A clueless insider’s guide to London

Social anxiety manifests itself in many ways, but one of my main triggers is being asked to recommend a restaurant. All of a sudden, I turn from a relatively clued-up man with 14 years of London experience behind him into an unimaginative drone whose horizons are narrower than a gnat’s waist. Where have I even been? Did I like it? What does my recommendation say about me as a person? Will they judge me if they have an awful time? I never go anywhere! Why are they asking?

The trouble with living here every day and just getting on with my life is that it’s rare for things to register. I don’t really retain vivid memories of any of my London experiences, as I’m not a tourist, and I have a few favourite things I do often but would never dream of imposing on anyone else. London just is, it’s something that’s happening to me, not a standout event. So whenever anyone asks me to recommend a place to eat or an activity, in my capacity of a London expert – merely because I’ve lived here so long – I wrinkle my brow in faux-concentration and say, “Oh, let me think; I’ll get back to you” and then I never do.

But if there’s one thing that will get me talking, it’s cold hard cash. So when eBookers got in touch saying they were looking for London-based bloggers to share their tips for a new guide, how could I say no? All I’d have to do is think of some tips, write a blog (and hello here we are) and that would be that. But contractual obligations aren’t very sexy, so I thought I’d add some value and explain why I chose what I chose. You can see the full guide here, with some good tips from other bloggers. My contribution is here. Here are the 5 things I picked:

1. On a walk of shame from an east London one-night fling? Grab a delicious early-morning bagel on Brick Lane, open 24/7.

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OK, so this is something of a bad start, but I have a confession to make: I have never actually done this. Oh, not the one-night stand part – I’ve many a time skulked back along Hackney Road with last night’s close and the faint tang of the morning-breath spittle of a man I’ll probably never see again. But, as for the bagels, no. It feels like something that should be an insider tip. I bet loads of bloggers go there and do exactly this, perhaps even taking a selfie with said bagel. But Time Out seems to tell me every other week it’s something I should be doing, I’m always seeing it in guide books, and friends also tell me the bagels are to die for or whatever, so here it is. My one concession to stereotypical guidebook content: go eat a bagel. Revolutionary.

2. NEVER follow signs to the Regents Canal exit at King’s Cross tube – you’ll be lost in a warren of tunnels for ever.

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This is the best advice you’ll ever receive. This is it. The golden nugget of truth, the story that will be told for generations to come, imparted in hushed whispers in the glow of an open fire, while TfL announcers with blocked noses bark out orders in a dystopian future where the Tube becomes sentient. Ever since King’s Cross’s much needed makeover a few years ago, getting off the deep-level platforms has become a sadistic experiment in which you are the lab rat. The tunnels may gleam, but they are endless and seem to expel an opiate that makes all who walk through them slow down to a dejected shuffle. Opportunities to overtake are scant, thanks to the huge suitcases of everyone schlepping off to the Eurostar and their European adventures with strange bread and ham for breakfast, so you are stuck there for what feels like all eternity, directed around the Crystal Maze’s dullest zone, around 3 km out of your way, to prevent the actual exit you need becoming bunged up with other hapless souls. Nothing makes you feel more mortal and bovine than a resigned trudge through those tunnels. Don’t let them win.

3. Duckie, on Saturdays in Vauxhall, has the best, most eclectic music of any LGBT night in London.

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This is definitely true. I am being serious here. It’s also a good night for slightly older gays to go to because the average age is higher and waist circumferences tend to be a little larger so there’s less room – literally – for self-doubt and regret you’re no longer the emaciated Steps-loving twink of your youth. And it shuts at 2, which is nice and early so you can get home and to bed and still feel fresh (ish) the next day. I’ll probably never get married, but if I did, Duckie would be my wedding reception of choice.

4. First date? The champagne bar in Westfield White City is a true hidden gem.

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Name me a better conversation starter than the blingiest counter tops in west London, wilted blinis, all manner of “bubblez” and a front row seat as beleaguered shoppers drag themselves through the “posh” bit of the capital’s largest love letter to dead-eyed capitalism just so they can get to Zara. The premise – knock back some fizz, kick off your Gucci loafers and relax slap-bang in the middle of a main thoroughfare – may sound unromantic, but what you lack in ambience can be made up for in the bond forged between you as you  both try to work out why the hell this place exists and why anyone would want to go there. For teetotallers, M&S has a similar cafe further up the mall which has the added bonus of at least having partially constructed walls so you can hide from any friends who might see you there.

Love begins with memorable stories, jokes and coincidences shared; you will never forget your first date at the Westfield champagne bar.

5. The best looking men travel on the Victoria Line, the District line a close second.

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Again, this is actually useful advice. I don’t know what it is about the Victoria line, but its topology seems to skim all the areas where the men are they very hottest. Brixton, despite a recent influx of proto-bankers with weak chins, has long been a kingdom of unrivalled male beauty, and its bookend Walthamstow is no slouch when it comes to hunks you’d gladly give up your seat for.

The District line too, with its complicated branches and added bonus round of “Will my train change destination unexpectedly at Earl’s Court” also manages to scoop up some of the most delectable dick in London. The worst, I have to say, is the Waterloo and City – what a wagon of pigs that miserable shuttle is. You can buy a £180 monthly gym membership and jizz all your cash on Hugo Boss suits if you like, “buddy”, but a turd rolled in glitter is still, when all is said and done, a turd.

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Image: I took it, from the London Eye, in 2007.

Let me get a selfie

When was the last time you took a selfie? How often do you taken them? Do you share them? If you do, how many shots does it take before you settle on the perfect one? Did you tell a tiny fib to yourself as you totted up the numbers there? When it comes to admitting our selfie habits, it seems only questions about our sexual history come with more awkwardness.

I take them almost every day, usually a burst of about three or four. I take them and forget all about them; I don’t tend to make them public. They’re just for me. Sometimes I’m drunk, sometimes I’m worried about my hair and sometimes I wonder how I’m looking in this light, but I take them, am momentarily reassured – or, more usually,  horrified – and then they’re out of my head. I’m only ever reminded of them when I scroll through my camera roll, looking for a sassy meme or that GIF of Sable in Dynasty looking back over her shoulder and laughing. How strange, I sometimes think, that I took a picture of myself then. What was I thinking, I wonder. But I never know the answer. Well, almost never. There’s one set of selfies I remember very well, that’s with me every day.

Today it’s exactly five years  since I took the picture of my eye that you can see in the header of this blog, and that has followed me round ever since, attaching itself to my byline like an embarrassing little brother or an ex who can’t accept that I’m just not that into him any more.

It is part of a set, of absolutely loads of photos I took of myself on 19 September 2011. I was alone, obviously, in my flat in Camberwell. I spent a lot of time alone in that flat. There is a big difference between being alone, actual solitude, and loneliness, and at the time I imagine I would’ve very emphatically denied I was lonely, but thinking about it now, with my crystal clear hindsight, taking in all these photos, looking into my eye, I know I was.

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There are 50 pictures in the set, and I know it was an impromptu “shoot” because a) they always were, I’m not vain enough to plan them (yet) and b) my hair is a mess. I hadn’t styled it at all that day. The first picture was taken mid-afternoon, and no product on my hair by that time of day can mean only one thing: I was hungover. Not all the pictures have my hand over my eye. Some of the photos show my face, and in a few you can see my whole face but the eyes are closed. What is it that makes a face recognisable, I wonder? In the photo above, you can see some of my nose. Would you now be able to spot me if you walked past me in the street? How much would be just enough for you to know me? It’s odd, isn’t it? What makes you you? It’s something I ask myself a lot.

This wasn’t the first time I’d taken a run of pictures of myself, and as my Photos app can testify, it certainly wasn’t the last. When I took the photos, selfies weren’t yet really a thing – I don’t even know if they were called that by then. This means the selfie backlash hadn’t really taken off either; nobody had yet bothered to condemn someone for taking a picture of themselves. I used to take a lot of pictures of myself when I was alone in the flat, and that was often. I look back at them now and worry that I’d fallen into Julie Burchill’s trap – she once said that she found herself “utterly fascinating”, but don’t we all, to a degree? We are the main character in our very own storyline. As long as we don’t employ it at the expense of others, a little bit of self-interest can be a positive thing.

Taking them, I can now say from the future, was an opportunity to study myself like I never had before. Finding myself single at 34 began a weird and enlightening journey of self-disocvery. I’d been part of a couple for so long, and before that part of a crew of friends and flatmates and flings, and before that living at home, getting on with growing up. I had never spent so much time with myself, so much time on myself. It was strange having nobody else to think about, and nobody thinking of me. I had never felt like such an individual, and it was unnerving. What did I really like? How was I? Was I a good person? Would I ever be loved again? Did I want to be? So much time to think, and I had no TV to watch and block it all out. Shopping at the supermarket was harrowing – only ready meals seem to cater for the sad singleton – and that flat, while tiny, felt like acres and acres of space. All mine to do as I wished with it. So I did what any normal bachelor would do with all that free space – I made a mess of it and never cleaned.

My flat was painted bright white, optimum backdrop for selfies, and had loads of windows, making it very light inside. My favourite place to take my selfies, however, was my windowless hallway. It had an intercom for the door entry buzzer, and it was just the perfect height for placing a camera, setting the timer and, well, getting my selfie on.

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I wonder what was going through my head as I took my first one. It seems odd to think of it now, the getting into position, taking a few and weighing up whether it was a good angle. What was I even thinking of using them for? This set was for my blog, I remember, but all the others, all the ones I never shared – why? I don’t think I’d ever studied myself so closely. The shape of my head surprised me; the deepness of my brow, my imperfect skin and my uneven lips disappointed me. And my eyes which I’d never really paid much attention to, stood out, blue and clear but weary, resigned. I’ve never believed all that bollocks about eyes being the window to one’s soul, but they were certainly an accurate barometer of my mood that day.

I was 35, then – the same age as Beyoncé. That I am 40 now seems as unimaginable to me today as it would’ve five years ago. Time comes for you. Taking all these pictures was therapeutic in a way. I was taking some time to myself, to get to know myself. It’s not strange to me now that I chose the close-up of my eye through my fingers, complete with bitten-down nails that nobody seems to have noticed, to be the picture that represents me. It’s revealing and yet leaves plenty to the imagination. It’s hiding but it wants you to see.

Selfies are more than just a mugshot, they tell you who you are at a specific time in history. And I believe they’re a confidence boost. Why shouldn’t you take a picture of yourself? You’re worth the time, deserving of the click and the edit and the filtering. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. They’re just envious nobody wants to take a picture of them.

Whether you take one to share or just for yourself, take one today, and have a good look. This is who you are today. You will never be you again.

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Guardian Blind Date review: Andre and Dan

Click through to read my review of this week’s Blind Date column in the Guardian. We’re lucky enough to have gay men this week, with the perfect names for a relationship portmanteau, but hold your horses: they may be in their mid 20s but they’re into wine, whiskey and, bizarrely, using their face as a unit of measurement. Seriously.

Spoiler:

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