Kitchen Managing

Three years ago we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sprite. It was the tenth show and final show in the grounds of Ripley Castle, and utterly joyful. I miss that company every summer. The last show, as was customary, was a Sunday matinee and then I jumped in my car and drove to Liverpool. I had three white shirts I’d borrowed from the costume store, and a black suit off the peg at Tesco. I was off to manage a restaurant at The Open Golf Tournament.

I know it’s a cliché of the actor’s day job, being a waiter, but I was an actor that had never set foot in a kitchen. I’d never bussed a plate. I had no clue how silver service works apart from occasionally having received it. My friend Tristan knew how broke I was and had persuaded them I was an experienced manager. I got added to the list and panicked when I got the email. I called him up and he assured me I’d be fine. “I’ll be managing the bar in your kitchen. Anything you don’t get just ask me. It’s common sense and hard work. You’ll be fine.”

Then two weeks before we were due to start, Tristan booked Three Musketeers filming in Prague. Bastard. I finished Midsummer Night’s Dream having spent a week on the internet googling “how to manage a restaurant” and “silver service place settings.” while cursing Tristan under my breath. I frequently considered emailing them and telling them I couldn’t do it. But I wanted the challenge. By the time I got to Liverpool on Sunday night I was both excited and terrified.

Tuesday morning a team of 18 waiters descend on me and I’m having to tell them what’s what with very little practicable knowledge.

“Al, Where’s the slop bucket?”

*What’s a slop bucket?* “Where do you think it might be?”

“Next to the KPs”

*The what?* “Let’s have a look shall we. You lead.”

*Walking*

“Ah here it is.”

*Ah that’s the slop bucket. So they’re called KPs* “Yes. Right where you said it would be!” *Phew*

I got on well with my team, who thankfully all had more experience in kitchens than I had. I felt like one of those aristocratic officers with no combat experience.

I’d have been fine if I hadn’t had to double as kitchen manager. I had to call the pass.

“How do you want me to call the pass?” (The pass is the interface between floor and kitchen).

The head chef smiles and looks me full in the face. He’s old enough to be my dad and he knows his job so well. “Ahh just do it like you usually would, mate.” He says with a twinkle.

“Yeah, but, you know it’s it’s probably best you tell me the way you like it done. You know, different chefs different preferences. Just talk me through what you’d expect…”

He was wise to me. Came up to me on the third day and slung his arm over my shoulder. “You’d never been in a kitchen before had you. Good job. You’d never know it now. But I had you on the first day.”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“That’s right, mate. Course you don’t. Now it’s been a long shift and it’s a hot day. Me and the lads are thirsty, if you know what I mean…”

I can be honest about it now as they’ve asked me back. This time I’m definitely on the floor and not on the pass. Hopefully it’ll be a different head chef… But this week I’m going to be very very busy in a hot kitchen. And occasionally looking at horses.

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The Nolan Chart

I’ve heard a lot of people talking about left wing and right wing recently. It got me thinking about the terms we are all using. There are people on ”the left” who I utterly agree with. There are people on “the left” who are being unreasonable. There are people on “the right” who I utterly agree with. There are people on “the right” who are being unreasonable. But there’s a lot of self identity and emotion wrapped up in these terms.

They polarise people – left vs right. Rational people feel they can say “I hate whichever-wing people” and mean it. People I respect on both sides have done it on their Facebook recently. We are instinctively tribal because that’s what we come from – we try to identify what’s not our tribe, we protect ourselves from it, and then we show our teeth and throw shit at each other across the boundary.

After the French Revolution, the parliament called for the exponents of the “Ancien Regime” (the old ways/the aristocracy) to sit to the right of the speaker, and the proletariat voices for republicanism etc to sit on the left of the speaker. That’s the origin. One left, one right. Nobody in the middle but the speaker. Two rows of people looking at each other. One versus the other. Baddies Vs Goodies. Everton Vs Liverpool. That’s the model we’ve taken on. We’re forgetting that there’s more than left and right, there’s up and down.

I was talking with my brother about this. I didn’t go and volunteer today. Volunteering was wonderful, fulfilling but draining. I would advise anyone who is not working to get stuck in particularly now when the cameras are moving on. By volunteering, I could use my privilege to help others, and simultaneously make myself feel better. Double privilege and the chance to be virtue signalling like I am here. Yay.

But the news that was coming in, the weight of hope and sadness about the missing people. The human truth of this fire. How many people burnt? For sure it’s a lot more than they’ve been able to identify. And it was extremely upsetting and draining to remain positive in the face of it when people in the team knew that it’s only a matter of time before they hear the death of a loved one.

That building burnt for a long time. It’s down to gold teeth and pacemakers. But being nearby and helping in whatever way is a good use of time, particularly because of how it has caught the imagination. There’s a lot of stuff that has been given that needs sorting.

But as I was saying before I distracted myself, I spoke with my brother about left and right. He reminded me that the political spectrum is 3d, which makes sense of how frequently people I respect on the left and right are on the same page at heart. Because there are two other dimensions. 

In 1969 David Nolan drew up a chart which I find helpful to contemplate.

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He identified himself as a libertarian and that word has been co-opted in America and shifted its meaning from his intention. But it’s something to think about. Everyone is placed in a more complicated position than just left and right. Left. Right. Authoritarian. Libertarian. Also nowadays there’s Globalism Vs isolationism. But I’m not even getting into that as that’s a big topic.

So left libertarian is Gandhi, right libertarian is Ayn Rand. Left authoritarian is Stalin. Right authoritarian is Hitler. If you haven’t read The Fountainhead / Atlas Shrugged a workable English example of a right libertarian in my lifetime is John Major.

The examples of authoritarianism I’ve given mirror my lifelong distaste for humans that claim to authority. One of my old teachers reads this blog and will probably second me there. One day I’ll probably share one of his school reports. And there are exceptions. My first boss, Digby, was a beauiful poetic man and an authoritarian. His certainty proved an anchor for a clueless teenager and I will respect his memory my whole life. He taught me a lot. I suspect there are more positive examples to be found of Authoritarians. But the point is, it’s a spectrum. It’s more nuanced than just left and right, and speaking as someone who has shifted and might shift again, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t embrace the nuance.

I’m just thinking into a phone. And what I’m thinking is that we should be looking for common ground rather than difference.

Ahh politics.

I’ve just written something about politics, regarding this tower fire. It’s what everyone is doing so I’m in good company. And there’s lots of politics to find. But the more we exploit a disaster for points either way the more we polarise and the more petty we appear to be. And In the end we all want the same sort of thing.

That’s my tuppence. I’ll get back to the acting before long. People in my job are frequently speaking their mind in random issues and as frequently being attacked for having no right to do so. But a big part of our job is to speak. And another part is to understand. I will continue to do my best, from my extremely privileged position, to haphazardly make sense of things. And if this blog is nothing else it’s forcing me to speak my thoughts where I might otherwise be silent.

Grenfell Tower 2

From talking to people who lived in the block, the death toll is likely to rise considerably from the 17 confirmed at the moment in the Grenfell Tower blaze. I’ve been thinking a lot about the circumstances that made it possible. Talking to people in the area who knew, a large number of them expressed concern about the landlords. This block, and many like it, is managed by the KCTMO – The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. This is a private company, and therefore for profit, managing what we think of as “council housing.” If you want a long read, one of the volunteers today pointed me to this blog article from November 2016.

https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2016/11/20/kctmo-playing-with-fire/

It is standing for a group of tenants of that very block, calling themselves the Grenfell Action Group. It is arrestingly prescient. Horrifyingly so in the light of the death toll. The opening sentence begins: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord…”

As someone who now, it seems, writes a blog, I am aware that a blog holds negligible weight, if any. These musings and their consumption – it’s a relatively small circle of people. Which allows me some freedom, as it’s unlikely I’ll be sued by Trump for saying he is worried about his penis size. I could pretend to be an influencer but I’m not connected to any names that speak of influence. I’m a dude with a keyboard who thinks stuff and writes it down. There are many of us. Therefore it is easy to dismiss a blog. I dismiss blogs all the time. And that blog uses words like “evil” and “sordid” and compares the KCTMO to Kim Jong-Un. If my agenda was to try to persuade myself it had no authority, I could persuade myself of that easily, and walk away. And clearly it wasn’t taken seriously in November last year, and nor were the people behind it who were so concerned about the fire safety of their block that they formed an action group.

When something goes wrong, people quickly look for someone to blame. There’ll be a media witch hunt of the person in whose flat the fire started – they’re already gearing up for that by telling us how whoever it was packed a bag with all their clothes before telling the neighbour there was a fire. But I suspect people will look at the landlords in the light of this.

I met most of the KCTMO staff last week. Ordinary people doing ordinary work. Their management had spent a lot of money on something that felt unnecessary to me, and doubly so in the light of the fire. An acronym “QWIIC – Quality, Working together, Integrity, Innovation, Communication. “The behaviours framework will help us to celebrate achievements, talk about our aspirations and express how we would like to develop.” Anyone with a half decent bullshit radar will be lying on the floor frothing at the mouth by now, and this stuff goes on for page after page. If they can put so much importance on a set of “behaviours” (all of which are common sense) that repeatedly flag up the need for good customer service, integrity, innovation and communication, why can’t they back that up by listening to the concerns of the people that really know their blocks – the residents? And particularly those who are concerned enough to start an action group and write in such emotive language.

Another thing I heard was that residents had been told to stay in their flats in the event of a fire. “The fire doors will isolate the blaze, which can then be dealt with.” I’ve come across this idea myself in the block where I live. We have a fire escape that leads nowhere. You go through a door and you’re trapped. I put a ladder on the wall so that people could access the roof. A “health and safety inspector” told me the ladder was dangerous. I said “shall I put a sign on it saying it’s a dangerous ladder and should only be used in case of emergencies?” “No,” he said, with his faint talking-to-an-idiot smile. “You have to remove the ladder.” I asked him “What if there’s a fire? You come up here and you’re trapped” “You’ve all had fire doors put in,” he told me. We had – and payed handsomely for them. “The fire won’t travel.” That was his take on it, with the tone of someone who was talking to a complete moron that evidently didn’t understand fire doors like he did. I considered locking the ladder in place with multiple D-locks and putting a laminated warning sign to satisfy him, but before I had time, he got the ladder confiscated.

Anyone in Grenfell Tower who made the decision to stay in their flat because the health and safety inspector said the fire doors would prevent the spread of fire – they died when they could have maybe got out in time. And there had been posters in the lift telling them to stay. These moronic “health and safety” inspectors are working on theory rather than reality. There are still people out there that think the earth is flat. Magic fire doors aren’t going to stop a proper blaze any more than duck and cover is going to save you in a nuclear holocaust, or the brace position is going to save you in an aeroplane crash. “Stay in your flat” because we don’t want mass panic, and if you burn in your property it’s much easier to identify the bodies.

Ugh.

Anyway I sorted out a load more clothes. Once this is done maybe I’ll be able to sort my flat out…

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Grenfell Tower

IMAG0912I was meant to be going to Bonham’s today to watch with hopeful little greedy piggy eyes while my dad’s Churchill photograph went under the hammer. I woke up with a text on my phone about the Grenfell tower fire. So much for that plan. I have no idea what it sold for or if it sold.

Not only is Grenfell tower in my borough, it is also partly run by the people I was working for over the weekend. I had a long chat with the custodian on Monday and he was ace. Last night a small fire escalated into an inferno. It’s a 24 storey block, and there were 600 people there. The full extent of the human cost of this fire will not be apparent for a few days, but there are 12 dead for certain and around 600 homeless. I filled a bag with clothing, blankets, extension plugs and chargers and went over to St John’s Church. By the time I got there they were already flooded with donations but were glad of the bedding. While I was there, cars were pulling up all over the place and people coming out of them laden with stuff. Everyone was pulling together. People started asking me for information, which I tried to give them, but I had just arrived and was as clueless as they were. I went to a few of the centres to pool information and to try to work out what was needed where. I thought I might have been able to use the theatre space where we had made the improv shows as shelter. Nobody seemed to know what was needed, but most people were already clear that they weren’t in desperate need of clothes. At Notting Hill Methodist Church, though, they needed volunteers. I ended up in a room with loads of bags of stuff that had been donated, sorting endless piles of women’s clothing. There’s an irony in that as one of the things I’ve persistently failed to do in my own home over the years is to sort clothing. Once again I’m proving to myself that if it’s me that benefits, I can’t be bothered.

I was there for hours. We got it all sorted, categorised and labelled. Someone stuck a name tag on me, three people asked if I was the minister, four people called me Batman (I’m wearing a Batman T-shirt), a lady gave me a huge hug because I knew where there was some new kids underwear, a man called James gave me a chicken biryani; “They just delivered 70 of these for free.” I sorted clothes. Lots and lots of clothes. People hang on to all their stuff. But then faced with the prospect of people near them with no stuff, they can sever those ties.

It was amazing how many people came through that church. How many bags of stuff came in. When we had finally sorted everything we had in our room, a motley human chain ferried loads more bags up and into another room. This is going to be a lot of work, and anybody local who has spare time because they do a ridiculous job like pretending for a living would be very well used in any of the donation centres. That was the concern when I left.

“I write a little blog. What’s best for me to say?”

“Tell them we don’t need more clothes, but we need people to help sort. And maybe more chargers, respirators, baby clothes and baby food. The big worry is that tomorrow and the next day we won’t get so many volunteers. There’s so much to sort.”

So there you go. Come sort stuff.

Meanwhile helicopters and drones circle a still burning building. More firetrucks than I thought existed in London clam up the centre of Ladbroke Grove, while hard bodied men and women walk slowly but deliberately with canisters on their backs towards the blaze. Smiling police cordon off roads as quickly as smiling residents break the cordons and cross them. Nobody minds. This is London and something has gone wrong. As ever, all of these millions of bassacred ornery individualist bastards are silently pushing in the same direction. In a weeks time everyone will be angry and in a hurry again. But for now, it’s the London Club, and we’re all members. It’s why I love this crazy city.

Being me I’ve got a poem. It’s by Joyce Grenfell who the block was named for, and somehow it’s appropriate:

If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone,
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell,
But life goes on,
So sing as well.

Keep singing, people.

I’m posting this early rather than scheduling it to get across the volunteers over donations message. I’m going to do more and talk to people about maybe selling the excess in a charity pop up on Portobello market to cover the expense of lost things. But for now, good on London for flooding the donations. Let’s see what’s needed with the perspective of time.

 

 

Ahmed

About two years ago my phone rang at midnight. It was my mate Jon. “Al, I’m standing outside my flat in Bethnal Green. There’s a Claude Butler bike frame in a skip. You need a bike. Shall we build one?”

I did need a bike. At the time cashflow was not great. Public transport in London is massively overpriced. Bicycles are the best solution, particularly at this time of year. We went to a bike workshop in East London and got covered in grease. The frame was bent a little too much for it to be legally sold, but it was perfectly serviceable. Lots of cleaning, lots of grease, a bit of eBay. Jon put in loads of work, it became a project, and eventually Ahmed was born. I have no idea why that’s his name, but it always felt right. Cards on the table, I didn’t have much input on the build. Jon took the ball and ran with it. Ahmed was blue, light, scrappy, single speed, only one brake (the front), with handles off a Piaggio Scooter and a ripped seat. You could get some pace on him. He went, and nobody stole him for two years. Mostly he was for cruising down bike lanes keeping an eye out for homicidal lorries and ready at all times to jump onto the pavement. I loved Ahmed, and he made things possible for me. I never had to worry if I could afford to get to the meeting. I just had to budget the time and put up with the weather.

But Ahmed was never quite right. He had some ongoing issues with the front forks. I am now accustomed to my whole bike juddering and going “ka-chunk” whenever I put on the brake, even if I know it’s not ideal. Last week Anne-May asked if she could borrow him. “The transport in this city is so expensive. Can I use your bike?” I couldn’t let her ride him. I know that eventually the whole of the front column will snap when I brake. I’m happy to take that risk. I’m not happy to pass it on to a friend.

Last week Jon rang me up again. “I’ve found a safer bike. It’s orange. The forks are better, but Ahmed has better driving bits. Maybe we can take two bikes and turn them into one working bike.” So this morning we had a tinker and got covered in grease again. But it’s too big a job so we sucked it up, washed our hands, got them covered in grease again, sucked it up again and took them both to a bike workshop with experts in it who you pay. “Can you make one bike that’s great out of these two semi-bikes?” Apparently they can.

So Ahmed is undergoing a transformation. I’m not entirely sure if he’ll still be Ahmed when they’ve done with him. He’ll be orange, and shinier. It’ll be lovely to ride a bicycle that I’m not legitimately scared is about to fall apart beneath me. And a rear brake will be a treat even if I’m used to not having one.

I’m writing this blog downstairs in Jon’s flat. This is my Saturday, after working all weekend. He and his one year old boy are flat out on the bed upstairs after all this manning. Ethan had been helping out by holding the wrench. Ridiculously cute.

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Tomorrow (Wednesday) I’m going to an auction. I’ve never been to one before. But there’s a signed photograph of Churchill that used to belong to my father. It’s going under the hammer at Bonham’s. I’ve never been to an auction and I want to see how it all goes down.

If any of you are big Churchill fans and secret lottery winners, here’s the link:

https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/24115/lot/200/?category=list&length=10&page=20

Commercial Castings

Five improv shows today, and after the last one I had to sneak out before the end and rush across town leaving my girls and boys holding the hippopotamus. I absolutely had to get to a casting at 5.20. It was the last possible slot they could get for me. I had to splash out on an uber. But worth the financial risk for the sheer cash value of the work if won. As long as I was there for 5.20.

I made it, by the skin of my teeth. Expensive but potentially worth it. I rushed up the stairs. Two minutes to go. I stopped in the loo. Threw water in my face. Took a second of calm. Aaah yes. Back in the room. Then up some stairs and into one of THOSE rooms. Two bored 23 year old models sitting behind a desk looking at their laptops and occasionally laconically greeting a steady stream of friendly looking men of unclear ethnicity and of about my age. White walls. Pot plants. Boredom, sweat and desperation. A heady brew. I get handed a form. “Take a seat and fill this in.” There are literally no seats. Someone else says “It’s a bit close in here.” — The receptionist: “Yeah it’s a bit stuffy certainly. But if you look through that door, we’ve just had an air con delivered. So…” “Yeah” says the guy. “But that’s not today.”

Now I’ve filled in the clipboard, which expects me to divulge literally everything about myself. “Is a close family member ill?” “Are you or your wife pregnant and if so when’s it due.” “Do you have rage issues?” “Are we making you angry now?” “Are you happy you’re here?” “Do you like answering questions?” “What’s that smell?” I even had to consent to a credit reference check. It’s like US immigration, but more personal. Essentially “Are you going to screw us over by using some excuse to not do this job after we’ve set our heart on you?” No… No I’m not.

Now sitting in this sweaty room. Bad pop is being played just to keep it all edgy. Everyone is being very polite because nobody wants the receptionist to think they’re a dick just in case the receptionist is the casting assistant as well. It’s 17:40 and there’s no way I’ll be going in that room any time soon. Could’ve easily got the bus by now.

All these casting studios look the same. I wonder how many hours I’ve sat in them. I’m not even sure if I’ve been in this one before. There’s nothing to prepare, which is nice as I can write this while I wait. It’s a commercial. There’s rarely anything to prepare as it’s about faces. I’ll go in, the casting directors will say something like “So you’re bouncing a ball and a dog attacks you. Say ‘Oy, get off,’ but we need it to be gentle comedy with a bit of pathos. Don’t take too long over it. Think Peter Sellars mixed with Ricky Gervaise. But upbeat. Don’t smile though. You don’t like dogs. And we need to feel sad afterwards. But happy. Happy sad. But on brand. And go.”

Last time I did one of these the guy said “you can mime the door if it helps you.” That time I said “It won’t help. There’ll be a real door in the shoot,” and I watched his eyes glaze over. I sometimes forget that it’s also, on top of everything else, important to eat shit if you want the job. These are commercial castings. There’s a lot of money at stake for a short amount of time. The director of that one had extended his hand to shake on a flat horizontal, palm down. I almost knelt and kissed it to make a point, but resisted and let him shake me down. The director runs the room. But If I’d wanted that part I should’ve mimed a door for him like he asked, then have got stuck in a box and pushed a big rock, wearing a beret and red and white stripes. 

—-next-please

Well, I got in just before six. Could’ve saved the price of an uber. It was much as I expected in there but nicer. Mr Bean meets deadpan in a silent comedy type interaction. I thought I heard the thunk as a little bit of my integrity fell off. But mostly I heard the roar of a distant boiler in time for winter, the sound of a plane taking me off somewhere hot to do the shoot, the rustle of a nice new carpet, the splash of a power shower, the crunch of tasty healthy food. And frankly, I have no issue with the company the commercial is for, so I’d do it gladly if they ask. In fact it’s my favourite brand. And I’m not just saying that in case they find this blog. *munch*

IMAG0876.jpgThree days is not enough time to make a piece of theatre. Still, we’re trying. I said yes again dammit. I need to examine that tendency in myself. I’ve spent this weekend in a basement talking about behaviours in the workplace and trying to determine how best to present a load of extremely dry material in some semblance of a fun way. Now the evening is here and I’m walking in it, trying to clear my head.

This morning I spoke with an old friend from drama school. We haven’t spoken for ages. It was lovely to catch up. But recently I feel like I fell through a wormhole in 2003 and landed in some strange alternate future. I feel like I’m the dude from Quantum Leap and I’ve landed in older me. Oh Boy. Such lot to do. And what the hell happened? I think it’s become more noticeable to me when I spend my time doing something that doesn’t feed my soul. At least I’m in good company, but I think this will be the last time I accept something just because I like the person offering it. I learnt a few years ago not to say yes until I’d read the script. Now I’ve learnt that I can say no to stuff even if I like the people and think I need the money, if the material won’t bring me joy. I roped in John, my old friend from drama school, who did it because it was me. I suspect he feels the same way. It’s a lovely room, full of lovely people, and we are having fun with it. But it’s impossible to care about the material we have been tasked to put across theatrically because it’s just corporate nonsense. I comfort myself that for us it’s only three days. For the 250 staff members tomorrow, it’s the next few years. They’ve spent a year and a load of cash developing this language. This acronym. This way of making obvious things sound special. As for me, I’ve taken this job, so I must, as always, commit utterly to it. But I know to be more selective in future.

Dan, my old friend, asked me how it felt in London after the attacks. It’s a funny thing how quickly that washed off. Sadiq our mayor has had a lot of flak for saying that terror attacks are “part and parcel of living in a big city.” I know what he means though in terms of how we should react to this stuff. We should just carry on, and we have. It just means that there are more cops visible with guns, but for the bulk of Londoners, nobody seems to feel any more threatened. We’re still out on the street in large gatherings. Three hateful fools are just that and can’t be given any power by letting them change our behaviour.

Now I’m on a bus again. I still think of the bus that got blown up in 2007. But I spend a lot of time on buses. I love earwigging the conversations. “London guys are not so cute. They dress really douchey.” That’s the latest from the two California girls next to me. Mind you they think everything is douchey so I wouldn’t be too concerned, guys.

Right now I’m concerned that this work is douchey. But I’m in company with some lovely people, we know what we’re doing and who we are. We’ve made a frame that allows us to take risks. I’m just going to take ownership of my decision to do this, and do it marvelously, and simultaneously fail and succeed multiple times over the course of one Monday. I’ve done stranger things. I’ve done harder things. It’s just another random madness, and since that’s how I’ve predicated my existence, I have nothing to complain about.

Here’s the view from the bus. One day I’ll remember to try and take good photos.