All Roads Lead to Jerusalem [Review]

Sometime in December, I think, I was ploughing through endless video interviews and radio interviews with either Stewart Lee or Alan Moore on their writing process, as I attempted to work out what had happened to mine in the aftermath of a significant failure and an ongoing dissatisfaction with what I was doing artistically. Mentioned in the glut of 2016 interviews (and the relative absence of interviews since) was the then-recent release of Jerusalem, which I’d heard about vaguely at the time but not really been interested in reading at that point, possibly due to either the imminence of top surgery, the recent hell of the Brexit vote, the upcoming hell of the US adopting an actual literal fascist president, or the fact that one of my friends had just committed suicide. 2016 was not a good year.

2020 is not a good year either, but one of the high points has been treating an odyssey through Alan Moore’s 1,000,000-word novel about a half-square mile of Northampton, the structure of the universe, the function of art, how time works, what death actually is, and what he’d be like if he had been born a woman–as a kind of safety rail for the brain which prevents one from toppling into the hell of rolling news and instead beckons adventures in an equally-fraught but more sensical chaos.

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At the end of this book, I feel rather like I’m looking back down over some sort of Midlands Nazca Lines at some literary structures which are difficult to view without a very good memory.

There is the structural element that the entire book does and does not take place in a single day–May 26th, 2006–mostly in a single city (there are some excursions to Lambeth, which I appreciate), mostly in a single area of that single city, and features characters passing through a specific moment in time, rather than time moving over the characters; congruent with Moore’s theories.

It acknowledges the debt to Joyce by, quite literally, plonking his daughter into the narrative and allowing her her own voice, all written in a very Joycean fashion (this slowed me down somewhat: having to physically sound out not-quite-phonetic renderings and mixed-up sentences to get through Lucia’s chapter was gruelling, but subvocalisation encourages not only a working phonological memory, leading to greater comprehension further into the chapter, but also elicits more in-depth appreciation of a text–meaning that this already hallucinogenic-in-content chapter became hallucinogenic-in-detail, too).

There is the echoing of incidents, the way in which interactions between characters have their consequences (or presequences) in much, much later chapters; one builds up a highly-detailed picture of the landscape of the moment through repetition from a hundred angles–which is alluded to if not outright claimed in the after-chapter which contains the entire tale in symbolic miniature… already described but not “shown” elsewhere in the book. In many, many senses, a fractal work.

And then there is the element of “ascension”. Movement through time in one section of the book as experienced during life is replaced by movement through spacetime in another, before returning the reader to apparent mundanity expressed in less conventional prose and more noticeably artistic format (for example, poetry, or unchecked run-on prose, or a script of a play; an inner viewpoint which paints itself exclusively in the language of the hardboiled noir detective),  an obvious mirror to the the “enlightenment/madness-leads-to-art” path.

Narratively, then, this very much rewards a patient reading and a good memory. Which, considering the work is in some aspect about memory–about memorialising a murdered district or, as the gender-swapped, discipline-shifted avatar of Moore himself within the text puts it, preserving it like a ship in a bottle–is an appropriate feature.

It also rewards digestion and, I suspect, discussion.

Features I especially enjoyed of this work are not solely what it is in itself, but the effect that it has had while reading it. Moore’s prose within in is unchecked, luscious, excessive–unrealistic, out-of-control, then blunt and considered. His depiction of characters is both fond and savage, sympathetic and cutting; even the discourses with angels and devils reek of an egalitarian familiarity. There is a fearlessness in the choices he makes.

As I said, I turned to this book when I was disillusioned with my own work, burnt out, tired, and annoyed with the demands that I felt were being made of writers in general. In part I addressed my dissatisfaction by returning to the craft rather than the content of art, trying to reignite a passion that had been drained.

In tandem with that work, I found that having Alan Moore’s book around as a companion proved to be several types of inspiration at once: first, it reminded me what can be done with literature, what Moore himself in one of his radio interviews described as “destroying the novel”. Second, it showed me someone absolutely, incontrovertibly enjoying himself writing exactly what he wanted to write without any thought to anyone else. And thirdly, it showed me someone writing how he wanted to write, too.

The fact that it was published at all is almost certainly 100% down to that “someone” writing the way he wanted to and what he wanted to being Alan Moore; but writing only with an eye to whether or not someone would be prepared to publish my work has been a choke collar on creativity every time it’s been applied.

Ordinarily I’d say something critical here, but frankly I’m impressed anyone’s managed to typeset this much text, never mind write something with this kind of scope. Yes, there are failings. Yes, there moments of thinness; moments that could be edited. Yes, it repeats itself. Yes, some parts will make people wince. That all seems to be caught up in the point of the work: existence is far more morally, socially, chronologically, and emotionally complex than we will ever give it credit for, and we look for meaning in it to excavate a path through that complexity. Throwing other people’s meanings into the incinerator and destroying their connections is a particularly brutal form of destruction.

It feels self-indulgent because it is self-indulgent, and I feel there should be space for this kind of self-indulgence in the literary world. Morally–and for the sake of variety, and for the sake of justice, and preventing cultural stagnation–I think the kind of self-indulgence and art-for-arts-sake that this represents should be something that is equally available to the writers who don’t have the benefit of being Alan Moore (in particular BAME authors in the UK) and I get the impression from the views expressed both in the text and in the interviews that he feels that too.

I won’t recommend or condemn the book: that would be missing the point.

Cui Bono? What can we infer from press ownership, and who owns Britain’s news?

There is a well-known Soviet-era joke about newspapers. In Moscow, there were two papers. Pravda (Truth), and Izvestia (News). And as the saying goes: if it’s in Izvestia it’s not Truth, and if it’s in Pravda, it’s not News. Like most jokes, it reveals something about the culture it comes from, in this case a healthy distrust for press information in a society with infamously strong state control over newspapers.

In the UK, there is an apparently plurality of information sources, catering to a variety of different views as much as they shape them. We suffer from an apparent plague of trustworthy news sources, all contradicting each other.

There are a couple of stand-out offenders in the “not actually reporting the news” arena: The Daily Mail probably the most infamous. It has a low trust rating, a high level of complaints, and climbing profits because it figured out a hundred years before the internet how to monetize Outrage Clicks interspersed with cute dogs.

We shall take as a given that there is no such thing as unbiased reporting; even the choice to report or not on a subject constitutes a bias, long before we get into issues such as framing, language use, editorialising, speculation, opinion bleed and so on. In order to get a good idea of what biases we can likely expect from a news source, it’s a good idea to find out who and what controls the news.

In places like the former Soviet Union, this was easy. The Party controlled the Press, and the Press reported the truth as they determined it would be. In the UK, with much-vaunted freedom of the press* and litigant-favouring libel laws which in theory keep misinformation in check**, this is much harder.

* However, the UK remained one of the worst-performing countries in Western Europe, and a number of worrying trends continued, particularly in relation to national security, surveillance, and data protection.
** Daily Mail tops the list of Independent Press Standards Organisation Corrections for the third year running

  • The Daily Mail is owned by the Daily Mail & General Trust, of which Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere is the chair and controlling shareholder. Harmsworth is a nom-domiciled citizen.
  • The Daily Express, Daily Star and The Mirror, as well as Scotland’s Daily Record, are all owned by Reach, formerly the Trinity Mirror group. The Mirror was originally a Harmsworth Publication, and the Express was previously owned by pornographer Richard Desmond; as part of the Competition & Markets Authority’s requirements for the acquisition of the Express, Reach (then Trinity Mirror) had to leave it as a standalone concern, effectively meaning its editorial policies have not changed. The CEO of Reach is Jim Mullen, and the chair is Nicholas Prettejohn.
  • The Barclay brothers, non-domiciled billionaries, currently own the Daily Telegraph, although as of October 26th 2019 it has been rumoured they are placing the title and its Sunday variant up for sale due to declining revenues.
  • The Times and The Sun are owned, ultimately, by News Corp. News Corp is run by Australian-born American citizen Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan. Murdoch inherited the beginnings of his media empire from his father, Keith.
  • The Independent and the Evening Standard are owned by Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev.
  • The Financial Times is owned by the Japanese company Nikkei. Chairman and CEO of the Nikkei group is Tsuneo Kita.
  • The Guardian is owned by the Guardian Media Group. The group is wholly owned by Scott Trust Limited, which exists to secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity.
  • The Morning Star, the UK’s only far-left newspaper of note, has been owned by the People’s Press Printing Society since 1945. The PPPS is a readers’ cooperative.
  • The New Statesman, technically a magazine rather than a newspaper although often treated as a newspaper, is owned by Mike Danson, who also owns Globaldata.

It’s not just who owns papers that matters, but how they get their money. The Twitter-based activist collective @StopFundingHate, for example, uses the interests of advertisers to “nudge” newspapers away from publishing racism, homophobia, and other forms of derogatory speech against protected characteristics by contacting the companies whose products or services are placed in juxtaposition with these articles, asking “is this what you want your brand to be associated with?”. In some instances this has led to companies pulling their advertising contracts from the offending newspapers, choking a certain amount of revenue. It is debatable whether this achieves the long-term aims of the group, that of removing the inflammatory use of bigotry to drive traffic to news sites and therefore pollute public discourse with unacceptable and usually fringe viewpoints. However, it is an example of the way in which capitalist structures do not have to solely serve one group of people.

The majority of newspapers draw their revenue from advertising, especially the tabloid press (a group usually comprised from UK nationals: The Mirror, The Daily Mail, the Sun, and the Daily Express, with The Daily Star as a lesser-impact tabloid) and some are supplemented through subscriptions and other sources, which are exclusive to broadsheets and periodicals.

Of the above list, The Morning Star, Times, Telegraph, New Statesman and Financial Times operate on a full subscription access model for their online versions to augment advertising revenues. The Guardian offers a voluntary subscription service modelled after Wikipedia’s donation drives, and the Independent offers a premium subscription with access to additional content.

With the above information, it is easy enough to find–in the public domain and accessible via most good search engines–conflicts of interest that may lead to altered reporting or the suppression of stories. Although it is advisable not to give too much credence to complex sociopolitical explanations for news publishing choices–the primary role of any news media agency is to sell papers (or, online, to drive traffic to its site and keep it there)–following the money can help to make sense of more baffling suppressions of inherently newsworthy stories, especially those wherein there is little-to-no risk of a valid libel suit*. Connections between properties owned or heavily invested-in by newspaper owners or indeed editors are therefore a reasonable starting place for understanding omissions and editorial distortions.

Some of these connections are highly visible: the Times is unlikely to criticise Sky News, another News Corp company; Lebedev’s Evening Standard editor, former chancellor George Osborne, is an indication of interest. However, there are more difficult connections to be sought out. Webs of connections between politicians, newspaper owners, and heavyweight donors may only be traceable by full-time journalists like Carole Cadwalladr; many companies’ true ownership are buried behind a string of shell companies. While these are usually designed for the purpose of limiting the amount of tax due to any given country’s administration, they do have the secondary benefit of concealing interests and promoting the view of specific individuals or news sources as disinterested third parties.

While less centrally financially-controlled publications such as the Guardian may appear to be less dictated by the interests of companies with direct shared ownership to the newspaper, it is worth considering that a the media trust’s investments must be nurtured to provide adequate funding to run the newspaper and pay its staff. Adversely affecting/prejudicing the returns of those investments would be counterproductive to the paper–even before considering the individual biases of editorial staff.

It may therefore be worth triangulating media consumption between economic biases to some degree. To my mind, a reasonable balance can be achieved by reading the Financial Times (biases: largely the making of money in a highly capitalist global society), the Morning Star (biases: Marxist), and a news agency of some kind–for preference Press Association/Associated Press over Thomson Reuters. This will still not necessarily give you an unbiased through line of fact, but it will at least ensure that all your information doesn’t come from the interests of one company.

* To understand what may constitute a libellous story, or one which can feasibly be sued over, I cannot recommend McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists highly enough.

Additional advice: avoid articles which report solely on an emotive reaction to something, or which are simply a reworded press release (“a source says”); be aware that “think tanks” or “pressure groups” are usually funded from uncertain sources and with unknown aims (The Taxpayers Alliance is a very good example of this). A think-tank with a clear mission statement is preferable to one which uses vague terms. Do not neglect local newspapers, but be aware that the majority are owned by one single company. And, where possible, seek out your own confirmation. We live in a golden age for access to journalists. Make the most of it: not all of them are corrupt.

Taken as a whole, the view on the UK’s print media is stark. Many newspapers are owned by individuals (usually via some tax-avoidance strategy boards), and those individuals are rarely, if ever, tax-paying UK citizens. For unbiased information on taxation effects, for example, I would not recommend a reader turning to the Telegraph, Times, or the Independent, even less so any of the tabloids. Connections between political parties and particular press outlets are also vexatious: the original intention of a free press was to hold Parliament and the ruling parties of the country to account. If newspaper owners are allowed to give large donations to specific political parties, it calls into question the lens of reporting from those newspapers. It will, however, be hard to win an election without the support of the major UK publications, particularly on a platform that explicitly threatens the model of donations in secret.

For the sake of remaining informed, rather than misled, I would strongly advise not reading UK newspapers, and concentrating on press agencies instead.

 

Inspiration Station

Since my last book came out and chaos descended all over the country in its most unedifying of forms, I’ve taken a vow to spend more time looking at art (and promptly broken that vow by picking up overtime at work), I’ve started compiling a poetry collection, and turned towards trying to fill my brain back up with things, or what Terry Pratchett referred to as “blind research”.

Here, then, are a few of the things I have consumed or am in the process of consuming:

  • Foundation, by Peter Ackroyd; the first of Ackroyd’s ambitious histories of England. Charming and poetic in an understated way, it begins with the very first intimations of human settlement in England and ends up… with the Tudors. That’s a lot of scope. Currently I’m watching John I fuck things up repeatedly. Ackroyd has these subtly emotionally destructive turns of phrase and dry humour that I’m enjoying a lot.
  • Homo Britannicus, by Chris Stringer. The Ancient Habitation of Britain project’s findings, and also the history of the study of pre-history. Sometimes a bit overwhelming both in the sense of the sheer depth of time being surveyed, sometimes in the sense of the amount of numbers being used (I have this infuriating brain problem where I stop being able to read things if there are too many numbers in the text), but never in terms of the prose, which is highly accessible and occasionally quite funny, if only because 19th century scientists truly, truly were a bonkers collection of people.
  • Discovering Scarfolk, by Richard Littler. Some light relief in terms of the amount of mental energy required to read it, although not in tone. Scarfolk’s occult and folk horror stylings riven with 70s nostalgia & presented in the form of an exploration of a found document is a nice reminder of the different formats fiction can take, and also (possibly intentionally) mirrors some of the presentation of the somewhat more high-brow House of Leaves.
  • Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. I tore through this in about two days–a very short book–and the film which is based upon it only really contains some echoes of what the novella is actually about. It’s an ambitious, cold kind of read with a narrator who is deliberately detached from the reader while being present and first-person. The relentlessness and complete alien nature of the discoveries being made makes for a very stressful read but they’re also part of what makes it so compelling.
  • The Construction of Homosexuality, by David. F Greenberg. A very dense and somewhat out of date (published in 1988) sociology text examining the history and global conception of “homosexuality” as a social category, using deviance & labelling theory, Greenberg’s book is in part a welcome return to long-ago learnt concepts from my secondary education-level sociology classes, in part a fascinating overview of (what was known at the time) about the history and anthropology of same-sex attraction/sexuality around the world and as far back as can be remembered, and in part a frustrating catalogue of the failures of a white cis man to get to grips with non-white gender identities and the concept of sexualities and genders not lining up directly with the penetrator/pentrated axis that permeates many conceptions of these things even now. It’s highly ambitious and very long.
  • The Mindscape of Alan Moore is an indepth narrated tour around Alan Moore’s concept of magic and consciousness; this was accompanied by multiple interviews (Stewart Lee & Alan Moore; Alan Moore & John Higgs; Alan Moore & Michael Moorcock; and this homely little chat for starters, which touch on a number of adjacent subjects; I had forgotten how laconic & genuinely funny Alan Moore can be)
  • Stewart Lee on writing — or rather on “not writing”; in an address to students Lee–out of his stage persona for once–talks about the history of stand-up comedy in the twentieth century, its relationship in the UK to fluctuations in arts funding and how that’s affected how comedians conceptualise themselves and their work, and his approach to writing, or indeed not-writing, a set. It is a genuine joy both in this and in other of his interviews to see how much thought he puts into the structure and pacing of his work.
  • The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen (read by Edward French).
  • Dr Euan Mackie’s lecture on the work of Alexander Thom at Megalithomania / Archaeastronomy and The Megalith Builders sees apparent archaeastronomological renegade Dr Mackie explain his tests, both planned and “accidental” of theories put forward by Alexander Thom on the function of megaliths in Scotland, and their accuracy as astrological clocks. As I knew approximately nothing about the subject going in, the immediate overlying narrative of academic warfare gave the whole thing an added layer of interest which helped augment the detective-story shape that excavations often have in the retelling.

[William Blake exhibition review]

A little while back now, I dragged my entire household and a visiting friend to the Tate Britain to see the William Blake exhibition: the first thing I’ve paid to see there since their Queer British Art retrospective was timed, in 2017, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts in private (1967). The exhibition space , in the basement level, is large, logically laid-out, and seemingly endless. The one thing you can say about exhibitions in that Tate Britain space is, regardless of whether you enjoy the content, you certainly get your money’s worth by volume.

image of the front of the Tate Britain gallery: it is a large neo-classical building in limestone with a portico bearing several columns
Photograph by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK

It’s far from the first Blake retrospective the Tate Britain have held–indeed I think I remember going to another one some years ago and getting lost in the upper levels–but one can hardly blame them for using the collection as a money-spinner. Thanks to Blake’s irrefutable links with London (born in Soho, lived in Soho, worked in Soho, died in … Charing Cross) and his posthumous popularity with would-be mystics and nerds of all stripes, it was always going to be a successful venture.

So we’ll ignore for the time being the fact that Blake exemplifies the savage adage that for British art to be successful it also has to be ugly (Blake, Bacon, Turner, Emin… somewhat falls apart with Gainsborough, Constable, Stubbs & Wright of Derby although those aren’t exactly spectacular).

Image of a famous Blake painting in which a male figure with streaming white hair leans out of a circle of gold to plunge spread compasses into the earth below

It can be challenging to fill an exhibition space of considerable size with work by one artist and not drive everyone bananas with monotony, particularly when said artist got a handle on their personal style early on, and I think the Tate Britain made a decent and logical stab at presenting both a standard chronological narrative beginning with an overview, and of providing context.

Particular mention should be made of the effort to situate his work among his peers and inspirations, including Fuseli and James Barry  (Uncle of James Miranda Barry, in fact), which somewhat gave the lie to the later claims of staggering uniqueness made by his fanboys–which we’ll come to later.

Worthy of note also: contextualising the work with a modest recreation of his townhouse exhibit of his works (accompanied bizarrely by a reading of his text by The Actor Kevin Eldon) was a gesture in the direction of breaking up the threat of monotony and a satisfying if far from total immersion in experiencing Blake the way his contemporaries might.

It’s also good to be introduced to new information, and while I’d been aware of Blake’s background in illustration and engraving I hadn’t been aware that he’d invented his own form of relief engraving, which was given due fanfare–although as Blake had in typically secretive fashion failed to reveal his process we were not treated to any diagrams or recreations which might have further contextualised or enlivened the fact.

It is of course important to take a clear-eyed view of the wider global context of even such insular figures as Soho-locked Blake–the world is after all connected–and so I was pleased that the curators had chosen to include Blake’s commissioned illustrations of a fairly unrelentingly colonialist tract, asking if his decision to select a brutal, uncompromising image of a slave being tormented for some minor transgression such as ‘wanting to be treated like a person’ was a criticism of the text he was working on and the events contained within–or titillation in the vein of tabloids.

There was little further space given to the question. Blake was opposed philosophically to slavery, and the time was rife with debate and dispute in his native London, but no mention was given to any broader abolition movements he might have encountered–in fact, the display of the image raises similar questions about the exhibition. Is this necessary? Is this titillation?

Another area that didn’t get as much focus as I would have liked was the revelation, given at the beginning of a section on his printing methods and lurid colourful images from what Long Suffering Boyfriend described as “Blake’s Biblical RPG”, the Book of Urizen: that the vivid colours of the Book had been painstakingly hand-painted not by Blake but by his wife, the oft-overlooked Catherine Blake.

And apparently this was all that needed to be said. Even though it casts a very different–if common–light on the “genius” of Blake, in the same way that the “unprecedented” style of Blake very clearly derived from Fuseli and Barry; it is so common that the Lone Male Genius in history is supported to the point of exhaustion by his wife, who edits or colours or types or translates his “genius”, who makes his “genius” the thing it is recognised, who deals with every other aspect of his life so that his “genius” can flourish–and receives absolutely no recognition from history for it.

The exhibition wasn’t completely devoid of contextualisations; aside from his artistic influences, we got a glimpse of how he began:

Early in the exhibition, before Blake’s professional influences, came descriptions of his time as an art student and his brief travels into places that weren’t London. From this we discovered that while he enjoyed working from the reference point of classical statues, he detested working from life models, complaining that they had no life in them, that he found them “dead”, with a kind of contrarian logic that caused the Resident Australian (herself a regular artist) to laughingly compare Blake’s attitude to that of Deviantart teenagers countering every criticism of their tendency to draw only from Anime with “it’s just my style! It’s meant to look like that! It’s my style!”

This was then brought out at every point that Blake’s idiosyncratic anatomy got the better of us. It’s hard to treat an artist with the mystic reverence occasionally preferred by their fans once a thought like that is lodged in your head–and I can always count on the Resident Australian to puncture any bubbles of pomposity and self-importance developing around historical figures, or contemporary ones.

In addition to the creation of Blake’s myth of genius (it’s worth noting at this juncture that the idea of lone genius generally feels like bullshit; i am not singling Blake out any more than any other “visionary genius of art”) balancing on the diligence of his wife’s colouring skills, at a later point in the exhibition we begin to come across the fanboys–that is the younger artists and patrons who both buy into Blake’s self-image and support and disseminate it.

The Resident Australian also had some scathing words for Blake’s petulance at his most ardent supporters not supporting him in the correct way / demeaning him with requests that he share space in publication or exhibition with other artists… “genius” or not, William certainly wasn’t cursed with poor self-esteem. To admirers this doubtless seems like clear-eyed rejection of needles social niceties. To people like the Resident, whose job brings her into contact with some highly precious and self-important people, it just sounds like someone sniffing their own farts. I’m inclined to agree.

Self-mythologising is something I’ve looked at in more detail some time previously but it’s worth drawing parallels now between the subject of that piece and this: while Blake was occupied with the ideal of the classical artist reborn and dispensing high and symbolic art to learned men, Lawrence also filled his own head with an archetype for himself to live up to: the messiah or Moses figure. Arguably even more self-aggrandising, if rooted in ideas of “service” as much as salvation, the desperation to believe in his own myth allowed him to participate in constructing an image for a specific end, that of support-raising.

The cause he meant to advance with his mythmaking never succeeded because he’d failed to separate the image from the reality and accept that he was never going to be able to outmanoeuvre the demands of kings and politicians for the sake of his saviour fantasy.

Likewise, although Blake has received armies of famous and often equally mystic fanboys after his death (Alan Moore, for example), his reality and his myth never got to meet within his lifetime. We can look at Blake’s lurid later works and see them as the visionary imaginings of a mystic seer as Moore does, but without the veneer or myth it’s equally easy to scoff at weirdly-rendered serpents (drawn from medieval art much like his grand gestural figures), at his “self-insert bible fanart”. The mythology is as much the art as the art itself is–Blake’s self-image, his distorted conviction, the lore of Blake in the game sense is crucial to appreciating the art, moreso even than worldly or cultural context. This is art for nerds.

In light of that pop cultural connection, this Gary Gygax of fine art, it’s even more glaringly obvious that the world’s most edible painting (c.f. Thomas Harris),  The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun. As perhaps the best known Blake painting, thanks in part to Harris, it would have been a major draw… and the entire reason I went was to see if I could best some friends who hadn’t succeeded in Francis Dollarhyde impersonation!

I’m not sure how I’d address some of the issues with the exhibition because they’re the same issues every exhibition based in static, faded images faces; I would have liked to have seen more context, perhaps–more about Catherine Blake, more about the broader artistic and social world in which Blake operated, in some form other than mere plain text placards. I know such interventions are expensive, but in an ideal world, at least, some video demonstration of acid engraving and perhaps some staggered picture heights to render them more accessible to a variety of Blake fans would not be out of reach!

That said, the variety of methods of display and attention to making the exhibition navigable and ensuring as much foot-flow as possible can’t be criticised, and ultimately this is the equivalent of a Stones reunion tour: new material isn’t necessarily welcome to the majority of visitors.

 

Venom (2018): A Misunderstood Romance For Our Turbulent Times

Hotly-anticipated and almost instantly critically panned, Sony’s Venom has spawned a cascade of memes and a throbbing pulsating slash fandom which has mystified those same professional movie-watchers who derided it as “fantastically boring”, “incoherent”, and riddled with bad CGI (I’ll give them that). Far more importantly, the social media hotbed of fannish discourse that is the microblogging site/hellhole Tumblr has adopted the central couple as its flagship… ship.

Venom, whose titular character has already been compared to someone drizzl[ing] Creme Egg filling onto a bin bag, is an absolute masterclass in how to balance horror (bodily and external), action (some whizzy fight scenes and a bathetic bike chase), comedy (…lobsters), and romance against each other, to pepper respectable action sequences from 1999 with clunky eggfart dialogue generated by a bot, inexplicable delivery without logical emphasis, a nonsensical plot – and produce a thoroughly entertaining movie on the strength of genuinely warmth of character decision-making rooted in kindness rather than ideology, and a cast who were determined to have fun – with no amount of embarrassing dialogue preventing them from serving up whatever performance they felt like giving.

Also, I think a lot of respectable critics haven’t really grasped a vital fact about Millennials – and even more so Gen Z – which is that they really, truly are extremely thirsty for big monsters. The bigger, slimier, more toothy and threatening the better. Google the word “kaijufucker” if you don’t believe me and enjoy having your afternoon ruined.

In the opinion of my afternoon’s companion, the movie opens with 20 minutes of completely unnecessary nonsense. I find it hard to disagree. The movie-watching public probably don’t need the majority of set-up that’s fed to us in action movies in particular, and while the opening crash-landing of the Life Foundation spacecraft and its subsequent goo refugee symbiotes gave some smaller part actors an opportunity to add to their showreels that I absolutely do not begrudge them, the attempt to build tension with this didn’t really work and was quite boring.

We’re all hear to see Tom Hardy get tongue-boxed in various orifices by a living sex toy while having an absolutely catastrophic case of the junkie sweats and gurning like his life depends on pulling a plausible Jim Carrey impression – so let’s skip the niceties.

Mr Hardy, playing himself as a vlogger who has accidentally got a job as A Real Journalist with absolutely no investigative skills (plausible, unfortunately), immediately shits up his job and gets fired for trying to publicly generate some sort of conscience in Riz Ahmed’s beautifully understated Elon Musk pastiche villain. He’s then promptly dumped by his long-suffering girlfriend, Michelle Williams, because of his complete failure to respect her boundaries, and completes the classic movie downward trajectory into a “loser apartment” and scenes of frantic job-hunting while haunting the local corner store and trying to avoid low-level gangsters. Although, as he has the wherewithal to live by himself in a whole apartment in San Francisco, one of the most housing-crisis-y cities in the US, we have to assume he’s not doing too badly.

Elon’t Muskn’t, the off-brand Pharma Pioneer at the not-at-all ominous Life Foundatain meanwhile continues to blithely murder his way through the large homeless population of said city in the pursuit of “saving humanity” with an untested injection of a recently-acquired alien lifeform that’s already detonated a couple of rabbits, which is… ethically problematic. The idea El-not Mus-off appears to be peddling is that what with ecological Armageddon looming, mankind – or at least the part of mankind that runs the Life Foundation – could escape to a life beyond the stars rather than stick around to fix its mess. Who could possibly… do… such a thing? Oh. Perhaps the problem with Venom isn’t that it’s far-fetched, but that in a time when every news report feels like a waking nightmare, it’s not really far-fetched enough for fantasy,

One of the scientists acting as a shepherd to shoddily-constructed tests and general murder finally develops a spine about her misgivings and for some reason takes her problem to Eddie Brock, a man who spectacularly crashed out of his career practically in front of her eyes. Eddie Brock, disaster journalist and haunter of cornerstones, loved by homeless women but loathed by his ex-girlfriend’s cat, goes through the inevitable dance of “I absolutely am not helping you” / “oh no I’m personally invested now” and accompanies his whistle blower in breaking into the worst-secured secret science facility on the face of the earth. Huge, wall-sized doors slide open at the touch of a palm. One solitary security guard is on patrol. The security at my local gym is better than that, and to the best of my knowledge we only have the usual range of deadly contaminants in the shower room.

A series of predictable disasters plays out now, replete with red flashing lights, gratuitous suffering vulnerable people, and one black alien goo impregnating our reluctant protagonist, and now the fun truly begins.

Two moist losers, against all the odds, have found each other and become one sweaty, unbalanced idiot eating last night’s chicken from the bin and muttering to itself. Then! Terrible Bad Men with small mouths come to split these two newly-weds asunder!

Every minute of Tom Hardy’s possession by interstellar parasite and self-avowed loser Venom is a romp. He saw the chance to flex a set of comedy muscles that rarely get the opportunity they deserve to put on a gun show, and he went for it – much to the gratitude of thirsty Tumblr fans and to the detriment of live lobsters.

As an aside, one of the reasons you will discover that Venom and Brock are absolutely the core couple of this movie is that ex-girlfriend Anne’s new boyfriend absolutely does nothing to conform to the jealous ineffectual stereotype that the Replacement Boyfriend normally does in an action movie. Instead, he behaves… like a doctor, treating a man in obvious distress, doing his best to care for his physical and mental safety, and not once throwing even the slightest bit of a shitfit about his girlfriend speaking to her ex. That is maturity!

The core of the several terrible movies baked into one moreish cakewreck of a movie is an odd couple romcom. Leaving aside the illustrative line about having “one of those things up your ass” (it could have been anywhere else in your body – probably was – but you had to make it like that, didn’t you?), leaving aside the keynote smooch which is, technically, an interspecies threesome – every moment of this film exists for the sole purpose of getting the two main character together in a beautiful, bickering unity, a meeting of like souls. If that’s not the definition of romance, I don’t know what is.

Admittedly, it’s perhaps a similar sort of romance to the kind Bryan Fuller made for NBC, but I don’t think that should disqualify this charming little globe of used lube from picking up some romance movie plaudits.

And besides, in the comics – it’s canon:

A comics page showing a discussion between Eddie Brock and the Symbiote, who is represented in the form of lights and shadows. Dialogue follows - Venom: I only do what you want, Eddie. What we want. / Eddie: And what DO we want? / Venom: We want to be TOGETHER, Eddie, FOREVER. / Eddie: Yes, love / Venom: We want to hurt people in the way, people IN BETWEEN. / Eddie: But NOBODY is. I'm just WORRIED that you're not okay. / Venom: There is ... Anger. HATE. Sometimes feel weak. Sometimes Strong. Even weak, will kill ANYONE who-- Eddie...

Venom #150, Writer: Mike Costa, Artist: Tradd Moore, Colorist: Felipe Sobreiro, Letterer: Clayton Cowles.

Image of a partial comics page showing an explosion from a helicopter caught in a giant spider web. Eddie Brock is piloting another helicopter. Speech, from Eddie Brock: So, it's true. The symbiote is here. MY symbiote. My darling.

I rest my case.


It’s the blogger’s birthday today! Why not swing by and shower me with money

A Righteous Knees-Up

I’ve been singing down a hole.

Before I went down a hole for a singalong, I was lucky enough to be offered a friend’s spare ticket to see Garbage Version 2.0 Twentieth Anniversary Tour at Brixton Academy. (In between those things I’ve been to Canterbury and Salisbury and even some places that don’t have cathedrals of such grandeur, but we’re not talking about that now). This was… kind of a very big deal.

It was a very big deal because like a lot of people of my increasingly ageing and absolutely failing to grow up generation, Garbage were a highly formative band for me and Version 2.0 was one of the first albums I ever bought and played obsessively and fell in love with. The decision to – with a couple of other songs for flavour (Cherry LipsNo More Horses, and some B-sides) – play 2.0 in its entirety was exactly the kind of decision to appeal to that obsessive 15-year-old with the poster of Shirley Manson on their dormitory wall.

It was also a very big deal because everyone else in the room seemed to have been a fan for about a minimum of 20 years as well. We were Of An Age. My cohort tolerated the support act (Dream Wife, inexplicably described by the Guardian as one of their bands to watch in 2018. Watch, perhaps. Listen to, no), and all lost our minds to Shirley playing the part of the pope of pop, resplendent in her 50s: commanding and enthusiastic and full of professionalism and joy in a way that makes it absolutely clear why people in these awful little islands traditionally followed red-headed women into glorious battle. I would absolutely have run out into the night in an army headed by Shirley Manson that night, and torched whichever Roman Garrison she wanted.

Shirley Manson in an white-trimmed red gown, bathed in white light, presses a microphone to her lips
Ms Manson, the new Boudicca

Part of the the joy of live music – part of the reason for going to stand for an hour while Swedish Gen Z children yelp onstage beforehand and you consume desperately overpriced cider from a plastic cup – is the audience. It’s part of the downfall of many a gig. I’ve encountered a lot of fucking awful audiences, and a lot of beautiful ones. As a young fan I made it my business to be in circle pits whenever they appeared; as a slightly older one with fewer kneecaps I found it more expedient to cram myself against the barrier, and now that I’m decrepit and in my mid-thirties and going steadily bald, I’m perfectly happy to stand somewhere in the middle and sing.

And that’s really why Shirley Manson playing a 20 year old album from start to finish to people who’ve been fans for two decades, with love and with glee and with a spectacular array of colours and a robe I wish I could replicate, was so beautiful. It became the same experience that Christmas carols, communion, a national anthem, a football chant is – strangers suddenly united in song, in some kind of praise of a shared quality, all working together as one rather wobbly and disparate voice.

And on Saturday night, I went down a hole to sing some somewhat less “cool” but equally enjoyable songs.

The hole in question was the Shaft at the Brunel Museum. I have to be careful in expressing my absolute affection for this charming and oft-overlooked treasure of an East London museum, because my terms of praise are often taken in a manner completely out of keeping with their intent. So I will say this: I am a rabid fan of tiny local museums. I absolutely live for small scale models of things, teatowels with typography that would make designers cry, and an air of genteel desolation. I especially like them when it is raining. My favourites – apart from the Brunel Museum which I absolutely love – are Bruce Castle Museum in Bruce Grove, Haringey, and the Queens Hunting Lodge in Epping Forest, which is a pain to get to on foot but worth it because it has things to try on and enormously outdated models and fake food and overlooks a Premier Inn. It couldn’t be more perfect.

The Brunel Museum hosts Midnight Apothecary in the winter and autumn, a cocktails and campfire affair in the beautiful herb garden on the roof of the Shaft. For entertainment this season – and this season last year, when I also attended – the cabaret performer and MC, ukulele songstress, lady dandy, leader of the All-Girl Swing Band, regular facilitator of soul-cleansing pub singalongs with tiny instruments and long-time friend of this blogger and I absolutely cannot understand why she’d lower herself to that but am very grateful for it, Ms Tricity Vogue hosts a rousing singalong inside the Shaft, preceded by cabaret or burlesque acts.

Firstly, the Shaft is a fascinating structure with incredible acoustics:

An image of the bottom of the Shaft, taken from above. It is set up for a show with a semi-circle of empty seats and the lyrics to It is also absolutely freezing but that’s why there are cocktails (many made or garnished with herbs from the roof garden) in the Shaft and hot toddy on the roof. Also, singing along definitely raises the body temperature.

An image of the bar in the Shaft, taken from one side. The bar is surrounded by fairy lights and greenery and flowers, with a large water dispenser balanced on it.
The bar dispenses many delicious cocktails, including the Sage Advice and the Monk’s Muse.

Our first act was Marlene Cheaptrick, a Weimar-themed extremely raunchy burlesque act who won us all over with squeakers hidden in her bra, a masterful comedic hula hoop routine (“Like Brexit, when I bought these hoops on Amazon I thought this was a wonderful idea and what could possibly go wrong! And now here we all are, ladies and gentlemen, careering towards the edge of a cliff, no one has a clue what we’re doing, and we’re all too stubborn to stop. Let’s see if I can still pull this off.”), and some impressive chair acrobatics using a game member of the audience who’d coincidentally come from Salisbury – the same place I’d just travelled back from!

“You can tell they have a good relationship,” said Marlene out-of-character, gesturing to the girlfriend of a man whose lap she had just writhed about in, “she has responded to this in the best possible way, ladies and gentlemen: she could not give a single shit. Because she’s secure!”

And then the first of many singalongs: a tune of Tricity’s own, a drinking song entirely right for breaking what ice hadn’t already been melted by Marlene.

After a break, in which we acquired more cocktails, we were startled into our seats by an air-raid siren, and Ms Fanny Gonightly (I *think*) came onto the stage in a state of disarray. Missing a stocking.

Ms Fanny, dressed in a glamorous 1940s dress and hair curlers, stands with her back to the audience while I draw her stocking onto the back of her leg with eyeliner.
The kind of stocking you draw on. Photo taken by @effienell, Instagram.

It is time for a confession. I am a horrible sucker for audience participation. I love audience participation. I can’t act like a serious Actor Actor – my level has always been panto, stand-up, and … well … cabaret. I will take any opportunity to make a fool of myself onstage, and frequently do. In evenings like this, when not everyone in the audience is warmed up yet and no one is answering the “I need a man – or someone who can pretend to be a man – just to hold my hand” cry, I don’t actually need a lot of prompting to come and play along.

So yes, that’s an image of the top of my head as I help Ms Fanny draw on her other stocking. There is, mercifully, no image of me accompanying Ms Fanny in a kazoo duet but rest assured, I looked an absolute fool and loved every minute of it.

Our singalong for this second act, after a saucy WW2 song about staying in the deepest shelter in town, was a classic: Victoria Wood’s Let’s Do It, and I can say the audience acquitted itself beautifully this time. Drunk, uproarous, and perfectly happy to at least attempt some of the more difficult lines: we raised the roof for the late, great, inimitable Victoria.

In this interval I finally made it up the stairs to where – experience had taught me – there were marshmallows, pointy sticks, and a blazing fire to enjoy in the garden. There were, however, also complete strangers greeting me by name to compliment my idiotic turn on the kazoo, so I melted some gelatinous sugar and ran away again as fast as I could! Bold on the stage, horrifically shy in person. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Our third act was nothing but rousing singsongs from start to finish – the finish being Summer Nights, as advertised above. By which time we were drunk enough to forget who was supposed to be a T-Bird and who was supposed to be a Pink Lady, which would have spoiled the effect were everyone not so absolutely delighted to be bellowing along to a banjolele, down the Shaft with a spectacular hostess.

Minight Apothecary Goes Down The Shaft with Tricity Vogue & Friends is on all the way up to Christmas, and you can buy tickets on DesignMyNight, which I very much recommend. If your curiosity is piqued by the Brunel Museum, which is just next to Rotherhithe Station, I thoroughly recommend it – adults pay £6 and children £4, and there is a tiny and adorable cafe as well.

FOCUS ON FICTION: Vessel 151-B

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

Today, a short story.

After a terrible accident Calvin Owusu-Baah wakes to a silent ship and a strange, nagging sense that something is not right. As he begins to investigate he finds that things are far, far worse than he could have imagined, and that his efforts to improve the situation are only going to make things wrong.(short story)Available for Amazon Kindle (UK | US), and most other eReaders (here).

VESSEL 151-B

After a terrible accident Calvin Owusu-Baah wakes to a silent ship and a strange, nagging sense that something is not right. As he begins to investigate he finds that things are far, far worse than he could have imagined, and that his efforts to improve the situation are only going to make things wrong.

In 2003 a man I used to know commissioned me to write a piece for a short fiction anthology his small press was preparing; the anthology (and associated fee) never saw the light of day, and the story got lost somewhere in the many computer deaths every writer’s life consists of (in between the “where the hell is that notebook” scuffling which dogs the more analogue among us), but the core of the story remained in my head.

Since then my tastes in science fiction have evolved, and my understanding of what is frequently left out of popular sci-fi developed. Whole continents have been ignored in the future of humanity in too much of classic sci-fi literature. I made myself a small rule: if it’s in space, if it’s The Future, the Future is Africa.

Since making that rule I’ve found anthologies, short films, and the occasional novel to add to my own supposed future when I finally have time to read the African sci-fi I want so badly to see; but this little re-working of a a re-working is my beginning.

Some very clear images remained of that first story: the lone traveller, isolated in a vast space civilisation which had unexpectedly expired, leaving them in the worst psychological state a human can be in – cast away without hope of ever making contact again. Another was the image of a man labouring away trying to create something beautiful with a technology he doesn’t really understand, which is definitely not a metaphor for trying to get the hang of Photoshop but might as well be. The third image was the idea of a failed Pygmalion, perhaps somewhere in the region of God confronted with the wickedness of the world prior to the Flood, but without the same moral trappings; a Frankenstein story driven by loneliness, instead of arrogance.

Other images came later, from the practicalities involved the running of the ship, and the destruction of the population; but the real genesis of the story – the germ – was one lonely person using a wire-frame model to create a friend, and accidentally bringing to life a monster wracked with suffering.

Focus On Fiction: The Renaka Device

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

I’m starting with a short story:

THE RENAKA DEVICE

My name is Potsve Revolution Renaka.

I was born a month after the fall of the old order. In celebration, my parents named me Potsve Revolution.

Set in a dystopian, unnamed country in which a revolution hasn’t quite successfully brought about the grand liberation that everyone had hoped for, The Renaka Device of the title is a piece of technology intended to streamline the process of composition through to printing. It both is, and isn’t, the point of the story.

This is a tale I’ve tried hard to write in multiple formats for a long time. Eventually I realised that the best thing to do was simply to strip it down to its essentials – streamline it the way the device was intended to streamline telling a story.

This is also where I got the bare-bones narrative voice of the genderless protagonist; the repeating refrain, on the other hand, is what you get when someone who learnt to write by writing poems turns their hand to any kind of prose shorter than a novella. At least some of the time!

The language is broadly, or at least partly, cod-Slavic, with no real underlying structure – something I’d like to change if I work on something longer set in this world, because I’m armed to the teeth with a full version of Vulgar and eager to use it.

The Renaka Device has a kind-of partner/sequel story, The Traitor, which also examines the use of stories and truth and the effects of power vacuums, and how difficult it can be to really change a society for the better. While so far I’ve only really managed to illuminate the world in which The Renaka Device and The Traitor take place with tiny glimmerings in sparse short fiction, I feel like by implication and inference there’s a large, and oppressive structure out there waiting to be explored in more stories.

Or more simply, I want to revisit this world, and write more about it.

Bin Fox Food History Tours: Hot Chocolate Test Run

The test run of the Bin Fox Hot Chocolate History Tasting Tour got off to a wobbly start as I discovered that my hasty formatting for the scorecards didn’t hold up over the two separate instances of MS Word it’s apparently necessary to use in my house in order to print things, and my even hastier cobbling together of tour guide text was, it must be said, somewhat lacking in stylistic consistency and grammatical sense.

THE TOUR

“I promise there’s a good reason for this,” I told an amused cashier at Wasabi on Oxford Street, having thrown about ten sachets of pickled ginger onto the floor in my desperation to purchase them and nothing else. I was not being entirely truthful. My reason – not necessarily a good one – was that a few months ago I decided that the history of drinking chocolate in London as distinct from the turbulent history of coffee, tea, and gin consumption (all also remarkable), was fascinating in its own right and that our proliferation of chocolatiers in the city deserved celebration.

Like many of the ideas that I have around 3.20am at work, I announced my intention to my friends and promptly forgot all about it, in this case because I was trying to combine writing a book, learning to belly-dance, learning basic Turkish, and getting swole  (adj).

Thus it was that on the eve of the test tour I found myself desperately skim-reading Wikipedia and some articles by the indispensable Dr Matthew Green, and making impassioned pleas for categories by which to score hot chocolates – at an hour best described as “a little late in the day for this preparation work”.

But the next day I slogged to The Ship on Wardour Street with determination, printed scorecards, a head full of recently-acquired knowledge, a pack of Bic biros, several sachets of ginger for palate-cleansing and a bottle of fizzy maté as cleansing backup, there to meet my test audience, Mim and Al.

Besides enthusiasm for history, learning, and chocolate, Mim and Al brought differing palates (Al has a preference for the bitter and Mim for the sweet), and touring capability (Al lives in the gym, Mim has EDS). This, I thought, would provide a good test of the route, intended break times, and probably also the limits of my pancreas.

The notion that we were going to share out drinks at a ratio of about one between three had already been agreed upon, and turned out to be absolutely and utterly vital to our survival. I cannot stress how totally and utterly I would no longer have blood running through my veins if we’d had one drink each at these places.

Paul A Young

At the first stop on our tour we learnt about the overall history of hot chocolate, its origins as a drink in South America, and the propensity for adding spices – an option still available to patrons of Paul A Young today, with their array of additional flavours available for the connoisseur at no additional cost.

Price: £3.95

SWEETNESS: Mim 2, Al 4 – some discussion was had over how to rate, with Al going with “I ranked it highly because I like that it wasn’t that sweet” and Mim going with “I ranked it on objective sweetness level”.
CREAMINESS: Mim 2, Al 4, revised up from 3 at the end of the tour after some discussion.
THICKNESS: Mim 1 Al 4, also revised
RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4
SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4, also revised
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 4, also revised
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4

OVERALL SCORE: 28 (revised up from 24) out of a possible 35 from Al, while Mim presents a mode score of 4, an aggregate of 20/35.

COMMENTS: Mim: “customisable: add own spice”, Al: “Pick own spice”, shorthand for their belief that the option to create your own spiced blend is a strong selling point here. Historically, too, as we discussed, spices have been added to hot chocolate since its inception. Mim ranks this as her 3rd favourite, Al didn’t provided number rankings.

SAID dal 1923

A London institution and murderously difficult to get into to sit down most of the time, SAID is a wildly popular provider of Italian-style chocolate drink, and rightly so. At this place – and this place only – we had the capability to buy a “small” size, equivalent to an espresso shot. Trust when we say this is all that you need, and even that may prove to be too much, It is a dauntingly rich experience, available in dark, milk, and gianduja (hazelnut).

Price: £2.50 for a small.

SWEETNESS: Mim 3, Al 4
CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 5, Al 4
RICHNESS: Mim 2, Al 4
SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 5
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4

OVERALL SCORE: 29 / 35 from Al, mode 4 and aggregate 24/35 from Mim. The differing scores on “richness” may be related to the choice in hot chocolates (see below).

COMMENTS: Mim: “Om nomm nommmmm”, Al: “Milk also nice”; Al and I plumped for dark chocolate as this is our default, and Mim took on milk chocolate, but was kind enough to let us try. The majority of other comments amounted to visceral noises and trying to lick the inside of the cup. It was not dignified, but it was heartfelt. Mim ranks this as her number one of the chocolates reviewed.

Possibly addled by this experience, and possibly just very bad at reading Googlemaps, we got briefly lost and did a loop through Kingly Court. This is unnecessary – the next place is very close to SAID DAL – but perhaps worthwhile, as it gave us the chance to recover from the intensity.

ChoccyWoccyDooDah

The little cup contains marshmallows. Full-sized ones.
The marshmallows in action

CWDD is best-known for intricate chocolate sculptures in astounding forms and a pantomime wonderland interior, It is flashy, over-the-top, theatrical, and overwhelming; the branch in Brighton’s Lanes has frequently taken me by surprise as it looms out of the narrow alleys like a fairytale rendition of chocolate heaven or Willy Wonka’s deranged chocolate factory. The Carnaby Street branch, also tucked away down narrower roads, is much the same. The queue here was also enormous and there was a little confusion in communication but in mitigation we’d like to add that the staff here were beyond delightful, friendly and engaging and determined to make accommodation for Mim’s needs in particular, leading to the spectacularly indulgent experience of sipping hot chocolate while reclining on a chaise longe in a towering hallucination of sugarcraft. Definitely one for children and the festive season.

Price: £3.99

SWEETNESS: Mim 5, Al 2 – sticking to his previous “do I like this” scale
CREAMINESS: Mim 3, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 2, Al 2
RICHNESS: Mim 1, Al 3
SCENT: Mim 1, Al 2
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 2, Al 4
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 2, Al 2

OVERALL SCORE: 19 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 2 and aggregate of 16/35 from Mim.

COMMENTS: Mim: “Very, very sweet”, Al: “Teeth-meltingly sweet, great spectacle [but] basically a high street hot chocolate”. Mim ranks this sixth.

Exterior to ChoccyWoccy and over the sound of mysterious fireworks, we enlightened ourselves as to the introduction of chocolate to London in 1657 under the guise of a panegyric (of course), and some of its subsequent development.

History

The route through Soho has taken us in the opposite direction from the rest of the Central London tour so far, but there is a good reason for this. A large chunk of the history of “chocolate houses” revolves around St James’s Street, which we duly walked down before turning back through the bottom of Soho, with a brief stop to weep longingly over crisps – salty food! SALTY FOOD!

Where is Rococco?

While the majority of my inclusions on this list were based on observations either by myself or by other tour members, Rococco was included after perusing an official list of Best Chocolate Drinking Establishments on one of those infernal listings sites.

As it turned out this was a mistake. Rococco: Earlham Street, said my notes.

No such place, said Earlham Street, which indeed contained not a hide nor hair of Rococco.

Hotel Chocolat

While this extremely well-known chocolatier has many, many branches this is the first I had encountered which was selling hot chocolates. Rather brilliantly my introduction came when a man pounced on me with a tray of samples and then instead of muttering shut up when I asked about how the recent cocoa bean glut had affected things on a business level, eagerly told me all about the plantation/company relationship and price-setting structure used with their partners in Ghana.

This joy in all elements of the chocolate industry continued with our visit on the tour; additional cups were provided – as they were in many places – but already pre-poured, and once we had settled in some of the staff came over to ask us about the tour, the scoring and how they were faring so far. Hotel Chocolat has an almost intimidating variety of options, but after the intense sweetness of ChoccyWoccy the team were pining for something bitter, and plumped on this occasion for their 85% dark.

Price: £3.95

Pre-shared, and on a tray. The napkins bear a diagram of the anatomy of a cocoa pod. Fascinating stuff.

SWEETNESS: Mim 1, Al 4 (revised from a 3, sticking to the “I like it so I will rank it higher” approach as compared to Mim’s “objective sweetness level” approach)
CREAMINESS: Mim 1, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 3, Al 3
RICHNESS: Mim 3, Al 3
SCENT: Mim 3, Al 4
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 2, Al 3
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 3, Al 3

OVERALL SCORE: 24 / 35 from Al, with a mode score of 3 and an aggregate of 16/35 from Mim.

COMMENTS: Mim “80% dark”, Al: “Overall better than individual score”, referring to his enjoyment of the drink as a whole but less so in the individual categories. The gestalt 85% dark Hotel Chocolat was held successful, despite Mim’s low score, and ranking of it in 5th place.

While comfortably located and taking a much-needed bathroom break, we also continued our education on the history of drinking chocolate with the infamous chocolate houses of St James Square, and in particular the notorious and infernal Tory hangouts, Ozinda’s and Whites.

Godiva

Another multi-branch institution, Godiva in Covent Garden is short on space and in the lead up to Christmas short on patience, so they did admirably to accommodate our indecisiveness in choosing between four or five flavour options (including praline!). For a larger group it would certainly be necessary to phone ahead in order to avoid placing excessive strain on a diminutive chocolate heater. We optioned for the Viennoise Praline, on the grounds that variety is the spite of pancreatitis (this is not medically accurate) and that the saltiness might save us from total meltdown.

Price: £3.95`

SWEETNESS: Mim 4, Al 4 (revised from a 3)
CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 1, Al 2
RICHNESS: Mim 3, Al 3
SCENT: Mim 3, Al 3
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 3, Al 4
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 2, Al 4

OVERALL SCORE: 22 / 35 from Al, mode score of 3 from Mim and aggregate of 20/35.

COMMENTS: Mim: “Viennoise Praline – nutty”, Al: [N/A] none on the sheet but the saltiness was remarked upon favourably. Mim ranks this 4th.

Venchi:

Close to defeat we joined the queue at this Italian wonderland for another thick and intense hot chocolate and were presented with three clear plastic cups and the beginnings of a sugar headache, an experience I do not think I’ve ever had before and am not keen to repeat. Happily Venchi’s hot chocolate is so good that we laboured on past the pain and consoled ourselves with lemon water; one to undertake by itself for full enjoyment, although it speaks well to the product that even after that much chocolate it stood out.

Price: £4.00

SWEETNESS: Mim 2, Al 4
CREAMINESS: Mim 2, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 4, Al 3
RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4
SCENT: Mim 4, Al 4
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 4, Al 4
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 4, Al 4

OVERALL SCORE: 27 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 4 from Mim and her aggregate is 24/35.

COMMENTS: Mim: “RICH” which is certainly accurate, Al: [N/A] none on the sheet, mostly because we were too busy chasing the last remaining drops out of the glasses with the plastic spoons and making animal sounds, Bin Foxes to the bitter end. Mim ranks this in joint second place with the next establishment.

“I just want to sit down,” Mim said, as we reached our destination, “and have a cup of tea. Something that isn’t chocolate. Maybe some food.”

We were all in hearty agreement by now. Daydreams of lapsang souchong, and very salty chips danced through our heads. We waited half an hour for a table, because Sunday evening is not a good time to get to the head of any queue in Covent Garden, but at last we were there: jammed onto a sofa, possibly pre-diabetic, ready to take our sweet time.

Ladurée

A French affair, this company is better-known for its macarons and patisseries than for its attachment to chocolate, but the secret is out: they serve Viennese-style hot chocolate in pre-Revolutionary decadence in an attic in Covent Garden, and this is the perfect way to end a tour, in my opinion. We fortified ourselves with bitter teas, prepared our mouths and enjoyed the last of the hot chocolate.

Price: £3.95

The Viennese chocolate comes served in a silver jug, and accompanied by a small pot of whipped cream for adding to taste. The macarons and tea were an antidote.

SWEETNESS: Mim 3, Al 3
CREAMINESS: Mim 4, Al 4
THICKNESS: Mim 4, Al 3
RICHNESS: Mim 4, Al 4
SCENT: Mim 4, Al 4
MOUTHFEEL: Mim 3, Al 5
COLOUR/APPEARANCE: Mim 3, Al 5

OVERALL SCORE: 28 / 35 from Al, a mode score of 4 and an aggregate of 25/35 from Mim.

COMMENTS: Mim: “Luxury. Poured. Creampot niceness”, Al: “Appearance reflects surroundings”, and indeed the attic tea room is a wonderful spot to end the tour. It was judged “perfect” in conversation, which must certainly count for something. Mim ranks this joint second with Venchi and was in raptures over the curtained chaise on which she was seated for the experience of the remaining tour text:

At this concluding juncture the remaining medicinal claims were debated, and the future of chocolate-drinking hinted at. There may have been a little hint that hot chocolate can cure depression; I like to think the company helps to elevate the mood as much as the beverage.

Aftermath

Over steamed rice and frantically consumed salty rice crackers we totted up scores (an aggregate, rather than the originally-suggested mode), and compared notes on the tour as a whole as well as the individual chocolatiers.

Conclusions:

  • In future we will need napkins and possibly spare cups
  • More lemon water for palate-cleansing
  • SALTY SNACKS, we shouted in unison. DEAR GOD SALT.

While ChoccyWoccy received a drubbing here, we acknowledge that different people have different tastes; Al and I in particular have a fondness for the bitter and the rich respectively which leads the very sweet and milky to a disproportionately poor score. And regardless – it’s good to have a “villain” as a point of comparison or contrast, For others, Paul A Young’s spices or uberthick SAID’s rich headache brew, or the admirable pretension of our Parisienne conclusion may fulfil that role – the more tours we have, the more chances there are for receiving improved scores!

There are a number of other well-regarded chocolatiers in London who would be included on a broader-ranging tour – Dark Sugars, Melt, Konditor & Cook among others – and I am eager to give this a spin when my headache and incipient diabetes have worn off.

Future

Personally I find the history portion of my tour currently scant, and as I cribbed a great deal from Dr Green it needs revisions in style so it stops being outright bloody plagiarism. I’d like to make more, too, of the role of slavery & conquest in the provision of chocolate to Londoners and the subsequent association with decadence and depravity, as well as its complex global connections and lingering exoticism. I want to talk about when it acquired its current gendered, feminised associations when as recently as the first half of the twentieth century “a mug of hot cocoa” was considered as much a cure for one’s ills as the true elixir of joy of the Britons: tea.

But on the whole the itinerant Bin Foxes scavenged up a very enjoyable Sunday on International Men’s Day!

I’d like to thank in particular the good-natured staff at all the chocolatiers we visited for their tolerance and in some cases outright enthusiasm in the face of our increasingly hyperglycaemic nerdy bellowing and requests for additional cups like a bunch of misers. With a larger group this should be less of an issue.

I’d also like to tip my hat to Al and Mim for being good sports and risking their bodily health on this absurd pilgrimmage, and to Al for making such a fetching backdrop to my chronicle photos above.

Coda

I returned home with a single chocolate ganache profiterole from SAID DAL because I’d happily knife a man in cold blood for choux pastry on any given day and on this given day all I had to do was pay money.

As I was furtively sticking it into my face in the kitchen, the Resident Australian appeared behind me and stared, aghast.

“How,” cried the horrified Antipodean, “can you possibly eat more chocolate after all that?”

I think it will be the last for a little while.

Quite fancy some chips though.


If you have enjoyed this post, why not toss me some coins to pay for a coffee?  Definitely coffee and NO MORE CHOCOLATE.

How to Birthday:

Two days of birthday food in photos with accompanying recommendations:

A Sunday Dinner

Sourdough boule, bangers and mash (and watercress and jus), chocolate brownie with hazelnut ice-cream, from The Starting Gate in Alexandra, North London.

A Bombay Cafe breakfast

Chocolate Chai (unlimited), date and banana porridge (unlimited), bun maska, and sausage and egg naan roll from Dishoom in Kings Cross, N1C.

Drinks and small treats from wanderings

A limited-edition Halloween Vampire Frappuccino from Starbucks; takoyaki mini portion and a green tea soft-serve taiyaki ice cream from Hawker Street in Chinatown.

Afternoon tea

Warm strawberry bubble tea, and matcha azuki on brioche toast with flaked almonds, spray cream, and a dipping bowl full of honey.

Decor and dinner theatre
Strange dining

Dinner at Archipelago, a rightfully multiple-award-winning restaurant that provides an entirely unique culinary experience. Starter: “Burmese Embrace” features python carpaccio; Main: “Rajasthan Snap”, curried crocodile meat with jasmine rice (alas, no bugs. I was promised bugs!); Dessert: “Pharaoh’s Treasure”, a chocolate pudding with excitingly powdered and smeared sweetnesses, a pleasantly spicy ice-cream and some gold leaf; digestifs of Cà phê sữa nóng (Vietnamese coffee) with chocolate “sticks and stones”. The place does a wide and very interesting array of cocktails but as I was somewhat Feeling It after an excessively successful Halloween Party on Saturday I frankly never wanted to see alcohol again at this point!