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.

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When Human Nature Forces A Deerstalker On You, It’s Time To Find The Elusive Deer

Sidney Paget cemented this stupid hat in the popular memory when recalling yer man Holmes. It got into the groundwater of the consciousness via Rathbone and Brett and Cook and, well, it’s obligatory now. You aren’t allowed to deduce without one. TV producers won’t stand for it.

Hidden truths require detectives – or historians, who get rather less kudos, although they’re about the only people on TV more often than various iterations of the Great Mouse Detective – because magicians are out of vogue and get rather more gnomic results. Which is not to say that results are not largely interpretive regardless. They are, and therein lies the problem.

As a friend rather elegantly reiterated in their undergraduate thesis, sometimes things become invisible because people refuse to see them. It’s a common enough problem in Western History, where the achievements of women and people of colour (and quite often the role of white, well-off men in suppressing or stealing those achievements) are routinely wiped away by generations reshaping the historical record to look like the modern power structure they favour. History and propaganda are spelled in the same type. There has been a rather successful film recently, in fact, precisely celebrating the 20th Century victims of such revisionism which includes the word “Hidden” in the title.

In denying that women, people of colour, and women of colour in the West in particular, have ever done anything, and in denying any worth in “traditionally female” work, revisionist history still can’t actually wipe all evidence of these people off the record [NB: I am aware there are people who refer to actually finding evidence of the achievements and presence of these demographics who have been deliberately overlooked as “revisionist” but the original decision to ignore them was a revision of reality in the first place]. Those babies came from somewhere; a lot of documents and photos went missing all the same. Hegemony is however forced to acknowledge someone’s presence even when it’s booting them in the face, sometimes.

As I write, people who don’t exist are disappearing from the streets; and are ceasing to officially exist on the spreadsheets. And the funny thing is: I was planning to write about not existing anyway.

The Human Need to see yourself reflected. To not be alone. To know that you are possible. For much of recent history there have been aggressive attempts to tell the hideable to be hidden until they cease to be; every generation of homosexuals is told they’re some kind of modern malaise, a manifestation of failing social standards and also ouroborous-like and paradoxically their cause – a self-generating Sodom, buggering its own face. Wilde’s Uranian Love Movement (well, it belonged rather more to Carpentor and Addington Symmonds and rather interestingly links back to something later on) looked backward to Ancient Greece for validation of worth but also the existence of their sexuality (and Wilde is to later generations as Alexander was to him), and very slowly the love that dare not speak its name got tired of being muttered about in code and learned how to spell its own name: loudly, and in a full spectrum of colour.

Image result for london pride parade (C) Pride

In Catherine Arnold’s City of Sin, a young Victorian gay man describes the emotional impact of his first ever gay experience: like a curtain being drawn aside to show what he had hoped for without being able to even know what it was he was hoping for, unable to name what had felt so wrong all this time, but articulating his relief in language that resonates still: “I am not alone.”

[Sexual acts for any sexual person can have the property of confirming the actor’s reality and their value, however temporary and conditional, to another, but it’s the queer who finds themselves made possible by it; before the internet, depictions or mentions of such things were like hen’s teeth. And you had to know what it was you were looking for].

If learning of your own invisible possibility from the past as a lover of the same sex is rare in a canon determined to push any explanation barring the obvious rather than deviate from the straitjacket of compulsory heteroseuxality – from the default assumption that we must all be straight until proven, often with laughably complex criteria betraying the prejudices of the self-appointed jury, to be otherwise – then GOOD FUCKING LUCK finding hide or hair of yourself in the annuls of the past as a trans person.

We are definitively a ‘a modern malaise’. Yes, non-Western cultures have had non-cis/non-binary social roles in perpetuity but gosh darn it the West is different (I can smell your cultural imperialism from over here and it stinks). Cis historians will take therefore London’s first transgender celebrity, the magnificent, romantic, sword-fighting French Chevalier d’Eon, who in her own lifetime very publicly switched pronouns and presentation (along with a suitably brilliant cover story), and was accepted – nay, applauded! Vindicated! – as a woman – and they will look at the post-mortem showing her to have a penis and testicles, and start describing her with male pronouns. I read this with my own two wildly disappointed eyes.

They will take Dr James Miranda Barry (current Wikipedia description, just to affix it in time: “Depending on historic interpretation, Barry might be considered either the first medically qualified British woman or the first medically qualified British transgender person.” Either way: Barry practiced medicine), army surgeon and anti-corruption campaigner, performer of the first successful recorded Caesarian section on the African continent, pugnacious and irascible, beloathed of Florence Nightingale, and despite his lifelong use of male pronouns, despite a death certificate describing him as male, and the continue testimony of his friends and acquaintances post-mortem that he was indeed a man… they will look at the circumstances of his life and rumour of childbearing, and drift into using “she”. Regardless of the content of Dr Barry’s abdomen, his was a life lived under the banner of maleness; and yet even his biographers grapple with phrases like “woman disguising [herself] as a man” just as they will trot out “man in a dress” for the poor Chevalier (what does a historical trans person have to do to be allowed their correct gender in death?). Unless these historians also “disguise” themselves when they get up and put on their togs of a morning, it seems an odd way to describe getting dressed.

Finding trans men in history whose identity will satisfy the same prejudicial jury as before is further complicated by historical misogyny, as evidenced above; there are always questions to be asked as to whether someone is taking their ovaries to town in a suit and tie because they want a degree in the days before educational equality and their uterus has mysteriously denied them the right to access this learning (thanks, The Patricharhy), or whether it’s simply that Abraham’s vag doesn’t mean he is a woman. Our trans sisters, bearing the violence of misogyny on coming out, are easier to identify in this regard at least – why else would someone who has at least nominal access to The Good Life And The Privilege choose to “live as a woman” unless they were one? It takes a special level of additional obtuseness, therefore, to misgender d’Eon.

This leads clumsily into the third problem. Gender identity and sexuality are bound together in many, many cultures throughout history – for some reason one is defined by who one wants to fuck; more explicitly, one’s gender is frequently supposed to be determined by whether wants to penetrate or be penetrated. Hence a great deal of confusion around the following subjects:

  • Butch/macho cis gay men – indeed male homosexuality in many minds was exclusively the province of those being penetrated and therefore automatically obligated to be feminine if adult (or constrained to “pre-manhood”); rendering muscular, macho bottoms in gay culture stemming from Men’s Health-style magazines and Tom of Finland’s historically extremely valuable art wildly problematic for straight culture and explaining somewhat hypermasculinity fetishism which currently disgusts and annoys the generations of gay men after mine…
  • Feminine cis lesbians, particularly those who date other femme lesbians… “which of you is the man”. Neither, my dear fellow, that’s the whole point.

It becomes even more impossible for the genderandsexualityequaleachother mind, choking on biological essentialism, to grasp:

  • Trans lesbians
  • Trans gay men

[I’m leaving out bisexuals here because that, too, seems to be a hobby for historical record and heterosexual historians, and separating the tussles of historical characters with the weight and requirement of Compulsory Heterosexuality – aka “reproduce OR ELSE” from genuine bisexual interest is a job for someone more invested and patient than me].

It’s perhaps not surprising that any earlier confirmed record of trans men revolves around straight trans men (and predominantly in the 19th or 20th century) [Joseph Lobdell, Dr Alan L Hart, Reed Erickson, Billy Tipton, Robert Eads, Willmer Broadnax] or trans men whose sexuality was not known [Jack Bee Garland, Laurence Michael Dillon]; many had marriages and children.

“After all,” as one infuriatingly contemporary cis man proclaimed, “if you want to have sex with men, why not just stay a girl?” [Alright, Phil, if you want to have sex with all those cute straight men why don’t you ‘become’ a woman? You don’t want to? Gosh, it’s almost like your gender identity matters to you…] And anyway, it’s never that simple. Trust me.

In fact, the first person I can really find acknowledged as a gay trans man is Lou Sullivan. Sainted, wonderful Lou Sullivan, who died too young and made my existence possible: “largely responsible for the modern understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as distinct, unrelated concepts.” He was, however, kind of recent.

There is a glimmering of hope for the close reader however. Dr Barry’s love life, or at least rumoured love life – such as it was, as his Newtonian character didn’t lend itself terribly well to romance any more than Sir Isaac’s – revolves exclusively (as hinted by biographer Rachel Holmes) around men, or Barry’s “close relationship” with Governor Somerset while in Cape Town.

[It is also worth noting that as Dr McKinnon’s discussion of his late patient with an interested party involved his assertion that he understood Barry to be a “hermaphrodite”, the possibility exists that he was an intersex man rather than a trans man, and I would be loath to deny this representation even under a rather insulting name; times past may have muddied the water by using the term on occasion to refer to those whose “brain and body didn’t match up” or even homosexuals. Without being able to consult Dr Barry himself – who I cannot imagine would take kindly to the intrusion – it’s unlikely I’ll ever get a solid answer].

Wiped from history, covered up by misplaced propriety, nudged to and off the margins, many of the world’s people are denied the opportunity to look ourselves in the eye, to have the experience of reaching back into the dark for a similar hand without first digging up and reassembling the puzzle in codes we are told do not exist. For the sake of all those coming after us, who have to deal with this bullshit, it’s actually important that we do just that: and live our own lives as loudly and honestly as we can, to give them someone to look back at, if necessary.

I know it would have done me a lot of good.


When not grumpily ferreting around history’s dustbins in search of marginal representation, I also write books, some of which are set in the past

It’s Here! It’s Queer! It’s all smoke and mirrors, I fear!

Step right this way, step inside, and see the greatest show ever to amaze your senses and baffle your mind. Watch! As a budding friendship is slowly but completely transformed before your very eyes! Marvel! At how stupid four very intelligent young people can actually be when confronted with life’s mysteries! Gasp! With indignation at the skullduggery and bad manners brought in the pursuits of love, fame, wealth, and let’s be honest, a lot more wealth. Blush! At some of the language! Laugh! Primarily at some of those waistcoats! Tremble! At the revelation of worlds beyond worlds and compacts most rare and Faustian!

Buy! This! Book!

Buy it:

On Amazon Kindle (US | UK), on Lulu (print | eBook), on iBooks, on Nook, on Kobo…

What’s it about? What’s it about? You’ve heard all this and you still need to know more? Allow me:

The year is 1900. An Earl, an engineer, a suburban philosopher, and an enigma meet at University and make a pact to learn the art of conjuring.

But nothing among the friends is quite as it seems, and soon the happy four are plunged into worlds of political activism, crime, despair, sordid trysts, and a Faustian compact which seems set to threaten their very lives, one by one…

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.

Pride: There Is Power In The Union

Ordinarily, the more I like a current release, the less I want to write about it. Not through superstition or a kind of hipster snobbery – “no one else should be into this thing because they’ll only like it wrong” is stupid, and with small films actively damaging – but through a kind of fear that, should I express enthusiasm for the thing, ten thousand people will descend at once to explain to me that I am wrong, bad, and On Some Kind of List for having liked it.

However, I feel that the only people likely to be pissed off by Pride are the kind of people I should relish pissing off.

Pride, 2014

Set almost exactly thirty years ago, Pride tells the story of L.G.S.M; “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners”, the 84-85 miner’s strike, and the power of the union; not the miner’s union but the union between two groups of people persecuted by the red-tops and Thatcher’s government.

In some ways it reminds me a little of The Full Monty, which I rewatched recently and which I discovered still has the power it had when it was released, to lift my spirits and provide a sense of warm, familiar welcome in a canon of film dominated by American releases and aspirations that enter the realms of the delusionally glossy. It relates to the UK’s lost industries, too, and to the ability of unusual friendships and activities to raise people from the gloom and horror of external/financial depression.

Because the subject matter is very hard – the attempt by the privileged and wealthy to break the backbone of the hard-working and supposedly powerless – and because of when it is set – right at the first peak of the AIDS crisis – there are some terribly bleak and sad moments in this comedy. There are some terribly dignified and heartwarming ones too, amid the laughter, and the acknowledgement that fear brings out the best in some people and the worst in others.

A slew of familiar locations, character types, and class coding, as well as the very faint and nascent memories of the time, formed in an extremely young mind, made this feel as if the film had been made especially for me. As the Resident Australian commented: “It’s about queer history and socialism, it’s like they wanted you to come and see it”.

I don’t think I’ve been made this happy by a film in a long, long time: it has a perfect blend of established talent and new stars, it has the perfect mix of triumphs and bitter failures, it has humour and kindness and warmth by the bucketload, and it has a great deal of pride in the union between working men cast down by their callous government, and queer men and women cast out, in many cases, by their families.

Definitely worth watching more than once.

August Links Post

Things I have done

Things friends have done

  • Almost immediately crowd-funded an illustrated version of the Ars Goetia, well done Lucian!

Things strangers have done

  • Come up with Oystercard wristbands, which I want like I want chocolate gin and world peace, because it would be satisfying and useful and it displays your balance! You don’t have to be at an Oyster machine to know how much is on there! These things need to become a reality immediately. I will pay the price. (Edit: Friend who works In Trains says this is not feasible, and I am upset).
  • The Royal Society have launched a Print On Demand service for their archive prints, so any other nerds who love old scientific illustrations like everyone Chez Des Anges does is in for a treat.
  • Wrote a brilliant defence of the Narnia books from the boring, oft-wielded “Susan Argument”. I’ve had so many arguments with people that have ended in taking down The Last Battle and making them read the actual words themselves, rather than regurgitating a misremembering by another writer, while muttering “words mean things” in their ear, it’s quite nice to see someone taking another approach.
  • Made a website where you can design your own shoes.
  • Made a very popular website which responds to a list of the ingredients you have to hand with recipes you can make with them. Although as the front page included the words “American Cheese” I’m guessing it’s focus is not necessarily as useful if you’re accessing it from a kitchen in Lagos.

Links Post July

Things other people have done

  • David Firth has put up several albums of his Locust Toybox work up for free/voluntary donation. I found his music via this fantastic Hannibal season 1 edit.
  • Create incredible bespoke books which I only wish I could afford to do a run of.
  • Collate a list (well, it is Buzzfeed, that’s basically what they do) of fun ways to customise t-shirts which don’t involve fabric paint, embroidery, or studs.
  • Determined how to create an emotional connection between the reader and characters, which involves using data from a couple of psychological studies whose major conclusion can be summed up as “people are dicks”.
  • Made what is possibly the most useful website ever, which finds recipes for whatever ingredients you have in the house.
  • Built an entire 2,000-person community underground. Alright, it was built underground a long time ago but I only found out about Coober Pedy recently (and the fact that it’s named after kupa-piti, which is a phrase in the local language meaning “white man’s hole” is straight-up hilarious). If I ever manage to overcome a disinclination to ever spend that long on a plane again and go back to Australia, I think I’d like to have a look.
  • Made a 3-D Food Printer, because why not?
  • Came up with this cunning little circuit-building kit, which I would dearly like to own; littleBits seems like a good solution for someone like me, who enjoyed the electronic engineering portion of the HNC I took in Music Production but who has the soldering capabilities of a fat-handed panda wearing Marigolds. Also I am all about modular everything, whether it’s clothing systems, houses, computers, furniture, or electronic circuit kits.
  • Continuing with my love of modular, DIY, easy-make-to-your-own-design stuff: in development are massive housing-specific Lego-type bricks.
  • Made a very handy tool showing you how people talked dirty in different eras of history. “Handy” if you write a specific type of fiction or just have an inquisitive mind.

Things I have done

Two Brunels and a flood of sewage

This bank holiday I took the Resident Australian and her very expensive camera, and went to explore the first tunnel built under the Thames with a group of other nosy buggers, care of the London Transport Museum and, in my case, a friend who’d bought tickets and couldn’t use them.

Suited up in the same blue latex gloves I used to wear when my day day job was cataloguing dusty boxes of brain samples in a windowless basement, this time to prevent Weill’s disease from the omnipresent smattering of rat whizz, we descended undramatically down the escalators, and off the platforms onto the track.

Photos as always by J. Reilly

The tunnel runs from Rotherhithe to Wapping (or Wapping to Rotherhithe, if you prefer), and was finished in 1843 to great acclaim and a visit from approximately 50% of London’s then 2 million-strong populous. It was originally built as a goods tunnel, intended to relieve the pressure on the bridges and the ceaseless river traffic, but was only used as a pedestrian tunnel (with archways that quickly turned into the shagging grounds of London’s tireless hookers) before being sold to the railways, who extended it and ran the East London Line through it. Then the East London Line was incorporated into the London Underground, and later transformed into the London Overground. 

Interior of the Thames Foot Tunnel, mid-19th century

It took 18 years to build, thanks to a series of disasters including: a ship that dropped anchor through the roof and drowned several workers (and nearly did in Isambard Kingdom Brunel, son of the tunnel’s creator Sir Marc, and future celebrated engineer and inventor himself); running out of money (which was resolved by holding a banquet in the half-finished tunnel to raise more cash, which at my estimation after having been down there seems like a tight squeeze!); and digging time being limited by a lack of air and pockets of methane created by seepage from the sewage-choked Thames above. We were informed that a new “super sewer” was even then being built beneath our feet, carrying water below the tunnel below the river.

Just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of London you discover there’s more London underneath it.

Photo by J. Reilly

Most of this fascinating story I’d already had thanks to a book called London Under London (which I cannot recommend enough: the front cover even features the aforementioned banquet), and to Horrible Histories, but there is something to be said for hearing it all over again, especially from a cheerful and proud man with more than a little of the late Bob Hoskins about him, down an echoing hole under the river. There were six metres of mud above our heads, he said, and the tarpaulin Sir Marc used to plug the anchor-made hole in the roof so the tunnel could be pumped was, as far as he knew, still embedded in it.

London, which in the annuls of ancient cities isn’t even very old, still has so much history in it that you could waste a pleasurable lifetime studying it even without going into much detail.

J. Reilly (c)

One thing I hadn’t heard about was this: when the Royal Family – at this point consisting of Albert and Victoria – came to investigate this marvel of civil engineering, the ladies of negotiable virtue hadn’t yet moved into the archways you can just see above. Those little glimpses between the twin tunnels were instead reserved for traders, sellers of knick-knacks, gew-gaws, and general “tourist tat”. Given that the tunnel was also appallingly muddy, the seller of handkerchiefs was in luck when Queen Vic slid down to the tunnel: they were all purchased to lay in front of her royal footsies.

As our guide told it: the seller was then out of handkerchiefs and needed more stock. Being an enterprising fella, he gathered up the used hankies and began selling them as souvenirs – “as trodden on by the Queen” – a trade he kept up right until someone noticed that the muddy footprint on later hankies was that of a size 10 men’s boot.

“So there was entrepreneurship, and a little bit of fraud, too,” said Not Hoskins, with some pride. Absolutely the spirit of London, both Victorian and modern.

J. Reilly

The tunnel you see is not finished the way it was at first. The tunnel is, after all, more than 150 years old, and needs protection against wear and tear on its bricks. The story goes that the Underground surveyed the tunnel in the 00s (of the 21st, not 20th) and found it in desperate need of support. The day before a £23 million project intended to clad the tunnel in concrete was due to begin, Heritage in Parliament had the place listed as a Grade II historical building, and the whole process was set back.

The tunnel walk is a regular occurrence. This photo was taken in 2010 by Lars Plougmann.

What you can see is a compromise. The tunnel is clad, but the concrete conforms to the original shape of the tunnel. At the Rotherhithe end, the four arches that protrude out from under the river have been left as they were: blackened by coal smuts, crumbling like diseased wood, with a gas canister for the old lighting system still rusting in its alcove.

The history of London’s civil engineering advances is often a bittersweet one. Men died building this tunnel, and with the labour practices of Victorian England being what they were, I imagine their families were not well-compensated for it. The conditions were incredibly dangerous – even without the threat of drowning in the notoriously foul water of the 19th century Thames, the gas build-up in the later stages was so great that diggers had to be dragged out unconscious by their relieving shift.

Diagram of the tunnelling shield used to construct the Thames Tunnel, London. Contemporary image (19th century), probably from the Illustrated London News.

The tunnelling shield developed by Sir Marc and Thomas Cochrane made this enterprise possible at all – several attempts had already been made to tunnel the Thames and not succeeded – and was later improved by Peter W. Barlow and James Henry Greathead; the basic idea is still in use today, with tunnel boring machines replacing the labourers. The invention of the tunnelling shield in this project is almost certainly one of the developments that allowed the Underground Railway and its imitators around the world to be created.

We returned to the platform and then to the entrance hall of Rotherhithe station where, true to form, there were souvenirs on sale – as well as some hand sanitizer, for any inadvertent contact with the rats.  Both a recollection of the past, and a nice reminder of all the progress that has been made since the tunnel was built.

Links Post December

Things I have done

Things strangers have done

  • Mapped London’s independent bookshops, to help anyone who wants to support independent businesses and get their books from sources that actually pay their taxes.
  • Provided a handy guide to embroidery needles, which helped me somewhat when I managed to snap one of mine in half while trying to straighten it after my ham hands bent it.
  • Sold very posh perfumes in imp sizes (2 ml bottles) for the impoverished and curious.
  • Collected together the very best and most innovative tattoos from around the world. Lots of material for inspiration here, although as the curator of the blog says, don’t copy anything directly – original work always looks better.
  • Posted about her exploits as an artist-in-residence at McMurdo, which involve a lot of penguins.
  • Put up a short guide to the colourful and weird slang of 1920s America. This should hopefully prove useful if I ever get onto my prohibition-era noir pulp thing with alien pregnancies that I have small plans to write.

That’s about it from me for this year. See you in 2014!

Links Post September

Things Other People Have Done

  • Written a sardonic post about popular myths about poetry.
  • Designed an eating game based around the Prisoner’s Dilemma. A friend of mine was one of the original test party for this and spent a while explaining interesting “hacks” of the overall premise, which is after all what games are really about.
  • Put up a 1965 high school student’s research paper project: to ask several best-selling authors of the time about symbolism in their work. A surprising number replied, although as you’d expect they weren’t really into the literary criticism side of their stories.
  • Created a useful toy for house planners and writers alike: a room layout planner. Helpful for visualising fictional spaces. (via Cindy R)
  • Written an article about why storytelling is a valuable tool in understanding, in neurological terms as well as social ones.
  • Made this cool thing that makes patterns and is extremely good for calming one down after stressful work days.
  • Put up a tutorial on how to make failed lab experiments.
  • Made a regular podcast about the history of the English language.

Things I have done

  • Started a fashion magazine/blog called Faschionism which should, hopefully, update several times a week with stuff from various contributors.