whither the street?

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By the sounds of this excellent article in The Guardian – Has Britain’s street food revolution run out of road? – the ‘British street food scene’ should more accurately be described as ‘quality assured food served in designated car parks at regulated times’. It sounds about as daring and vital as I imagine a cover version of Anarchy in the UK by One Direction would sound.

And that’s a shame, because – from the article – it appears as if the British street food scene began from quite honest, passionate origins. However, it has since transmogrified into a public school strewn, venture capitalist driven, corporate stink where an eye for an ‘opportunity’ is the most important entry qualification,

“There is big, serious money floating around street food,” he says. “It all comes from venture capital. Some of the most exciting restaurant openings of the past few years have been rooted in street food.” He cites Meat Wagon, Pitt Cue, Pizza Pilgrims, all of which started as trucks and now have fixed-venue catering empires. “There is a whole raft waiting to join them, and for very obvious reasons. We are in a society that values realness. The whole thing of keeping it real – that’s what these brands offer.” link

Do people really say “keeping it real” with a serious face these days? I’m sure there are some great people cooking great food in these city wagons, but when KFC rock up with their very own street food truck, I suspect those more serious vendors, who are doing their best to keep it real, must contemplate the noose,

The idea of street is bound up with our great obsession with authenticity. We’re in this desperate search for something that’s real. But street isn’t a real place,” he says. “We see it as the ultimate in authenticity, but it’s a mythical place.” link

Beyond fashion, regulation and the battle between ‘authenticity’ and ‘corporate interest’, I wonder if there’s a simpler reason why street food thrives in other countries, but is unlikely to in the UK – the weather.

I’ll leave the last word to this commenter on the article,

Yeah, its stuff like this that makes me glad I left the UK sooooo long ago, nothing is allowed to just ‘be'; it has to be ‘underground’, then rapidly become trendy, then commercialised, then passe, then everyone gets cynical and decides it was always shit. Later, there will be a ‘revival’ and it starts again but with a new lick of paint. It is just incredibly vacuous, as if the entire country is trapped in the mind of a fashion conscious teenager. link

Photo taken by me in Sài Gòn.

eating việt nam galley

eating viet nam galley copy

Ryan, my editor at Ecco, instagrammed a picture of the ‘galley’ of my book on her desk in NYC. And, if you don’t know what a galley is, it’s a “pre-first edition”,

A pre-first edition is any limited run copy of a book printed before the first standard edition is published. These include advance(d) reader copies (ARCs), galleys, salesman’s editions, proofs and sometimes manuscripts. link

I should get my hands on it later this week.

the tofu makers of Xuân Đỉnh

the tofu makers of Đường Xuân Đỉnh in Hanoi Vietnam 1

This is one half of the husband and wife team who make tofu on Đường Xuân Đỉnh market to the north of central Hà Nội, Việt Nam. They’ve produced tofu here for 14 years. First, the soy beans are soaked and washed, then ground, filtered and boiled. Yeast is added. The mixture is covered for five minutes.

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It is stirred as it begins to set. And then it’s transferred into a series of long wooden troughs lined with muslin cloth.

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And spread using a spatula.

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The muslin is wrapped around the surface of the raw mixture and a slab of wood is pegged on top so that the tofu sets into a tight rectangluar shape.

the tofu makers of Đường Xuân Đỉnh in Hanoi Vietnam 6

After another five minutes. the tofu is fully set. It’s taken out of the wooden contraption, placed onto a table and cut into ready to buy portions. This couple sell 30kg of tofu per day. They also sell bags of fresh soy milk. The by-product from making the tofu is used to feed pigs.

Bún đậu, Ngõ Hội Vũ Vietnam

Every day, hundreds of kilos of tofu end up as Bún đậu on plates like this one on Ngõ Hội Vũ in the capital. To my mind Bún đậu is one of Việt Nam’s simplest and very best street dishes.

all men eat dog leg

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Unfortunately I can’t remember the context of this quote I found it in an old notebook from Việt Nam. I do remember it was an aside I was told by a middle-aged customer at a tofu stall in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter. However, it seems a little old-fashioned now. Almost all the old dog meat restaurants on the capital’s dog meat street have gone. Not that dog isn’t still eaten, it is, especially in the north. It’s just far less common these days. It appears that another Asian country famed for eating dog, South Korea, is also losing interest,

‘Dog is not an industry with a long-term future,’ Shin said. ‘New generations don’t eat a lot.’ link

all the trouble he caused

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I have two copies of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I’d long wanted a first edition hardback in good condition and I finally found a copy I could afford over the summer. The paperback below is the edition I bought during my first week living in Hà Nội in 1997.

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It’s photocopied, of course, and covered in plastic. Some of the pages are falling out. Several have quotes I marked up in pen over the years.

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I’ve carried this paperback with me everywhere I’ve lived since Hà Nội. The writing is exquisite, and the story it tells mirrors our times like no other. It turns out, the writer Pico Iyer carries the same book around with him too,

…I keep reading and rereading The Quiet American, like many of Greene’s books, and have it always with me in my carry-on, a private bible. Certainly it’s true that if you walk through modern Saigon, as I have done, you can see Greene’s romantic triangle playing out in every other hotel. And if you think about Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere, you see the outline of the same story.

What touches me in the book, though, is something even deeper and more personal. The novel asks every one of us what we want from a foreign place, and what we are planning to do with it. It points out that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism.

…You must read The Quiet American, I tell my friends, because it explains our past, in Southeast Asia, trains light on our present in many places, and perhaps foreshadows our future if we don’t take heed.

Indeed, some sixty years after this book was first published, the quote on the inside of the dust jacket is as relevant today as it was back then.

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purgatory must be a bit like editing

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Printer ink low. Available funds lower. I decided to edit “first pass” of my book on screen. I didn’t expect to find too many changes, so whenever I noticed something wrong I jotted down the page number and a note of the action needed on the back of an envelope.

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In the end, I needed both sides of the envelope. I found sixty six errors, changes or additions. I now need to mark these up on paper, scan each of the pages and then send to the publisher.

I think purgatory must be a bit like editing.

Photos of an envelope by me.

more time than writing

vietnam concrete wall and phone numbers

After the 100+ times I edited my book myself, the four or five times my first editor edited it with me and then the three times I edited it with the Publisher’s editor, the pass my editor-in-chief made of it, followed by the first time I edited it with the copy editor – that entire process took the best part of six months – I now start what is called the “first pass”.

This is when the book is finished, but five or six pairs of eyes read it over once more. Changes can be made, although they should be pretty minor by this stage. I have two weeks to complete this first pass. It will be done on paper.

It will be followed next month by the “second pass”. Again, my eyes and four or five other pairs will look it over. Further changes can still be made, but hopefully they should be few, non-existent and/or very, very minor by this point in time. The idea is to make the book better, banish all mistakes, yet not to edit the life out of thing.

I have looked at the self-publishing route for other projects I’m working on, but having experienced the traditional publisher’s path I cannot see how it is possible to get a book, any book, “right” without all these other more experienced eyes working on the words.

Editing, if it isn’t already obvious, takes more time than writing.

Photo of a wall in Sài Gòn by me

Hà Nội filmed in Super 8

Here’s a quirky wee bit of footage from Việt Nam. It’s a short film about bicycles in Hà Nội made on Super 8 in 2002 by the illustrator, artist and cartoonist Oslo Davis. There’s no sound, which only adds to the atmosphere created by the non-digital film.

Oslo has captured on film a sense of place and time that I hope I too have captured in words in my book. I’m too close to the text to know anymore. Feedback from editors tells me I’ve nailed it, which is reassuring, but are they just trying to make me feel good?

Oslo’s film is only 2 minutes 32 seconds long. Take a look. And be transported.

The Wedding Present interviewed in 1985

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In 1985, after hearing The Wedding Present’s first single played on John Peel, I decided I wanted to interview them for a fanzine I was writing with some friends. In 1985, that single was the first record since The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Upside Down that interested me. However, I was 15 years old and lived a long way away from where they lived – in Leeds, in the north of England.

I sent a letter, some questions and a tape cassette to the band’s Leeds address which John Peel had read out on air. The (frankly awful) questions of the teenage me were read out by a friend of the band fifteen minutes before they were due on stage for their ninth ever gig.

Crap teenage questions aside, there are some interesting insights into the band’s favourite songs and other groups of the time. There is also a long, bizarre, fun mixtape which follows the interview. It was produced (I think) by the lead singer and guitarist, David Gedge, and includes John Peel talking about the band’s first ever single.

wedding present set list from a gig in 1986 in Glasgow

I guess this is just for diehard Wedding Present fans. There’s a great deal of innocence in the recording below – both in the questions and in the responses – and the band come across as quite charming, young and excited. As far as I know, I was the first person to ever interview the band and the recording sounds exactly what it is – of another era.

I admire the fact that Gedge has managed to maintain a thoroughly independent direction ever since this recording was made. I certainly couldn’t have predicted the path he would take after this first single. Nor the wonky path into journalism and book writing that I would take. At least (I think) the older me learned to ask better questions.

And, for the record, in 2014, both Go out and get ‘em boy and Upside Down still sound great. Not too many bands from 1985 can make that boast.