Writing Portfolio


On the trail of Jack the Ripper

On the day after Boxing Day, I found myself at Tower Hill tube station at 7:30 in the evening, by a surviving section of the old City Wall that dates back to Roman times. The reason? It is the starting point of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ walk organised by London Walks. Our guide was Shaughan, described by the company leaflet as ‘a distinguished and stylish actor’ as well as being a Blue Badge holder.

Our walking tour took us from the Tower to Spitalfields Market, via a series of sites on the boundary of the City and the East End which are indelibly linked with a string of brutal murders of prostitutes that took place between August and November in 1888, shocking Victorian Britain with their brutality and gruesomeness. The murders were described at the time as being “unique in the history of our country” by no less a person than Sir Charles Warren, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. This was the first instance of a serial killer at work, and coming at a time of a burgeoning sensationalist press it gripped the nation, and indeed the wider world, like nothing before or since.

The fact that the murderer, known to history as Jack the Ripper, was never caught means that the Whitechapel murders still fascinate over a century later, to the extent of being taught in some schools; when I did my teacher training it was a special project for one of the GCSE History classes that I taught. We were meant to go on a walking tour then but never did. Since then, I’d always intended to go on the walk and with some friends visiting from Canada this seemed like the ideal opportunity. We were not disappointed.

The venues may have changed in appearance – much of this part of London was destroyed in the Blitz – but Shaughan’s vivid descriptions and recitals of the letters apparently sent by the killer helped to bring the events of 1888 to life. He himself admitted that he’s had over a dozen people faint on his tours over the years, and his gory descriptions of the state of the victims’ bodies are not for the faint-hearted.

Shaughan told us a lot not just about the Ripper murders but also about the history of that particular part of London; the Whitechapel and Spitalfields areas are today a centre of the Bangladeshi immigrant population (which is why Brick Lane is the best place to go for a curry in London), but their proximity to the docks means that they have always been areas of immigrant settlement, from the Huguenots in the seventeenth century to the Eastern European Jews in the nineteenth. This was the poorest part of London, a place where prostitution was rife; according to Shaughan, in 1888 the going rate for sex was the same as the price of a place to sleep in one of the area’s many doss-houses (fourpence), one could purchase enough gin to get drunk on for a penny and there were streets where policemen only ventured in groups of four.

What I found fascinating was that the walk took us past the modern-day office block where I work on Middlesex Street (formerly known as Petticoat Lane). London is of course teeming with history but I had not realised just how close some of the murder locations were to my place of work!

As well as describing the murders in great detail (although not all of the sites were visited – there’s no pattern in the way they are spread out over the eastern edge of the City and the East End), Shaughan also touched on the identities of some of the suspects, such as Montague Druitt and Aaron Kosminski.The former’s suicide shortly after the last murder provides an explanation as to why the killings ended when they did, while the latter was actually identified by a witness, although it is possible that this was a case of mistaken identity.

I found that one man who was conspicuous by his absence from Shaughan’s narrative was Frederick Abberline, the detective inspector who investigated the murders with the limited means available to the police of the late nineteenth century. Also missing from the narrative was the man Abberline himself suspected of being the Ripper – a man later arrested, tried and hanged for a series of murders that bore very little resemblance to the Ripper murders (poison being this particular serial killer’s weapon of choice).

What he did mention, though, was an unusual take on Commissioner Warren’s order to remove the graffiti which was found on Goulston Street on the night of the ‘double event’ (30th September 1888, when two of the victims were killed) – which it turns out can be seen not as a well-meaning attempt to prevent an anti-Semitic backlash (tensions were already running high in the area) but as part of a Masonic plot, although this hinges on whose version of the spelling one chooses to believe (what was controversial about Warren’s decision was that he ordered it to be cleaned before the police photographer arrived, and the police officers’ accounts of what the graffiti said are contradictory) or indeed whether the proximity of the graffiti to a blood-stained piece of apron linked to one of the victims is coincidental.

The Masonic theory was popularised in the 1970s by a book – one of many books on the subject of Jack the Ripper – which proposed that the murders were a means of covering up a secret marriage between HRH the Duke of Clarence (‘Prince Eddie’) and a working-class Catholic woman. This is the theory that has the Royal physician, Sir William Gull, killing the victims in a horse-drawn carriage and then depositing the bodies at the locations where they were subsequently found. Although widely discredited now, this theory brings the Royal family and Freemasonry into the Ripper story and as such remains a popular one, and has influenced film adaptations such as Murder by Decree (in which Sherlock Holmes, played by Christopher Plummer, goes on the trail of the Ripper), the 1988 TV series Jack the Ripper (with Michael Caine as Inspector Abberline) and the 2001 movie From Hell (Johnny Depp as a highly fictionalised version of Abberline).

Perhaps overplaying the Royal/Masonic theory, Shaughan explained to us that it was propagated on the evidence of one Joseph Gorman, who claimed to be the illegitimate son of the artist Walter Sickert (who was acquainted with the Royal family through his work and had a fascination with the murders). He (Gorman) later confessed that he’d made it up, but for supporters of this theory this can be explained as part of an ongoing cover-up. What Shaughan didn’t say, surprisingly, was that Sickert himself was named as a suspect by the crime novelist Patricia Cornwell. Well, there are so many theories about who the Ripper was that it would be impossible to list them all over the course of a two-hour walk.

Incidentally, one of Shaughan’s fellow-guides is Donald Rumbelow, widely considered to be the leading Ripper expert. His book was certainly invaluable to me when I needed to read up on the case prior to teaching it!

At one point, a police car sped by, lights flashing and siren wailing. “They’re still trying to catch him,” quipped Shaughan.

Our tour ended with a few more theories – the notion that the Ripper also killed abroad, that ‘Jack’ was in fact ‘Jill’ on the grounds that the victims would have been more trusting of a woman than a man and so been off their guard (this was a pet theory of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and that he was actually a doctor who apparently confessed to being the Ripper just before he was hanged for another series of murders.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure – and that is the main reason why Jack the Ripper still fascinates us 124 years later.


Butchering in Bermondsey

At a quarter to one on a cold Sunday lunchtime, I find myself underneath a railway arch in south-east London.

My reason for being there? Butchery. Specifically, The Butchery Ltd, a butcher’s located in the Spa Terminus, an off-shoot of Maltby Street Market and where most of Maltby Street’s original traders are to be located. The Butchery’s customers have included the better-known Ginger Pig and famous chefs such as Raymond Blanc. Specialising in free-range meat from small British farms, it doesn’t just sell meat, however; it offers butchery classes in which people who are interested in where their food comes from can get hands-on with meat and learn about the right way to cut it up.

The class I’m here for is called ‘Praise the Pork, Punish the Pork’ so the meat in question is going to be that of the pig. Specifically, a saddleback pig farmed by a Mr Trumper. We know this because of the label that the abattoir has attached to the carcass which tells us the provenance of the animal (it also tells us when the animal was slaughtered, how much it weighed immediately prior to slaughter and the thickness of the fat – all of which have a bearing on the price). The label, Nathan tells us, ensures that discerning customers who want to know where the animal came from – and Nathan has a lot of customers like that – can find out.

Nathan is our butcher-tutor, an Australian with over twenty years experience in the butchery trade. Today, he’s got a class of five thirty-something blokes (two Irishmen, two Englishmen and another Aussie) who are all keen to get stuck in. I’m happy with the class number – any more, and there’s no way that one butcher could keep an eye on all of us, and the chances of much practical work would be greatly reduced. As things are, this is going to be one very hands-on experience.

First of all, the basics: We kit ourselves out in white butchers’ coats and navy-and-white striped aprons, and clad our non-cutting-hands in grey gloves that will protect them from the blades. Following this, Nathan talks us through the tools of the trade. There are four of these – the saw, the chopper, the steak knife (not the sort of steak knife you use for eating steak, but a foot-long curved blade) and the boning-knife. The latter, Nathan advises, will be the one we’ll be using most – once he’s shown us the basic ways of gripping it. There’s the pointer, in which you hold the knife as though you are using it to point at something, and the ‘murderer grip’.

Then it’s to the cold storage to get the meat. Hanging there are a variety of carcasses – Nathan also has plenty of beef and lamb – and these are all halved animals, which is how he gets them from the abattoir. In terms of the pigs at least, the guts and offal have been removed although the kidneys are still in place (the first thing we do with our carcasses is cut these off). My first hands-on encounter with the pig is carrying one of these half-carcasses to the table. It’s a heavy beast.

The five of us are split into pairs – and, as the odd one out, I found myself partnered with Nathan. Given that he is for the most part using another half-pig as a demonstration, I find myself doing almost all of the cutting, unlike the others who have to take it in turns (on more than one occasion, I’m told by one of the others that I’ve lucked out).

First off, the half-carcasses are split into three – the shoulder, the ribs/belly area and the hindquarters. The steak knife is used for most of this, with the saw being reserved only for cutting through bone.

The first of the three parts that we tackle is the shoulder. I later learn, courtesy of Hugh Flippin’-what’s-his-name’s River Cottage Meat Book, that this can be a massive on-the-bone roasting joint that would feed twenty-odd people. This, though, is not a regular joint and it wouldn’t be much fun for us if it was as we wouldn’t have much butchering to do! We need to take the bones out, turn part of this into a deboned shoulder joint for roasting and use the rest of the meat for sausages. There’s a large plastic tub into which the meat and fat for sausages is going, and it’s starting to fill up nicely. The sausage-making will come later.

The deboning is actually rather fun. Sliding the boning-knife through the meat, I hit bone and run the blade along said bone. Once completed, the finished cuts are put to one side on a counter that is soon filling up nicely with some mouth-watering cuts.

The deboning fun continues with the leg joint. The trotter and hock are separated – the former can be used for stock or gelatine, while I am sure Allison will be delighted with the latter as it can be used for brawn. The fun part of separating the hock from the rest of the leg comes with the ball-and-socket joint, which is prised apart with the sharp end of the boning-knife.

The next part involves separating one of the muscles of the rump which is sliced into pork steaks. Separating the muscle is a delicate job that gives the lie to the notion of ‘butchering’ being associated with just hacking away at something. The rest of the leg is partially butterflied and will be rolled later to make another roasting joint.

Next up is the mid-section, to which the saw is taken in a length-ways cut to separate ribs from belly. There’s only one thing that the rack of pork is going to become, and that’s chops. The trick here is to do most of the cutting with the steak knife, down between the ribs, with only the final part being done with the chopper. To be honest, I’m feeling a little nervous with the chopper and my first go is somewhat awry. Nathan tells us that we can use the saw if we like, but there are no takers for this. We all want to have a go with the chopper, and it isn’t long before the tray fills with plenty of thick pork chops.

With the belly part, we have a choice: These can become a pork belly roast (complete with crackling, of course) or bacon. With the prospect of already taking home shoulder and leg roasting joints, most of us chose bacon. Our pork bellies are thus coated in a cocktail of salt and mixed herbs before being vacuum-sealed. This will need to cure for a week, then be taken out of the bag and kept in the fridge for another week before we need to take it to a butcher’s for them to slice it – although not a kosher butcher or a halal butcher. Obviously.

It’s time for a break, and as there is to be no more knife-work a bottle of red wine is opened.

Post-break, our first task is to roll the roasting-joints, which involves learning how to properly use string to tie a butcher’s knot. My knot-work is a little rusty – I was good at this in the Scouts but that was a long time ago – and it takes me couple of goes to get it right. There’s a difference between the two joints, and that is that the shoulder is the slower roast, and when rolled it can only be distinguished from the leg by its darker colour.

Finally there are twelve kilos of meat and fat off-cuts in the sausage-tub. To this is added salt, pepper, water, thyme, sage and rosemary – the measurements for these are all in proportion to the amount of meat – and then it’s someone’s turn to mix it all up with his bare hands. And yes, that ‘someone’ is me. Then it’s to the mincer, which is kept in the cold room as the process can (slightly) warm the meat. Which is minced three times before it’s loaded into the sausage machine – a contraption with a nozzle at the top which squirts out the meat into the sausage skins (assuming they’ve been properly applied to the end of the nozzle). We all take it in turns to have a go – it’s not as simple as it looks by any means. However, it is not long before a lot of sausages are hanging in the cold room.

After this, it’s time for dinner. Rather surprisingly, it’s a beef stew that has been quietly simmering away while we’ve been busy butchering. Butchering, it turns out, gives you a healthy appetite.

Driving back to East Finchley after a long but highly enjoyable afternoon, my car is laden with over ten kilos of pork – two roasting joints (one shoulder, one leg), some sausage-meat to go in the Christmas stuffing, a vacuum-packed slab of bacon (to be sliced in a fortnight’s time), eight chops, plenty of sausages, four steaks, three trotters, two hocks, and a kidney.
 Now that, my friends, was a foodie adventure to remember!


Three City pubs

Despite the much-publicised decline of the British pub, there are still quite literally hundreds of pubs in the City of London, and even a beer-loving City worker like me cannot possibly hope to visit them all! A glance at this week’s edition of Time Out told me that some Kingston University students are attempting to get UNESCO World Heritage Status for the London boozer as a ‘type’ (one wonders how they managed to pitch that one to their lecturers), so in the interest of furthering some legitimate research I would like to bring my top three City pubs to their, and everyone else’s, attention…

Ye Olde Mitre
1 Ely Court, Ely Place EC1N 6SJ (nearest Tube: Chancery Lane or Farringdon)
Hidden in an alley off Hatton Garden (Ely Court runs between it and Ely Place), this is one of those pubs which can be hard to find, and many is the City worker who has worked ‘just around the corner’ for ‘years’ and hasn’t quite managed to find this place. This is despite the fact that it’s been here for a very long time – it dates back to 1546 and was originally established to provide refreshments for the people who worked in the Bishop of Ely’s palace which stood on this site (which explains the name).
If you can find it, though, you shall have your reward in the form of a pint or three in a lovely pub that time appears to have forgotten about (although you can pay with plastic – even in 2012, you can’t do that in every pub). Small it undoubtedly is, but it has two bars and a very snug snug called ‘Ye Closet’. It’s a Fuller’s pub so it has London Pride on cask – always a good sign. It had Deuchar’s IPA as a guest beer when I visited, which is a rare but welcome sight in London. It also does very reasonably-priced bar snacks, including toasties for (just) under £2.
Be warned that if you want to drop in on a weekend, you’ll be out of luck as like many City pubs the Mitre is only open on weekdays.
By one of those fascinating quirks of history, the pub is technically part of the county of Cambridgeshire – a legacy of the Ely connection. It’s said that jewel thieves on the run from the police after trying their luck in nearby Hatton Garden used to come here because they thought the City of London Police didn’t have jurisdiction!

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Wine Office Court, 145 Fleet Street EC4A 2BU (nearest Tube: Blackfriars)
Establishments using the words ‘ye olde’ in the title can indicate a tourist-trap, but like the afore-mentioned Mitre, the Cheshire Cheese is entitled to use those words. Rebuilt after fire – the Great Fire (of 1666) to be precise – it’s located just off Fleet Street and consists of a series of dark passageways which lead to a number of dimly-lit bars. The word ‘labyrinthine’ springs to mind. Even regulars are said to get lost occasionally.
In terms of beer, the Cheese is a Sam Smith’s pub which means that although it may not be the best beer in London, it is by far and away the cheapest by some distance (for a Yorkshire brewery, Sam Smith’s is very well-represented in Central London, other noteworthy pubs of theirs being the Princess Louise and the Cittie of Yorke, both of which are on High Holborn). This is because the brewerys policy is to keep prices to a minimum by only increasing them in line with alcohol duty rises and inflation, and in addition to that they only sell beer from their own brewery (rest assured, they produce a wide range of beers). Another cost-cutting quirk is that you cant get big-name-brand spitrits of soft drinks - it’s all unnamed brands.
When I say this pub is old-fashioned, I mean it – if you want to sit on a sofa while watching the football on a big screen and listening to loud pop music, you’ll be severely disappointed as the Cheese has no TV, no music and, for that matter, no sofas (it’s bar stools and mis-matched wooden chairs here). That the place oozes history can be seen even before you go in – by the door, there’s a list of all of the Kings and Queens of England for as long as the pub has been open. It’s said to have been Samuel Johnson’s local – although there’s no written evidence to say that the great lexicographer drank there, he lived very close to it and would have had to walk past it if he wanted to go to Fleet Street so I think it’s safe to assume that he popped in for a pint every now and again. Famous patrons for whom documentary evidence exists include Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson and Mark Twain.

174 Queen Victoria Street EC4V 4EG (nearest Tube: Blackfriars)
A Victorian pub (built in 1875), the Black Friar is a narrow wedge-shaped building jammed up against the railway line. It, and the nearby station, gets its name from the Dominican priory that existed on this site in Medieval times. What’s really extraordinary about this pub is its interior, a real work of art which is unlike that of any other pub. The walls, clad in green, red and cream marble, are covered with depictions of merry monks. Above the fireplace, a large bas-relief bronze depicts them singing carols and playing instruments. Another, called ‘Saturday Afternoon’, shows them gathering grapes and harvesting apples. The work on the interior began in 1904. In the 1960s, the pub was threatened with demolition but was saved by a campaign led by the poet John Betjeman (who is also credited with having saved the façade of St Pancras Station from demolition). 
This pub is owned by the Nicholsons chain, which is well-known in these parts for offering a wide choice of guest ales. Like its sister pubs (two of which are within very short walking distance from my office!), the Black Friar has an ever-changing selection of cask ales from all parts of the country. When I last visited, it had Sharps Doom Bar and Mordue Northumbrian Blonde to name but two.


Cocktail hour (part two)

In my first post about cocktails, I said that my new preferences were for gin-based cocktails. My use of the plural was deliberate, for my other new favourite cocktail is also gin-based. I discovered it last month when Allison and I went to the lovely Hawksmoor Seven Dials restaurant for dinner for my birthday.

A recent and well-received arrival on the London restaurant scene, Hawksmoor is a pricey restaurant by our standards but it is definitely worth a visit – but only if you like steak. The 800g (28oz) T-bone we had was more than enough for the two of us! The food was very good, and the staff were all friendly and highly knowledgeable (the fact that they were allowed to wear their own clothes and not dress up in white shirt and black waistcoat was a nice touch, I thought). The bar looks like something out of Mad Men and is worth going to just for the cocktail menu, which is actually less of a menu and more a potted history of the cocktail.

We got there early so we could have a drink in said bar before being seated, and I opted for the house ‘signature’ cocktail, which is called Shaky Pete’s ginger brew (named after bar manager Pete Jeary). To be honest, what appealed was the fact that it had beer in it! This is apparently a new development in the cocktail world. It was delicious – think of a shandy made with Old Jamaica ginger beer, but with a kick.

A couple of ginger brews were followed by a lovely meal that was concluded Italian-style with an espresso and a shot of grappa, which is swiftly becoming my favourite post-dinner drink of choice.

Anyway, following a fantastic time I decided that I had to make a Shaky Pete’s ginger brew at home. I’d taken a quick glance at the recipe in the bar’s copy of Hawksmoor at Home (every restaurant has its own book nowadays) on the way out and reckoned it shouldn’t be too difficult – although I did have to do a little online research to supplement my memory!

The first part consisted of making the ginger syrup. There is no getting around making this in advance, unlike the simple sugar-and-water syrup used for an old fashioned which can be mixed in the glass immediately prior to serving (although some places these days are sensible and have a ready-mixed syrup on hand for this). To make the ginger syrup, I needed to boil sliced ginger with sugar and water. This was cooled, strained and refrigerated. Stage one was complete.

For the cocktail itself, the syrup is mixed with lemon juice, gin and crushed ice, which is ‘roughly strained’ into a frosted beer glass – roughly straining means allowing some of the ice to get into the glass – and topped off with Fuller’s London Pride.

Now, you’re supposed to mix the syrup, lemon juice, gin and ice in a blender. We have a food processor and that worked … sort of, after I wrapped a tea-towel around it to stop the vital ingredients from flying out (that’s what you get from trying to do three cocktails at once)!

Three rough-strainings and toppings-off with the beer later, and the home-made Shaky Pete’s ginger brews were ready for testing by myself, Allison and Mike. They got a three-out-of-three approval rating.

Now that’s definitely one I will be making again over Christmas – and not just because I have plenty of the ginger syrup left over!


Cocktail hour (part one)

I don’t go in for cocktails very often, and when I do I usually opt for a whisky-based one like a rusty nail, but my current preferences are gin-based.

We have recently come into ownership of a bottle of Cointreau, which in turn prompted us to wonder what cocktails we could make to use it up. This, by the way, has happened before in our flat, where we sometimes end up owning fairly random liqueurs which we then have to use up by figuring out what cocktails they go in. Shortly after moving into our flat we had to Google crème de cacao in order to find something to put it in, which we then served to guests at a house-party. It’s a hard life.

As for Cointreau, I found an answer by way of the works of one of my favourite writers, the late Patrick Leigh Fermor. By happy coincidence, Tom Sawford, the man whose website is a great online source of all things related to the great man who everyone (even those of us who never had the pleasure of meeting him) simply calls Paddy, was thinking recently of what fans could have to drink while reading Artemis Cooper’s biography. Paddy could drink most men under the table even after his ninetieth birthday and his natural curiosity about so many things extended to alcohol, so there would be much to choose from based on references to drinks in his books.

Tom’s choice presented itself when he travelled to Cluj in Transylvania to meet with Nick Hunt while the latter was quite literally following in Paddy’s footsteps by walking across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as Paddy, ever the philhellene, always called it). Obviously they had to toast Paddy’s memory, but where should Tom and Nick go for that drink? And, more crucially, what should they drink? They decided to consult Between the Woods and the Water to see what Paddy had done when he was in Cluj. Here’s what he had experienced in 1934:

“An hotel at the end of the main square, called the New York – a great meeting place in the winter season – drew my companions like a magnet. István said the barman had invented an amazing cocktail – only surpassed by the one called ‘Flying’ in the Vier Jahreszeiten bar in Munich – which would be criminal to miss. He stalked in, waved the all-clear from the top of some steps, and we settled in a strategic corner while the demon-barman went mad with his shaker.”

The cocktail that Paddy and his friends enjoyed in Cluj remains unknown as he did not actually mention what it was (and the New York Hotel, now the InterContinental, was closed when Tom and Nick visited so they couldn’t go inside to find out). However, Tom was able to contact the Vier Jahreszeiten, which still exists, and obtain the recipe for the flying – two parts gin, one part Cointreau and one part lemon juice (in fact, a white lady) topped with champagne – which he duly posted on his blog.

The happy result of this here in East Finchley over the past couple of weeks has been several very satisfied dinner-guests who were greeted with a flying cocktail on entry.

Further research has shown that one of what David A. Embury defined as the six basic cocktail recipes – the sidecar, to be precise – contains Cointreau too, this time mixed with Cognac or Armagnac. So we’re not short of ideas.


Bond ... James Bond

I have never made much of a secret of the fact that my favourite film series is, by some considerable distance, the James Bond films. Naturally, then, I was excited by the release of the new film, Skyfall, which I went to see in the cinema this week.

Pre-Skyfall preparation – reading the reviews in the papers aside – involved re-watching Daniel Craig’s first appearance as 007 in Casino Royale (inexplicably, the only Bond film I own on DVD – I still haven’t got round to replacing the VHS tapes), a repeat of You Only Live Twice (screenplay by Roald Dahl, I kid you not) and the generally excellent Top Gear special on Bond cars. Top Gear has in my opinion gone off the boil in recent years, becoming (as the Bond films did at some point) very much a parody of itself, but this particular special was definitely worth tuning in for. The very good interviews aside, the story of how an Aston Martin DB5 came to be used in Goldfinger was definitely worth retelling (in an attitude similar to that taken by British Leyland over The Italian Job, Aston Martin initially didn’t want anything to do with it, and the makers only insisted on an Aston because Bond had driven one – a DB Mark III – in the novel). Plus, there was a real treat in store in the form of converting a Lotus Excel for use as an actual submarine, in homage to The Spy Who Loved Me. Only the people at Top Gear could have come up with that.

And so to the movie itself. Well, almost. The film was billed as starting at 7pm, although this was of course the time that the half-hour of adverts and trailers was due to start, some of the former being obvious Bond tie-ins which included, rather annoyingly, quite a bit of the pre-credits sequence from the film I was about to see.

The film was certainly more dialogue-heavy and character-driven than previous Bond films, and I don’t see that as being a bad thing, especially with a cast like this. Ever since Casino Royale, there’s been a move towards redefining what a Bond film is (as well as being a direct sequel, Quantum of Solace was, to all intents and purposes, a revenge-flick – the Bond franchise had never done the former before, while as far as the latter is concerned the only previous one had been Licence to Kill), and as far as this fan is concerned that’s no bad thing. Skyfall breaks new ground for the Bond films in that it’s the first to explicitly emphasise 007’s back-story – and what’s wrong with revealing a bit more about the main character? In the books, Ian Fleming didn’t really get round to this until rather late in the day, with the story of Bond’s parents being killed when he was a boy not being told until You Only Live Twice, the last Bond novel to be published while Fleming was still alive.

In the book, this was told in the form of an obituary written by M, which duly features in Skyfall after Bond is presumed to have been killed in action in the pre-credits sequence. That he is in fact alive and living on a beach somewhere is also taken from You Only Live Twice (the novel, not the film).

Craig is, I think, an excellent Bond – tough and determined but, unlike most of the others, showing a vulnerable side and literally being seen to bleed (in flat contradiction of Q’s final piece of advice to Bond in The World Is Not Enough). He brings something to the role the others didn’t; he certainly looks like more of a killer than Roger Moore in his prime, and yet the vulnerability (an area previously explored only by the seriously under-rated George Lazenby) adds something to the character, making James Bond appear as something more than a wise-cracking government hit-man. Of the old Bonds, he’s closets to Timothy Dalton, who was himself perhaps too serious coming in after Roger Moore (Pierce Brosnan certainly sent things back the other way by restoring a lot of the gags). It helps, I think, that such a portrayal of Bond came at the same time as a welcome reboot of the franchise, which has helped those responsible for the films in that they no longer feel obliged to stick to a prescribed Bond formula. If you want to know why they had to reboot Bond, simply note that Die Another Day – the most self-parodying of the Bond films as well as one of the most extravagant in terms of special effects – was released in the same year as The Bourne Identity. Suddenly, overblown special effects didn’t look too clever, and as well as establishing a new timeline for Bond, Casino Royale was rather stripped-down compared to what had gone before.

Of the other characters, Judi Dench was on top form as M, and Javier Bardem brought in a performance as the villain that hasn’t been seen in many a year – I would not be surprised to find Raoul Silva spoken of in the same breath as Auric Goldfinger and Francisco Scaramanga in years to come. A renegade MI6 agent as the baddie has been done before, but not like this (and a cyber-terrorist to boot; very modern!). Throw in the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, and it’s obvious that Sam Mendes established a heavyweight cast for this, so much so that I’m struggling to think of a Bond film that was as well-acted as this one.

The relative lack of gadgets aside (these were dismissed by the new Q in a throwaway remark about MI6 not going in for exploding pens any more) was more than compensated for by the appearance of the legendary DB5, complete with the optional extras it had in Goldfinger. Even though we all knew what was coming thanks to the publicity, there was still an audible gasp in the cinema when Bond opened the lock-up to reveal the Aston.

Aside from a couple of times where Bond looks at his watch (yes, it’s an Omega, we get it) and an obvious close-up of his mobile phone, I don’t think that the product placement distracted from my enjoyment of the film. Having read the books, I’ve argued on many occasions that product placement with James Bond is not a recent phenomenon but something that goes back to Ian Fleming himself, who with his journalist’s eye for detail used brand-names as a means of making sure that Bond appeared sophisticated and worldly-wise – the Bond of the books wears certain brands or styles of clothes and smokes a particular (specially-made) brand of cigarette, for example, and when reciting the famous cocktail recipe in Casino Royale he really does specify Gordon’s rather than just gin. I guess the difference is that Fleming wasn’t getting paid to do it (although by all accounts he did receive the odd freebie after publication), whereas (for example) Heineken paid a lot of money to ensure that it’s their beer that Bond is seen to be drinking. Sticking with drinks, I note that Bollinger is now the official Bond champagne, although I seem to recall that in the books Bond liked Pol Roger. Or was it Taittinger?

All in all, I really liked it. After the relative disappointment of Quantum of Solace, Skyfall brings the Bond franchise, and Craig’s Bond for that matter, back to the superlative heights of Casino Royale. Daniel Craig is no longer standing in the shadows of any of his predecessors. He’s a great Bond but he’s not the best there’s ever been – yet. However, give him a couple more, and the original may no longer be the best.



When we first thought of going to Turin for a few days, the first thing I thought of was that classic 1969 heist film The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine and a trio of Mini-Coopers that are driven around said Italian city with their boots stuffed full of gold bars.

To Allison, meanwhile, Turin is synonymous with Salone del Gusto, the biannual foodie festival that she attended several years ago when she was travelling through Europe. Italy is the home of the Slow Food movement and with Salone due to be held in late October we were both looking forward to sampling some artisanal Italian food (which, by the way, was the second thing I thought of).

Our journey to Turin was via the Eurostar and an express from Paris – a pleasant and relaxing contrast to flying out to Italy with Ryanair. As was the case when we went to Paris earlier this year, we were staying not in a hotel but in someone’s flat, found via Airbnb. Our host even met us at the station – a nice touch, especially as we’d never have found the flat otherwise!

When we asked her if there were any local bars that she could recommend, I naturally assumed – this being Italy – that we would be having a couple of glasses of Peroni or Birra Moretti before calling it a night. When we reached the bar and found that its name included what I assumed to be the name ‘birrifico’ – well, I assumed that to be a cute-sounding hybrid of birra and magnifico. What it actually was was birrificio, which is Italian for ‘brewery’. Yes, we had been directed to a brewpub. As if that wasn’t disorientating enough, there was a band playing Irish folk-songs to a cosmopolitan crowd, many of whom were like us in town for Salone.

The beers on offer included a wheat beer, an American pale ale, a stout (which I didn’t opt for) and a bitter – all brewed on the premises. Not what I had expected of Italy – and it was really, really good. Frankly, had it not been for the fact that I had been on the go since 5:30am, I could’ve happily stayed for a few more. By the way, should beer-loving readers of this blog find themselves in Turin, the bar is called Birrificio la Piazza and is located on Via Durandi.

I did not dwell on this too much the following morning as our pre-Salone Turin sight-seeing took in the Duomo where, like many a pilgrim, we didn’t actually get to see the Shroud (our guidebook made it clear that the one on display is a replica, and even that is covered by a special altar-cloth), and the Lingotto. The old FIAT factory is still standing despite the fact that not a car has rolled out of the place since the 1980s – it’s now a large shopping centre among other things. That said, the legendary rooftop test-track, used for part of the chase sequence in The Italian Job, is still there, accessible via the Pinacoteca art gallery, which houses a small collection of Canalettos, Matisses and a Picasso that were owned by the FIAT-founding Agnelli family. I am sure that we were not the first people who took in some high culture purely as a means of being able to walk out onto the test-track.

FIAT, by the way, stands for Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili di Torino – not, as is sometimes assumed, ‘Fix It Again, Tony’.

And so to Salone. We tried some great food, including samples of artisanal cheeses from all over Italy, cooked meats and a delicious Mac ‘d Bra. Should you ever get the chance to have one of these, I would recommend that you do. It’s a bread roll containing Bra cheese, lettuce and a special veal salsice, all of which are produced in and around the Piedmontese town of Bra, some thirty-odd miles south of Turin and the home of the Slow Food movement. In the wine section, we sampled fine Italian wines including a ’99 Brunello di Montalcino, which sells for over £60 a bottle.

As we were making our way towards the exit, we chanced across a beer stand and opted to see what they had to offer. What we found shouldn’t have come as a surprise following the brewpub experience the night before, but surprised we were. The very helpful man explained that as well as importing more quality beers than ever before from countries like Britain and Belgium (Chimay had a stand nearby) than ever before, Italy is now home to many an artisanal birrificio.

Beer, it seems, is the new ‘in’ drink among discerning Italians – and when it comes to food and drink, is there any other kind of Italian? The really surprising thing here, though, is not that they like the decent Belgian and British brands (I’d say that would be a given for any beer-loving country) but that some of them have established their own craft breweries. Plenty of this was on offer at Salone – we tried a craft Belgian-style beer called Birra Roma, the more English-style Re Ale and a few samples from the Birrificio L’Olmaia. I consider myself to be something of a beer aficionado and I was seriously impressed by the range and the quality.

Our friend on the stall wasn’t convinced that the Italian beer boom would last, but what was clear is that this is no flash in the pan. Good quality Italian beers are here to stay.

An interesting parallel can perhaps be drawn with the rise of the English wine industry; a nation famous for producing one kind of alcoholic beverage is now trying its hand at another.

A short while later, as we browsed around the nearby quality food-market that is Eataly, I noted that a wide range of quality imported beers were on offer in addition to the many decent Italian wines and the two-litre bottles that can be filled with table wine straight from the barrel (for four euros). As far as the Italian-brewed beers were concerned, though, what surprised me was that Birra Moretti now does its own grand-cru Belgian-style beer. So it’s not just newly-established breweries that are catering to a growing market.

The Italians have not only discovered good beer, they’ve figured out how to brew very good beer.


Nick v Barnet Council

News of an East Finchley resident’s parking permit ordeal in last month’s Archer brought to mind my own dealings with Barnet Council over my parking permit earlier this year.

I had renewed my permit in good time – a marked increase in the charge for living in a CPZ area, thank you Barnet Council – but I did not receive it in the post before the old one expired. As directed by Barnet Parking Services, I printed out a copy of the permit from an email attachment and placed it on the dashboard of my car. This copy was clearly displayed, although I was still calling the Council over a week later asking when I was going to receive the real permit.

One Saturday morning, I found a penalty charge notice stuck on my car, informing me that I had infringed parking regulations by not displaying a valid permit (despite the fact that a print-out of said permit was clearly visible). I removed this, only to find that when I returned to my car an hour later another penalty had been issued!

I emailed Barnet Parking Services to protest against both charges, attaching a photograph I had taken of the print-out permit showing it clearly displayed on the dashboard. In the event, the charges were overturned.

My conclusion from this experience is that it always helps to have photographic evidence!


In the kitchen...

On the menu tonight was smoked haddock and dill risotto, a recipe Allison clipped from the BBC’s Olive magazine two years ago. It’s one of our favourite one-pot meals and it’s really simple.

For me, the hardest part was the prep work as this involved finely dicing an onion (or half an onion in this case as I was halving the recipe), which makes my eyes water every time. This was sautéed in butter with some crushed garlic – a combination that smelt divine and to which the rice was added.

To this I added some white wine, making sure that I also poured one for the cook – my little tribute to the late, great Keith Floyd. Not that this is one of his recipes, it’s just something I usually do when a recipe involves wine. That said, sometimes this particular cook has a glass even when wine isn’t in the recipe.

After the wine evaporated, it was a question of slowly adding the stock and continuously stirring – for about a quarter of an hour. 

Once the rice was judged to be cooked – the recipe calls for ‘a slight bite and a creamy consistency’ – I was ready to add the haddock along with some dill, parsley and grated parmesan cheese. At this point the mixture is just left to stand as the heat of the rice cooks the fish.

The result? A risotto dish that’s both delicious and warming, especially on a wet October evening.


A pub called Dick

Pub closures are national news, with dozens of them apparently closing each week. There was even a programme about the decline of the pub on Radio Four quite recently. Here in East Finchley, time was called on the Dick Turpin on Long Lane last year and it is currently awaiting demolition. I can’t really say too much about what it was like as a pub – I only went there once and I was the only customer in the place. But it’s always sad to see a pub go to the wall.

This particular one, which gets a mention in the excellent Green Men & White Swans: The Folklore of British Pub Names by Jacqueline Simpson, was named after the infamous eighteenth-century highwayman (c.1705-1739), who is one of those figures from English history about whom much of what we think we know is more legend than fact. For example, the story of his 200-mile ride from Kent to York to establish an alibi first appeared in a novel written almost a century after his death, and was originally attributed to another highwayman who died two decades before he was born.

Turpin’s supposed associations with East Finchley – which is presumably what led to the pub getting its name – are also a case in point.

In Turpin’s day, the area was known as Finchley Common and was a popular haunt of highwaymen eager to relieve travellers on the Great North Road of their possessions. Despite the fact that a large tree by the side of the road was known locally as ‘Turpin’s Oak’ (for many years, it stood on the corner of the High Road and Oak Lane), the man himself is not known to have committed any of his crimes in the vicinity of modern-day East Finchley. Before he moved up north, Epping Forest was more his kind of territory.

But local Turpin legends persist here in North London. Not far from East Finchley is a very old pub called the Spaniards Inn, which sits at the top of Hampstead Heath and claims to be the building in which he was born, although the pub’s website hedges its bets by stating that he was “apparently born here”. Sadly, this particular legend also has little basis in fact, as all historical evidence says that he was actually born in Hempstead in Essex. In a pub, admittedly. They got that bit right.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there would appear to be many pubs that claim a Turpin connection, and no doubt quite a few of those are somewhat tenuous. The last word here should go to the historian James Sharpe, who wrote a biography of Turpin a few years ago and stated that “if all their claims were true, the career of England’s most famous highwayman would have been passed in a combination of perpetual motion and a permanent alcoholic haze.”


An unexpected sighting in the City

It really is the case with birdwatching that you never know what’s going to show up at any given time. It’s possible to see birds in the most unusual of places, provided of course that you look. Since I started a new job in the City a couple of months ago, casual birdwatching opportunities near my place of work have been limited, especially when compared to my previous job in Hendon which happened to be near a park where bird life was, if not abundant, at least varied – I could usually count on seeing at least half-a-dozen different species during my lunch break. Now, it’s usually a case of lots of pigeons and (if you’re lucky) the odd starling.

But this morning I saw something out of the ordinary on my walk between the Tube station and the office. This usually takes me through the churchyard of the wonderfully-named St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, where I saw something small moving in one of the trees. It was too small to be a blue tit, and not brown enough to be a wren – more greenish-grey. Luckily for me, it flitted from branch to branch for long enough for me to identify it as a goldcrest – one of the smallest birds you can see in this country, and not something I would’ve expected to see in the middle of London.

Then it flew off, and I continued on my way to work with a smile.


The Rollerblade King of Mzuzu

During my African journey back in 2005, an excursion to find the nearest cash machine led to an interesting encounter on the streets of a Malawian town…

Staying at the Mayoka Village backpacker lodge at Nkhata Bay overlooking Lake Malawi was a fun and relaxing experience during my African odyssey. The place was very laid-back, the food good and the staff and villagers were friendly; one of the local chiefs even had a stall by the bar where he sold sweets in the evening. I spent my days wandering around the town and snorkelling in the lake while I waited for the weekly Lake Malawi ferry that would take me further south. However, after a couple of days I realised (not that this was too difficult to work out) that Nkhata Bay possessed virtually nothing by way of money-changing facilities or cash machines – there wasn’t even a bank where I could change my travellers’ cheques. 

The nearest place with a bank was the city of Mzuzu, the regional capital which was 30 miles away. I’d passed through there on my way to Nkhata Bay and hadn’t thought to get some cash from an ATM while waiting for the minibus to leave (naively, I’d assumed there’d be one in Nkhata Bay), and being short of ready cash I decided that my only option was to retrace my footsteps, head back to Mzuzu and find a bank. Not feeling much like doing this on my own if I could help it, and suspecting that I wasn’t the only backpacker at Mayoka Village in this situation, I happened to mention this to some of the others, and as a result I found myself accompanied for this day-trip by Peter, a South African who was also staying in the main dorm. I’d have preferred one of the girls, but there you go.

Once we’d got as far as what passed for the High Street in Nkhata Bay, we found a pick-up truck heading ‘our’ way. If nothing else, we reckoned that the fresh air would do us some good (we were both rather hungover that morning). It took the truck half an hour to fill up enough for the driver to decide that it was worth going – but only as far as the first police checkpoint on the road out of town, where he stopped to pick up even more passengers and some livestock. When we eventually set off from the checkpoint, the rather motley (human) cargo included a priest and five of his female ‘followers’, carrying among other things a large wooden collection-box which they thankfully didn’t pass around, and several mothers with young children. One of these was sitting directly in my line of vision, which meant that when the inevitable breast-feeding routine started I had an unobstructed view of what is a common sight on African public transport.

Thanks to numerous stops, it took over two hours for us to cover around 30 miles. There is nothing unusual in this as far as Africa is concerned, and as far as major African towns go there is nothing remarkable about Mzuzu. In fact, this excursion of ours would not have warranted a mention at all were it not for what happened next.

The minute we disembarked in Mzuzu, one of the street-traders approached us with, of all things, a pair of rollerblades. New-looking rollerblades. This did not interest me in the slightest – it’s not my sort of thing, they looked far too heavy for my backpack and in any case all I wanted to do was find the banks and maybe find an Internet café so that I could check my e-mails for the first time since Zanzibar. I made to move off, but I had reckoned without Peter.

'Mate, have you got a thousand kwacha you could lend me?’ In less than a minute, he had commenced negotiations for the rollerblades, knocked the asking price down to 2,000 kwacha and then realised that he didn’t have that sort of money on him. Luckily for him I was able to make up the difference with what money I had left – well, we were there to get some money, so it wasn’t as though he wouldn’t soon be in a position to pay me back.  On the way to the banks, Peter explained that these rollerblades were more or less brand-new, and back in South Africa he’d have had to pay the rand equivalent of a few hundred pounds for them; here, in Mzuzu of all places, he’d got them for less than a tenner. Jointly, we decided that speculating on where the street-trader had managed to find a pair of almost-new rollerblades wouldn’t get us anywhere apart from assuming that Peter had purchased stolen goods. More to the point, so pleased was he with his new purchase that he soon put the ’blades on and set off down the roads of Mzuzu, which unlike the road from Nkhata Bay were sealed. He had clearly done a lot of rollerblading before.

Well, we did what we’d gone to Mzuzu for – at the bank we both took out enough ready cash to tide us through the couple of weeks, and subsequently found an Internet café where, to my despair, Hotmail proved impossible to access. Our business done, we set off back to the bus-station, myself on foot and Peter on his new ’blades, performing all manner of stunts on the thankfully not-very-busy roads as he went. I’m no rollerblading expert, but I could see that he was good.

It was by a garage that I first noticed small gangs of children laughing and running after him along the street, and by the time we got to within two streets of the bus-station Peter had amassed a ‘following’ which amounted to well over a hundred people. He performed some sort of stunt in a driveway which involved a hand-stand (told you he was good) before getting himself ‘dragged’ along the road by a passing truck. Then, with his new fans in hot pursuit, he entered the bus-station itself, where his various rollerblade tricks almost bought the place to a standstill. Mzuzu had probably never seen anything like it before.

After this, the matatu ride back to Nkhata Bay was somewhat anti-climactic, though Peter, buoyed up with his success and still on a bit of an adrenalin high, achieved the hitherto impossible by getting one of the many street-traders to get a bottle of ‘green’ (local slang for Carlsberg beer) for him to drink when we stopped at a village on the way back. On reflection, my only regret about the whole affair was that I hadn’t taken my camera with me, so sadly no photographic evidence of the Rollerblade King of Mzuzu exists.


American paratroopers, French wine and a British spy: Three books about the Second World War

I have always been fascinated by the Second World War, from visits to the Normandy landing beaches as a schoolboy and hearing my grandfather tell me about his experiences in the Navy to using the royalist Yugoslav resistance as a dissertation subject, diving to the wreck of a British destroyer off the coast of Malta and undertaking a solo excursion to El Alamein when I was backpacking in Egypt.

Oh, and reading a lot of books.

Recently, I’ve read three more books that have shed further light on different aspects of the war.

I’d seen the TV series, of course, so I reckoned I knew what to expect when I found a copy of Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose in a local charity shop. It follows the officers and men of an American paratroop company – Easy Company, part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division – from their training in Georgia to the capture of Berchtesgaden, via the horrors of D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.

It turns out I did not know the whole story, because as is the case with many books that are the inspiration for a film or TV adaptation you get so much more from the book. Ambrose succeeds in taking the reader into the minds of a group of seemingly ordinary men who became extraordinary soldiers (the book is based on extensive interviews with the veterans themselves). One feels with them the fear, the pain and above all the intense cold. In addition, Ambrose does a good job of providing the context for each of the battles before taking us into said battles from the soldiers’ perspective.

I have one quibble. Obviously this is a book about the men in one (American) unit and their war experiences, but I find myself shaking my head every time they find themselves working with British troops as these are invariably portrayed as bunch of poorly-trained bunglers. In this context, I note that Ambrose has also written a book about the British capture of Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of D-Day. Having visited Pegasus Bridge myself, I’d like to give this one a go but I wonder how the men of the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry will fare at the hands of this author.

Towards the end of the war, Easy Company and the rest of the 101st Airborne captured Hitler’s mountain stronghold of Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, which contained (among other things) more Nazi souvenirs that you could shake a swagger-stick at, several staff cars that the soldiers were understandably quick to take for test-drives and enough booze to sink several battleships. That’s where my next war book begins.

The book starts at the end of the war, when one Sergeant de Nonencourt of the French Army found himself in Berchtesgaden alongside the Americans. There, he and his men helped to ‘liberate’ many bottles of the finest champagne that the Nazis had been hoarding. Quite incredibly, Sergeant de Nonencourt was not only from the Champagne region, but his family was (and still is) in the champagne business and he had witnessed the Germans carrying away those same bottles back in 1940.

Thus begins Wine and War by Donald and Petie Kladstrup, a book which tells the wartime story of ‘France’s greatest treasure’ – her wine.It’s an unusual angle, but the Kladstrups succeed in presenting an informative, poignant and highly readable account of how France, with particular emphasis on the French wine industry, coped with the German occupation. Hitler’s teetotalism notwithstanding, many Germans from ordinary soldiers to high-ranking Nazi officials regarded the wine as the best of the spoils of war, and the Wehrmacht requisitioned tens of thousands of bottles to be sent back to Germany. This book is the story of how the vintners of France reacted to this.

There are tales of heroism, ingenuity, black humour, resistance and (it has to be said) a few actions which verge on collaboration – be it with either the Vichy regime or with the Germans. Some vintners, like the owners of Moët & Chandon, engaged in acts of outright resistance whenever they could, while others resisted in more passive ways, such as lying about yields and relabeling inferior vintages to fool the Germans into thinking they were being given the best bottles (which were hidden in walled-up parts of the cellars). Ultimately, it is the extraordinary stories of individuals that shine through, as ordinary people risked their lives and the lives of their families to save something that they believed, with considerable justification, to be worth saving. As such, the wine at times almost becomes a metaphor for France itself.

If you are interested in the war, or interested in wine, I would recommend that you read this book.

The final war book is Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre, which describes the adventures of a lone, rogue Englishman – wartime spy Eddie Chapman.

A hardened if rather unsuccessful criminal, Chapman found himself in a Jersey prison cell when the Germans invaded the Channel Islands. He saw volunteering to spy for Germany as a way of getting back to Britain, where he planned to turn himself in and offer to send false information to German intelligence.

What follows is a cloak-and-dagger escapade that would’ve been denounced as far-fetched if it were the plot of a novel as this unlikeliest of heroes is trained (and wined and dined) by the Germans, survives a parachute drop into East Anglia, turns himself in and, with the full backing of MI5 (who already knew about his mission thanks to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park), embarks on a life of double-cross and deception as he passes false information to German intelligence. MI5 even fakes a sabotage attack on the De Havilland factory in Hatfield at one point to convince the Germans that Chapman is still loyal to the Third Reich.

Although as suspicious of Chapman as his MI5 handlers were (rightly so, given that the man himself even admitted that ordinary people shouldn’t trust men like him), Macintyre has written a highly enjoyable biography which shines a light onto both a fascinating if very disreputable man who for all his faults must’ve had nerves and other body parts of solid steel, and the murky world of wartime intelligence.

It so happens that I was working in Hendon when I read this book, and I noted with interest that Chapman lived there with his MI5 handlers while he was transmitting false information to Germany. A quick perusal of the A-Z told me where the road in question could be found, and naturally I went to take a look. Well, let me tell you that there’s no evidence that the house where he lived was ever an MI5 safe-house. Not that I was really expecting any, of course. But, such is my interest in the war, I couldn’t resist going along to take a look and make sure.