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Tim Hunkin’s Air B’n'Bug Machine

October 8, 2018
by the gentle author

On a quiet Sunday morning in Holborn, I went along to visit the inventor Tim Hunkin at Novelty Automation, his magical arcade of handmade slot machines and automata just off Red Lion Sq, where he was installing his latest masterpiece. While peace prevailed in the empty streets, Tim was hard at work indoors, perfecting his AIR B’N'BUG machine.

Inspired by the ubiquitous and controversial website that enables people to rent their homes to guests, and by an outbreak of bedbugs that occurred recently in Holborn, Tim’s creation is an animated diorama comprising a series of mechanised tableaux dramatising the comic adventures of a pair of bed bugs setting out to explore the world through AIR B’N'B.

Once the machine was ready, I enjoyed the honour of being the first to savour its delights in advance of the grand unveiling next Thursday. Afterwards, Tim explained to me the genesis of his unlikely invention.

“I had been watching a lot of German Expressionist films and I was thinking of different ways of using machines to tell stories, and I accidentally made a version of it when I was working at the Exploratorium in San Francisco recently. I was experimenting with making dioramas in shoeboxes with LEDs and I thought of putting several together. So I made a story to link these random boxes and put them inside a bigger box. I liked it but I thought nobody would take a cardboard box seriously. A while later, I realised I could build a machine that was like a page of a comic and each of the scenes could light up one after another. Then I was hooked!

I was looking for a story and it materialised here in Holborn. The flat upstairs got infested with bed bugs. I got bitten and had an allergic reaction. Then a nearby hotel got infested as well and I was able to observe how they got rid of them.

I must confess I have never stayed in an AIR B’N'B property, although I think it is good idea and I would stay in one. It is a phenomenon of our times. I was thinking about it because a lot of my friends rent out rooms and it seems to put them in a state of constant anxiety.

It was a lot of fun to have an excuse to experiment with all the different visual ideas that are possible in this format. I collaborated with Paul Spooner who makes automata, he made our dream machine at Novelty Automation. I love working with him and we teach each other tricks. Once I had divided the space, I sent him some boxes to fill. He made all the carved figures, while I explored the use of video.

It took much longer than I expected. I wrote a story at the beginning of last year and went down to see Paul. Then I set to work seriously in April and I tested it on Southwold Pier during last year’s autumn half term in October. I am not used to working on this tiny scale and there’s so much of it, I had to be systematic about how everything is connected.

When I first got it on the pier, I hated it – it really didn’t work for me. So I left it for three months while I got on with other things and then went back to it with fresh enthusiasm. I simplified the story.

An important part of my original idea was that the person using the machine was going to get bitten by a bug through the headphones. I just could not get it to work, because the headphones conduct so much sound that it distracted from the sensations. I tried building in a poking device and puffing air through the headphones too, but the noise of the machine is so intense that people did not notice.

Finally, I added the curtain placing the user in a confined space with the machine and it completely transformed people’s reactions. I was amazed and delighted! It is satisfying to make something that is completely different from everything else I have made.”

All are welcome to join Tim Hunkin at the unveiling of AIR B’N'BUG at Novelty Automation next Thursday 11th October from 6:30pm until 8pm

Tim Hunkin’s arcade is situated in the last remaining Tudor house in Holborn

Novelty Automation, 1 Princeton St, Holborn, WC1R 4AX. Open Wednesday- Sunday 11am-5pm, with late opening until 8pm on Thursdays.

You may like to read my other stories about Tim Hunkin

Tim Hunkin, Cartoonist & Engineer

At Tim Hunkin’s Workshop

Tim Hunkin’s Housing Ladder

A Cockney Sikh

October 7, 2018
by Suresh Singh

Spitalfields Life Books will be publishing A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of Cockney Sikh by Suresh Singh in October. Here is the fifth instalment and further excerpts will follow over coming weeks.

In this first London Sikh biography, Suresh tells the story of his family who have lived in their house in Princelet St for nearly seventy years, longer I believe than any other family in Spitalfields. In the book, chapters of biography are alternated with a series of Sikh recipes by Jagir Kaur, Suresh’s wife.

You can support publication by pre-ordering a copy now, which will be signed by Suresh Singh and sent to you on publication.

Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20

Suresh Singh & Jagir Kaur at 38 Princelet St this summer (Photograph by Patricia Niven)

There was a lot of violence at Daneford School for Boys in Bethnal Green in the seventies. ‘Paki-bashing’ they called it. There were punch-ups in class, boys would bring bike chains to school to protect themselves and teachers got beaten up on a regular basis.

The years at Daneford were the scariest time of my life in England. When I was twelve I got my nose broken in Buxton Street in the shadow of the Truman Brewery. It was dark and there was a smell of hops in the air. I was cornered by five white National Front thugs of sixteen and seventeen years old. Two were skinheads in Harrington jackets and knee-high steel toe-capped Dr Martens bought on Cheshire Street. They saw me looking at their boots and said, ’What are you looking at?’ When I replied, ‘Nothing,’ they said, ‘You smell and you look like a Paki.’ One grabbed my arms from behind and the other punched me with his fist on my nose. They all laughed. I crumpled to the ground and they all kicked me before running away. I said nothing the whole time. Mum cleaned me up with Dettol and my cousin took me to Outpatients at the Royal London Hospital. We never reported the incident to the police.

It hurt Mum that her son had been attacked, and brought it home to her that we were in a foreign land where her son could be beaten up for the colour of his skin. She believed we had no choice but to continue working to make life better. She also knew that not all white people were racists.

The pain of that evil encounter will stay with me forever. The Sikhism I learned from Dad gave me the strength to protect myself physically and spiritually. I learned how to avoid violence. I worked out which routes to take and which not to take, and which times of the day it was safe. Sundays were the worst because that was when the National Front sold their newspapers at the top of Brick Lane.

My white mates would say, ‘Oh Singhy, you’re all right because you’re one of us.’ They adopted me, even though I came from Brick Lane where the Bengalis lived. I started to go to the pie and mash shop in Bethnal Green Road with them, but I did not like the way they treated my Brick Lane Bengali friends.

I could exist in both worlds because I was neither white nor Bengali. When the white kids said, ‘They can’t speak English properly,’ I thought, ‘It’s back-fired!’ My Bengali friends spoke in broken English, but there I was talking the Cockney lingo. The white boys would say to the Asians, ‘Go back to your own country’ and hit them – bang! I decided I could not accept this, I stood my ground and said, ‘I’m not go- ing to listen to you,’ but it was always, ‘We’ll leave you alone but we’ll beat this one up.’

I left Daneford School with one O Level in Art. I had a lovely art teacher, Christopher Price who ran an antiques stall in Camden Passage. We called him Chris. He used to dress well, smoke in class and tell us ghost stories to calm us down. I had to do a fifteen-hour painting for my O Level exam and Chris encouraged me to use colour like Matisse. Even though I did not like Matisse because I was looking at punk graphics, I took his advice because I knew it would get me a qualification. I may have moaned about it at the time but I enjoyed it too.

At Daneford, there were boys from many different cultures. My schoolmates were Isaac Julien and Mark Banks. We went to jumble sales together, a black kid, a white kid and an Asian kid. We were the best dressed boys in the school. We enjoyed the discourse with our Maoist, Socialist Worker Party, Christian Socialist and International Marxist teachers about politics, sexuality and music. Isaac and Mark became soul boys but I stayed a punk. I was the most rebellious of the three of us. My Sikhism made me fearless.

Me, Mark Banks & Isaac Julien, 1977 (Reproduced courtesy of Isaac Julien & Victoria Miro)

Suresh Singh will be in conversation with Stefan Dickers at the Write Idea Festival at the Whitechapel Idea Store on Saturday November 17th at 1pm. CLICK HERE TO BOOK A FREE TICKET

How To Make A Chapati

October 6, 2018
by the gentle author

Spitalfields Life Books will be publishing A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of Cockney Sikh by Suresh Singh on 18th October.

Today we present one of Jagir Kaur’s recipes from the book, as photographed Patricia Niven. These recipes have been eaten by Suresh & Jagir’s families for generations in the Punjab and they still cook them today in the East End.

I was lucky enough to eat many chapatis cooked by Jagir while we were working on the book and the magic of watching them inflate like balloons never ceased to delight me.

In this first London Sikh biography, Suresh tells the story of his family who have lived in their house in Princelet St for nearly seventy years, longer I believe than any other family in Spitalfields. Chapters of biography alternate with Punjabi recipes by Jagir.

You can support publication by pre-ordering a signed copy now, which will be sent to you on publication.

Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20

Suresh Singh & Jagir Kaur in their Spitalfields kitchen

Chapatis are the grain staple of the Punjab where most of the grain harvest of India is cultivated. We always include rotis and they are part of our blessed ceremony.

Makes about fifteen chapatis

3 cups atta (wheat) flour
1 cup cold water
1–2 teaspoons of oil (optional)
butter, ghee, or vegetable oil for coating the finished roti (optional)

Knead the flour, water, and oil (if you are using it) into a smooth dough. Then let the dough rest in the fridge for at least half an hour.

Take half-handfuls from the dough and shape them into round saucers with your palms, these shapes are known as ‘perras.’

Flatten out the perras from the centre using your thumbs to make thick, disc-like shapes, using a rolling pin to further flatten them out. Shape the chapati by tossing it back and forth from one hand to the other, making a clapping sound.

Use a tawa (flat cooking plate) to cook the chapatis. Set the tawa on a medium heat and place the flattened-out dough on the hot plate, flipping the chapati every fifteen to twenty seconds.

Towards the end of the cooking process, the chapati may be toasted briefly on the naked flame to puff it up like a balloon. This also helps cook it more evenly. You can dab a little butter or ghee on the finished chapatis to keep them fresh. Be careful not to get any grease on the cooking plate as this will make your kitchen very smoky.

Keep the chapatis warm by wrapping them in a clean tea towel.

For yellow chapatis, which are eaten with Sarson da Saag, use corn flour instead of atta (wheat) flour, and hot water instead of cold water.

Makes about ten chapatis

2 cups of fine corn flour
3⁄4 cup boiling water (start with half a cup, and add a tablespoon at a time to get the right consistency)

Mix the ingredients with a spoon until the corn flour absorbs all the liquid, making a sticky (not runny) dough. Add more water or corn flour as needed. Then knead with your hands into a ball.

Divide the dough into five equal portions. Wet your hands and flatten the dough by tossing it between your hands, making a clapping sound.

Place the tawa on high heat and place the flattened-out dough on the hot plate. Toast for about three minutes, turning frequently until brown on both sides and puffing up in the middle.

You can dab a little butter or vegetable oil on the finished chapatis to keep them fresh.

Chapati ready for cooking

Turning the chapati

Flipping the inflated chapati

A finished chapati

Buttering the chapati

Jagir Kaur with her cat Lohri Ji at 38 Princelet St

Photographs copyright ©Patricia Niven

Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20

You may also like to read these other extracts from A MODEST LIVING

A Modest Living

At 38 Princelet St

A Hard-Working Life

Joginder Singh’s Boy

The Tailor Of Horsleydown

October 5, 2018
by the gentle author

I am delighted to publish these extracts of THE TAILOR OF HORSLEYDOWN from A London Family, written by The Incidental Genealogist, a graduate of my blog writing course. The Genealogist worked briefly as a probate genealogist thirty years ago and now she is using her professional skills to uncover her own family’s history.  Click here to follow A London Family

We are now taking bookings for this autumn’s course, HOW TO WRITE A BLOG THAT PEOPLE WILL WANT TO READ on November 10th & 11th.  Come to Spitalfields and spend a weekend with me in an eighteenth century weaver’s house in Fournier St, enjoy delicious lunches from Leila’s Cafe, eat cakes baked to historic recipes by Townhouse and learn how to write your own blog. Click here for details

If you are a graduate of my course and you would like me to feature your blog, please drop me a line.

St John’s, Horsleydown

When James Skelton, my great-great grandfather, married his first wife, Sarah, in Bermondsey in 1823, three years into the reign of George IV, the couple were not yet in their mid-twenties. They took their oaths at St John’s Church, in the parish of Horsleydown on Tuesday 14th October, after a summer which had been one of the coolest since observations began in 1659.

Thanks to the meticulous records of Luke Howard (the ‘godfather of clouds’), we know that their special day was one which was relatively mild for the time of year – dry and sunny, but unmistakeably autumn, with a gentle breeze and a light scattering of yellowing leaves. As they crossed the churchyard, the earth damp under their feet from the previous day’s rain, I hope they paused for a moment and allowed themselves to feel a thrill at being alive at this time and place, unaware that they would have only a limited time together.

Despite the old rhyme which says Tuesday for health, their choice of wedding day did not bring longevity. Twenty-five years later, Sarah would be struck down with an undiagnosed womb disease after raising their five children, precipitating a crisis that sent James in search of ‘fulfilment’ elsewhere. As I sat with their birth, marriage and death certificates, and those of their children and grandchildren, laid out before me like some macabre game of Happy Families, I felt privy to a horrible secret, imagining them arriving at St John’s, all nervous excitement, without knowing what was in store for them.

But on that mild Tuesday in 1823, the church was only ninety years old and yet to be hit by a bomb from the air in an unimaginable future war. To James and Sarah, the Hawksmoor church already seemed like an antiquity. It had become a joke on account of its strange weathervane. This huge iron construction was meant to represent a comet whizzing through the heavens but it reminded the parishioners of the wriggling body of a louse. Locally, the church was often referred to as ‘St John’s Lousydown’, or simply ‘The Louse Church’. No doubt James and Sarah found it amusing because – like everyone then – they would have been familiar with the common problem of body lice. But to a traveller from the twenty-first century it requires a leap of imagination to morph the iron ‘comet’ into the legs and body of a parasite they have rarely encountered.

Walking through the churchyard today, all that remains of St John’s are the foundations and crypt, controversially built over in the seventies and used as offices by the London City Mission. The graveyard is now a dreary public park, frequented by dog walkers and pram-pushing mothers, while the last remaining headstones lean forlornly against the foundations of the church.

Whenever I imagine Sarah and James walking up the wide stone steps of the church, I cannot help but see them in typical late-regency outfits: Sarah in a fashionably high-waisted dress with bonnet, gloves and shawl – James in a smart dark dress coat and waistcoat, his legs encased in the new style of long trousers (all of which he probably made himself) and his youthful hair covered with a top hat made by a Bermondsey hatter. Sarah congratulated herself on marrying a smart young man who knew the cut of cloth and had attained the rank of a master tailor, thus giving him the freedom to set up his own business and take on apprentices.

Tailoring was a common profession at the time, with most based in the communities they served. Notions of separating work from home were new and, like many skilled artisans, records show James lived over the shop. The whole family were involved in the business, from running messages to greeting customers, and their young domestic servant would have provided much-needed help for Sarah – especially once the babies came along. This spot by the Thames was where the family lived for twenty years before their move out of an increasingly-industrialised Bermondsey to the more genteel semi-rural suburb of Brixton in the eighteen-forties.

As soon as I discovered the existence of these forebears, I set off to visit the evocatively-sounding Horsleydown Lane to see if I could discover any traces of their old neighbourhood for myself. This was the first time I had been in the capital to do any fieldwork since my last foray to South London in 1992. I knew that Horsleydown Lane still existed but I had no idea of what it would look like in the twenty-first century.

It is a strange feeling to walk through streets where your ancestors once set foot, moving ever closer to the place where – for better or worse – they carved out a living. In Horsleydown, some things have not changed – the old watermen’s stairs at the foot of the lane where the Thames covered and uncovered the slipway twice a day, the glimpse of the imposing White Tower from that spot and the Anchor Tap which still has beer on tap. Yet many things had changed too and I was disappointed that so much from that time had gone, but I was delighted to come across some unexpected tangible reminders of the family’s life.

The cobblestones on Horsleydown Lane continued to reverberate with the clatter of the drayhorses and their wagons from the Anchor Brewery until the final demise of workhorses in the mid-twentieth century. Nowadays, Horsleydown Lane is relatively quiet, as visitors tend not to stray much from Shad Thames and the prevailing sound is the thrum of traffic on Tower Bridge Rd.

Popping into the Anchor Tap for an impulsive mid-afternoon pint, I grew even more confused – time seemed to telescope as I stepped through a series of interlinking rooms. The barman encouraged me to look around the place, intrigued by my genealogical search. As I wandered through the pleasing muddle of spaces and headed up the narrow twisting staircase towards the deserted dining room, I experienced the sensation of walking in my ancestors’ footsteps. All at once I realised that they might also have  struggled with the demands of such steep stairs too.

Walking out of the dark pub afterwards, I blinked and narrowed my eyes in the bright spring sunshine. For a moment, I could imagine that I have stepped into the bustling street of  the eighteen-thirties. I sat watching the Thames as it surged and swirled, past the neo-gothic wonder of Tower Bridge. The thought occurred to me that I myself was like a ghost – a ghost from the future trying to find a way back into the past.

Then suddenly it struck me that the Tower of London, partially seen from those algae-covered steps, has not changed over the years that separated me from my ancestors. My great-great grandfather, James, waited on this same slippery spot for a penny ride over the river from a waterman. He also felt in awe of the ancient building across the water that symbolised the power of the city he now called home. He knew the same legend about the ravens and passed it on to his children – in the same way my father had told me the story as a child. At that moment, I felt the centuries roll back to connect us.

The White Tower

Horselydown Lane 1830

Horselydown Old Stairs

The Anchor, Horselydown Lane

Images courtesy A London Family

You may also like to read these other story of Bermondsey

Kevin O’Brien, Road Sweeper

In Old Bermondsey

The Old South Bank

Derek Brook’s East End

October 4, 2018
by the gentle author

Take a walk around the East End on a foggy day in the sixties with Derek Brook, courtesy of his pictures which are published here for the first time today.

Derek Brook was a commercial photographer who came from Australia to London and photographed the explosion in fashion and music, including The Beatles. Yet he also recorded political protests, and came one day to capture his impressions of the East End in these considered and atmospheric pictures.

Whitechapel Rd

Whitechapel Rd

Whitechapel Rd

Whitechapel Rd with Royal London Hospital in the distance

Whitechapel Rd

Whitechapel Station

Whitechapel Station

Whitechapel Market

Mile End

Mile End

Mile End

The Anchor, Mile End Rd

The Railway Tavern, Commercial Rd, Limehouse

The Oporto Tavern, West India Dock Rd

The Prince Alfred, Poplar High St

Wood St, off Cheshire St

Great Eastern Buildings, Quaker St

Brick Lane

On the steps of the synagogue, Brick Lane


Middlesex St

Middlesex St

Middlesex St with The Bell

Middlesex St

Photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

Dennis Anthony’s Petticoat Lane

Alan Dein’s East End Shopfronts