Uncovering a Georgian chocolate kitchen

Charlotte Barker became very skilled at spotting the word 'chocolate'

Charlotte Barker became very skilled at spotting the word ‘chocolate’

Charlotte Barker tells me how her research led to the discovery of a hidden Georgian chocolate kitchen at Hampton Court Palace.

A few weeks ago, I went to a storytelling workshop at the Tower of London. At the end of the day, we all had to tell a story relating to our work. Charlotte Barker, a curatorial assistant at the Historic Royal Palaces, stood up and told an extraordinary tale of how her research had uncovered a chocolate kitchen hidden away in the depths of Hampton Court Palace. Until recently, it had been disguised as a flower-arranging cupboard.

A visit to Hampton Court Palace

Keen to know more, last week I took the train to Hampton Court to meet Charlotte.

Hampton Court Palace: worth a visit

Hampton Court Palace: worth a visit

If you haven’t been to Hampton Court, you really should. Set by the Thames a half hour train journey from Waterloo, it’s a glorious mix of Tudor and Baroque palaces, surrounded by spectacular gardens. The Tudor part includes Henry VIII’s jaw-dropping Great Hall, chapel and apartments, while the Baroque side features a vast sweep of apartments originally commissioned by King William III and Queen Mary II.

On the day of my visit, it had been raining hard and the moat was flooded, the lawn underneath transformed into temporary pondweed. As Charlotte and I walked across the Tudor Clock Court towards the Baroque apartments, we came across a group of schoolboys looking for Henry III. “He’s usually around here somewhere,” Charlotte assured them. “Have a look up in the Great Hall.” The boys sped off on the trail of the monarch, a costumed actor supplied by Past Pleasures, the company that ran our storytelling workshop.

Fountain Court: spice, confectionery, chocolate

Fountain Court, home to the royal spicery, confectionery and chocolate rooms

Fountain Court, home to the royal spicery, confectionery and chocolate rooms

From a Tudor passageway, we emerged into Fountain Court, an internal courtyard created for William and Mary. “From her state apartments opposite, Queen Mary would have been able to watch servants in their blue uniforms dash from room to room here collecting spices and confectionery,” Charlotte explained.

“The main kitchens were at a distance from the living quarters to cut down the risk of fire. But in this series of rooms, they would have kept a huge stock of spices such as nutmeg, cardamom and cloves, and the cooks created elaborate confectionery for royal banquets.”

And thanks to Charlotte’s research, led by curator Polly Putnam, we now know that there were also two rooms dedicated to chocolate underneath these elegant stone archways: a kitchen and a preparation room.

Preparing the king’s hot chocolate

In Georgian times, chocolate was an exotic luxury. George I had his own personal chocolatier, Thomas Tosier, who was in charge of preparing the royal cup of hot chocolate for the king’s breakfast each day. This involved roasting the cocoa beans, then mixing them with spices such as chilli, aniseed and allspice, to create a rich, spicy concoction.

“Tosier was in a very privileged position,” said Charlotte, “because he had the king’s ear for a few minutes each day.”

Chocolate cakes and sugar loafs: key ingredients for the king's hot chocolate

Chocolate cakes and sugar loafs: key ingredients for the king’s hot chocolate

Chocolate’s popularity was not limited to royal households. Although coffee and tea reigned supreme, chocolate houses also sprang up around London, catering to a clientele that could afford this luxurious new drink. Tosier owned The Chocolate House in Blackheath, run by his wife, Grace. A portrait of Mrs Tosier at Hampton Court shows quite a character, with a large-brimmed hat, fashionable ringlets and a posy of flowers at her bosom.

Hot chocolate remained a favourite with George I and George II, but by Victorian times, the monarchy was no longer staying at Hampton Court. So the rooms dedicated to chocolate making were given over to grace and favour residents.

Full immersion in dusty tomes

By the 21st century, there were rumours that a chocolate kitchen had once existed at Hampton Court, but no one knew where it was. Charlotte was given the task of sifting through the palace’s files to find some clues. When this drew a blank, she headed off to the National Archives at Kew to immerse herself in dusty, leather-bound tomes.

The document that proved the location of the  chocolate kitchen

“8th door on ye right… chocolate room”

“It involved some extremely long days,” she said. “Most of the archives are records of royal warrants, so they weren’t relevant at all. But eventually I found an inventory, which was an unusual document. It was written in 1710, but gave a record of the rooms in the palace after the death of William III in 1702. By then, I’d become very skilled at spotting the word ‘chocolate’, and saw that the inventory described a list of rooms around Fountain Court, including a ‘chocolate room’.”

“When I saw that phrase, I felt a rush of excitement mixed with a profound feeling of relief that we had found the missing piece of evidence,” she said.

Secrets behind the oasis

Charlotte rushed back to Hampton Court to find out which door was the “8th door on ye right” mentioned in the inventory – and discovered it was a small room packed to the rafters with flower-arranging equipment. “The king’s chocolate kitchen was being used as a storage room for the palace’s annual Florimania show,” said Charlotte. “It was full of vases and oasis. At first sight, there was no evidence at all that it had ever been a kitchen.”

The royal chocolate kitchen, with its fireplace and charcoal brazier

The royal chocolate kitchen, with its fireplace and charcoal brazier

Once cleared, the room revealed its secret history. On the back wall, there was a pulley system above the fireplace which would have been used to raise and lower a metal cylinder which would have rotated over the fire to roast the cocoa beans contained inside. A fold-down wooden table was a Georgian original, made for preparing chocolate rather than arranging flowers. And a brick structure in the corner, covered over with a wooden board, was a charcoal brazier formerly used to cook the king’s hot chocolate.

In February this year, the newly-discovered chocolate kitchen was opened to public display, alongside a chocolate preparation room, where the hot chocolate would have been decanted into porcelain cups surrounded by special pewter holders.

The chocolate preparation room with its display of elaborate porcelain and silverware

The chocolate preparation room with its display of elaborate porcelain and silverware

For Charlotte, all her hard work has paid off. She said: “I still feel I’m a lowly intern at the palace,  but to be involved in such a wonderful project – and have such a fantastic find – is something special. This is a great achievement, and something that I will always remember from my time at the palace.”

Tips for historical researchers

Charlotte has a few tips to pass on to anyone who’s undertaking painstaking archival research.

  • First and foremost, don’t get discouraged – the information is out there somewhere.
  • Don’t be afraid of taking the time to do proper archival research because you can find all sorts of fascinating snippets that provide extra information that you might not imagine finding.
  • Finally, you must find your motivation, otherwise it’s tough work. Keep reminding yourself what you are doing this for.

Ten things I learned at The Story 2014

You never know quite what will happen at The Story, except that it will illuminate distant areas of your brain with unpredictable copper sparks for some time to come. Here are a few of the things I learned from this year’s gathering of storytellers of all stripes – from film makers, writers and artists to illustrators and singers.

1. You have nothing to fear from a jelly hand grenade

Kyle Bean's 'Soft Guerrilla' materials for Cut magazine

Kyle Bean’s ‘Soft Guerrilla’ materials for Cut magazine

Artist / designer / illustrator Kyle Bean goes to painstaking lengths to create extraordinary images. When Cut magazine asked for pictures to illustrate a feature on guerrilla gardening, he came up with the feather knife and jelly grenade shown here, as well as toast knuckledusters and sticks of mini-milk dynamite.

2. The truth is over-rated

In the pursuit of a good story, you sometimes need to bend the truth, twist it or step neatly over it. “We have a really dodgy relationship with reality and are not really interested in it at all,” said Jane Pollard, talking about the documentary she and Iain Forsyth made about Nick Cave.

Kenyatta Cheese agrees. As he says: “It’s not the facts that are important. It’s the emotional truth.”

3. A story needs a ‘yay’ bit at the end

Not all stories end well, but Stella Duffy prefers it if they do. “I believe in a story having this ‘yay’ bit at the end,” she said. This was after she’d told us: “Two weeks ago I had eight hours of cancer surgery. I’m still a bit bloody and very bruised, but isn’t this a lovely frock?” She’s devoting her considerable wit and spirit to inspiring a series of Fun Palaces across the UK in October 2014.

4. Celery and pasta make good gore

Barnaby Smyth is a foley artist: one of those fascinating behind-the-scenes people who creates rustling leaves, rattling chains and footsteps for film and television. He asked us all to close our eyes as he recreated a ghostly story for us in sound. “For decapitation scenes,  I twist a head of celery mixed with boiled penne pasta,” he said. “But you can use tagliatelle too.”

5. Children have great instincts

In a Ministry of Stories project, 13 year old Teodor says you can mould an idea any way you want

In a Ministry of Stories project, 13 year old Teodor says you can mould an idea any way you want

Performance artist Bryony Kimmings worked with her nine year old niece, Taylor, to come up with Catherine Bennett, a paleontologist popstar who is the epitome of the anti-twerk, the un-Thicke of it. Schoolchildren suggested lyrics for CB’s song, The Future, including the brilliant line: “We need at least four more ways to eat potatoes.”

6. We find joy in unusual places

  • Bill Wasik gets his kicks from going viral, and was responsible for gathering a 200-strong flash mob in Macy’s carpet department who claimed to be commune members looking for a ‘love rug’.
  • Tony Ageh loves lists. “A proper list is democratic, neutral, useful and empowering,” he told us.
  • Philip Larkin is partial to procrastination and Vines. Here’s the impromptu Vine made during his talk, part of his ‘What happens if I press this button?’ series.
Lisa Salem with her mobile recording buggy

Lisa Salem with her mobile recording buggy

7. All stories are the same

Feeling lost and alone in Los Angeles, Lisa Salem took an unusual approach in the city-where-no-one-walks. She attached a video camera to a baby buggy and invited people to come and walk with her while she videoed the conversation. “The talks quickly became intimate and personal, and I discovered that everyone tells the same story,” she said. “Everyone wants to be heard, to be seen, to be understood.”

8. Writing a novel is like riding a horse

Novelist Meg Rosoff solved a mystery while she was practising dressage. Why, she wondered, were so many of the novels she was asked to review so mediocre? Her theory – convincingly put – is that you need a good flow and mastery of the unconscious to write a novel. Just as a good dressage rider channels the power of the horse, a writer needs to use the deep, unconscious areas of the brain to create writing that resonates. “Write fiercely with resonance from a really deep place,” she advises.

9. It’s not easy to destroy a computer

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, gave his insights into the Edward Snowden leaks of NSA material. In July 2013, GCHQ supervised the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of the leaked information. “It’s more difficult than you’d think to destroy a computer,” said Alan. “It’s not enough to wipe it clean, hit it with hammers or put superglue in the USB drives. We had to dismantle them, then use angle grinders and drills on the internal components.”

10. It’s never too late to travel with an ancestor

Gruff Rhys gets mystical following in his ancestor's footsteps

Gruff Rhys gets mystical following in his ancestor’s footsteps

Gruff Rhys, the Welsh singer and all-round good egg, told a fascinating story of his 2012 American Interior tour which retraced the steps of a long-dead ancestor, John Evans. Evans was quite a man: he left Wales in 1792, hung out with tribespeople, became Spanish and then French, and ended his days in New Orleans. Gruff was accompanied on the tour by a felt model of Evans, complete with period costume and a pioneering stare. Gruff completed his story by playing us a song about Evans, with around 29 key changes reflecting the many twists and turns of his ancestor’s adventures.

Thanks to the intrepid organisers of The Story for assembling such a brilliant mix of people and ideas. When can I book next year’s ticket?

Keith Hann: chilled opera buff

Keith Hann in his "Centre of Mediocrity"

Keith Hann in his “Centre of Mediocrity”

If you ever want an expert in opera, frozen foods and idiosyncratic PR, Keith Hann’s your man. He wrote The Bluffer’s Guide to Opera and is PR for Iceland Foods (you might have seen him in BBC  Two’s ‘Life in the Freezer Cabinet’).

The Bluffer's Guide to Opera

“What utter bollocks, do you fancy a pint?” A fair response to some productions, according to Keith Hann.

Keith describes himself as “the most honest man in PR” and has a notice tacked to his door at Iceland declaring his office the ‘Centre of Mediocrity’. His highly entertaining website flouts marketing’s positive thinking mantra at every turn. His company motto is ‘Like we care’, he has a page where he lists ‘Things we are really good at’ and ‘Things we can just about manage’, and he says that despite being based on a bleak Northumberland hilltop, staffed almost entirely by infants and Border terriers, his consultancy charges “popular* City of London prices”.

We’re having a bit of an opera moment at Chickentown Radio right now, so we invited Keith in the other week to hear some of his favourite moments from opera and to discover if his views on opera are as bracing as his approach to PR. Which they are, it turns out.

Two loathsome characters, one divine song

To start us off, Keith chooses ‘Pur ti miro’, the concluding duet from L’Incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi. “This is unquestionably one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written,” says Keith. “It was written in 1642 shortly after the birth of opera. Unlike most human activities, you can date the start of opera to 6 March 1637 when the first opera house opened in Venice.”

“It’s sung by two of the most loathsome characters, Nero and Poppea, but I think this is one of the highlights of the whole operatic canon.”

Matchless entertainment

Keith’s first experience of opera was at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle when he was just a lad. “Watching a 20 stone woman pretending to die of tuberculosis in La Traviata was one of the most moving and entertaining experiences I’ve ever had.”

And today? “I still think opera is the most supremely involving art form,” says Keith. “It can always take me out of myself. The technical expertise of being able to fill a theatre with a voice unamplified is utterly amazing. And if it all comes together with sets, costumes and orchestra, it’s a matchlessly wonderful form of entertainment.”

Skulduggery at the opera

Keith is a huge Handel fan. “I like all of Handel’s operas, and he wrote over 40 of them,” he says. “If I was going on Desert Island Discs, I could easily choose Handel operas for all eight pieces. This aria –  ‘Va tacito e nascosto’ from Giulio Cesare – is a particularly beautiful bit of music from one of his greatest operas.”

Here, Tolomeo, the King of Egypt, has subtly threatened Caesar, who responds by saying that the cunning hunter moves silently and steathily. He’ll be on guard against any skulduggery that Tolomeo has planned.

This aria was originally written for a castrato, like many of the principal parts in Handel’s operas. “But unfortunately there’s rather a shortage of those these days, so they tend to use counter tenors or mezzo sopranos instead,” explains Keith.

The misunderstood art form

We talk about the most common misconceptions about opera that tend to put people off. “People think it’s going to be dull, which it very rarely is, although it can be achieved if you work hard at it,” says Keith.  “People think it’s going to be expensive, which it often is, although it doesn’t have to be. You can go and see world class opera at Covent Garden for a few pounds if you don’t mind standing up. They also think it’s terribly high brow. I don’t think it is. It’s a perfectly accessible art form. There’s no reason why it should be any harder to enjoy than a rock concert. It’s one of the great human endeavours.”

Tip for the opera virgin? See Turandot

If you’re new to opera, Keith recommends Turandot by Puccini. “It’s packed with tunes. Over the years, I’ve taken several people who say they don’t like opera to see Turandot and at the end of the show I’ve asked them, ‘Do you still not like opera?’ and not one of them has failed to be won round by it.”

Here’s Pavarotti singing ‘Nessun dorma’, the most famous operatic tune of all. “Pavarotti had the acting ability of a brick lavatory,” says Keith, “but the most fantastic voice.”

Dark and stormy (no chatting at the back)

For his next choice, Keith leaps forward to the 20th century, with the ‘Storm’ interlude from Britten’s Peter Grimes. “I thought we should have something more modern, to demonstrate I don’t have a complete obsession with early opera,” says Keith.

“Peter Grimes is without doubt the greatest opera written in the 20th century. It’s wonderfully tuneful. There’s no singing in the sea interludes which has the annoying effect that people think it’s alright to talk through the bits where there’s nobody singing on stage. This is very much not the case. Although the fourth interlude is quite loud, being about storms, so they’d probably be drowned out anyway.”

The anti-spin doctor

As mentioned previously, Keith has a reputation for being generous with the truth. How has he managed to make a living in PR, given that positive spin usually goes with the territory?

“I’ve always believed in telling the truth,” he states, “so I’ve made a living out of the PR business for 30 years without ever telling an outright lie. But honesty is always the best policy. It does mean that at the age of almost 60 I’m down to one and a half clients. I’m wearing a shiny suit that doesn’t fit with a cardboard belt, but I’m just about scraping by.”

Rogered for all eternity

Pulling in that cardboard belt, Keith’s thoughts turn back to Handel and a track called ‘Endless pleasure’ from Semele. “There are a number of excellent tracks from Semele,” he says. “This aria is a particularly lovely piece of music where Semele – the mother of Dionysius – sings about the joys of being rogered for all eternity by Jupiter. It’s just beautiful.”

Best of British

Keith isn’t very fond of ‘abroad’, so he doesn’t profess any great knowledge of foreign opera houses. He admits: “I quite like Venice because Venice reminds me of England, with a bit of water. But other than that, I’m very very very insular.”

So his favourite opera venues are exclusively British. “Country house opera in England in June and July is terrific: Glyndebourne, Grange Park, Nevill Holt, Garsington. Personally I enjoy those the most.”

The best opera full stop

As for the best opera, Keith’s vote goes to The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. “It’s just the perfect opera in the way that Jane Austen’s Emma is the perfect novel. It’s unbeatable. All of the Mozart operas are very accessible. The ones he wrote when he was 13 are possibly lower quality than the ones he wrote when he was a massive 25. But Cosi Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute are all fabulous nights out at the theatre.  I particularly like the Marriage of Figaro and could happily see it every month for the rest of my life. I like this quartet in Act 2 – ‘Signori, di fuori son gia i suonatori’.

Hum-along-a-Verdi

Keith’s final choice is the Grand March from Verdi’s Aida. Verdi is another of Keith’s recommendations for newcomers to opera. As he says in his book: “Even the sort of people who think they hate opera will cheerfully hum along to the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from Nabucco, ‘La Donna e mobile’ from Rigoletto, the ‘Drinking Song’ from La Traviata or the ‘Grand March’ from Aida.”

Thanks to Keith for sharing his top opera tips. Here’s what I now know, following our chat:

  • People who are intimidated by opera should try ‘Turandot’.
  • If you want to bluff your way in opera, bask in the brilliance of Handel.
  • Two equally valid responses to opera productions are: “It’s a brilliantly refreshing take on a staid old piece, don’t you think?” and “What utter bollocks. Do you fancy a pint?”

* Regarding those ‘popular City prices’, Keith adds: “Well, we like them.”

Mike Paisley – Designer Soapbox

Mike Paisley

Mike Paisley

Mike Paisley loves simplicity, making things and tinfoil gadgets. We first met when he was involved in Throwawaylines, a wonderful project which treated rubbish like royalty. Mike is a Design Director at The Partners, where he’s solved brand and communication problems for clients as diverse as LV=, eBay, Allen & Overy, HSBC, Penguin and Richard House Children’s Hospice.

Here he talks about design and his love of words, and why he’s started to make geodesic domes out of old bits of fence.

What does your day job involve?

Aside from making the occasional round of tea, I’ll usually be working on or overseeing a number of projects in any given week. It might be working with the strategic consultants and design team to create the visual identity for a brand, based upon the underlying strategy and positioning. Or with the design team on briefs relating to more specific pieces of communication – like a brochure of some kind, a poster or a website or app. Typically these will be for bigger organisations but in amongst these bigger jobs we also work on some smaller projects. Sometimes these are more creative on paper, in that the solution is less constrained by scale and politics, or perhaps it’s just simply a more ‘fun’ industry; pharma versus cake making for example. We try to maintain a balance between the big and the small and make the most of the opportunities in each, regardless of scale or constraints.

What do you love about your job?

I like solving problems – fixing something that doesn’t make sense, isn’t working or just doesn’t look right. That’s pretty much what we do and the problems come in all shapes and sizes. I also like not wearing a suit, and not ironing a shirt.

Learning about new things is also a nice by-product of the job… from James Bond to diabetes, friendly societies and the Magic Circle for example. Working with interesting people is good too, both those at work and those we collaborate with, such as film makers, animators, illustrators, typographers, photographers, and of course writers. It’s great when they enable you to create something better than you could on your own. Or they help realise the idea in a way that surpasses what was in your head. That’s always particularly nice.

What are your favourite projects outside work?

Taking type for a walk: Mike's favourite student project

Taking type for a walk: Mike’s favourite student project

As a student I particularly enjoyed a project called ‘Taking type for a walk’. I took a walk around where I grew up (in a suburb of Glasgow) and noted memories along the way. A typographic central narrative mapped out path and the memories surrounded it in the form of little typographic anecdotes. These featured landmarks like the Big Dipper – a hill where we used to sledge, or The Burn – home to the Death-slide and the arena for Kick-Start and two-man hunt. Some parts are better than others and there are things I’d change from a design point of view, but it captures memories from a past, which is now 17 years and more behind me. I’m especially glad I did it now and I enjoyed the play between writing and designing. The writing was central to the setting of the type; writing more or less, or changing one word to another all had knock on effects. So there was a fair bit of wrestling between the two.

I also enjoyed taking part in Throwaway Lines last year, an exhibition inspired by scraps of paper discarded in the street, collected by Andy Hayes, a friend and old colleague. It was lovely to work like a student again, finding and gluing things together ­– a chance to use my hands in a literally more hands-on way. And also work with words and a story in a more direct way too. The Throwaway Lines website has all of the stories and frames, including the story by Kate Baxter about ‘Robert’, inspired by the scrap of paper here.

For the Throwawaylines project, Mike created a frame using old type blocks

For the Throwawaylines project, Mike created a frame using old type blocks

The whole idea of taking care in the making of things provides the central discussion/premise of a book I’m reading at the moment too: The Craftsman by Richard Sennett. In it he investigates the pleasure and value in making something well and proposes that that, in itself, is a reason to do it in the first place. I don’t seem to have the time to do that very often, which is something I’m keen to address, especially given the fleeting information hits of the digital world and how I’m finding that’s changing my appetite for single-focus concentration.

Why did you originally want to be a designer?

I’d always gravitated towards drawing at school and I enjoyed Art, English and History. I think I knew that things were designed to some degree but I certainly didn’t know that ‘graphic design’ was a thing, I just enjoyed drawing, and simplifying things. Somewhere in the middle of my schooling I was sat down in front of BBC micro and a careers questionnaire. A little while later a dot matrix printer noisily prodded out ‘graphic designer’ in the number 1 position. So then I knew there was this job called a graphic designer. I found out more about it and it sounded quite good. That focused me a little and a few years later I applied to art school.

I ended up studying at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, firstly doing a year’s general course, where we did a bit of everything – from life drawing, sculpture and drawing and painting, to animation and making chairs. It was great fun, aside from the crits and suddenly feeling less than confident surrounded by all these other people that could also draw, in many cases better than I could. Then I specialised in graphic design for the next three years. Making it out into reality in 2000.

What was your first job?

Junior designer at The Partners. My college was showing at New Designers and Jack Renwick, who was a designer at The Partners back then (going on to become Creative Director until a few years ago), came along with Dana Robertson to see our stand and her old tutors. I got talking to them, they liked my work and I got an interview off the back of that. It was luck, really, that Jack had gone to my college and came to visit the stand. She’s got a lot to answer for, in a good way.

Jack Renwick, aka Wonder Woman, talent spotted Mike

Jack Renwick, aka Wonder Woman in her Twitter profile, talent spotted Mike

How did your career develop from there?

I’ve been at The Partners for about 13 years now and have worked my way up over time. It’s changed a lot since I started, when David Stuart and Aziz Cami still stalked the floors like benevolent/malevolent uncles depending on whether things were going in the right direction or not.

In terms of my role I think the biggest change for me has been moving from being a doer to an overseer, with more responsibility. I like trying to see the bigger picture and it’s great when the designers you are working with come up with good ideas. But for me personally, it’s important to maintain a balance, to not lose touch with the design skills I’ve taken quite a long time to develop.

How has the business changed?

The business has evolved from being a graphic design business to becoming a branding agency. So not just tackling specific communication problems (an annual report, a website, a poster etc) but rather getting to the heart of a business’ brand, and then figuring out how that manifests itself in actions, behaviours and its visual and verbal expression. The specific communication needs/briefs are still there but we often work on those as part of a bigger project involving the brand. The constant over my 13 years here has been the focus on ensuring that the work is always based in good thinking and ideas.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you like to have been?

I’d either be a sportsman of some kind, probably a footballer… a portraitist, or a writer. However, if there was a job that involved doing a bit of everything and getting paid for it, then I’d probably be that.

What do you enjoy about working with words?

Words are very important to the way I approach design, either to organise thinking or to capture an idea or the source of an idea. Though semantics are always a challenge, words hopefully allow you to be more precise and certain in what you are communicating – both in discussion around the work but also in defining the core thinking on which things are built.

Where writers are concerned it’s great when they can take the seed of an idea and build it into something far bigger or just bring to life the idea that’s been in your head. I always enjoy it most when someone you’re working with buys into the idea and you feel that it’s not just a job for them – that the result really matters to them too.

Mike's currently reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

Mike’s currently reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

What do people get wrong about you?

I can appear quite serious, and a bit meticulous or considered/logical in the way I approach things. But I also like playful ideas and being silly. I like playfulness generally. That’s part of the pleasure of life, being silly, running with a silly idea and using humour to get through things in that typically British way. I think it can also be a mechanism to free up the mind a little…

I saw a documentary recently called The King of Nerac, exploring the artist David Breuer-Weil, his personality, background and his work. I particularly liked how he described this imaginary kingdom (Nerac) where all of his ideas or streams of thought are worked out through ‘Nerakian’ artists. Of course they were all him, but these personas took pressure off the ideas and allowed him to explore without fear of too much judgement. Some of these artists stayed with him for just a day, others for a year or more. He does a little Nerakian (one could say silly) dance at one point, then stops, looks at the sky and describes what he can see. It’s much like a child might describe their imaginary game-world. That little dance opens a door to a part of his brain unshackled by the controlling instincts of the adult mind. I think in some design/designers you do find that powerful juxtaposition of childlike playfulness and the rational problem solver.

People also think I’m not lazy, but I am. The reason is that if I do something I tend to want to do it well, so my laziness is born of an unwillingness to commit to doing a job properly. Often I might not bother to start something because if I get started, it’s going to be involved and I don’t think I have the time. So I often umm and ahh over what is the best thing to procrastinate myself into.

What’s your favourite gadget?

I do like gadgets but I live vicariously through my brother’s gadgets and inventions. He is forever making things and usually his gadgets are items re-purposed to fulfil a new function.

His Hamleys is Maplin and his box of toys when we were growing up was a cardboard box with wires and plugs in it. One gadget from our childhood that sticks in my mind was an under-doormat, pressure-sensitive burglar alarm, fashioned from tinfoil, amongst other things. It worked surprisingly well.

Mike loves gadgets

Mike loves a gadget. Current favourite: the minirig rechargeable speaker.

More recently he’s enjoyed telling me the temperature of all manner of household items and surfaces with his infrared digital thermometer, which is of course shaped like a gun. And also demonstrating how he has power over most of the lights in his house through remote-controlled light switches. He’s also working on some kind of RFID-based system so that he can open the garage door without getting out of the car or leaving the house. I love the way he approaches things and I’d love to work with him on a project one day.

My favourite gadget is a little rechargeable speaker, called a minirig. Its size belies its sound quality (and its volume). It lasts about 50 hours on a charge and it follows me around the flat/garden as I work on things.

What’s your favourite place for creative inspiration?

I like the combination of space and sunlight (though not so bright that it makes white paper too bright to look at), so sitting in a park on a bench with an expanse of sky around me would be good. But as I can’t think without writing or drawing, I’d need a big table too. And so maybe some animal-shaped paperweights… perhaps a squirrel and a hedgehog.

Who’s your design hero/heroine?

I’m most drawn to design that makes a difference and solves a problem, not design for design’s sake (or perhaps designer’s sake). The things that you use every day that make your life simpler.

6_Wonderground_3

Detail of Max Gill’s Wonderground map

Harry Beck’s tube map, predictably, is a great example. It serves its purpose beautifully, and I really like how its influence has been introduced on bus routes. The principles it introduced and the observation that geographic accuracy was actually a hindrance have been hugely useful in design of this kind, something I’ve appreciated many times when I’m trying to find my way around London on the buses or night-buses.

On the flipside of this though, I also really like the work of MacDonald ‘Max’ Gill (Eric’s brother). He created the Wonderground map. If Beck’s map solved a usability problem, then the Wonderground map is almost the polar opposite. It’s richly illustrative and choc-full of amusing hints about the people and stories behind the places. It captures the reason why you might want to go to these places and was designed to keep people amused while they waited for their trains, a very different purpose. I like that the design problem can be wildly different and require very different answers.

What are you doing now?

Mike's latest design: a garden geodesic dome

A garden geodesic dome: one of the projects Mike’s working on

Around two years ago I started working four days a week to create the time and energy to work on other projects. Right now I’m working on a number, one of which is making geodesic domes. It began with a friend’s observation that most fruit cages are weak and ugly. He’s always loved geodesic domes and lots of construction mechanisms exist but they are typically a little Heath-Robinson or highly engineered and hugely expensive. He had some old chestnut fence-posts on his allotment, so we set about making a dome and trying to resolve an affordable system that makes them relatively simple and enjoyable to construct. It’s been a fascinating process so far. Our intention is that they could be used for all kinds of purposes – a fruit cage, arbor, chicken run, aviary, butterfly sanctuary or, my favourite, as a children’s den. I’d have loved one as a child (maybe even now), probably with an old parachute draped over the top…

What’s next for you?

Going to four days is an opportunity to figure that out. Ideas are wonderful things, but a brilliant idea that goes nowhere or simply stops a little beyond the endorphin hit it gives you, is less valuable. The hard bit is making something actually happen and all that entails. So right now, I’m enjoying making things, allowing myself to fail, and seeing if a few ideas can make it beyond the page into some sort of reality.

West meets East: Opera Holland Park comes to Old Street

Mike Volpe of Opera Holland Park

Mike Volpe of Opera Holland Park

Mike Volpe is a true opera aficionado. For nearly 25 years, he’s been General Manager of Opera Holland Park, enthusing a new generation of opera lovers with an eclectic mix of outdoor performances.

Although his family comes from the mountains outside Naples, Mike grew up in England. He drinks Italian espresso, but when Chelsea play Napoli at Stamford Bridge, he’s adamant that: “It’s Chelsea all the way.”

As part of a Chickentown Radio special, Mike came to BL-NK in Old Street last week to talk about some of his favourite music.

1. Mascagni: Hymn to the sun

Mike’s first choice is the introduction to Pietro Mascagni’s opera Iris. He explains why. “In 1997, a year after we began the company, we thought we’d try to mine a different part of the repertoire to others. This opera came to light and at the time it was a rarity. This piece is a hymn to the sun, and it’s just a glorious piece of music.”

Growing up in an Italian household, there was often opera playing in the background, or an uncle singing traditional Neapolitan songs. “I sang all the way through school, and my school provided kids for the chorus at Aldeburgh,” he says. “Later I listened to a lot of John Martyn and was also really into prog rock, and I think there’s something vaguely operatic about that.”

2. Kate Bush: the blackbird song

Talking of the crossover between rock and opera, Mike adds: “I’m a big fan of Kate Bush. James (Clutton, producer at OHP) and I have often said that she would probably compose a really good modern opera. We’ve just heard a chorus about the rising of the sun and this is about the setting of the sun. It’s Sunset from her album Ariel. It’s one of the most beautiful things she’s ever done and includes a line that could appear in an opera – ‘Who knows who wrote the song of summer that blackbirds sing at dusk’.”

3. Puccini: tattooed words of God

For his next piece, Mike chooses Le tue parole sono di Dio from La Fanciulla del West – which Opera Holland Park is putting on next summer. Mike loves this aria so much he’s had the words tattooed on his forearm.

Operatic ink: "Your words are as if from God"

Operatic ink: “Your words are as if from God”

The opera tells the story of Minnie, a saloon owner during the Gold Rush, who falls in love with a bandit. The miners in the camp take against him and are about to have him hanged. “La Fanciulla del West is probably my favourite Puccini opera,” says Mike, “and this is a crucial moment of redemption. Minnie rides in with a pistol, stops the miners from hanging her lover, and sings this gorgeous soliloquy. Sonora, one of the miners, lets forth this line – Your words are as if from God – and then Minnie and her bandit ride off into the sunset together.”

4. Strauss: a gorgeous lament

Mike’s clear about the best aspect of his job: “James and I both say it’s the applause. It’s that moment at the end of a show when you know it’s a success and there’s a thousand people roaring their approval. That and working with all these incredibly talented people.”

Of course, outdoor opera isn’t so much fun if it’s cold, but Mike reckons the upsides of his job far outweigh the downsides.

Mike’s not complaining, but his next choice is what he describes as a “gorgeous lament”, sung here by the great Jessye Norman. “Beim Schlafengehen is based on a Herman Hesse poem. It means ‘going to sleep’, and is one of Strauss’ four last songs, which are all about dying. You could say it’s a bit miserable, but it’s just a gorgeous way to lament the end of your life. Strauss could do some incredible things with a voice and an orchestra.”

5. Montemezzi: rollicking good fun

Mike describes how he came to choose his next piece, from L’Amore dei Tre Re by Italo Montemezzi. “The first piece we heard today was Iris, which was the start of our journey in rare opera. In 2007 we staged L’Amore dei Tre Re and it was a great success. It’s part of that school of late Italian composers who wanted to create their own new Italian language of opera. It’s just rollicking good fun. The soprano spends the whole of Act 3 dead on a slab, but she’s still part of the action because her father-in-law has spread poison on her lips in order to trap her lover. So we end up with three bodies on stage. This is the prelude to Act 3.”

Opera Holland Park: an intensely informal experience

L’Amore dei Tre Re fits the operatic stereotype of entertainingly over-the-top death scenes, but there are other stereotypes that are potentially more damaging for opera companies today. For example, opera is frequently perceived as expensive and elitist. Mike’s keen to argue that Opera Holland Park offers an entirely different experience. “Yes, opera is an elite art form in the same way that sport is elite. You want to be the best. But we’re entirely about popularising opera. We have thousands of tickets available at 12 or 15 quid, and about 1,700 free tickets for young and old. Opera Holland Park is intensely informal, and the critical thing to note is that most of the people who run the company are from very ordinary working class backgrounds. So if anyone demonstrates that all that elitist business is nonsense, it’s us.”

6. Lechner and Tsabropoulos: evoking atmosphere

Point made, Mike moves on to his next choice: Trois morceaux après des hymnes byzantins II by cellist Anja Lechner and pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos. He explains: “I’m very much into atmosphere in music and love music that mixes genres. This pair evoke atmosphere beautifully – this piece is just gorgeous.”

7. Roberto Murolo: Neapolitan song

From a piece written ten years ago, Mike turns back to his childhood. As a boy, he was surrounded by renditions of Neapolitan songs, and his next choice is one of his mother’s favourites – Voce ‘e Notte – ‘the voice in the night’ by Roberto Murolo. “Part of the problem with Neapolitan songs is there’s some awful cheesy rubbish out there,” says Mike. “But there’s a stable of singers from the 40s and 50s who transcend those stereotypes. Roberto Murolo is a bit of a legend. He just sat there with a cheap guitar and played these gorgeous songs.”

“This song is about a man singing below a woman’s window, saying, ‘Don’t be alarmed, don’t look out, just remember our two voices together.’ It’s exquisitely sung and played, and is a perfect example of the veracity of Neapolitan music, which is a very potent and historic idiom. It evokes Italy and Naples and is really not that far off opera in its sentiments and the way it tells a story.”

Talking of Naples, I was keen to hear where Mike gets his Neapolitan coffee fix in London. “Mokarabia is a really nice coffee,” he says. “There’s a great little cafe opposite our sponsor Investec’s office in the city which sells it. One of those old places where cab drivers stop. So I go there when I’m in the City; Mokarabia is probably the best coffee around.”

Mokarabia coffee: a Neapolitan's choice

Mokarabia coffee: a Neapolitan’s choice

8. Film music: What Dreams May Come

Mike moves on to discuss the similarities between film music and opera. “Film is exactly like opera,” he says. “You have this melodrama and the music is used as an emotional rachet. I’m a big fan of film music and was very fortunate to meet composer Michael Kamen who wrote the music for the Band of Brothers tv series and Mr Holland’s Opus. This music comes from a 1998 film called What Dreams May Come, starring Robin Williams and Greta Scacchi. The premise is that heaven is what you want it to be. The music is very emotional and intense and Michael Kamen captures the sense of the film beautifully.”

9: Pat Metheny: Cinema Paradiso theme

Continuing in the film music vein, Mike’s next choice is an arrangement of the Cinema Paradiso theme by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden. “Pat Metheny is a great hero of mine,” says Mike, “and this music is gorgeous. You don’t have to be Italian to appreciate Cinema Paradiso, but after spending so many summers in Italy, this music really conjures up that atmosphere for me.”

Alternative careers: actor, rugby player, fisherman, criminal

And what career would Mike have chosen if opera hadn’t got to him first? “There’s a question,” he laughs. “When I was 16 I was offered a very good opportunity to go to RADA. But I didn’t want to spend another three years studying. Maybe I could have been a rugby player. Apart from that, there’s a very good chance I’d have been a criminal. What I’d really like to do, though, is to run a fishing boat out of St John’s in Antigua taking tourists to catch tuna and barracuda.”

10. John Martyn: Couldn’t love you more

Mike’s final choice is John Martyn. “My oldest brother introduced me to John Martyn and I first went to one of his concerts aged 10 or 11. I just love him. He was an incredible songwriter and guitarist, and his Scottish sentimentality and the edge of violence that went along with it are an intoxicating mix.”

“This song, Couldn’t love you more, really sums him up. I don’t know how you could resist a phrase like ‘If you kiss the sun right out of the sky for me, I couldn’t love you more‘. I don’t think there’s any greater love song.”

Summer 2014 at Opera Holland Park

Looking ahead, there’s plenty to draw people to Opera Holland Park this summer. “We open with La Fanciulla del West,” says Mike. “It’s a challenging but wonderful opera to produce. We also have one of the great bel canto operas this year, Norma, which features the famous Casta Diva aria. We’re putting on Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini and Adriana Lecouvreur by Cilea – a lovely romantic piece where the leading lady is killed by some violets laced with poison. And we’re doing our first Britten opera, The Turn of the Screw, which could work amazingly well in our space.”

“We’re also putting on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland again, which we commissioned from Will Todd. We’re big believers in getting young kids to sit down and listen to opera performed by real musicians, and the demand for children’s concerts is consistently high.”

If you’d like to find out when tickets for this summer season are available, follow Opera Holland Park @operahollandpk. After all, where else will you be able to hear Casta Diva in the open air, see a Cheshire Cat sing or witness death-by-violets?

Velvet antlers; hidden talents

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas card picture

Santa’s sleigh: a picture drawn by a child supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust

You might remember that a few weeks ago I mentioned a new project, 26 Stories of Christmas. Well, the site went live yesterday for the first day of advent. Day one features my 62 word poem about the flying reindeer of Finland.

The 62 word poem, or ‘sestude’, is inspired by the fabulous drawing of Santa and his reindeer shown here.

Do visit the online advent calendar every day up until 26 December to see drawings by children helped by Teenage Cancer Trust and It’s Good to Give, alongside poems written by writers from 26. And if you feel moved to donate to either of these charities that helps children and teenagers with cancer, we’d be incredibly grateful.

Velvet antlers; hidden talents. My poem for 26 Stories of Christmas

Velvet antlers; hidden talents.
My poem for 26 Stories of Christmas

Nadya Powell: Tech City’s one-woman whirlwind

Women make up pretty much half of the population and nearly half of the workforce, but they are still woefully under-represented in the tech world. I met up with Nadya Powell, MD of MRY UK, to hear what she and her peers are doing to redress the balance.

The highlight of Internet Week

It’s Friday morning, the last day of Internet Week, and Nadya Powell has just hosted an ‘Innovation Date’ event at BL-NK, a new social/digital space in Old Street sponsored by Hackney Council. She’s suffering from sleep deprivation following a non-stop week of events, but is keen to share her thoughts about the London tech community, women’s role in tech and ‘that horribly flabby word – innovation’.

Nadya Powell, MD of MRY, on the yellow sofa at BL-NK

Nadya Powell, MD of MRY, on the yellow sofa at BL-NK

“There’s a really nice vibe and sense of community to Internet Week,” she says. “My highlight was seeing a presentation by a small agency called Vitamins at the kick off event at Google Campus. They talked about their work designing mobile phones for the elderly. It was really delightful because they realised that older people don’t need big buttons or an SOS option, they just find it hard to work out how to use their phones. So they redesigned the packaging and made it simple for people to find out how to carry out typical tasks, like accessing their contacts.”

ADD and getting ahead in tech

MRY is long-established in the US, where it’s well known for its work for Coca Cola, Sony, Microsoft and the American Presidency. (It created americanselect.org – a site that encouraged Americans to vote for a President, not a party.)

The company has been in London for nine months, and has its headquarters in Brick Lane. As MD, Nadya takes care of a team of 25 people. “I’m the most senior person here,” she says, “and the buck stops with me. I’m responsible for products, clients and creative work.”

She Says: inspirational network for women in tech

She Says: inspirational network for women in tech

Nadya admits that she got into this career more by accident than design. “The only common theme throughout my career is I’ve always been really interested in technology and I love new things. I have ADD. When you go into the tech space, you find so many people just cannot stay engrossed in things if it’s not a bit shiny and new.  But what really got me interested was back in 2000 when I decided I wanted to move into the tech space. So I took myself off to college and taught myself to code. When I started to build little web sites – very badly – using Flash and Photoshop, I realised this was an industry I wanted to stay in forever.”

The importance of starting young

Like many women in tech, Nadya was lucky to be encouraged in her interest from a young age. She explains: “I was one of a group of children who were asked to trial educational computer games developed by the BBC. You had to follow the instructions using a mouse or a keyboard. I also had a computer from a young age, which was unusual, considering I’m quite old. I remember making my own drawings using Microsoft Paint software. So I definitely had more of a techy upbringing than many women of my age.”

300sec_large42Where have all the women gone?  

Although women make up almost equal numbers of the workforce (currently 46%), the number of senior women in the tech industry is vanishingly small. Nadya describes how she’s seen the male/female ratio change over time. “When I first started working in tech, the ratio was about 50:50 men to women. But when I came back after my first maternity leave at the age of 31, I thought, ‘Whoah! Where are all the women in their 30s?’ And as I start to get frighteningly close to 40, there are literally a handful of us in this space in a senior role.”

For Nadya, the main barriers that are stopping women from staying in the tech workforce are the long hours and demanding nature of the work, which make it difficult to integrate work with home and family. She admits to sometimes getting together with the handful of “six or seven” senior women she knows in similar jobs and saying, “Yes, juggling work, friends, families, husbands and interests is really hard.”

“It’s a real challenge to retain more women in the industry,” she says. “Because how can we build things for the entire population if we’re not involved with the 50% of the population that are women?”

Anjali Ramachandran founded the Ada's List network

Anjali Ramachandran founded the Ada’s List network

Three organisations helping women

“If you look at the top creative directors of tech companies and agencies, they’re all men,” says Nadya. Luckily for future female techies, Nadya and her peers are using their considerable energy and enthusiasm to support the next generation of women in tech. She recommends checking out these three networking / support organisations.

She Says – a networking, mentoring inspirational framework where women can meet each other. Founded by Laura Jordan Bambach, Creative Director at Dare marketing agency and President of D&AD.

300 Seconds – lightning fast talks by the digital community, encouraging women to have their say and improve their presentation skills.

Ada’s List – set up by Anjali Ramachandran at PHD, Ada’s List helps raise the profiles of women who work in and around the internet.

Misconceptions about gaming

Like it or not, if you play Candy Crush, you're a gamer

Like it or not, if you play Candy Crush, you’re a gamer

Talking to Nadya, it becomes clear that there are some huge misconceptions about the nature of gaming today. We may think that gaming is mostly the province of teenagers holed up in darkened rooms, but an increasing number of gamers are now women.

“Thanks to mobile devices and social gaming, gaming has really taken off,” says Nadya. “Now 81% of the population regularly game and the majority of social gamers are women. If you asked a woman who’d spent four hours that week playing Candy Crush if she’s a gamer, she’d say no. But she absolutely is!”

As women are now such an important part of the gaming marketplace, it makes it even more vital to involve more women in the industry.

The changing face of Old Street

MRY is based in Brick Lane, an area that’s become the nerve centre for the creative and tech industries in recent years. “There’s such a sense of vibrancy around the Tech City area,” says Nadya. “There are so many accelerators based here, looking after small start ups, that the whole atmosphere has changed hugely.”

“It’s also fantastic what Hackney Council have been doing to foster this atmosphere. Like the space we’re in now, BL-NK. This is a joint initiative between Hackney and various local businesses to create a space for start ups and creative people to just drop in. I’m not sure how many other councils would have such a forward-thinking way of looking at how you increase investment and business growth in an area.”

BL-NK, new social space for start ups in Hackney. Photo: Karen Day

BL-NK, new social space for start ups in Hackney. Photo: Karen Day

What’s wrong with ‘innovation’?

Despite being a fan of the new, Nadya has been outspoken about her dislike of the word ‘innovation’, which she calls a ‘horrible flabby word’. What’s she got against it?

“Innovation is just the latest buzz word and everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon, having Innovation Directors and Heads of Innovation and declaring that they’re an innovative company. It’s a shame because the word has been used in so many terrible ways that it’s lost any meaning. We had a session on this during the opening session at Google Campus. Mel Exon from BBH Labs said that innovation is about constantly adapting to change and every now and then saying, ‘OK, we’re going to go out on a limb and try this, and it’s going to be pretty terrifying, but we’re going to invest in it.’ And so words like ‘adapting’ and ‘disrupting’ start to feel a lot more meaningful than flabby old ‘innovation’.”

Future aspirations: winning Strictly

There’s still plenty left for Nadya to achieve. “One aspiration is to be on Strictly Come Dancing. I’ve got to be on it before I’m 50 because no one wins when they’re over 50. Apart from that, I would love to keep working in this space, to see more women in it, and to keep on supporting young women in tech. I’d also love to see social media adding to people’s lives rather than polluting it. The way brands use Facebook is so horribly embarrassing. I’d like to see brands and people talking together in more interesting ways.”

And with that, Nadja foxtrots off the yellow sofa at BL-NK, ready for the next challenge.