It had been one of those journeys - not disastrous enough to give up on but with enough problems & setbacks along the way to maintain low- to mid-level anxiety about arriving at my destination on time. The weather had abruptly turned much colder and my semi-formal suit & smart coat were only just up to the job of keeping me comfortable while spending unexpectedly long times waiting on bare, windy platforms for delayed trains. On top of all of this I was recovering from a fairly aggressive stomach bug and wasn't at my peak of immune resilience. Sigh! Luckily I'd allowed myself a generous contingency fund of spare time and despite the first delayed train, long wait at the connecting station, second delayed train and its hold-up on the approach to London I had ample time to make the short hop across the capital by tube. My fuzzy brain didn't help by leading me to the wrong exit at Oxford Circus and walking me straight past the street I was aiming for but despite everything I arrived with many minutes to spare at sketch Gallery, the venue for this year's Birthday Tea with Vi (my mother) and Terri & Kay (my UK-resident sisters).
The decorated entranceway - don't know if these were Christmassy or just Art.
The goodies arrive. Note the flag just behind Vi's head.
Like the tea the chat flowed freely.
Examples of the notated crockery.
The Kubrickesque toilets - somewhere between Clockwork Orange & 2001.
Our annual get-togethers began back in 2009. I'd planned to fly down to see Vi (I was living in northern Scotland at the time) and treat her to a birthday meal but when I told my sisters they suggested I take her to somewhere in London where they would join us for a 'surprise' lunch. The logistics of meeting up meant that this wasn't as much of a surprise as we'd hoped but it turned out to be a splendid day and we decided that we should try to make this an annual event. Although my sisters & I visited Vi fairly regularly it was rare to have all of us there together and this would be a nice opportunity to meet up as a family.
Over the years we'd found some exceptional places to visit - after that first lunch we'd been to the OXO Tower, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Savoy Grill, and a posh hotel near St James Park. Over the years we'd found that what worked best was finding somewhere a bit unusual, it was nice to be somewhere classy but if it was too posh it wasn't so easy to relax and enjoy it. We'd also settled on afternoon tea as the ideal meal, there generally weren't many choices to make from the menu and a selection of little nibbles meant we could graze and chat without interruptions for courses to be served & cleared away.
Choosing where to go was normally undertaken by the sibling with the most free time and this year my lingering unemployment made me the obvious candidate. Browsing the web for afternoon teas gave me a shortlist of places that looked interesting (in every sense), this was then whittled down by which had available tables on the day. Curiously several would only accept bookings for up to four or more than six people, presumably they had four seater tables and didn't want to allocate two of them for a small group but this didn't explain why they were happy with bookings for two people. Odd. Eventually I picked sketch Gallery which looked wonderfully quirky. The gallery part featured artwork by David Shrigley who I'd never heard of but who Terri rated highly so it seemed like a good choice.
The outside of the building gave little indication of the restaurant within, just a discreet sign... and a life-size statue of a mastiff mounted vertically. Inside a thick curtain parted to reveal a grandiose entryway festooned with what looked like giant Christmas tree ornaments while underfoot a stylised hopscotch grid pointed onwards. From there an archway led to a dark room with a spotlit reception desk under a neon sign demanding that the visitor should JOUEZ! My reservation was confirmed but as the gallery room wasn't yet open (I'd booked the earliest available slot) I took the opportunity to visit the toilet.
The level of artiness went up a notch as I made my way there. The very dimly let vestibule contained two doors, one dotted with small blue lights, the other with red, neither of which gave any indication of gender exclusivity. I plumped for the blue one and was rewarded with finding a urinal inside but finding anything was something of a challenge, the lighting remained at minimal intensity and all the walls were mirrored. It was definitely an exotic experience but I felt that the boundaries of practicality were dangerously close.
Returning to the lobby I found Vi, Terri & Kay and after handing coats in to the cloakroom we made our way through into the gallery itself. As a first impression it more than lived up to its website pictures - a mass of pink, dusky for the seating, paler on walls & ceiling, lightened with the white tablecloths and closely packed drawings and offset by the copper bronze tiling behind the bar. Overhead a dark dome held a leafless tree skeleton, painted matching pink and spotlit to produce dramatic shadows. It could so easily have fallen into hopeless kitsch or disdainful pretension but somehow managed to be playfully exotic and, well, fun. We were gently ushered to our table and presented with menus to ponder.
The choices were, as usual, limited and tea decisions were quickly made. The selection of sandwiches & cakes was fixed but our waiter asked if we had any dietary restrictions and a swift substitution was made to provide a veggie replacement for a meat-filled one. With Vi and myself recovering from minor afflictions we decided to stick with tea but Terri went straight for an exotic sounding cocktail and Kay attempted to ask for a glass of wine. This proved more of an adventure than we expected and entailed a visit from the sommelier, a mouthful poured from a 'tasting bottle', a visual examination of the 'real' bottle, another taster and finally a glassful. A house white it most definitely was not.
When Terri's cocktail arrived she exclaimed at its wonderfulness and a sip proved this justified - not just a posh alcopop it was a gorgeous combination of flavours that needed time to savour and appreciate. I ordered one for myself and was rewarded with a sublime combination of passion fruit, lime & other fruitiness. Yum!
When the food arrived it was with the traditional diner-friendly presentation - a stacked set of plates with sandwiches at the bottom, cakes in the middle and desserts at the top. Perfect for a meal that's essentially an extended conversation with snacks along the way, start at the lowest level and work your way up. The scones were delivered separately (to keep them warm) and were timed nicely to catch all of us while we were at the 'middle cake' level. In theory we could get 'refills' of any of the food items but in practice the amounts were just about perfect, we ate everything placed before us and nobody ended up feeling wanting or stuffed. And it was all delicious. As a diet it was undoubtably over rich and far too sweet but as an occasional special treat it was all that could be asked for.
The tea was also 'all you can drink' and everyone took advantage of fresh pots as we made our way through the nibbles. The tea was of the same high quality as the food and it was nice to be reminded of just how good it can taste - I'm more of a coffee drinker nowadays and rarely extend beyond a Yorkshire or Earl Grey teabag in a mug. The steady supply of small teapots through the meal kept everything fresh & delicious and I emptied three of them before we left.
The crockery was plain white but adorned with words in a script font, presumably based on David Shrigley's handwriting as it seemed to match the writing in the drawings. Some of these were funny or ironic - the sugarbowls had IT'S OK on one side and IT'S NOT OK on the other while the little bowl of tiny meringues & marshmallows claimed to be FOOD - while others were more enigmatic - the teapots were GHOSTS while the milk jugs contained THE TRUTH. The bottom of my teacup instructed me to FORGET ABOUT IT which seemed like good advice although I thought that Roxy Music's DON'T ASK WHY would have gone there nicely. As with the overall decor these could easily have been seen as self-consciously arty but instead managed to feel playful, although I couldn't explain why.
While all this indulgence was going on we chatted away merrily. At times we'd comment on the surroundings or a particularly delicious morsel but in general we just caught up on what we were doing and what was going on in our lives. In previous years we'd been joined by visiting relatives & partners but sketch was one of those 'up to four or more than six' restaurants and we'd decided to stick with just the immediate family. From my perspective this let things flow more freely, as with any family we'd developed our own conversational rules & protocols over the years which came into full force when we were all gathered together and it was often difficult for an 'outsider' to break into the rapid fire exchanges. Freed of the need to take care of partners we could all stay in the flow. I think that only having four people also helped by making it less likely for us to splinter into smaller, parallel conversations and kept us all in the same context. For whatever reason we had a good, long chinwag in which we all had reasonably similar levels of input. Which was nice.
Our allocated timeslot was for two hours and before we knew it we were getting progressively less subtle hints about finishing up. Our seating arrangement didn't lend itself to a group portrait so on our way out we detoured into another room where a waitress was persuaded to take my iPhone and take a picture of the family group. Whether by intention or accident she shot a burst of five shots but as so often happens with a posed setup most of these had closed eyes, blurred movement or unfortunate facial expressions. Luckily one was mostly OK, although we do seem to loom over a rather fragile looking Vi in the centre. Next time I shall try to remember to get the formal picture taken before we sit down to eat.
Before leaving there was one more surprise. The ladies had visited the toilets as we were leaving the gallery and when we met up afterwards they told me I had to see them for myself. Following their directions I found a pair of curving staircases in translucent white and, led by the blue lights, I ascended one to find myself in a large white room with a mosaic of coloured lights overhead and clusters of egg shaped pods at either end. These pods turned out to be self-contained cubicles, at first retro-futuristic but once inside unfortunately reminiscent of aircraft toilets. The room itself was oddly disorienting, the pale curves of the pods contrasting with the multicoloured, rectangular lights and set off even more by the presence of a cleaner dressed in a traditional maid's costume. It felt like a 60's take on the future but viewed from the other end.
And so the Birthday Tea came to an end. In lots of ways this had been the best ever - a wonderfully exotic setting, great food and unobtrusive but helpful staff. It's become more & more difficult over the years to think of worthwhile birthday presents for Vi but this seems to be an excellent one - a small adventure and time with her children. At the same time it's great for me (and, I hope, for Terri & Kay) to have some real family time together and catch up with people who've known me my whole life. So where will we go next year?