GRUB!: Summer Pudding

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It’s been too long since we talked about food, but recently a few things came together to correct that. The first thing was this:

The towpath where I’ve had the boat moored in the last few weeks features a good collection of wild blackberry bushes. (Actually it turns out the towpath is a veritable supermarket, as pointed out by an oddly friendly and garrulous woman who was passing the boat one day as I was leaving and showed me where the hazelnut trees were and talked about growing up picking all kinds of produce on the towpath, including crabapples and other things I can’t remember because I was slightly unnerved by how she absolutely glommed onto me to relate this information.)

The second thing that led me to the inevitable was an email exchange with a local English friend in which I semi-bragged about having a particularly “Swallows and Amazons” day that started with picking said blackberries on the towpath and then proceeded to a very agreeable spell of moving the boat in the bright sunshine.

(Aside for Astute-but-non-UK-based Go Stay Work Play Readers: "Swallows and Amazons" is a series of young adult novels, an accompanying 1960s tv series, and two feature films about the four siblings of the Walker family who have grand adventures in the Lake District involving sailing, camping, fishing and piracy. It's all a health and safety nightmare that would never fly today. However, in the Swallows world, the Walker dad - a naval officer absent on duty in Malta - remotely gives the children permission for a particularly dangerous nighttime sailing mission with an oft-quoted telegram reading, "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN", an utterly un-modern message, but indicative of the sort of Empire-building, Blitz-surviving qualities that make some over here go all misty-eyed. "Swallows and Amazons" is English and summery and nostalgia-for-a-time-now-lost.)

So my email about blackberries and boating led to this response:
"Fresh blackberries, how fantastic. The start of a summer pudding ;-)"
A bit of explanation is probably needed here, for the above mentioned AbnUKbGSWPLRs. First, a reminder about 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?” 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."
Summer pudding falls into this category, though it’s not actually cooked at all. But it is a sweet end-of-meal treat and it is prepared in a pudding basin (or not, as we shall see). It’s a cold dessert made with stale bread and soft summer fruits, usually raspberries, red currants, and blackberries, but can also include strawberries, blueberries and other fringe fruit like black or white currants, loganberries and tayberries (which I'm pretty sure are made up). (Also note that the currants listed here are the fresh variety, not the dried fake-inferior-raisin thing you might be thinking of.)

I reviewed several recipes online before settling on one from the BBC website as a guide, but being genetically incapable of following a recipe to the letter, I free-styled it a bit, partly because I wasn’t going to make anything like the volume of pudding the recipe called for, and partly because I didn’t feel like doing a lot of measuring, and partly because of the aforementioned inherited propensity to muck about with recipes. For instance, it seemed utterly boring to cook the fruit in water. In a stroke of genius I can only describe as utterly inspired, I elected to use Pimm’s as my stewing liquid, reasoning that a bit of booziness would only add to the party, and what says English summer more than Pimm's?

The recipe on which I based my summer pudding is here, but I sense it’s the kind of thing you can muck about with infinitely, so I’ll just outline what I did and pretend it's a proper recipe. The amounts suggested here are from the BBC and are for a 1.25 litre pudding basin which seems to be about 17cm (or size 30, for those fluent in the arcane field of pudding basin sizing). I do own a proper pudding basin, but it's massive (size 18 maybe?) and since I was not making summer pudding for the entire England Test Cricket side, I used a non-traditionally shaped metal bowl of about half a litre. Not really tall enough for a properly shaped pudding, but it yielded four small though adequate portions.

Towpath Summer Pudding:
  • 7-ish slices of strong white bread, about 1 cm / 1/2" thick. (Enough to completely line your bowl, including a lid.)  Staleness is a bonus.
This should not be that plastic kind of mass-produced pre-sliced white bread that basically melts when confronted with liquids of any kind.  And no whole grains.  Now is not the time for overly healthy sanctimoniousness.  Some recipes recommend brioche, which would probably be really nice.
  • 1.25kg / 2 lbs of mixed raspberries, blackberries, fresh currants, strawberries, tayberries, loganberries, whateverberries… (Enough to fill your bowl. It seems to be traditional to go heavy on the raspberries.)
  • 175 grams / 3/4 cup white sugar (caster sugar for UK readers)
  • 3 tbsp Pimm’s (or water, but really?) I found I needed more juice, so be generous.
  • Cream, for serving. Ideally, double cream.
Other stuff you need that are not ingredients:
  • Pudding basin or deep bowl. Straight-ish sides is nice.
  • A lid or plate or flat circular thing that fits inside the top of the bowl
  • Small heavy thing that can sit on the lid/plate/circular thing
  • Saucepan and spoon
  • Sieve or colander (Or, if you live on a boat and don't have a colander, the upside down lid of an Ikea cheese grater.)
  • Clingfilm (Saran wrap)
  • Wash the fruit and dry on a paper towel (piece of kitchen roll). Slice the strawberries.
Rasperries and blackberries, washed and waiting
  • In a saucepan, melt the sugar and liquid together and then add the fruit (except the strawberries, if you’re using strawberries)
  • Bring to a boil to extract the juices from the fruit, but don’t cook so long that the fruit starts to break down.
  • Strain the juice into a bowl and reserve the fruit for later.
  • Meanwhile, cut the crusts off the bread slices and shape them so they can completely line the bowl. Cut a circular bit for the bottom of the bowl, or fit two pieces together to cover the bottom, and then use slices or fingers to completely fill in the sides. Also cut a piece or pieces for the top. Dry fit these all and then set them aside. (Aside: I’m guessing this might be the first recorded use of the term “dry fit” in a culinary context…)
Line the bowl with a big piece or pieces of clingfilm (saran wrap) - enough to completely cover the sides and fold up over the top. This will make it easier to de-mould the pudding later.
  • Dip the bottom bread piece(s) quickly into the fruit juice on both sides so they get soaked, and put the bread into the bowl. Continue dipping the side pieces and placing them until the whole inside of the bowl is covered. Use small scraps to fill in spaces and overlap if needed.
It really doesn’t matter if it looks a bit raggedy.
  • Fill the bread-lined bowl with the cooked fruit, dotting in slices of uncooked strawberry if you’re using strawberries.
  • Drizzle in any remaining juice. (I didn’t do it, but I sense this would be an excellent time to put in another splash of Pimm’s. I remain haunted by that lost opportunity.)
  • Cover with the top bit(s) of bread and fold the clingfilm over the top to cover it all.
  • Put the plate or lid or flat circular thing on top of it all and then put the small heavy thing on top of that to press everything down. (A tin of something from the cupboard seems to be traditional.)
Chill the pudding in the fridge for at least 6 hours, though overnight is better.

While chilling, something sort of magical happens as the juice soaks in all over and everything gets pressed together. When you turn it out onto a plate the next day the whole thing holds together remarkably well. Maybe it’s the pectin in the fruit? Whatever the cause, my pudding was decidedly flatter than most pictures you see if you Google for images of summer pudding but still, I think, still turned out quite credible.

The completed pudding, already missing a piece.  Fantastic colour!

The big question, of course, is how did it taste? Short answer: great! The bread was surprisingly not soggy - ending up with a texture that was more like very very moist cake. The berry flavour was huge and yummy and sweet and tart and perfectly summery. And a pour of double cream over the top turned it into a luxurious treat to have with a cup of coffee on a sunny afternoon.


Happily, this recipe is super easy to make and doesn’t include anything that’s difficult to find in Not-The-UK (like Marmite or golden syrup or red telephone boxes), so I urge you all try it out. It’s summer in a bowl. And if you wanted to swap out the coffee for a glass of Pimm’s, we here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters would heartily endorse that variation. 

Off the tourist track: Crossness Pumping Station

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Really this post should be in its own category called “Way way way off the tourist track” because even for an enthusiastic and experienced London tourist, this one was a push.  This is not just because it is bloody miles from anywhere.  I took me  fully four hours to get there and back, including 45 minutes on a bus each way, trundling through some of southeast London’s least picturesque industrial estates.  No, it’s not just the location that’s challenging.  The subject matter is also a bit of a stretch.  There’s no getting around it - a sewage pumping station is always going to be a tough sell to your average tourist.  However, if you’re going to spend the better part of a humid Sunday navigating your way to any sewage pumping station, surely Crossness must be at the top of the list of options.  (Also, I think by this point it’s fair to say I am by no means an average tourist.)

To fully appreciate the wonder and glory of Crossness Pumping Station we need a bit of historical background.  This time, back to the summer of 1858.  (Though Astute Go Stay Work Play readers will recall I’ve actually touched on this topic before.)  By this time waste management in London had progressed beyond the open sewers of the medieval era, with more than a hundred covered brick sewers having been built.  A few of these simply covered over some of London’s now-buried rivers like the Fleet and the Tyburn and these, along with a host of entirely manmade tunnels, emptied raw sewage directly into the Thames.  This system worked, more or less, until the population of London tripled from one to three million and until the flush toilet arrived on the scene, the combination of which resulted in a vastly increased amount of water and effluent being discharged into the Thames.  Naturally, this lent the river quite a pungent aroma which, combined with the unusually hot weather and low river levels during July and August of 1858 resulted in what is known as “The Great Stink”.  During a debate in Parliament (the buildings of which eventually had to be abandoned due to the stench) Disraeli called the Thames "a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors”.  This, coupled with the increasing threat from cholera, meant something really needed to be done.

Luckily, British engineering came to the rescue.  You all know I’m a big fan of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but this time we must tip our hats to another titan of the age: Sir Joseph Bazalgette (pronounced BAZ-el-jet).  A few years earlier, Bazalgette had proposed a system of giant gravity-fed tunnels running parallel with the banks of the Thames to intercept the existing sewer outfall and carry it downstream outside the greater metropolitan area.  With 82 km of large diameters tunnels and a network of 1,300 km of smaller sewers feeding them, under Bazalgette’s plan London’s sewage would be carried, stinklessly (yes, that it a word) downstream where it could be discharged into the river as the tide was flowing out to sea.  It was a monumental undertaking but just the kind of thing the Victorians liked to get stuck into, which they did.  Remarkably, those same tunnels are still in use today.

NPG x646; Sir Joseph William Bazalgette
Bazalgette.  What excellent facial hair.  You can practically taste those muttonchops!

I’m just going to say that again because I think it’s bloody amazing: London’s sewage is still efficiently and effectively carried in brick tunnels built by hand about a hundred and fifty years ago.  Apparently when calculating the diameter needed for the various sewer pipes, Bazalgette "took the densest population, gave every person the most generous allowance of sewage production and came up with a diameter of pipe needed. He then said 'Well, we're only going to do this once and there's always the unforeseen' and doubled the diameter to be used.” Joseph Bazalgette, you rock.

So what happened when all that waste made it out of London?  In order to be able to discharge it at the right time - when the tide would carry it out to sea - the waste needed to be pumped up out of the gravity fed tunnels that, by the time they reached their end point, were thirty to forty feet below sea level.  This required huge pumping capacity and therefore huge pumps.  Luckily, the Victorians were absolute demons at big steam-powered machines and Bazalgette’s designs for the system included not just the tunnels, but also the pumping stations to raise the effluent up into reservoirs ready for discharge.  The station on the north bank of the Thames is located at Abbey Mills and the one the south is at Crossness.  Also luckily, those Victorians did nothing by halves, and created not just highly functional but also truly beautiful machines.

The facade of the public entrance.  This building used to house the boilers.

Thus our historical background concludes and we can rejoin our weary blogger at the gates of Crossness Pumping Station on one of the very rare Open Days when they actually run - with steam - one of the giant old pumps that they’ve painstakingly restored, and let people wander around watching it all happen (which happens a mere six times this year).

I started out in a relatively new exhibition that told the story of London’s sewage - uplifting subject matter for a Sunday afternoon to be sure.  There were a lot of carefully researched information boards telling, in much greater detail than I’ve done here - the problem of sewage disposal, the risks from cholera, the history of the engineers involved, the impact of the system on the river, blah blah blah.  In truth, it was all pretty interesting stuff, but by far the most fun was the large display of historic toilets.

They also had a very informative display on toilet paper alternative used throughout history and in different cultures. (Including, if I recall correctly, corncobs and seashells.)

I absorbed as much information as I could, but in truth I really just wanted to go look at the giant machine.  The beauty of these Victorian engines is not just in the effectiveness and cleverness of the machine itself, but in the fact that the Victorians were particularly good at making machines not just functional but gorgeous.  Crossness Pumping Station is sometimes called “The Cathedral on the Marsh” because of its spectacular and brightly painted ornamental ironwork.

The main beam

Gratuitous but excellent Victorian frippery

And now settle down for a quick primer on beam engines, the particular bit of machinery on display at Crossness.  A beam engine is perhaps best described as a powered see-saw.  Steam power drives a big piston that pushes on one end of a giant beam (the tippy bit of the seesaw).  The other end of the beam is attached to a huge flywheel.  And in between, closer to the pivot point, are two shafts that lift plungers which actually pump the sewage, operating in opposition to one another and driven by the motion of the beam.  And when I say giant, I do mean that.  The main beam of a Crossness engine is 42’ long and the flywheel is 27’ in diameter and weighs 52 tons.  When in operation, each pump could lift 6 tons of sewage at a stroke, so one revolution of the flywheel would move 12 tons.  And considering that Crossness was equipped with four such engines, each running at about 10 RPM, that allows almost 5,000 tons of sewage to be moved every minute.  The Crossness Engine is thought to be the largest rotative beam engine still in operation in the world.  (The "rotative" part is the flywheel, which converts the uppy-downy motion of the beam to turny-roundy motion.  Sometimes beam engines are just uppy-downy.)

For steam-fans, the engine is a triple expansion, as is clearly obvious from the diagram.  Duh.

Bazalgette’s sewage system proved to be transformative for London.  The stink disappeared, along with the cholera that was thought, at the time, to be carried along with this “bad air”. Luckily, in wrong-headedly solving the problem of the smell, the Victorians also unintentionally eliminated cholera in the water supply, and outbreaks of typhus and tyhoid also decreased considerably.  However, let’s not forget that raw sewage was still being discharged into the Thames estuary, just not in London’s front garden.  (Unsurprisingly, the effect on downstream communities was not good.)  Now, of course, the sewage is treated properly, but London’s system still combines sewage and rainwater into the same sewers (unlike, for instance, Paris, where the two are separate).  And because the systems in London are combined, when there’s a large amount of rainfall in a short amount of time the system gets overwhelmed and they have to dump out into the Thames.  Yes, you read that right.  Even now, in 2016, London regularly dumps raw sewage into the river.  And not just a couple times a year.  Apparently this happens about once a week.  Seriously people?

Anyway, as I said, the station was equipped with four identical beam engines, loyally named “Victoria”, “Prince Consort”, “Albert  Edward” and “Alexandra”, located at the four corners of the Beam Engine House.  “Prince Consort” is the one that’s been restored, along with that corner of the room, while the rest of the space is decidedly unloved, which makes for an oddly divided space.  Most of the room has the sad but intriguing feeling of an abandoned warehouse or factory - dusty and rusted and full of seized up bits of machinery whose purpose one can only speculate about.

See what I mean?

And could you possibly devise a better setting for the final chase scene in a Sherlock Holmes adaptation that this?  It’s got “Hidden Supervillain Lair” written all over it.

Spin around though, and you’re presented with an improbable festival of colour.  It’s not just the engine itself that’s made of cast iron, the columns and floors and archways in the room are all made of the same material.  And all of it is decorated with scrolls and vines and lettering and embellishments of all sorts, and painted in an unexpectedly brash combination of colours.

This is part of the octagonal centre of the room, taken from the upper floor.

And here you can see where the restoration starts and stops.

It must have been a monumental amount of work to bring an engine back to life.  They were last run in the 1950s and at the time it was deemed uneconomic to dismantle them for scrap, which I guess is lucky.  Instead, as the Crossness website says, “...the pumps and culverts below the Beam Engine House were filled with a weak sand and cement mix to reduce the risks from methane. This has meant that some 100 tons of this sand had to be excavated from around and beneath the pumps before there was any hope of moving the beam and flywheel.”  That excavation had to be done before they could even start to get the machine working. (Not so lucky...)   The restoration of the overall site was started in about 1988 and is still ongoing, though the engine “Prince Consort” was working by 2003.  And it is magnificent.

Seeing something so large moving so gracefully and quietly is amazing.  I took a video but still have no luck in managing to get videos uploaded properly, so you’ll have to look at this much much much better one I found on Youtube.

It is running on steam, though the old enormous boilers are long gone.  Steam is now provided by a boringly tiny modern boiler from an industrial laundrette.

One of the reasons I like this video is that it shows the use of the barring engine.  I didn’t know what this bit of machinery was for, but the volunteers at Crossness are absolutely top notch and answered all my questions.  So - lucky you - you get to hear about barring engines! Because the beams are so massive the engines need a bit of help in getting started.  It was explained to me like this:  think about your bicycle pedals.  When you’re waiting to push off you instinctively position the pedals so that the pedal under the foot you’ll use to push off is at an advantageous angle.  If, for instance, it was sticking straight up or straight down you’d put your weight down on the pedal and it wouldn’t move.  It’s the same with a beam engine.  The beam needs to be at the most advantageous angle (just a bit above horizontal) in order to get going.  The barring engine drives a small gear (yay gears!) that can be meshed to teeth on the flywheel and used to position the wheel (and therefore the beam it’s attached to) in the correct place.  Normally this is done with steam power, but there’s also a backup manual version.

The backup manual barring engine

It was finding out about things like barring engines that made this such a great visit.  And really, the volunteers were lovely.  The ones who tend the engine wear sort of period clothing, and are clearly having a ball, even the guy who was using sort of a mini-mop to slop grease onto one of the moving pistons. (From the diagram, I'm guessing that's the low pressure cylinder.)

Surely for absolute historical accuracy this should have been done by a barefoot orphan dressed in rags, but I guess we can forgive that anachronism.

Even the people who ran the little café were dressed up, and served me a nice little pork pie and salad for a very reasonable sum, fortifying me for the long journey home.  And it was long.  By the time I got back to the boat, despite the fact that mostly all I’d done was sit on a long succession of buses and tube trains, I was utterly knackered.  So I had a nap and contemplated refitting the Lucky Nickel's smelly, noisy and intermittently non-functional diesel engine with a nice quiet steam driven engine painted bright red.

P.S.  Just to reassure you all - the fabulous patching system outlined in my last post is still holding strong.  In fact, I've decided that inch-thick layer of submarine grade epoxy is probably now the strongest part of the boat's hull.  And Jackie loved the flowers.  

Red Alert! Red Alert!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

I think I'm generally pretty calm when things go wrong, which is a good quality for a boat-dweller.  Or at least for someone who lives in a forty year old boat that's seen better days.  So far I've survived a few small and not-so-small boat-related mishaps without too much drama.  But last week I admit I had a wobble.

To explain what happened, a bit of nautical terminology:
BILGE: the bottom-most inside part of the boat.
If water is going to collect anywhere, it'll collect in the bilges.  In the Lucky Nickel the main bilge is in the stern where the engine is.  This bilge tends to collect water, most of which is rain water, because the deck hatches above it are not perfectly sealed.  Water can also seep in around the point where the propellor shaft goes through the hull.  Obviously having any kind of hole in the hull below the waterline is not ideal, but equally obviously it's kind of impossible to have an engine inside the boat and a propellor outside the boat without connecting them through such a hole.  The traditional way to mitigate this problem is with a stern gland stuffing box.
STERN GLAND: a fitting surrounding the propellor shaft, stuffed with compressed packing material, and regularly injected with grease to form an (almost) water tight seal.
I say almost because even the most well-greased stern gland still drips a tiny bit, which brings us to the next bit of terminology.
BILGE PUMP: Even Less-Than-Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers can probably deduce that a bilge pump's purpose is to pump out the bilge.
My boat's main bilge has a dedicated 12v pump and a float switch that's supposed to turn on if the water level gets high enough, and it pumps right out the side of the boat.  When I leave the boat the only thing I leave turned on is the power to the bilge pump.  Also in the main bilge, directly underneath the engine and gearbox is a separate contained bilge that segregates the grease that drips from the engine so that greasy water doesn't mix with the other water and get pumped out into the canal.  You have to empty that one into a sealed container and dispose of it properly.

Under the cabin is a long bilge that runs the length of the boat.  Rainwater doesn't get in there, and unless you're in very very deep trouble, neither does canal water.  But because the water in the canal outside is cold and the environment inside the boat is warm, condensation forms under the floor and drips into the cabin bilge.  And because narrowboats are always a bit stern-heavy (due to there being a massive hunk of metal called an engine in the back) this condensation collects at the back of the boat.  I was completely unaware of this phenomenon until earlier this summer when I was having my new diesel fuel tank installed.  Because the old fuel tank was discovered to have a small but unrepairable leak, the water in the main bilge had become contaminated, and as part of the removal and replacement of the tank one of the boatyard guys had to completely empty out that bilge and dispose of the diesely water.  And while he was at it, I asked him to pump out the cabin bilge, which I'd noticed had a fair bit of water in it.  Larry - the boatyard guy - is a boat dweller himself and lives on a boat of a similar vintage to mine.  And as he pumped out the cabin bilge with a shop vac, pausing to empty it over and over again, he asked me the last time I'd emptied the cabin bilge, at which point I had to admit I'd actually never, in the year and a half since I bought the boat, removed any water from the cabin bilge.  Larry was horrified at this and berated me at length, in between filling and emptying the shop vac.  So I started checking that bilge regularly, and even made a little recurring reminder to check all the bilges.  And I'm happy to report that once I got all that residual water out of the cabin bilge it has remained nice and dry.  Or at least only slightly damp, which on a boat of this vintage is a tick in the Win column.

There is one more bilge area on the boat - in the bow.  And because I'm now kind of hyper-aware of the water level inside the boat I check this one regularly too.  Since I've owned the boat the area under the front deck has always been quite dry.  However, I started to notice a bit of water collecting in this area.  At first I thought it was overspill from the water tank, which sits under the bow deck.  Lacking a more sophisticated water level indicator, I simply push the lid of the tank aside when filling and stop the water when it gets near the top of the tank.  And because the amount of fresh water on board is one of those finite boat resources that has a very direct effect on my lifestyle, I tend to fill it up as high as I can.  And sometimes I push it a bit and water slops out the back.  So I naively thought that was probably the source of the water.

(If this blog was an After School Special at this point there would be ominous music in the background foreshadowing the downfall to come caused by the main character's hubris.)

Recently as I was doing my weekly Bilge Check, I noticed that the amount water accumulated in the bow was getting a bit worrying.  And as I was inspecting, I could see a small disturbance in the surface water, causing a tiny bit of movement.  And then I saw it.

THE LEAK. (Cue organ crescendo)

True, it was tiny.  The merest pinprick.  But it was still a leak well below the waterline, and I could see the tiny stream of water coming in.  It was clear that the boat was TAKING ON WATER.  So naturally I was kind of freaked out.  Never mind that the rate of the leak was such that it would take about three months to accumulate even a few inches of water.  And never mind that I suspect even if the bow bilge was half full it would not send the Lucky Nickel to the bottom of the canal.  (See aforementioned back-heaviness.). And never mind that the bow bilge is sealed off from the rest of the boat.  Never mind any of that.  Because all I could see is that I live on a boat and THE BOAT WAS LEAKING.


(If this blog was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is the point at which claxons would sound and red lights would flash and the ship's computer would start saying, "Red Alert. Red Alert. Hull breach in Sector 7G. Initiating automatic containment of the affected zone.  Depressurisation imminent."  And then Riker would say, "But Captain, Wesley Crusher and a brand new litter of puppies are in Sector 7G!"  And then Captain Picard would do what I did and text Nes in South Africa.)

The permanent fix for a hole in a steel hulled boat is a welded steel patch.  However, to do this properly it needs to be done from the outside of the boat, which means the boat needs to be taken out of the water.  This is a genuinely Big Deal that can only happen at a proper boat yard with a crane and real boat-fixing people, and certainly not something that was going to happen in the next hour or so.

So yeah, I texted Nes, the Lucky Nickel’s Official Offsite Boat Repair Hotline (WhatsApp South Africa Division) and he suggested doing what I was going to try anyway, which is to clean the area as well as I could and then patch it with a lump of two part epoxy putty.  But first I needed to plug the hole with something to slow the water down and have a chance of creating a dry enough surface for the epoxy to bond.  And this is where the blog turns into an episode of MacGyver, which is generally how most boat related repairs end up.  Read on, but know that eventually, in true MacGyver fashion, all of the following were employed: a Leatherman multi tool, a hammer, a matchstick, a hairdryer, and the lid from a jar of Marks & Spencer strawberry jam.

The two-part epoxy putty.  Which claims to work underwater.  *snort*

Nes's suggestion for plugging the hole was to use a small sheet metal screw.  So I dutifully dug out a small sheet metal screw, and even fashioned a rubber washer using part of a bicycle inner tube patch.

Eat your heart out Richard Dean Anderson.

Then I looked at the size of the hole - probably less than a millimetre in diameter.  And I looked at the size of the screw - about three millimetres in diameter.  And I texted again, and Nes confirmed that yes, I'd have to make the hole bigger in order to get the screw in.  And I balked.  I knew intellectually that he was right.  The screw would thread tightly into the steel of the hull and the rubber would probably seal things up long enough to get a patch on. Captain Picard would not have hesitated.  But there is a reason I'm the captain of a forty year old narrowboat and not the captain of the USS Enterprise, flagship of the United Federation of Planets.  I couldn't do it.  I couldn't deliberately make a BIGGER hole in the side of my boat. What if the repair didn't work?  What if the steel of the hull in that area was actually thinner and weaker than we thought and the screw didn't hold and the hole got EVEN BIGGER?  And what if, while I was in the middle of the repair, a cloaked Romulan vessel appeared and we couldn't engage the warp engine because of the hull breach?  The consequences if anything went wrong were just too great.  And let’s face it - something was gonna go wrong.

Instead, I went with Nes's Plan B.  I shaved off a tiny pointy bit of matchstick and gently banged it into the hole with the hammer; that slowed the water to a trickle.  And then I dried the whole area with the hair dryer, except for the tiny bit where the water was trickling down, which wouldn’t dry, of course.  And I mixed up a lump of epoxy putty and pressed it onto the leak and used the strawberry jam jar lid to apply even pressure over the whole thing and sat there, crouched in the bilges, pressing that lid into the side of the boat for ten minutes.  Oh, and did I mention it was raining while all this was happening?

The clamping system

After a cup of coffee I went back to check and I could see there was still a small trickle of water escaping the patch.  So I started to prepare the surrounding area to put a fresh donut shaped ring of more putty around that and while I was doing so the entire patch - jam jar lid and all - popped right off.  Of course.

Crucially, though, the tiny sliver of matchstick held, and the flow of water into the boat was still a mere trickle.  Clearly that epoxy was just not the right product for the job.  But equally clearly, I wasn’t heading to Davy Jones’ Locker in the next few minutes, so there was time to fall back and regroup.  After a bit of googling the WhatsApp South Africa Division suggested a company called Wessex Resins.  So I seized the moment and called them and ended up talking to a lovely and helpful woman named Jackie.  I told Jackie my whole tale of woe.  And even though this is a company that supplies heavy industry and the Ministry of Defence and stuff, she really took her time with me to try and figure out the best solution.  Eventually she suggested an underwater epoxy that they use to apply rubber patches TO THE OUTSIDE OF SUBMARINES WHILE THEY’RE IN THE WATER.  In my case it involved using a special open-celled foam in conjunction with the two-part epoxy.  You apply the epoxy to the foam like you’re buttering a piece of toast - completely saturating it.  And then you press the toast onto the leak and the foam sort of squishes into the surface and holds back the water long enough for the epoxy to cure.  Maybe the bit right at the hole wouldn’t harden, but all around it would, creating a water tight seal.  Or that’s the theory.  (But again: SUBMARINES!!!)

And then Jackie asked again about the size of the hole.  Tiny by MoD standards, I imagine. Just a millimetre or so across.  “Well I guess you won’t need much then.” she said.  "We normally sell this in 10kg packs.”  (10 kg is about 9.93kg more than I needed.)  And then Jackie said, “So why don’t I just send you a couple of sample sized pots and an off-cut of the foam?  Just give me your address and I’ll pop it in the mail for you.  No charge.”  And so I thanked her profusely and repeatedly and gave her a mailing address swore that I would call her first and forevermore for all my future underwater epoxy purchases (which, given the eclectic nature of my work, is not actually an empty promise).  And a couple of days later I had this:

The epoxy and toast

About five days passed, and the matchstick MacGyver repair held admirably through six locks and two days of cruising, until I was finally ready for my second attempted repair on a quiet Sunday morning.  This time I was very diligent in preparing the surface - using a wire brush attachment on a drill and then cleaning the whole area over and over with solvent to allow for the best possible bond.  And I prepared a piece of plywood a bit bigger than the foam toast and covered it in clingfilm, as instructed by Jackie.  This was because Marks & Spencer doesn’t make jars of strawberry jam with lids big enough to press on this new, bigger patch.  And I dug up my heaviest piece of lead ballast and wrapped it in a plastic bag because it was covered with the grot of ages and impossible to handle.  And I tested pressing the plywood against the hull and holding it in place by leaning the ballast weight against it.

The plywood

The epoxy and toast, mixed and ready for spreading

And then I cracked open the epoxy and mixed.  And I buttered the toast.  And I stippled the surface of the area with more epoxy, according to the instructions, sort of like you do with contact cement.  And then I stuck the toast to the boat.

The buttered toast.  Butter side down, of course.

Then the plywood went on, and the ballast weight went against it, and I braced it all in place and made sure it was holding and backed slowly away.

I left it there for more than a day, which drove the WhatsApp South Africa Division slightly crazy, but I really didn’t want to do anything sudden.  And with such a small amount of epoxy pressed up against the cold steel of the boat I figured the cure time might be longer than the instructions said. (Very limited opportunity for an exothermic reaction to accelerate the process.  Obviously.)  Plus if I screwed it up I figured I’d end up having to buy 10kg of epoxy to try again, so Nes had to wait.  In the mean time though, I could see that there was no water trickling down out of the patch.

Eventually I took off the plywood and here’s what it looks like.  I suspect the toast really needed more butter - it’s probably supposed to soak through completely all over.   But the layer of epoxy is probably half an inch thick overall and - crucially - it’s holding.

And then I went online and ordered flowers and sent them to the lovely Jackie at Wessex Resins.  Because that’s how we roll here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters aboard the now-once-again-watertight Lucky Nickel.

I think Captain Picard would have done the same thing.

The Days Out Just Keep Coming: Chatham Dockyard

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The political disarray / turmoil / armageddon following the referendum result I wrote about last time continues unabated this summer.  But here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters we're resuming normal service in an attempt to pretend that the world isn't crashing down around our ears.  So, with my Hampstead Theatre show up and running and proving to be a critical and box office success (phew) and with a new job starting in September (more on that another time), I've got the leisure to put my feet up for a bit and sip G&Ts on the back deck and enjoy the tiny intervals of sunny weather that pop up over the next few weeks.  I've also go the leisure to tell you about an excellent Day Out I had in May when my friend Nes came for a visit.  Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember Nes as the the official Lucky Nickel Remote Engine Troubleshooting Hotline - South Africa/Whatsapp Division, and the Officer in Charge of Iron Smelting Explanations, Driving and Diesel Engine Inspection on previous Days Out.

Anyway, Nes was in town for a long weekend.  Originally we'd hoped to take the Lucky Nickel on a great adventure on the Thames, coming out the locks in the west at Brentford and traveling downstream though central London, under a Tower Bridge (!!) and back into the canal system at Limehouse Basin.  Sadly, the logistics of that turned out to be a bit daunting, and the potential for disaster a bit too high, so we decided to rent a car and strike out for another sort of adventure.  Since Nes and I are similarly minded on the subject of Big Greasy Gears and cool engineering in general, I consulted my go-to manual for such things (the “Guide to Britain’s Working Past” by Anthony Burton) - a handbook to basically every large gear in the country) and we decided on a quick jaunt down to Chatham Historic Dockyard.

There’s been a shipyard at Chatham since the mid 16th century, building ships for the Royal Navy until 1984, when it was shut down.  The working dockyard used to encompass more that 400 acres of buildings, slipways, dry docks and workshops.  When it was shut a portion of the structures were turned into a commercial port with other areas becoming residential.  What was left - the 80 acre core of the Georgian era dockyard - was opened as a tourist attraction featuring, among other things, a massive collection of lifeboats, three restored warships of different eras open to the public, and a still working Victorian Ropery.

Because we were visiting on a Monday, the place was gratifyingly deserted, and we started off in a massive building housing the dockyard’s collection of lifeboats.  It’s worth pausing here for a few words about the RNLI - The Royal National Lifeboat Institution - a venerable and much respected group here in the UK whose describe themselves simply as “the charity that saves lives at sea”.  Given that this is quite a small island in quite a large sea (there’s nowhere on the island that’s more than about 70km from tidal waters) it’s no wonder that this group of mainly volunteers is held in such high esteem.  Started in 1824, it operates 237 lifeboat stations around the coast, with more than 400 individual lifeboats.  Most boats are crewed by volunteers (only one in ten of which have any professional maritime experience) who undergo extensive training for 18 months before becoming qualified lifeboat crew members.  The RNLI also provide lifeguards on the UK's beaches.  Remarkably, over its almost 200 year history, the RNLI has saved more than 140,000 lives (That’s not a typo.  One hundred and forty thousand.)  However, this figure has come with the loss of 600 RNLI crew lives.  In 2015 alone, RNLI crews rescued an average of 22 people EVERY DAY.  It’s a remarkable institution staffed by people who are prepared to drop what they’re doing at any moment and put to sea to save the lives of strangers.  You know those little plastic collection buckets you see at checkouts in shops all over?  Here those are often branded for the RNLI.  Drop a pound or two in the next time you see one - donation like these account for 28% of their funding.

Here’s me at the oars of a mock-up lifeboat in the collection. I'm pointing out that the guy in front of me is not pulling his weight.

The lifeboat collection is housed alongside an odd and eclectic bunch of vehicles and machinery, including this steam-powered forging hammer, which was labelled for “light work”.

Naturally, we both thought this was excellent, if a bit on the titchy side.

Mostly, though, we were killing time before we could visit HMS Ocelot, tickets for which are issued for timed tours. The Ocelot is one of those three restored warships I mentioned earlier. HMS Gannet is a Victorian sloop built in 1878 and HMS Cavalier is a WWII-era destroyer - they’re both open to the public and you can wander in and out at your leisure.  But the Ocelot can only be visited on a guided tour with a limited number of people allowed on each tour, because of the tight space involved.  Why is space so tight?  Because the Ocelot is a submarine!

The tour was conducted by a volunteer and took us through the whole boat, which is setup in permanent dry dock.

We started in the forward torpedo bay, which included six torpedo tubes (amusingly, the two aft torpedo tubes were later taken out of service and used by the crew as beer coolers).  The Ocelot was equipped with wire-guided torpedoes - a concept I was not familiar with.  Basically, the torpedo is attached to a very very very long cable that allows the boat to adjust the heading of the torpedo en route by changing the position of the torpedoes fins.  The forward torpedo bay also housed the escape system.  In the event of a shallow escape (up to 100 feet) the compartment would be flooded and breathing air supplied through a series of tubes for each man in line for the escape hatch.  The man at the head of the line would take one last breath and then swim through the hatch, while everyone in the queue behind would move up one space to the next breathing tube.  They also had a limited number of deep escape suits which could be used at depths up to 700 feet.

Breathing tube, and deep water rescue suit

Moving through the submarine, which was crewed by 69 men, you could appreciate the cramped quarters and way every surface was festooned with equipment.  (As the permanent crew of a similarly long, skinny and somewhat cramped floating vessel myself, I could sympathise.)  We travelled through the crew quarters and past the galley, where two cooks provided for all the crew on board, even cooking fresh bread every day.

Crew quarters

The galley

And we visited the control room and got to look through the main periscope, which was remarkably clear and bright.

Nes at the periscope

This was absolutely my favourite bit of the engine control room.  More control panels should include such useful indicators.

We also saw the engine room - powered by diesel.  I was surprised to learn that the diesel engines don’t actually propel the ship.  HMS Ocelot is a diesel electric vessel, meaning the diesel engines are run simply to charge massive battery banks.  The boat is propelled by 3,000HP electric motors powered by those batteries.  On a long deployment - up to about 3 months - the engines would be run three times a day to charge the batteries.  Normal speed would be about 6 knots, but at top speed - 17 knots - the batteries could power the boat for only 45 minutes.

The submarine tour was excellent, and our group was small, so we got to ask lots of questions of the guide, all of which I’ve now forgotten (hey… it was two months ago!).  I’ve got notes about something to do with oxygen generation and CO2 absorption.  And one note that reads, and I quote: "Attack periscope, search persuasive, radar, induction mast gives fresh aircraft”. Make of that one what you will, but bear in mind that autocorrect may play a part.  I also clearly remember something about how a submarines sometimes descend all the way to the seabed to avoid detection but that this is a risky practice because it’s actually possible to get stuck to the bottom of the seabed by suction and even blowing out all the ballast tanks won’t free you.  Which certainly made me grateful that the bottom of the canal is only about 2 feet lower than the bottom of my little boat, meaning that even if it were stuck fast to the bottom I’d still only get wet up to about my knees and the Lucky Nickel’s collection of priceless artworks would be quite safe.

After the submarine, we spent a bit of time poking around on HMS Cavalier, the WWII destroyer, where I had my picture taken with the ship’s bell, which seems to be becoming a tradition.  (And yes, the Lucky Nickel does have a bell, in case you were wondering.)

We also looked at the tall ship HMS Gannet, but again, that was just killing time waiting for what for me was the main event of the day - a guided tour of the Victorian Ropery!  In the age of sail, the navy needed prodigious amounts of rope to fit out the ships built in the dockyard. Each ship required, on average, TWENTY MILES of rope for its rigging, so you can imagine why there have been dedicated rope-making facilities on site since 1618.

The Ropery at Chatham is distinguished by its ropewalk - the long building where the strands of yarn come together to be twisted into rope.  Since the length of the completed rope is determined by the length of the strands that go into it, and because those strands need to be stretched taut during the rope-making process, a ropewalk building is necessarily very very long.  The Ropery at Chatham, built in the early 1700s is 1,135 feet long (close to a quarter of a mile) and when constructed it was the longest brick building in Europe.  Even better - the Chatham Ropery is still in operation, run by a commercial company that still use the traditional equipment and methods to produce rope.  They’ve even recently taken on an apprentice, which is positively excellent.

The current building dates to 1792 and in order to see the whole thing we were once again channeled into a timed guided tour.  However, instead of the system on the submarine where the tour was led by a volunteer who was knowledgeable and interested and happy to answer questions, the Ropewalk tour was conducted in that infuriating and now-vogue manner by a woman dressed in historical clothing and taking on the persona of a ropery worker from the 18th century.  I find this a tiresome and awkward practice, and in this case it was worse than most, since the character this woman was portraying was particularly disgruntled and unlikable.  I suppose this might be considered innovative or interesting but in fact is almost exactly like being given a guided tour by someone disgruntled and unlikable.

Nevertheless, the woman did manage to get the information out, and I was able to lurk in the background well enough that I didn’t have to interact with her directly (though one poor guy in out group was picked out as “husband material” by our guide and subjected to more or less constant poorly-delivered asides).  But back to the rope-making:  naturally, the process starts with raw fibre.  Traditionally this was hemp from Russia, though later manila from Filipino banana trees was used and more recently sisal (from cactus) and coir (from coconut) have come into play. The fibres are first combed out in a process called hatchelling, which was originally done by hand, but later came to be done by machines.  After hatchelling, the fibres are spun into yarn. Here again the process was once a highly skilled trade done by spinners who could produce 1,000 feet of yarn from a single 65lb bundle carried around their waists.  By the late 19th century a single mechanised spinning machine could produce the same amount of yarn as 24 spinners.

Once the yarn is wound onto spools it’s ready to be turned into rope.  Individual threads of yarn are fed through register plates and then onto the hooks of a forming machine.

Here’s the yarn going through register plates

And here’s what the travelling end of the machinery looks like on the big ropewalk.  It’s got wheels because as the yarns are twisted they become shorter, so one end of the apparatus needs to be on wheels and moves forward as the yarn is twisted.

Each hook spins, twisting several yarns together into a strand.  Once the strands are complete, they’re twisted together into rope.  This was all demonstrated to us in the exhibition area outside the main ropewalk, with two of the gentlemen of the tour group pressed into service operating both ends of a small set-up, turning cranks in opposite directions at each end.  First they formed the yarn into strands, then the guide reconfigured the strands on the machine and the guys had another go at the cranks and we watched the three strands come together into rope.  Ropes made for naval service would also include a coloured tracer line.  Because rope was such an important part of naval life, each of the major naval rope makers (at Chatham, Woolwich, Portsmouth and Plymouth) was required to include in their ropes a single yarn of a specific colour so that if the rope failed in service the navy could trace it back to its origin.

The demonstration was actually quite impressive and remarkably quick.  Best of all, after it was finished we were left to our own devices to explore the actual ropewalk itself.

The ropewalk

It’s so long the employees often use bicycles to get from one end to the other.

These wooden horses keep the rope off the ground as it’s being made.  
You can see they’ve been around a while.

Most of the tour group abandoned the ropewalk at the first exit but Nes and I walked the whole quarter mile, and we were rewarded because the far end housed all the supplies for the actual ropemaking company, including racks full of spools of yarn and extra machinery and stuff.  And to counteract the annoying tour guide woman, we also came upon an employee of the dockyard who was every inch the eccentric English enthusiast.  An older gentleman, tall but a bit stooped and dishevelled and somewhat pre-occupied in that the manner of one who would almost certainly not be wearing matching socks but would be able to explain, in excruciating detail, the difference between a three-stranded hawser-laid rope and four-stranded shroud-laid rope.  We listened to him ramble for a bit and then slowly made our way back to the main dockyard area.

Rack of spools of yarn

It was late in the afternoon by this point, and the whole place was almost shut down.  We wandered through a few more exhibits, but quickly decided it was time to move on.  We made a quick attempt to see Upnor Castle, but it was closed too.  Also, Nes had a flight to Johannesburg to catch, so we sped to Heathrow where he hopped out after giving me somewhat vague directions back to the hire car place.  It was around this time that I realised I hadn’t driven at all since last Christmas, and hadn’t driven on the left since about October of 2014, and had only a rough idea of where I was headed and had only Google maps to guide me, which kept insisting on taking me on a faster but much more complicated route than I wanted.  So let’s just say the trip back was fraught and ended with me abandoning any attempt to find a petrol station to fill up, thus incurring a somewhat steep penalty charge. Still, I’d have paid double that just to get it all over with.  And regardless of the day's ignominious end, it was most certainly a Grand Day Out.

Nes, hamming it up at the wheel of HMS Cavalier.

P.S.  As usual, there are more pictures at Flickr.


Monday, July 4, 2016

This week I was going to blog about another fun day out.  I sat down in the requisite coffee-shop-with-free-wifi and opened up my notes and then I realised I couldn’t.  Because on June 23rd the world broke, and it’s been impossible to ignore, and I feel like I have to get some things out.

Unbelievable.  Unthinkable.  Impossible.  And, these days, inescapable.

You’d have to be living under a rock on Venus to be unaware of the EU referendum vote result here in the UK, but I’ll say it anyway.  In a vote that many think David Cameron never should have called (surely now including Cameron himself), 52% of those who participated decided that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union.  There were a lot of issues involved.  The Remain side focussed on the economic consequences of a vote to exit; Leavers dwelt heavily on immigration.  I admit I didn’t examine the issues in detail.  For me, and, I think, for a lot of people, this was a time to vote your conscience.  There were no party lines, as evidenced by the open warfare in the Conservative Party, and the continuing upheaval plaguing Labour.

(Wait, actually, I lie. Some people voted along party lines. Apologies to all those GSWPL readers who support UKIP.  (Hands up out there!  Hello? Helloooooo???)  For Astute but Non-UK-based GSWPL readers: UKIP is a right-wing, populist, Euro-sceptic party whose leader, Nigel Farage, is kind of like our very own Donald Trump. Except that he and 21 of his fellows are Members of the European Parliament.  Yep.  A strongly anti-EU party has the largest number of MEPs of any party in the UK.  You could not make this stuff up.)

Because the polls closed so late on referendum day (10:00pm) everyone said there wouldn’t be a result until morning, but I woke up a few times in the night and rolled over to check the news when I did.  When I went to bed the general feeling was that Remain would win but when I woke at about 2:30am, the BBC was reporting an unexpected shift towards Leave.  I rolled over and went back to sleep.  Then at 5am I roused again and saw the unthinkable had happened.  The BBC had declared the Leave vote had won.  I’m not sure how I got back to sleep after that; maybe it was the ostrich effect.  When I finally woke up completely it was to a three-letter text from my friend Gerald in Amsterdam: “OMG…”  And it was clear I hadn’t dreamed it.  My response: “What the fuck?!?”  and then: “It’s like waking up with the worst hangover ever, and then realising someone gave you a racist tattoo while you were drunk the night before.”  I started getting emails from friends back on Canada saying things like:
“You can still come home."
"Well, um, congratulations on Britain's new found state of being.  As John Oliver said 'Britain would be batshit crazy to leave the EU'. I guess no one saw his show."
And I kind of just lay in bed, feeling sort of paralysed.  And ripped off.  Part of the reason I got my UK citizenship in the first place was precisely because of the European Union.  Because it meant that I had the option of living, working, or even retiring, in any EU state, not just the UK.  In a very real sense, my UK passport was a golden ticket. (I originally wrote that sentence as "IS a golden ticket" and then had to go back and change the verb to the past tense.  Damnit!)  Without that passport, I wouldn’t have been hired to work on the London 2012 Ceremonies or the European Games in Baku, which led to gigs in Cairo and Abu Dhabi. And I know withdrawal from the European Union doesn’t mean that the UK will no longer be part of Europe.  That’s just a geographic fact.  (Which reminds me of the first Quebec referendum in Canada, held in 1980, when I was in elementary school.  When we were discussing the topic in school a classmate asked, “But if Quebec separates from Canada, where will they go?”, as if the whole land mass might just separate from the continent and drift off towards Bordeaux.)  But I can’t help but feel that the country has pulled up the drawbridge.  It feels like a smaller, more parochial, sadder and decidedly unfriendlier place than it was.

The other thing I did when I woke up that Friday morning was check the exchange rate on the pound.  Back when I was a normal person with a job and a house in Canada I had the usual pension funds and retirement savings and was well on my way to a comfortable if dull dotage supported by the Canada Pension Plan (ha!), my own savings and the power of compound interest.  Then I took a large chunk out of my prime earning years by quitting that job and selling that house and spending a year traveling, closely followed by leaving the country completely to restart my career and reestablish myself in a much bigger and tougher labour market.  And while I have no regrets at all about this decision (unless it’s that I should have done it five years sooner) it does mean that until recently I wasn’t really doing anything about retirement planning other than casually googling recipes involving cat food and suggesting to my much more grown-up friend Karen that she might keep a space for me in her garden shed.

Last year I finally got my act together and started properly investing and have since been slowly transferring money back to a portfolio in Canada.  But, being the cautious sort that I am, I still had a chunk of money here in the UK that, while earmarked as “retirement savings”, was a bit of a safety net.  On referendum day, as the pundits were saying the vote was too close to call, I wondered if I should seize the moment and send that pot of money back to Canada.  The pound at that time was hovering near 1.90 CDN, not as good as it’s been, but still very respectable.  However, the general mood was that Brexit would never happen, and I figured when the vote went for Remain, there could very well be a slight bump that would work in my favour, so I held off.  When I woke up on Friday morning the pound had plummeted against the Canadian dollar, and I’d lost about $1700.  And while it levelled off a bit in the days after the vote, it’s actually taken another dive recently.

Screenshot 2016-07-02 14.58.52
When the media says the currency fell off a cliff, this is what it looks like.  And it’s not just the pound, of course; the euro is suffering too.  (Sorry, euro…)  Yeah, sure, it will recover some of what it’s lost.  Eventually.  But soon?  No, I don’t think so.   Because everyone says the market hates uncertainty, and that’s all we’ve got right now.  
Huge, yawning, scary uncertainty.

I have a close friend who voted Leave.  I remember being shocked when he told me; it just seemed so weird and insupportable. Cosseted as I’ve been in the London bubble (where the vote was 60% for Remain), reading The Guardian, and hanging out with a lefty arty crowd, it was easy to think that most everyone felt like I did.  Confirmation bias, I guess.  We talked about it a little bit, me and my friend, and mostly I think for him it came down to a question of national sovereignty.  He didn’t like that the UK was subject to EU law and regulation, and he wasn't interested being part of the EU's "ever-closer union".  I can see that point.  Being in the EU is like being in a marriage (albeit a sort of Mormon-ish marriage with 27 spouses…).  You accept certain restrictions in exchange for certain benefits.  Help support your wife’s Uncle Stavros because he’s fallen on hard times, but also enjoy using the in-laws’ vacation house on the French Riviera.  Hire a hard-working Polish woman to clean your house every week, but acknowledge she deserves the same health care and social support that your English-born neighbour needs.  Enjoy the free movement of goods and capital but understand that it comes along with the free movement of services and people.  Unfortunately, while I trust that my friend simply has a different opinion about the cost vs. benefits of being in the EU, I fear that many who voted to leave may not have based their opinion on such firm ground.

This was certainly the case for another acquaintance who voted for Leave.  I was shocked to hear his anger and disillusionment with what he described as lies told by the Leave campaign to bolster support. (For instance, the now-infamous claim, splashed on the side of the Leave campaign bus, that £350 million per week would saved and re-distributed if the UK left the EU).  I know the Remain side were also not innocent.  And it's easy to think that anyone who believes all the claims politicians peddle when on the hustings deserves what they get.  But my friends anger was palpable and as he claimed that he'd "never vote again" I couldn't help but wonder how many other people in the country were simply giving up on the entire system after this ugly and divisive vote.

I said earlier that this feels like an unfriendlier place now, and I really mean it.  There have been reports of a sharp increase in incidents of racist attacks and rhetoric since the vote (reported incidents up 57%).  Most people now say that the main issue that swayed Leave voters was immigration.  I’m an immigrant to this country myself, but of course I’m not the kind of immigrant people are reacting to.  People are reacting to non-English speaking, brown-skinned, non-Christian or otherwise Different immigrants.  People they see as taking away jobs, flooding the health care system, drawing social benefits and basically overburdening the country.  People that make their country feel like it's not their country anymore.  The parallels with Donald Trump’s supporters are inescapable and, based on this referendum result, kind of frightening.

The referendum vote divided sharply along a few key demographic lines.  The older you are, the more likely you were to vote Leave - 21% of under 26s voted Leave whereas 69% of over 65s wanted out.  Most pundits attribute this in part to a sort of nostalgia among older voters to recapture an England that simply no longer exists. (And likely never will, regardless of the EU). More tellingly, those in prosperous areas of the country like London were strongly for Remain; perennially poorer areas like the North-East went for Leave.  Level of education was also a strong indicator - 64% of university graduates voted to remain compared to 25% of those with no formal post-secondary qualifications.  And, corollary to that, those in professional or management jobs were 58% in favour of remain compared with 27% in unskilled jobs.  I could quote stats all day long (these ones came from this article) but they’re all saying the same thing, and in my view it’s the same thing that’s fuelling Trump’s rise in America.  People with the economic means or education or professional contacts or temperament or, well, who are we kidding? - people with money or power - benefit from the kind of globalisation that the EU represents much more than people without.  What we’re seeing is, as one Guardian columnist termed it, “a howl of rage against exclusion, alienation and remote authority”.  

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, and I fear this blog has been little more than a semi-coherent ramble.  There’s been an online petition calling for a second referendum, but I'm not really sure it’s right.  Never mind that a referendum is a remarkably blunt instrument for a complicated issue.  Never mind that David Cameron should really be considering getting a tattoo that says “Ask a stupid question…”.  Never mind reports of small but statistically significant numbers of Leave voters saying they wouldn’t have voted that way if they thought Leave would actually win. (Aside: ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME???).  Never mind all of that. Because flawed though it may be, a referendum is still about as pure as democracy gets. There’s not much left to do but buckle up and see what happens.

For now, I leave the last words to someone I suspect few on the island would accuse of being anything less than the truest of Englishmen, Sir Winston Churchill:

On the one hand:
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
And on the other:
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried."

At least some of us have rediscovered their sense of humour.

Yet another day out: Bristol and Banksy

Saturday, June 18, 2016

I bet you thought you were finished hearing me go on about Bristol, right?  Ha!  How wrong you were.  How many more wonders of Victorian engineering can I tell you about?  How many soaring bridges?  How many big, greasy gears?  How many ground-breaking maritime propellor designs?  None.  That’s how many.  No more Victorians.  Today, we’re rocketing into the very modern world of street art.

Is it art? Or is it vandalism?  Read on.

"Street Art?”, you say, "Isn’t that just an apologetic, politically correct term for good old fashioned graffiti?”  Sort of, yes.  Technically, street art is a subset of graffiti.  Because technically, graffiti is "writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or painted illicitly on a wall or other surface”. (Thank you, once again, Wikipedia.) (And yes, I’m aware that technically, graffiti is plural and so that last sentence really should have been “graffiti ARE” not "graffiti IS” but that would make me sound like even more of an insufferable pedant than usual.)  Opponents might sniffily dismiss street art as unwelcome and destructive, but fans would say it's public art, albeit usually (though not always) unsanctioned.  And Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers will recall we’ve already seen some particularly charming examples of Paris street art from a much earlier Day Out.

As it turns out, Bristol is a hotbed of street art, thanks largely to the most famous street artist in the world, Banksy.  Banksy is the nom de plume of an anonymous Bristol-based artist and political activist whose freehand creations first appeared on Bristol walls starting 1990.  What’s he’s best know for, though, are his now-iconic stencilled works on anti-establishment themes. And yes, I said anonymous.  Despite the fact that he’s now internationally renowned and his work sells for considerable sums, his true identity is still unverified. (Yeah, yeah, people mostly kinda think they’ve figured things out, but let’s not spoil it. )

Probably Banksy’s most recognisable work, exhibiting his trademark black sprayed stencil, a pop of colour, and a memorable epigram.  This one appeared on London’s South Bank in 2002.

Banksy may be Bristol’s most famous street artist (by a long chalk) but he is certainly not the only one.  Which is why, after a Saturday full of Victorian boats and bridges, I decided to spend my Sunday morning on a guided tour of the ever-changing display of Bristol’s Street Art.  The tour started at College Green in the city’s centre, which is also the city of Bristol City Hall.  Our guide was herself an artist, and she started by talking a little about the scene in Bristol and about the nature of street art.  I guess it’s a particular challenge guiding this kind of tour because street art can be a highly transient medium.  The guide admitted she’s constantly scouting and having to revise the tour route to take in new works and bypass old ones that have been painted over or tagged beyond recognition.

Street art comes in many forms.  Most people will immediately think of the colourful freehand spray painted murals that show up on walls and hoardings.  Spray paint’s big advantage is that it’s fast and easy to transport.  It also dries very quickly, which allows you to layer over it and build up complex work in a short amount of time, and that can be important if you’re working on the edge of legality.

But freehand spraying is just one form of street art.  At the bottom of the hierarchy is tagging, which I’d say doesn’t really constitute art at all.  To give you an analogy, tagging is to street art as living statues are to opera.  Or possibly as balloon folding is to the symphony.  Tagging is that annoying signature-like thing that’s usually done simply with thick felt-tipped markers or spray paint.  Taggers each have a particular design for their tags that they repeat over and over.

A piece called “The Big Deal” by an artist called JPS.   
The sort of hand-shaped thing above it is a tag.

And here’s a close-up of that artwork.  Quite clever and Banksian.  

JPS started his career after a very rough past of substance abuse and homelessness.  He saw the Banksy exhibition in Bristol in 2009 and it inspired him to turn his life around.  He’s now a respected street artist in his own right, and this piece is a tribute and thank you to Banksy.  Note the CCTV camera above the two kids, clearly focused away from their deal.  And also note that while the tagger made his mark, he didn’t actually deface JPS’s work.  There tends to be a certain respect paid.

The Big Deal is a good example of stencilling, including different colours and probably some added brushwork and spraying.  This kind of mixed media can be common.  Here’s a quite famous Banksy that we saw at the start of our tour.  It’s located right across the street from Bristol City Hall, and is a bit of a taunt to the council authorities who removed a previous Banksy work showing a scuba diver pulling a giant bath plug out of the fountain in front of city hall.  (A lot of Banksy’s stuff makes very clever reference to existing architecture or textures in the wall surface.)

This one is sometimes called “The Well Hung Man”.  And the building was once a sexual health clinic.  After the local council bought the building and considered removing the piece, 95% of Bristolians voted to keep it. Sadly, this hasn't stopped wankers from vandalising it with paintballs.

Stencils have the advantage of allowing an artist to carefully plan a work in advance - some stencils are even laser cut which allows for great detail.  And stencilling means a complex piece can be executed quite quickly on site.  Some artists, though, go for the old faithful paint brush.  It’s a much slower method, but allows for more precision than spraying (even with a stencil). Quickest of all, though, is a paste-up, which is precisely what it sounds like - a pre-printed piece of paper or set of papers that’s simply pasted onto the wall.  More complex paste-ups can even be 3D, sort of like the Paris Space Invaders.

This guy does plaster casts of his own face and sticks them on the wall.  
Because everyone needs a hobby.

Bristol’s street art scene is established enough that they even held a sanctioned festival in 2011.  Specific buildings were identified, high-angle access equipment hired, and international artists flown in from around the globe.  Our guide showed us several of the giant artworks that were part of the festival, and the most astonishing thing for me was that  they were buildings I’d walked past the day before, utterly obliviously.  If I’d simply turned my face up I might have seen this:

By an American artist called El Mac

OR this:

Stik is a well-known London-based artist who only does these funny stick figures.

And once my eyes had been opened, I could see that Bristol is frankly blanketed in street art. Giant murals, tiny paste-ups, witty stencils, and endless tags.  I was particularly taken with a clever sort of stencilling on an old and dirty stone council building.  Rather than painting on top of the stone, the artist created a stencil and pressure-washed his design so that he was, technically, not actually applying anything to the wall.

It’s reverse graffiti!  And is it vandalism at all if you’re actually cleaning the wall?

We finished our tour in the neighbourhood of Stokes Croft, which has a reputation for being a rough neighbourhood.  But the building where we ended - Hamilton House - is clearly helping to turn that around.  The building houses artists’ studios, festival offices, radio stations, film and music producers, alternative therapists, dance groups and social enterprises of all stripes. There’s also a café on the ground floor, and that’s where we saw the last works in the tour. Our guide has a studio in the building and she showed us a commissioned work she’d done that I found just lovely.


Because this was a commission, and is located in a locked parking area, she had time to work and there’s much less chance of the work being tagged or painted over.

A few local guys were sitting in the outdoor seating area of the café, one of them wearing a Dismaland hoodie.  They bantered with us a bit, clearly aware of why we were there, and implying that one of them might be Banksy himself.  But the whole exchange was tinged with a bitter note that made you think these guys must be very tired of their neighbourhood and community being on display for passing rubberneckers.  This, coupled with the fact that the café didn’t really have any nice pastries, meant that once the tour ended I left quickly for a more welcoming spot.  But not before appreciating this last giant mural.

It’s a 28’ high break-dancing Jesus.  
And if that’s not a good way to end a blog, then I’m hanging up my keyboard right now.

P.S.  As usual, there are more photos at Flickr.  And even if you rarely bother to click over to my lovingly curated Flickr albums because you can’t stand to look at another set of gears, it’s worth doing so this time, because there’s just a load of fun street art stuff there in the Bristol Album.  And also because I pay twenty quid a year to keep that Flickr account ticking over, so have a go.