Grub!: Home for the Holidays Edition

Monday, December 31, 2012

There are some foods you need to grow up with in order to really love them.  I think sardines fall into this category.  And Marmite, which we've talked about before.  Today, in our special Home For The Holidays edition of Grub! we're going to dive into another of those treats.  It's one that regularly causes the uninitiated to wrinkle their noses in disgust, which is just fine with me since it leaves more for those of us who know and love the delicacy.  Today's topic: steak and kidney pudding!

My four UK readers can skip this next bit, but those of you tuning in from North America might need a bit of a primer on pudding in its English sense.  If you grew up in North America and didn't happen to have a whole side of your family that brought over many English foods and traditions when they hopped on the boat in 1950, then in your limited experience probably pudding refers only to a very specific sort of chilled milky gelatin-based sweet dessert flogged by Bill Cosby and popular in lunch boxes.  Thus you might be slightly horrified at the thought of a bowl of chocolate pudding with chunks of beef and kidney floating in it. Fear not!  In England the term pudding encompasses soooo much more than just the gloopy dessert.

(Jell-O related aside: In England, the neon-coloured clear wobbly stuff that we'd call Jell-O is generically called "jelly".  And what do they call jelly?  Weirdly, there is no specific word for the seedless fruity breakfast spread over here.  Jelly just gets lumped in heartlessly under the "jam" label, which seems sad.)

But back to pudding.  In one sense, "pudding" refers to the entire panoply of sweet stuff you might have at the end of a meal.  In fact, the course called dessert is often called pudding here, which I find just charming.  As in, "What's for pudding, mum?" (Another aside: It's definitely Mum with a U in England, not Mom with an O.  And you can really hear the difference.)  Sadly, the term pudding is slowly being supplanted by dessert, which I also find kind of sad.  It's like hearing "fries" instead of "chips" or "cookies" instead of "biscuits" and feels like the last small tumble in the fall of the Empire.

More specifically, "pudding" can refer to a whole family of cakey sort of things that are cooked by steam, and can include both sweet and savoury options.  Christmas pudding is probably the best known pudding out there, but other favourites include the most excellent Sticky Toffee Pudding, and the giggle-inducing Spotted Dick.  On the savoury side the most famous is probably Yorkshire pudding, though it's not steamed but rather baked, so don't ask me why it's called pudding. Just accept that there's room for everybody under the pudding umbrella and be thankful if you've got a nice Yorkshire pudding on your plate, especially if there are lashing of gravy to go with it.

Steak and kidney is a favourite flavour combination that appears most frequently in pies. (Though even in England it's more likely you'll find steak and ale pie than steak and kidney.) In the pudding variety, the yummy filling of steak, kidney, onion, gravy and mushrooms is prepared in a pudding basin that's lined not with a standard pie-like pasty but a suet crust. Suet is the particular sort of fat that surrounds the kidneys and loin of cows, lamb and pigs and has a very high melting point, making it excellent for deep frying and pastry work. (It is also astonishingly high in saturated fat - 52% - so please don't plan on having it every day.)  A suet crust consists of flour, ground suet, baking powder, a bit of salt and water, making a sticky dough that is used to line a pudding basin.  The crust is then filled, covered in boiling water to seal the meat (and, critically, produce the gravy) topped with a lid of more suet crust and sealed up.

A selection of pudding basins in various sizes.  A pudding basin is a heavy, deep ceramic bowl with a distinctive lipped edge at the top.  The lip is there because a pudding gets covered with a pudding cloth during cooking (see upper left corner of the photo) and the pudding cloth is tied onto the basin with a string that tucks nicely under the lippy edge of the basin, so it doesn't slide off the top.

Steak and Kidney - or "cake and sidney", as it was often known in my house, in a sort of warped semi-Cockney rhyming slang / malapropism-ish way - was a favourite Sunday supper that used to appear fairly regularly through the winter, and especially on Christmas Eve.  The Christmas Eve cake-and-sidney has the excellent advantage of producing, with any luck, enough leftovers that it can be sliced and pan-fried for a breakfast on Christmas morning. (At this point I realise that I'll have lost most of you who barely managed to hang on through the supper concept and again I say, "Go ahead and run, coward!  You don't know what you're missing!")

The Christmas Eve steak and kidney puddings of my childhood were always made by my grandmother in Moose Jaw. (To all UK Readers:  Yes, Moose Jaw.  And don't you get goofy about Saskatchewan place names because anyone who comes from a country with places called Boggy Bottom and Spitalin the Street frankly does not have a leg to stand on when it comes to mocking other people's place names.)

Mac the Moose
Mac the Moose of Moose Jaw.  Taken in a Tim Hortons parking lot in Moose Jaw, on a chilly December morning when I was getting ready to drive about two hours across the frozen prairie and turn exactly once (left) to get to my destination.  How Canadian Prairies is that?

Now that Grammy's gone the Pudding Master mantle has been taken up by my aunt Linda, who produces both the steak and kidney and Christmas puddings, based on Grammy's recipes from about 1920.  I've been thinking for a while that I need to blog about steak and kidney pudding, and I'd intended to attempt one in London at some point.  However, when I realised I could actually suck Lin into helping me, making use not only of her extensive pudding acumen but also her ample wardrobe of pudding basins, it seemed eminently sensible to give it a go while I was home.  So it was that I pitched up at Linda's house on the Sunday morning before Christmas with a pound of stewing beef in my bag for a lesson in the noble art of the steak and kidney pudding.

Here's the Pudding Coach, set for the lesson.

It turns out steak and kidney pudding is really easy to make.  The suet crust pastry is especially forgiving.  You cut the suet (and optional butter for added lightness) into the flour and baking powder just like you were making pie crust, add the water, and mix it into a sticky dough.  But there's less worry about overworking the dough than with pie crust, and it ends up more elastic - sort of half way between biscuit dough and bread dough.  The filling requires nothing more than chopping the meat, onions and mushrooms into smallish chunks and dredging it all in a bit of seasoned flour before dumping into the lined pudding basin and topping.

My steak and kidney pudding, ready for its lid.

The cooking of a pudding is an exceedingly cozy and relaxing event requiring one to hang about the house all day making sure that the pudding, which should be tucked into a big pot of simmering water on the back of the stove, is continually topped up with more boiling water.  This takes about five hours, thus making the tending of a steamed pudding a perfect activity for a Sunday afternoon.  It also leaves ample time to blog about the whole business while still making sure the the pudding doesn't boil dry.

I'm happy to report that my pudding turned out fine.  It was favourably reviewed both by a veteran steak and kidney pudding-eater and the S&K newbie, which just proves that even if you didn't grow up with the delicacy you can still come to appreciate it later in life if you are open and adventurous.

My finished pudding

The slightly out of focus pudding eaters

And best of all, this particular pudding turned out to be large enough to provide the aforementioned treat.  The next morning, it was carefully sliced and fried up in a particularly aged pan and served up for a stick-to-your ribs breakfast like no other.

Yes, I know this looks kind of like a pan full of dog food.  You'll just have to trust me.

And there you have it - an Old Country food served up in the New Country.  It was followed by a quiet and exceptionally frozen Christmas (-29 degrees, not including the wind chill), which was followed by an exceptionally Hellish trip home that went so badly it really deserves its own blog post, if I can muster the fortitude to relive it all.  For now, suffice it to say that I arrived back a mere 26 hours late after two cancelled flights and a pitstop in Houston, Texas.  'Nuf said.

P.S.  And because there's really nowhere else to put them, here are a few gratuitous photos of the prairie winter:

Look at the colour of that sky!  


Words from home

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The glossary here at Go Stay Work Play Live now boasts more than a hundred definitions for uniquely Brit-speak words and phrases, and my list of words to add (when the mood strikes) is at least that long again.  However, I'm home in Canada for the holidays now so my sister suggested I turn the tables and give my UK readers (all four of you) a few Canadian words to ponder. And you Canadian readers might be surprised to realise that some of the words, phrases and concepts we take for granted are completely foreign to, err... foreigners.

Saskatchewan =  Obviously this isn't an unknown word, but it's one that most non-Canadians find almost impossible to deal with. It's properly pronounced, by native speakers, as Sus-KA-chu-wn. When they find out I'm Canadian, well-meaning people in the UK will often ask me what part of Canada I'm from and I quickly discovered that replying, "Saskatchewan" tends to send people into a bit of a tailspin.  Now I usually say "the flat bit in the middle" and, if pressed, elaborate with "it's the part that most people fly over between Toronto and Vancouver".

Map of Saskatchewan, exceedingly easy to draw in elementary school.  I once even made a cake in the shape of Saskatchewan for a baking contest.  It had the main rivers on it and it had the names of the large cities spelled out in Alpha-Bits.

elementary school = The first eight years of formal education.  After pre-school and kindergarten, kids go to elementary school.  Called primary school in other places, elementary school in Saskatchewan goes from Grade One to Grade Eight.

Grade One, Grade Two, Grade Three, etc... =  The terms for the different levels of elementary school.  In the UK this tends to be referred to as Year One, Year Two or, for our American cousins, First Grade, Second Grade and so on.

bunnyhug = hoodie. A hooded sweatshirt, sometimes with a zip up the front, but more properly a pullover with one big double-ended pocket on the front.  Only ever heard in Saskatchewan, bunnyhug and is perhaps the best shibboleth for discovering is someone really is from that province.  (Also: shibboleth! Love that word!). I have no idea of the derivation of this term, but I know that when I went away to school in Montreal I was roundly mocked by my classmates for the term.

Roughrider hoodie
A Saskatchewan Roughriders bunnyhug.

toque = pronounced TOOK to rhyme with duke or kook or suq.  A warm knitted hat worn in winter.  Coming from the coldest English-speaking country in the world, I think we Canadians have a right to decide the word for this particular article of clothing so listen up people: it's not a wooly cap, or a stocking cap, or a bobble hat or a watch cap or a knitted hat or any of those other lame attempts to put a name to what is clearly, obviously, simply, a toque.

Wall O' Toques
Wall O' Toques in the Mountain Equipment Co-Op, Calgary

Vi-Co = pronounced VIE-co, it's a brand name for chocolate milk that was produced in Saskatchewan from the mid fifties until the company was bought out in 1995.  The term vi-co was once used generically to mean any kind of chocolate milk.  The term is still occasionally found on truck stop menus in small towns.

23 hundred, 45 hundred etc... = It baffles me that I can say "seventeen hundred" to a Brit and they won't batt an eye.  But try "twenty-three hundred" or "forty-five hundred" and it's like you're speaking Greek.  Can anyone explain that to me?  In Canada, all the hundreds are, quite sensibly, up for grabs.

"Givin' er" = a phrase used to indicate great effort expended, or great speed achieved.  As in, "Me and Doug helped push this lady's car out of the parkade this morning and jeez we were just givin' er!" OR: "He was just givin' er comin' around that turn."

parkade = multi-storey carpark.  Distinct from a parking lot, which of course is only on one level.

butter tart = An individually sized sweet tart made with short crust pastry and filled with a cooked mixture of butter, sugar, vanilla, and egg.  The filling is similar to an American pecan pie, but without the pecans.  The addition of raisins is a common and commendable practice. Butter tarts are sweet and syrupy and uniquely Canadian and a good accompaniment to a double double. And don't forget your serviette.

Butter Tarts
Home made butter tarts

double double = a cup of coffee with two spoons of sugar and two dollops of cream.  Most associated with Tim Hortons doughnut shops, but now passed into common usage.  Note the cream here will likely be half-and-half or creamilk, a 10-15% fat, mixture of milk and cream which, despite the country's general excellence in all things cream-related, is unaccountably unavailable in the UK.

serviette = a paper napkin

Krazy Karpet = a four to six foot long by two foot wide roll of heavy flexible plastic sheet with handholds cut into one end used for sliding down a snow-covered hill at high speed.  The Krazy Karpet was a staple item in the winter toy repetoire of my childhood that sadly seems to be gone. Note that the practice of sliding down a snowy hill is called tobogganing - not sledding - regardless of whether you do it on a toboggan or a sled or a Krazy Karpet or a chunk of cardboard.

How fun is that?

Goalie Target
goalie = goalkeeper. Usually a hockey goalkeeper.  And don't even start with me about how "hockey" is that thing you play on a field with those weird, too-short, curved sticks.  That is FIELD hockey. (Shut up Jeremy.)

deke = verb. A hockey term that started as an abbreviation of "decoy".  As in "And here comes Lafleur on the breakaway!  He dekes left and puts one through the five hole!".  Can also be used in non-hockey related conversation in phrases like, "That guy totally deked me out to get to the shorter check-out line."

five hole = the area between the goalie's legs.  Based on the numbering of the holes in a typical practice target.  The corners are numbered one through four, leaving five for the tricky shot between the legs.

Old Dutch Chips = Old Dutch Foods Ltd is an American snack food company that opened a potato chip plant in Winnipeg in 1954.  Old Dutch chips are a prairie favourite, and come in a few standard flavours that would be alien to the UK crisp-eater: sour cream and onion, dill pickle and ketchup!  They've also got a unique treat called Popcorn Twists that taste like lightly salted styrofoam packing peanuts but melt on your tongue.

Old Dutch Chips
Ketchup Chips! Popcorn Twists! Dill Pickle Chips!

Eavestrough = those long, narrow troughs that hang on the edge of the eaves of a house to catch rainwater from the roof and direct it through downspouts and away from the foundation of the house.  Known elsewhere as gutters, but don't I think anyone could dispute that eavestrough is clearly the most appropriate term.

Slough = pronounced "sloo".  A prairie term for a small pond or body of water formed in a depression in the land.

A prairie slough, complete with duckings!

Thongs = flip flops.  Where I grew up we called those cheapie slip-on summer shoes thongs, which has nothing to do with underwear, thank you very much.

Warning: do NOT google "thongs" and expect to get 
anything related to footwear...

Pop = sweet carbonated beverage.  Called soda in America and fizzy drink in the UK.  Pop is a good thing to have with the iconic Canadian convenience food: Kraft Dinner.

KraftDinnerKraft Dinner, or KD for short = marketed as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in the US and Easy Mac in Australia, and referred to generically as "macaroni cheese" (note the absent "and") in the UK.  Kraft Dinner is as deeply ingrained in the Canadian psyche as hockey and jumper cables. Though the taste is in no way similar, I'd say it occupies the same part in the hearts and minds of Canadians that Heinz baked beans do in Brits. Consisting of a box of dry macaroni and an envelope of powdered cheese-like substance, KD is apparently the most popular grocery item in Canada.  In fact, the term "kraft dinner" is used to refer to any boxed mac 'n' cheese product.  It's a hands-down favourite with kids, a guilty pleasure for adults, and is often the first thing that young people learn to cook/assemble after leaving home.

Powdery cheeselike substance, pre-mixing.
All that's required is a pot of salted boiling water.  Once the macaroni is cooked, the KD chef is instructed to add butter or margarine and milk, along with the nuclear-coloured cheese powder.  The directions on the box specify exact amounts of butter and milk, but most people use their inborn Canadian KD-sense to create their own perfect version, which will be somewhere on a continuum between soupy and stodgy, according to taste and upbringing.

Kraft Dinner is cheap and filling and comforting and infinitely adaptable. I like to add frozen peas in the last few minutes of cooking and then stir in canned tuna and extra cheese.  Many people add ketchup (yuck), or sliced wieners.  It's also quite nice with a dollop of condensed tomato soup for a creamy tomatoey bowl of yumminess.

You know, if there's room in my suitcase, I just might have to take a few boxes of Kraft Dinner back to London with me.  It never hurts to have a taste of home to fall back on when needed.

The lovely and talented CB, playing the part of typical Canadian Kid With Bowl of KD

Ok that was kind of fun.  I might have to make this reverse-glossary-blog-post-thing a yearly tradition.  There's so much material to cover.  Like rice krispie cake, and Canadian Tire money, and chinooks and teen burgers and bumper-dragging and... well you'll have to tune in next year to find out.

Oh, and Merry Christmas!

Accent on... err... accents

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I mentioned in my last post about the circuitous route I had getting back to Canada for Christmas this year. I started on a flight from Heathrow to Newark, New Jersey which was naturally populated mostly by Brits and Americans.  The hop from New Jersey to Denver was, unsurprisingly, full of Americans.  But when I got to the departure lounge in Denver for a flight from Denver to Saskatoon I could tell, right away, that this was a flight to Canada. There must be a sort of patriotic version of gay-dar that kicks in with ex-pats when they sense they are among their own kind. It might be a little bit about dress and temperament. But mostly, it's about the accent.  I listened in on conversations in that departure lounge and smiled to myself and thought, "These are my people!"

For most of my life I've been unable to hear my own accent and I think that's probably not unusual for people who grow up speaking English in North America.  This means that, despite the fact that "My Fair Lady" is one of my favourite shows ever, I didn't appreciate until I got to London exactly how important and defining an accent is over there.  The pervasiveness of the class system in England is a topic far beyond my ability to either explain or even comprehend so don't expect a scholarly essay on that topic here any time soon.  However, despite the fact that people would probably agree class plays a smaller role than it once did, it is still inescapable.  And one of the most blatant markers of class is accent.

Here's a little anecdote about how inescapably perceptions of class and power are tied to accent.  I have a colleague who told me a story about when he was called for jury duty.  His accent is what is often referred to as "Received Pronunciation" or sometimes "BBC English": a standard "posh" accent.  As Wikipedia says, "Although there is nothing intrinsic about RP that marks it as superior to any other variety, sociolinguistic factors have given Received Pronunciation particular prestige in parts of Britain.  It has thus been the accent of those with power, money and influence since the early to mid 20th century...". So my friend sat through the trial alongside his fellow jurors and eventually found himself in the jury room to deliberate the case.  As instructed by the judge, the first thing the group did was to decide on a foreman.  Whether they'd already had the chance to chat with each other, or whether they did introductions in the jury room is not clear.  What is clear is that my friend was the only one in the room with a posh accent.  What's also clear is that with no previous discussion or vote, the rest of the members of the jury turned to him and said, "So you'll be the foreman, then."  His accent clearly marked him as the leader, and everyone in the room simply acknowledged it and got down to business.

(This is the kind of thing that makes me realises I'll never truly understand the culture simply because I didn't grow up in it.  It's like trying to learn Japanese and being unable to master it completely without an inborn understanding of your status relative to everyone else in the room, which affects salutations and honorifics and verb forms, the subtleties of which make the choice between vous and tu akin to  Leonardo choosing between a 6" wide wallpaper brush and a medium pile paint roller when approaching the Mona Lisa.)

Here's another story about Received Pronunciation which may be apocryphal, but I never claimed to be an authority on the subject, and three-quarters of this blog is just crap I pull out of thin air anyways.  (Anyways!  Very Canadian that: anywayS instead of anyway.) Anywaaaaays - its quite common in the UK for front line call centre staff to have a Geordie accent.

Astute GSWPL readers will remember Geordie Mouse from a previous Words post, but I couldn't resist bringing him back.

Apparently there is something friendly and comforting about having your concerns listened to by someone with a Geordie accent.  However, if the conversation heats up and the call has to be transferred up the ladder to an authority figure, you can bet that someone will have an RP accent.  When Brits need to exhibit power and control, nothing beats Received Pronunciation.

But back to me.  I've been living away from Canada for three years now and it's taken that long for my ears to start to hear what for others my be blatant.  I think this is partly because Canada has relatively little variation in regional accents.  Apart from the obvious - the Newfie/Martiime accent (which owes a lot to Ireland) and the Quebec accent (which isn't really fair since French speaking Quebecers are naturally going to sound different when working in a second language) - Canadian English is a pretty homogenous thing.  I'm leaning heavily on Wikipedia here, but the good people there only list nine different varieties of Canadian English, which is frankly about five more than I would have guessed.  Contrast that with the UK, which has thirty three and that's not including Northern Ireland or the Republic or the Channel Islands.  Perhaps it's no wonder the English are so sensitive to accents - they are positively bathed in them from birth.

Then again, not everyone over here is a natural born Henry Higgins.  Some time ago I was standing on the sidewalk waiting for an errant truck to arrive to load something in or out of somewhere.  As I was peering up and down the street trying to locate my truck a woman walking on the other side called out to me, asking if I knew where the train station was.  I replied in my standard West/Central Canadian accent and when I finished she looked at me and asked, "Are you Welsh?".  Ummm... yeah sure... and the Queen is from Yellowknife.

Eve Myles and "Torchwood" taught me what a Welsh accent sounds like. Plus the show rocks.

So it's been three years now, and I'm finally starting to be able to hear whispers of what shouts at everyone else.  And I've realised that I dial my own accent up or down according to the circumstance (except when I've had a few pints, when the Canadian vowels apparently get a bit thick).  I think this flexibility comes from travelling so much and spending so much time interacting with people for whom English is a second (or third, or ninth) language. It feels natural to knock the corners off a bit and contract the vocabulary to give non English natives a fighting chance.  Maybe that's stuck with me now that I'm settled abroad; it's not that I expect people won't be able to understand me in an English speaking country, it's just kind of an instinct.  So when I'm in England, I keep my accent down to a dull roar.  Still, no one will ever mistake me for a local and I can never envision a time when I'd be able to say "I could have DAWNCED all night" without feeling like a complete fraud.  My foreign-ness is, however, still obvious enough that canny Brits I've just met will say something like, "I can't place your accent..." when really they mean, "You sound American, or maybe Canadian, but I can't quite tell the difference, and I know it might be insulting to assume you're American if it turns out you're Canadian, so help me out here."

For me, the difference between a Canadian and an American accent is usually obvious, and my spidey senses tingle when I hear the loud nasal tone of a gang of American tourists on the tube reading out the station names on the map.  Then again, even that instinct sometimes fails me.  I had a colleague on the Ceremonies who I was convinced was American.  He was just a bit too loud and annoying to be Canadian.  Imagine my chagrin when I found out he was a countryman.  It was like he was letting down the side.  I realise this makes it sound like I think all Americans are loud, nasal and annoying which is, of course, not at all true.  Many individual Americans I know are lovely people.  And as a nation they actually managed to elect and then re-elect Barack Obama so maybe I should lay off them a bit.  (Still, they do have a lot to answer for.  Like, for instance, aerosol cheese.)

But back to me again.  For the record, here are a few of the things I can now hear in a heavy Western Canadian accent.  We tend to say "tuh" instead of "to" and "in-tuh" instead of "into", "fer" instead of "for" and "yer" instead of "your".  And final "ty"s in words are often turned into "dy"s or lost completely.  As in, "I'm goin' tuh the store fer beer. I'll be gone fer about twenny minutes. Do ya need anything fer yer pardee at the Cummunidy Cenner?"  (This is obviously a broad interpretation, but I think it's pretty much right.  Or should I say "priddy" much?)

We've got a charming insistence on pronouncing every syllable in every word, a habit that's completely alien in places where "Leicester" is pronounced "Lester" and "Cholmondeley" is unaccountably truncated to "Chumley".  We also give the humble "R" its due and actually pronounce it, whereas Brits generally treat an R in the middle of a word as a kind of silent placeholder.  There's also... I don't know... a quality of earnest perkiness?  It's hard to quantify, but I know that whenever someone over there imitates my accent their voice goes up and it's a bit like they're pretending to be a cartoon character.  Sort of like this guy:

He's just givin' 'er.

Listening for accents has become a bit of a sport for me, and everyone in the country is my coach.  I'm forever nudging a friend or co-worker and whispering, "Is that Scouse or Brummie?  Or "Oh, I know that one... VERY Northern Ireland!"  I'm not good at imitating other accents myself, but my ears are definitely learning to hear not only the accents of others, but my own too.

But I'm telling you, I do NOT say aboot.

Bonus New Zealand accent joke: Recent studies indicate that men in New Zealand think about six every sivin minutes. (Hearing the difference between an Aussie and a Kiwi accent is a bit like hearing the difference between Americans and Canadians.  Subtle, and best left to natives.  Though the Kiwis really do have some odd vowel sounds.  For instance, they write with pins and surf the antuh-nit.)

Additional bonus generic Canadian joke that doesn't have anything to do with accents but is still funny: How do you get a group of Canadian out of a swimming pool in an emergency? You say: "Please get out of the swimming pool."

The Games People Play: Rambling

Monday, December 10, 2012

First of all, apologies for missing my self-imposed deadline to have a fresh blog posted every Sunday morning.  I have no excuse, except perhaps for the fact that I had a bit of getting ready to do for my trip home to Canada for Christmas.  In truth, that didn't really take a whole lot of time, but getting here was time-consuming and distracting.  For instance, I had to take THREE different flights (London to Newark, Newark to Denver and Denver to Saskatoon), making for the longest Thursday ever.  I can't believe that was the best combination of flight times and price.

On the plus side: Because I was forced to be conscious for about 24 hours straight, I had the time to stare at the crossword until I actually finished it, despite the fact that it fought back every step of the way.  Also, I ALMOST finished the Telegraph Toughie crossword which I have never even come close to cracking before.  And I don't even feel badly about missing those last two clues because I later found out that one of the answers was SPILIKINS which... what the Hell?  Is that even English?  

Then again, on the minus side: On the Newark to Denver leg of the trip I ended up sitting in between a man and a woman who were both of the species Mobilis Textus Addicticus, and were texting the whole time we were sitting on the plane waiting to push off.  When the announcement came that it was time to turn off all phones, I suppose I misheard because they actually must have said "All phones except for you people in Row 26, who can keep texting for as long as you want because you are SPECIAL."  Honestly, we were actually taxiing down the runway and these people were still at it.  At one point I almost leaned over to Mr. 26D and said, "Look buddy, unless you are actually talking someone through an emergency appendectomy via text message, TURN OFF THE FREAKIN' PHONE."  Why are people so stupid?

But none of that has anything to do with the topic of today's blog which is another in our series about recreational past times. Today, we're walking.  However, I'm not talking about normal, boring, every day walking - the kind of self-propelled movement of oneself to the pub or bus stop or corner shop.  What I'm talking about is sometimes referred to here as "rambling" and is about striking out across the countryside in a pair of stout boots to tromp through muddy fields and up hills and past sheep.  (We'd generally call this hiking in North America.)  After my pleasant walk along the Devon coastline with Anne a few weeks ago, I decided it might be enjoyable to try some longer walks on my own, especially since I've got the time for this sort of thing right now.  Luckily, Google quickly directed me to the website of the Saturday Walkers Club which was so perfectly suited to my needs it's a bit astonishing. Their website boasts a collection of more than 160 different walks in the south of England, each of which is easily accesible from London by public transport, meticulously documented with directions and maps, and crafted to take one past a convivial rural pub at about lunch time and somewhere for a cup of tea at the end.  All for free.

Rambling is apparently the most popular outdoor recreational activity in England, and I can understand why.  The country is perfectly suited to it.  First of all, the place is TINY.  If I tried to go for a nice ten mile walk here in Saskatchewan I might manage to make it from one farmer's property to the next and could hope to see, er, some wheat, and perhaps some more wheat.  In England ten miles takes you through dozens of small fields, up and down hills, through woods, alongside rivers, into and out of three or four tiny villages, past a couple of medieval-era churches, perhaps near a castle or a country estate and to so many ridiculously picturesque viewpoints it's, well, ridiculous.

See what I mean?  This is the ornamental folly on Temple Island, at Henley-on-Thames, which astute fans of the Olympic Opening Ceremony may remember from the show's opening sequence.  Nice bird too.

The other important feature that England boasts which is absolutely crucial to the art of rambling is its huge network of public footpaths.  Public Rights Of Way, as they are technically known, are legally protected pathways that the public have the right to use.  Most cut through private lands but are available to anyone travelling on foot; many have been in use for hundreds of years and are jealously protected by walkers and walking clubs.  I think this is the result of the fact that the whole island has been so thoroughly tramped, civilised and mapped for, well, millennia.

This is a photo I took of a map of a corner of countryside near Hever Castle in Kent.  Everything lined in yellow is a public footpath.  As you can see there are rather a lot of paths shown, and this is a vanishingly tiny bit of the country.

My first walk was a fairly challenging 11 mile loop starting and ending at Knockholt station, which is so close to London it's actually accessible with an Oyster card.  I downloaded the walk directions onto my phone (trusting in the claim that a map really was not necessary) packed a dry pair of shoes and socks, some chocolate biscuits, and some fruit into a backpack and headed out to the train station.  Since this was my first walk, I wasn't equipped with anything so sensible as waterproof boots, because I wasn't going to spend money on fancy walking boots when I didn't even know if I'd enjoy this walking business.  I went in an old pair of running shoes.  This proved to be a slight miscalculation on my part because approximately four steps along my first grass path, the toes of my shoes were soaked through.  At this point (300 metres into an 18km walk) I resigned myself to the fact that my feet would be wet for the next 6 hours.  Luckily, despite the fact that my fingers and toes will quickly turn into blocks of ice when I've sitting at home watching tv, if I'm on the move my feet almost always stay toasty.  I've run entire marathons in shoes that were so wet they squelched.

I was a bit nervous about the whole thing, but I needn't have worried.  First of all, you're never far from help in rural Kent - it's not exactly Scott-of-the-Antarctic territory.  And really, the walking club directions really are exemplary.  Here's an excerpt from that first walk, to give you an idea of their meticulous detail:
"In 180 metres at the valley bottom go through a wooden kissing gate as the footpath starts to ascend. After 120 metres go through a metal kissing gate and up into a wood.  In 80 metres at a path T-junction turn half-right up a bridleway. After 45 metres ignore a footpath to the left and continue through what is now a wooded field border." (Knockholt Circular Walk number 7)
It is generally pretty hard to go wrong, and quite fun to come up over a hill and be able to see the next fence, wood or gate, exactly where it's supposed to be.  It's a bit like a scavenger hunt, and is immensely satisfying.  And, on the rare occasions when the directions were not crystal clear, I usually had enough signal on my phone to call up the map on the website to double check, or even use the compass app to confirm my heading.  All in all, the system works really well, especially is you're able to recognise a few key types of landmark such as:

Kissing Gate
A typical kissing gate, a way of keeping a field closed to livestock or motorised vehicles, but open to walkers, without having to rely on someone to close the gate.

A stile, which comes in many forms and is simply a way of helping people climb over a fence.  This one has a little hatch to the right to allow dogs to pass through.

A squeeze gate, another way of keeping livestock corralled while allowing walkers to squeeze through the tapered gap in the middle. This one also shows the helpful yellow flags that indicate public rights of way and the green "walking man" signpost that's a dead giveaway.  Also: sheep!

The walking club directions are all that I need 99% of the time.  Though part of the fun of rambling is lost when you can't bust out a 1:25,000 scale Explorer series Ordnance Survey map.  The OS map is a creation of the Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency of Great Britain.  They produce several scales of map, but the one most useful for walkers and cyclists is the astonishingly detailed 1:25,000 series, which covers the entire island of Great Britain in 403 sheets.

Screen Shot 2012-12-10 at 10.41.46
Here's a look at what the OS map for part of my Knockholt walk looks like.  The green highlighted line is the route of the walk.  These OS maps are really just fantastic - they're so detailed that individual buildings are shown.  And how can you not love a country with places like "Pratt's Bottom" and "Birthday Wood"? 

As Bill Bryson writes in "Notes from a Small Island", on the subject of the wonderfulness of Ordnance Survey maps:
"As a rule, I am not terribly comfortable with any map that doesn't have a You-Are-Here arrow on it somewhere, but the Ordnance Survey maps are in a league of their own. Coming from a country where mapmakers tend to exclude any landscape feature smaller than, say, Pike's Peak, I am constantly impressed by the richness of detail on the OS 1:25,000 series. They include every wrinkle and divot of the landscape, every barn, milestone, wind pump and tumulus. They distinguish between sand pits and gravel pits and between power lines strung from pylons and power lines strung from poles. This one even included the stone seat on which I sat now. It astounds me to be able to look at a map and know to the square metre where my buttocks are deployed." 
Despite the lack of an OS map, I managed to finish that first walk successfully, though I did have to jog the last mile or so in order to get back to the train station before simultaneously losing the daylight and missing the train.

My shoes, after 12 miles of puddles and mud.  The picture doesn't really properly portray the comprehensive muddiness and toe-wrinkling wetness.  I have since invested in a pair of inexpensive but waterproof walking boots which, despite the conventional wisdom that cheap boots are a false economy that will quickly lead to blisters and tears, have performed perfectly and carried me through a lot of November mud.

Since that first walk, I completed a lovely Sunday afternoon ramble at Henley, which included a nice section through the Great Wood and ended at a place called the Chocolate Theatre Café. (It's like they knew I was coming.  Even better, it was just around the corner from the "London Real Ale Harry Potter Marmite and Cheese Double Decker Bus Free Wifi Pub".)  I also did a nice walk from Chorleywood to Chesham, though the day was quite hazy so I was forever reading directions that said something like "Follow the path up the hill with the field on your right, not forgetting to turn around at the top to take in the stunning view of the Chess River Valley" which turned out, in my case, to be rather underwhelming sea of grey.  Though it did make for a nice series of shots of a lonely tree in the middle of a field:

The middle of the series.

Quite often on these walks, I've ended up going through fields that are actually full of livestock - usually sheep, which just run away when you get near them, but sometimes cows or horses.  On one memorable occasion I passed through a field with a group of cows some distance away when one of them spotted me and started the whole lot bellowing while it proceeded, with some haste, to canter towards me in a distinctly menacing fashion.  (And if you think cows can't be menacing I assure you that you are quite wrong.) Luckily, I wasn't far from the gate and managed to escape before the advance Cow Guard arrived and things got ugly.  Not long after I met a woman heading towards the field in the other direction.  I think it's a measure of how assimilated I've become that I didn't say something like, "Christ, be careful in there, those cows are freaking mental!"  Nope.  I said, "The cows in the next field are a bit territorial today" and left it at that.  Well I mean there's no reason to make a fuss is there?

Much friendlier.

I'll certainly be doing more rambling when I get back to England after Christmas.  As much as I love London, it really is nice to get out of the city sometimes and see a bit of countryside. And now that I've actually bought a pair of boots, I'm sure that I'll soon be tucking the cuffs of my trousers into the top of my socks, which seems to be the mandatory uniform of the English Walker.  (It must be a way of allowing them to recognise one another, because from a practical standpoint I can't see why it's preferable to have mud on your socks instead of on your cuffs.)  And once the cuffs are tucked in, it won't be long before I'm snacking on Kendal Mint Cake.  At that point, the disease will progress inevitably to its terminal phase, when I'll certainly be discovered sitting on a rock at the top of a hill in a steady drizzle, with a plastic-clad OS map dangling around my neck, munching on a soggy cress sandwich with a thermos of hot tea at my side and muttering, "Ooooh, lovely" and "Oh, I couldn't possibly be so naughty" when some other anorak-clad nutter offers me a bloody rich tea biscuit.

God, I need a job...

Another of the picturesque shots that come a dime-a-dozen on a typical walk.

P.S.  More pictures from my various walks can be found at Flickr, in the set called "Rambling"

Off the tourist track: Crossbones Graveyard

Sunday, December 2, 2012

We're off the tourist track a lot lately, a phenomenon I attribute to my continuing and persistent unemployed state which means I've got a lot of time, but not a lot of money.  As a result, those quirky, off-beat things that don't require you to pony up £15 and stand in a long queue on a Saturday afternoon, but do require a bit of local knowledge and flexibility of schedule are right up my alley.  Today I finally get to blog about something that's been on my list for ages now, discovered on the sunny Sunday that I rode a Brompton around the City.  It's either quirky, or weird, or spiritual, or stupid, or cool, depending on your mood.

Crossbones graveyard is a mass burial ground on the south side of the Thames, not far from London Bridge.  Back in the day, the area south of the Thames was a bit of a Wild West, if you'll pardon the obviously directionally challenged analogy.  The City of London was (and still is) on the north side of the river, where laws against bull and bear baiting, prostitution, and such perversely debauched practices as theatre were enthusiastically enforced.  On the south side, in an area known as "The Liberty of the Clink", such practices were permitted.  And yes, "the Clink" does refer to a prison. In fact, the prison called The Clink is the one from which we get the euphemism.  It's just down the road from Crossbones and is now a somewhat cheesy tourist attraction (please try to contain your surprise).  Activities in The Liberty of the Clink were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester, who actually licensed prostitutes to work in the area, a bit of such stunning hypocrisy it's hard to credit, but true nonetheless.  The prostitutes became known, therefore, as Winchester Geese.

Photo of the plaque on the gates, taken on that Sunday afternoon bicycle tour.

The burial ground known as Crossbones was the unconsecrated final resting place for many of these women, who, despite the fact that their trade was allowed, could not be buried in hallowed ground.  Along with them are interred a heart-breaking number of children (the two tend to go hand in hand of course), and site later became a more general pauper's grave. The earliest reference to it dates to 1598 (and implied that the site had already been in use for a long time) and the area was closed to burials in 1853 because it was "completely overcharged with dead".  It lay largely unused until Transport for London started planning for the new Jubilee line extension between 1991 and 1998.  Archeologists from the Museum of London conducted excavations in connection with the TFL work and estimates are that greater than 15,000 bodies were buried at the site.  More than one third of these were infants and a further eleven percent were children under the age of one; the adult bodies were mostly women.  And, since even the most flint-hearted bureaucrat would have trouble justifying building a power substation in the middle of a graveyard full of babies, the land is still unused and remains a fenced off vacant lot near the corner of Union Street and Recross Way.

Crossbones poster, on Union Street

And this is where it all starts to get a bit airy fairy.  Since its rediscovery Crossbones has become a local landmark and a sort of non-denominational shrine to what's referred to as "the outcast dead".  Much of this is driven by the work of John Constable, an actor and writer who lives in the area.  Constable has composed an epic poem in the voice of one of the prostitutes, a spirit he calls "The Goose", saying the poem was revealed to him in one night, on the 23rd of November in 1996.  In explaining this event, Constable says the writings "… were revealed by The Goose to John Crow at Crossbones... My shamanic double had somehow raised the Spirit of a medieval Whore, licensed by a Bishop, yet allegedly denied Christian burial…"  The trickster John Crow is Constable's alter-ego, part spirit, part character, part shaman, and all a bit hard to swallow.

(And this is what I mean when I say it gets a bit airy fairy.  It's really hard to know how to approach the whole topic, and I admit I've been having trouble finding a voice for this post that's respectful on one hand, but appropriately sceptical on the other, and still with a good splash of the smart-ass blogger that is, admittedly, my own alter-ego.  Nonetheless, let us plough on.)

Constable now conducts a vigil at the gates of Crossbones on the 23rd of every month (held on that date as a nod to the night in 1996) and that's what I attended last week, along with my friend Emma, who has already appeared in the blog. The Crossbones website has this to say about the vigils:
Vigils have been held on the 23rd of every month since June 2004. They are inclusive, secular events, open 'to all faiths and none'... Please bring a flower, a ribbon, a totem, a memento to tie to the shrine at the gates. FREE - donations welcome.
Naturally Emma and I didn't read the thing soon enough to equip ourselves with ribbons, totems or mementos of any kind, but we went anyways, and when we arrived there was a crowd of about 20 people gathered in the dark outside the steel gates to the site.  The gates themselves have become quite a sight.  After more than a hundred vigil's worth of mementos, they're festooned with layer upon layer of tokens and what-nots.

Here's Emma, examining one of the many ribbons on the gates to Crossbones.  Some of them commemorate the dead of long ago, but many acknowledge current sex workers, and the site has become something of a touchstone for them and those who work with them.

The vigil was as you might expect.  John Constable was there and did most of the talking, telling us about the history of the site and the area in general, which was all interesting.  And you may not be surprised to learn there was a generously large dose of that particular kind of non-denominational modern "I'm-not-religious-but-I-am-spiritual" business that a smart ass blogger might call "malarky" and a more generous soul would see as "ritual".  For instance, the event was started when John dinged together a tiny pair of suspended cymbals at the stroke of seven pm, and then banged away on one of those little spinning hand drums. There were chants that the more experienced people in the crowd recited, along with the inevitable incense and candles and people with guitars who performed songs they'd written.

Crossbones Candles
Not a great photo, but it was dark and I was loathe to bust out the flash

Much of the focus of the ritual is on the concept of "The Goose" which is meant to personify the spirit of the Winchester Geese who are buried at Crossbones, and, by extension, all of "The Outcast Dead".  In this way it's actually a nice sentiment.  And because it was the November vigil, and John Constable's poem was revealed to him on that night in November of 1996, every November vigil has the pleasure of hearing John perform his poem live.  This was quite good, as the poem itself is lyrical and interesting.  I enjoyed it, though I admit my thought process did go a bit like this:
"Hey, this is cool... this guy is obviously a trained actor, and that poem is quite good... interesting language... hmmm it's a bit cold out here... he's still at it... wow, that's a lot of lines to learn... still good though... gosh, still?... really?... starting to phase out here... look at all those ribbons... oh God, does that guy have a guitar?... my goodness, I guess this is what they mean by 'epic'..." and so on.  
And then he stopped, and said something like (I'm not kidding) "And that's just over half of the poem." Here's the first stanza (one of 34,518-ish):
'I was born a Goose of Southwark
by the Grace of Mary Overie
whose Bishop gives me licence
To sin within The Liberty.'
There was also a call for anyone in the crowd to contribute a reading or a song or other remembrance or whatever.  This is when the compulsory guitar people stepped up, and a little girl in the crowd also sang a couple of songs that were, objectively speaking, awful. (But also cute and totally acceptable because she was about 8 years old and she sang two songs, unaccompanied, in front of a crowd of strangers, so good on her.)  Ribbons were made available for anyone who wanted to leave one on the gate, and the ceremony culminated in some more general chanting: "Goose may you never be hungry! Goose may you never be thirsty! Goose may your spirit fly free!"  Finally, a whole bottle of gin was poured out on the ground in a large circle encompassing all the people, guitars and candles. (Gin, of course, was the favoured tipple of London's wretched poor, especially in the 18th century, and hence is powerfully symbolic, of course.)

John Constable, at the gates
John Constable, at the gates

After it was over Emma and I retired to a lovely old wine bar that was about two and a half steps across the road where we tried to process what we'd just seen and then got distracted by the realisation that we were unexpectedly sitting at a table right next to a cousin of Emma's whom she hadn't seen in a while, leading to the cousin and his girlfriend joining us for a few more drinks and some friendly conversation, and leading whatever profound insight Emma and I had been on the verge of articulating to be lost forever in the deep upholstery and raised panelling and red wine.

And that was my evening at Crossbones.  I wish I could be a bit less cynical about the whole thing because they seem like lovely people and the sentiment was certainly genuine.  Luckily, there one thing I can recommend unreservedly: the Friends of Crossbones have an online petition that I'm totally in favour of.  Despite their incense and their chanting (which you may now realise I can't really get behind) the idea that this site should be preserved and remembered in an appropriate and sensitive way is one that I am completely in favour of.  I signed it, and you don't have to be a Londoner, or even live in England to do the same, so here's the link, decide for yourself: Crossbones Petition.
We, the undersigned, call on Transport For London and all other interested parties to support the protection and conservation of the Cross Bones Memorial Gates and to work towards the creation of a Memorial Garden and public park on the historically sensitive site of the Cross Bones Graveyard adjoining Redcross Way and Union Street.
I do honestly think that the Friends of Crossbones are doing an indisputably good thing by making sure the site is not forgotten (again), paved over (again), and turned into a mobile phone shop, a Starbucks, and Tesco Express.  I just wish they could do it in a way that's slightly less flaky.  I mean c'mon... incense?

P.S.  There are a lot of videos on Youtube about Crossbones, I think this one gives the best sense of who John Constable is, and what the place is like, and the ritual and people involved. It's about ten minutes long. (Note: this shows people getting through the gates and onto the site itself, which was not part of the vigil I attended.)

Off the tourist track: The Spirit Collection

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Here's how my mornings often go lately: wake up, turn off alarm, lounge in bed checking email and trying to decide what to do with the day, fix on some interesting or quirky London-y thing, roll out of bed and get on with it.  Don't hate me.  If the number of hours I worked last summer were distributed across a normal 40-hour week I'd still be employed, so you can just shut up. And of course I'm spending good chunks of time trying to find work, but there's only so much of that I can do before I get so discouraged I start considering a change in career.  (Those living statues at Covent Garden seem to do ok, and I've always said I wanted to work in the West End...)

Last week I had a vague notion that I should go check out the Natural History Museum, which is the only one of the Big Three museums located in South Kensington that I haven't ever visited.  (The other two are the Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum of Art and Design, making for a particularly richly-endowed few blocks of London, which is already no slouch in the Interesting Things Per Square Block category.)  So as I lounged in bed I opened up the NHM museum website and had a poke around to make sure that 1) it was open and 2) it was free.  The museum scored on both points, thus warranting further investigation to find out what, if any, guided tours were offered that day.  If you've read any of my previous blog (Go See Run Eat Drink) you know that I'm a huge fan of a good guided tour, especially for large and somewhat daunting sites and most especially if the tour is free. Again, the Natural History Museum scored a hit, offering something called the Spirit Collection Tour (and not just the regular one but the once-a-week extended tour).  I have to admit that I had no notion what a spirit collection might be comprised of, and envisioned shamanistic what-nots mostly consisting of feathers and bones and beads and carved fertility figurines and such.  Not exactly in my line, but I like to fancy myself a bit of a polymath and it never hurts to expand one's knowledge a bit.  The 3:00 pm tour suited me down to the ground, so off I went.  

The collections of the Natural History Museum are based on the purchase, in the mid-eighteenth century, of the miscellany of Sir Hans Sloane (he of Sloane Square, Street, and Gardens; Hans Street, Crescent, Place and Road; the Urania sloanus moth, the plant genus Sloanea and "Sloane Rangers").  Sloane was a physician and keen collector of curiosities and natural specimens.  Later in life he became a sort of meta-collector, acquiring quite a few other people's collections, which meant that at the time of his death he had rather a lot of interesting things in his back cupboard.
"On his death on 11 January 1753 he bequeathed his books, manuscripts, prints, drawings, flora, fauna, medals, coins, seals, cameos and other curiosities to the nation, on condition that parliament should pay to his executors £20,000, which was a good deal less than the value of the collection." (Wikipedia)
Sloane's collection was the start of the British Museum, and the natural history specimens were later separated and became the foundation of the Natural History Museum. (Interesting Aside Number One: Sloane is also responsible for the introduction of drinking chocolate to England and devised the milk-and-chocolate version, as opposed to the water-and-chocolate version popular in Jamaica, where Sloane first encountered it. Frankly, we have a lot to thank him for. Sadly, the café at the Natural History Museum does not take full advantage of this fact.)

The Natural History Museum building, it turns out, is amazingly fantastic.  Built in high Victorian style and opened in 1881, it's sometimes referred to as a cathedral of nature, and I can understand why.  The entrance hall really took my breath away.

It's like Hogwarts, with dinosaurs!

In my opinion this is what all museums should be like.  Yes, we can have modern additions and whizz-bang technology and interactive crap and whatever.  But in the middle, can we please have a bloody big, gorgeous room with proper arches and vaults and columns and mezzanines and something enormous stuffed or mounted right in the middle?  Thank you.

Also eminently acceptable: Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow

Another excellent feature of the architecture of the Natural History Museum.

The Natural History Museum is most famous for its collection of dinosaur skeletons (the one in the main hall is called "Dippy" and is a cast of a diplodocus skeleton that was a gift of Andrew Carnegie and is based on the original skeleton at the Carnegie Museum).  There are also extensive galleries on mammals, including a complete blue whale skeleton, and a whole gallery on geology, fossils and rocks, and stuff on human evolution and, well, lots.  I got there a bit early so I wandered around a bit, ambling in and out of various collections in the luxuriously unhurried manner of one who knows she can return at any time at no cost, which is a truly lovely feeling.  

At 3:00 I presented myself in the Darwin Centre wing of the building for the Spirit Collection Tour (which though free, requires that you reserve a ticket at the reception desk in the Hogwarts room - potential visitors take note).  There were only six of us in the group, and our guide was Alistair, a curator in the Spirit Collection.  And that's when I discovered exactly what a Spirit Collection is, and let me tell you it is WAY cooler than some old rattles and feathers and crap.  The Natural History Museum Spirit Collection consists of more than twenty two million animal specimens floating in glass jars, preserved in alcohol spirits.  It's not a collection about spirits.  It's a collection in spirits.

Not exactly what I was expecting, but much, much better.

Alistair was an excellent guide, and being in a small group meant that we got to go behind the scenes deep into the working part of the museum.  The Natural History Museum is a world class research facility and the spirit collection gets used by visiting scholars from all over the world.  I was surprised to learn that the jars are regularly opened and their contents tipped out to be prodded, dissected and studied, before being plopped back into the jars, topped up with a fresh batch of alcohol, and tucked back onto the shelves.  Monitoring and refreshing the fluid level in the jars is one of Alistair's jobs and is made slightly less onerous by the practice of keeping the storage areas a chilly 16 degrees (the alcohol evaporates more quickly in high temperatures).  They also seal the tops with a layer of vaseline, which seemed a bit ordinary, but then I suppose that's the same reaction people would have if they found out exactly how much of the Opening Ceremony was held together with duct tape and cable ties.

I was also surprised that they use alcohol to preserve most specimens, not formaldehyde. This is partly because formaldehyde is nasty and toxic and very very smelly, and partly because it destroys the DNA of the sample.  It's now used mostly for large samples where alcohol doesn't work as well and where DNA samples can be taken before preservation.

Alistair opened a few random cabinets in his favourite section (Mollusca) and showed us some cock-eyed squid and other bits and bobs.  Some of the jars had red paint on the lids, which indicated that they were the "type specimen" for that species.  A type specimen is the (usually) single example of a species on which the description and classification of the species are based, and the Natural History Museum has a lot of them - another indication of the prestigiousness of the collection.  We also saw several yellow-painted lids, which Alistair revealed to be type specimens of fish.  Why weren't they red as well?  "That's just the Fish People being awkward", said Alistair.  Who knew there was such controversy about type specimen labelling?

There are 27 kilometres of shelving, which makes the whole place seem a bit like the
Department of Mysteries, but with better lighting.

As interesting as it was to poke around in the endless shelves of smaller samples the undoubted highlight of the tour was a visit to the tank room.  The tank room is where all the really big jars are kept.  While the rest of the collection is rigorously organised according to phylum and class and such, the tank room is a higgeldy-piggeldy collection of large jars and even larger tanks holding everything from coelacanths to sharks to monkeys.  The really big tanks, sadly, are steel reinforced and require chains and cranes and things to get them open, so no peeking at the pickled ponies for me.  (Yes, apparently there is a pony.)

The tank room.

The star of the tank room, in fact the star of the whole spirit collection, is certainly Archie. "Archie" is the rather undignified name given to the giant squid sample whose latin name is Architeuthis dux, hence the pithy diminutive.  Measuring 8.62 metres long, the squid is housed in a 9 metre long custom-made tank.  Giant squid live in very deep water and hence specimens are extremely rare.  Archie was caught, alive, in a fishing net near the Falkland Islands in 2004.  Up to that point most specimens were only partially complete, having been recovered from the stomachs of sperm whales.

(Interesting Aside Number Two: Giant squid themselves are not hugely rare, they're just hard to find.  Estimates of the population are based on the frequency at which beaks from the giant squid and the even bigger colossal squid, along with the beaks of many many other much smaller squid species, show up in the stomach contents of sperm whales.  The beaks are highly indigestible so they accumulate in the stomach, sometimes in the thousands.  As a reaction to the beaks - they're hard and kind of irritating, as you can well imagine - the whale's stomach produces a thick, black, foul-smelling goo called... anyone?  Yep.  Ambergris. And where else on the internet will you get to read a blog post that goes from living statues to hot chocolate to ambergris with seamless elegance?)

Archie in his (actually, they think Archie is a "her") tank.  The preserving process is really not kind to the natural colours of, well, anything.  Most specimens get reduced to a common and somewhat disturbing pale yellowy grey.  (There's a Youtube video here that shows the natural colours of the quid before it was turned into formalin soup.)

Nothing could top the Tank Room (barring the sudden resurrection of Dippy, or an all-out type specimen labelling war between the Fish People and Everyone Else, with much flinging of red and yellow paint bombs) so the tour wound up and we took the glass elevator back up to the public area.  By that time it was fully dark.  The sun sets a full half an hour earlier here than it does in Winnipeg, and an hour earlier than Saskatoon, which does my head in.  It's hard enough to get motivated to do anything when you're not working, but having it dark by four o'clock puts hibernation mode into overdrive, regardless of whether the temperature is particularly cold (which it isn't).  Luckily, the museum building is just as pretty from the outside as it is from the inside, and I had a nice hash run to look forward to that evening, so I toddled off to the tube station feeling pretty content with my lot.  Yes, I'm unemployed and living off a dwindling savings account, but I'm unemployed in London, which is not such a bad thing.

The Natural History Museum, in the moody darkness

You know what I did last summer

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory." 
- Rita Mae Brown
A little while ago I told you a few things about my summer job (which we will still generally avoid referring to with the "O" word, just in case) and implied that I'd have some more to say at some point.  I've finally managed to bash out a few hundred more words about some of the odd and random things that happened over the summer, so here are some recollections you might appreciate.

Hasn't this happened to us all?

Maybe I imagined it, but my list of projects seemed to have more than its fair share of downright weird stuff on it.  This is not to imply that it wasn't all pretty weird.  Managing the procurement of 350 bespoke light-up hospital beds is by no means normal.  Nor is the production of 600 umbrellas equipped with colour-changing LEDs, neither of which projects were my problem (thank God).  But how about this for not-precisely-run-of-the-mill?: The supply of the equipment and expertise necessary for fifty volunteer cast members to create giant soap bubbles, on cue, for thirty seconds.  I can't say that's been on my To Do list before.  (Then again, it was only fifty and by that time in the process it was hardly worth the effort to get out of bed for less than a hundred of anything.) Nevertheless, I located an extremely dedicated man who was fiercely devoted to the production of bubbles, and procured from him the equipment needed. He also agreed to come and instruct our cast in how to get the most from their bubble gear, so schedules were arranged.

The first time we tried to rehearse the bubbles in the stadium was in conjunction with rehearsals for another segment - the space was often shared because there was so much to accomplish in so little time.  On the night of the bubble rehearsal we'd barely even started when the wind direction and the bubble production conspired to create a, err... slight slip hazard for the other segment. Rehearsals were quickly suspended while we scrambled to clean things up and I wondered if my career would survive the distinction of bringing the entire ceremony to a sudden and crashing halt with nothing more than a few buckets of soapy water.

Naturally, the next time we did a bubble rehearsal I had to find another space where we could bubble away to our heart's content without loss of life.  To this end I scouted out a lonely stretch of grass beside a canal outside the stadium. It took about ten minutes to get the cast and their bubble gear and the bubble man and the stage managers out there, but I was confident that once we arrived we'd be free to bubble in peace.

Bubble rehearsal
See? What could possibly go wrong?

What did I discover when I finally arrived with my bubble entourage? Of course we weren't alone after all. Certainly not. The ceremony was far far too big for it not to have reached into this forgotten corner of the park. So when I saw a member of our Special Projects team sitting in an inflatable dinghy in the canal next to my rehearsal site I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that my empty patch of earth had been designated as a possible landing zone for the helicopter jump rehearsal that was about to take place.  I should have known better.  I mean who among us hasn't had their giant bubble rehearsal interrupted by a helicopter jump? Certainly not me.

'Queen' parachutes into stadium
In the end both the bubbles and the helicopter jump went off without a hitch. Though the jump received just a touch more media coverage than my bubbles, which didn't even make it into the broadcast.

I'll take "Flags of the World" for $500, Alex

One of my other things was flags. You know the flags that the athletes march with when they enter the stadium? Those are props, and they were on my list. This was actually one of my favourite bits though as with much of the ceremony, the scale was defeating. For instance, on the day we first took delivery of the flags and opened up the boxes and started putting them in their specially designed racks, it was undeniably cool and very very olympian.  But even in this coolest of moments, the scale was defeating. We started out all bright-eyed and excited: "Kenya!" "I've got Lesotho" "Madagascar here!"  But there were 204 nations competing so the novelty wore off pretty quickly. After about 50 flags it got a bit work-a-day. And by the time we unearthed Zambia and Zimbabwe arms were aching and brows were dripping. And that was just the first time we racked those flags.  The process was repeated every time we used them in rehearsal, and every time we packed or unpacked them to move them to or from the stadium, which was depressingly often.

The flags, still fresh and clean and unused.

Flags are important. It's important that you have them all. And it's important that they're clean and tidy and unwrinkled, which is no mean feat when they spend most of their lives outdoors. Most of all though, it's important that you get them right. The Koreas, for example, are tricky.  However, I'm happy to report that we got the right flag into the hands of the right flag-bearer one hundred percent of the time. And did you know that Malawi changed their flag quite late in the game? You would if you were the one ordering six new Malawis on short notice.

Eventually, though, the flags became old friends. This culminated on the afternoon of the Paralympic Closing ceremony when we racked up the flags for the last time. The day before we'd rolled them each onto their poles and covered then with protective plastic sleeves for the trip to the stadium, which meant that just a sliver of colour was visible on each pole. Yet when we unpacked them I was able to recognise a disturbing number of them from just a snatch of colour. Botswana and Micronesia both feature a lovely shade of light blue.  Qatar is the only only with a dark purpley-maroon colour, Leichtenstein has brown.  Mozambique has a machine gun on it, Uganda has a rooster, Bhutan a dragon. It was a bit freakish. Even now when I encounter a flag in the wild, I've got a pretty good shot at identifying it.  A few weeks ago I was walking down a random street in London and thought to myself, "What's the flag of Barbados flag doing on that building?" And while on a hash run in the embassy district a while ago I correctly identified both Bahrain and San Marino which are not exactly up there with the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes in the Name-That-Flag Game. These are things that simply wouldn't have entered my head before this job.  Just another small hangover from my summer.

Flags on Tor
All my flags planted on the Tor.  I thought this looked bloody fantastic.

Did that really just happen?

Does anyone remember these?

Speech Bubbles
They were called the speech bubbles.  Or, to be more precise, the f***ing speech bubbles.

I thought not.  They ended up being a vanishingly small part of the Opening Ceremony. Nonetheless, they required an awful lot of effort to make happen.  I won't go into the details since they are tedious in the extreme, but I will tell one short story that illustrates the "Did-that-really-just-happen?" kind of thing that happened more or less all the time.

I hope I'm not bursting any bubbles (Bubbles! Ha! I can't escape!) when I reveal that there were short segments of the ceremony that were filmed ahead of time.  Everybody knows about the Queen's parachute jump of course, but there were one or two other small bits that were filmed in advance, and my speech bubbles appeared in some of them.  And because the filming took place far in advance of the actual ceremony date, there happened a day when complete and perfect speech bubbles in a variety of sizes and fonts had to be present on set for their big moment.  And as is the way with such things, it was all just a trifle last minute. So it was that I found myself rushing from our workshop to the studio to hand deliver the props to the set.

I'm a theatre person from way back, but a film set is a foreign place to me.  Completely foreign and slightly scary.  I was petrified that I'd inadvertently walk into a shot and ruin everything, so I crept around on eggshells until I finally located the man I needed to talk to: the director, Danny Boyle.  I needed a decision from him about something to do with the speech bubbles, but he wanted to see them in context, on the correct set.  I, on the other hand, didn't even know how to find that set.  When he discovered that Danny said, "Have you never been on a film set before?" (Not in an angry way, just slightly bemused or possibly disbelieveing.)  I allowed that this was indeed that case, and when he heard this Danny proceeded to take me on a little tour of the studio en route to the set in question.

At the time I can remember thinking, "Damnit Danny, I just need you to tell me which one of these bloody speech bubbles you like so I can get the rest made!  I don't have time for this!!" And then I took a mental step back and thought, "Whoa.  Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director, is giving you a personal tour of his film set.  This is not an everyday occurrence. Just settle down and enjoy it."

And so I did.

Sometimes I love my job

This was one of my things too, a large representation of the S.S. Windrush that was built sort of like a giant kite.

You've seen this picture before, but it's the only remotely decent shot I've got.

The S.S. Windrush was the ship that carried the first large group of black Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica to the London port of Tilbury in 1948.  It was a watershed moment in English social history so it was included in the bit of the ceremony that was known as the History Parade, and which included, among other things, suffragettes, Chelsea Pensioners, Pearly Kings and Queens, a steel drum band, Jarrow marchers, Notting Hill Carnival dancers, and two large inflatable yellow submarines.

The hull of the boat was a very cleverly built tensioned fabric structure in four sections, and was carried by volunteer cast members.  The masts and funnels were backpack-mounted structures worn by people on stilts.  They were lovely people, my stilt walkers, and though they required a lot of attention, they were grateful for everything we did to help get them and their stilts and all their other bits and pieces working.  It was a long long haul but finally, on a rare sunny afternoon a few days before the ceremony, we found ourselves putting the finishing touches on and feeling like things might actually finally be coming together.

As always seemed to be the case, there were a few other things going on in the stadium that afternoon.  While we were plugging away at the north end of the field, there was a sound check going on under the big bell in the south.  This happened a lot; headline talent (the really famous people) only had one or two rehearsals so it was important for them to have a solid sound check to make the most of the rehearsal time available.  So as I and the stilt walkers and crew were working, we started to hear some familiar piano strains coming from the other end of the field, though I didn't really pay much attention.  No one thought it was anything more than a techncian or roadie testing the mix.  Then we heard the voice: "Hey Jude... don't make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better...".  So yeah, Paul McCartney was there, sound checking.  Gradually we realised that the office had emptied out and a small knot of people had gathered near the stage where Sir Paul and his band were playing.  And then a couple of the stilt walkers headed over there too, still on their stilts, so I went with them because I kind of had to, to make sure they were ok, right?  Purely selflessly, of course.

Sometimes - a LOT of the time - working on the ceremonies was a repetitive, soggy, impossible slog.  Then every once in a while, just often enough to keep you going, the rain would stop and the sun would shine and things that had once seemed impossible actually started working and you'd find yourself dancing with stilt walkers to Paul McCartney singing "Hey Jude".  And then your sixteen hour work day turned into fifteen hours and 56 minutes of hard graft and four minutes of magic.  I'm not saying that kind of thing happened every day, but there really was a sense of being part of something truly wonderful and insane and fantastic, which is good because getting through all the long hours and mad requests and unrelenting schedules and never-ending rain and other soul-destroying obstacles for anything less than the biggest show on the planet would have been a bit of a disappointment really. Maybe it's just because I'm still unemployed and aimless and don't have much to focus my attention, or maybe I've got a serious case of ceremonies-induced dementia, but damn, sometimes I miss it.

P.S.  And how lovely is this? After the ceremony, all our prop bits and pieces went to a huge logistic centre for sorting, re-sale and recycling.  Naturally, the Windrush went along with everything else.  And where was this logistics centre?  At the London port of Tilbury, exactly where the original ship had docked 64 years earlier.  And rather than sending the pieces of the ship for recycling, the port workers themselves were allowed to take the fabric that made up the skin of the boat to display in the port museum.  Awww.

P.P.S. And you know what else?  A lot of the Jamaican immigrants who arrived on the Windrush in 1948 settled in Brixton, which I now call home.  There's a big central gathering area at the intersection of Brixton Hill, Effra Road, Coldharbour Lane and Acre Lane, right at the heart of Brixton.  I go through it almost every day.  In 1998, on the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the ship, that space was renamed Windrush Square.

Windrush Square
Windrush square in the November gloom.