Listen to a Londoner: Ellen Burney

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you’re up for being interviewed, email

Ellen Burney

Ellen Burney is a London-based fashion journalist who has written for titles including Vogue, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. She is currently on a ‘six-month city sabbatical’ and living in Rye, East Sussex with her partner and their one-year old daughter Doris.

LLO: As a former ELLE columnist, W correspondent and current contributing editor to Lula, you must know quite a few of London’s best-kept fashion secrets. Where are your favourite places to spend a day shopping away from the high streets?
EB: The staple second-hand designer shops such as Bang Bang on Goodge Street and Retro Woman in Notting Hill. For the best old rags try Beyond Retro on Cheshire Street off Brick Lane and the surrounding stalls in Spitalfields Market. For contemporary labels such as Marc by Marc Jacobs, See by Chloe and Sonia Rykiel I like Diverse on Upper Street, and for hair bows try the crate of bow-ties, visit Episode on Chalk Farm Road! For antique lockets and charm deals, charm the woman with the very long and curling yellow finger nails and tall, fancy barnet in Grays Antique Market in Mayfair.

LLO: You’ve got a love for the printed word. What are you reading now?
EB: Well, I have finally finished A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks, which I loved. In general I read slowly but surely yet with this it was a race against time to finish it before its television debut in December. I made that mistake with Money by Martin Amis, buying it long before I read it and then couldn’t touch it after the pretty dismal television screening earlier this year.

LLO: After a bad day, you’re feeling like a little retail therapy in the form of lingerie and shoes. Where are you going?
Myla. They have a classic five-pack of tulle knickers with bows for £35 but a lot of my earnings have gone on their frilly tap pants and pearl bras. The frou-frou sleepwear is forever on my wish list. For shoes, Russell & Bromley for their classic loafers which I have in burgandy to match my tipple. I like my shoes clompy rather than sexy and so Miu Miu for platform heels. French Sole for black quilted ballet pumps, a classic cliche I refuse to snap or step out of.

LLO: Where’s your favourite place in London to people watch for some street fashion inspiration?
EB: Anywhere with really mad old, well-dressed women. The type that use their walking sticks to push old bits of bin bag into the gutter while proclaiming it ‘a dirty sock.’

LLO: Top three London bloggers we should all read with our morning coffee?
EB: The Enchanted Hunters, Caroline, No, and Canned Fashion.

LLO: Tell us about an inspirational fashion moment that happened to you or someone you know in London.
EB: Well, I will always remember that the late Isabella Blow took time out to call me with advice on getting work-experience on magazines. It was 9/11 and she was in New York and so it was very, very kind of her.

LLO: You’ve written quite a lot about fashion during the credit crunch for Elle. Where’s the best place in London for some creative but cheap fashion buys when you’re skint?
EB: These aren’t necessarily creative but some good value investment buys are a good starting point. Very soft black leggings, £12 from Topshop. I find tights are an easy way to give some sort of style hint. Navy or grey rather than the predictable black. Wool makes for a nice texture as do ribbed. Falke or Wolford and there’s no point in spending little as they rip, no matter how soft you think the Boots bamboo pairs appear. But maybe that’s just the way I sit. I’ve always relied on a hair accessory or style to perk up my mood. A hair bow or cheap pink scrunchie from the chemist. Chelsea boots are a staple for me. At the moment I have a brown pair from the local ‘Country Store’ but last year’s were £22 from Portobello Market. I live and breathe Breton tops and the best fit and quality I have found are £35 from Labour & Wait on Cheshire Street. I have both red and blue. The sailor souvenir type shop in Greenwich has some great ‘sailor basics’ including heavy fishermen’s sweaters. My hairdresser Zoe Irwin keeps a bowl of accessories from her travels on dressing table and wears each day to spice up outfits, such as a Sonia Rykiel brooch worn as a hair grip.

LLO: Favourite up-and-coming London-based fashion label or designer that deserves our attention?
EB: TBA and Charles Anastase for princess-wear and the magnificant Maggie Cassidys for made-to-measure spectaculars.

LLO: I’m heading to London for one night only and want something to eat and drink away from the tourist trail. Any recommendations?
EB: The Grapes pub on Narrow Street in Limehouse for a candlelit dinner in a tiny, seafood restaurant  above the River Thames. Charles Dickens was a regular and the pub features in Our Mutual Friend. Today, Old Gandolf the Grey is the Guinness-drinking regular. If you’re still around the next day, there’s lobster bisque and rare beef sandwiches. Other traditional pubs I like include The George on Commercial Road for a piano-filled knees-up and The Golden Heart in Spitalfields. In Islington, the organic gastro-pub The Duke of Cambridge for vodka and plum juice never dissapoints. I’ve been going there for over a decade, as well as Frederick’s in Camden Passage, Islington, for fine-dining. A memory of an old gentleman and gentlewoman sitting side by side to survey the folk is a long-time fond memory.

Thanks Ellen!

Ellen’s fabulous blog Vagabondiana is highly recommended!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.

London Art Spot: Sandy Andy

This is Andrew Robertson, best known as “Sandy Andy”, a man who has taken the little strip of sandy beach across from Gabriel’s Wharf on the Thames and transformed it, with the help of his crew, into The Dirty Beach. Take a walk along the river and you’ll likely see a string of curious people leaning over the railing, tossing coins onto a sheet. With amazing attention to detail, Andy and his crew have constructed hands, people, monsters, rats in a sewer, dinosaurs, skulls and, most famously, the giant couches where they chill out with a beer until the tide rises up around them.

But it’s not just about playing in the sand. They also throw some brilliant BBQs with bonfires and set up sand stages for music and comedy. All the while, they’re tidying up the beach. The world is a better place when it’s clean and creative.  

For this week’s London Art Spot, Sandy Andy tells us about the fascinating and nasty things he’s found washed up on the sand, shares plenty of cool photos and maps out his life from creative entrepreneur to homeless to game show contestant and TV extra to stripper to, well, creative entrepreneur – only, on the beach.

LLO: Are you from London? If not, where are you from, how did you end up here and how long have you been here?
I am from the Midlands. After I left college, I trained and worked as an inspection engineer. I was settled with a house and a dog but it wasn’t what I wanted from life. I tried to set up my own company making handmade birthday cards, but that failed in the first year, so I tried selling magic tricks and opened a magic shop in Warwick. I came down to London six years ago to try to work in TV when my magic shop went bust and I had to sell my home to pay off the debt.

I worked as a TV extra and did a bit of modelling, but made most of my money as a professional game show contestant. For about a year I applied for every stupid game show I could and ended up winning over £26,000. But after a while I found it hard to get on any more shows as a contestant because my face kept popping up all over the place. I soon blew all the winnings on drink, girls and motorbikes. And because of my refusal to work in a proper job, my only income came from working as a stripper at weekends in Stringfellows. I ended up living homeless on the streets of London.

(Andy when he was homeless)

LLO: What made you first wander down to the little strip of sand on the Thames and decide to build a couch and how long ago did you start?
About four years ago – while I was homeless for the summer and used to potter around all over London. The beach was one of my usual haunts, but I would also spend a lot of time in the parks. Anywhere I could sit around for free, drinking in the sunshine, that would become my home. I’d make money doing a few magic tricks, busking in the streets but with no living expenses, life in the city was fairly cheap.

One day down on the sand I decided to build a person. Some chap threw down a pound and took a picture – it was quite obvious I was broke and homeless and I think he felt sorry for me. I had no intention of doing it for money, but I spread out my jacket, placed the coin on it and carried on. It turned out to be the best busking I had ever done.What made it great was the fact that once I stopped to enjoy a sit down and roll a fag people were still throwing me coins.

The sofa evolved over time as people enjoyed seeing me sitting down and doing nothing. Which is something I can do quite well.

LLO: What’s a typical Dirty Beach day by the Thames like?
It’s hard to say as no two days are ever the same. It could be a beach party with live music and lots of people drinking around an open fire or a quiet day of artistic expression with lots of quiet time for personal reflection. The difference the weather makes to my day is huge and the tides are never the same. I could be down there at 5am to start work as the tide is going out or I sometimes don’t start work until 5pm at which time London has a very different feel.

It always involves picking up a bit of litter and doing some digging to make a sculpture. Whatever happens, my beach office always has the best views of London.

LLO: What’s been your favourite sand creation so far?
 The first time I built the largest sand sofa in the world was during the London Marathon a few years back. We did all the digging by hand and Dexter Fletcher even came down to lend a hand. It was massive and we sat on it right until the tide had surrounded us like a little island. There was so many tonnes of sand it took hours to wash away.

LLO: Did you let onlookers join in on the sandy fun?
We put a shout out on on the local radio the day before the London Marathon saying we wanted help to set the world record. We ended up with hundreds of children helping, each doing a tiny bit of digging. It was great – I could not have done all that digging on my own. I love it when I inspire people to get creative.

LLO: What’s the most unusual object you’ve found washed up on the beach?
We find all sorts. I have often found syringes, condoms and horrible London rubbish, shoes and animal bones. The most unusual thing washed up with the rising tide had to be a frog. I’ve only ever seen one frog in my life hopping out of the Thames but this wouldn’t be so unusual unless it also happened to be the same day that I carved a giant frog in the sand. He hopped right up to the sculpture, an amazing coincidence.

If you go exploring at low tide you are guaranteed to find lots of old Victorian clay pipes, the sort they smoked tobacco with. There are hundreds of broken ones, but I once found one that was still usable.

LLO: I hear you’re a bit of a comedian. Tell us a good London joke?
So America got 9/11. And London got 7/7. Rating’s don’t lie, America. We’re much better than you.

Knock knock / Who is there? / Europe….Ha ha, the punchline here is NO – YOUR A POO. <This is still directed at America.>

LLO: Favourite place in London to check out a good comedy gig?
Come to the beach and do some heckling. It helps me through the day. I also like the 99 Comedy Club. They have a few venues all over town, but the most popular is in Leicester Square. It has some amazing acts and it is way cheaper then the Comedy Store or Jonglers.

LLO: How else do you spend your time when the tide’s not out?
I like to make music and I love cooking. I build sculptures at music festivals which keeps me busy in the summer, the sofa has turned into a sand stage. I have also been planning on opening a beach bar in the Bahamas.

(Luc Valvona)

LLO: Tell us about something, someone or somewhere you’ve discovered in London that you think the rest of us ought to know about.
Luc Valvona. This chap is so talented and funny. I build him a stage and he amazes the passing people. Some of his songs are quite rude, but if you don’t mind that sort of thing you will think he is amazing; you have to see him live. He made over £2,000 selling his album at a music festival in one weekend on my sand stage. He is going to be a star. He plays the majority of the tunes on our dirtybeach music album. It’s called Monster and you can see the music videos on my site

All album sales go towards helping keep the beaches of the world clean.

Thanks Andy!

For more of Andy’s work, see the Dirty Beach website or check out his Flickr set of London beach pics.

For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.

Lost Shoes on the Tube

Here’s a little London observation from fabienne & co, a pair of lost shoes on the District line, posted in the Flickr pool.

lost shoes

If you can read French, have a look at the possible explanations for these lost ballerina shoes. If you care to make your own guess as to why they were abandoned, comment here!

There’s a great article from Time Out about items that are lost and found on the tube. Worth a read if you haven’t seen it yet. Some of the most unusual finds listed include false teeth, a 14-foot boat, an urn of ashes, a grandfather clock, a jar of bull’s sperm, two human skulls in a bag and breast implants.

Every year