Do you like your socialism angry, your body horror Lamarckian, your alternate histories brutal and convoluted and your protagonists greyer than a London sky?
You’d better, because that’s what’s on offer, just in time for Christmas if you hurry!
(Unless you’re buying an ebook version, which case you can pretty much just buy it on Christmas day and hide in a corner devouring the misery, vengeance, and weirdness without listening to your family!)
If you don’t do Christmas, this book also serves brilliant as a Generic Winter Experience.
There is basically no reason not to buy, on Kindle (all regions, link goes to UK), iBooks, Nook, Barnes & Noble online, or in print and ebook at Lulu.com. You can also request it at many major bookshops!
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.
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).
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.
In light of the recent and absolutely catastrophic cultural and scientific loss both to Brazil and to the world in thefire that consumed the national museum in Rio, there are a lot of questions to be raised about what the future is for museums as conservators and curators of culture to join the pre-existing questions of where museums go next in terms of public engagement and education.
While visiting a museum UX designer friend for some museum lates recently, I got into conversation about this – at that point extremely current – devastating loss to the international community, and what solution we’d propose to the problem of protecting vast collections, accrued in some cases over hundreds of years, from disquieting disasters like this one – especially in a climatically and financially uncertain future.
Over the course of our conversation we toyed with an idea taken from our understanding of data centres: redundancy and remote sites. While every item in a museum’s collection is necessarily unique, perhaps it isn’t always safe to keep multiple similar artifacts in the same location, at risk of wiping out all the examples of [X] in one devastating stroke. Remote storage, increased intermuseum loaning, and split collections could all help mitigate some of the risk faced by centralised collection – as well as providing both scholars and members of the public with greater opportunity to interact with collections geography might otherwise exclude them from.
The V&A is one step ahead on this; selling a warehouse site used to contain a large part of its collection not currently on display, the institution is moving the collection to Stratford to a location to be known as V&A East, where the materials will be on display in an innovative new way: completely surrounded by glass to allow 360-degree viewing.
Turning away from the problem of how to preserve these storehouses of knowledge for future investigation and education, there’s also the question of engagement: what do we do with museum collections to entice more people to visit and interact with the museum space and museum artefacts, when so much of life and the world is now online?
One way to handle this is what the Museum of London has proposed for its new Smithfield site, to open in 2023: instead of restricting access to the entire collection to standard museum opening hours, with monthly or weekly late opening evenings, to allow visitors to decide for themselves when they want to access the culture and history of their city. The 24-hour-access collection is a step towards broadening London’s goal of becoming a truly 24-hour-city away from solely night-clubs and the odd cafe and restaurant and into more cultural areas. It also promises the possibility of enlarging the reach of “just in the area and popped in” visits.
Another is what three major public institutions have already stepped forward to do: make their entire catalogue available online for casual browsers, with varying degrees of navigability and information. With open access to the museum/gallery catalogue API come apps making the experience of collection interaction easier and more flexible, like ArtString:
ArtString’s raison d’être is to get people talking, either out loud or online, about art and artifacts in museums and galleries. Founder Julia Mariani noticed that many museum visitors feel intimidated by the official style of museum placards and the sense that there’s a secret language or hidden knowledge people need to have in order to really “get” museums. Her aim with the app is to allow people unselfconscious enquiry and enjoyment, interacting with the collection and each other both at home and in the locations themselves (three, so far: the British Museum, the Science Museum, and the National Gallery), curating their own collections and sharing their thoughts and knowledge to build up different focus and more background than can be provided in the limited space of museum placards.
Obviously there are a lot of other questions about the future of museums and interaction: decolonising collections which have the taint of slavery and oppression in their history, for example, or acknowledging the authorship of discoveries and inventions, both misattributed and obscured – as well as using these changes to help invest new generations with an interest in and commitment to the preservation of and engagement with their own and other cultures.
The Uncomfortable Art Tours of historian Alice Procter have enjoyed a certain amount of press coverage since their inception, and rightfully so: broadening our understanding not only of collections but of how collections are built – engaging the public with the history of museums, not just of their contents. As the name suggests, this can often be a difficult as well as illuminating experience.
One question that arises in almost any conversation about the future of an institution is technology. In some conversations the pondering of how to incorporate new technology into museum exhibits seems almost a substitute for thinking creatively about the future of an institution at all – but in some instances, as in the sadly-defunct “natural selection” video game in the Natural History Museum’s Ecology gallery, it can be a raging success.
I spoke to an academic with related expertise about what she sees as the future of technology in museums, in with particular relation to whether new technologies can help students of the arts.
3D printing and VR have applications for entry-level appreciation – children and people who want to take up anatomy drawing or composition studying – but they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for the real artefacts for any kind of study above, say, GCSE. The real life experience is always superior for a reason, and that’s going to become more apparent the further up the academic ladder you go. However, as an early starting point for engaging curiosity and artistic understand they’re the modern equivalent of plaster casts and prints – but accessible in an instant, globally. For cast-strapped art students who want to copy Michelangelo’s David from every angle, VR or a good-quality 3D print maybe a lot easier than travelling to the V&A to view the full-sized cast – or to Florence.
It’s important to be cautious in implementing new technology and not do it for the sake of doing it, but instead really think about what effect these new technologies have on the learning process. For sculpture and other physical arts (such as large-scale paintings where the dimensionality of brush strokes are visible) materials themselves matter and are a huge part of understanding the work of art, its construction, and its context. This isn’t something that can be replicated yet!
Museums and galleries are guardians of quality experience as well as conservators of physical artefacts, and they shouldn’t be tempted to make technology that can’t yet walk try to run a marathon; it’s better to do it well than to do it soon.
Museum and gallery lates have been an enormous success in getting people who normally have no time for these daytime institutions to come out and reconnect with places and collections which may have previously be consigned to remembrances of childhood. Allowing adults to roam with a glass of wine and ask questions they wouldn’t ask in front of their children or friends’ children has brought millennials in particular back to museums. But more can be done: while talks and explainers with specimens are an additional treat, what really seems to have fired up museum-goers at my recent compare-and-contrast expedition to South Kensington (and a past Halloween visit to the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum) is the chance to create and play.
At the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Deconstructing Masculinities event, two of the most popular areas were the disco – as it is with every late event – and the room in which a craft station had been set up with the aegis of getting visitors to create their own cover for a men’s magazine out of printed samples, using it as a creative springboard to talk about what they want from masculinity. As these things often do, by the time I’d arrived this had turned into a large number of excited adults sitting on the floor with gluesticks and scissors, all competing to see who could construct the most aesthetically offensive withering satire on media representations of masculinity, and there were some real corkers in there.
Which, in tandem with the notion of digitised collections – both 3D and photographic – and the foregrounding of the personal experience, leads to the question of how much of a museum’s treasure trove can be effectively rented out? While museum spaces – vast, aesthetically unique, immediately recognisible – are already favoured locations for filming TV and music videos, for hosting corporate, media, and governmental events, there are other realms in which museums can monetise their appeal without charging visitors and thus closing the door on the eager minds of tomorrow.
To take an example that draws all of these threads together:
A fully-digitised collection of 3D artefacts or specimens, available as online licensed printer files or in-store printables (the way that it’s already possible in many gallery shops, such as the National Gallery, to have a printed on-demand image from the gallery’s collection on any size of poster or card, while you wait), allows for tactile exploration of museum and gallery objects and a greater understanding of them. For schools, purchasing a schools license bundle allows children to get to grips with both the museum collection and their own interpretation of creating – learning how to replicate a particular scan in a classroom CAD package for printing or to use pre-existing arfefacts as a springboard for their own creativity and understanding. In-house, a painting station allowing children and adults alike to customise their own printables produces a new level of creative interaction and play, and gives the opportunity for further education about the artfacts chosen and their appearance in the collection. Commericalising this process with the sale of limited licenses or individual printables is non-intrusive, and still centres the educational and playful experience.
Likewise, 2017’s ingenious personalisation of museum experiences with the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England Wales and the associated LGBTQ history tours of museums, galleries, and palaces has spawned many exciting variations, both official andunofficial. These have a wealth of functions: they allow for new ways of seeing a collection which involve no physical alteration to the collection itself, they impart more information to visitors than can be fitted onto specimen placards, and they help to personalise the experience of the collection to each visitor’s interests. With the addition of apps likeArtString into this mix, the experience of personalised museum tours becomes even more personal – and breaks the boundaries of the physical museum space altogether, allowing visitors to entice friends and family from around the world to experience collections from every perspective.
Apps like ArtString are only made possible with the generous provision of full online collections. What stands out for me about ArtString is that it reaches across individual museums and galleries, assisting visitors in a “joined-up” way of looking at history and the present, instead of partitioning things off along arbitrary lines. For example, it’s long been argued that the division of sciences into “physics, chemistry, biology” is at heart misleading – all of these are ways of describing the reality we live in, but at different levels of function and complexity. They have to be taken as a whole to truly understand the universe!
Similarly, cross-museum cooperation allows for greater synthesis of ideas in visitors and conservators. Historical perspectives that join up the scientific progress of an era with its art and natural history, its changing thought patterns and social progress, allow for a broader understanding of the world, of each individual culture, and of scientific advancements in their proper contexts.
What ArtString shows is that great connectivity between institutions of art, science, history, natural history and culture doesn’t purely have to be a matter of reciprocal email campaigns and object loans for exhibitions or study. Simply linking together relevant concepts in the digital realm can induce visitors to pay more attention both to the world they live in, and to which institutions they can learn about this in!
For a practical example:
I went to the National Gallery after an appointment. In the Sainsbury Wing, there is a painting of Saint Sebastian or ten; the specific painting I mean is by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano in Room 57. Looking at this painting, you might wonder why the loincloth the saint is wearing is a pale shade of pink, and why he appears to have no blood coming from his arrow wounds.
Now I know, because of a placard on a painting that I saw at the V&A Museum some years before, that a lot of medieval paintings have “white” cloth because the cloth was originally painted red using a paint made from the plant Madder, which because of its organic base and short wavelength, is particularly susceptible to fading in natural light.
I also know, because I watched (several) BBC 4 series in the intervening period, that a lot of paints during the Renaissance underwent a change in composition of manufacture which continued all the way through the Victorian period (when dangerous green dyes made of arsenic manufactured from the mining waste – from the mine I grew up on top of, fact fans! – were gradually replaced with safer new alternatives), and onward into the mid-twentieth century as synthetic pinks and purples were discovered. This information in this paragraph has been itself synthesised from three separate BBC documentaries (one about colour, one about dangers in the Victorian home, and one about the history of chemical discoveries), and the delightful William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow.
Mineral pigments, I learnt from one of those documentaries, are much more long-lasting, like the blue used in many of the Marian robes in the medieval paintings in the Sainsbury Wing: this blue is derived from Lapis Lazuli – available to view in its natural state in the Natural History Museum’s geology and mineralogy galleries, or in carved and jewellery form in the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum.
In this story of colour, answering a simple question about a bloodless St Sebastian painting in Room 57, I’ve taken you through knowledge collected by chance viewings of documentaries, and through the V&A Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum (where else would you go to learn about the chemical processes in making dyes and pigments?), the William Morris Gallery, the British Museums, and the Tates. I’ve taken you on a whirlwind tour of a good six hundred years of pigment history moving forwards, and could just as easily take you back through time to talk about the evolution of Madder – with a visit to Kew Gardens – or the historic uses of Lapus Lazuli and Cadmium, and how trade in mineral pigments helped develop connectivity in the ancient and modern world.
Not all those institutions have their full collections online yet, but with time and investment it could be extremely easy to give highly-focused and well-connected tours like this which tie together past and present and potential future, art and science and history and the natural world, and most importantly use a single question as the starting point for a whole galaxy of answers.
Finding a pathway that protects collections and engages future visitors, making the most of the museum as a place of learning without engendering too many extraneous costs won’t be an easy task. Compromises will be need to be made, but if they’re approached as collaborations with enthusiastic outsiders rather than failure to implement in-house there’s potential for serious innovation, at least so far as getting new faces into museum spaces go. As for getting academics to engage with collections – well, sometimes the old ways are still the best.
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 Lips, No 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Hello, I’ve written another book which is now sitting in the dusty drawer marked “I don’t want to edit anything oh God” for a little while now as I enjoy my general Christmassing and New Yearishness trying to speed-read some very large books which I foolishly got out of the library without realising that I am not blessed with quite the amount of free time I had at 16.
I did however find the time to finish a long-term project that’s been chugging away forever:
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The last few touches are being gently hammered out with a brick on publication of Heavy, but in the meantime, here is a lovely digital artwork of the Eastern end of the Thames in London, which took me absolute months and made Photoshop shit itself more times than I care to swear about.
If you’d like to see it at a larger size (and I advise that), go here and also look at the stuff you can buy it on, because I have to go and pay someone to drill more holes in my wretched teeth and my bank account is crying.
Phew, look at that. It’s summer! The sky is full of SCREAMING BIRDS and the sun has found the one part of my body I didn’t aggressively spray with Factor 50, and it has burnt it. My mouth, it has burnt my actual mouth, which is what happens when you and your idiot friends decide to go and feed parakeets but you also really feel the need to drink two bottles of wine and half a bottle of gin, break your flipflop and also give yourself a grass rash that makes you look like you’ve lost a fight to an entire battalion of angry domestic cats.
So while the world catches fire, blows itself up, crashes down around my ears, and murders people with vans outside my friend’s flat (ah, London in 2017: an endless roulette of “oh shit what particular area of my city has become a trending hashtag on Twitter today?”, and that is why I am not going to get very far on giving up drinking this year…), I’m gamely trying to squeeze as much fun as I can out of whatever time I have left on this terrify earth. Tom of Finland documentaries, live broadcasts of sad plays about AIDS, panel talks about London history, and a punishing amount of fruity cocktails feature in my near future, always assuming that we don’t get hit by an asteroid or anything (the way this year is going that’s a possibility).
Also, making art, because that’s what you do in times of strife. Admittedly, I think you’re meant to make political art, but sometimes you also need to colour in a cityscape, right?
Or you could, I guess, print it out and colour it in. I mean, it does look like you ought to be able to. Although ideally I’d prefer it if you bought it on something and thus funded my extravagant lifestyle of going to £12 panel talks about Peter Ackroyd books like the London-obsessed gay nerd we are all very, very aware that I am.
The time has come for another book to be released into the wild, to flourish where it can, like a weed, and hopefully sow fertile seeds in the imagination. Or at least take up some prime real estate on someone’s bookshelf, which is of course identical to becoming an important part of their inner life.
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
Consider yourself warned: the rabbit is out of the hat and the cat is out of the bag.