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.

Aut Visum Aut Non

A man was born in California in 1948’s closing months who was destined to make something quite, quite bonkers in London. Just off Spitalfields on Folgate, having been “drawn to London by English light” (already bonkers), Dennis Severs purchased a house and, like Jeanette Winterson and bonkers artists Gilbert & George, renovated it.

However, being magnificently bonkers, Severs didn’t politely repaint the walls and strip out some annoying 1950s fittings and whatever else it is my father is currently doing to a house he’s acquired in Dorset, nor did he simply limit himself to fixing the roof, installing some electrics, and having protracted arguments about different forms of environmentally-friendly plumbing as my mother & step-father did when they, too, bought a derelict property and turned it into something legally habitable.

No, our Dennis was a man with a vision. A glorious, batshit vision. For twenty years, until his death, he resided in this property, living in a museum. Somewhere between a set piece, a really involved one-man LARP, an exercise in time-travel, and the most elegant excuse for being a card-carrying capital-H Hoarder you could possibly devise, his house on Folgate was made into installation art history:

Not only did he turn each room into a tableaux about the mysterious Jervis family, with food left on the table and in some cases playing cards strewn on the floor (you can just about see them in this picture), not only did he live in the middle of this nutjobbery, effectively inventing an art form to justify his wacko spending habits (God bless you, sir), devising a sense of immediacy and imminence of an invisible family…

(From basement…)

(To attic…)

… After his death it was turned into a public attraction.

Meaning you can visit this wonderful monstrosity, which is precisely what Emma and I did last week.

We’ve tried to explain the experience to each other, standing in the suddenly-loud street afterward. The weirdness, for me, of the smells and creaking floorboards, reminiscent of so many other experiences (Installation History seems to have been an unusually vibrant museum market where I grew up); the nuttiness of the scheme; the fact that on entering a cat ran past us; the way almost all the food was real (smells, again, and the acknowledged difference in weight and visual texture and believability that results); the piped sound of voices from other rooms lending the air of having just missed real people, and above all:

You will complete this journey in silence.

After a while, holding my breath, listening to the voices of the past while peering at their goods, the enterprise began to feel grubby. I felt like a ghost of the present, haunting the past. As if I’d wandered backwards in time to gawk at the private doings of normal people. The pressure of the experience is startlingly immense in that moment. (Slightly spoiled by the necessary presence of volunteers to stop people nicking things or walking into the open candle flames).

“You’re about to begin a journey into the past,” Emma sagely mentioned, mimicking the doorman at the house, “As he stabs away at his iPad, somewhat ruining that illusion.”

“Yes,” quoth I, “but did you notice he had the same face as the portraits? I think he may have been generated by the building.”

After the better part of an hour stalking an immaculate set composed of imagined history and funded by a man who thought nothing of filling the master bedroom with china pots on tiny gold shelves (a shelf for each of them), this seemed a perfectly rational explanation.

The house is on the south side of Folgate Street, and dates from approximately 1724. It is one of a terrace of houses (Nos 6-18) built of brown brick with red brick dressings, over four storeys and with a basement.