A Word From The Hinterlands

Hi. How are you all? Been a while, right? If you follow me on that social media thing, then you’ll know that I haven’t just disappeared off the face of the planet. If X&HT is your only resource for Robsy goodness, then, well, things have really been on the quiet side.

And to be honest, that’s been deliberate. The last 12 months have brought fairly big changes to my life, and I’ve been taking some quiet time to think things through creatively. Continue reading A Word From The Hinterlands

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Out Of The Depths

Between 1844 and 2013, HMP Reading was the involuntary home for thousands of people who had caused offence to the state. From its original aim as a new model prison, with design features considered progressive for the time, the building changed, grew and mutated. Over the decades it became shabby, gradually less fit for purpose. Finally, after service as a young offenders lock-up, it was closed three years ago.

And that would have been the end for this unlovely, haunted building, if not for the fact that it is world-famous under its original name. Or rather, because of one particular inmate. Between 1895 and 1897 Prisoner C.3.3 suffered, wrote movingly of his torments, and immortalised the building whose walls enclosed him.

We know the man as Oscar Wilde, and the building as Reading Gaol.

Continue reading Out Of The Depths

The Phantom Of Soho

It finally struck me when I walked down Berwick Street yesterday evening. It's never been the fanciest of places, and after the market stalls have closed up it feels abandoned, dirty, a bit sad.

But all of a sudden that feeling has gone up by a factor of ten. There's fancy new paving underfoot, which just accentuates the litter. And the shops on the right hand side, under the awning, are gone. All of them. A run from the Co-Op to the pub that used to be the Endurance. Reckless Records, Beatroot, that funny little pound store, the bookies. Vanished behind a sweep of hoarding that features photos of the shops and businesses that have just been wiped off the map.

 

This is not an elegy for the Soho that was. I come not to mourn the place. Progress has to be made, and Soho has been a shithole for as long as I've known it. But we have history, the old neighbourhood and I. And Lord knows, it's weird to see it slip away.

I've been here for twenty-five years, from runner to VT op to telecine op to “colourist” to… whatever the hell I am now. I've lost count of the times I've been offered sex and drugs. I've lost count of the times I've been asked if I can supply them. I've dodged the whores and the trannies and the pimps and the dealers, side-stepping the puddles of puke and piss and blood–some of which were my fault. It's an ugly place, Soho. A rat's warren of alleys and narrow streets where you could scare up pretty much any thrill that tickled your tiny mind. On a night shift you could feel the vampires lurking round the corner.

I've worked here for a very long time, and it's never looked worse. Because it's a building site now. And what's emerging from under the scaffolding is a monster.

I mean, I've never liked Soho, but at least we knew where we stood. A cantankerous relationship. Her in last night's dress, lippy smeared across her face in a crimson snarl. Me with bags under my eyes you could tote home the groceries in, tottering drunkenly after one too many shifts on a leaking wetgate. We'd been around each other enough to keep the knives in our pockets, out of sight. We'd spit at each other then back off, and that was a victory we could live with. It was horrible, but it made a kind of sense.

The Soho coming out of the chrysalis now is a different sort of ugly.

 

We're back in Berwick Street, and the chippy on the corner by The Blue Posts has closed for the last time. If you want fish and chips now, you have to go to the Golden Union, where they'll charge you almost double for something half as good. The pubs are cleaning up their act, and bumping their prices at the same time. Soho was never the cheapest place to drink, but they're taking the piss. The site of The Endurance now houses a “Chinese gastropub” called The Duck And Rice, that will cheerfully charge £7 for a pint of their custom home brew.

And don't get me started on the coffee. Or that there seem to be more tapas bars per square yard here than in downtown Barcelona.

Even the people are different. Clean. Nice shoes. Shiny hair. I hate every last bright-eyed one of them.

I walk past the places where I used to work. TVP, my first gig, a post-production company that took a chance on me for reasons I still can't quite fathom. The Golden Square site is office space now. The Poland Street site is a hole in the ground. Most of the Dean Street side of the last film lab in London, the place where I made a name for myself and earned some film credits, is a hotel. The rest will no doubt be following soon. I feel like a ghost, watching the world I knew remap itself.

Is there still a place here for me? Well, there's the question. TLC and I cashed in our two-bed end-of-terrace in Walthamstow for the house we now call home ten years ago. I commute in, gazing out of a train window as the green fields outside Twyford and Maidenhead are taken over by industrial estates and smoke-grey brick. Four days work a week. The fifth is used up just by traveling to and from Reading. I fill the time with writing, but it's still a slog.

Yet I'm still here. Twenty-five years, while most of the people I knew have moved on, and the town and the job mutates under my feet. I wish I could tell you why I can't let go. Maybe it's cowardice. Maybe I'm just scared to find out what happens when I have to find something else to do with my time.

But as the neighbourhood changes so irrevocably around me, maybe the choice is already being made. I can't let go of Soho, but there's no reason why Soho can't let go of me. One day, we'll cease to recognise each other. She's got a new dress on and a fresh lick of make-up. Me? Fuck, I just look old.

And that's the day when I leave her to the bright-eyed kids in the tapas bars. That's when I get on the train for the last time, and watch dry-eyed as the landscape outside my train window reels back from grey to green.

I have a feeling that it won't be long now.

 

 

The Wight Stuff: The Food Of The Isle Of Wight

If you're a foodie, Britain has some amazing places to visit. Scotland is a cornucopia of bounty, from salmon to beef to whisky. Welsh lamb is the world's best, and the welcome and scenery are pretty tidy too. The seafood in Cornwall blows most other places out of the water.

And England, dear England. TLC and I have eaten our way around the country. From Northumberland, breakfasting on that morning's kippers, to rural Shropshire and Ludlow, the beating heart of English grub. We've seen it all, and loved it all.

But there's an English secret when it comes to amazing grub, and I'm here to reveal it. Hands up who thinks of the Isle Of Wight when you consider great British grub?

Well, you should.

OK, some of you may already have something to say on the matter. Yes, the Isle does have a rep when it comes to a certain pungent ingredient most kitchens would suffer without. But there's much more to enjoy. Especially as the island itself is only just waking up to the realisation that it has so much on its plate.

Let us consider the Isle Of Wight. A diamond-shaped island in the Solent, about 4 miles off the Hampshire coast, small enough to cycle from nose to tail in a day. It's drier and warmer than the mainland, with a microclimate centred around the southern town of Ventnor that's basically a Mediterranean suntrap. This means the island has a longer growing season and better weather than some parts of Northern Spain.

With fertile land and perfect growing conditions for a whole host of goodies, it should be no surprise that the Isle Of Wight is a bit of a food basket. It's lush and green, with sheep and cattle grazing on every hillside. The local asparagus is as fresh as you get (and disappears bloody quickly–find a good local deli and be prepared to snag every bunch you can lay your mitts on).

The food culture is pub-centric, which always pleases me as I get to try out local ales alongside my fresh-caught fish or local lamb. There are three breweries on the island, and it's rare that a hostelry won't have at least one of their beers on offer. If not, never fear: Goddard's and Island Brewery have a solid bottling operation, and you can pick up a little of what you fancy in most shops. Goddard's Ale Of Wight and Fuggle-De-Dum are personal favourites, but as between them the three breweries have fifteen ales on offer you have plenty of opportunities for research. They even have a mini-beer festival in May, in the grounds of the local steam railway museum. And let's not forget Quarr Abbey, whose Benedictine monks brew their own delicious take on Belgian Trappist ales.

Viniculture is also taking root on the Isle Of Wight. Adgestone and Rosemary Vineyards produce cracking whites and sparkling wines, unsurprising given the similarity of the terroir to the Champagne region. They're small but growing businesses, who offer a great range of juices and vinegars alongside the more traditional offerings.

And then, of course, there's garlic. Brought over by Free French troops stationed there during WW2, the stinking rose flourishes in the island's rich soil. Now The Garlic Farm is the success story of food on the Isle of Wight: 80% of garlic grown in the UK comes from the fields around Newchurch. It's a tourist destination in its own right, with a brilliant restaurant serving all sorts of garlicky goodies. I can heartily recommend the hot dog, as long as you don't have any heavy activity planned for the rest of the day. The gift shop is one I found difficult to leave. TLC and I are going to be vampire-free for a while.

The island has its own pace of life, slower and less keen to impress than many food destinations in the UK. Chatting to locals, we quickly came to realise that it's taken the Island a while to wake up to its true potential. Eateries like Salty's in Yarmouth, and the amazing Red Lion in Freshwater are only now offering the simple, locally-sourced grub that foodies like me crave. Delis are starting to pop up, but they're still comparitively rare. Wierdly, the best place to source locally caught meat and fish is The Co-Op. That, I'm sure, is in the process of changing. To be fair, I didn't get a chance to check out the one Waitrose on the island. I bet that's got some treats.

We knew, going into it, that there was going to be some good eating on the Isle Of Wight. We were not disappointed. It's a place that's coming into its own as a food destination, and with easy access via the ferry, not a pain to get to, either. We're already making plans for our next visit.

And I've not even mentioned the history and culture of the place yet. That's a whole other blog post…

The Joy Of The Oatcake

With a last-minute invite from the lovely Maria Thomas (friend to the blog and talented actress and producer), the Leading Man and I made it out to the wilds of Crouch End last Tuesday for a trip to the movies. The Greenhorn Film Festival, supporting new and emerging film-makers, held its Official Selection Night at the Arthouse Cinema, and we were treated to an evening of cracking shorts.

With patron Mike Leigh in attendance, the programme included Ed Chappell's prize-winning documentary Sandyman, a portrait of a sand artist who scribes mandala-like artworks into a Devon beach. Personal favourites of mine were Christian Schleffer's The Dewberry Empire, a funny and macabre animation about the often cruel world of children's game play, and Chris Lee and Paul Storrie's The Hedgehog, an exploration of games culture with a brutal twist.

But I'm not really here to talk about films today. See, one of the shorts was a smart little faux-newsreel piece on a culinary passion of mine. The film was George Smith's The Ultimate Guide To The Oatcake. And frankly, I'm shocked that this brilliant example of British local grub can be treated as a curiosity.

The oatcake is not, as the name might suggest, a type of flapjack or cereal bar. It certainly isn't a cake. It's more of a savoury pancake, with a denser, more robust structure that's somehow also airy and easy to digest. Think of it as a cross between a tortilla and a chapati. In fact, one long-standing theory for the origin of the oatcake has soldiers coming back from duty in India at the height of the British Empire and demanding their wives make the delicious savoury pancakes to which they had become addicted. Using local ingredients including oats, the result, although not authentic (we'd have to wait another hundred years for the real deal to make its way over from the sub-continent) were entirely delicious.

The oatcake is a highly versatile foodstuff, a benefit of its simplicity. A fantastic addition to a cooked breakfast, it's also great stuffed with cheese and ham as a lunch-time treat. Flavoursome and filling, I've even used oatcakes in a kind of cannelloni, rolling a thick ragu in them, covering with cheese and baking until everything bubbles. Now that, my hungry Readership, is a winter warmer.

The one problem with the oatcake is that of supply. Apart from aficionados like TLC and I, the oatcake is barely known outside of its native Staffordshire. Smith, in his pert little doco, notes that the shops that were once on every street corner in places like Stoke are fading away. The exclusivity of the dish, the fact that it's tricky to get outside The Potteries, has contributed to an obscurity that means that fewer and fewer people even know about them. Their short shelf life means that supermarkets are leery to stock them. The worry is that this most delicious of local dishes is in danger of becoming a culinary footnote.

Fortunately, thanks to the internet, it's easier than ever to buy them in vacuum packs from suppliers like High Lane or Poveys. You can even get a pancake-like mix to which you simply add water and a little fat. Or you could, you know, try to make them yourself. The batter is a mix of fresh yeast, sugar, fine oatmeal, plain flour and water, a leavened mix that needs time to rise and develop the bubbly texture that makes the oatcake so delicious.

Now, I've never tried this. I prefer the illicit thrill of knowing that there's a pack on its way down from my West Midlands contacts. There's an almost druggy tingle to the process. Crack the pack, hot pan, two minutes a side and hot damn, there's breakfast. There's nothing better with bacon and sausage, or simply warm with butter. But however you eat it, the oatcake is a must-try. It's even, with the low GI from the oats, good for you. Not if you fry it in lard, obviously. Find a balance. But do, please, find a pack of oatcakes. Your breakfasts will never be the same.

High Lane Oatcakes
Poveys Oatcakes
Staffordshire Oatcakes

For more on George Smith's great little documentary, including festival screenings, check him out on Facebook or Twitter. It's well worth a look.