Writing Portfolio


On the trail of Jack the Ripper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Butchering in Bermondsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Three City pubs

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

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

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

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


Cocktail hour (part two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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