Monkey Business

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Working internationally is challenging. You have to accept that everything that might be simple and straightforward at home will inevitably be complicated and opaque in your new environment. You’re working in an unfamiliar culture, with people who often don’t speak your language. Frequently they are people who’ve never before done anything like what you’re asking them to do. Finding the tools and materials you need can be difficult or impossible. And there’s a new currency, a new climate and new food. I’ve always said that there’s a constant low level of stress that goes with living and working in a foreign place - you may perceive it or not, but it does wear you down. Sometimes.

And sometimes you have to spend your Easter Long Weekend flying out to visit a couple of potential suppliers.

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So yeah, I had to work over the long weekend. But that work was on BALI, probably Indonesia’s best known and most popular tourist destination.

That’s how I found myself, accompanied by my designer colleague Nathan, at a lovely guesthouse run by our local contact in Ubud. Ubud is a small town sort of in the centre of Bali, well away from the better-known surfer-focused coastline town of Kuta. Ubud has a history as an artistic centre and more recently has attracted the yoga and spa culture. And while we may have escaped the drink-fuelled Aussie vacationer crush of Kuta, there’s no escaping the fact that Ubud is still a tourist town. So I was pleased that our guesthouse was a pleasant walk from the main drag, literally set among rice paddies.

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Plus there was a herd of ducks who lived in the rice paddy.

I say it was a pleasant, except that it was even hotter than Jakarta. Like hot enough that Nathan was heard to say, “The sun is trying to kill us.” I’m starting to acclimate to the temperature here, but it was still tough and I basically had to resign myself to being a damp and sweaty mess for most of the three days we were in Ubud, while also having about 3 quick showers a day. Sort of like the adult equivalent of running through the sprinkler.

However, there was one place in Ubud where the sun’s anger was mitigated: the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, a popular tourist spot at the southern end of the main north/south street in Ubud, appropriately called Monkey Forest Road.

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Take care indeed, as we shall see.

The forest is a nature reserve and complex of Hindu temples that’s home to a large colony of crab-eating macaques - more than 600 in all. (And here I'll point out that they're also called long-tailed macaques and don't only eat crabs, which is a good thing because the coast is a solid two hour drive from Ubud and very few of the monkeys had driver's licences.) Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall that Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic country. Bali, however, practices a particularly colourful and local form of Hindu, which is why the island is covered in Hindu temples, including those in the Monkey Forest. It also gives Bali a very different and quite lovely vibe. For instance, part of the Balinese style of Hinduism involves leaving small offerings for spirits around the home or in the community. These most often take the form of small trays made from palm or banana leaves with a few flowers or flower petals, other bits of twisted play leaves, and a few grains of rice. They’re in household shrines, outside temples or businesses, on pathways, or even on vehicles and machinery. This is a daily occurrence. As our host eloquently put it, “You have Thanksgiving once a year. We have it every day.”

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A particularly dense collection of offerings. I very often saw people - both men and women - walking with woven palm trays full of these little offerings, stopping to place them at different locations.

But back to the monkeys. Nathan and I arrived at the monkey forest in the morning, and the dense jungle immediately made the climate more comfortable. I’d been careful to put my sunglasses in my zippered bag, and neither of us was carrying food. Nathan had made the mistake of scrolling through a few of the user-submitted photos on Tripadvisor and reported that there were an alarming number of photos of bite wounds, so it seemed important to be cautious. And the marker for the first aid station was prominently displayed at the entrance to the park. Advice on the sign nearby said:
DO NOT PANIC if the monkeys jump on you, please drop any food and walk away. They will soon jump off.
DO NOT RUN, when monkeys approach you, keep calm and don’t scream. Avoid shouting as this may frighten them.
DO NOT LOOK MONKEYS IN THE EYE, this is interpreted as a sign of aggression.
DO NOT HIDE AND FOOD, because the monkeys will know and try to find it and do not ever try to pull it back.
… and so on...
Even before you enter the forest you notice the monkeys, who, being wild animals, wander where they want and often end up out in the road near the entrances to the park. As soon as you get into the park you realise just how many monkeys there are, and just how habituated they are to humans.

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Here’s one near the entrance, plundering some offerings for food. This is also a frequent tactic of the local chickens.

And so we started walking through the park, enjoying the cooler air and taking eleven zillion photos, as did everyone else there.

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The foliage is dense, and the park has several wide paved paths.

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Also monkeys. Lots and lots of monkeys.

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Doing monkey stuff.

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Including stuff with twin baby monkeys!

The park staff feed the monkeys a steady diet of sweet potatoes and you’re discouraged from feeding them anything else. But its clear the monkeys are completely adapted to life as a tourist attraction. Early in our visit Nathan sat on a stone wall lining one of the paths and a large monkey crawled right over him as he sat taking a photo of another beast. He had the presence of mind to keep still and just let it happen, but that wasn’t the only up close and personal encounter we had with monkeys that day.

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This guy was not very chatty

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But Nathan did get a good going over from this one and still managed to get a selfie in the process.

As we were making our way around the park, the monkeys seemed to get a bit bolder. Or perhaps there were just more of them around. One decided I and my bright red daypack were of particular interest, jumped right onto my shoulders and proceeded to open the zipper of the pack and extract both my bottle of water and my sunglasses before I got the pack off and he departed. Luckily, my sunglasses were deemed inedible so I got those back. The water bottle ended up as a donation to the monkeys.

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Here’s the larcenous litter bugger caught in the act. And I know it’s hard, but can we please refrain from the inevitable “monkey on my back” comments?

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Nathan later reported that he wasn’t really sure what to do to help. And though he did do an excellent job of capturing the whole event on camera, he admitted that by this point that it was clear “the monkey was in charge”.

By the time we'd extricated ourselves and any remaining possession from the Monkey Forest it was well past lunch time and we were both very much in need of food and drink served in cool monkey-free surroundings. Luckily we found all of that a short walk down Monkey Forest Road were they served us very very cold very very tasty beer and french fries sprinkled with an addictive house-made mix of salt, chili powder and palm sugar. Sounds a bit weird but tastes amazing. (As Nathan pointed out, it was the holy trinity: salt, fat and sugar!) Then we really had no choice but to wander back to the guesthouse with the promise of cold showers and naps beckoning.

As we walked through the rice paddies, we started to hear a lovely chiming tune and gradually realised it was coming from our place. Our host is a musician and composer (the guesthouse is an intermittent sideline) and it became apparent that there was some kind of group rehearsal going on in his private rooms one floor down from the guest rooms. This was made a even more magical and mysterious by the fact that we couldn't see any of the musicians, we could only hear the sounds filtering up from below. So after a quick rinse in the shower I lay on the cool sheets and closed my eyes and listened to ethereal music and it all blended into a sort of dream.



We were only on Bali for about three days, but it was long enough to know that a return trip would not be a bad idea at all. The direct flight only takes a couple hours and costs about £100, and the guesthouse was friendly and there's still a lot more to see. Oh, and the supplier meetings went well, so I guess there's a chance I'll have to go back anyways. Work, work, work, eh?

Sunday in Jember

Sunday, April 1, 2018

I know I live an unconventional life. Some days though, that point gets driven home with such force  that I just need to share. Such was the case when I woke up on a Sunday morning in Jember. Jember is a small city in the eastern end of Java, and I was there with a couple of colleagues to visit a supplier for the ceremonies. (Actual quote from the very very short Wikitravel entry on Jember: "Whilst not the most attractive or interesting of cities, it does have decent facilities for visitors…” A ringing endorsement if I’ve ever heard one.) We flew out very very early Friday, had activities and meetings on Friday and Saturday, and were scheduled to fly out again Sunday morning. Before we finished our meetings, the local supplier suggested we come out Sunday morning to see a rehearsal he was conducting for an annual event that happens every year in Jember (unrelated to the ceremonies). By this time though, we were tired and protested that we had an early flight and there probably wasn’t time to drop by. That’s when he told us the proceedings started at 7am, so we really had no choice but to check it out. It would have been rude not to.

I fully expected we’d show up to the downtown park in Jember shortly after 7am and find a small, disconsolate group of people, resentful of the early hour, and maybe a couple of dog walkers. After all it was 7am on a Sunday. Who would be out at that hour?

Our first clue that we were seriously underestimating the people of Jember came in the car en route to the park when we realised there was some kind of Fun Run going on. The opposite lane of traffic was mostly full of people wearing bib numbers and clearly involved in an organised race. Naturally there was no traffic control, though people seemed unconcerned with that. And oddly, there was some kind of superhero theme to the race. We saw lots of Batman t-shirts, a few Wonder Womans (Wonder Women?) and at least one fully costumed Captain America.

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And that is definitely an Ironman mask. Well played, sir.

When we finally reached the Central Park we were frankly stunned.

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Central Park in downtown Jember was bustling. Time: 7:20am Sunday.

Sunday morning is apparently a big deal in Jember. The young local staff person who was accompanying us on the business trip called it “Carefree Day”, which I think is delightful*. She insisted that this was normal for a Sunday. I suppose in a place where the weather is as wiltingly steamy as it is here it makes sense to get out and do things before the worst heat of the day sets in. And when the call to prayer comes at sunrise, maybe you’re up anyway so why not head into town and have some fun?

And what fun it was. Beside the Superhero Run, the perimeter of the park was filled with people. There were lots of stalls and carts selling food - mostly rice, or noodles, or rice and noodles, along with many other unidentified things, many of them fried. It was a lot like the breakfast buffet at the hotel in Jember, which I’d had high hopes for. I love a good hotel breakfast buffet, and this one was extensive. Unfortunately, despite it covering one whole wall of the large dining room, there was almost nothing I could identify, unless I wanted to have rice and noodles for breakfast. The only chafing dish that contained western style breakfast items had baked beans (made from kidney beans) and something called “Spaghetti Mushroom" (actually rotini with some kind of dark brown sauce). There was also toast, and fruit and a few semi-recognisable pastries. I had fruit. Yes, I know part of the point of these jobs is to be adventurous and learn to appreciate the local culture and blah blah blah. And I promise there is a lot of weird food to come on the blog. I’m truly already overflowing with weird food experiences. And I understand bacon would be a stretch in an Islamic country. But on a Sunday morning at a nice hotel I want a damned croissant and some eggs. Not a steaming bowl of rice porridge topped with tiny dried fish.

But back to Central Park Jember. There weren’t just food stalls. There were also a lot of people engaged in some kind of sporting activity. A few were running through the crowds around the perimeter of the park, and some of them were wearing those plastic jackets you put on to make you sweat more. (Seriously? This is really not a climate in which you need assistance to get a sweat on.) There was also a large group doing karate, some impromptu volleyball and badminton, and a lot of kick-about football.

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And of course the local chapter of the Indonesian Nunchuk Club.

For the kids there were a lot of people selling balloons and kites and model planes and bubble wands and other toys. There were also sandboxes to play in, and ones with tubs of that weird kinetic sand stuff. And no street fair is complete without a bouncy castle.

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Let me just say this again: 7am Sunday morning.

My favourite was definitely the guy who was selling tropical fish. He had goldfish in bags, along with a whole metal-framed rack of tiny bottles, each with a single fighting fish in it. And all of this was mounted on the back of his motorcycle. Of course. Forty glass jars filled with live fish on a motorcycle. It was a Dr. Seuss illustration come to life.

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I take my hat off to you, young man. Except I have no hat. Not a problem though, because I could have bought one a few stalls down. In fact, I could have bought a woolly winter hat which is exactly what I need to go with my plastic running jacket. Because obviously I’m not sweating enough already. Indonesia will not rest until I am so dehydrated I turn into that bad guy at the end of Indian Jones and the Last Crusade. (Aside: I love that the search term I used to find that link was “raiders of the lost ark nazi bad guy end dried up”. I didn’t even get the movie right and I still found what I was looking for. Google may have a creepy amount of information about me, but that is still pretty impressive.)

But back once again to Jember Central Park. If you’re not interested in buying a fighting fish from the the back of motorcycle, don’t worry. You could also get a colourful little bird in whimsical cage.

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More Dr. Suess.

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Or a small brightly painted crab. These are not painted seashells. These are live crabs in shells, for sale. My Aussie colleague recalls her kids buying these on family holidays in Indonesian (which I guess is the equivalent of the Mexican vacation for North American families). Apparently a useful side effect the bright colouring is that it makes the crabs easier to spot when they escape and are running/scuttling free in the house.

Completing the menagerie was what I can only assume was the weekly gathering of the Jember and District Reptile Fancier’s Club - a group of young men gathered at a corner of the park holding various snakes and assorted scaly things.

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I also love that this guy is essentially wearing a lizard as a backpack. Because how else do you transport a lizard?

Finally, rounding out the facilities on offer at the park was a large display in honour of World Oral Health Day, manned by the students of Jember University School of Dentistry. So let’s review, shall we? By doing a single circuit of a small park at 7:30am on a Sunday I could have purchased virtually unlimited amounts of food, drink, clothing and/or live animals, played a game of football or badminton, done a bit of karate or nunchukking, petted a giant lizard, and had a quick dental check up. All this while losing about 20% of my bodyweight in sweat.

Still, you have to hand it to those Jembervians (Jemberites? Jembergs?), they really know how to rock a Sunday morning. Apparently there are similar gatherings in central Jakarta, starting at around 6am. I may check that out one week. Especially if I can then proceed to the air-conditioned splendour of the Hyatt Hotel weekend brunch buffet where I am promised a proper slap-up breakfast with the added bonus of free-flowing booze to go with my bacon and eggs. It may not be in the local spirit, but sometimes you just need a different kind of spirit, right?



* Since that Sunday in Jember I've realised that I think my local colleague was not saying "Carefree Day" but, in fact, "Car-free Day", because the surrounding roads were closed to vehicle traffic. But that's not nearly so fun so I'm going to continue to think of it as Carefree Day. Don't try and stop me.

Slip sliding away

Monday, March 19, 2018

Two weeks into Jakarta life and starting to settle. I’m in my permanent apartment now which, thankfully, is a more manageable size than the temporary palace / bowling alley I told you about last time. I’ve moved some furniture around and bought a few more supplies and I can see how this can work for the next six months. Though I do find the cutlery drawer depressingly parsimonious.

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Note to self: Do not invite more than one person over for food. Or if you do, tell them it’s BYOFork.

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And another for the WTF Files: This is my washing machine. The first time I tried to use it I had to call for assistance because there are literally 23 choices on that dial, along with the 8 buttons and 22 indicator lights and the digital display. And no manual, of course. (And yes I did try googling it…)

So home life is calming down, but work is quite busy - more so than I’m used to this early in a gig. Prepare yourself for an even more haphazard blogging schedule than usual. Luckily, I found a bit of time before my Sunday afternoon meeting, and during my Monday evening meeting (see above comment about being busier than usual…) to tell you about my first hash run in Indonesia. (For those not familiar with the Hash House Harriers, you should really check this out.)

As is often the case in Southeast Asia, there’s more than one hash group in Jakarta. This is the part of the world where hashing started, so I guess it’s just much more established here than in other places. Jakarta seems to have about four groups, with another starting up in the coming months. I got myself onto the WhatsApp group for one of them and was offered a ride to the run on Saturday. This was crucial because whereas in London all runs start within walking distance of a train or tube station, in Jakarta it’s not that simple. The city itself is huge and the heat and pollution and traffic all mean it’s just not a great place to run. I’ve managed to devise a 5k loop that I’ve done a few times in the morning, but it’s not exactly ideal. In Baku I used to put in my headphones and set out at 6:30am for a quick trip along the pedestrianised seaside Bulvar. Easy. Here in Jakarta I leave the headphones at home because even early in the morning there’s still road and pedestrian traffic and you need all senses tuned and alert. The footing alone requires at least intermediate-level parkour skills, but I console myself with the knowledge that running on uneven surfaces is good for all those little stabiliser muscles that don’t get a workout on the tame and level towpath at home. (This will remain a consolation until the inevitable misstep that turns some of those little stabiliser muscles into mince.)

But back to the Hash. I’ve probably mentioned the traffic in Jakarta, but it’s hard to overstate how bad it is. It’s virtually impossible to accurately predict how long a journey will take. You can be optimistic about a 3km trip and end up sitting in traffic for 90 minutes. Or you can compensate and get lucky and end up arriving an hour early. So when I learned that the Hash started at 4pm, I wasn’t entirely surprised that my ride suggested I get to her place by 1:30, meaning I had to leave my apartment at 12:45. It’s a bit tedious. But that’s how I found myself in the backseat of a large black SUV in the middle of a thunderous rainstorm on a highway in Jakarta, en route to an unknown location, accompanied by two friends I’d never met before and a Siberian husky named Dennis. (Aside: I was too polite to mention it, but Siberian husky seems an odd and somewhat cruel choice of breed for life in an equatorial climate. I’m sure poor Dennis has never sniffed so much as a flake of snow, and must sometimes wonder what all that fur is for.)

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Dennis, with his stunning husky eyes. But really, why?

The Jakarta Traffic Gods smiled on us even if the Rain Gods did not, so we arrived at the run site an hour early. This gave me a chance to chat with the only other westerner at the run, an ex-pat New Zealander who’s posted to Jakarta for the next 2-3 years. (He’s working on sustainable transport solutions, poor bastard!) It was nice hanging around and chatting with him, but I’d rather we could have just got going.

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Here’s our starting point, complete with shelter, cooler, water, etc. Later on there were even more amenities, as we shall discover.

Hashing here is a fairly major undertaking. The people who set the trail arrive hours ahead of time and set up camp before going to mark the trail. On the sidewalks of London we make trial with chalk and occasional blobs of flour. In rainy Indonesia the trail was marked with small amounts of shredded paper (which resist strong rainfall better than flour) supplemented by white spray paint applied right onto the leaves of plants. Not terribly eco-friendly, but needs must I guess.

At some point before the official start of 4pm a large group of walkers headed out, but the small number off runners hung back so as to minimise the waiting time at the end of the trail. And what was it like when we finally set out? Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers who are also experienced hashers will be familiar with the term “shiggy”. It’s a used to describe muddy, mucky or otherwise wet and unpleasant trail conditions. Considering it’s rainy season and there was a significant storm just hours before the run, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the amount of shiggy on the trail was roughly equal to the amount of humidity in the air, i.e.: about 85%.

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This stretch was within the first 100 yards.

It was slow, slippery, wet and muddy. For a while I found it frustrating and all I could think was, “I’m actually not really enjoying this.” That feeling persisted for the first kilometre and a half of what we were told was a 7km trail. By that time I guess I’d accepted that my shoes would never be the same, and I’d probably lose a couple of kilos of water weight, but at least I couldn’t actually get any sweatier, and there would be cold beer at the end.

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Also, this was a quite family-friendly event, meaning I spent some time stuck behind a couple of little girls who were about 7 and 9 years old and who, when descending this steep, muddy slope, ended up on their butts laughing their heads off. So when a 7 year old girl can suck it up and have fun in the shiggy it’s hard to get a real sulk on.

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Plus once we got through this rice paddy, there were actual paved roads! And yes, this was a real terraced rice paddy. The things that look like small white cloths hanging on strings in the air are, in fact, small white cloths hanging on strings in the air.
They’re for scaring the birds away.

By the time I got to the end of the paved road, a mere 3.6k into the run, but 45 minutes after setting out, I was feeling pretty good. Then a few us discovered that the hares who marked the trail had a lavishly overambitious notion of the length of their own run and we’d actually reached the end of the trail. So naturally we elected to do a second loop. This turned out to me a lot more fun than the first loop and was certainly the only time I’ve ever run someone else’s trail more than once. It also made me feel quite smug.

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This is the second water crossing on the trail, which turned out to be useful for washing off muddy shoes. On the opposite bank in the foreground you can see a splodge of white spray paint marking the trail.

By the time my Kiwi friend and I trotted back into camp, most of the rest of the pack and been back for ages and were tucking into a generous feast of rice and tempeh and other tasty treats that I was happy to try. There was also a big cooler full of a sort of fruit juice called sirsak, which is made from the soursop fruit, one of many many new fruits in my life now. The juice is white and creamy and sweet and a bit like apple and strawberry and lemon and coconut all together. I’m also turning into a big fan of the slivers of golden fried garlic that appear frequently as a topping for basically anything.

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Happy to be finished running, and happier still to be clutching a large bottle of beer.

Betawi Hash are particularly well-equipped for tropical hashing. After the run not only was there food and drink, but several people had large jugs of water to use for washing up, and there was even a pop-up shower stall tent! This was a level of luxury I’ve never seen before, and was much appreciated after that much muddy sweaty running. By the time I’d eaten, washed up, changed into dry clothes, and had a large bottle of the local lager, it was dark and things had degenerated in a friendly but typically hashy way. I was grateful to climb into the back of another air conditioned car for a companionable ride back to Jakarta.

Hashing in Jakarta is a lot different than hashing in London. Considering the travel time and the trail conditions and the heat and the half hour of post-run shoe-washing, I can tell I’m going to have to psyche myself up to make the effort each week. And I’ll probably try a few of the other local groups before I find the one I’m most comfortable with. But as usual, hashing is already providing a welcome break from work and work colleagues and the general low level of background stress that comes from living somewhere that’s not home.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go try another of the 506 combinations of variables on the washing machine.

Well this is different...

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Hello from Indonesia!

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Not in Kansas anymore.

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

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

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

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

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This was actually kind of nice.

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

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

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

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Which looks a lot like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nice views though.

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

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

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

If it pleases your Lordship...

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunny gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRUB!: Fish Pie

Sunday, February 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FISH PIE

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

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

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

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

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Mash and poaching fish

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

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

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The incomplete filling, sadly lacking in eggy goodness

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

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

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

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

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Done before the pie was out of the oven!

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

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

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

Next time on Grub!: Devilled Eggs...