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.

The Games People Play: Going to the dogs...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Yes, last week I went to the dogs. To be more specific (and less annoyingly devoted to a rather mediocre play on words) I attended an evening of greyhound racing. Similar to horse racing, with the obvious exception that there are no jockeys (not even very tiny ones), greyhound racing was most popular in the UK immediately after WWII, especially among working class men.  Its popularity has declined since then, and I'd describe it as a niche sport these days.  I went with a group of hashers on a Friday night for an evening of fun, beer, betting and general distraction from the dark chill that has descended since the clocks changed back.

(Ranting pause:   Why on earth do we structure that stupid Daylight Savings Time thing so that there is LESS daylight on winter evenings?  Isn't it depressing enough that it's cold and grey without the sun setting at 4:30 in the freakin' afternoon?  It doesn't need to be light until 11pm in June.  It needs to be light until 6pm in December!!   We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog post.)  

Greyhounds are remarkable creatures.  The second fastest land animals on the planet, they can reach speeds faster than 40 mph in about six strides (cheetahs get up over 70 mph!). Because greyhounds are sighthounds - dogs that chase their quarry by sight, as opposed to scenthounds who track by scent - they are encouraged to run around the 480 metre long oval track by chasing an artificial motorised "hare" that travels the outside of the course.  (Hounds, a hare and beer - it was the perfect activity for hashers!)  Each dog start the race inside a trap, which is less devious than it sounds.  Just like the starting gates in horse racing, the traps are a way of keeping the dogs segregated and even, and open just as the hare passes them.  A typical race features six dogs and lasts about 30 second and where I went they run 13 races per evening, two night a week.

Here they come! They're so fast it's pretty much impossible to get a good photo. At least not with my camera (or my level of commitment to standing outside in the cold at a dog track).

The track I went to is on the edge of Wimbeldon (the uncharitable would say it's really closer to Tooting, but who's counting?).  It features a cunningly well-hidden entrance which requires an almost complete lap around the exterior of the stadium through a dark and deserted parking lot which is not exactly the warm and family-friendly intro that might bring greyhound racing back into the mainstream.  To be fair, the dog people are actually trying to promote the sport and get people in the doors, as evidenced by an offer of free admission and racing program to anyone with an Oyster card (which in London is basically anyone with a pulse).

After navigating the scary parking lot and flashing my Oyster card I finally made it to the inner sanctum to meet up with my fellow hashers.  The stadium featured what looked like a credible restaurant on the upper level with nice trackside seats and big windows where you could watch the races in heated comfort.  Naturally, we did not sit there.  We congregated here:

The spacious and well-appointed punters area.

Going to the greyhounds races is a lot like going to any kind of stadium event - a bit chilly, a bit exciting and with lots of slightly overpriced mediocre beer, burgers and chips - but with the added excitement of betting!   Now that I'm a veteran of betting on the races, I was well-equipped to have a flutter on the dogs.  And with a total of thirteen races there were plenty of chances to lose money in different and arcane ways.

There are two systems of betting at the dog track.  Most people bet on the totes, which is a system where the total amount bet by everyone (minus taxes and the house's take) is divided equally among everyone with a winning bet.  This system is known as "parimutuel" or "totaliser" betting, but the cool kids just call it the totes.

The desk for placing tote bets and picking up your winnings.

Because the winnings are shared the payout changes depending on how many bets are placed.  This means that the odds when you place a bet might be 4:1 but if more and more people place the same bet, they could become 2:1 or 5:3 or whatever.  It's basically some kind of cross between algebra and black magic, and I'm not even going to attempt to understand it, especially since the Wikipedia article on the subject includes this little gem:

Screen Shot 2012-11-08 at 5.20.35

The other way of betting on the dogs is with proper real live bookies who wear flat caps and stand next to the track with fists full of cash and boards displaying the odds, which they update themselves.  The minimum bet with these guys was £4-5, and their odds are fixed.  If it's 4:1 when you place your bet with a bookie and your dog wins, you get four times your stake.  Simple.  Nonetheless, most of us stuck with the totes where the minimum bet for a win/place was just £2.

See! They really do wear flat caps!

So how did I do?  Well it turns out that I am basically the Greyhound Whisperer because in the first six races of the night I placed a winning bet SIX TIMES.  Yep, I won every race. However, lest you think that I walked away with enough money for new Kia and a time share in Majorca, let me assure you that my system was not exactly paying out millions.  In fact, after those first six races I had made a grand total of £6.60 in profit.

Me with my winnings on the first race.  20 pence!  
(By the end of the night I'd won ten out of thirteen races.  Greyhound Whisperer, I tells ya.)

Why did I win so little? Mostly it's because I was only betting the minimum £2 each time.  Also, I was betting on a single dog to win OR place (come first or second) and when you hedge your bets like that the payout is lower.  Most importantly though, I always always always bet on the favourite, as determined by which dog was displaying the closest - and therefore least profitable - odds.  So while others were picking a dog whose name they liked, or one who'd finished in the top one or two in previous weeks, or was running from a particular trap, I just bet the odds.  I was playing the long game. Then again, I did end up down £2.20 by the end of the night, but that was entirely because I foolishly abandoned the system on the last race and placed two £2 bets instead of one.  If I'd controlled this reckless behaviour I would have ended up 80 pence in the black.

Racing form
Also, my system avoids the necessity of reading the racing form, which is so complex and arcane that they need to publish this How-To guide inside the front cover.

So that's the fun, light side of dog racing - greyhounds doing what greyhounds do best making for a cheap and cheerful night out with friends.  Sadly, there can be darker things going on in the background at the dog track.  These fall into two broad categories - abuse of the dogs, and fixing races.  (I went down a bit of a rabbit hole in researching this stuff, so bear with me while I try to give you the broad strokes.)

I watched two different documentaries on dog racing, one from the BBC produced in 2001 and one from Channel 4 produced in 2007.  The Channel 4 offering was a look at the famous old dog track in Walthamstow which ceased operation in 2008.  Featuring a bookmaker, a professional gambler, some regular punters and a couple who own and race dogs, it painted a rosy and nostalgic picture of life at the dog track.  The dog owners were especially lovely, shown feeding their greyhounds steak and vegetables while they were eating beans on toast, and lavishing their four-legged family with love and attention.  Sadly, this kind of treatment is probably the exception, especially for dogs owned by larger kennels.  And because a greyhound's life expectancy is about fourteen years while their racing career usually only lasts about four, they quickly become an unprofitable liability to their owners once retired.  The BBC documentary estimated that 10,000 dogs a year were retired from racing (probably fewer now that the sport has declined) and though greyhound rescue organisations are active in the UK, they are often overburdened and only manage to save about one in four dogs (based on figures from 2007).  The rest are euthanised so that's, you know, less than ideal.

The other sad fact of life for a racing greyhound is that it seems some (perhaps many) of the races are fixed.  This can be accomplished by actually doping the dogs - giving drugs to speed up one dog, or slow down the others.  This practice must be less prevalent now that anti-doping testing is the norm at tracks regulated by the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, but races at unregulated independent arenas  ("flapping tracks") are easier to fix.  And even where drug-testing is used, it's possible to fix races in less detectable ways. For instance, overfeeding a dog and therefore slowing it down before a trial that determines in which heats it will race puts the sluggish and overfed dog in a heat with naturally slower dogs so that it can fly past the rest of the pack on a night when it hasn't had too much dinner.  This practice, referred to as "putting on the brakes" isn't just illegal, it's also dangerous to the dogs, who can suffer painful and sometimes fatal gastric torsion.

It's all kind of seedy, as evidenced by this anecdote from my night of racing, which certainly made me think twice:  On the last race of the night my friend Phillip decided to put £5 on a dog with one of the professional bookmakers trackside.  He had his eye on a certain greyhound and approached the bookie to lay his bet, but before he could do so he was elbowed aside by a guy who placed a bet of more than £100 on a different dog.  Phillip, sensing that Mr. Pushy knew something he didn't, wisely put his fiver on the same dog as the high-roller and walked away with £25 when the race was over.  Fishy?  It sure looks that way. Another friend reported that he'd had a mate who owned a dog when in university and was informed by the other owners at the track where he raced that his dog would be allowed to win every eight weeks.  So it seems all is not exactly one hundred percent above board at the old dog track.

Proponents of the greyhound racing point out that proper racing tracks enforce strict guidelines about the welfare of the dogs.  Opponents cite case after case of abuse or neglect and you can find pages and pages of stuff on the internet on both sides of the topic.  It's all very much like the Grand National in some ways.  The danger to a horse in the Grand National (that I blogged about in the spring) is more obvious and dramatic than the behind-the-scenes neglect or abuse of racing greyhounds.  Still they're both, at their core, a pastime in which humans use animals for amusement and if that's something that makes you squirm in your seat then you should probably give the greyhound track a wide berth (probably along with the burger stand).

As for me, I suspect I've spent my first and last night at the dog track.  The evening was fun, sure, but it's a sport with a chequered past, and one that's definitely on the way out.  Where hundreds of dog tracks across the UK used to provide entertainment for thousands upon thousands of average punters, now just 29 registered tracks and 14 flapping tracks are still in operation.  Much of that decline is down to the immeasurably greater entertainment options available now.  As the old bookie in the Channel 4 documentary said, "When I was a youngster we had dog tracks, we had dance halls, and we had cinemas, that's all we had. Today we've got everything you can think of."  So it seems a night at the dog track is a dying past time, which may not really be a bad thing.

Finish Line
The end of the line.

GRUB!: Cornish Style

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Astute followers of my Twitter feed (both of you) will know that I recently endured a longish bus ride with the National Express, who are the inter-city bus company over here and who hold the honour of having some the the most uncomfortable seats I've encountered in a long while.  They seem specifically designed to create shooting pains in my butt and legs, which is a charming accompaniment to a five and a half hour ride. (Yes I could have taken the train, but at £85 return instead of £45 for the bus, I cheaped out in deference to my continuing state of unempolyedness.)  The ride in question was due to a four day jaunt to Devon to visit some distant family and see a few of the sights on offer in the wild west and, National Express aside, I had a lovely time jollying about with my cousin Anne. (And I use the term "cousin" loosely, since I can't be bothed to figure out how many times removed we are because the common ancestry stretches to great and great-great grandparents.) Anne happily ferried me around the arrestingly narrow Devon roads for three days, keeping me amused, fed and distracted.

We visited an old Norman Motte and Bailey Castle in the rain in Totnes:

Totnes Castle

And spent a day on a short walk along the Devon Coast, including rambling to an excellent pub dating back to 1300, where I had my picture taken with the TARDIS.

The Devon coast on the only dry, sunny day we had.

Anne, on a precipitous decline.

Me and the TARDIS in the pub's back garden.  No explanation as to why it was there, but that's kind of how the TARDIS works, isn't it?

But on the third day we braved the trip across the Tamar into the wilds of Cornwall to visit a National Trust property called Lanhydrock House ("Lan-HIGH-drock").  Lanhydrock was a really excellent find, especially for a fan of "Downton Abbey".  Though "Downton" isn't actually filmed at Lanhydrock, the history of the house and its inhabitants mirrors the show with eerie accuracy, and the house itself is filled with Downton-era artifacts and stories, making it a great treat for a fan of the show. (What? You're NOT watching Downton Abbey? You're breaking my heart! Go find the first episode and watch it right now.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.)

Lanhydrock House

I may (or may not) blog about all my holiday activities in more detail at some later point, because for now we're diving back into that recurring blog feature Grub! with a two-for-one offering of Cornish delights, both prepared in the well-appointed restaurants and cafés of Lanhydrock House.

For those not familiar with English geography, Cornwall is the penninsular bit that dribbles down the bottom left of the map in the far southwest.  It's notable for a few things - the Cornish Independence movement, the lamentably-pretty-much-dead Cornish language, the Isles of Scilly, and, of course, the Cornish Pasty (pronounced, please please pleeeeez, to rhyme with "nasty" and certainly NOT with "hasty").

A pasty is a variety of the common sort of foodstuff occurring worldwide that involves sticking meat and vegetables into a handy doughy covering (think pie, calzone, samosas, perogies, wontons, spring rolls, blah blah blah...). In a Cornish pasty the filling - usually steak, potato and swede (rutabaga) - is uncooked when sealed into the thick round pastry covering, which is then folded over, crimped shut along the side, and baked into a D shape.

My pasty, exhibiting correct crimping technique and golden brown deliciousness.

The origins of the pasty are not clear, and probably not necessarily Cornish, though certainly that county has taken the pasty to its heart like nowhere else.  The pasty is now the national dish of Cornwall and accounts for 6% of region's food economy.  The Cornish pasty also has "Protected Geographical Indication" meaning that pasties prepared outside of Cornwall, or whose manufacture deviates from the designated method, cannot legally be called Cornish pasties.  (Pity the poor Cornishwoman who crimps his pasties along the top instead of the side.  She may have been doing them that way since her mother's mother's mother's mother first baked them, but they are Cornish pasties no more.)

Though it may have had higher class origins, the pasty gained its foothold in Cornwall as a favourite of Cornish tin miners, who adopted it because it made a hearty and tasty all-in-one lunch that could be eaten hot or cold.  It's said that the heavy crimped pastry edge allowed the miners to hold the pasty by the end and eat it down to their grubby fingers, discarding the dirty corner left over.  (Nevermind that it's far more likely that they would eat right to the end.)  In fact, there's even a now-rare two-course variety of pasty made with savoury filling in one end and sweet in the other, which strikes me as truly brilliant.  How lovely would it be to munch down a pasty with a bit of pork, sage and apple stuffed into one end, with more apple, cinnamon and sugar in the other? Inspired!

Pasties can still be had in lots of flavours, and are popular throughout the UK, not just in Cornwall.  There's a fast food pasty company with little kiosks all over that has flavours like cheese and onion, steak and Stilton, chicken and leek, lamb and mint, and even oddball varieties like duck and hoisin, which I'm guessing was not high up on the list of your average 19th century tin miner.  ("Oi, Curnow we'm 'avin' the hoisin duck fer our croust again?")

(Pasty-related aside: I'd be remiss here if I didn't at least mention the great Pasty-gate scandal of 2012, which occurred when Chancellor George Osborne extended the dreaded 20% VAT (Value Added Tax, analogous to Canada's GST - Goods and Services Tax) to "hot takeaway food".  Historically, there's been a grey area between food that is prepared and served hot (VAT taxable) and food that is merely incidentally hot, like fresh-baked bread (VAT exempt). As you can imagine, that ambiguity is one that pasty-makers have been on the non-VAT side of for ages.  Osborne jigged the regulations to make it mandatory to tax all hot food, resulting in a great hue and cry and much semi-tongue-in-cheek speculation about how cool a pasty would have to be before it would be tax-exempt.  Osborne, David Cameron, and, by extension, the whole Conservative Party, were seen as being "out of touch" with the common pasty-eating public, a perception that was reinforced when it was revealed that the pasty shop in Leeds station where Cameron claimed he had "recently" enjoyed a pasty had actually been out of business for years, revealing Cameron's decidedly toff-like non-pasty-eating nature.  Osborne backtracked on the pasty tax in May of 2012, just months after vigorously defending it.  It's  now possible to buy a cooling pasty VAT-free, though ones kept hot for immediate consumption are still taxable.)

I did pay VAT on my pasty - the traditional steak variety - in Cornwall, and I was not disappointed.

Me eating my pasty

Piping hot, slightly peppery, and entirely satisfying, a good old Cornish pasty was just what I needed to warm me through, fill me up and prepare me to explore all fifty rooms at Lanhydrock House.  Which is precisely what I did.

And since we're talking about food - here's a pic of the formal dining room at Lanhydrock, laid out as it was for the luncheon served on the occassion of the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, in 1950.  I noted that pasties were NOT on the menu.

Handily, Anne and I finished our explorations of the main house with time to retire to the Servant's Hall, which has been converted into a nice tea room, for another Cornish treat: the cream tea.

I have already blogged about the wonders of cream here in the UK, and the cream tea showcases what is easily the most decadent of the many sorts available - clotted cream.  Clotted cream is a particular specialty of Devon and Cornwall, the two southwest counties, and like Cornish pasties, Cornish clotted cream has protected designation of origin.  Clotted cream is traditionally prepared by gently warming whole unhomogenised milk in which the cream has been allowed to rise to the top.  The clots of high fat yumminess that form on the top are then skimmed off and become clotted cream.  It is decadent beyond belief and should be consumed sparingly but with immense pleasure.

A cream tea has four basic ingredients.  First, a proper cup (or preferably pot) of tea.  Second, a freshly baked scone (or two) (Do I need to tell you want a scone is? Bah... I can't be bothered.  Go look it up yourself if you haven't had the pleasure.)  Finally a cream tea needs the toppings for the scones - jam and clotted cream.  I realise that the uninitiated might expect you were meant to put the cream in your tea, but that would be very very WRONG.  First, because you would never have cream in tea to begin with (milk only, of course) and second because if you tried to put clotted cream in tea it would be a bit like dropping a lump of butter in your cup.  At a minimum of 55% and an average of 65% fat, clotted cream is far too thick for that kind of treatment.  It is, in fact, thick enough to spoon and spread, which is precisely what it's there for.

My cream tea.  That bit that looks like a scoop of pale yellow vanilla ice cream?  
That's the clotted cream.

There is a slight variation in the cream tea phenomenon as presented in Cornwall as opposed to Devon.  In Devon the split scone is first spread with cream, with the jam added on top.  In Cornwall, it's jam first, then cream.  Being the diligent and thorough blogger I am, and possessing of two perfectly good scones, I made a careful experiment to determine which method is best, while Anne documented every bite.

Me in careful contemplation of the Devon variety. 
Note the Cornish style awaiting judgement on the left.

The results?  I think the Cornish method produces superior flavour because you get more cream on the tongue vs. jam.  However, the Devon method is easier to spread and would be preferable if you were more about the jam than the cream (but if that were the case then it should really be called a jam tea, which it patently is not). For my money it's the Cornish way, though the differences are subtle at best.  Certainly if I were presented with a plate of scones prepared in the Devon fashion I wouldn't turn them down because however it's done, a cream tea is a delight.

And there you have it - two tasty Cornish treats to contemplate while you gnash your teeth enviously at my continuing leisurely lifestyle.  No job for me yet, and I confess to getting a bit nervous about things, especially since I was recently denied not only an offer but even an interview for a job I thought I was eminently qualified for.  It all leaves me a bit downhearted and puzzled as to what, exactly, this city wants from me.  Happily for you this leaves me a lot of time for blogging, so keep watching this space.

A moody view of the Cornish countryside, to match my moody... errr... mood.