too shabby, with one sweeping continuous-but-not-really shot was quite fun to watch.
I don't think I would actually recommend it mind; I just don't feel like I had wasted my time watching it. One for a home viewing then perhaps.
Sunday, March 6
The Second Wife is a bit of a curiosity. It's a cosy little place, the type run by hard working families (I do not know if this is true), where you know the attention to detail is what will count. Our group of many (10 perhaps?) were led downstairs into the Moroccan themed basement, where we were able to relax to some level. Browsing the menu certainly stroked my appetite; there was something about how basic and simple the breakfasts on offer were (just to be clear, we went for lunch), and quite frankly I wanted to try more than one item on the menu.
I eventually settled for the Eggs Royale - two poached eggs on salmon and a bagel with hollandaise sauce - and it was good enough. As a side (cough) I ordered a stone baked sausage pizza which, quite frankly, was very ordinary. Overall the food was middling, but at around a fiver or so per breakfast it was of a decent enough value.
The only complaint was, unfortunately, a big one. Unfortunate from two angles actually - firstly a lack of service will always have an impact, no matter how amazing or cheap your food is. But secondly it was unfortunate because it probably wasn't normal: our group was joined by another similarly sized one and it was clear the kitchen wasn't equipped to deal with such number of covers on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Orders were omitted and cancelled and even the basics like plates and table water were a struggle.
It's a shame because I could have imagined the place to have been the default place to go for a greasy breakfast (yes yes, at lunchtime), but unless we know we'd have a basic level of attention I can't see us going back. So I'll say it for the third time this article: unfortunate.
Friday, March 4
"I've never had Syrian before!" I thought as I approached Abu Zaad. I don't usually get too excited about food, but I've been lucky enough to have tried a wide range of weird and wonderful cuisines and so the oppurtunity to try something new is always welcome. Heck, I couldn't even imagine what food Abu Zaad could offer.
It turns out that there's a reason for that - anyone who's been to a Lebanese or Persian restaurant would immediately feel at home at Abu Zaad; the place is as identikit as these middle eastern grill type places can be. I had actually felt like I had been tricked.
But the crashing of my dreams aside, Abu Zaad really wasn't all that bad. The staples were solid, the kebabs above average. The decor was half way between a kebab shop and fancy place, and the service was adequate enough but the cost of £15 per head was more than I would have paid elsewhere.
So although our time at Abu Zaad was decent enough there just wasn't anything special enough to have me return there again; it turns out the next time I fancy a Syrian I can go to any one of the hundreds of grills in and around London anyway.
Wednesday, March 2
There really isn't a place to go for cheap sit down sushi - Yo! has always been a bit of a (costly) gimmick for me, and from what I remember the food wasn't worth the time or the cost. So yes, I always felt that there was a gap in the market for a go to place for a Japanese cuisine fix.
Until now that is. Now, I'm not sure when Feng Sushi came about, but there's a fair few branches so I'm guessing I've just been out of the loop. Regardless I'm glad that I've found it - the food is good and cheap (although I did leverage a Tastecard) and the locations relatively convenient. If I do have a complaint it's that the service wasn't exactly timely, but with the right company that might not really be an issue.
From the sushi, through the tempura and until the mochi desserts, there really wasn't much Feng could do wrong. Recommended.
Saturday, February 27
Hmm. Chicken. Prepared over a rotisserie. Served in a trendy yet clean environment, complete with eclectic chairs and the like. A whole bird of which came to £20.
Yes, that's right, just when I thought that the hipsters had already done chicken I find a place that does it even harder. But thus is the hipster way.
But okay, look: the food was good. The main event that was the rotisserie chicken (strangely that was pretty much the only item on the menu that was halal) was succulent and tasted pretty good despite my discarding of the skin (we went sauceless). The sides of fries were decent enough too, and the home made lemonade did hit the spot.
But there's something inherently wrong about sullying the simple nature of chicken with a lather of fad and then charging an obscene amount for it. So despite rather enjoying my time there I really can't recommend Clockjack, you know, on philosophical grounds. But if you did happen to want a great photo of a cooked chicken (you know, for social media reasons) I guess there is no better place to go.
Today, Cube Network hosted a day of mini lectures and introductions centred around the running and leading of Muslim networks in the workplace. Judging by the audience, "workplace" in this context meant the professional and corporate type, although the lessons learned would actually be applicable to different workplaces and even other aspects of life. Briefly, the topics were:
- Influencing without authority - where we learned about the mechanisms available to empower opinions which may not otherwise find representation, so things like lobbying, media influence, key groups.
- Leadership in the face of adversity - where it was explained that in an Islamic context, leadership doesn't necessarily have to be overt or even about the results, but can be about the effort and journey.
- Facilitation - more of a workshop where we brainstormed about the steps we could take to promote change in the workplace.
- Legal rights and the Equality Act 2010 - where we learned about our rights as minority employees, and what recourse we could have if these rights were ever infringed upon
- The Islamic case for leadership - where a frank and pragmatic explanation was given as to why leadership is required in the context of Muslim networks in the city
- The Islamic Workplace Index - the attempt to create an authoritative ranking of the 100 most Islamic friendly places to work in the UK
Now, full qualification: I know some of the guys who are involved in the Cube Network relatively personally. But any personal bias aside, it was refreshing to see a corporate aimed and structured series of presentations that were at all times pivoted around our duty to God and our struggle to get to heaven. I felt that as a result a lot of what was said was to-the-point, honest, credible and transparent, something which is usually missing from other leadership programmes (be they labelled with an Islam prefix or not).
Of course whether there are any longer term changes remains to be seen. But as an introduction or start to a larger context it was quite fun, and I look forward to seeing what else comes out of this series.
Tuesday, February 23
It says a lot about society the number of times (three to be precise) I had to warn friends not to take their nephews to this film. I mean I get that it's a superhero film, and superhero films are for kids in the main. But come on guys, isn't being a responsible adult about being diligent? At least check the rating (15) before you offer to take an 8 year old.
And it's a good thing that the warnings were heeded. Deadpool offers up strong language, heavy violence, nudity and pretty much anything that is bad for the soul. This is not a film for the saintly.
On the other hand it's also a lot of fun. The action and humour are all on point (largely because of the aforementioned vices) and it's clever too, with the continuous breaking of the fourth wall that the comic is so well known for translates well onto the big screen.
If I have any complaints it's that the story isn't that sophisticated; we essentially have a bunch of set pieces tied together with a love story of some sorts. But that's okay because I'm not sure anyone would want to take the film seriously in that way. But as something to enjoy and chuckle at, it does the job... and on that aspect alone it gets my recommendation.
Monday, February 22
Well isn't this a treat? A amateur cabaret night themed around the weird and wonderful world of science, Science Showoff is just the ticket for some geeky release. But it's actually more than that, as you actually really do learn something too.
Such is the genius of even today's line up, all of whom are considered to be fresh meat. I only stayed for half of it, but in that time I learned about heart disease, cancer of the uterus research, evolution and saw some contemporary dance demonstrating the magic of stem cells.
It was a laugh, it was insightful and yes, it was oh so geeky. It's the grassroots stuff that takes me back to Rebel Muzik, and has definitely found a future place in my diary.
Sunday, February 21
Grammatical errors aside, Al Souk (urgh) was actually quite the quick win. The food was good, fast and cheap and combined with the local location we turned around a pretty decent meal for £8 per head (albeit using a Tastecard) in under 90 mins. That's not bad for the standard starters and two sticks of kofta for the main. For a default choice there's much worse options, so this will go down as the place to go for a quick local bite.
Tuesday, February 9
I'd like to think that for anyone who's been in finance for a relatively long period of time that The Big Short is not saying anything new. The final message that the film has (spoilers!), that for some reason we tend to place authority in people who wear suits, is a lesson anyone who's worked in a corporation would know about - that these things are run by people and that people are on the whole, stupid, lazy and/or bent. The only real difference with banking is that the product we're dealing with is money and so all of a sudden it's more important (or maybe less believable).
But still, The Big Short is a fun film, with respect to the subject matter, the "true events" it's based on as well as the way in which it's presented - many of the characters break the fourth wall for instance. I guess the fun is there to balance out the rest of the film which is pretty much a depressing indictment of our society. Recommended.
Thursday, February 4
To be frank I'm not sure it's even fair to include this place in my listings. The only reason one would ever eat here would be to follow up on a spot of bowling (which was bad for its own reasons), so maybe expectations should have been set low. But just for completion we paid almost £20 a head for really shoddy food. The service was okay, but one can't really eat that.
One to avoid then, even if you wanted to follow up on a spot of bowling.
Monday, February 1
I'm really not sure where to start with Cryptonomicon. I mean for sure it was an amazing read and has definitely made my top ten of books ever read. But to describe why I enjoyed it so much is difficult.
Cryptonomicon is ultimately a work of fiction, but that is kind of diluted by how much of the real world it borrows from. Not only do we have a mention of Turing, but he's actually quite important as a character in the story. We have a world war going on, as well as the impending dotcom bubble of the 90s brewing. For me it actually be came a little tricky navigating what was fiction and what was not, but after a while I did manage to start trusting the book.
Cryptonomicon is also mainly a thriller about technology. But that too is diluted by the immense level of characterisation built in by Stephenson - see the chapter that describes the motivation behind and physical response to having a bowl of Cap'n Crunch for breakfast.
Cyrptonomicon is also very well structured and accessible. But this is despite having multiple arcs and sub-arcs and being set in two time lines and multiple locations. The book has a level of depth which places a lot of trust and even burden on the reader, but I suspect a second reading would be extremely fulfilling.
So yes, Cyrptonomicon is a book that makes you work hard but rewards you for that effort. Recommended.
Tuesday, January 26
Quite refreshingly we only had one thing to do this morning before my flight, and that was to visit Alcatraz.
Even though it was "just a prison", the whole visit was well worth taking. In particular the audio guide (included in the ticket price) was very welcome as it took us on a pretty comprehensive journey through all parts of the prison complex. For a completionist like myself it made the whole thing much more accessible and enjoyable, not least because it provided a colour I wouldn't have seen otherwise.
With the clock against us, we left the island. There was a few things that we didn't explore to the full, including the gardens and a few exhibitions, but the few hours we did spend there felt like it was enough.
Still running on borrowed time, me and a new friend whom I had met on the island grabbed 30 mins or so at the near by Pier 39 complex. This housed a few attractions and restaurants, and again would have been nice to have explored fully had I more time but alas my time really was up. Stopping off only for some Bubba Gump Shrimp, I bid my farewell to my friend, the pier, San Francisco and pretty much the whole state of California and I rushed to the airport to check in for my flight.
According to this journal, I've only spent 14 days here across Vegas and California. It feels like much more - the wedding we originally came for seems like months ago. Our tour of the west coast turned out to be amongst the busiest that I've taken part in and I have to say that I was surprised by much of it - partly because of what I saw and did but mainly because it was so different to what I had been expecting - or rather conditioned to expect. I know we always complain about the media misrepresenting certain sides of certain communities, but the one thing we sometimes miss is that they have this effect on everyone - what I've reaffirmed at least is that it's always worth seeing things for yourself, an undiluted view that might make you rethink the things that you've been told.
But for now I'm on my way home, tired from a trip that filled me up well. I like to think that I'll be visiting the States again, and this time sooner than the 16 years or so it's taken me to this time.
Monday, January 25
And just like that, we've reached our final destination of San Francisco. It feels weird that there'll be no more drives, no more navigating a new set of roads, or packing to switch hotels. Even though we fly out tomorrow, there seems to be a sense of finality today. As the flight is mid afternoon, today is pretty much the only day we have for the bulk of the San Francisco sight seeing, so we made sure we had an early start; something which wasn't even a choice as we had a scheduled Tesla factory tour to attend this morning. Alas we weren't allowed to take photos on the tour itself... so a row of cars is all you're going to get.
The tour itself was really good. Partly infotainment, it was still impressive to see how things had been set up, how futuristic some parts of the manufacturing process was and how... old fashioned others were. It was a good way to spend the morning, although I did stop short of placing a deposit on a new Model S.
The rest of the day was spent on the tourist trail. The first stop was, of course, Fort Point for the Golden Gate Bridge. Although an obligatory visit, I have to say it was slightly underwhelming and not only because the actual Fort Point museum was closed on Mondays.
Next, we visited the famous twisty Lombard Street (so famous I hadn't even heard of it until this trip). It was a novelty at best, but at least it was easy enough to get to - despite advise to the contrary San Francisco appeared to be pretty car friendly, at least for those of us who just wanted to stop by the sights and see.
Which made the cable car even more of a curiosity. We actually thought that the quoted $7 per ride was a joke, but no - it turns out that the trolley is more of a tourist attraction than a decent form of mass transportation. Needless to say we hopped off as quickly as we hopped on. Still, they are kind of cute all the same.
The late afternoon was spent mopping up the rest of the area: Hot Fudge Sundae's in Ghirardelli Square, followed by a loiter along Fisherman's Wharf where we ate bread from the Boudin Bakery. It was a nice place to roam aimlessly, and with a bit more time we could have visited some of the smaller attractions there on the seafront. But overall I think we didn't miss out on much by our late arrival to San Fran.
Having passed sunset, we filled the gap before dinner with a visit to the Coit Tower (having just missed opening times) and City Hall, two further demonstrations of the quaint yet diverse architecture styles that can be found here in San Francisco. Overall I think we got a pretty decent feel for the place today, enough to make me wonder what exactly we would have done with the extra time had we arrived earlier. I guess sometimes it does pay dividends to throw schedules away.