Well this is different...

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Hello from Indonesia!

Not in Kansas anymore.

I did mention there was a new international job on the horizon, but for now let’s rewind a bit. When last we left our intrepid heroine she was tucked up in a chilly little boat on a frozen canal in London. I’ve experienced snowy weather in London before (Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall the Great Blizzard of 2010) but it’s never been as sustained as this last bout of cold. There have been times before when I’ve woken up after a night when the temperature has dipped below zero (rare but not unheard of) and found a thin layer of ice coating the canal and a few confused moorhens walking around clearly thinking, “Whaaaaaat the...?”. But in the past the ice has always cleared away before the end of the day. This time the temperature was cold enough for long enough that the ice stayed all day and thickened up overnight and the snow fell again and accumulated on the ice and it was all kind of unusual.

Pretty, but definitely not normal. On the first morning before the ice got this heavy I watched a swan ice-breaking its way out of the marina.

Let me say right now that I understand perfectly well that objectively speaking, the weather in London was not actually cold. Those of you suffering through the Canadian winter will doubtless not be sympathetic when I gripe about overnight low temperatures of -5c. But when you live in a poorly insulated floating tin can whose water source is basically a 200 litre Tupperware bin located outside and whose heat comes from literally making fire, those temps can be a challenge. It's lovely and cozy if you’re home to keep the fire blazing all day, but on one notable evening I arrived back at the boat around 11pm, having left at 8 that morning, to find the temperature sitting at 3c in the main room and a dispiriting 1 degree in the bedroom. At times like that you just have to restart the fire, keep your toque and long underwear on, and settle in with Netflix until the fire is well-enough established that you can fill the hot water bottle and go to bed with all the extra blankets in the place wearing wool socks and a hoodie.

This is not to say that all of life in London has been all bleak and awful. There’s a certain smug friskiness that comes from running along the canal in the snow or negotiating the icy sidewalks while the rest of London gnashes its teeth and moans.

This was actually kind of nice.

I also had a real treat to see me off. I managed to get tickets to see “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, which has been on my radar since it was announced. Happily, it turns out I have a former colleague who’s now working on the show and was able, through totally legitimate means, to get me access for a reasonable price relatively quickly. I’m not a big one for exploiting back-channels, but in this case I made an exception and I have no regrets. The show is very impressive, perhaps especially so if you understand a bit about the level of stagecraft required to achieve some of the effects, many of which are very very good.

Great show. Or shows, actually, since it’s presented in two parts over two different performances.

After the snow and the show there was the packing. Packing for a job like this is always a bit of a challenge, especially in a small space. I’m here until September, and that means taking a supply of a lot of important things like prescription medication and contact lenses and Marmite. And work stuff like steel toed boots and hard hat. And favourite kitchen knives. And many many plug adapters. And important coffee-making kit. And back-up coffee-making kit. And it means digging out my warm weather stuff and trying on shorts and flip flops while there’s snow outside (weird). Then at a certain point you just have to pile everything that's going in one place and then get on with it.

Which looks a lot like this.

And so here we are in Jakarta, new GSWPL Asian HQ. The job is the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 18th Asian Games, which will start in August of this year. For those who don’t know, Indonesia is pretty much on the other side of the planet from my usual stomping grounds. 7 hours ahead of London and 13 hours ahead of the middle of Canada. As you can see from the image above, the closest big place is Australia. And as any fule kno, if you’re close to Australia you’re very very far away from anywhere else.

A few fun and unexpected facts: Indonesia is a huge archipelago spanning the equator. It’s the 14th largest country in the world by land mass and is made up of more than 13,000 islands including Java, Borneo, Sumatra and Bali. It’s the 4th most populous country in the world, with the world’s largest muslim population and the world’s most populous island - Java. I’m located in Jakarta, which is the capital city and the heart of the Greater Jakarta metropolitan area, the world’s "second largest urban agglomeration” (after Tokyo). Hands up anyone who knew any of this? Yeah, me neither. The archipelago is highly tectonically unstable and is so completely littered with volcanoes I’m surprised there’s not one in the hotel parking lot. Indonesia is also home to Krakatoa, whose eruption in 1883 produced the loudest sound in recorded human history.

Jakarta. It’s big. This is the view from the office.

Getting here was a bit of a mission. I left London Sunday around 6pm, flew through Istanbul, and arrived in Jakarta Monday evening after about 15 hours of flying and a few hours is the ridiculous Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul. (Thank god for business class flights.) By the time I got to Jakarta it was dark and I was exhausted, jet lagged and disoriented. This made the long humid drive into the city from the airport a bit surreal. Once we got into the heart of the city the combination of tall glass towers, elevated freeways, bright lights, street hawkers, pedestrian overpasses, choking traffic and fleets of motorcycles made it all feel a bit Bladerunner.

And now I live in Jakarta. I’ve been here for about 5 days, but I’m currently in temporary accommodations because I arrived a week earlier than planned - another reason things have been a bit off-kilter. The place that was originally reserved for me is currently occupied by someone else (how rude!), so I'm in the building next door in a comically large three bedroom condo with two bathrooms, two balconies, a dining table that seats six, and a tiny, bleak and un-air-conditioned area outside the kitchen that I can only assume is quarters for a live-in maid. I estimate the square footage of just the hallways in this place is about equal to the square footage of the boat. It’s actually a bit disorienting and I'm hoping the real place will be more, ummm, modest. (Aside: Do you think anyone has ever gone to the front desk of a hotel asking for a smaller room?)

See what I mean about the hallway? Maybe I should take up bowling.

Nice views though.

I’m now settling in gradually ticking off all the little milestones that go along with living in a new country, like internalising the exchange rate. The currency here is the rupiah, which is one of those hyper-inflated ones, meaning that pocket change comes with an unlikely number of zeros attached. When I arrived Monday night a colleague loaned me some cash so I could buy coffee and breakfast things and have some walking around money without needing to track down a friendly bank machine (a milestone I only reached today). How much was the loan? One MILLION rupiah - or about £50. So when presented with prices here I drop the last four digits and then divide by two. For instance, dinner one night at Pizza Express was 160,545 rupiah, including tip. Drop the last four numbers and divide by two is a princely £8.

And so it begins. It’s all getting to feel a bit routine, this life. Pack Kraft Dinner and Marmite. Proceed to new country for new ceremonies (number 15 and 16!) in new language with new local people and same old international faces. Blog a bit. Eat weird food. Adapt. Assimilate. Go home. Repeat. As usual I’ll blog for as long as I can. And once I find my feet I’ll do some exploring and try to tell you more about the place and the people and the food. (Oh, the food. Wait until you hear about squid balls and jelly cones and chicken porridge and cheese tea and salted egg fish skins. Mark my words, there will be weird food aplenty!)

Until then I'll get on with my day, if I can find my way out of the apartment. (Note to self: next time you come in... breadcrumbs.)

If it pleases your Lordship...

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

I’ll start by admitting this is a huge topic, which is part of the reason for the delay in service this week. Then again, the only reason I know it’s a huge topic is because the aforementioned London Yoda has been bombarding me with additional sites and side stories since our already over-programmed outing a few weeks ago. We have concluded he suffers from a severe and debilitating Sub-category of Fear Of Missing Out which we’ve dubbed FOOMO (Fear Of Others Missing Out). I have pared things down unmercifully for this post, to the point where he may never speak to me again, but such are the sacrifices I make for the blog. Whatever the case, today we dip a toe lightly into the very deep waters of Legal London.

London Yoda loves a theme, so when he was planning our recent outing and mentioned the possibility of visiting the Inns of Court, I jumped at that idea. This is mostly because I’d just finished reading “The Best of Rumpole”. Horace Rumpole is a much-loved fictional barrister created by John Mortimer and appearing in a series of short stories. He's perhaps better known as Rumpole of the Bailey, portrayed by the late and much loved Leo McKern in a long-running BBC TV show of the same name. Both the books and the show are worth a look, being ripping yarns and a nice time capsule of 1970s and 80s British fashion. They're also a good introduction to a few of the interesting aspects of the legal system in the UK. For instance, Rumpole himself is a barrister, as distinct from a solicitor. Solicitors mainly advise clients, undertake negotiations and draft legal documents, whereas barristers are given the details of a case by a solicitor and are the ones who wear wigs and gowns and stand up in court to plead the case in front of a judge. Barristers are often self employed and work "in chambers” - an office space shared with other barristers. Rumpole’s celebrated speciality was criminal law, especially as tried in the most famous and highest criminal court in the UK the Central Criminal Court, better known as The Old Bailey, more on which later.

Rumpole of the Bailey, as portrayed by Leo McKern, sporting a proper horsehair wig

Those chambers barristers inhabit bring us back to the Inns of Court I mentioned earlier. The Inns of Court are the professional associations for barristers in England and Wales. Every barrister must belong to one of the four Inns called Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn. Historically there were more than just four inns, and, unsurprisingly, they started life as exactly that: inns. They were places where lawyers lodged, dined and congregated. Gradually they also began to practice and teach at these inns, and eventually Inns came to be places where lawyers were trained. Confined to a geographically small area of central London, the Inns no longer take much part in the training of lawyers, but do retain the sole right to call students to the bar. (“Called to the bar” being the term to indicate that one is permitted to argue in court on behalf of another party. Basically, it means you’re an officially proper grown-up barrister.)

Inside the grounds of the Middle and Inner Temple, which share a plum bit of land stretching between the Thames and Fleet Street, granted to them in 1608 by King James I and now worth ninety-four squillion pounds.

Every law student applies to one of the four Inns, though apparently it makes no difference in which one you settle. The Inns are organised roughly along the lines of an Oxbridge college, with residences, a chapel, dining hall and the aforementioned chambers.

The sign outside 5 Pump Court Chambers, listing many of the barristers who practice there.

So we’ve got barristers and solicitors, but there’s another term that pops up a lot when dealing with the lawyers in England (including in Rumpole, naturally). QC, or Queen’s Council is an honorific title granted to senior or distinguished barristers, appointed by the Queen to be one of "Her Majesty's Counsel learned in the law.” They are often referred to as “silks”, after the silk robes they wear, so becoming a QC is sometimes referred to as “taking silk”. And for the record, the first woman to take silk was 1934 - then King’s Council, as it was during the reign of George V. She was Helen Kinnear, and the ground-breaking event occurred in Canada! Lots of Commonwealth countries retain the practice of appointing QCs, though some have abolished the designation or changed to the infinitely less melodious “Senior Council” (SC) (Yawn.) Rumpole was never made a QC, and frequently referred to the rank as “Queer Customer”.

So let’s review. Every barrister in England and Wales - from the lowliest newbie to the silks and judges - must be a member of one of the Inns of Court, but it doesn’t matter which one and they may actually never go to their Inn. On the other hand they might go often, attend services at the chapel, dine in the dining hall, attend lectures there and spend their working days in chambers on the grounds. In any case, the Inns themselves are quite lovely and offer a quiet respite from the busy London streets around them. They’re mostly low stone buildings, sunny gardens, and medieval chapels, much of which is open to the public though off course some areas are off limits (including one lovely lawn that was open only to residents and “resident dogs”).

Sunny gardens

So where does this "temple" business come from? Middle Temple? Inner Temple? For that we have to reach all the way back to 12th century and the founding of the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar (more accurately called the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, but often just called the Templars) were a Catholic military order most famous for fighting in the Crusades and developing a surprisingly sophisticated financial infrastructure sometimes credited as being the precursor to modern banking. For at time they were one of the most powerful of the church’s orders but more importantly for us, they built the Temple Church, a lovely medieval building in the heart of Temple. In fact, pretty much anywhere with Temple in the name can be traced back to the Templars.

Inside Temple Church. The subject of the Templars is one that people devote lifetimes of study to so if it seems to you that I’ve glossed over basically everything, you are completely correct.

The Temple Church is architecturally interesting because the nave is circular, a defining feature of Templar churches. It was part of that grant of land in 1608, the Templars having been officially disbanded in 1312. What happened between 1312 and 1608 is opaque to my halfhearted googling efforts, so I rely on London Yoda to pipe up in the comments section and enlighten us. The church itself (having been in the care of fat-walletted lawyers for hundreds years) is in really good condition, though it did have to be rebuilt substantially after bombings in WWII. Importantly for us, the Temple Church styles itself as “the mother church of English common law”, mostly because of its links to Magna Carta. (Special thanks to London Yoda for that link, which you should not ignore because it is most definitely not just another Wikipedia page.) William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke (just another Wikipedia page), who mediated between King John and the barons, is buried in the Church. And of course while the actual content of the Magna Carta is mostly about the rights of Barons v. the King, it’s widely considered to have become the basis of common law and a symbol of justice and human rights. So that all ties in nicely with our legal theme.

The tomb of the Earl himself, which is in that circular nave. Popular wisdom is that a knight depicted with his legs crossed dies while on crusade, but it's not actually true. Plus it kind of makes them look like the died while searching for a toilet.

Further to that theme, let’s talk about another great institution I alluded to earlier. Rumpole’s favourite legal venue, and probably the most famous court in England - The Old Bailey. The Old Bailey is the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales (as distinct from the Royal Courts of Justice - London’s high court for civil matters). Located near the location of the old Newgate Prison, the Old Bailey has been the site of some of the most notorious cases in history, including that of the Yorkshire Ripper and the Kray Twins. In order to get a real feel for the place, I took a tour conducted by a former journalist who covered trials at the Old Bailey for decades before giving it all up for the glamorous life of a tour guide.

We started at a pub. This was auspicious, especially when they brought out the strong coffee and warm croissants to counteract the earliness of the hour. Happily, the pub itself - the Viaduct - is a gorgeous and historic old gin palace as well as being a home to a few of the old cells from the notorious Newgate Prison. Newgate was the site of a prison for more than 700 years, starting in 1188 and significantly rebuilt in 1402 by the legendary London Lord Mayor Dick Whittington. Conditions were generally appalling in the prison, though could be greatly improved with the universal cure-all: money. In fact, wealthier inmates were able to bring in their own food, furniture, servants, and even wives. One notable resident raised 6 children while incarcerated at Newgate for 40 years. For most though, a stretch in prison was a miserable, overcrowded, cold, hungry and disease-ridden business, as evidenced by the cells in the basement of the Viaduct.

The space was too tiny to get a decent picture, but would have housed 10-15 prisoners.

The hole in the ceiling is how food was passed down. It was all exceptionally dank and drippy.

The cells under the Viaduct were once linked by a tunnel to the Old Bailey, just across Newgate Street. There’s been some form of a court on the site since the 16th century, but the current building dates from 1902, with a new addition added in the 1970s.

Here’s the famous building, including the statue of the Lady Justice with her scales on top of the dome. You can’t see it in this photo, but the pans of the scales each have a small drainage holes drilled in them. Apparently they were added after a senior judge entering through the main doors was drenched by a panful of water caught in the wind and promptly dispatched a pair of workmen and a sturdy ladder to rectify the situation.

For the most part the viewing galleries in the courtrooms are open to the public on the principal that justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done. Most of the building, though, is off limits to the public, including the domed Grand Hall. I decided to visit the 1970s-era building first, mostly because everyone else on the tour went to the old building, and I didn’t fancy the queue. However even though the viewing galleries are open, getting in is a serious matter. If you think airport security is tight, the Old Bailey trumps them by a long way. In an airport you might have to surrender your phone and computer to the x-ray machine, but you get them back soon enough. At the Old Bailey no phones, computers, tablets, cameras or anything of the sort are allowed. At all. Period. No exceptions. Luckily, part of the tour service provided at the Viaduct included storage of bags and phones while visiting the court, but I did have to trek back to deposit my Apple Watch after failing on my first attempt. The security guards are unfailingly polite but unflinching. Apparently there’s a travel agent’s office nearby who will hold your electronics for £5 after you’re turned away. They must do a roaring trade.

Here’s a picture of the Grand Hall, which I did not see of course. Thanks Google Images!

Once I finally gained access I found the only courtroom open, where closing arguments were underway. I was allowed in by another guard with strict instructions that I must remain quiet and stay for at least half a hour before leaving to minimise the distraction to the participants. There was even a sign on the wall instructing spectators to “refrain from speaking or moving”. This turned out to be a bit difficult, as the barrister in the case was, er, really quite boring. Of course I entered in the middle of his address and with no knowledge of the case, but regardless it was not exactly Rumpole-level stuff. He spent a lot of time stuttering and hesitating and fiddling with his wig, though in fairness having a carpet of horsehair on your head would rather invite that I suppose. And the 1970s courtroom was all blonde wood and perspex and green leather and felt like it might have come from an Ikea catalogue. Still, there was a jury and a judge and an appropriate scattering of other wigged and robed types, and I managed to pass the requisite 30 minutes without being ejected for sneezing or moving or breathing too loudly.

I was much more interested to the see 1902 building, so I went there next only to find out that there really wasn’t anything to see. The guards at the door were polite and apologetic but it really seemed that I was going to be out of luck. However, I must have hung around just long enough, with just the right disappointed but unthreatening expression that one of the guards took pity on me and escorted me up to the only courtroom that was sitting hearing sentencing arguments. That room was much more satisfying - small, but covered in dark wood panelling and elaborate plasterwork. I was the only person in the gallery so I concentrated on making myself as small as possible and just listened to the defence attorney and the judge argue about a guy from my old neighbourhood in Lambeth. And just as I was thinking that I’d pretty much seen what I wanted to see and really fancied a bit of lunch, the judge banged his gavel and rose and I was able to slip out, thank the security guards profusely, and make my exit.

Inside the famous Old Bailey Courtroom One, again thanks for Google Images.

So with the help of Yoda and a decent tour guide and some friendly security I managed to get a pretty good look at some of London’s legal past and present without getting nicked for the felony misdemeanour of Blinking While in Her Majesty’s Courtroom. In other news... wow is there ever other news. In a few days I'm off for a new big job on the other side of the world, so stay tuned for details about that. In the mean time, please refrain from speaking or moving.

GRUB!: Fish Pie

Sunday, February 11, 2018

I had a densely packed day of proper off-the-track hidden London kind of stuff last week, led by my Barbican-dwelling friend Piran. He’s like some kind of London-savant. I'm convinced I could walk  him down any street in Central London and he’d come up with at least three interesting facts about the history, or architecture or some other random London ephemera related to or prompted by the area. I like to think I’ve learned a few off-beat things about London since I’ve been here, but truly Piran is London Yoda to my Luke Skywalker. So having spent a whole day wandering around a geographically tiny but Londonically hyper-dense area of the city with him, it’s going to take me perhaps six months to distill things into a blog or two or ten.

While that all percolates I’ve fallen back on a good old-fashioned GRUB! post. Because it’s been cold and grey and rainy all day and nothing helps warm up the boat and the boater more than getting something hot and filling and lovely in the oven. Something like Fish Pie!

This is a day that cries out for something involving pre-heating the oven. Preferably for about eleven hours.

Fish Pie falls into that category of not-actually-pie occupied by Shepherd’s Pie and Cottage Pie, being a protein-packed stew-ish base topped with mashed potatoes and baked. Perhaps that’s why it’s sometimes called Fisherman’s Pie. Note that this category is separate and distinct from Real Pie, which must be completely enclosed in pastry on top, bottom and sides. Or at the very very very least covered with a shortcrust pastry that completely seals the top of the dish, like chicken pot pie (but actually even that is seriously borderline). And don’t even get me started on pubs that serve a dish of stew topped with a disc of puff pastry. I have no compunctions at all about grilling restaurant staff unmercifully and pointedly about what appears on the menu as “pie”.  Also note that traditional fish pie is nothing to do with Stargazy Pie, even though that particular dish is, in fact, a more real fish pie than, er, fish pie. Also Stargazy Pie is super instragrammable - check it out:

Stargazy pie
Stargazy Pie - a traditional Cornish dish served on Dec. 23. As you can see, it’s a proper pie with pastry, though perhaps you didn’t notice that because you were distracted by the whole pilchards with their heads and tails sticking out of the top.

So… fish pie. The base is a mixture of different fish, cut in generous chunks and poached in milk. The milk then goes on to become a white sauce, often with a few other goodies thrown in as well. The topping is creamy mash, which can also be jazzed up in various ways. Because fish pie is quite a traditional dish, some big supermarkets sell packs of fish pie mix so you don’t have to faff about buying a bunch of different kinds of fish. Cod plus something smoked (usually haddock) are most traditional, though the mixes I’ve seen also usually include salmon. And I think it’s nice to mix in some prawns too, for a little extra luxury.

Tesco’s fish pie mix including cod (left), salmon (centre) and smoked haddock (right), with luxury prawns featuring far right. The eggs feature later in the story.

You probably noticed that the smoked haddock pictured above has a distinctly yellow tint to it. Smoking is, of course, a traditional way of preserving fish. Other notable smoked fish over here include smoked mackerel, the ever-popular kipper (smoked herring), and the famed Abroath Smokie (also haddock, but treated differently). Originally, haddock was salt cured and then smoked over oak. The combination of the natural colour of the fish and the smoke gave it a yellowish colour. When more industrial smoking methods were introduced, some of the colour was lost and it became usual to add it back in with yellow dye - sometimes artificial, and sometimes more natural (based on onion skins or turmeric). Amusingly, when doing the in-depth research that I always undertake for the blog (Note: for “in-depth” read: no less than five concentrated minutes of googling, with breaks for watching tiny house videos on YouTube), I encountered websites that claim the undyed article was traditional, with the garish yellow colour of dyed haddock being emblematic of the worst sort of Un-Britishness. And I also found at least one online fishmonger offering “traditional yellow dyed” smoked haddock for people who grew up with the bright yellow stuff.

And so back to the fish pie. I have to admit this is a bit of a production, with many different processes and resulting in quite a few dirty pots and pans and baking dishes. Normally I don’t go in for that sort of thing, but it was a good excuse to avoid doing anything else on that cold and rainy Saturday, so here’s how it went:


4 large red-skinned potatoes, boiled and mashed
2 hard boiled eggs
Butter, milk and salt for the mash
About 450 grams of assorted fish
About 100 grams of prawns
1 large onion, peeled and halved
1 token bay leaf
2 cups milk
More butter
3 tbsp white flour
1 tbsp grainy mustard
1 cup frozen peas
1 tbsp capers
Chopped fresh parsley
Chopped fresh dill
Lemon zest
Yet more butter
(Note: as usual, all of these amounts are a bit approximate. Deal with it. It’s not like any of us in on Masterchef.)

First, cook and mash the spuds in whatever way you normally make mash. Naturally, this should include a generous amount of butter and milk and salt and pepper to taste. I added some fresh chopped parsley, which I think gives a festive touch. I’ve sometimes made fish pie with a mix of white and sweet potatoes, which is also nice. You could even add garlic, or grated cheese, or both, if you’re feeling particularly wild. For my fish pie I used red-skinned potatoes and left the skin on because it’s good for you and rustic and life is too short to peel potatoes. And to add to the rustic nature, my mash was pleasantly uneven. This is mostly because I was halfway through cooking the potatoes before I realised, for the first time, that I don’t seem to own a potato masher. Happily it turns out that a slotted spoon + fork combination is perfectly adequate for optimally rusticated mash.

One non-standard thing you’ll want to do when cooking the potatoes is to add a couple of whole eggs to the pot in the last 6 or 7 minutes of cooking, hard-boiled eggs being a traditional addition to the filling of fish pie. (Grated hard cooked eggs are also part of Stargazy Pie. Go figure.) Note it’s advisable to removed the cooked eggs from the pot before mashing.

With the mash safely mashed and cooling in the pot, it’s time for the fish. Peel the onion and chop it in half and then make a cut in one half of the onion and insert the token bay leaf. (I did not do this because my bay leaves are apparently stored in the same place as my potato masher. Also I’m not a fan of tokenism, but several recipes I looked at called for this touch, so I include it here, despite the fact that I’m not convinced this onion bit, and especially the accompanying bay leaf, actually bring much to the party.) Place the token onion/bay leaf in a large pan and add the milk and the uncooked fish (if you’re using prawns do not include them here). Bring the milk almost to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer gently, poaching the fish in the milk. Once the fish is barely cooked, remove it from the milk and set it aside in another dish. (I used the eventual baking dish for this rather than adding to the growing pile of dirty crockery.)

Mash and poaching fish

Meanwhile, prepare to dirty a third pan by finely chopping the remaining onion and sautéing in butter and olive oil. Once the onion is cooked, gradually add the flour, and continue sautéing until the flour has cooked down. Then start slowly spooning in the poaching liquid, creating a white sauce. I eventually dumped the onion/flour/milk back into the poaching pan, which was bigger, and stirred it all together. Salt and pepper are good here, and I added a nice dollop of mustard to give a bit of zing.

Once the sauce is done gently stir in the cooked fish, prawns, frozen peas, capers and chopped dill. This is also where you’ll add the hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut into quarters. I say “you’ll add” because I, in fact, did not add the eggs at this stage. I studiously ignored the lovingly boiled eggs until the entire edifice was tucked into the oven and enough debris was cleared for me to notice them lurking on the spoon rest. Do not make this embarrassing error.

The incomplete filling, sadly lacking in eggy goodness

Spoon the filling into a deep baking dish and top with chopped parsley and lemon zest and then dot on the cooled mash. Keep the top of the mash craggy and uneven, and top with more butter before popping in the oven at 190C / 375F / Gas Mark 5 / 464 Kelvin for about 30 minutes, or until it’s warmed through, golden brown and delicious. Lots of recipes add grated cheese on top of the mash, which would of course be very very nice.

Top Tip! Put the dish on a layer of tinfoil loosely shaped like a bathtub to catch the inevitable gooey spillover.

Once the pie is in the oven, your kitchen may look a bit like a bomb has dropped.

I was a bit surprised at how much mess this made, though I was gratified that it didn’t take long for me to clean it up. Perhaps this is due to my unique genetic makeup which combines my mother’s cooking instinct, free-form approach to recipes and amounts, and ability to dirty every pot in the kitchen with my father’s need to wash the dishes in between supper and dessert.

Done before the pie was out of the oven!

So I sat down to my supper of fish pie with relatively clean kitchen and a glass of cold Pinot Grigio, and a few cherry tomatoes to add to the veg-count.

As mentioned above, we're not on Masterchef here, so presentation was limited to a mostly unsuccessful effort to arrange the tomatoes. 

So that's fish pie. A nice alternative to similar meaty dishes and good if you need to warm yourself and your environment and dust off an unusual number of pots and pans. Especially recommended if you have a dishwasher.

Next time on Grub!: Devilled Eggs...

Landmarks: The Barbican

Sunday, January 28, 2018

In general English usage a barbican (note the indefinite article and lack of capital B) is the defensive bit above the gatehouse of a castle or walled city. In general London usage, the Barbican (with definite article and capital B) is a massive and mostly impenetrable concrete complex comprising 38 acres of residential apartments, cinemas, restaurants, schools, galleries, theatres, gardens, lakes, fountains, and parking garages, along with two concert halls, assorted shops, a museum, a library, a church, two tube stations, a conservatory, a school of music and drama, two kindergartens, a pub (of course) and, at almost any hour, an uncountable number of people fruitlessly trying to find their way to or from one of the above.

A small part of the Barbican

The Barbican is located in the City of London. Again, capital letters play an important role here, differentiating the City of London (note the capital C) - the independent county comprising the square mile of central London most famously home to the UK’s financial and banking sector - from the city of London (no capital C) - which is the metropolis of Greater London and completely surrounds the City of London. (I think we’ve been through this before, so surely any Astute Go Stay Work Play Reader understands this distinction by now.) The area of the City is roughly analogous to the old Roman walled city. The Barbican itself sits just to the north and west of the old Roman city, but bits of the Roman wall are actually still visible on the estate.

Like this one.

For the first half of the 20th century the area where the Barbican now sits was mostly warehouses and other industrial sites. Then during a single night of bombing on December 29, 1940, the Luftwaffe levelled the whole neighbourhood - an area of 35 acres. For the subsequent two decades that patch of London was essentially abandoned and turned into an overgrown (and presumably rubble-strewn, slightly dangerous and very fun) playground for the local children. Health and Safety was, one presumes, not A Thing. Considering the price of real estate in London now it seems astonishing that much land was simply left empty for so long, but I suppose there was a lot of recovery to do in all sectors after the war. Still… twenty years?

When they eventually managed to formulate a plan for using the space the goal was not simply to cram it with as much housing and commercial space as possible. In fact, the aim was much loftier than that. The Barbican was meant to be a physical symbol of how London could rise again after the destruction of the war - a grand showpiece and a bold statement. The architects - Chamberlin, Powell and Bon - set out their intention to create a complete machine for living, with residents able to enjoy modern conveniences, green spaces, and services like libraries, shops, theatres and cinemas, all in a densely developed but also open, inviting highly designed ecosystem combining residential and civic functions with modern design.

Private waterfall, anyone?

Part of that modern design is the architectural style of the Barbican - it’s one of the most prominent examples of Brutalism in the UK, being constructed almost entirely from brick and concrete with exposed aggregate. Interestingly, one might assume the exposed concrete seen all over the Barbican is the actual structural material, but it’s actually a layer added after construction, dried for 21 days, and then pick-hammered by Italian stone masons to create the distinctive texture.

You can see a bit of the concrete here - above these flats that overlook the lake. Not bad!

There are even a few hidden mewses with houses that enjoy way way off-street parking and gardens.

Luckily, one of the Barbican’s 4,000 residents is also one of GSWPL’s more astute readers, and on hearing of my interest in the estate as a whole he extended an invitation for lunch and a private tour with a couple other friends one Sunday in rainy December. This was especially excellent because it meant not just a lovely lunch, but a visit inside a real Barbican flat, and a tour around the estate led by a highly knowledgeable guide in possession of the all-important resident’s key, allowing access to all kinds of places mere plebeian mortals could not presume to tread. The invitation also came accompanied by a painstakingly detailed set of directions for getting from the tube station to the exact location of the flat - no small feat in a complex that is renowned for being murderously difficult to navigate. I’m happy to report I was able to find my way with only one small back-track required.

The flat in question is on the top level of Andrewes House, one of the terrace blocks that make up the central heart of the complex. See those barrel-vaulted roofs on the left? One of those!

Did you notice that all of the window coverings in Andrewes House are white on the outward facing side? That’s not a coincidence, it’s actually a condition of residency. You’re also required to cultivate your window boxes if you’ve got them. And don’t even think about removing the carpet and installing wood floors. That’s not allowed, partly to reduce noise transmission between floors, but also partly because heating is provided by in-built electric underfloor heating can get hot enough to burn if not insulated by that layer of carpet. And don’t assume you can simply turn down the thermostat to compensate - the underfloor heating is centrally controlled to turn on overnight when electricity is cheap, meaning while it might be toasty in the morning, it can be downright chilly when you get home from work in the evening.

There are other modern conveniences in the flats that we'd take for granted right now but were, at the time, quite unusual. For instance the kitchens are open to the living and dining area and were designed by marine galley engineers to maximise what was considered to be very little space. Bathrooms featured showers - also not common for the time. Balconies are also included, with a lot of flats having one at each end, a real luxury even today. And many of the Barbican's flats are housed in giant tower blocks, once the tallest residential buildings in Europe. However, these unusual modern touches, coupled with the estate's location in the middle of a bombed out neighbourhood meant that getting people to move to the Barbican was hard work. Difficult to believe from our perspective in 2018, when a 440 square foot studio flat in one of the estate's terrace blocks goes for more than half a million quid.

The all concrete construction makes for a very solid structure but comes with some disadvantages. I knew an architect who was a big fan of Brutalism (architects are often the only champions of this style). One of the reasons he gave for his fondness is that, for an architect, it's a real challenge. When you're pouring concrete that's both the structure and the outer finish of the building, there's nowhere to hide if something goes wrong. There's no covering mistakes behind a layer of plasterboard. Everything has to be designed in from the beginning, including the wiring, so even something as (relatively) minor as a light fixture or a plug socket has the be included at the earliest stage. In the case of the Barbican this means that all the wiring and plumbing is literally set in stone. It can't be changed, and if it was installed incorrectly or breaks, there's really nothing to be done. And forget getting fibre broadband or smart electric or water meters or extra power to anywhere.

If this all seems a bit Big Brother, consider the many advantages of living in the Barbican. For instance, you’ve got London's second largest conservatory on your doorstep. (It was designed to enclose and disguise the fly tower of the theatre!) It used to be open every day, but sadly it’s now just on “selected Sundays and Bank Holidays”.

Naturally our Sunday visit was carefully timed to coincide with the conservatory’s opening hours, so we got to wander through and meet the resident turtles. It’s really lovely, and I can see why my resident guide laments no longer being able to slip in and out on a whim.

Another perquisite? Garbage collection happens every weekday. And you don’t have to schlepp your leaky rubbish bags to some sort of central depot. Each flat has a small closet near the front door with a communicating door on the outside, allowing rubbish collectors to come and collect every day without disturbing you. Post arrives in the same way, but in reverse. The estate also has a scattering of sites to take recycling and food waste, and places to handle used electronics.

And on the topic of waste collection, surely one of the most interesting quirks of the Barbican must be the infamous Garchey disposal system. Intended to eliminate those rubbish collections I mentioned, the Garchey is like a super-charged in-sink garbage disposal designed not just for wet garbage like potato peelings and coffee grounds but almost everything else except really large and bulky things. Even cans and bottles are fair game (keep in mind this was pre-recycling). With a Garchey system all that waste is put down the sink drain where it sits in a holding tank underneath. The water you run through the sink during the day collects there along with the waste. To flush the system you unstopper it and the rush of accumulated water is meant to propel everything down into a giant collection reservoir at the bottom of the building where things settle a bit before a big tanker truck comes and takes it away.

Here's a grainy cut-away of a Garchey sink.

In practice, the stink of rotten food that builds up in the holding tank meant that it had to be thoroughly cleaned ever couple of weeks, a task few relish. And these days the Garcheys often get bunged up. (Hands up anyone who’s shocked at that. Anyone? Anyone? Beuller?). In part this is because back when the system was conceived housewives were home home during the day and much more water was run through the pipes much more consistently. Also these days we flush way too many nappies and wet wipes that clog things up. (A problem for London's sewers in general.) Now a lot of the Garcheys in Barbican kitchens have been removed and capped. However, some are still in operation and the truck still comes to suck up the gunk from the remaining working units. Apparently some of the original engineers who installed them have retirement jobs cleaning out the systems that are still in use.

Another example of well-intentioned but ultimately failed design are the greenhouses. Built over a flat, leaky roof, they were, unsurprisingly, not a hit with the downstairs neighbours.

Those expanses of curved brown-ness are actually the glass walls and roof of a the greenhouse space. Also, those curves make it impossible to clean the glass. (Ok, ok, I know they're not actually IMPOSSIBLE to clean. You could, for instance, design bespoke window scrubbing drones that suction to the glass and work their way over the surface like some kind of semi-autonomous Roomba/catfish hybrids. Maybe someone should call James Dyson.)

I've alluded a few times to the notion that the Barbican can be tricky to navigate. In fact, that’s a bit like saying Hitler had a mild interest in territorial expansion. The Barbican is notoriously difficult to get through and around. This is in part due to a key architectural feature of the estate, the elevated walkways known as Highwalks. One of the big ideas about city planning at the time was to separate pedestrians from vehicle traffic, and in the Barbican this was accomplished by raising pedestrians up above street level in dedicated walkways. The plan was intended to be incorporated all over the city, though they're actually relatively rare outside the Barbican. The Highwalks also increase difficulties in navigation when it’s not immediately apparent how to get onto or off them. Then there’s the large and uncrossable ornamental lake, the randomly encountered locked gates, the uncountable number of stairwells and the miles of same-y looking rough concrete corridors, some of which curve on a wide radius making things even more disconcerting. It’s no wonder the Barbican is sometimes used as a case study in urban way-finding. (Listen to this podcast!)
"The Barbican takes the City’s ancient complexity and expands it over three dimensions – you can go up and down as well as backwards and forwards, so wandering around the Barbican becomes an adventure. Curves envelope you, towers loom, narrow pedways disappear under pedestals and re-emerge as wide walkways enlivened by beds of wild flowers.” (Source)
However despite its shortcomings, Barbican residents tend to be a loyal lot who appreciate the fantastically central location, the sense of community, the many cultural facilities, and the acres of private gardens. Sure, you've got to equip guests with flare guns so you can come rescue them when they get lost on their way back to the tube station, but who else in London can brag about being able to flush empty baked bean tins down the sink?

Off the tourist track: Water and Steam

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Happy New Year! And apologies for the disruption to our regular service. What can I say? It was Christmas, and then it was New Year’s, and boat has been obstreperous, and though I’ve been back in London for over a week following my annual pilgrimage home to Canada, I honestly couldn’t tell you what I’ve done in that time other than not blog and feel jet-laggy and go for occasional short runs and binge out on Netflix. (Which I can now stream unlimitedly to my iPad or computer because mobile data package costs in the UK are awesome. Unlike in Canada. And yes, I would like some cheese with that whine). London is mostly grey and rainy and it’s all a bit… January. I did go to the Geffrye Museum one Saturday, which has been on my list for a long time. But was mostly a disaster because it took forever to get there and then it was super crowded and a big part of it that I wanted to see was closed until the next day and now it’s closed for renovations for two years so bleah.

Instead, I spent last Sunday on a succession of buses to visit the London Museum of Water and Steam, which has also been on my list, especially since Karen and I passed it en route to Kew Gardens last summer. (Karen callously refused to stop for a quick visit but I forgive her.) So brace yourself for another blog about gears and pumps and giant machinery, in the grand GSWPL tradition, (like this and this and this from the deep archives).

Slightly boring photo, but I love the cleverness of the logo design

The Museum of Water and Steam is dedicated to restoring and maintaining no fewer than FIVE historic steam-driven beam engines, as well as housing an exhibition of the history of London’s water supply. The building itself is the former Kew Bridge Pumping Station, dating from 1838 and run at the time by the Grand Junction Waterworks Company. That warmed my heart little bit, because the water feeding the pumps when the station first opened was taken from the Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal, where my little boat spends most of its time these days. Though not long after opening they switched to taking water from the Thames because it was cleaner than the canals. And if the canals then were anything like they are now I’d say that was a very wise move indeed.

The Sunday afternoon I went it was pleasingly unbusy so I got to play with all the interactive models without having to elbow some snotty eight-year-old out of the way. And I got to linger at all the other displays without feeling like I was getting in anyone’s way. This means I can now relate that, astonishingly, the first piped water came to London in 1237. And that’s not a typo. In the 13th century wooden pipes were used to bring water from Tyburn spring into London. (The first piped water to private homes was in 1528.)

Wooden pipes like this were used for centuries (60 AD to 1810 according to the plaque). GSWPL fun fact!: Wooden plumbing pipes are where we get the terms “trunk line" and “branch line" from.

Wood gave way to lead (bad idea) and then to the king of plumbing: cast iron. There were also brief dalliances with steel and cement (neither as good as cast iron) but nowadays it’s all plastic. However, just like the brick-lined Victorian sewers that still handle much of London’s waste, one of the cast iron water mains at Kew Bridge is still in use today, making it the oldest cast iron trunk main still in use in the world. Along with the pipe display, the entry hall of the museum had some fun working models of different types of water pump, going back to Roman-era technology. And there was a whole wall of cisterns and toilets accompanied by various voiceovers that mostly seemed to be about conserving water which made me feel a bit smug, considering my miserly 100 litres/week consumption on the boat.

The Wall O'Toilets

When dealing with the topic of water supply, it’s also natural to deal with the other end of the system, the removal of waste water. We here at GSWPL dealt with this topic in the critically acclaimed post Off the Tourist Track: Crossness Pumping Station, so I’ll just remind you quickly of the key points: London population boom + plumbed toilets = raw sewage in the Thames + yucky smell + cholera. Therefore: Joesph Bazalgette + huge brick sewer pipes + giant pumping stations = fresh water - cholera! Everyone got that? So the beautiful beam engines at Crossness Pumping station were for pumping sewage, whereas the ones at Kew Bridge were for pumping the fresh water supply from the Thames and then out to London.

While Thames water may have been slightly cleaner than canal water, it still wasn’t exactly pristine and healthy. This led to the introduction of the first treated public water supply in 1829, engineered by James Simpson for the Chelsea Waterworks company. He used a sand filtration system, wherein water was held in large sand-bottomed basins with the water filtering down through the sand, cleaning it of impurities. Sand filtration is still used today, though it’s ironic that Simpson thought it was the sand that does the cleaning whereas it’s actually the scummy layer of gelatinous gunk that forms on top of the sand that does all the work. That layer, amusingly called the Schmutzdecke (and I promise I am not making that up because I truly could not make up so absolutely perfect a word) is home to a bunch of bacteria and protozoa and other tiny beasties that filter out 90-99% of bacterial nastiness. Kew Bridge Pumping Station used to have acres of sand filtration pools, but now that area has been redeveloped into flats. (Full disclosure: I only wrote that paragraph so I could use the word schmutzdecke. And who could blame me?)

But enough about water treatment and on to the giant steam engines! As I mentioned, the Museum of Water and Steam is custodian of five steam powered beam engines, including two absolute monsters, the Grand Junction 90 inch and the Grand Junction 100 inch. Both are Cornish engines, meaning they’re a particular type of steam engine (developed in Cornwall, unsurprisingly) that uses the steam at a higher pressure, thus operating more efficiently and using less fuel. This was important in Cornish tin mines where the pumps were used to take water out of the mines but where coal had to be shipped in from other parts of the country, hence was used as sparingly as possible. The 90 inch and 100 inch measurements refer to the diameter of the main piston of the engine. The 100 inch is the largest surviving single cylinder beam engine in the world and the 90 inch is the largest working beam engine in the world.

It’s hard to get a good picture of the engines since they completely fill entire huge rooms. So here instead is a partial shot of the outside of the Bull Engine’s cylinder, a mere 70 inches.

And a gratuitous shot of some very nice dials.

Apparently during the restoration of the 90 inch engine in 1976 the cast of Blue Peter climbed into the cylinder housing and had a tea party under the piston. So it’s, you know, BIG. The 90 inch could pump 2142 litres of water in a single stroke and the 100 inch could move 3255 litres. Working together, with their pistons alternating and synchronised, the two great engines could pump more than 63 million litres of water in 24 hours. And the 100 inch engine operated most of its working life with a crack in the 54 ton main beam - it was repaired in place and the engine continued to operate until it was last run in steam in 1958, though that was just a demonstration - by the 1940s the steam engines were no longer used for pumping water.

After looking through the chilly engine rooms I wandered into a smaller workshop where I ran into the only museum staff I encountered. The older gentleman was dressed in a boiler suit (coveralls) (Hang on a minute… steam engines... boilers... that’s why they’re called boiler suits!) and he was engaged in some sort of building task behind temporary barricades. I struck up a conversation with him, which turned out to be the most interesting part of the visit. It turns out he wasn’t doing anything really cool like aligning grappler flanges or lubricating the Boggs-Flinder Compensator. He was just hanging something on the wall, but he was very chatty and happy to share some fun tidbits about the engines and the museum.

The workshop room. Apparently there's also a Victorian-era belt driven metal working shop were they still do work for the museum. Fantastic!!! Tragically, not open to the public. 

For instance, he told me that during World War Two (after the big pumps had been sidelined by diesel and electric units) the steam engines were still kept on standby in case of a loss of power or damage during the Blitz. Since all they required to work was fuel for the boilers, lack of power or diesel would not stop them from pumping water. Keeping the water flowing was critical during the bombing not for domestic use, but because of the constant need for water for fire fighting. To support that need, a series of diesel generators ran 24 hours a day to keep the pumps running (they didn’t end up needing the steam engines) so that even if bombing damaged water mains and water was running freely into the streets in places, there was still water available to the fire brigade.

I also got an apology because some of the engines were supposed to be running in steam - indeed that’s part of why I’d gone that day - to see the machinery in action. However, all was quiet on the West London front because the volunteers who’d been scheduled for duty had been unable to attend. This was astonishing to me - that someone might have the chance to tend and run glorious machines like that and then just not come.

Sadly, even if there had been volunteers available, the restored 90 inch engine still would have been silent because there are some small repairs needed on it that involve taking the lid off the main boiler. Apparently it’s not a difficult job, but the overhead beam they want to use to lift the lid can’t be rated for the lift. (Health and Safety, you know.) Also it’s a Grade 1 listed building so they can’t really risk damaging the building in order to repair the engine. The plan now is to create a ground-supported structure over the boiler to lift the lid, but that has to sit on the York stone flagged floor which is part of the listed building which blah blah blah… you see the problem.

And along those same lines, it’s apparently quite tricky to get insurance for a building like the Great Engine House. Ownership of the site recently passed from the developers of the nearby flats to the Kew Bridge Engines Trust, who are naturally keen to have it properly insured. However, most of the time insurance companies base insurance costs on a standard formula to do with the size and purpose of a building, and obviously in the case of historically significant one-of-a-kind buildings, that formula doesn’t really apply. So apparently they’re having to consult with the folks who run other historic sights to see what they do. (“Hello is this Stonehenge? Hi, it’s Kew Bridge Pumping Station calling. So look, if the stone circle were to burn down… what would that be insured for? Hello? Hello?”)  It was all things I’d never really considered when walk-in through a museum.

Most interesting though, was the notion that there’s room for newcomers on the team of volunteers who tend the giant steam engines. That seems like exactly the sort of thing your humble blogger might enjoy very much (other than the boiler suits possibly making my ass look fat). Someone please remind me about this when I get back to London in September.

Wait, did I say BACK to London? Yes I did. It’s time again for GSWPL to decamp to foreign climes for another big show. More on that another time. Until then, there’s really only one thing to say.


He's behind you!

Sunday, December 24, 2017


Finally, I went to a panto (short for “pantomime” which nobody ever ever says anymore). Like Bonfire Night, this has been on my list for ages. And like Bonfire Night, it took the arrival of the Intrepid Raul to spur me on. I mean who wants to go to a panto alone? That's just sad. Up to now, when I told friends in the UK that I’d never been to a panto they were mostly astonished. I guess for them it’s such a part of the fabric of growing up it’s impossible to believe someone could reach adulthood without having experienced the phenomenon. A bit like a Canadian never having seen “Hockey Night in Canada” or got their tongue stuck to a frozen tetherball pole.

For those non-UK readers for whom the term "pantomime" conjures images of Marcel Marceau, here’s how Wikipedia describes things, summing it up so well I’m not even going to try to paraphrase, which is what I usually do.
"Pantomime (informally panto) is a type of musical comedy stage production designed for family entertainment. It was developed in England and is still performed throughout the United Kingdom, generally during the Christmas and New Year season... Modern pantomime includes songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing, employs gender-crossing actors and combines topical humour with a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or folk tale. It is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers." - Wikipedia
Pantomime isn’t just a fun tradition, it can also be a lifeline for theatres. Many commercial and subsidised theatres rely heavily on strong ticket sales for the panto to keep them going throughout the year. A good panto can help keep the doors open. And what comprises a good panto? I’m glad you asked. Here, as far as I can tell, are the Ten Commandments of panto, as defined by someone who has seen exactly one but has years of experience in making things up and advanced Googling skills:

1. Thou shalt base thy panto on a traditional story:

There’s a very small canon of stories that make up the accepted pantomime repertoire, chief among which are: Dick Whittington and his Cat, Puss in Boots, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Aladdin, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. (Mother Goose, Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio and a few other stragglers crop up occasionally but it’s very much a closed shop.)

kayla-meikle-cow-and-the-young-ensemble-in-jack-and-the-beanstalk-lyric-hammersmith. Photo by Tristram Kenton
I saw “Jack and the Beanstalk” at the Lyric Hammersmith (running until January 6th so it’s not too late, Londoners!).

While the bare bones of the story were very familiar - cow sold for magic beans, giant, beanstalk, golden goose etc. - there were obviously a lot of liberties taken. It seems that most of the time panto scripts are written or re-written yearly to keep them current and hyper-local, which brings us to the second commandment:

2. Thou shalt pepper thy panto with local and topical references:

My “Jack and the Beanstalk” was naturally set in London, where Jack and her (Wait... her? More on that later) mother are forced to sell the family cow because their rent is spiralling out of control. It doesn’t take a PhD in sociology to see the topicality in that little detail. The script was also littered with references to Hammersmith, and gentrification, and to the general lack of vegetables in the modern diet, among other things.

And why is the rent so high? Because they live in Hammersmith! Also, their landlord is a textbook villain, the next Law of Panto.

3.Thou shalt have an over-the-top villain:

Panto baddies are really really bad, requiring the audience to hiss and boo loudly at them. The Lyric’s baddie this year was Squire Fleshcreep (truly excellent name) played with occasional corpsing* by a woman, Vikki Stone. The real estate mogul Fleshcreep bore a none-too-subtle resemblance to a certain US politician, especially with her moulded orange bouffant wig.

(*Corpsing is a theatre term to describe the phenomenon of an actor being seized by a fit of the giggles while performing. Often this occurs as a result of deliberate sabotage by one’s fellow actors, though in this case I think Ms. Stone basically cracked herself up, so ridiculous was the character. In fairness, a panto is probably the one place where you could corpse in every performance and it would only add to the show.)

'Jack and the Beanstalk' Pantomime performed at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, London, UK
Vikki Stone as Squire Fleshcreep. Love the hair. Love the moustache. Just love. The fact that the bad guy was played by a woman brings us to the next commandment:

4. Thou shalt employ gender-bending casting:

Traditionally there’s a lot of cross-gender casting in panto. The hero boy is usually played by a woman (in the style of “Peter Pan”) but the Lyric this year pushed things further. I’ve already mentioned the baddie was played by a woman, but in this production the hero Jack was not just played by a woman (Faith Omole) but was written as female. And Jill, Jack’s love interest, was male. And of course there was the Dame, the next piece of the puzzle.

5. Thou shalt have a Dame:

Every self-respecting panto needs a Dame - a role for an older woman who’s usually the mother of the hero. And almost always, the Dame is played by a man in drag. (Think Lady Bracknell on steroids in a much sillier costume.) It’s a long and proud tradition.

Besides taking a role in the narrative the Dame for “Jack and Beanstalk” also did a bit of stand up comedy, sang and danced several musical numbers, tossed candies into the audience, and read out birthday wishes and random greetings to people in the audience (a bit like having your name on the scoreboard at a hockey game). In case you haven’t twigged to it yet, the fourth wall is utterly non-existent in panto.

Kraig Thornber (Dame) in Jack and the Beanstalk Lyric Hammersmith
Kraig Thornber as Dame Lotte, who had more costume changes than Madonna. The Dame is also often takes the lead in another critical element.

6. Thou shalt subject thy patrons to Audience Participation:

The introvert’s nightmare. Audience participation in a panto takes several distinct forms:
  • 6.1: Shouting out, including two important stock phrases:
    • 6.1a: A character will be accused of something and cry out “Oh no I didn’t!” (Or, alternately in the third person: “Oh no he/she didn’t”) and the audience responds with “Oh yes you did!” And the character says “Oh no I didn’t!” And the audience comes back with… well, you get the idea.
    • 6.1b: The second shout-out is wrapped up another essential element, the Ghost Chase (6.1b.i), wherein characters are stalked by a ghost/villain/random miscreant who lurks out of sight while the the audience shout themselves hoarse screaming, “He’s behind you!” only for the lurker to disappear just before the character turns around. Naturally, this sequence gets repeated many times. “He’s behind you!” is part of the cultural fabric of the country, like “Only Fools and Horses” or complaining about the trains. 
    • (Note that both 6.1a AND 6.1b must be present. In fact, I’d say if you didn’t get both you’d be well within your rights to demand a refund for your ticket and possibly write a sternly worded letter to The Times rebuking the theatre management, starting with the phrase, “Am I alone in thinking…?”.)
  •  6b: Singing: Besides songs performed by the cast, there is traditionally a front-cloth sing-along wherein the audience is divided into two halves and exhorted to out-sing the opposing side. This year at the Lyric we did “Ain’t no mountain high enough".
  • 6c: Being dragged up on stage: The ultimate in audience participation is being plucked out of your seat to become part of the action. Again, the Dame is often involved in this, singling out a make audience member for special attention and referring back to him throughout the evening, culminating in having him hauled up on stage, dressed in a silly costume, and made to perform some sort of action. (There’s a good Guardian piece here from the point of view of the hapless victim.) At the Lyric, in addition the to adult victim, they also brought a little girl up on stage who got to chop down the beanstalk!
Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 1.15.22 pm
The Guardian columnist Tim Dowling in his appearance in Cinderella at the Hackney Empire. He brought it on himself, poor sod. At least he didn’t have to do a musical number, though there were plenty because you can’t have a panto without music, therefore:

7. Thou shalt have lots of music:

I’ve already mentioned the sing-a-long, but we got a lot more music in “Jack and the Beanstalk”. And in true panto fashion, a lot of it was filched from current popular music charts with adapted lyrics, many of which featured another panto staple.

8. Thou shall not shy from the use of awful puns and innuendo:

A panto is family entertainment, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a little something for the grown-ups. This usually takes the form of not-so-subtle double entendre. The Dame is frequently implicated in this, often along with whatever hapless victim has been plucked out of the audience. And puns. Oh lord, the puns. It’s probably best not to mention them, which in “Jack” were largely vegetable-themed. Lettuce just skip it. (*rimshot*)

And of course along with the puns comes the physical equivalent - slapstick.

9. Thou shalt make a mess:

This tradition has its roots in Commedia dell'arte. (Actually, pantomime in general grew out of Commedia, so there’s your dose of real culture for this blog post.) These days pantos are liberally sprinkled with physical gags, but one form in particular is a panto staple and is often simply known as The Messy Scene. Often involving baking, it’s an excuse to make a big mess and (hopefully) pour goo all over your fellow actors. (I didn’t specifically notice this on the night I saw my panto, but I’m guessing the Messy Scene is often followed closely by what we in the industry like to call The Interval.)

The Milking Scene from “Jack and the Beanstalk” - a very credible variation in the form. Clearly they’ve done this before, because they spread a tarp on the stage and put on protective clothing in preparation.

10. Thou shalt cast minor celebrities:

You know how half-remembered celebrities in America used to wash up on the Love Boat or Fantasy Island? In England they do panto. Sometimes a theatre will snag a genuinely leading light (Sir Ian McKellan played the Dame the Widow Twankey in the Old Vic’s a production of “Aladdin" in 2004) but too often you get someone from "EastEnders". It’s like the theatrical equivalent of “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!

And there you have it - the Ten Commandments of Panto. A truly great fun, silly, frantic, loud, crazy traditional holiday treat. I had a fantastic time at “Jack and the Beanstalk” and will definitely be going back next year for whatever is on the cards. Making certain, of course, to get tickets safely tucked in the back of the stalls, or possibly the 7th balcony, well out of the audience participation zone.