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!

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:

Stargazy pie
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.

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:


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.)

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.)

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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...

Landmarks: The Barbican

Sunday, January 28, 2018

In general English usage a barbican (note the indefinite article and lack of capital B) is the defensive bit above the gatehouse of a castle or walled city. In general London usage, the Barbican (with definite article and capital B) is a massive and mostly impenetrable concrete complex comprising 38 acres of residential apartments, cinemas, restaurants, schools, galleries, theatres, gardens, lakes, fountains, and parking garages, along with two concert halls, assorted shops, a museum, a library, a church, two tube stations, a conservatory, a school of music and drama, two kindergartens, a pub (of course) and, at almost any hour, an uncountable number of people fruitlessly trying to find their way to or from one of the above.

A small part of the Barbican

The Barbican is located in the City of London. Again, capital letters play an important role here, differentiating the City of London (note the capital C) - the independent county comprising the square mile of central London most famously home to the UK’s financial and banking sector - from the city of London (no capital C) - which is the metropolis of Greater London and completely surrounds the City of London. (I think we’ve been through this before, so surely any Astute Go Stay Work Play Reader understands this distinction by now.) The area of the City is roughly analogous to the old Roman walled city. The Barbican itself sits just to the north and west of the old Roman city, but bits of the Roman wall are actually still visible on the estate.

Like this one.

For the first half of the 20th century the area where the Barbican now sits was mostly warehouses and other industrial sites. Then during a single night of bombing on December 29, 1940, the Luftwaffe levelled the whole neighbourhood - an area of 35 acres. For the subsequent two decades that patch of London was essentially abandoned and turned into an overgrown (and presumably rubble-strewn, slightly dangerous and very fun) playground for the local children. Health and Safety was, one presumes, not A Thing. Considering the price of real estate in London now it seems astonishing that much land was simply left empty for so long, but I suppose there was a lot of recovery to do in all sectors after the war. Still… twenty years?

When they eventually managed to formulate a plan for using the space the goal was not simply to cram it with as much housing and commercial space as possible. In fact, the aim was much loftier than that. The Barbican was meant to be a physical symbol of how London could rise again after the destruction of the war - a grand showpiece and a bold statement. The architects - Chamberlin, Powell and Bon - set out their intention to create a complete machine for living, with residents able to enjoy modern conveniences, green spaces, and services like libraries, shops, theatres and cinemas, all in a densely developed but also open, inviting highly designed ecosystem combining residential and civic functions with modern design.

Private waterfall, anyone?

Part of that modern design is the architectural style of the Barbican - it’s one of the most prominent examples of Brutalism in the UK, being constructed almost entirely from brick and concrete with exposed aggregate. Interestingly, one might assume the exposed concrete seen all over the Barbican is the actual structural material, but it’s actually a layer added after construction, dried for 21 days, and then pick-hammered by Italian stone masons to create the distinctive texture.

You can see a bit of the concrete here - above these flats that overlook the lake. Not bad!

There are even a few hidden mewses with houses that enjoy way way off-street parking and gardens.

Luckily, one of the Barbican’s 4,000 residents is also one of GSWPL’s more astute readers, and on hearing of my interest in the estate as a whole he extended an invitation for lunch and a private tour with a couple other friends one Sunday in rainy December. This was especially excellent because it meant not just a lovely lunch, but a visit inside a real Barbican flat, and a tour around the estate led by a highly knowledgeable guide in possession of the all-important resident’s key, allowing access to all kinds of places mere plebeian mortals could not presume to tread. The invitation also came accompanied by a painstakingly detailed set of directions for getting from the tube station to the exact location of the flat - no small feat in a complex that is renowned for being murderously difficult to navigate. I’m happy to report I was able to find my way with only one small back-track required.

The flat in question is on the top level of Andrewes House, one of the terrace blocks that make up the central heart of the complex. See those barrel-vaulted roofs on the left? One of those!

Did you notice that all of the window coverings in Andrewes House are white on the outward facing side? That’s not a coincidence, it’s actually a condition of residency. You’re also required to cultivate your window boxes if you’ve got them. And don’t even think about removing the carpet and installing wood floors. That’s not allowed, partly to reduce noise transmission between floors, but also partly because heating is provided by in-built electric underfloor heating can get hot enough to burn if not insulated by that layer of carpet. And don’t assume you can simply turn down the thermostat to compensate - the underfloor heating is centrally controlled to turn on overnight when electricity is cheap, meaning while it might be toasty in the morning, it can be downright chilly when you get home from work in the evening.

There are other modern conveniences in the flats that we'd take for granted right now but were, at the time, quite unusual. For instance the kitchens are open to the living and dining area and were designed by marine galley engineers to maximise what was considered to be very little space. Bathrooms featured showers - also not common for the time. Balconies are also included, with a lot of flats having one at each end, a real luxury even today. And many of the Barbican's flats are housed in giant tower blocks, once the tallest residential buildings in Europe. However, these unusual modern touches, coupled with the estate's location in the middle of a bombed out neighbourhood meant that getting people to move to the Barbican was hard work. Difficult to believe from our perspective in 2018, when a 440 square foot studio flat in one of the estate's terrace blocks goes for more than half a million quid.

The all concrete construction makes for a very solid structure but comes with some disadvantages. I knew an architect who was a big fan of Brutalism (architects are often the only champions of this style). One of the reasons he gave for his fondness is that, for an architect, it's a real challenge. When you're pouring concrete that's both the structure and the outer finish of the building, there's nowhere to hide if something goes wrong. There's no covering mistakes behind a layer of plasterboard. Everything has to be designed in from the beginning, including the wiring, so even something as (relatively) minor as a light fixture or a plug socket has the be included at the earliest stage. In the case of the Barbican this means that all the wiring and plumbing is literally set in stone. It can't be changed, and if it was installed incorrectly or breaks, there's really nothing to be done. And forget getting fibre broadband or smart electric or water meters or extra power to anywhere.

If this all seems a bit Big Brother, consider the many advantages of living in the Barbican. For instance, you’ve got London's second largest conservatory on your doorstep. (It was designed to enclose and disguise the fly tower of the theatre!) It used to be open every day, but sadly it’s now just on “selected Sundays and Bank Holidays”.

Naturally our Sunday visit was carefully timed to coincide with the conservatory’s opening hours, so we got to wander through and meet the resident turtles. It’s really lovely, and I can see why my resident guide laments no longer being able to slip in and out on a whim.

Another perquisite? Garbage collection happens every weekday. And you don’t have to schlepp your leaky rubbish bags to some sort of central depot. Each flat has a small closet near the front door with a communicating door on the outside, allowing rubbish collectors to come and collect every day without disturbing you. Post arrives in the same way, but in reverse. The estate also has a scattering of sites to take recycling and food waste, and places to handle used electronics.

And on the topic of waste collection, surely one of the most interesting quirks of the Barbican must be the infamous Garchey disposal system. Intended to eliminate those rubbish collections I mentioned, the Garchey is like a super-charged in-sink garbage disposal designed not just for wet garbage like potato peelings and coffee grounds but almost everything else except really large and bulky things. Even cans and bottles are fair game (keep in mind this was pre-recycling). With a Garchey system all that waste is put down the sink drain where it sits in a holding tank underneath. The water you run through the sink during the day collects there along with the waste. To flush the system you unstopper it and the rush of accumulated water is meant to propel everything down into a giant collection reservoir at the bottom of the building where things settle a bit before a big tanker truck comes and takes it away.

Here's a grainy cut-away of a Garchey sink.

In practice, the stink of rotten food that builds up in the holding tank meant that it had to be thoroughly cleaned ever couple of weeks, a task few relish. And these days the Garcheys often get bunged up. (Hands up anyone who’s shocked at that. Anyone? Anyone? Beuller?). In part this is because back when the system was conceived housewives were home home during the day and much more water was run through the pipes much more consistently. Also these days we flush way too many nappies and wet wipes that clog things up. (A problem for London's sewers in general.) Now a lot of the Garcheys in Barbican kitchens have been removed and capped. However, some are still in operation and the truck still comes to suck up the gunk from the remaining working units. Apparently some of the original engineers who installed them have retirement jobs cleaning out the systems that are still in use.

Another example of well-intentioned but ultimately failed design are the greenhouses. Built over a flat, leaky roof, they were, unsurprisingly, not a hit with the downstairs neighbours.

Those expanses of curved brown-ness are actually the glass walls and roof of a the greenhouse space. Also, those curves make it impossible to clean the glass. (Ok, ok, I know they're not actually IMPOSSIBLE to clean. You could, for instance, design bespoke window scrubbing drones that suction to the glass and work their way over the surface like some kind of semi-autonomous Roomba/catfish hybrids. Maybe someone should call James Dyson.)

I've alluded a few times to the notion that the Barbican can be tricky to navigate. In fact, that’s a bit like saying Hitler had a mild interest in territorial expansion. The Barbican is notoriously difficult to get through and around. This is in part due to a key architectural feature of the estate, the elevated walkways known as Highwalks. One of the big ideas about city planning at the time was to separate pedestrians from vehicle traffic, and in the Barbican this was accomplished by raising pedestrians up above street level in dedicated walkways. The plan was intended to be incorporated all over the city, though they're actually relatively rare outside the Barbican. The Highwalks also increase difficulties in navigation when it’s not immediately apparent how to get onto or off them. Then there’s the large and uncrossable ornamental lake, the randomly encountered locked gates, the uncountable number of stairwells and the miles of same-y looking rough concrete corridors, some of which curve on a wide radius making things even more disconcerting. It’s no wonder the Barbican is sometimes used as a case study in urban way-finding. (Listen to this podcast!)
"The Barbican takes the City’s ancient complexity and expands it over three dimensions – you can go up and down as well as backwards and forwards, so wandering around the Barbican becomes an adventure. Curves envelope you, towers loom, narrow pedways disappear under pedestals and re-emerge as wide walkways enlivened by beds of wild flowers.” (Source)
However despite its shortcomings, Barbican residents tend to be a loyal lot who appreciate the fantastically central location, the sense of community, the many cultural facilities, and the acres of private gardens. Sure, you've got to equip guests with flare guns so you can come rescue them when they get lost on their way back to the tube station, but who else in London can brag about being able to flush empty baked bean tins down the sink?

Off the tourist track: Water and Steam

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Happy New Year! And apologies for the disruption to our regular service. What can I say? It was Christmas, and then it was New Year’s, and boat has been obstreperous, and though I’ve been back in London for over a week following my annual pilgrimage home to Canada, I honestly couldn’t tell you what I’ve done in that time other than not blog and feel jet-laggy and go for occasional short runs and binge out on Netflix. (Which I can now stream unlimitedly to my iPad or computer because mobile data package costs in the UK are awesome. Unlike in Canada. And yes, I would like some cheese with that whine). London is mostly grey and rainy and it’s all a bit… January. I did go to the Geffrye Museum one Saturday, which has been on my list for a long time. But was mostly a disaster because it took forever to get there and then it was super crowded and a big part of it that I wanted to see was closed until the next day and now it’s closed for renovations for two years so bleah.

Instead, I spent last Sunday on a succession of buses to visit the London Museum of Water and Steam, which has also been on my list, especially since Karen and I passed it en route to Kew Gardens last summer. (Karen callously refused to stop for a quick visit but I forgive her.) So brace yourself for another blog about gears and pumps and giant machinery, in the grand GSWPL tradition, (like this and this and this from the deep archives).

Slightly boring photo, but I love the cleverness of the logo design

The Museum of Water and Steam is dedicated to restoring and maintaining no fewer than FIVE historic steam-driven beam engines, as well as housing an exhibition of the history of London’s water supply. The building itself is the former Kew Bridge Pumping Station, dating from 1838 and run at the time by the Grand Junction Waterworks Company. That warmed my heart little bit, because the water feeding the pumps when the station first opened was taken from the Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal, where my little boat spends most of its time these days. Though not long after opening they switched to taking water from the Thames because it was cleaner than the canals. And if the canals then were anything like they are now I’d say that was a very wise move indeed.

The Sunday afternoon I went it was pleasingly unbusy so I got to play with all the interactive models without having to elbow some snotty eight-year-old out of the way. And I got to linger at all the other displays without feeling like I was getting in anyone’s way. This means I can now relate that, astonishingly, the first piped water came to London in 1237. And that’s not a typo. In the 13th century wooden pipes were used to bring water from Tyburn spring into London. (The first piped water to private homes was in 1528.)

Wooden pipes like this were used for centuries (60 AD to 1810 according to the plaque). GSWPL fun fact!: Wooden plumbing pipes are where we get the terms “trunk line" and “branch line" from.

Wood gave way to lead (bad idea) and then to the king of plumbing: cast iron. There were also brief dalliances with steel and cement (neither as good as cast iron) but nowadays it’s all plastic. However, just like the brick-lined Victorian sewers that still handle much of London’s waste, one of the cast iron water mains at Kew Bridge is still in use today, making it the oldest cast iron trunk main still in use in the world. Along with the pipe display, the entry hall of the museum had some fun working models of different types of water pump, going back to Roman-era technology. And there was a whole wall of cisterns and toilets accompanied by various voiceovers that mostly seemed to be about conserving water which made me feel a bit smug, considering my miserly 100 litres/week consumption on the boat.

The Wall O'Toilets

When dealing with the topic of water supply, it’s also natural to deal with the other end of the system, the removal of waste water. We here at GSWPL dealt with this topic in the critically acclaimed post Off the Tourist Track: Crossness Pumping Station, so I’ll just remind you quickly of the key points: London population boom + plumbed toilets = raw sewage in the Thames + yucky smell + cholera. Therefore: Joesph Bazalgette + huge brick sewer pipes + giant pumping stations = fresh water - cholera! Everyone got that? So the beautiful beam engines at Crossness Pumping station were for pumping sewage, whereas the ones at Kew Bridge were for pumping the fresh water supply from the Thames and then out to London.

While Thames water may have been slightly cleaner than canal water, it still wasn’t exactly pristine and healthy. This led to the introduction of the first treated public water supply in 1829, engineered by James Simpson for the Chelsea Waterworks company. He used a sand filtration system, wherein water was held in large sand-bottomed basins with the water filtering down through the sand, cleaning it of impurities. Sand filtration is still used today, though it’s ironic that Simpson thought it was the sand that does the cleaning whereas it’s actually the scummy layer of gelatinous gunk that forms on top of the sand that does all the work. That layer, amusingly called the Schmutzdecke (and I promise I am not making that up because I truly could not make up so absolutely perfect a word) is home to a bunch of bacteria and protozoa and other tiny beasties that filter out 90-99% of bacterial nastiness. Kew Bridge Pumping Station used to have acres of sand filtration pools, but now that area has been redeveloped into flats. (Full disclosure: I only wrote that paragraph so I could use the word schmutzdecke. And who could blame me?)

But enough about water treatment and on to the giant steam engines! As I mentioned, the Museum of Water and Steam is custodian of five steam powered beam engines, including two absolute monsters, the Grand Junction 90 inch and the Grand Junction 100 inch. Both are Cornish engines, meaning they’re a particular type of steam engine (developed in Cornwall, unsurprisingly) that uses the steam at a higher pressure, thus operating more efficiently and using less fuel. This was important in Cornish tin mines where the pumps were used to take water out of the mines but where coal had to be shipped in from other parts of the country, hence was used as sparingly as possible. The 90 inch and 100 inch measurements refer to the diameter of the main piston of the engine. The 100 inch is the largest surviving single cylinder beam engine in the world and the 90 inch is the largest working beam engine in the world.

It’s hard to get a good picture of the engines since they completely fill entire huge rooms. So here instead is a partial shot of the outside of the Bull Engine’s cylinder, a mere 70 inches.

And a gratuitous shot of some very nice dials.

Apparently during the restoration of the 90 inch engine in 1976 the cast of Blue Peter climbed into the cylinder housing and had a tea party under the piston. So it’s, you know, BIG. The 90 inch could pump 2142 litres of water in a single stroke and the 100 inch could move 3255 litres. Working together, with their pistons alternating and synchronised, the two great engines could pump more than 63 million litres of water in 24 hours. And the 100 inch engine operated most of its working life with a crack in the 54 ton main beam - it was repaired in place and the engine continued to operate until it was last run in steam in 1958, though that was just a demonstration - by the 1940s the steam engines were no longer used for pumping water.

After looking through the chilly engine rooms I wandered into a smaller workshop where I ran into the only museum staff I encountered. The older gentleman was dressed in a boiler suit (coveralls) (Hang on a minute… steam engines... boilers... that’s why they’re called boiler suits!) and he was engaged in some sort of building task behind temporary barricades. I struck up a conversation with him, which turned out to be the most interesting part of the visit. It turns out he wasn’t doing anything really cool like aligning grappler flanges or lubricating the Boggs-Flinder Compensator. He was just hanging something on the wall, but he was very chatty and happy to share some fun tidbits about the engines and the museum.

The workshop room. Apparently there's also a Victorian-era belt driven metal working shop were they still do work for the museum. Fantastic!!! Tragically, not open to the public. 

For instance, he told me that during World War Two (after the big pumps had been sidelined by diesel and electric units) the steam engines were still kept on standby in case of a loss of power or damage during the Blitz. Since all they required to work was fuel for the boilers, lack of power or diesel would not stop them from pumping water. Keeping the water flowing was critical during the bombing not for domestic use, but because of the constant need for water for fire fighting. To support that need, a series of diesel generators ran 24 hours a day to keep the pumps running (they didn’t end up needing the steam engines) so that even if bombing damaged water mains and water was running freely into the streets in places, there was still water available to the fire brigade.

I also got an apology because some of the engines were supposed to be running in steam - indeed that’s part of why I’d gone that day - to see the machinery in action. However, all was quiet on the West London front because the volunteers who’d been scheduled for duty had been unable to attend. This was astonishing to me - that someone might have the chance to tend and run glorious machines like that and then just not come.

Sadly, even if there had been volunteers available, the restored 90 inch engine still would have been silent because there are some small repairs needed on it that involve taking the lid off the main boiler. Apparently it’s not a difficult job, but the overhead beam they want to use to lift the lid can’t be rated for the lift. (Health and Safety, you know.) Also it’s a Grade 1 listed building so they can’t really risk damaging the building in order to repair the engine. The plan now is to create a ground-supported structure over the boiler to lift the lid, but that has to sit on the York stone flagged floor which is part of the listed building which blah blah blah… you see the problem.

And along those same lines, it’s apparently quite tricky to get insurance for a building like the Great Engine House. Ownership of the site recently passed from the developers of the nearby flats to the Kew Bridge Engines Trust, who are naturally keen to have it properly insured. However, most of the time insurance companies base insurance costs on a standard formula to do with the size and purpose of a building, and obviously in the case of historically significant one-of-a-kind buildings, that formula doesn’t really apply. So apparently they’re having to consult with the folks who run other historic sights to see what they do. (“Hello is this Stonehenge? Hi, it’s Kew Bridge Pumping Station calling. So look, if the stone circle were to burn down… what would that be insured for? Hello? Hello?”)  It was all things I’d never really considered when walk-in through a museum.

Most interesting though, was the notion that there’s room for newcomers on the team of volunteers who tend the giant steam engines. That seems like exactly the sort of thing your humble blogger might enjoy very much (other than the boiler suits possibly making my ass look fat). Someone please remind me about this when I get back to London in September.

Wait, did I say BACK to London? Yes I did. It’s time again for GSWPL to decamp to foreign climes for another big show. More on that another time. Until then, there’s really only one thing to say.


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 Café 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.