My Local – London

This article first appeared in book 1 of The Manifesto; ‘Local’ is a series of home town tips from music industry folk.


Brunch. Mess Cafe on Amhurst Road near Hackney Central. Great Saturday morning brunch for a fiver.

Coffee. The Gallery Cafe in Bethnal Green, next door to York Hall. I have Spanish lessons here early on Tuesday mornings and the coffee is crucial for verb conjugations.

Lunch. The understated Chinese restaurant on Red Lion Street. The Singapore Laksa is the must-have.

Restaurant. Buen Ayre on Broadway Market is still the undisputed champion. The full parrilla is outrageous — blood sausage, fried cheese, peppers, sweetbreads, plus a couple of inch-thick steaks for good measure, all washed down with a few glasses of Malbec. The closest I can get in London to La Cabrera restaurant in Palermo, Buenos Aires.

Meeting. If the sun’s out, Gray’s Inn Fields, a small sanctuary sandwiched between Holborn and Theobold’s Road.

Books. I’m working my way through Michael Lewis’ catalogue at the moment, also I read a little Alain de Botton when my brain can handle it, plus midway through ‘London Fields’ by Martin Amis.

Pizza. Ciao Bella on Lamb’s Conduit Street is my pizza place of choice — the calzone is guaranteed to induce a food coma though, so go prepared.

Cocktail. Pisco Sour — my girlfriend loves them and I’ve been converted, so much so that the next long haul holiday has to got to be to Peru.

Beer. A pint of Windsor & Eton at the Gunmakers in Clerkenwell; light ale with a bit of citrus.

Local. Kuzu on Well Street in Hackney. Traditional Turkish ocakbasi, £7 for a bonanza of lamb beyti, salad, rice and bread — it’s become a ritual on Sunday evenings after a weekend away. It’s so good that my friend who is a food critic goes there by choice instead of the various posh establishments she can eat at for free.

Mobile Office. Top deck of the 38 bus.

Relax. Savasana.

Wander. Victoria Park. I still think it’s the best park in London.

So you wanna be a boxer?

A love letter to the sweet science from a pacifist with two left feet.

This film is gold. If you haven’t seen it, please do. And if you’ve watched Bugsy Malone as an adult and haven’t felt a nostalgic pang for your childhood, you may well have a heart of stone.

This song is the one I always remember from the film, it’s just so damn catchy. However, I never wanted to get into boxing, let alone be a boxer. It just didn’t land with me as something I may want to do or that would be beneficial. Not when I first watched Bugsy Malone in 1992, not when I watched it again a few years later, not when Frank Bruno was a UK hero and top of the tree, and not even when Prince Naseem Hamed was the main man.

Maybe I was just too busy collecting football stickers.

Health & fitness in my teenage years was mainly PE classes (cross country runs and getting spear tackled playing rugby, seemingly always in freezing rain), a bit of football and cricket at the weekends, and then discovering girls and pubs. The idea of taking up boxing didn’t even cross my mind, and presumably not the school sport teachers’ either.

When I went to university I remember an ill-fated attempt trying Taekwondo — the less said about that the better. Other than that I did a bit of swimming, kept a somewhat regular attendance at the gym and did the odd bit of sprinting when the local beer monsters fancied jumping a group of students. The idea of taking up boxing still didn’t even cross my mind. In fact, my perception of it was of brutal backstreet beatings and intimidating, stinking gyms in railway arches. I’d pass, thanks.


Fast forward 8 years, and my music industry career meant late nights, high stress and too much on-the-go (aka unhealthy & rich) food. My skin was grey, I had dark rings under my eyes and I was tired and irritable more often than I should have been.

I found running boring and a killer on my knees, and whilst I played football most Sundays, getting regularly bamboozled by talented wingers 5 years younger was taking its toll. Something had to give.


Enter Paolo.

My gym had recently undergone refurbishment, and as well as a nifty new online booking system and app, the new space had a studio for various fitness classes. I used the gym but found motivation tough and a personal trainer pricey. I was in search of something that would up my fitness levels, started well after 7am, didn’t involve lycra and would keep me interested. £50 went into the app’s digital wallet and I was signed up to 6pm Monday boxing classes.

The leader of the class didn’t look like the boxing coach I had in mind. A diminutive man of very few words, his name was Paolo. I soon discovered Paolo had coached numerous Olympic medallists and pro boxers, was himself a former international champion and was in the process of opening a new boxing gym in Tottenham. And now I was his newest charge.

At first I was simply awful. My long skinny legs wouldn’t move quickly enough when we were in pairs trying to tag each other foot-to-foot. Bailing out of press-ups halfway through was emasculating. As someone very tall, my main weapon was the long jab, but even that supposedly lethal instrument became a feather duster after less than a minute of activity. I barely made it to the end of the classes — short on breath, drenched in sweat, feeling weak and unfit.

Despite all of that, I came back. Those sessions soon became a mandatory booking in my diary. There was just something about the mix of skills and drills, plus the dichotomy of simplicity and complexity that I found compelling. After a few weeks I could sense the faintest touch of style and grace coming — and Paolo’s quiet words of encouragement did wonders for my confidence.


The Art of Boxing

About 18 months after I started boxing, journalist, author and amateur pugilist Tony Parsons presented an episode of The Culture Show entitled ‘The Art of Boxing’. Frustratingly short at 30 minutes, he explores how generations of writers, filmmakers and artists (amongst many others) went to find out what was really inside them — and us all — by entering the boxing ring.

When I first started sparring, I came up against a chap who we’ll call Markus. He was jovial and encouraging, but clearly fitter, stronger and more technically skilled than me. He also had a look in his eye that suggested he’d done this more than once before, plus a constant and slightly maniacal grin indicated he may enjoy hunting me down just a little too much. 
We got to work, my usually advantageous southpaw neutralised by him also being left-handed. Markus let me throw a few shots, absorbing one and slipping the others. We kept moving, and I tried to remember the footwork drills (don’t cross your feet or you’re toast!). Markus’s right jab glanced me on the forehead, causing my guard to drop, before a bazooka left came from nowhere and thumped me on the bridge of the nose. I’ll never forget that fizz of pain, shock, fear and adrenaline all rolled into one, with the fight or flight mechanism kicking in immediately. So that’s what Tony Parsons was talking about.


My Monday evening sessions were doing a lot to keep my fitness up, but I also starting thinking about wider benefits and why I chose boxing above all other activities.

Other than the obvious improvements in strength, endurance, confidence and being more able to look after yourself if the situation may arise (although for me this is far down the list of why I box), there are a few other benefits of boxing I’ve come to value:

Discipline: taking a direct hit from Markus’s howitzer of a left cross makes you want to cry, run or make a frenzied attack. Discipline makes you do none of these and choose the right course of action. Discipline makes sure you finish the 3 minutes of jabbing the bag and the last set of burpees.

Focus: Mimicking the coach’s instructions for even the simplest combinations can be very hard to execute. A 4 or 5 punch combo with a couple of foot movements can leave you flailing and put you back to pre-school trying to work out the difference between left and right . To execute correctly you have to focus.

Co-ordination: Connected to focus is co-ordination. Co-ordination helps with all sorts of things, and boxing is one of the best things I’ve ever done to improve my full body co-ordination.

Range of movement: My arms and legs feel (even) longer; I didn’t even realise I wasn’t using the full length of my arms previously.

Dancing: Despite working in the music business for nearly 10 years, I hate dancing. I’m terrible. Thus, wedding receptions are kryptonite to me; awful music, drunk aunties, being cajoled to dance, being 6ft 6 and highly visible to all in attendance — no thanks. Until last summer, when my footwork drills (and yes, some champagne) enabled co-ordinated movement in time to rhythms! I could dance!

Finally, and most importantly:

Schools: Contrary to popular belief, boxing is more likely to instil discipline, co-ordination, trust and confidence rather than violence. I see clear benefits for schools by having some of the key principles and training methods used in boxing on the curriculum.


Now, my main goal is to train at least twice a week, whether that’s with Paolo, at another gym in London, or just with a like-minded soul now I’ve bought a good set of gloves and pads.

I’ll keep sparring but I’m not fussed about entering into a proper bout, let alone making a late charge to take on Anthony Joshua.

The subject of professional boxing and the potential dangers it brings is another discussion (and at the time of writing a very poignant one), but for anyone looking to build up strength, endurance, focus, discipline, co-ordination and a bunch of other skills through training you should wanna be a boxer.

And if you’re looking to spar with a long-armed southpaw, you know where to find me.

The Bookshelf: Boris Johnson meets the $12m Shark

Some digital detoxing has really helped with increasing my focus on reading books over the last couple of months. I found my appetite for reading dropping a lot in the Autumn, and laying off digital media a bit seems to have helped.

I’m also trying to cut down on shorter form content (including blog posts — yes, the irony of this article is not lost on me) and to focus more on journals and books in subjects that I’m curious about.

The sources of discovery for this book list has been very mixed; I’ve been given some excellent recommendations for new (and old) titles from people who know I’m getting close to the launch of my next venture; additionally a couple got found in pretty unorthodox ways, as you’ll read below…

So without further ado, here’s my current reading list — a mix of art, audience, A3 licenses and architecture.


The $12m Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art

The $12m stuffed shark

Economics professor Don Thompson delves into the contemporary art industry, profiling dealers, gallerists, artists and market forces that make this sector so hard for outsiders to understand.

I got particularly interested in this when thinking about what other entertainment sectors can learn from how modern art works. The key takeaway is branding, provenance and patronage are the center, with Charles Saatchi and Larry Gagosian being the leaders in the latter and often also the former.

Outside of the business side of the modern art world, a recent visit to the Chisenhale Gallery in London further perplexed me. Whilst the concept behind the exhibition was interesting and made sense, the execution didn’t feel like art at all to me. Thus, can the idea alone be considered art?

Thanks to Toby Benson for the book recommendation.

Further reading: Talking Prices by Olav Velthuis


The Mayor of London: An A-Z of Planning and Culture


Something a little more obscure: I came across this in the reception area of a company I was visiting. It felt like a slightly peculiar item for them to have, but nonetheless it’s a very handy and interesting little booklet.

In the Autumn, Mayor of London Boris Johnson called on planners, developers and local authorities to put culture and creativity at the forefront when planning and designing developments in the capital.

However, London is set to lose 3,500 artist studios in the next five years, a third of the capital’s creative workspace, whilst a third of grassroots live music venues have disappeared since 2007. Second Home’s collaboration with Bold Tendencies to create 800 artist studios in Peckham got rejected last year, and rents in well-known creative districts such as Shoreditch are continuing to increase at a bewildering rate.

I’m becoming increasingly interested in the new ways in which physical space can be used for work, education and entertainment, and this guide was a good primer ahead of delving deeper.

I look forward to seeing whether the next London mayor is set to increase or reverse the shift of creative workplaces being turned into (high-end) residential.

A PDF of the guide can be downloaded here


Protein — Audience Survey


I was a bit dubious about this when I picked it up.

Does the world need any more thought leadership, trend forecasting and brand activations around various flavours of millennial bleeding edge influencer tastemaker early adopters? Probably not, but that definitely ain’t gonna stop anyone…

Considerable dose of cynicism aside, there’s a lot of interesting insight between the reassuringly heavy duty cover pages, and I found the data, views and new company tip-offs around social good and sustainability particularly engaging. Nicely designed and a tight concise read, worth checking out.


Offscreen Magazine


My discovery of this came through (maybe fittingly) an Airbnb listing in Los Angeles. In one of the listing’s photos, an edition of Offscreen issue 12 was on the table at the edge of the shot. Some of the features looked interesting, so I checked out their website, loved the story behind it and went to my local stockist to pick up a copy. (The Airbnb booking got cancelled by the host a week before arrival, but the inadvertent recommendation made up for it…)

Offscreen is an independent magazine that takes an in-depth look at the life and work of people that use the internet to be creative and build successful businesses. It’s founded by a chap called Kai Brach, based in Melbourne.

The design is as wonderful as you’d expect, and the features are insightful and relatable — ways to improve productivity, reasons for failure, behind the scenes of projects and a whole lot more. They also have a well-balanced attitude to advertising; partners are clearly picked carefully and the relationship between them and publication feels very authentic.

Whilst Offscreen is aimed more at designers and developers, as more of a ‘business’ person I still got a whole load of goodness from it. Go grab it!


Read any of these? Let me know here or on @howardgray on Twitter