He's behind you!

Sunday, December 24, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Thou shalt employ gender-bending casting:

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

5. Thou shalt have a Dame:

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

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

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

6. Thou shalt subject thy patrons to Audience Participation:

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

7. Thou shalt have lots of music:

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

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

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

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

9. Thou shalt make a mess:

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

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

10. Thou shalt cast minor celebrities:

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

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

This Old Boat

Sunday, December 3, 2017

I mentioned last time that November was a busy month here at Go Stay Work Play Live World HQ on board the Lucky Nickel. As I said, I was working on some fairly extensive interior renovations on the boat, and am pleased to report that things are looking decidedly more ship-shape these days. Not wanting to miss a chance to show off the boat, and ever mindful of the small percentage of the vanishingly tiny number of regular GSWPL readers out there who are keenly interested in all things boaty (Steve G, are you still out there?), I thought I’d do a little Before & After, and tell you a little bit about what it’s like to live in 200 square feet (18 square metres) while renovating large chunks of it at the same time. (Spoiler alert: Difficult and annoying!)

Back when I bought it, the boat was not exactly the slickest looking thing on the canal. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember the outside was a nasty shade of worn out green. And they’ll also remember the exciting moment when I got home from the first Azerbaijan gig to the freshly painted boat and later when I had the sign writing done. That was the first step.

Boat exterior - Before and After

Then I went on to tackle some of the more egregious interior fittings, eventually getting to a point where things were in all cases functional and in some cases even sort of normal-looking.

Like here in the bedroom

Living Room
And here's what the living area looked like on the day I bought the boat, and what it looked like a few coats of paint and several years later.

All of these were relatively simple upgrades. Paint does wonders, and replacing the Unabomber style rough-edged wooden shelving in the kitchen with clean white timber was easy and had a lot of impact. But there were still a few things that I knew were going to be a much much bigger job.

The kitchen area is better than it was, but still, those open shelves and rough drawers were just not up to scratch.

And the floor. Ah... the floor. It was a mottled mish-mash of very worn cork tile glued over wood-effect vinyl glued over the plywood subfloor. Mostly. Some areas had no cork. Some had no vinyl either. And there were a number of worryingly squishy soft spots that I’d simply covered with patches of plywood reasoning that I’d fix when I dealt with the floor in general. Because no number of trips to IKEA or coats of paint were going to make that floor anything that I wanted to continue to live with.

As I said, I've been planning this for a while. I estimated things would take about a month and resolved to simply settle in at my far-flung mooring for the duration. There are some significant advantages to the mooring. First, I can plug into mains power, which is critical even if you only consider the amount of vacuuming I had to do. Second, there’s a B&Q just down the road (for Canadian readers, substitute Home Depot for B&Q). There’s also a large Tesco nearby so I could easily keep myself fed. (I had lunch most days in the Tesco CafĂ© where they do a pretty credible tuna mayonnaise jacket potato and nice raspberry brownies). The marina is also an easy place to receive deliveries. In fact, I got quite adept at driving the boat backwards from my berth to the slipway near the carpark making it relatively simple to get large amounts of stuff on and off the boat.

Like this! Here’s the lovely men from the stage company loading up the ridiculously small amount of worldly goods I sent away to give myself a bit of working space.

I probably could have managed with a slightly smaller storage pod.

The marina also has one significant disadvantage: it is so poorly located for transport that I have to allocate about 90 minutes to get anywhere more exciting than Acton. Even though I’ve moored at places that are geographically much further from central London, the particular corner of the world where my marina is happens to fall inconveniently far from any tube or rail station and is served by a single circuitous bus route that seems to spend most of its time stuck in traffic. The cursed Route E6 doesn’t even have the self-respect to use double-decker buses, which is a dead giveaway that you're not exactly at Piccadilly Circus. I reasoned that the difficulty of escaping the area would simply concentrate my efforts to finish up and be free.

So it began. With extraneous materials removed, I dismantled the old bed frame and the bedroom officially became the workshop. And what does any self-respecting workshop need? A good power saw of course!

The workshop. Check out that saw! It’s a chop saw that is also a table saw! Bloody brilliant. I’m very very very happy with this device. I even built the new bed frame so that the saw fits exactly underneath it. I love this saw. But it did make a LOT of sawdust, hence all the vacuuming.

First on the list was re-building the front step to turn it into a much larger, more stable and more accessible storage area, and next was a new bed frame that hinges up for easier access to the storage underneath. Then it was on to the floor! I decided to use the same engineered laminate flooring through the whole boat, though not the posh kind that’s got a layer of real wood on the top. Mine has a very attractive picture of wood on it, and some fake embossed texture to add to the illusion. It’s nicer than it sounds, really. What was NOT nice was getting 150kg of laminate flooring from B&Q onto the boat.

This photo was taken part way down the long road between B&Q and the marina, with me hauling that cart every inch of the way. Then I carried each of those surprisingly heavy packs to the very very end of the pier to my berth and then stacking them in the boat. And then I trudged the empty cart back to B&Q. Tough day. I repeated this process for other materials too. It was kind of not fun.

The flooring install was ok. Mostly it was all just… tricky. It’s such a tiny space to work in that I was constantly stepping over things and having to shift stuff around just to be able to make progress. I think I probably spent about half the time working and half the time getting ready to work or shifting things around to prepare a next step or vacuuming and tidying up at the end of each day. The end of day clean-up was the most dispiriting. By the time I was ready to call it a day, sometimes it looked like this:

Holes in the floor, tools and debris everywhere, vacuum constantly in a place to be tripped over, and temporary structure holding stuff up. And odd bits of normal life interspersed, like the aloe plant in the middle of the chaos and a suspicious tin of lager on the counter...

There was only one room in the boat that was relatively free from building detritus - the bathroom. Every morning I had to dismantle the temporary bed (three couch cushions, three blankets, two pillows and a spare sleeping bag for extra insulation), and stack all the bedding on top of the bedroom drawers that lived for a month in the shower stall. 

Couch cushions went in front of this and then shelves and folding chair and whatever else was in the way.

It took me about an hour every night to get all the tools stowed, exile the debris to ever-growing piles on the pier outside the boat, and vacuum and vacuum and vacuum some more. Then I could open up the bathroom and rebuild the bed and then, finally, think about making some supper. I did get into a bit of a rhythm but really, it’s not an ideal way of working. It was, however, very very cheap. No added living costs and no commute time to get from bed to workshop!

I feel like I’m getting things out of order here, but that’s kind of how it happened. I started the floor and got it laid through the bedroom, bathroom and hallway before I had to start dismantling kitchen cabinets in order to get the new flooring into that area. Plus, because both the stove and the fridge have flexible gas connections, I was keen not to have to disconnect them because that would mean getting a certified gas engineer in to re-connect them. Instead I carefully shifted them from side to side, accessing tiny areas of floor then shifting again for the next tiny area. There were times when the only way to get from the work area to the rest of the boat was to climb over the stove.

And then it all went a bit wrong. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers may recall me mentioning worryingly squishy bits of floor in the kitchen, which I cleverly ignored for a few years by laying some plywood and pretending it was all fine. Now though, it was time to see what was really happening under there. And it was not pretty. Oh no. Not at all.

This is what was underneath. Rust so thick it made me feel a bit sick.

I sought advice from the guys at the marina, who found my distress a bit amusing. “It’s a steel boat, of course there’s rust”. One of them came over to have a look and made my heart stop by poking at the bottom plate with a screwdriver. I had visions of it going straight though whatever was left of the steel, creating a geyser of canal water in the middle of the boat. But it didn’t, and he declared that what was left was strong. Based on what? I don’t know. Probably based on him not wanting to make me cry. (And yes, there's definitely an argument to be made that it was maybe not smart to do a whole lot of interior work on the boat if the actual integrity of the hull is suspect. Too bad. I've never claimed to make particularly practical decisions when it comes to the boat. Why start now?)

So I got stuck in. Scraping out all the loose stuff with a putty knife (there was lots and lots) and then vacuuming and scraping more and then brushing it all with a rust inhibitor which had to dry for two days. Then painting to protect the steel that’s left. And then the whole subfloor had to be replaced. The area pictured above is less than a third of the area that needed this treatment. Bearing in mind the whole thing preceded like this: shift the fridge/stove two feet, cut out old flooring, scrape out rust, vacuum, treat for rust, allow to dry, cover with new subfloor, shift fridge/stove onto new subfloor, repeat for area recently covered by fridge/stove, etc…Then repeat for the painting, then add 50mm thick styrofoam insulation panels and then permanently fix down the new floor, then, and only then, actually finish laying the new laminate flooring.

And then, at last, it was time for the final step… the kitchen! I’d already been to IKEA to order my new cabinets, which arrived in 37 boxes (Not kidding. Literally 37 boxes). Here too, it wasn’t as simple as just assembling and shoving them into place. Of course not! There’s nothing simple on a boat. Instead, I took each of the 60cm deep cabinets and carefully trimmed 50mm off the back of each piece with my magic saw before assembling them, thus gaining a small but very significant bit of extra space down the centre of the kitchen. And then I added temporary countertops because I haven’t really decided what I’m doing about countertops yet. And I reinstalled the old sink because until there are new counters there no point in a new sink. And there are still other bits to add and fix and it’s not all perfect but…

Look! Real drawers!

And this! All my grubby coal and kindling is neatly corralled in a drawer under the sink. And the front panel of the fridge turns out to be a much more interesting colour on its back side. And I’ve got a proper upper cabinet, and more counter space, and room for a handmade-long-packed-away mirror and a poinsettia and an Advent calendar!

And the floor. Oh the floor. What a difference.

Of course there's more to do. The kitchen countertops. A few more drawers. One narrow cabinet. A new system for the recycling. And the sink in the bathroom. And the floorboards all need to be secured better. And the fireplace surround needs serious attention and and and and… But I decided after a long month of hard work and dust and Tesco jacket potatoes I deserved to enjoy my new space and relax a bit before the Christmas Holidays. So cleaned everything up, and organised things in my lovely new cabinets and called some men to haul away the mounds of rusty rubbish and aimed my boat back at central London where I’m now whiling away a couple of weeks with Christmas shopping and stoking the fire and having people over to ooh and aah over my lovely new home.

 And, most importantly, not vacuuming for two hours a day.

Off the tourist track: Fantastic Machines

Sunday, November 19, 2017

It’s been a busy time here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters aboard the Lucky Nickel. For the last month I’ve been doing some quite extensive interior renovations on the boat, which has taken up 99.4% of my time and energy. I’m quite pleased with how it’s all going, and will unveil the results in a post soon. However, even the most committed renovator (and I am certainly not the most committed renovator) needs a day off every once in a while, especially when living in the same 200 square foot space one is renovating (the logistics… oy!). So I was very pleased to take up an invitation from my friend Piran who’s a regular blog reader and a Jedi Master in the field of Quirky London Things To Do. When Piran invited me out to see a mysterious, recently opened “cog and gear (kinda) museum", followed by more fantastical machines at another mystery location, I happily hung up my tape measure and blew the sawdust out of my hair to meet him at Pinner Station, not sure of what to expect but primed for a Grand Day Out.

It was a short walk from the station to a nearby park, where all was soon revealed:

I think I may have done an involuntary “happy clap hands” sort of gesture when I saw this sign.

Astute Go Stay Work Play Live will remember a short entry in our humble glossary on the Heath Robinson Device:
"Heath Robinson Device = Rube Goldberg device.  An absurdly complicated and overdesigned machine to achieve a simple result, named after the British cartoonist.  I imagine these to involve lots of old boots on the end of levers knocking over buckets of water... that kind of thing.  And I love that they have a whole different guy for that over here. (Except that I keep mistaking myself and saying "Heath Ledger Device" which is not right at all.)”

And of course I was entirely right. Heath Robinson was an illustrator and cartoonist born in 1872 in London (Finsbury Park). As I said in the glossary, he’s best know for his drawings of absurdly complicated devices designed to achieve simple tasks. They generally involve a lot of pulleys and bits of knotted string, and are surrounded by chubby bald men in overalls who tend the machines with great solemnity. There are, however, two things I didn’t realise about Heath Robinson. First, I didn’t know that aside from his best-known black-and-white cartoons, Robinson was a talented illustrator and a trained artist. And second, for some reason I sort of thought there would be actual machines, which in retrospect is a bit stupid. Because if you spend approximately one nanosecond properly contemplating any of Heath Robinson’s fantastic machines it becomes apparent they were never meant to leave the page.

Tooth Tester
Not entirely practical Tooth Testing Machine. Ingenious, overly complicated and makeshift - the hallmarks of a Heath Robinson Device

The Heath Robinson Museum (great logo!) is tiny, and it’s in Pinner because Robinson lived in a house on nearby Moss Lane. And, despite my assertion that it’s not really possible to build any of his devices, there is actually a fairly impressive Heath Robinson Device on display at the museum.

Piran contemplating the Ribbon Cutting Machine, which definitely fulfills all three of my above criteria, and was built by members of the Heath Robinson Club at St. Helen’s Girls School. (Why did my school not have a Heath Robinson Club? Come to think of it, why doesn't every school have a Heath Robinson Club? Imagine how much mayhem could be avoided if kids spent more of their time devising ways of making a cup of tea using a water balloon, a clothes peg, an empty yogurt pot, 50 popsicle sticks, a rubber band and a half mile of knotted string.)

This device not only cut the ribbon for the official opening of the museum in 2016 (eventually, with a guillotine-like blade on the right) it also moved the hands of a large clock and (sort of) played the Harry Potter theme tune. Or at least that was the idea. As anyone who has played Mousetrap will know, you almost always need a helping hand to get things moving somewhere along the way. One of the volunteers at the museum demonstrated the machine for us, and had to employ a few judicious nudges to keep things moving, as was the case during the official Ribbon Cutting Ceremony, depicted here.

But back to Heath Robinson. The museum is small, and displays examples of Heath Robinson’s work on the walls of one room, arranged in chronological order working through his time as an illustrator of children’s books and moving on to his very popular First World War cartoons. These mostly depict the Germans employing dastardly but absurd means of attack, and illustrate the sort of gentle satire that typifies Heath Robinson’s work. As Robert Endeacott said, "He took a stand against war by taking the piss out of Germany's horrendous war machinery"

Laughing Gas
"Huns Using Laughing Gas to Disable British Troops before an Attack"

It was during WWI that Robinson started drawing the outlandish machines that would literally make his name an entry in the dictionary. Generally poking fun at modern living, his plans for a wart removing chair, pancake flipping machine and potato peeler led on to the first in a series of “How To” books, entitled “How to Live in a Flat”. As more and more people began moving into less and less space, Robinson (as illustrator) and K. R. G. Browne (as author), presented an utterly engaging handbook for life in tiny spaces. No wonder then, that as a tiny-space-dweller myself, I snapped up my very own copy in the museum gift shop and devoured most of it on the tube ride home later that night.

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A sample of Browne’s sparkling prose.

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Robinson’s combination Dining Room Bedroom, the Dibedroom. Perhaps I should consider this handy device while I’m doing renovations! (Actually, this is not so crazy...)

After a thorough examination of the permanent collection, a spin through the temporary exhibit about illustrations for the children’s classic “The Water Babies”, and a polite ransacking of the gift shop, Piran and I retired to a nearby cafe for lunch before the long trek into the centre of town for Grand Day Out, Part Two. In fact, it turned out the Part Two was a time-sensitive event, so Piran deftly directed us through an impromptu interval at Somerset House that involved an engaging video installation, and then through a very large exhibit over many many floors of an empty building on The Strand that would take a whole other blog to talk about, so let’s skip lightly over that, pausing briefly for a nice bowl of noodles, and fast forward to the next instalment of fantastic machines.

Oooooohhhh… this is going to be good!

Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will remember I once visited a tiny seaside town called Southwold and encountered the fantastic Under the Pier show of wacky coin-operated machines. Novelty Automation is the London outpost of the Southwold show. Unlike the usual coin-operated arcade machine like the claw-grabber, novelty automation machines have their mechanical tongues planted firmly in their greasy little cheeks, which made this visit a perfect companion to the Heath Robinson Museum, both being sort off-beat but warm-hearted mechanical offerings. Sometimes clunky, always home-made, and an utterly engaging antidote to our current slick digital existences

The Novelty Automation arcade is open every day, but only opens in the evenings once a month, so timing for the visit was crucial. (In the evening events they serve beer!) We arrived not long after opening and invested in a couple of drinks and a handful of tokens and then hit the machines.

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Here's me having a mini vacation, which involved sitting in an armchair while a video screen in front of me displayed a fast-forwarded trip through an airport, flight, hair-raising hotel transfer, 5 seconds of beach time and then the reverse journey, while the chair bumped and rocked along with the video.

Fantastically, most of the machines there were invented and built by one guy, who was there in the shop that night. Tim Hunkin is an engineer and cartoonist who's probably best known for drawing a long-running series in the Observer called "The Rudiments of Wisdom".  It wasn't until I started looking into Tim Hunkin to write this post that I realised how perfect the link was between our afternoon trip to see classic cartoons of fantastic machines and the evening visit to see fantastic machines made manifest by a cartooning engineer. Well played, Piran!

Many of Tim Hunkin's machine's had a familiarly wry bit of social commentary served up alongside the fun. For instance, "Pet or Meat" depicts a tiny papier mache family and a little lamb, and a spinning needle determines whether the lambs is... well you get the idea. And appropriately for London, there was a money-laundering game involving high-rise real estate.

Piran played one that had him flying a "drone" camera around a model mansion snapping candid pics of celebrities that then appeared on a video tabloid front page. (The drone actually reminded me of the old Verti-bird toys from the 70s!) 

Along with the wry social commentary, there were some games that were just fun, and almost all had an unexpected twist.

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This one required you to hold onto the handle for as long as possible while the vicious dog snorts and pants and dribbles spit on your hand. It's more fun than it sounds like, really.

One of the more clever machines was called i-Zombie. After placing your phone in the designated spot on the machine, you're confronted with a never-ended parade of tiny phone zombie characters endlessly advancing towards you (very clever use of the classic "Pepper's Ghost" effect). Handles allow you to move your mechanical avatar back and forth to avoid them, but eventually they speed up too much and run you over. Once you're run over and the game is done you reach down to recover your phone only to discover it's gone! I was seriously taken in by this, genuinely thinking someone had nicked my phone while I'd been totally engaged in dodging plastic zombies. Then the machine informed me I'd been judged to be an i-Zombie and it had confiscated my phone for three hours! It was just the kind of unexpected twist that typified the machines at Novelty Animation. And equally typically, the machine gave me an out and produced my phone after I'd admitted to my addiction.

I could go on and on - the photo booth whose seat lurched unexpectedly as the shot was taken to capture your expression of shock, the personal nuclear reactor that dispensed a little boiled sweet as a prize for successfully containing all the spent fuel in the reactor, the Cycle Pong game that made you ride an exercise bike forwards and backwards to move your pong paddle up and down on the screen. I was complete rubbish at this, though I did get pretty good at safely storing the spent nuclear fuel, (which I think is a far more important skill, plus I got a candy.)

By the time we'd had a couple of drinks and tried all the machines we were some of the last people to leave the shop. I was utterly charmed by the place, and though it had been long, the whole experience really had been a Grand Day Out which is actually very appropriate, since Wallace and Gromit certainly belong in Endearing and Eccentric Inventor's Club, alongside Heath Robinson and Tim Hunkin. All that, and we still had time for a quick pint. Perfect.

Remember remember the 5th of November

Sunday, November 5, 2017

“Remember remember the fifth of November,
the gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.”
Halloween has mostly caught on over here, though it’s not really an English tradition. Halloween is an import from America, like McDonald’s instead of Wimpy’s. These days it's common to see people dress up in Halloween costumes and have parties and you even get the occasional trick-or-treater. But the truly English autumnal festival is Guy Fawkes day, now generally called Bonfire Night. I’ve been here for for seven years now and finally this year, for the first time, I managed to take part in a proper bonfire for the occasion.

First, for less-astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers, a primer on the eponymous character. Guy Fawkes was part of a group of English Catholics who planned the famous Gunpowder Plot, a plan was to blow up the House of Lords on the opening of parliament on November 5, 1605, thus killing the king and paving the way for the installation of a Catholic head of state. Led by Robert Catesby, the scheme involved placing 36 barrels of gunpowder in an underground cellar below parliament. Because of his military experience, Guy Fawkes was put in charge of the explosives, which left him guarding the barrels. However, the entire plot was discovered through an anonymous letter and Fawkes was found during the resulting search of the parliament buildings. Interestingly, the Houses of Parliament are still searched once each year to make sure no modern-day Fawkesian miscreants are hiding in the cellars. Yeomen of the Guard conduct the largely ceremonial search before the State Opening of Parliament. (One can only assume that there are also more frequent and diligent searches conducted with slightly more rigour and less silly looking outfits.)

How nefarious he looks! He's also the inspiration for the Guy Fawkes mask, popularised by the movie "V for Vendetta" and those hacktivists at Anonymous.

Guy Fawkes (and any conspirators who fled and survived a later battle) were put on trial, convicted and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. With anti-Catholic sentiment running high, and to celebrate the foiling of the plot, parliament declared a public holiday on Nov. 5 by passing the catchily named “Observance of 5th of November Act” (see what you can do with that one, Hallmark!).

As you might guess from their origins, the celebrations historically had a strong anti-Catholic tone, with Fawkes becoming a bogeyman and a pretext for Catholic repression for hundreds of years. Thankfully, that’s mostly gone now. In modern tradition, the 5th of November is commemorated with a bonfire and culminates in a fireworks display, apparently to reference the “fireworks” that failed to destroy Parliament. Effigies of Guy Fawkes - complete with pilgrim style hat and ruffled collar - are processed to the site of the fire and thrown onto the pyre for burning. However, while a Guy Fawkes-like “Guy” may be traditional, these days any reviled public figure is fair game. Donald Trump pops up frequently, and this year Harvey Weinstein made at least one appearance.

The biggest Bonfire Night events in the UK (and, therefore, the world) happen in the small town of Lewes south of London, which has six different Bonfire Societies that each hold elaborate processions of Guys and light their own fires and attracts thousands of people. So many attend that they shut down some roads and all train service to the town for the day, making it a bit of a mission to participate. I thought it would be fun to go see Bonfire Night in Lewes, but had nothing like the level of commitment needed to travel the day before, find lodging in the over-crowded town on the busiest night of the year, and fight through the teeming throng. Instead, accompanied once again by the Intrepid Raul, I attended a very nice little community celebration in the bucolic suburb of Barnes, southwest London, which turned out to be just the right combination of tradition, size, and ease of access.

The Barnes Bonfire Night is a bit special because they actually have a bonfire. This may seem to the uninitiated like a prerequisite (the clue is in the name…) but actual bonfires are dishearteningly rare these days. Fireworks displays are a-dime-a-dozen (or perhaps I should say ten-a-penny?). Honestly, it seems like every night for the last two or three weeks I’ve been able to hear fireworks going off somewhere (this is partly because it was just Diwali, but honestly I’m so over the fireworks these days. I can hear fireworks right now as I write this.) But a bonfire? Bring it on! I suppose modern safety regulations make it more and more difficult to construct an enormous pile of tinder dry fuel and set it ablaze while hundreds of people stand around watching. In the days before “Elfin Safety Gone Mad” it was common for families or neighbourhoods to have their own bonfire and set off a small display of fireworks. Children would make their own Guys and parade them through the streets, soliciting donations to buy fireworks from passers-by with the phrase “A penny for the Guy?”. Raul confirms that as a child he remembers making a Guy in school and once even getting together with friends to construct and light their own bonfire. Innocent times indeed.

Apparently "the penny for the Guy" tradition lasted right into the 1980s, when children were banned from buying fireworks. Now it’s mostly died out, which is too bad because it is adorably instragrammable.

While it certainly wasn’t the massive all-out effort you’d get in Lewes, the Barnes Bonfire Night was just excellent. The weather was crisp enough that it felt properly autumnal, and the event was held at a community sports ground, where they’d assembled an impressive pile of fuel for the bonfire to one side of the cricket pitch. There were lots of families participating, and the whole thing had just the right home-grown vibe, with lots kids running around and overly friendly announcers on microphones with just a touch of feedback, and the season’s first mulled wine. It was, in a word, charming.

Here’s the giant pile of fuel. I estimate it was about 25’ in diameter.

There were also few carnival style rides and games and a couple stalls of food and drink and lots of vendors selling different light-up LED toys and sparklers. Again, sparklers are traditional, but I guess LEDs cause fewer life-changing scars, so, you know, swings and roundabouts. It was heartening to see a few sparklers at least.

Blurry Arty shot of kids with light-up toys

Barnes also had a contest for the best Guy - several families had made effigies and they were all set up on a park bench to be judged by a local councillor. The family who won had clearly made a real effort and their Guy, including requisite pilgrim hat with comedy-sized buckle, was quite rightly judged the winner. After the winner was declared, all the Guys were processed to the bonfire area and placed on the pile. Even better, the family who made the winning Guy were given the honour of lighting the bonfire.

The Guys, including the clear winner standing literally head and shoulders above the others.

The bonfire itself was bloody impressive. It was lit from a series of pyrotechnics buried in the pile and contained a lot of tree branches with dried leaves that burned ferociously at first, sending plumes of sparks into the air like an erupting volcano.

The volcano effect.

There was a ring of fence surrounding the bonfire to keep people back, but the heat was so intense that people instinctively backed away more and more as the flames grew. You just couldn’t be that close.

The bonfire in all its glory, with the winning Guy silhouetted against the flames.

Watching a real fire is always a bit hypnotic, and the scale of this multiplied that effect. Raul and I just stood in the crowd feeling the waves of heat and the brilliant orange light and chatting and occasionally checking to make sure any outer clothing was not melting.

And taking a selfie of course!

Here’s the crowd, lit by the glow of the fire. It's truly the only light source in this photo.

The fire went through stages - first the sparking volcano, then the intense leaping flames, then the flames died down some and you could start to see the outline of the blackened fuel in the pile, and then the heaps of glowing coals. Periodically, some local committee member with a hosepipe would creep forward to spray down a patch of grass that had caught light around the periphery, though I think that the poor Barnes Sports Club cricket pitch will be quite worse for wear for some time.



And of course there were also fireworks, an impressively lengthy display that we turned to watch with our right sides still baking from bonfire heat.

Photos of fireworks taken on an iPhone are even worse that photos of a bonfire taken on an iPhone.

And then the fireworks were done and we turned back to the fire, which had progressed to the heaps-of-coals stage. Apparently with smaller bonfires it’s traditional to put potatoes in the coals to bake. I  realised that I regularly have lovely coals in my stove and tried this trick myself which did result in a potato that was basically edible, though half the skin had to be abandoned after turning into something with the consistency of a roofing tile and the colour of Donald Trump's heart. Other traditional Bonfire Night foods include Bonfire Toffee (made from black treacle) caramel apples, and gingerbread-like Parkin, none of which were in evidence in Barnes (damn). I briefly considered trying to make Parkin cake the next day, but decided to spend the time blogging instead. Lucky you.

The bonfire looked set to burn on for hours longer, so Raul and I finally left the sports ground and walked along the Thames back to the station. The boat is parked back at my marina mooring these days which is pleasant but about as conveniently located as the dark side of the moon so I was keen to start the long trek home. When I got there the stove seemed to be filled with the spirit of Bonfire Night, lighting easily and quickly progressing to the glowing coals stage, so I went to bed in warmth and comfort, with the smell of the bonfire in my nose and the satisfaction of finally having ticked that little item off my list. Next year: Parkin!

Off the tourist track: Swaminarayan Mandir

Sunday, October 22, 2017

There are a lot of things you expect to find in the suburbs of northwest London: Wembley Stadium. Ikea. The North Circular. Street after street of mostly unremarkable houses. What you emphatically don’t expect to find is a huge, opulent Hindu temple made from white marble.

Swaminarayan Mandir - at the time of its construction in 1995 it was the largest Hindu Temple outside of India. (Photo credit: original uploader was Nikkul at English Wikipedia)

I’d been vaguely aware of the existence of the temple, but only because I’d walked past it on the long trek to Ikea (Of course.) It’s surrounded by high walls so while might have thought, “Hmmm, that’s quite large” not much more than that really sunk in to my brain. For me to really stop and appreciate the site I needed the assistance of The Intrepid Raul who Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will remember from various Bakuvian adventures, including frozen waterfalls and mountains on fire. Raul recently returned to UK soil after a three year exile contract in Azerbaijan and suggested the visit when we were catching up over a curry. I was keen on this idea partly because Raul is a pleasant companion, but also because he’s got the distinct advantage of growing up in a bi-cultural household where he might spend Sunday mornings at church then proceed to temple for the afternoon, which he claims seemed perfectly normal. In any case, I was not going to pass up the chance to see the temple with a somewhat native guide, so we agreed to meet one Tuesday at Stonebridge Park Underground for the short walk to the site.

And now, a little terminology and history. “Mandir” simply means temple, and this particular temple was the first traditional Hindu temple in Europe (being the first purpose-built traditional stone building, as opposed to an adapted pre-existing structure.) The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir - to give it its full name - is part of the BAPS organisation. (And BAPS stands for Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha so let’s continue to use the abbreviation, shall we?) BAPS is a global Hindu organisation within the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism, based, unsurprisingly, on the teachings of Swaminarayan. And here, with great relief, I revert to Wikipedia:
"Swaminarayan (3 April 1781 – 1 June 1830), also known as Sahajanand Swami, was a yogi, and an ascetic whose life and teachings brought a revival of central Hindu practices of dharma, ahimsa and brahmacharya. He is believed by followers as a manifestation of God.”
The temple is London is remarkable for many reasons. It was, as I’ve mentioned, the first purpose-built Hindu Temple in Europe. More remarkably, it was built according to “ancient Vedic Architectural texts” meaning that no structural steel was used. The main temple building is constructed from almost 5,000 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone, Italian Carrara and Indian marble. All the stone was cut and shipped first to India, where it was hand-carved by more than 1,500 different artisans. Then each stone was numbered and carefully packed and shipped to the site in London where each of the more than 26,000 pieces was assembled. Like I said - remarkable.

A close-up of some of the stone carving outside. And this is just a relatively restrained bit on the sort of “church hall” building called a Haveli, not the temple itself.

But it gets better! The construction of the temple was accomplished largely with volunteer labour. Volunteers. 3,000 of them. Assembling huge chunks of stone. And they finished the building in just 3 years. There was a quite long explanatory video in the basement museum area that showed miles of footage of the construction including lots and lots of presumably unskilled people manoeuvring 26,300 one-of-a-kind chunks of richly carved marble into position. That wasn’t a disaster waiting to happen at all. Luckily, the video didn’t mention any horrific crushing injuries or disfiguring tragedies. Not even a single shot of someone scratching their head over a plan in front of a vast field of almost identical bits of stone and shouting despairingly in Hindi something like, “Sanjay! Check that one over there! Is that 21,335 or 21,334?"

Raul and I fetched up at the temple complex on a grey Tuesday afternoon, where I checked my bag across the street in a poratkabin and we went through the mandatory metal detector. First we visited the Haveli, the community centre sort of building I mentioned earlier.

Raul and the Haveli from the outside. The decorations above the door were in preparation for Diwali;, the annual Hindu Festival of Light, crudely analogous with Christmas.

Housing a large prayer hall, gymnasium, library, day care, office and gift shop (with all the incense you could ever need) the Haveli is also ornately carved but made mostly from English oak and sustainably harvested Burmese teak.

Here's a close up of some of the carved wood on the outside. Understated it is not. Apparently for every oak tree they cut down in construction they planted ten oak saplings somewhere in Devon. Nice.

No photos are allowed inside the buildings of the temple complex, but I did manage to sneak this one after I took my shoes off, a requirement of visiting.

Guess which ones are mine?

We had a quick look around the Haveli, though the largest rooms weren’t open to the public. Then we walked the long corridor linking the Haveli with the actual Mandir. And as impressive as the mandir is from the outside, it’s much much more impressive on the inside.

Temple Interior
Here’s an interior picture I scooped up from Google that shows the room with candles lit for Diwali. The roof is a huge dome, supported by the columns and the serpentine supports between the columns. It really is amazing.

And here you can see a close up of some of the carvings on the support columns. The depth and detail is astonishing. Every column is carved like this.

The upper sanctum houses seven shrines that contain sacred figures of Deities that are normally hidden behind large doors. At appointed times through the day the doors are opened and the figures -  called murti - are revealed so that worshippers can pray, meditate and participate in devotional ceremonies. (We didn’t see that happen, though I recall I did see this in a temple in India.) I had a lot of questions, and it would have been great to consult with Raul about the meaning and purpose of a lot of the things in the room, but there was a very strict NO TALKING policy, with a stern looking elderly gentleman there to keep order, so we just padded around quietly in our sock feet and I itched to take photos, and I didn’t.

Murtis in Sanctum
Here are the mandir's murtis shown in my photo of a photo from a pamphlet

And a close up of another set of murti from the mandir. 

I did find one thing funny. Throughout the temple complex there were donation boxes; that’s not unusual in any religious institution. However, the BAPS gang are savvy and modern enough that they actually had contactless payment systems set up at some boxes! Want to donate at the murti of Ganesh? Embarrassingly out of change or small bills? No problem. Just tap your phone! £1 per tap. For some reason I found this funny and disturbing at the same time.

Once we finished in the sanctum I elected to pay £2 to visit the exhibition on Understanding Hinduism in the lower level of the mandir. This was a small but extensive and densely informative look at the history and tenets of Hinduism, and at the Swaminarayans and this mandir in particular. Hinduism is an ancient and diverse religion. I was surprised to learn that it's generally considered the oldest major religion in the world that's still practised, predating not just the Roman Empire, but even Ancient Egypt. Sanskrit, the primary language of Hinduism, is the oldest Indo-European language, and Hinduism claims the world's first university (from 700 BC, a teaching subjects as diverse as logic, grammar, medicine, astronomy, commerce, music and dance). The exhibit also credits Hinduism, or ancient Indian culture in general, with inventing the zero, geometry, and the Pythagorean Theorem (before Pythagorus), and with discovering the heliocentric nature of the solar system and gravity, and developing plastic surgery. Busy beavers.

The Swaminarayan Mandir really is remarkable. Raul and my visit was not long, but the whole time I kept hearing him muttering, "You could be in India." It was a bit like someone had lifted up the Great Pyramid at Cheops and settled it gently in a carpark in Swindon. Coming back out into the grey Tuesdayness of north London after visiting was a bit of a shock. Which made my next destination all the more jarring. Where did I go? After being deeply immersed in ancient eastern culture and architectural wonder?

Time for some meatballs!