Thursday, 29 October 2015

Movember musings

It's that time of the year, if you're considering growing one.

Movember is around the corner so I thought it would be an appropriate time for a little discourse on the handlebar moustache. Just to clarify things: this is one with long ends that point or curve outwards. "Graspable extremities" as it says in the website of the Handlebar Club.

I started growing mine two years ago, egged on by my wife, when we walked past a shop in Venice which had a tin of moustache wax in the window. Should you wish to do the same (and what better time to experiment?) there's lots of advice online, but essentially you need to let it grow, and resist the temptation to trim it. Some people trim the section above the lip and leave the ends to grow out, and I tried this for a bit but decided it was not for me.

When it's long enough you can comb it away from the midline, using wax to keep it in place, then twizzle the ends to form a point. Get it into the desired position, hold it there for a while, then leave it. To impart a curl (if your hair is naturally straight), shape it with your fingers, form it around a pencil or chopstick, or just fold and roll it between finger and thumb.

Moustache wax is generally made from petroleum jelly or beeswax. Petroleum based products are softer and don't work for me because my hair is coarse and stiff, and needs something that will hold it in place. Beeswax sets more firmly and is more likely to hold the thing in place. The trick in making these products is that they need to be soft enough to apply, and than set firm enough to hold things in place. Here are some I've used:

The first tin on the left with the blue label, by Taylor's, is the first one I acquired. Based on petroleum jelly, it has hardly any hold and doesn't really work for me, but might suit others with finer hair. The other two are made from beeswax. The one in the middle by Murdock is malleable out of the jar, but sets firmly, and works well for me. Mr Natty's product is harder, but comes in a small tin that is handy to carry around, and is a bit softer when warmed up in one's trouser pocket.

In general, I suppose most people prefer to avoid this effect:

Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu, 1965

You might think that with modern grooming products, accessories like this might no longer be required:

But in fact, they're still on the market:

(If you're interested, you can get one here)

Does my moustache interfere with eating? Not particularly, but it can get caught up in my peanut butter on toast in the morning. Of course things might be different if one were equipped like Gaishi Nagaoka, with his 70 cm "propeller moustache".

Mr Nagaoka might well have drunk his tea from a moustache cup (which, should you wish to purchase one, can be obtained from eBay). The moustache cup includes a guard to prevent your pride and joy from getting soggy, and was apparently invented in the 1860s by an English potter, Harvey Adam.

There are also moustache spoons for drinking your soup.

These days you can also get the whisker dam, a hipster accessory that clips on to your beer mug, just in case you wish to spare your IPA from the characteristic patchouli reek of your chosen pomade:

Be warned--you may start to grow your Hoxton Twizzler as a bit of fun and even as a way of raising money for prostate cancer (the charitable motivation behind Movember, lest we forget). But it will very soon take over much of your free time, cause you to purchase more grooming products than you'd care to admit to owning, and even earn you abuse such as shouts of, "Preening ninny!", delivered by your nearest and dearest as you joust for mirror space in the morning rush. Take it from one who knows: a mo is for life, not just for Movember.

Thursday, 22 October 2015


An extraordinary, unexpected fantasy house, hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of rural Essex

A couple of weeks ago I was amazed to read in the Observer  about a house in suburban Essex, quite near to where I live and work in Chelmsford, of whose existence I had not until then had the slightest inkling. Twenty five years ago, John Trevilian bought an ex-council house in Great Dunmow, and then proceeded to convert and remodel it into an amazing historical fantasy. The project was finally completed this year, and the house was open to the public. How could I resist?

The tickets for day visits were sold out so we ended up going for the final evening "private view" on Sunday night (I had the day off the following Monday). We arrived after dark and found ourselves at a house which from the outside looked not that different from its neighbours on a curving street around a large open green.

We were greeted at the font door, handed an information sheet detailing the various rooms, and given the run of the place. We were asked to shut the doors as we entered and left each room, as each one had its own scent and soundtrack.

From the small entrance hall we turned towards the door on our left which had a wheel on it, like the sort of thing you might see if there was a watertight compartment or airlock. Passing through, we found ourselves in an oriental-looking space, predominantly red and black. In the centre was a low Japanese table with cushions on the floor around it. There were plants along the side walls. This was the tearoom and vivarium, set within a starship in a sort of post-steampunk future where the dominant power is in the Far East. The effect was soothing and tranquil, with the gentle hum of the spaceship engines in the background.

Exiting via the other end of the room, we found ourselves in the garden, where we looked around a bit before heading for the kitchen, where a buffet supper was provided. The kitchen was set in New Orleans in the 1950s, and like every other room we were to visit, full of pictures and objects which together evoked and recreated a certain time and place.

Then it was back to the garden where there was a log cabin, set in 1940s Canada, the sort of thing that might have been used by a trapper, with snowshoes at the door, Clothing hanging off the ceiling, and a sleeping platform at one end, below which drinks were dispensed by a barman.

The grandest area was the living room and dining room, a mediaeval Welsh watchtower converted into a sort of Victorian gentleman's folly. In the course of the evening we spoke to the owner of Talliston, and to the others there, most of whom had been involved in the project for varying lengths of time. John, the owner, is a writer of fantasy fiction who wanted somewhere to write, and he had remodelled his office upstairs into a private detective's office, set in 1920s New York. He then got to work on the rest of the house, aided by a friends and volunteers who helped him execute his plan.

Everything in each room had been meticulously researched, and he had travelled all over the world to see the places which had inspired them. He had clearly absorbed the spirit of the places he had visited. In the watchtower room, the sofa was upholstered in a luxurious fabric from Venice which, because of its expense, had put the project on hold for a few months.

The room was partly faced with stone. To get some of the things in, they had been obliged to more or less remove one wall of the house, and then reinstall it on the same day.

This is the staircase, set in renaissance Faenza:

The office, a New York detective's premises in the 1920s.

This is the Room of Dreams, one of the two bedrooms, a guest room in the Alhambra in Grenada, in the 1970s.

The bathroom, coastal Norway, 1980s:

In the loft, accessible only via a rope ladder and through a trapdoor, a Cambodian treehouse of the 1960s.

Talliston is an extraordinary place, the creation of one man's vision and persistence. Many others were caught up with his enthusiasm, the volunteers and friends who contributed their labour and skills to the project and helped him build it. He has created a convincing and immersive environment in each room, with layers of meaning. Everything is beautifully and exquisitely executed.

I am not normally, by inclination, a reader of fantasy fiction but I find Talliston very compelling. It's hard to explain why. But while I was there, it really felt in each room as though I had travelled to a different time and place. From the outside the house is totally inconspicuous, and it would require some effort to tell it apart from its neighbours, unless you looked through the gate into the garden. Step through the front door and you enter a sort of alternative reality. Hiding in plain sight, as John said.

The project is now complete and it is not clear yet what will become of the house, although the plan is generally to make it accessible to people who are interested in it. They have held various events there like murder mysteries, supper clubs and so on, and I suspect something of the sort will continue.

If you think you might like to see the house, or are interested to learn more about it, visit Talliston's website, which has details of forthcoming events, and where you can also sign up for their mailing list:

Talliston House
51 Newton Green
Great Dunmow
Essex CM6 1 DU
+44 7760 171100

Friday, 16 October 2015

A brief stop at the Cereal Killer Cafe in Brick Lane

The Brick Lane Cereal Cafe: a pleasant surprise

Walking down Brick Lane one evening, we found ourselves by the notorious Cereal Killer Cafe.

Out of curiosity, and partly as a gesture of support following the recent attack (about which more later), we popped in to have a look. We found ourselves in a small, well-proportioned shop with a few tables at ground level (there were more in the basement). The walls were lined with cereal boxes, which produced a colourful, decorative and attractive effect. The cafe was manned by two charming, enthusiastic and knowledgable chaps, and American and an Australian.

As the name of the cafe would indicate, they serve cereal. Anything from an enormous international selection. You can have it with you choice of milk (skimmed, semi-skimmed, full cream, etc), and a selection of extra toppings. You can have a mixture of cereals, and there is a list of cereal cocktails on offer too.

They also do the most spectacular hot chocolate drinks, extravagant foamy, overflowing concoctions . We didn't have any cereal that evening, but had the salty caramel and peanut butter hot chocolate. Yes, they really did look like the publicity shots below.

While we were working our way through them, a bunch of American undergraduates came in, and I took this video which gives a feel for the place.

Breakfast cereals are in themselves fascinating, if you think about it. Totally artificial creations, and one of the wonders of food technology. I'm not that keen on them for breakfast: I find I get hungry too soon afterwards. But they are nice as an occasional snack or for dessert. If I buy a box, I know it will probably not get finished, so a real cafe is a rather good idea, as far as I'm concerned.

Detractors have remarked that it's expensive, but eating out always costs more than eating at home. Prices range from £2.50 for a small bowl of British cereal, to £4.40 for a large bowl of Foreign, and slightly more for some cereal cocktails. Toppings are 60 pence. A double espresso is £2.00. Not dirt cheap, not outrageous, comparable to a cafe in the area, I think, and probably less than an evening in the pub.

Recently the cafe came under attack in the course of a demo by a bunch of left wing anarchist 'class warriors', who defaced the exterior and attempted to break into the cafe which was full of customers at the time, including some young children. It was a nasty unpleasant affair. Fortunately, no-one was hurt.

The cafe was totally the wrong target: a small, independent, crowdfunded business, started by a pair of twins from Belfast. It's cheaper than many other places in the same street, and as someone has pointed out, the cereal there costs less than at the well-known Pret-a-Manger chain. In an area with a large Muslim population, it doesn't serve alcohol, pork or meat, so it's more inclusive than many other nearby outlets. Interestingly, the nearby chains and corporate establishments were untouched during the demo, which leads me to wonder if there was more to the affair than met the eye.

Prior to my visit, I thought that a cereal cafe it was an amusing idea. However I was surprised by how much I liked it. It's a nice, friendly and fun place to stop by for a coffee, admire the marvels of food technology, and try some of their exotic products, like the one below, manufactured in Petaling Jaya (Malaysia), for export to Hong Kong.

I'm definitely coming back.

Cereal Killer Cafe
139 Brick Lane
London E1 6 SB
Open Sun-Wed 8 am - 8 pm, Thu - Sat 8 pm - 9 pm

(There's also a branch at the Stables market in Camden: see website for details)

Friday, 9 October 2015

Messing about with Instant Film. Lomo, Instax, Polaroid, and The Impossible Project

My forays into instant analogue photography, which I have found to be good fun

I'm assuming that everyone has heard of Polaroid film and knows what it is. Polaroid stopped making film in 2008, but Fuji had been making their own instant film Instax, since the 1990s, nowadays available in 2 sizes, the credit card sized mini, and the larger wide format. When Polaroid closed their  last factory in the Netherlands, Florian Kaps and André Bosman bought it, and founded The Impossible Project, in order to continue production of instant film for use in Polaroid cameras. It was not possible to make the original product, since various components were no longer available. New processes had to be developed, and in 2010 they started making their own film.

I had come across Instax film and cameras, and thought that they might be fun. When Lomo produced an Instax attachment for their LC-A cameras, the Instant Back, and I thought I might give it a try. I already had an old LC-A at home (the original one, not the current LC-A+) which I had not used for several years. It had been fun for a while but then the novelty wore off. Phone cameras got better over the years, and having to send films off to be developed became a bit tedious. Also I found that in my hands, adopting the Lomo philosophy of "Don't think, just shoot" was somewhat expensive, and a lot of the time the pictures were not very good. Much better to do it with a phone camera, where the pictures were immediately available for prompt feedback and learning.

After you acquire your Lomo Instax back, you have to fit it to the camera yourself. The result is a bulky, square affair. I rather like the look of it. 

Unlike the Fuji's own Instax cameras which are fully automatic, and designed for  Instax film, the Lomo has automatic exposure, but manual zone focusing (i.e. you estimate the distance then set it on a lever on the camera). There is a slight size mismatch between the camera and the film format, so that the pictures emerge with a fuzzy-edged black border. The viewfinder sits on top of the Instax Back, so there's quite a lot of parallax to contend with. You have to wind the mechanism before releasing the shutter. And not forget to open the lens cover. For someone accustomed to point and shoot digital photography, it's quite a lot to remember to do, and to fiddle with.

But it's been fun so far and I like the effect.

I've also had a go with Impossible Project film. My wife had an oldish, fully functioning Polaroid 600 camera. The process of taking pictures is a lot simpler compared to the Lomo, as this is a point and shoot camera with two focus settings, near and far, plus a slider that allows you to adjust the darkness of the picture produced on the film. The film is larger than the Instax ones, photo sized, rather than credit card sized, as it were.

However the film is delicate. You are advised to keep it in the fridge, use it within a year of production, to shield it from light immediately after exposure and during the development process, and it takes about 30 minutes to develop, so it's not really instant. So far, the pictures I've taken have had a somewhat washed-out look even after I fitted their 'frog tongue' attachment which shields the film from light as it emerges from the camera. I quite like it, but it's a bit challenging to use. 

Impossible have a new generation (2.0) black and white film which develops much more quickly, with images emerging in 20 seconds, and fully developed after five minutes. I've been quite pleased with it.

The latest colour film is said to have more natural and balanced tones, more saturated colour, and, like the black and white, more rapid development, but I haven't tried it yet.

This stuff is not cheap. Instax film costs £30 for 2 packs of 10 exposures each. Impossible project film  is around £17 for 8 exposures. It does have the effect of making me think rather carefully before each shot. 

It's hard to explain the appeal of instant photography. I think it's partly the appeal of analogue, of the physical object, and a picture you can hold in your hand, or put on your desk or wall. I do like the way the pictures look. I can't deny that some of it has to do with the cameras themselves, and the process of taking the pictures, but I'm aware that this is not something that will matter much except to the person taking the picture.

It's early days, but so far it's been interesting and good fun.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

King's Cross Skip Garden: a first-rate pop-up designed and built by architecture students

An imaginative temporary community garden built by students next to a temporary open air swimming pond at King's Cross

Adjacent to the marvellous King's Cross Pond, is the charming Skip Garden, which I visited after my swim (read about that here).

It's the result of a collaboration between the Bartlett School of Architecture (University College London) and Global Generation. Like the pond, the garden is temporary, and on a building site. It's called the Skip Garden because at its heart are half a dozen second hand skips (dumpsters to my North American friends), which are used for growing herbs, vegetables and fruit, and it's a community project with funding from the Big Lottery as well as a host of corporations. The idea of using skips is that they can be moved to another location when the site is developed; the current location is the fourth.

As well as the skips, there are other charming and innovative structures on the site, all projects by architectural students, designed and built by them. Everything is made from recycled or reclaimed material. Here re some of them, in no particular order.

The 100 Hands Wall (Christophe Dembinski) a rammed earth wall that forms the back of a dining and growing hall. "100 hands" because lots of people were involved in building it.

The Chicken Coup (Valerie Vyvial), made from a silver birch tree trunk and bamboo, home to three chickens.

The Glass House Lantern (Rachael Taylor), made from reclaimed each windows and a shipping container, enclosing a growing space, and used to host evening gardening sessions.

The Earthbag Cool-Store (Alessandro Conning-Rowland) uses recycled coffee sacks filled with earth. Evaporation from the damp earth-bags cools the storage room. The garden's office and a decking area are found on its roof. A ventilation stack facing the sun helps move air through the storage room.

The toilets are Rain Loos (Carrie Coningsby), made from reclaimed railway sleepers and boards. A membrane stretched over a space frame collects rainwater, which goes into the flushing cisterns.

At the entrance to the Skip Garden is the Skip Garden Kitchen, serving seasonal food made from produce grown in the garden, where we had a cream tea. (That's my towel and swimming trunks drying on the bench)

The tea was excellent, the scone and jam exceptionally good. Thoroughly recommended.

What a marvellous way to use a vacant building site. How wonderful for the architecture students to be able design and make buildings in their second and third year that get used and enjoyed by the public.

If some of this sounds a bit familiar to readers of this blog, you might recall the Nomadic Community Garden in Spitalfields, another movable community garden on a building site. The two gardens make an interesting contrast. The one at Kings Cross is well funded, backed by large institutions, supported and designed by a School of Architecture. The Nomadic Gardens in Spitalfields is run by a few individuals on a shoestring, decorated by artists and friends dropping in and helping out. Both are excellent. Which do I prefer? I couldn't say. Both are worth a visit.

Incidentally, now that it's October, it's much cheaper to swim in the King's Cross Pond. It's only £3.50 for a session. Wet suits allowed.

Both the Pond and the Skip Garden are temporary, so if you are interested, don't leave it too late.

For more background, watch this video by the project organisers: Building a Community

Skip Garden and Kitchen
Tapper Walk
King's Cross
London N1C 4EQ
Open Tues-Sat 1000 - 1600