I recently shot the promo photography for a new dance piece by Didy Veldman called "The Knot", which has just been highly lauded by The Guardian. Poster with my photo below:
The theme of the work is marriage and relationships, put simply. We did the shoot before the choreography had been started, but Didy had a lot of creative thoughts and energy which we were able to discuss and use as inspiration. This is my favourite image from the shoot, featuring Dane Hurst and Madeleine Jonnson, and shot in the Royal Ballet School and in the grounds of Richmond Park, West London.
Billboard features one of my Foo Fighters shots in an article about the world's top recording studios. Metropolis Studios of course makes the list, and my photograph of Dave Grohl and the boys when they dropped in before Glastonbury shows them smelling of roses in Studio A lounge.
Available in print or online. Read the full article here
'Finding Freedom' is a dance piece choreographed by Dane Hurst and composed by myself about fear and love. The clash of these two core emotions can become overwhelming when approaching and trying to maintain a relationship. We hunger for a safe place in the face of this emotional tidal wave, but does this place become a prison in which we keep ourselves chained? Or is freedom to love someone a risk we are not willing to take? This collaboration between Dane and Tom explores these themes, and was performed in the atmospheric antiquity of Wilton's Music Hall in East London. Performed by Dane Hurst, Amy Louise Thake, and Owen Ridley-DeMonick.
Soundtrack available on iTunesSpotifyGooglePlay and Amazon
Manchester's IAMDDB is one of the hottest artists on the British R&B and Soul scene. Her live sets are beautiful and irreverent, and her adoring crowd love it. Here's a gallery of shots I took of her performing in London recently over at Clash Magazine.
This is a still from the final shot of the final scene of the legendary film 'Rocky', and for certain reasons I think it is one of the greatest ever moments in cinematography:
It's a classic film which for many of us was first watched in our childhood. Whenever I watch Rocky, I feel it glows with that quality of wonder which I experienced often when I watched movies back then - as with films like Star Wars, Breakin', Ralph Bakshi's animation of Lord of the Rings, 2001: A Space Odyssey etc.
But I only recently came to appreciate the real nature of the victory in the film, which is encapsulated in this shot above. I am revisiting so many films these days with the perspective of Experience rather than Innocence, perhaps such new understandings are inevitable.
The story of the inception of Rocky is wonderful as it is famous - an unknown actor by the name of Sylvester Stallone was hitting thirty and could not get a good role for love nor money. So on a suggestion he wrote a screenplay to which he could be attached as the lead. He came up with Rocky, a film about a journeyman boxer on the wrong side of thirty whose career has taken him no further than being a glorified punch bag. He gets a break by pure luck to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, and captures hearts of millions.
Life mirrors art. And inasmuch, the film has inspired just as many. Not only real world-class boxers, but also artists, lawyers, fishermen, postmen, the struggling, the dispossessed, the disappointed, the depressed - anyone who has felt life's struggle bearing down on them, crippled with dread by the odds on the betting slip, with a sense that life has no particular place for them to be. Art is human technology for the emotions, and Rocky is a powerful tool at that.
Rocky is a film about finding your place, your value, your meaning. The climactic fight against Apollo Creed represents the bludgeoning gauntlet of life. Each round will challenge the fighter to bow out under its relentless onslaught. Rocky sets himself the goal of simply going the distance, staying on his feet - having this goal of survival can be enough to get you through.
But when the final bell rings, and although Rocky indeed loses the fight via a split decision, his indisputable victory is one of the most poignant in any story I can think of. He has survived the battle, he did not give in, and his famous success is recognised in cheers and theme music. But at that climactic point, the film does something extraordinary - and wonderful. Rocky does not see the crowd cheering, nor heed anyone in the ring, all he cares about is the woman he loves - he cries out desperately for her as though she is lost. She runs to the ring, and the camera closes tight, shutting out the entire world, the chaos and the fury of the crowd. The telephoto close-up crop creates an intimate space within the roaring finale of the boxing arena and the film itself. The final shot is not of Rocky standing tall receiving adulation and recognising his achievement in the grand accolades of the audience. The final shot is of a man finding meaning in an entirely self-defined way - he knows what is important, and that is the connection and sense of destination and home, lost in an embrace, on the shoulder of his love. The bruises are dark, but the eyes are closed, and the relief is powerful. It is a relief not just from the ordeal of the fight, but from being lost in life.
In my opinion as a humble, long-suffering, lifelong Londoner, the most beautiful event that happens in this city each year is the Notting Hill Carnival. The original 1960s melting pot area of this metropolis, now synonymous with romantic comedy and gentrification, is still a place at least one weekend a year where you can see life at its most intense, joyful, chaotic, ridiculous, gorgeous, contentious, tiring, enlivening, blissful, random, productive, creative, hilarious, reassuring, inspiring, and loving. A place associated with times of great happiness and sadness for me, I fundamentally feel grateful every year for the chance to see life exploding in all its forms (in a cloud of colour, bass, and jerk chicken smoke) into the world - like someone just opened Pandora's crate of spiced rum.
Just before headlining Glastonbury, the Foo Fighters were in Metropolis Studios, where I took a set of photos of the seminal band. They were lovely guys: down to earth, fun, and interested in the history of the prestigious London recording studio, and Dave Grohl cheekily teased me for the way I rolled up a cigarette with the paper stuck to my lip.
I shall be releasing the photos first on Instagram but in the meantime here is a portrait of the much loved Mr Grohl
Lashings of octopus tentacle
And Spanish bread and beer
Chillis fried near the brunt
Of tastebud prison riot
Run memories as this tube
Back home glides through
Black and stations run rack and
Ruin of drunkards splay
Their shouts in euphoric
Blasted booze faxed lifewarring
Railing against that simple confusion
That ever gnawing confusion
That sadly imperfect delusion,
Perfect as an unanswered question
I remember the Spanish bar
Cruzecampo and patanegra
But an anger interrupts
My joy of pork fat and frying
Ribs, pearl white sherry fine
Embalming truth in Spanish wine
The train runs dark then station
Bright stating the obvious
Before the blight of oblivion
Moments of love and its
Opposite, control, and faith
In control, this sine
Of time v hope,
Spinning into the motion
Of a drunken Saturday lifetime
Forever, this Saturday lifetime
What science is there
To numbing of the heart
To murdering a child
A break before the road
The late love of London
Red and ovary free
Green and golden gates
Traffic lights shout
Wet black Tarmac
All in a walk home
Red light mother
Waits like a tree
In a snowfall of oil
Green light fountain
Of starting and joy
Proud in sex and honesty
Raging openness fire
Hard and trust
In you the lotos night
Insumed with you
We leave each footstep behind
Like litter on swept streets
Consumed with you
Our kisses melt like black
Ravioli dishes and drugs
Do numb this night
Most of the way home
The method is our genius
Clean pressed from the mould
Of our dinner talk
I stay here in rain
In this ecstasy
Having kissed you
A bump of Cain
Why am I lost I here
So settled on the coast
Where you left me
To sit and see
The tube train sea
Wash and watch the
Shore of this moment
In time thrown litter
The butter of scallops
Drunk from a shell
The drugs do peroxide
Changes to my time
Tonight will burst
From a sequence of tonights
A cackle in a tragedy
A sob in a comedy
The audience wonders
Where the noise came from
Embarrassment and applause
Incursions into wet maps
Of midnight street walk
Smoke around the tower
Green and intoxicating
Fumes of london
We are all quiet on
Each of us
And love stories
Reality and disconnection
Is the tube clatter a line of
Cola sweet comforting
Or night black lamenting
A comet of passengers
Dinner and numbing
Your eyes in the dark
Of my cheek
My lips in
Of your tongue
Us in our moment
A million stars
Pouring from night
The lantern burns
Crickets sing in black
Air and joy, air and joy
Today love rolled down the mountain
Like clouds billowing round your kisses
The storms of Spring enrich with silver
Upturned hearts of early flowers
The freckles of Summer on your cheeks
Speckles of pollen on gentle petals
Soft as velvet floating to the shore
And in the heat this moment of rain
When the flowers sighed and cried
I love you, I miss you to now pouring clouds
The minute the rain was heard to sing
Like crickets in Mediterranean night
The second the mountain emerged
From the body of the storm its embrace
Wet, and warm, rolling in pleasure
Dark and tumbling in a collapse
I would make last forever
So the stars sighed as clouds cleared
And met again the sparkling earth
While the rains danced away together
And left memories of you at my door
When you said goodbye
And when you came back in once more
UPDATE* The video is now live on Youtube, please like and share!
My current project is artwork and a music video for the release of the track 'Murphy's Law' by a great new band called James King and the Regals, whom I also shot recently:
The song describes a tussle with pessimism, personified in the figure of Mr Murphy - named after the inventor of the famous more formulated version of sod's law. I recall that the real Murphy himself was a test pilot, whose catchphrase was "If anything can go wrong it will go wrong". A wise axiom for a man who flew around on glorified bombs.
Nevertheless, for the rest of us this view is a perspective which can have a more negative meaning. My reaction to the song was that it embodied both negativity in the shadow figure of Murphy, as well as positivity, actually represented by the artist creatively reflecting on his experience of pessimism, thus asserting some kind of resistance if not mastery to such a gloomy thought process.
This was my thinking when coming up with the creative for the video. In order to embody this opposition of positive and negative, I felt I wanted to contrast images of life with death: exuberant colour with dark monochrome setups; lavish rushes of light with deep black; the denuded skeleton or skull against beautiful and lavishly dressed and styled female forms; movement against stasis; and other technical contrasts such as crisp cinematic definition footage shot on Arri against degraded handycam video.
This is the artwork I created for the digital release, based on composited stills from the video:
Perhaps the concepts which I just described are visible in the juxtaposition of almost Victorian cameo portrait of the model (talented singer Emma Lauran) against the skull from my anatomical skeleton, whom I have named Yorick, along with fluorescent video distortion against clean monochrome lettering.
At any rate, it went down well with the band.
Below is short clip from the video which was cut to trail the digital release. I enjoy punchy editing contrasted with slower sections, but this bit is from the end of the song where it's mostly the former. If you follow my Instagram stories, you probably noticed the featuring 'power zooms' which I've grown to love over the last few months. The other model in the video is the fantastic Liv Turnbull, and you can see some shots I took of her here.
The full music video will be out soon. If you like what you see or would like to comment, do get in touch or follow me on Vimeo
So after an 18 month break I have decided to start filing blog posts again. In this hiatus, I realised I have been building up quite a bank of topics, meditations, and anecdotes to write about, so if you follow my visual / audio work, watch this space for some long overdue literary output. I know a lot of you used to read my blog articles regularly, so I apologise for the pause. But sometimes a holiday is as good as a change.
Over the last year I've been working a lot on portrait and music photography, and have been focussing my film work on music videos - namely two videos for God Damn (One Little Indian Records) - songs called 'Ghost' and 'Sing This'; a video for 'Losing My Mind' by Metropolis Records artist LOOP; and I'm about to release my latest work for a great track called 'Murphy's Law' by James King and the Regals, a fantastically talented new artist set to make a big splash on the indie music scene. So I figure this latest project is the good place to (re)start...
This October I shall be involved in the capacities of composer and photographer in an exciting new project at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Conceived of by Dane Hurst, the evening will feature a set of dance pieces in the gallery space inspired by the 17th century French artist Prud'hon. I shall be photographing the dancers as they perform and the resulting images will be projected live on to screens in the gallery space. The audience will be able to move around the dancers, immersing themselves in the performance from any position. There is the opportunity for audience members to take sketches, with the gallery's life-drawing tutor on hand.
Musically, I shall have several pieces being performed, including the 'Breaking Through' duet from Finding Freedom, and a new piece entitled 'Goodbye in the Night'.
The event will take place over two evenings on 16th and 17th October this year. Details below:
If you are in York in November, come and see my debut film 'Primitive' at the Aesthetica Film Festival. Following some great screenings including one at the Lincoln Center, NYC, I am really pleased with the film's reception on the festival circuit.
This film festival is run by the arts magazine Aesthetica. It's a fantastic event, and has been granted the status of BAFTA recognition, so it's a real privilege to be part of the line-up. Screenings will take place 5-8th November 2015.
The duet which had audiences on their feet and put tears in eyes was performed again at the Wilderness Festival last weekend. This time Dane Hurst performed the core duet from 'Finding Freedom' with Romany Pajdak of the Royal Ballet, and the duo went down a storm, by all accounts.
Last month I took some promotional shots during a rehearsal of the piece. If you missed the piece at Wilton's or Wilderness, there will be further opportunities to see it soon. Some big plans are in the works!
I am currently in production of the music video for a new track called 'Making History' by the amazing Fudge and the Frequency. We've been shooting in the stunning Roccoco setting of Café Royal in Piccadilly. If you know me, you know I like to push the envelope... Here is a still from the rushes from the shoot.
It has been excellent working on this production so far with such a variety of talented performers - Adelene Stanley L'Sheila Sisters, and Fudge himself, whose live performances are second to none. More to follow soon
Kicking off my creative work for 2015 with the promo for 'Dreamers' by OFEI. This film was shot before Christmas in Metropolis Recording Studios - a big thank you to everyone there for all their support! I had spent a lot of time re-watching the pioneering work in the golden age of the music video - the early 90s. Faith No More, Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Seal, as well as a bunch of James Bond intros... They deeply inspired this video. And the result is it looks nothing like any of them to anybody except myself, perhaps...
This shoot was to generate promotional material for a new dance production, 'My Dust Will Tell' choreographed by Estela Merlos. The piece will be performed at The Place in January 2015. I first worked with Estela on a piece performed last year at the Barbican pop-up theatre 'Dalston House' . Formerly of Rambert, Estela is now an independent dancer and choreographer. She is extremely talented, her performances are full of fiery energy and beautiful control, and she's always fantastic to work with- we had a great time working on this shoot. We did make a hell of a mess though...
Here are some images from my recent photoshoot of singer-songwriter Natasha Miren, a rising star of the London music scene. The shoot took place on the streets around Bethnal Green and Hackney Wick at the end of Summer.
A highly talented and charismatic artist, Tash was great to work with - exploring the environment, seeing what sort of images we could come up with. We tried to avoid the traditional graffiti backdrops of East London photography, although one little piece did inevitably creep in.
Like any art form, photography is a process, so I like to take a peripatetic approach to shooting rather being tied down to one location or studio whenever controlled lighting is not absolutely necessary. It rarely is when you are trying to capture the detail and nuance of reality, rather than remove it.
Have a listen to Tash's soundcloud page, or try and catch her performing live in London if you can. Also, we have an exciting project collaboration in the pipeline, so watch this space...
Here is one of my tracks which will be used in 'Finding Freedom'. It is a re-master of a track which I recorded in Bristol with Holly Gough. Thanks to Maz in Metropolis Studios for his advice with the mastering.
Here is a clip of Dane Hurst and Amy Thake working on a duet for 'Finding Freedom' in the rehearsal studios of Rambert.
The piece is about a man locked in prison, separated from the woman he loves. He is tortured by being unable to reach her. He holds on to the slender thread of hope of being reunited with her, but ever struggles with the fear she will leave him while he is helpless in prison.
When Dane was creating the choreography, he conceived of a section where the man and woman dance a heart-rending, intimate duet where the couple move together so intimately, but without actually making physical contact. This tension of restraint builds until it is finally released in a beautifully tender lift at the end.
The music to which they are dancing is from a piece which I composed for the performance. It is called 'Breaking Through' and forms the musical centrepiece of 'Finding Freedom'. It accompanies this encounter between the prisoner and his love as she tries desperately to reach him through the armour he has donned to protect himself from fear.
This fear is represented elsewhere in the piece as a daemon aggressor, an incubus who comes to torture the prisoner in his dreams, threatening to steal his love while he lies incarcerated and helpless.
The piece is about a struggle. It feels like a struggle with an external adversary, but really it’s a struggle within yourself. Inside the heart of every artist - every person- if you look deep enough you find your greatest enemy and your greatest love. Carl Jung described them as archetypes: the Shadow and the Anima. Finding these cut off parts of our souls and rejoining with them, Jung thought, is the great journey of opening up to all our potentialities as a human individual. It’s the barriers in the mind between them which form our prison. The key, the way to break down these walls is creativity.
'Finding Freedom' will be performed this coming Saturday night (27th September 2014). Tickets are in short supply but you can watch the performance streamed live to all the billions of people across the internet by following the link on the Wilton's Music Hall webpage.
I have written the music for a new dance piece choreographed by Dane Hurst called 'Finding Freedom'.The piece is going to be performed at Wilton's Music Hall on Saturday night (27th September 2014).
As a sneak preview, here are some shots I took at a rehearsal in the Rambert studios.
Due to Dane's heavy schedule, I stood in for him at the technical rehearsal last night working on the lighting and so on, and I have to say that Dane's choreography is looking beautiful. Wilton's Music Hall is a stunning venue - an authentic 19th century hall with a magical atmosphere, embellished with ornate details in every boss and column, and a tangible sense of East End theatrical history which you feel the moment you walk into the hall.
'Finding Freedom' features performances by Dane Hurst, Amy Thake, and Owen Ridley-Demonick, and will be streamed live worldwide via the internet. You can find out details about tickets and a streaming link on the Wilton's webpage. I'm supposed to be interviewed in the interval too, so please tune in to see me drunk, incoherent, happy, and mumbling something about Jung.
Barack Obama apparently wrote to the author of 'Life of Pi', Yann Martel, and told him his book was "an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling". A big claim.
I mean, actual proof of God? That is something of a Holy Grail in terms of the sort of nonsense humans have busied themselves with since they started shaving their flanks and telling stories around the cave fire.
The release of the film version of 'Life of Pi' in 2012 was not followed by mass religious conversions. Its anodyne depiction of India, clean enough for tourism board virals, may have missed out on the true, unhinged, overwhelming glory of the great sub-continent, but its menagerie of zebras and tigers unleashed from the cages of Soho post-production suites kept the kids happy. Well, it's easier to accept than the sort of mysterious stuff you really see in India, like the sight of a camel eating an umbrella next to a group of guys decorating a crashed rickshaw with fruit while some school kids invent new choreography to Tin Tin Out on a pile of weird green sand in the middle of a road. And the death-defying yet marvellously creative driving.
But the question still remains: Can you go and watch a couple of hours of cinema, and be made to believe in God by the end?
We are presented with what is essentially a very simple story structure. A boy by the name of Pi is shipwrecked and after his survival for the best part of a year and provides two narrative accounts of his time at sea on the lifeboat on which he survived:
1. He was trapped with several animals, all of which were eventually eaten by the dominant Tiger, and the process of managing to survive with this animal in the confined space revealed to him the true nature of himself, the universe, and man's relationship with God.
2. His time on the boat began with three other castaways who all fell foul of a horrific initial period of murder, treachery and cannibalism. Pi is the only survivor.
Pi maintains that the former is the true version of events, and the latter was just created to satisfy the negative, rationalistic expectations of society. Then we come to the central thesis of the film: we all apparently have a choice between two narratives: one filled with hope and beauty; the other with horror and desperation. In the words of the script, "so it is with God" - you can choose your own narrative of your existence, so why not choose the explanation which makes you feel that life is richer and more worthwhile?
Now this is what Obama identified to be an elegant proof of God.
Really? At most, it is a justification for believing in God. By believe, I mean "accepting something to be true in the absence of absolute proof".
If you have not seen the film, and only have my narrative summary above, you will probably be wondering what the fuss is all about. It is apparent that he has invented a false and fantastical narrative because he could not cope with the trauma he encountered. If you have seen the film and disagree with my statement in the previous paragraph, you are possibly thinking that I have not done the beauty of the story justice (or perhaps that the film does not do justice to the book - although this article is really about cinema).
But herein lies the key issue, and the real value of the film. The aesthetics of the story are carefully arranged, and the film skilfully structured, to load the aesthetics of the narrative in favour of one side of the argument. The majority of the film is spent in the first narrative, i.e. with animals on the lifeboat instead of people. It is beautifully shot, excellently scripted, sympathetically acted, and directed by Ang Lee to give an overarching sense of benevolence behind all the events. Metaphorically, Lee is assuming the role of the reassuring God that many of us would like to think of as in control of the universe.
Strip away the aesthetics of 3d visual effects, befuddled wild animals, and CGI plankton filled seas, and things become more plain. Vice versa, in the film (unlike the book) the second, grim disaster narrative is only afforded a short segment at the end of the film. We are hit with the possibility of a second narrative quickly, like a splash of cold water in the face trying to undermine all the wonderful escapist narrative elements for which we have suspended our disbelief during the majority of the film. It is like the director walking in to the cinema before the end and turning the lights on. Just as the audience is reeling from the disturbance, we are posed with the question almost before we have time to think: "Which narrative would you rather believe?" or "Shall I switch off the harsh lights again?". The question would seem quite different if were asked: "Either I keep the lights on or stay in the cinema for the rest of your life".
The film is a closed textual entity, so there is no reality for us to determine absolutely within its confines. It is a text which provides us with two narrative strands, left deliberately undetermined by the authorial voice, but determined by the writer's aesthetic skills. There is a hierarchal relationship between the two narrative strands in the presented value structure: to choose the second, brutal narrative would make you cold, callous, unnecessarily rationalistic; to choose the first, more lovely parable narrative will make you a spiritual, warm, and even wise person.
And this is the problem. We are pelted with condemnations of rationality, that without faith in God we are just 'stumbling with believability', which is made to sound quite pathetic. As though if we put reason before faith, than we will have no idea what love is and so on (I actually personally think the opposite is true, on this last point). If we don't believe in God, then we live in a world of emptiness, uncertainty and pain instead of a wonderful parable of love and goodness and flying fishes jumping onto a tiger in a boat.
We are not given the space or time in the film to question this before the credits roll. We are even shown that all the other characters who hear this narrative choose to believe the more lovely story (so why shouldn't we see the vision of which others have partaken?).
But this argument all falls down quite quickly when you ask what would happen if you could adjust the elements of which you necessarily have no control in the movie theatre: the aesthetics of the narrative and filmmaking techniques.
Let me start by presenting you with a comparable application of Pi's argument:
Imagine your neighbour, Pi is supposed to drive your children home from school. They never arrive home. You call the police, and they catch up with him. Your children are no-where to be found. Pi explains that he was driving your children home when a golden dolphin came flying through the window and carried the children out of the car on his flippers which transformed to angel wings. The children were laughing happily as the dolphin bore them to the clouds and heaven's gates opened, granting the happy party access to eternal happiness in the arms of God's love. The police detectives propose an alternative narrative, that Pi has kidnapped and murdered your children. Their bodies may never be found, and (despite what a jury might think) you will never know the absolute truth. What should you believe in the absence of absolute proof? It would surely be nicer to spend the rest of your life believing in the wondrous, if far-fetched, apotheosis, rather than that your loved ones were taken you from a vicious predator.
Applying the argument of Life of Pi, which Barack Obama has found so compelling, you would seemingly hope to see the Jury acquit Pi of child abduction and murder.
So what have I done here? What is the difference between my story and that of Life of Pi? The main thing is that Life of Pi constructs a benign narrative in which we see no real suffering, so it does not matter which story you believe. We certainly don't suffer. We don't care for the characters who are murdered in absentia (a powerful element of cinema is that the viewer ties his fate and allegiance to that of the protagonist, hence why we can temporarily condone bank-robbery or over-brutal policing depending on the activities of a film hero). Yes, I have chosen an opposed aesthetic in my example: where believing Pi allows him to get away with terrible crimes as opposed to seemingly unavoidable and justifiable crimes. But my point is that if you cede your reason, you lose the ability to discern when harm is being done which no amount of religious credulity would justify. Just look at the horrific history of sexual abuse perpetually being exhumed from Catholic boarding schools. As is common with of sexual abuse cases, the perpetrators get away with it because everyone, including the victims, pretend that no crime had occurred. This is the choice Pi makes to survive.
The problem with illusion, self-delusion, faith-over-fact, choosing what to believe, psychosis - call it what you want - is that everything is fine until you encounter other humans. If our well-being depends on self-delusion, then that is fine as long as we are isolated (it is even possible that psychosis is a form of defence mechanism against physical or psychological trauma or isolation). But when we need to interact with other humans then there is a problem. We all exist in material reality, hence we are able to interact. We exist in a universe of reason, hence interaction and the logic inherent in communication are available to us. I could not be communicating you without material reality and reason. When we depend on self-delusion or faith-based explanations for our reality, anyone who disagrees with us can become a threat to our psychological security. Religion is great for giving us meaning when we are in the dark and desperate, but it is also the cause of senseless conflict, and always has been.
Life of Pi presents us religion in a very reductive human environment, and one of great personal stress. There is conflict in the second storyline, but it is a conflict in which the conclusion is a fait-accompli when we discover it, and one in which we have no concern for the losing parties. If Pi was actually the disgusting cook of the story, with Pi as the other castaway murdered for fishing bait, we would probably not like to believe in God because of this story. We would like a justice system to seek the truth, and punish the cook for hideous acts. We would not want to hear his counter-narrative about a Tiger.
In brief, the the moral of this essay is watch out for aesthetic persuasion techniques - it can let people get away with murder.
Being in a lifeboat is not a good metaphor for life. Contrary to the vision of Martel, we really are not alone. We exist in a society. There is much terrible in it, yes, but also much wonder to be found, mostly in being alive alongside other people, not despite them. We are connected in the material of space and time in the universe, and that is something which we should embrace, not hide from in fantasy and self-delusion. It may work in the rare circumstances of being shipwrecked and confronted with absolute isolation, but it is a poor, stale and sad view of life to see that as the nature of normal existence. The escapism of religion is a poor trade for embracing the real beauty of being alive: accepting the reality of the world around us, no matter how harsh it may be at times, and using the incredible facilities we all have available to create, to think, to share, to build, to enjoy life to the full. Religion is the creation of other people, of institutions and cultures in order to control and guide people, and not always for sinister reasons. Why should we accept someone else's reality over that which we can discern with our senses and our reason?
If we, as Pi suggests, should ignore reason and choose what to believe, then we are susceptible to having that reality controlled by others. This is because we will make faith choices based upon aesthetic appeal, as demonstrated by the film, and those aesthetics can be controlled by others who put themselves into positions of power, having understood this propensity of mankind. Like the director of a film with his controlled aesthetic environment, a dictator controls belief systems in society with propaganda. The mass-murders perpetrated by Mao and Stalin were made possible by the creation of a political state of reality, where people at first unwillingly, then willingly accepted the propaganda films which declared bumper harvests when their fields were sterile, their farm machinery rusting, their stomachs numb with hunger. The more dreadful their situation became, the more they needed to believe in the ultimate benevolence of their dictator Gods. This is the choice of Pi.
Humans did not create vaccines, farm machinery, roads, planes, justice systems, healthcare systems, computers, or weblogs by throwing up their hands and renouncing their attachment to reality. These are all responses to seeing real problems in the world around us, and using our minds to create solutions. Prayer never produced a blueprint for prosthetic appliance or a jet-engine. It just got mankind through the period of our history when when our suffering outweighed the ability of human society, science and reason to care for us.
What Pi sneers at stumbling with believability, I call seeing a problem and trying to come up with a solution. What he calls love I describe as deluded devotion, what I call love is the overwhelming wonder at the unfettered, undiluted, unabridged, incredible reality of someone, or even the universe.
So in short, does Life of Pi offer proof of God? No, just imagine Pi is a sex-offender using the same argument.
My friend Jack and I walked around the river Thames last Sunday. The greyness of London at this time of year soaks through your pores. Last Winter I wrote a piece of music, called ‘The White Sky’. With all that anaesthetic blankness overhead, Summer can feel as distant as a house you you moved out of years ago.
I have written before about the South Bank, and how much I love its blend of expansive modernist architecture, ragged but lovely humanity, and the timeless industry of the River. Its faded and renovated squalor embodies the grandeur and the humanity of the capital. When I was young, my parents used to take me to see Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the Royal Festival Hall every year. Even back then, I felt how strong the character of the South Bank was: this thriving concentration of artistic output in the midst of urban dereliction (it used to be a lot seedier twenty years ago, believe me). Nowadays, I like to meet up with friends there. There is always something interesting (and free) to stumble upon such as a musical performance in the RFH lobby or a photo exhibit in the National Theatre balconies. It is the quality and the abundance of this sort of thing where you really see the advantage of living The Big Smoke.
So we wandered round the Thames. We met a girl on (what used to be called) the Hungerford footbridge who was trying to sell dream-catchers. She was somewhat furtive about the fact she wanted to money for them. Jack fancied her. I have no idea what a dream-catcher is.
At the foot of the bridge we went straight in for a free hug (were they the same troop as at Glastonbury?), watched the skateboarders, and discussed Joanna Newsom. A girl was down on the beach beneath the Oxo tower, combing for something or other.
Then Jack mugged a child, and we had a look at some more stuff, and parted company.
With some more time to kill I headed back onto the bridge by Embankment for the second time that day. It was getting dark and I was tired so I stopped to listen to a morbid yet persistent steel-drummer. The West Indian clangs sat weirdly with the gloom, but it was a nice way to take in the end of the day over the Thames, since I was cold and tired.
Looking across to St Pauls, the Barbican, and the Natwest Tower made me think about the persistent grind of London. Working and surviving in this city can really feel draining although people do not often like to admit it. Actually, come to think of it, sometimes it’s all we talk about, perhaps because it is something we all share. The city looks awesome of a Winter dusk. Shelley wrote of the eponymous mountain in his poem ‘Mont Blanc’:
Power dwells apart in its tranquillity,
Remote, serene, and inaccessible
The lines could have been written for those fortress casinos in the square mile. If good old Percy Bysshe were writing today, he might well write about the city instead of Mont Blanc, and he could have picked a worse spot than the Hungerford bridge to reflect man’s relation to the vast and awful power down the river.
I looked over to the terrace on the South Bank where the free-huggers had been. The crowds had mostly gone home. It gets cold down there when the sun goes. I noticed there was an arc of people performing. The double amputee at the end of the bridge was still begging after hours in the bitter evening, poor sod.
I approached the horseshoe of singers by the river bank. There were a few people stopped to listen despite the cold so I took a seat on a bench. Close up you could see that they were a dozen or so young ladies probably around the age of twenty. I realised they were American immediately when they started to sing. Not from their accents. Everyone sings in American accents. The clue was in their quality and understanding of performance, of which Americans are the masters. They are just better than everyone else at entertainment. It’s like when you see Russian ballet dancers, Italian drivers, Australian cricketers, Spanish Flamenco dancers, British football hooligans, French pickets, or German nudists: as far and wide as you travel, when you see one there is something inside you which clicks and thinks: ‘They’re taking it to a whole different level. Shit, that comes from the source.’
The girls (a troupe from Princeton Universty NJ called The Tigressions) were singing a capella standards, and their own arrangements of modern pop hits. Rich harmonies, perfect tuning, packaged with all that American charm. Perfect to warm the proverbial cockles. I recall them singing an arrangement of ‘Happy Ending’ by Mika. It was surprising to hear something so luscious and personable amidst all the cold riverside concrete. Singing just for the joy of singing. No pretensions to fame and stardom, that bane of true music. Just a group of young ladies on holiday in a ridiculously grey city, enjoying singing with each other.
There were others who were enjoying this spontaneous performance as well. I noted a slightly gruff looking cyclist who seemed absorbed by the music. He sat there intently, taking it all in, clutching his bike frame. Also there was a little girl who went right up to the singers and stood right in front of them. She was young and uninhibited, bathing in the overlapping vocal lines.
I hope the young ladies from New Jersey enjoyed their vacation in London. At least they looked like they were having fun, despite the gloom. It is indeed cool that they were able to contribute to and even become part of the life of the South Bank in their visit. I was grateful, at least.
In this blog I have written a fair amount on the way we eat. To summarise my thinking so far: I think that food is all about connection. It is about connecting with the people with whom we eat it; the community from which we purchase it; the farming economies that produce it; the animals that become it; and our own bodies which sensually, nutritionally, and spiritually benefit from it. Food is not only the fuel of human life. It is the medium through which we learn about and express ourselves.
I am not waxing lyrical here. I genuinely believe in ascribing such importance to food, as you may have guessed if you have read my other food posts (ignore the bit about the monkey-brain dip). Allow me to elaborate.
When a friend cooks you a meal, it is hard not to feel cared for in even a small way. It shows that someone has taken the time and trouble to nourish you and to create a nice evening which can be shared enjoying each other’s company.
The movement away from local shops to supermarkets, though it is a cliché to say, is excoriating communities. We are losing contact with the supply source, with accountability for products, with the traditional skills and knowledge of butchers and fishmongers, with the simple joy of friendly, no-strings banter over a cauliflower and a bunch of carrots. Ironically, by being in the larger consumer space of a supermarket we are more separated from each other than ever. Usually the first words spoken to us in a supermarket shopping trip are ‘how would you like to pay?’.
As we ignore the ‘country of origin’ labels on the products, and collectively empower supermarkets with massive bargaining power, farmers’ businesses become dictated to them by supermarket buyers. This has a direct effect on the way our land is farmed: the quality of produce; the intensiveness of the methods involved; the range of foods we are presented with; and the quality of life of people working in the industry.
We ignore the information available to us about the standards of life afforded to the animals we are going to eat and just search for the cheapest, most prettily packaged meat. The result is the commodification of animal life. We close our eyes to the suffering, despite all the lessons from history which we ignore at our peril. Dioxin contamination, foot and mouth, BSE, salmonella and the rest are not blips in farming quality. They are a growing trend. The resources used by intensive meat farming in terms of grain, water, and energy are so great that many people find it immoral to eat meat at all. But if we insist on free-range, non-intensive farming and let go of our relentless hunger for cheap, poor quality meat with every meal then I think meat eating would no longer be such a strain on the environment. It is not the animals but the factories we lock them in which cause the problem.
From infancy we learn to ignore the needs of our bodies. We should be learning to listen. We dull our taste buds and senses with artificially flavoured, coloured, fatty, sweet food. We cherish the notion of eating like fois-gras geese until we feel stuffed. Does the amount of food on our plates always coincide with the exact amount we need? The metabolism is an amazingly evolved tool, being capable of taking advantage of a rare glut of fat and sugar, storing it efficiently. But of course now we have no shortage of these commodities. The result is obesity, and a palette which yearns for ketchup with everything. Fast food is not just convenient- you can buy a healthy meal just as quickly and easily. It is about delivering our bodies a quick hit of fat and sugar and perpetuating a diet of short-lived satisfaction. Through educating our palettes and senses, and by cooking our own food rather than buying factory prepared crap we get a feel for the nature of our food and the needs of our bodies.
If you know me you will know that I am not TV’s greatest fan. I lived without a TV set for several years and now I watch very little. I only watch crime dramas made in West London in the late 1970s, and the odd sporting event or film.
This is because TV is, for the main part, totally bollocks. And watching a programme which is touched by some sort of merit will still very rarely be more productive than reading, listening to music, or sleeping.
The Prisoner was a great discovery for me (not that you need a tv to watch it, mind). It was made in the 1960s when the formulae of modern tv had not been boiled-down into the refined opiate of today. Also, the production team saw themselves as being a little bit on the intellectual side, for better or for worse. As such they set out to make a programme which would pick up where Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, and George Orwell left off.
The Prisoner, for those of you who have never seen the show, is set in a bizarre psychological prison, which looks and functions like an isolated sea-side village whence there is no escape. The eponymous character, also known as Number 6 is our hero. We learn (during the preposterously long introduction to every episode) that he ‘resigned’ from some abstracted powerful company/agency, and was abducted to the village in order to find out his motive.
Number 6 represents the free-spirited, heroic individual. The village represents society which is under the thrall of the system: the conspiratorial powers that be. Number 6’s resistance to interrogation, and protection of the secret of his motives represents the individual resisting the tyrannies and oppressions which arise in the modern world as a result of power, politics, economics, and the darker sides of human nature.
Patrick McGoohan (below) stars as the Number 6. He also co-created the programme, and had a large part in the production of the series. What’s more, is unspeakably cool, and a snappy dresser to boot (I have adopted the blazer and black polo neck to my putative wardrobe for when I have grown up).
Now the series has real flaws. Firstly, and most obviously, the deadly sentries which keep everyone in line are big, bouncing, soggy, white beach balls. I imagine the creators thought this would be symbolic, futuristic, and terrifying. In reality, it is an embarrassingly laughable device, and undermines the dark power looming over the village. They needed some evil bastard meting out punishment, not a silly twat.
Secondly, because of the programme’s lofty theme, you feel that the writers expect a lot of their subject matter. Sometimes they struggle to make a convincing point about oppression and resistance in society. You feel that there are occasions when they duck behind the weirdly symbolic characters and situations so they don’t have to pin down their social critique.
There are many other things you can point to in The Prisoner which are not quite right. For example, the bizarre trampoline-based duelling sport that Number 6 engages in from time to time. It simply must be up there as one of the most ridiculous sci-fi sports ever dreamt up. I am sure there are one or two in Star Trek too.
But, despite all its shortcomings, The Prisoner is absolutely brilliant.
Number 6 is the sort of chap that would beat James Bond at cards, impregnate his girlfriend, then fight for the rights of the lowliest underdog. He would deftly sort out a baggage mix up in a Croatian airport in Croatian, beat up a car-jacker, then make a forthright speech about Liberty from the top of a big cake. He is an activist and a gentleman. And an Olympic-level boxer.
The programme does provide some genuinely interesting and intelligent insights into society, free-will, and individuality. I thought the episode about political elections was particularly good, for example: Number 6 Stands for election and cannot help but be subsumed by the political system. Individuals are subject to the systems they exist in, and struggle to break free from them because of the natural human desire for liberty of thought and action.
Now I heard the other day that there is going to be a remake of The Prisoner, starring Ian Mckellan. The issues raised back in the sixties have not gone away, but I cannot help but think that ITV (hmmm…) will trivialise the issues in the production. It will be flasher, snappier, more modern and tempered to modern, hypnotic television-watching habits. It will cooly carve away anything too naff, and make it all quite accessible. But what it will almost certainly miss is the maverick boldness of the original’s production. It was possible in the 1960’s to make a genuine attempt at high-brow television. Nowadays it would be seen as pompous.
The main system of social conformity nowadays rooted in the television. Perhaps the best thing would be to avoid watching it in the first place.
I don’t know if you have ever noticed of the monkey-business bin men get up to. They work in the twilight hours when there ain’t many folks around. Rooting around in bags of used nappies, then scampering back to base before sunrise. I happen to know that bin men regard themselves as being a breed somewhere between vampires and a tramps.*
It must be an intensely antisocial yet highly social job. Imagine how popular you would be if you turned up in a caff / in bed/ at the opera after work at 8 in the morning smelling of fish poo and radishes? However, the teams of refuse-collectors always seem to be fairly tightly knit (I once saw one jokingly hold a razor blade he had just found to his mate’s eye then cut off some of his hair with it- ahh, the japes!).
Why do they do it?
The begged question.
There are the extras I suppose. They turn quite a bit of a side business by doing trade collections from scurrilous builders. You know how they will never take away that old fridge / tv / coffin that has been lying in your front garden for months? Next time they come round, pull on your pants (and bra) and run outside into the brisk morning air, and bribe them with a fiver. They will happily provide you with a bespoke waste solution. They probably make more by leasing the council’s civic facilities than by their regular pay. It all sort of balances out when you think about it.
Then there is the foraging. They love spending hours sifting through your rubbish like it is an episode of Bargain Hunt, looking for a nice figurine / desk set / wedding present. Check out these furtive snaps I took of the binmen, who jackpotted on our neighbours’ pile of about a dozen bin-bags.
They really relished it. First the clear the rubbish from the tray of the lorry, then they tear open the bags. They proceed to rifle through the stinking booty, with priority pickings ordained via a pecking order. This chap made a nice little pile of gayly coloured boxes, which he then stuffed into a recycling bag (fittingly). He then somewhat coarsely advise his colleagues that they were not to copulate with his stuff on pain of death.
They spent a good fifteen minutes outside this one house. It was like they had found a fresh roll of lottery scratch cards in there. Now I could make out some of the tat they were rescuing from landfill. I cannot believe that anyone could find any financial value in any of it. But I reckon it is not about money. It is about the fun of hunter-gathering. Just like young boys hunting for conkers. Or the incontinent rush for bargains at a car boot sale.
It is funny how the hunter-gatherer habit comes back so naturally to us. Our ancestors, when gathering probably used every drop of daylight walking along, staring at the ground, discerning grass from edible leaves, poisonous berries from fruit. Every time they found something good to eat, they would have felt that that little pang of accomplishment, just like when a schoolboy finds a big shiny conker in the grass.
I think this is also the feeling a photographer gets when he is out doing is thing. Whenever you know you have found a good composition, an interesting subject or the like, you get that tiny dose of endorphins. You carry on walking and hunt for more. It is totally engrossing. Your eyes start becoming sensitive to composition and colour, just like when you are searching for blackberries or mushrooms, your eyes become tuned to the shape and colour of those fruits. You get your eye in.
I first became aware of this parallel in Burnham Beeches, a forest west of London. I like to go there hunting for porcini mushrooms. But this time I had my camera, and I became addicted to taking photographs of the shapes and compositions thrown up by the black trees against the autumn sky (not the most interesting pics, I know, but I weirdly find them fascinating).
Now this is not the first time I have taken photographs obsessively. I do that more often than sitting on things. But it was because of the association with mushroom picking that I noticed feeling a similar sense of gathering-pleasure. As though I was looking for bereft cutlery / door furniture / children’s toys in a pile of rubbish.
I have found after much research and experimentation that there are two crucial factors in cooking a good chicken:
1. Buy a good chicken
2. Do not ruin it
This may sound horribly obvious. But so many times I have been served a chicken by people I know, or by restaurants where they have tried all sorts of tricks from Heston Blumenthal or Gordon Ramsey, and therefore presume their chicken is cordon bleu. But they ineluctably neglect one of these two foundations of roasting a good pullet. And the chicken is disappointing. They have put butter and crap under the skin, they have rubbed it with herbs or spice, they have slow cooked it, crisped it, inverted it, stuffed it with a smaller fowl, stuck a little top hat and monocle on it, or even used organic salt, would you believe, and all with the best of intentions. But the result is never as good as when you simply buy a genuinely good chicken (not necessarily an expensive one from a UK supermarket) and do not ruin it. If you follow these guidelines then the flesh will be delicate and moist, the skin will be crispy, and the gravy will virtually make itself.
This last point, I should like to add, is the best way of measuring the quality of a good chicken, in my opinion. If there is enough good fat and good juice in the flesh, and the bird has been cooked at the right temperature for the right amount of time, the cooking juices will only need the slightest of hydration and seasoning to form a creamy and delicate gravy. This is why I like cooking chickens in Switzerland. An inexpertly or, more to the point, cheaply reared chicken will not have the right balance of fluid and fat to make a good gravy. However, Olympic athletes have been known to inject themselves with the gravy from Tesco’s economy chickens to promote muscle-growth and anabolic rates, so there is something to be said for these sorry animals.
Another trick that supermarkets use is Known Value Item pricing bias. An item of known value is a product, such as a tin of Heinz beans, whose price can be objectively compared between rival stores. Supermarkets know that your average customer will be far more likely to assess and remember the price of a box of Kellogg’s Cornflakes than a tomato, for example, which would necessitate an assessment of quality and a price per weight. Each box of Kellogg’s Cornflakes is the same in each different supermarket. But every tomato is different: it could be from anywhere in the world that produces tomatoes, its flavour, texture, ripeness etc. are variable, and it is not easy to see how much each individual tomato costs, unless you weigh them all individually and work it out. Therefore, instead of competing with their competitors for low prices on fruit and veg, supermarkets find it more effective to drop the price on a KVI, such as the products of Heinz or Kellogg’s, and tactically increase the price on vegetables. Retailers know that more often than not, their customers will just scoop up a load of spuds into their trolly and off they go. They won’t even check the price of non-KVI’s till they get their receipt, if at all.
Very clever. But what has this profit-honing tool got to do with the way we eat? Well if you think about it, KVI’s are going to be pre-packaged, homogeneous foods. Non KVI’s are going to be un-uniform, natural foods like fresh fruit and vegetables. Therefore generally the supermarkets are going to be pricing pre-packaged, pre-prepared foods more competitively than fresh produce. But is it simply the supermarket which is leading us away from the holy land of fresh food, cooking and reality?
Again, an issue here is the word ‘Known’ in KVI. In England, knowledge of the true value of food is on short supply. If English consumers were better at discerning quality of fresh produce, and demanding it over pre-packaged food, we would be able to bring that to bear on supermarket purchasers. The ruthless buyers of today’s colossal English supermarkets have become the chimera of the general population’s woeful relationship with food.
To summarise this point, I believe that we have become culturally divorced from food in the UK. We have lost any cultural sense of good produce and good taste. Supermarkets which spring up in the name of efficiency and convenience reinforce and extend this trend. They give it momentum. Supermarkets have for the last decade been retailing (supposedly) higher-quality higher-price product ranges, but this does more harm than good. Why? Because consumers now believe that the way top find better produce is look for better packaging, and a higher price tag. While the produce is often marginally better in these posher product ranges, we are not using our senses and instincts to discern good food. We are cheating ourselves not only of a great sensual experience which is our birthright as animals, but also of the refinement of our judgments and tastes which should be occurring every time we go shopping.
The efforts of the English over the last 20 years to improve the way they eat and cook may have been well-intentioned but, in reality, self-defeating. I think that the impetus for finding out about better quality produce has led to the rising importance of packaging and the influence of the marketer, advertiser, and product designer in the way we buy from supermarkets. Similarly, we are desperate to learn how to cook, and who do we turn to? TV Chefs and food writers. Now of course this new breed of celebrity and cultural icon can confer some of their knowledge to their audiences. But do you think they learnt to cook by watching telly? We are convinced the food they make is good quality because they are on TV and because they say it is. But whether it is or not is irrelevant. We cannot tell, because we cannot taste or smell it, nor can we feel it or properly see it.
Learning to cook off the telly is like learning to paint by listening to an audio-guide.
Cooking is not about following a recipe. It is about following your instincts. To cook a pasta sauce correctly, you cannot follow a timer. You use all your senses to determine exactly when the consistency, concentration, and delicacy is right. You know what the end result should be, and you don’t stop until you get there. How do you know? Because you have grown up in a culture where you and everyone else has always eaten good pasta sauces and have done for generations. Like a knowing what a good cup of tea tastes like: not too watery, not too milky, not over-brewed, just the right colour, just the right temperature, in just the right mug. Imagine a French chef trying to teach a Frenchman how to brew a cup over the telly. Sacrilege.
Sadly, the divorce from reality in TV cookery education is not an exception to the norm of televisual communication. It is an effective example of how the medium of television divorces the viewer from reality. TV is also highly addictive, which convinces us to allow it deeper and deeper into our lives and our systems of knowledge. However, this is one for another blog.
I love cooking. I love good eating. I love figuring out how to cook food which is ruthlessly healthy and intensely tasty. I love cooking for friends. I love cooking on big occasions for lots of people. And I love cooking for myself. I love buying food. I love talking and arguing about food. But I truly hate something about the way we the English relate to food.
I use the term English advisedly here: I cannot really comment on the other nations of the UK. Anyway, any Sassenach discussion of Scotch cuisine always starts with haggis and descends ultimately into gasping about deep-fried mars bars. Look, the Scots just enjoy them. And having heart-attacks.
I grew up in quite fortunate gastronomic circumstances. My family is fairly cosmopolitan. My parents used to live in Italy, and we used to drive all round Europe for our family holidays, which meant I got to eat loads of different types of cuisine at source, as well as get a feel for the produce of slightly more demanding cultures. At home, my parents always cooked amazing food, for which I shall always be indebted to them.
I became aware of the horrors which lurk in English cooking when I started going to school. I went to my local state school which I loved. However, I was one of those kids who brought a packed lunch (like the international kids of whom there was a good number). I was traumatised by the sight and the smell of the slop being dished out. There was hard oily pastry covering some weird sweet meat-jelly (as a main course). The boiled potatoes smelled of dishwater and were lousy with wretched black lumps. Dessert? Think saccharine pink biscuits doused in a sputum of watery custard. I could describe more of the horrors but I should move on to the merciless dinner ladies. They wore thick glasses which distorted their eyes (honestly, they all did) and, while I am sure they were all perfectly nice people, they forced the poor children in the care to finish every last festering lump on their plates. My god, why? Why did they think I did not want to eat it? Because I had an eating disorder at the age of five? Because I was evil? Because I was trying to give them more plate scraping work to do, just despite them?
Incidentally, my uncle (who went to the same primary school as me) was so traumatised by one session of a dinner-lady bullying him to eat some putrid fish that he never has been able to eat fish ever since.
What was strange to me was that so many of the kids thought the food was fine, even better than what they got at home. And I don’t think my school was unusual. Nor have things changed much, if Jamie Oliver is to be believed. Kids are still getting used to eating swill.
Interest in food has changed in England over the last 20 years or so. People want to eat and cook stylish, healthy, and what they deem to be good food. But here is the problem. ‘What they deem to be’.
In Italy, I would say that people generally know what a good pasta sauce or tomato tastes like. They know because they have grown up eating good sauces and good tomatoes. The English have not. The tomatoes we get in supermarkets here are for the most part laughably poor quality. If any of you know any Italians, ask them. Even better, go to Italy and look at the produce. And weep. Farmers and retailers have to supply Italians with good produce because if they do not, it will not get bought.
Let me put it like this: an Englishman cannot for love nor money find a satisfactory cup of tea outside of Britain. It is always wrong somehow. These bloody foreigners just don’t get it, right? For all their poxy coffees and fine wines, they don’t know what a good cuppa should taste like. That is what English food is like to foreigners.
In England we have been getting a bit more clued up about food. We WANT to learn. We look up to Delia Smith, Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall, Gordon Ramsey et al. We adore the holiness of organic food and decry g.m. farming as Satan’s cruel machination to kill our children. We watch interminable cooking programmes on the cancer-box. But these good intentions are nothing if when it comes to buying good produce, we take more interest in a ‘taste the difference’ label than the smell, taste, and feel of the food. We talk the talk well enough, but are yet to walk the walk.
We wrap our food in rubbish. Next time you go to the supermarket, take as much food as possible out of its wrapping and make a pile. Bags, boxes, cartons, cling-film. It is staggering what supermarkets do. Not only is the amount of packaging an achingly avoidable environmental problem, it more importantly separates us from the sensual experience of the food. All those subconscious senses which have evolved over tens of thousands of years so that we can quickly determine the best, safest and tastiest foods are cut off by the plastic.
Some may say that this is the fault of supermarkets. However, I would say that they get away with all their crap because we let them. We will pay more for a product just because it has been pre-sorted. We trust that taste-the-difference food will taste, well, different. We do not demand it. We do not say ‘these tomatoes have clearly been ripened in a lorry, I shall take my custom elswhere!’ or ‘this beef has been clearly butchered by an epileptic monkey and that pork I had is more water than meat, I am not coming here again!’ or ‘raspberries in December? no wonder they taste like tramp’s piss! Good day!’ or ‘fuck me, Jamie, those mussels smell like a dog’s gall bladder! Go see a doctor!’
I think we English are obsessed with getting a good deal when it comes to food shopping. We clearly love these patently mendacious 2-for-1 offers (supermarkets still use this pricing ruse so we clearly have not grown wise to it). But still we seem to pay so much more for our lacklustre vittles than other European countries. Maybe this is the trick. Supermarkets universally overcharge, making their customers desperate for a bargain.
I was chatting to an onion farmer recently who was telling me all about his view of supermarkets. Essentially, he said supermarket purchasers know nothing and care less about the quality of food. They are ruthless in their price demands. That is all that matters to them. They are no different from stock-market commodity brokers. Farmers are squeezed, and standards go down. These unscrupulous purchasers can get away with it too because the majority of their customers cannot tell the difference.
Similarly, people complain about the rights of battery chickens. But the English have been buying scrawny, tasteless chickens and watery, nasty eggs because we think they are perfectly edible and fairly priced (judgments with which I would disagree). The battery chicken is the result of these two elements: the English consumer’s economic priorities and their ignorance of quality. I was in Switzerland recently, and even the least expensive chicken in Migros was better than anything I have found in Tesco or Sainsbury’s.
[I shall continue this directly in another post. This needs to be spread over several posts for mercy's sake if nothing else]
Roast pork without good crackling is like a garden without any trees, a car without hub-caps, a jester without any bells, a farm without any dung, or a young vagabond without a twinkle in his rapscallious eye. It is missing its joy. There is something about the crisp, salty, melt-in-your mouth goodness of crackling that brings joy to the iciest of hearts.
People always seem to want to know how to get a good crackle, and there are a few common advices* offered by various chefs and food writers. They variously suggest rubbing with oil, rubbing with salt, with herbs, scalding with boiling water, scoring and so on. But I have never seen any writer offer an explanation of why pigskin crackles, and how any of the standard methods actually help.
This post is my explanation of the processes involved in making crackling. As with the vast majority of culinary methods of which I know, if you just follow instructions and recipes without really thinking about what is actually happening to the ingredients then you will have little success.
It is perfectly possible to employ all the methods mentioned above and not get a good crackling. If you have found yourself frequently frustrated, left with a tough leathery bit of football I would suggest that you try the following: run a blow torch over it. Voila! It will sizzle and puff up into light crisp balloons of crackling. It is not the best, mind you: it will be patchy and uneven. But the blowtorch just illustrates that there is no magic involved. It is heat that is the critical factor.
Think of bacon turning crispy. When you fry or grill it for long enough, it will go as crunchy as a poppadum. Water is driven out, and fat soaks in, cooking the pork cells brittle. Blowtorching the skin is essentially doing the same thing as frying bacon. There is fat underneath which melts and cooks the skin, replacing the water which is driven out.
When moisture is trapped in or under the skin, fat can not usurp its place. Scoring the rind allows the moisture to escape and the fat to melt out and all over the skin, just like bacon in a frying pan. As sharp a blade as possible, even a scalpel is good. But don’t cut all the way down through the fat to the flesh, because this can allow juices to bubble out, ruining the meat and the crackling.
I have seen one well-known chef recommend pouring boiling water over the skin before oiling, salting, and cooking. This will not help. I imagine that the chef borrowed the step from traditional Peking duck preparation, where the skin is scalded first to tighten it and to remove any fat on the surface of the skin. This is important because the ducks are left to hang in a draughty window or doorway (Chinatown stylee) for a day to completely desiccate the skin, and residual oil would prevent the water leaving it. Chinese chefs take care not to pierce the skin so no fat can get through and spoil it. When Peking duck is done in authentic Beijing style, the skin is served first with pancakes – it is a fine delicacy. The rest of the duck meat is dished up in a subsequent course.
Anyway, the scalding is pretty much useless in the above chef’s recipe because the pork joint is not left to dry for any length of time, and oil is poured straight back on to the skin!
Salting- it seems like a good idea. Salting things dries them out, of course. Well, salting dries out food without having to cook it, more specifically. If the water is free to escape, then the heat from the cooking will be far more effective at drying the skin than salting. However, the mixture of excessive fat and salt is a combination you are genetically predisposed to adore. Great for your heart, too.
Heat is everything. If you keep the oven low you will not get crackling. If you turn it up very hot then you run the risk of drying your perfectly juicy pork (and there is no greater sin than dried-out pork, not even usury). Pork does not like to be cooked roughly. It makes sense to remove the rind, fat and skin, when the joint has finished cooking and put it back in a very hot oven You can even use the grill. Incidentally, I always wrap roasted meat in foil to rest. If you merely cover it, it will lose a lot more juice and juiciness. If grilling the crackling, take care not to let it burn, all can be lost in a matter of seconds (this nearly happened to me the other day).
Last but not least we come to the cut of meat itself. A good layer of fat really helps get the crackling sizzling, and also show that the pig has been fed well. You should only use good quality, free-range pork. Factory-farmed pork always has a terrible, unwholesome reek to it, and sweats all sorts of weird muck. I found out from a farmer that this curdled grey crap is actually milk: there are government regulations governing how much water may be pumped into standard non free-range meat, so the factory technicians use milk as well, which has not been regulated yet.
So, if you want a vague recipe, score the skin shallowly (experiment with using a lot of scores) rub in some salt for flavouring. Use a high heat (above 220C) to crackle the pork, preferably off the joint after cooking. Oil may help to keep salt on, and make up for a lack of fat, but if there is enough blubber underneath the skin then that should do.
But the only way to get reliably good crackling is to experiment, trying to get a feel for the cooking process. Every oven and every piece of pork is different, and your method will have to adapt accordingly.
*Schwarzenegger says ‘advices’ so it must be right
Just in case the title of this post scares people off I should quickly state the following: I am not a vegetarian, nor is this blog post about to try to convince its dear readers to become vegetarian. I am a lover of food: if I were a Roman I would pray to Edesia, the goddess of feasting; if I were on death row, I would spend ten long years meticulously planning the perfect final meal to the dismay of the Texas prison authorities; if I were a part of the body I would be the tongue; if I had a coat of arms it would carry the emblems of a big fat pie, some chop sticks and a morel; if I worked for Chanel, I would launch a his/hers fragrance called Eau de Tartufe, black truffles for men, white for women. Bloody hell I am starting to sound like Rudyard Kipling. Whom, incidentally, I would eat first if I were a cannibal.*
But despite my overwhelming commitment to fine dining, I am not a hedonist. That is to say, I think that ethical values come before aesthetics. Perhaps they are interrelated but hey let’s not get bogged down just yet. The overwhelming majority of people directly use animals for food, as companions, or clothing, indirectly via vivisection-tested medicines, and so on. But very few of us spend as much effort looking into the treatment of those animals as we do looking up the Jamie Oliver recipe for Eazy-Peazy Bangaz and MASH with a Lahvely red-woin Jooo.
Now I would not suggest that it is the duty of the moral, civilized human being to launch their own exhaustive fact-finding mission into animal welfare. But there are a few questions you can ask yourself. For example:
Do you think that an animal, even if you believe it to be a lower order of consciousness, deserves the right to live a life free from unnecessary suffering?
Do animals have the right to live a life beyond that of a mere commodity, even if their bodies end up being used as such?
Does mankind have an automatic right to use other species simply because it is more powerful? Is might really right?
If you think you do not care one way or the other or you would rather not know, does deliberate ignorance (of any subject) mean you cannot call yourself a good person?
Different people will answer in different ways of course. Vegans believe that mankind’s relationship with animals should not reflect one of mastery in any way, and as a result they will not use animals for food, clothing, entertainment, companionship etc. This view is based upon a belief in an existential equivalence of all animals. However, this is something that many people will find hard to accept. Perhaps some don’t want to face difficult questions about pain or consciousness. But some vegans controversially draw a parallel between society’s use of animals and the Nazis’ attitude towards the Jews: “they are a lower order of life, so we can do what we please with them, and not feel bad about it”. I would advise any vegans reading this to be EXTREMELY careful where they make this argument because if misconstrued it could cause some people to be not just angry but very upset indeed. On a curious side note, the Nazis brought in laws banning vivisection and protecting animal welfare, apparently as an attack on what they deemed to be Jewish sciences and Kosher slaughtering methods. Although Hitler did not seem to take much notice when he trialled poison gas on his dogs..
I have a real respect for vegans. I personally think there are logical difficulties with being only an ethical vegetarian: what is the difference between eating meat and wearing leather, or eating battery-chicken eggs? If you are going to make an ethical point, you have to be consistent. But I truly abhor the dismissive usage of vegetarians and vegans in the media. You see Clarkson and Ramsey laughing about them as though they are idiots. A claim no-one would ever level at those two of course. Isn’t there enough complacency in our society already before we criticise others for living their lives in a way which seems right to them?
My own personal view is that animals are conscious, feel emotions, and have their own unique perspectives on the world formulated from their different senses and experiences from humans. But I cannot extend to them a recognition of the same order of intelligence as humans. If you did then would you not have to expect them to act morally responsibly as befits their intelligence? An animal would be culpable for theft, murder, rape and all of the other things which make up the bloody daily workings of nature. This would be patently ridiculous, and a somewhat awkward drain on police resources and the judicial system. Not to mention prison overcrowding. Anyway… I cannot see the absolute difference between a human killing an animal for its ends and a lion, killer whale, spider, dog, cat, skylark, or jabberwocky doing the same. Death is part of life, and I can accept that. If you cannot then you should not.
My problem is with the way in which humans use animals. Now if you accept that it is natural to use animals for food, clothing, labour on farms and the rest but they are capable of suffering too, do you think that humans have a responsibility to treat these animals with compassion and some concern for their interests? If an animal is going to give up its life, against its will, for you, should we not make sure that while it is alive it is happy? And when it dies it feels no pain or fear?
We are lucky. It is easy to do this. For many years there have been various programmes and trading standards schemes set up in Britain set up so that we can quickly and conveniently select meat that has been produced with the welfare of the animal in mind. It is surprising, but Waitrose started its farm assurance scheme way back in the eighties. Red Tractor marked and free range lines of meat are widely available, and many supermarkets stock fewer battery than free range eggs. It is so easy to grab the first pack of pork chops you see on the shelf. It only costs a little more for us, but for the animal you are going to enjoy eating it is the difference between living in a crowded factory-barn as a mere commodity, or living in green fields, roaming around, pooing just where it likes.
Oh and if you really think there is no moral element to humans using animals, then how about this argument for only eating free range meat: it tastes like real meat, it tastes really good, not like the regular muck they flog off to you and stick in McBurgers. Your taste buds will show you the way.
*I would clearly not as he has been dead for many, many years