A New Orleans Mardi Gras Turns Into A London Pancake Day


I had plans for a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras this year. I wasn’t going to be in New Orleans but here, in London, my party skirt, the purple and green beads that stay in a special drawer for the rest of the year, and the glitter hairspray were all coming out.

I was going to a much-loved event that I’ve been to many times before, where there would be bands, banners and a parade. There would be dear friends, and we would have had drinks made out of things like pistachio vodka and artichoke liqueur, danced, and maybe even stayed out all night.

However, this didn’t happen. Thanks to a complicated set of circumstances, I had an UK-style Mardi Gras instead – or, as we Brits would say, Pancake Day. Just as I did at this time of year when I was a child, I spent the evening sitting round a kitchen table, mostly waiting for it to be my turn to eat.

It’s in the nature of Pancake Day that you spend a lot of time waiting – and watching others eat. We make pancakes in our own way in the UK – much thinner than US ones, a little thicker than French crepes – and they can only be cooked one at a time. And of course it’s a sin not to consume them when they’re hot.

But it’s worth the wait, which is also the beauty of the the occasion. Because the meal is drawn out, there’s time to talk and relax, and get everyone to share the cooking, in a way that there usually isn’t on your average weekday evening. I remember my childhood Pancake Days always seemed like special occasions. From ingredients that are always in your fridge (which is just as well as sometimes my mother would forget what the day was), a feast day-worthy supper would be conjured.

That was also the case at my Mardi Gras meal this year. Parma ham and goats’ cheese replaced cheddar and frozen spinach as toppings. We drank prosecco rather than orange squash. But the evening still saw plenty of plates doused with the lemon juice and caster sugar combo that never goes out of fashion, and the joy of creating something magical from the simplest of components was just the same.

Eating this meal with friends turned out to give me the same freedom to let go of troubles momentarily that the maddest night out can provide. And this is what Mardi Gras and Pancake Day are all about. How to enjoy life fully, without avoiding our responsibilities or denying the realities of the difficult times that we all go through (which will be waiting for us when Lent begins). In his book Why New Orleans Matters, Tom Piazza says that an ability to, “Go with what is. Use what happens” is “the spirit of Mardi Gras itself”.

London’s quirky storecupboard version of the festival might not quite match that of New Orleans for style and panache, but I’ll now always be just as happy to take it.

Image: Heather


New Orleans Does January Much Better Than London


Happy New Year from London. Yes, I have excluded a festive exclamation mark, and deliberately so. It is generally agreed that January is when London is at its least happy, and most miserable.

Here the first month of the year is about cutting back after Christmas spending, New Year’s resolutions, and the more recent British tradition of having an alcohol-free “Dry January”. This week my email inbox has been full of 2 for 1 offers for the restaurants, West End shows and other attractions that would have been bursting with people just a couple of weeks ago. The result is a quiet and depressing city, usually cold but these days rarely brightened by snow.

It’s not supposed to be like this. As everyone knows from the famous carol, there are twelve days of Christmas. In the UK, most people pretty much regard the whole of the week between Christmas and New Year as holiday season, even if they have to work. But by the first days of January, Christmas seems to be well and truly over in many people’s minds.

I still keep my decorations up until the 6th of January as old tradition dictates, but this week have seen many balding Christmas trees left out with the rubbish. When I was a child, my parents would go to Twelfth Night parties, but these seem not to happen any more.

There is a good case for extending the fun even further into the new year than its first six days. In a brilliant column for Time Out London a couple of years ago, Giles Coren said he thought we Londoners had got it all wrong. Why do we save all the festive spirit (in London, this essentially means alcohol) for the busy days of December and allow none for quiet, dim January?

“It’s just nuts,” he wrote. “We’re doing it all the wrong way round. What booze is for is for cheering you up when life is shit. It’s for getting you through the day when there is nothing to do and you feel like you don’t have any friends. Like in, for example, January. And the one time you do not need it is in the month running up to Christmas.”

Things are done differently, and I would say better, in New Orleans. Here 6th of January marks the beginning of Mardi Gras season, and of course its festivities. One of my favourites of this day’s events I’ve read about (having never been in the city in January) is the ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows carnival krewe. The Phellows board, in costume, the St Charles streetcar and proceed, they say, to “sip champagne, eat king cake, dance, and let fly with the very first beads of the Mardi Gras season”.

A month and often longer of more king cake (see image), parties and parades follows, culminating in the glories of Mardi Gras day itself. Lent also follows, of course, but somehow giving up something festive when you can see and feel spring coming seems like a better idea than doing so during the very darkest days of the year.

Image: praline3001

London Should Look To New Orleans To Learn How To Do “Hygge”


Recently here in London there has been a lot of talk of “hygge” – a Danish concept that roughly means a sense of cosiness and conviviality and is used to refer to occasions where you gather family or friends to spend time together, often with indulgent food and drink, in comfortable and relaxing surroundings.

Londoners love the idea of doing this. But as we’re mostly hyperactive and grumpy workaholics living in rabbit hutches hours of complicated travel away from our London friends and with family elsewhere in the UK or the rest of the world, we struggle to make hygge actually happen.

Some people doubt whether Londoners should even bother. “The concept of hygge feels entirely alien in our busy, ever-changing city,” wrote Miriam Bouteba in Time Out London recently. “Ask anyone what they like best about [London], and no one who hasn’t recently undergone a lobotomy will reply: ‘Staying in with my candles’”.

But I still think London could do with some hygge. Not so much its superficial trappings like arty lighting and cinnamon buns (though I probably wouldn’t say no to these if offered), but its underlying benefits. Londoners crave a time and space to loosen our tightly-packed lives and connect more with other people. This is what hygge really means, and our experience here of endless new attractions, constant flux in our actual and cultural landscapes, and hyperlinked transport is not giving it to us.

New Orleans, on the other hand, has a kind of hygge. It’s no more a city of woodsmoke, long snowy winters and “glögg” than London. But it seems to me that, like Denmark, New Orleans has always been good at making space and time to slow down and enjoy life.

But in New Orleans doing so takes a different form. Hygge in Denmark is a way of crystallising time and space into a protected area or moment of contentment and balance. This sounds nice and is no doubt usually pleasant and benign in practice. But it’s worth remembering that the opposite of hygge is “uhyggelig”, which can mean scary or weird. Some say that hygge is a reflection of Denmark’s relatively tranquil recent history and its somewhat homogenous and socially exclusive society, which it can also help to perpetuate.

In New Orleans, meanwhile, the equivalent of hygge is about not compressing time and space, but opening them up. For most of us, the good stuff in life – relaxed eating and drinking, fun times with family and friends – can only be small interludes of relief from work. But it seems to me that ways of life in New Orleans are capable of magnifying these experiences into whole worlds of exciting possibility, reflecting the city’s long record of cultural openness and creativity, and its historical – and in some ways continuing – proximity to disaster of various kinds that encourages its inhabitants to enjoy life to the full while they can.

“New Orleans is a small city but it seems spacious because it is always full of people…like a crowded barroom at night,” writes Andrei Codrescu in New Orleans, Mon Amour. “At dawn a deserted barroom seems small beyond belief: how did all those people fit? The answer is that space and time are subjective no matter what the merciless clock of late twentieth-century America tells us. And there is more subjective space and time here in New Orleans than almost anywhere in the United States…[The city] feeds the dreamer stories, music and food.”

And of course there’s Mardi Gras. In nowhere else in the world does one public holiday mean a whole season of celebrations, an alternative city geography, and a parallel government of kings and queens, Big Chiefs and Baby Dolls. Carnival in New Orleans is nothing less that “a social rebellion against day-to-day life,” one inhabitant of the city and enthusiastic carnival “krewe” member told me once. Frustrated Londoners who find themselves yearning for connection and fulfillment that daily life in their city does not provide could do well to get up from their dimly-lit sofa cushions and look to New Orleans as well as Copenhagen.

Image: Deann Barrera

What Alexander McQueen Exhibition “Savage Beauty” Says About London – and New Orleans


This weekend I went to Savage Beauty, a significant and striking retrospective of the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen, originally presented at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and, until last Sunday, on show in an expanded form at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

The show was the most popular in the museum’s history, a gesture of appreciation for the designer’s work from the city that he deeply identified with. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration”, McQueen said, in a quote reproduced on the wall of the exhibition’s opening room.

For me that identification was obvious even without the quote. This collection of work from a man who was the son of a black cab driver and who trained on Savile Row was crammed full of details that I associate with London, sometimes for reasons that are hard to explain. To list just a few: impeccable tailoring; tough feathered creatures; handmade theatrical magic; punk tartan; piles and piles of bones; and the inescapable presence of water.

Together these details also summed up something about London as a whole: it is a city that has a culture that is all its own but, paradoxically, has been shaped in large part by cultures from elsewhere – hardly anyone or anything in London has ever really been just from London.

That elsewhere could be ancient Rome, eastern Europe, Africa, Ireland, or any one of a thousand other places, regions and worlds. McQueen himself, as the show made clear, saw himself as a Londoner through and through but also deeply identified with his Scottish roots and engaged with Indian culture, African culture and many other cultures from across the world in his work.

And on top of these geographical elsewheres, London – that seemingly civilised capital of government, law, commerce, culture and church – has also always had to contend with the heavy presence of its long history and a deep salting of the uncanny and uncomfortable.

There is the city’s rich tradition of harbouring the unconventional and the macabre; the way it has been carved forcibly through the ages from a place that once was wild; and its problematic relationships with colonialism, slavery, inequality and desperate poverty. All these seem to be to be present in McQueen’s work – in too-sharp Victorian-style tailoring, ripped kilts, sealed leather masks, and fabulous creations seemingly designed to transform their wearer into half an animal.

The show also made me think about some of the fashion traditions of New Orleans, particularly its habit of costuming for carnival, and about the city in comparison to London.

Many Londoners would see themselves as ultimately from somewhere else, while many New Orleans’ inhabitants always feel inseparably associated with the city, especially those who have found themselves exiled from it in recent years. A London designer creates suits and party frocks solely for very rich people that seem on the verge of flight away into a multiplicity of lives of their own, while the ordinary people of New Orleans make fantastical costumes for high days and holidays that stitch unusually real communities together.

In New Orleans For Mardi Gras


First, I’d like to apologise for the delay in updating this blog since my last post. In my life I’ve moved from a slightly chaotic period to one of relative calm, which seems appropriate as we’ve now moved from carnival season into Lent.

But in this post I’ll be looking back to carnival, as this year I was lucky enough to be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras for the first time. I’ve always visited before during high summer and, despite the heat locals always say they hate and the fact that it’s supposed to be slow season, I’ve always loved the city as it is then, stretched out and languid.

But I’d been told that the weeks between Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras day itself, New Orleans’ carnival season – and yes, it is a season here not just a day, is the time when the city is most itself. So when the opportunity arose to visit at this time, I couldn’t say no.

Sadly pancakes (and work commitments) were calling me home for the big Tuesday itself, but I was in New Orleans for the week immediately preceding it and got to witness seven of the city’s Mardi Gras parades. These, which range from elaborate processions of floats, marching bands and dancers to chilled-out communal fancy dress walking parties, are some of the high points of carnival festivities in the city, and my focus in this post – I’m planning to cover other carnival topics in later ones.

But before I get onto the highs, I feel I should deal with the very few downers to my week. Let’s start with the cold. Having left a wintry London behind me, I was hoping for some subtropical sun, or at least a bit of spring, but the New Orleans I found was cold, cloudy, and rainy and quite a lot like, well, how London is most of the year. I was impressed with how NOLA-ites went about in sports jackets and shorts, but to see what was happening on the streets I had to pull on the winter coat that I’d been hoping not to have to get out of my suitcase until I landed at Heathrow again.

Then there was getting hit in the eye with a flying doubloon. This was a parade throw, of which more later, and gave me a lovely bloodshot eye just a little bit too early for Halloween. But on the plus side, I think I can now tick one more item off that long, long list of “only in New Orleans” experiences. And I got to keep the doubloon.

But these aspects of my trip were in every way outweighed by the pluses. I had king cake for breakfast every day (if you don’t know what that it, see my last post). And because I was eating breakfast by myself mostly, I got the baby every time. Which I think must make me New Orleans royalty – at least I felt that way every time I started my day by getting psyched up on black coffee, sweet cream cheese, and purple and green icing. Once again, only in New Orleans…

Then there were my parade throws, the freebies every float rider, cyclist or walker in a New Orleans parade since the dawn of time has been obliged by law (or compelled by some mystical Mardi Gras magic at least) to fling out into the cheering crowds that line their routes. Beads are traditional and I certainly got plenty of those, particularly in the city’s carnival colours of purple, green and gold, but what follows is rough inventory of just some of the rest of my loot.

Metre-long ropes of plastic pearls, a gummy yellow crown that flashes green when you press a button on its bottom, a set of makeup brushes, a soft toy rat, a monogrammed (and hologrammed) drinking cup, some Reeses Pieces (particularly precious as these American delicacies are not easily available in the UK), and a Mardi Gras Barbie. I don’t feel I’m exaggerating that much if I say that I now never have to buy Christmas decorations or, at a push, Christmas presents, ever again.

Then there’s the sheer spectacle of the parades themselves. The largest ones are confections of jazz bands, blinking lights and flaming torches, and fabulously elaborate and witty floats, some of which you need a good knowledge of New Orleans lore to understand properly. My favourite one, in the fashion-themed Muses parade, showed governor and potential presidential candidate Bobby Jindal as a suited and booted “Insincere Sucker”. Get it?

But I also loved the magic in microcosm of the smaller (mostly) walking and pushbiking parades, like science fiction-themed Chewbacchus or just-for-dogs (with their humans as escorts) Barkus. Both of these parade group (known as a “krewe” in the city) names are plays on the name of one of the biggest players in New Orleans Mardi Gras: “superkrewe” Bacchus, which is fitting given the way in which these smaller krewes lovingly reimagine the traditions of carnival into images that are all their own, a defining impulse of New Orleans carnival across the the city as a whole.

Chewbacchus gave us a dreamy flashlight-lit sequence of over 100 “Rolling Elliots“, dressed in red hoodies and riding bikes with milk floats in them in a homage to film classic E.T. that made me feel nine again.

Meanwhile, my highlight of rainy afternoon-conquering Barkus was seeing a dolled-up pooch perched imperiously in a minature New Orleans beautifully rendered in cardboard to fit the krewe’s 2014 theme: “DOGZILLA: Barkus Licks the Crescent City”.

And these weren’t even the best things about my Mardi Gras experience in New Orleans. What I think I actually liked the most was the interaction between parade-goers. I had all kinds of interesting conversations, had the good fortune to stand next to someone one night who gave an informed and passionate commentary on everything that went past and much else of New Orleans besides, and witnessed many acts of kindness in the crowd, from the giving of simple pieces of advice to sharing out throws to summoning medical help.

These made me realise that in New Orleans being at a parade, even as an outsider, somehow makes you, by some alchemy of opalescence, part of it and therefore, in a small way, part of this city’s long, broad, deep and extraordinary carnival tradition, that still remains all its own.

Send In The Clowns

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Two weekends ago – apologies for not posting last week – a special event took place in Dalston. The Clowns International Annual Service is an act of worship for and centred around clowns always held on the first Sunday in February in Dalston’s Holy Trinity Church.

The service sees clowns from all over the world gather in full costume – shoes, wigs, noses and all, bright in the very gloomiest time of year in London – and mixes readings, singing, clowning and conventional worship, all followed by a performance for children in the church hall (see picture), and tea and cake.

The event always reminds me of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Like Mardi Gras, the clowns’ services shakes up the repetitive and humdrum rituals we all go through, churchgoers or not, things turn loud and garish, and we’re reminded of the importance of foolishness.

But, and I’d argue the same about Mardi Gras, the service shows how foolishness functions not just as a distraction from the realities of everyday life, but can also be a crucial tool in engaging with life’s seriousness and, ultimately, our own mortality.

Mardi Gras is indivisable from the solemnities of Lent, and the clowns’ service is also a memorial service, primarily for Joseph Grimaldi, a eighteenth century actor known as the father of modern clowning and commemorated in a window at the church, but also for all the clowns who have died that year, whose names are read out during the service.

Life is short and death is coming, the service and Mardi Gras seem to say, and the best response is joy and laughter. This message has a particular meaning in a Christian context and has been turned into an art form in New Orleans, but I think it’s also one that has a resonance for humans everywhere.

Cake Season

This time of year is king cake season in New Orleans. This starchy, sugary, often sticky, and totally scrummy sponge has its origins in the French gallette des rois, a treat for Twelfth Night to celebrate the visit of the three Magi to the baby Jesus. Like its French ancestor, New Orleans king cake comes with a baby, bean or coin hidden inside it, and the person who find this in their slice can claim to be king or queen for the day.

However, king cake has departed in style from galette des rois. In Paris these days, you’ll get a golden brown puff pastry tart with an almond filling, while in New Orleans you’re more like to find something akin to a brioche, often filled with Louisiana pecans and draped in sparkly icing.

Another difference between old and new world customs in this area is that gallette des rois is only eaten on Twelfth Night, while king cake is found in New Orleans from Twelfth Night until Lent – a.k.a carnival season. I always enjoy the series New Orleans newspaper the Times-Picayune, runs on king cakes in the city during this time featuring a different bakery every day. And I nearly always find myself checking if they deliver to the UK…

Once I even tried to make king cake myself (see photo). I don’t think mine would bear comparison to one from the Crescent City, but I took it into work and my colleagues did gamely eat it.

I’ve never been in New Orleans at this time of year to sample the real thing, but I understand it’s customary for colleagues and friends there to take turns to buy cakes to share, with the “king” or “queen” being obliged to get the next one.

We don’t have an equivalent seasonal tradition here, but making cakes and biscuits all year round is surging in popularity in the UK, as shown by the huge viewing figures for TV show The Great British Bake-Off, which completed its fourth series this year featuring a particularly fabulous ex-colleague of mine who I think deserved to win.

I’m a huge fan of this TV show, and it’s due in part to watching it that I discovered a baking tradition Londoners can call their own, closely linked to a part of the city little more than a cupcakes’s throw from where I live.

Tottenham Cake, named after the north London neighbourhood whose name it bears, is a simple oblong sponge, topped with pale pink icing and cut into squares. Unlike king cake, it doesn’t have a particular season, and is available all year round. However, like king cake it does have its origins in religious belief.

Tottenham cake was first made by Quakers living in this area, then a rural settlement some distance from central London. The shade of the icing comes from their use of the fruit from the mulberry trees growing in the garden of their meeting house (which are still there) to colour it.

The confection fits with the Quakers’ egalitarian and community-focused way of life. Like king cake it’s traditionally baked by friends for each other, and often with children in mind, and its square shape means it’s easy to transport, divide evenly and eat.

What’s more, the’s recipe’s short list of simple, cheap ingredients and its straightforward method mean that, whether it’s made at home or by a bakery, Tottenham cake is a treat that everyone can afford, tuck into and enjoy – and whatever city you’re in and at whatever time of year, that’s surely the definition of a good bit of baking.

The Drowned Man: “This Will Keep You Safe”

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My very first post for this blog was about my visit to see the “trailer” for the new(ish) show from immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, which found me stumbling down into a dark Dalston cellar and having a somewhat mystical and almost completely mystifying experience.

So it seems only right to report back now I’ve seen the full version of The Drowned Man, once as the guest of Punchdrunk and once having gladly paid for the privilege. And, even though I’ve now seen it twice, I have to admit that I’m still mystified in some ways, but so impressed and intrigued that not only have I booked to go again next month, but have also bought my parents tickets as their Christmas present (please don’t tell them!).

There are so many aspects of this amazing theatrical experience, very loosely based on Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, that I could write about. The trailer’s careful creation of an atmospheric environment and intriguing characters has been amplified on a massive scale. The production consists of four floors of intricately bedecked, and occasionally startlingly empty, spaces through which actors roam, who you can follow, or not, as your whims dictate, to create your own narrative. Moments from my two visits that have stayed with me: witnessing the murder of a red-sequinned woman; stumbling on an almost entirely empty cinema; following a witch in the desert.

These were all powerful experiences, but what I want to focus on is what the show is saying about power itself. The Drowned Man is designed so that everyone who sees it has a different story to tell afterwards, but I think its message about power is ultimately the same for everyone, and its lessons apply everywhere, not just in London. That includes America – Punchdrunk is knowingly transatlantic; its hugely popular version of “the Scottish play” Macbeth reimagined as a Hitchcock-esque drama is going great guns in a Manhattan warehouse. Meanwhile The Drowned Man is currently playing in London, but has an American context, being set in 1960s Hollywood and engaging with that most quintessentially American of artistic forms – cinema, and its production of visions ostensibly for the purposes of entertainment but always with political implications.

So what are these universal lessons about power? Well, I think that however you experience the play, and there are many ways to do so, you become engaged in a process of hiding and finding, of being lost and of revelation. This operates constantly through the individual experiences you might have at The Drowned Man. For instance, at one point I found myself wandering into a forest of someone’s starched shirts at the back of a shop that went on and on, eventually into a totally different space. At another point, I spent a good twenty minutes locked in a diner phone booth which, I think, contained a secret way out that, despite a bit of bashing, I was unable to open.

This process is also encoded in the overall structure of The Drowned Man (and other Punchdrunk works). “Audience” members are not guided as they are in seated and even in conventional promenade shows, but are given the chance to make their own choices and to be lost. We’re given masks, which both take way our identities, but also liberate us. Go missing and you could find something special, or just miss out.

These themes are even found in the four-floor structure of the mammoth set. “The show goes vertically down as well as horizontally,” said director Felix Barrett at the beginning of the show’s run. “You can follow the story of our Woyzeck and it will be a great night out or you can go vertically down, lift away the topsoil and get to the other, hidden narrative underneath.” The show’s middle two floors host the main characters and the central pieces of action, or at least those that initially appear most closely linked to Woyzeck, while in the basement and on the top floor you’re liable to encounter secret societies, magic, religion, cold baths, line dancing and all manner of other marginal and mystical activities.

So I think part of what Barrett means is that these two floors function as a kind of unconscious or dreamscape for the show’s main plots, where meaning becomes crystallised, but also more unfathomable. The four-floor structure therefore makes physical the simultaneous revelation and concealment of higher – or should that be lower or deeper? – knowledge that all art purports to enact. And that’s very physical, I’d add – to get the most out the show’s huge space, be prepared to do an awful lot of pushing at heavy doors and scrambling up and down stairs, and to be shaking sand and glitter out of your shoes the next morning.

Now I have a confession to make. I am a member of a secret society. I’m not at liberty to say any more, but when I walk through the world of The Drowned Man, I do so as someone marked, as someone in possession of understandings that will keep me safe from the very real terrors that lurk there, just as they do in what we think of as “real life”.

That’s annoying, isn’t it. What am I talking about exactly? I’m not going to say anything other than what you just had is the kind of experience the piece gives you on a massive scale. You realise that in this life some people have power and some don’t, and this difference is codified by rituals of knowledge. Either you don’t have knowledge and you want it, or you have it and conceal it from other people, and most of us are engaged in both processes. Whatever you stumble on at The Drowned Man (and, believe me, there’s no shortage of things to trip over, metaphorically and literally) you’re going to come out feeling that you’ve learnt some secrets, but that there are plenty you don’t know, making you conscious of a power structure you slowly realise you’re embedded in, outside the play’s universe as well as inside it.

And as I’ve been reflecting on my experience of The Drowned Man, I’ve realised that there are connections with what I know about New Orleans. The trappings of the play set off echoes for me – we were officially in California, but the masks and voodoo altars took me east to Louisiana, and in the bar at the centre of the set they were even playing James “Sugar Boy” Crawford’s carnival classic “Jock-A-Mo” at one point, which I thought perfectly matched the mood of decadence laced with power plays that I think Punchdrunk is trying to evoke.

At a deeper level, The Drowned Man’s lessons about power are as evident in New Orleans as anywhere else. Mardi Gras is surely a perfect example of how art represents the simultaneous showing and hiding of potent secrets, and how something that appears to be about entertainment can also have deadly serious political import.

In conclusion, it’s hard to really explain what The Drowned Man is all about as, like Mardi Gras and all art to a certain extent, your own individual response to it is what makes it work and become comprehensible. But there are still plenty of tickets left and I’d highly recommend you get your hands on one. Just be warned, the more you see of this show, the more you’re left wanting – it’s a very effective trailer for itself and its own processes of generating significance. That means on a practical level that, with tickets at up to £85 a pop, you’re liable to find yourself a bit out of pocket come December when its run ends. But on the plus side, I’d argue that the show, in the sense that it deepens your understanding of the power structures around you, is really a fantastic trailer for life outside its confines, and in this sense can’t fail to leave you richer than you were before you saw it.

Meet Me In New Orleans (Kind of…)

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A warm night, palm trees, people happily chatting to strangers. It could almost have been the Marigny and not Hackney. The dive bar in a dilapidated building certainly had a New Orleans “we just threw this together ourselves” kinda vibe, but then these types of venues are oh-so-Hackney too, which also has a love-hate relationship with a shipwrecked-at-the-end-of-the-world reputation. Other clues we were in London not Louisiana: the palm trees were plastic and the temperature outside dropped rapidly once the new June sun went down, but people really were talking happily to people they didn’t know.

Normal London rules for dealing with strangers, in case you’re not familiar with them, are as follows: eye contact – weirdo; smile – get off at the next stop; and unsolicited conversation – run! In New Orleans, on the other hand, strangers will stop in the street to talk and introduce each other to their dogs.

I was at an event called Meet Me In New Orleans, which took place last Saturday and was organised by an excellent organisation called New Orleans in London, which aims to bring the music and culture of the Crescent City to the UK’s capital. I would say their mission is a valid one; all things NOLA are relatively unfamiliar to Londoners who, in common with most Brits, tend to think that the US starts with New York and finishes with California, with not much in between. But the New Orleans magic was certainly making its presence felt here. As well as engaging in friendly chit-chat, people were actually dressed up, with many girls in actual dressy dresses (a rarity in London), which made this habitual overdresser happy – I’d made what I thought was a daring last-minute decision to don my party skirt and purple beads.

The venue had made an effort to show some Louisiana hospitality and brio too, serving gumbo and pralines alongside the east London tipples on offer – gin and tonics, Japanese beer. The gesture reflected the slightly mystical affinity in New Orleans between music and food. Somehow they’re always connected there, and once you have one, you never have to go far to find the other. Louis Armstrong always used to sign his letters “Red Beans And Ricely Yours” after the classic New Orleans Monday night supper and, in the modern day, one of the city’s biggest jazz stars, Kermit Ruffins, can often be found cooking up outside Bywater bar Vaughans on a Thursday night in between his sets with his band, the Barbecue Swingers.

Which leads me nicely on to Saturday’s music. It was provided by trad jazzers Dixie Ticklers, the rocking Fallen Heroes and DJ Lil’ Koko. Early on, there was some awe-inspiring swing dancing going on, but as I can’t manage any kind of dancing that requires me to remember the difference between left and right or turn at a set time, I was much happier when proceedings descended into a free-for-all Mardi Gras mosh pit.

We heard classics like Tipitina’s, When The Saints Go Marching In, and even some Mardi Gras Indian-style call and response. But what stayed in my mind most was chief Dixie Tickler Dom James’s rendition of the eerie St. James Infirmary Blues. As I listened, I remembered being in Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street a couple of summers ago, and hearing New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield play it. Afterwards, he said it was strange that, even though the song was so linked to the city, he’d never been able to find any trace of the hospital to which it referred.

That’s because the St. James Infirmary was in London, a medieval leper refuge that’s now St James’s Palace, though, according to most accounts, this place isn’t even the true birthplace of the song. It’s supposed to have originated in an Irish ballad cycle entitled The Unfortunate Rake. My mother’s family come from Ireland, and I can confirm that you can rely on strangers talking to you there, maybe even stopping you in the street. However, the nights, even in summer, are likely to be chilly. So on balance it’s probably a good thing that none of us, myself included, are obliged to stop in the place where we started.