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A china trail to France

I’m pretty sure that future generations of archaeologists (that is if us humans don’t so badly fuck up the eco-system that we’re erased from the planet but instead, last for long enough for their services to be needed, which, at the moment, I have to say, is in some huge fucking doubt) will, when surveying the sea-bed along the course taken by the cross-Channel ferries — plying their trade between Dover and Folkestone on the one side and Calais, Boulogne & Dunkirk on the other — find, to their surprise, huge quantities of pretty much un-broken china. Plates, cups and saucers and the occasional sheet tray.

“And why is all that there?” I hear you ask.

OK, dear reader, therein lies a short story:

As well as the Kingsdown Holiday Camp company, another one that was to give me a job as a teenager and into my early twenties, was Townsend Thoresen later re-branded as European Ferries who in turn were then taken over by P&O (who still carry on the ferry services across the Channel today). Like the camp, the ferries had the attractions of easy availability of sex and drugs as well as duty-free ciggies and alcohol but, unlike the camp, actually paid their staff well. And there were other perks. Everyone was running a scam of some form or another, from the forex staff in the bureau de change running dual books (all transactions were hand recorded, so unless the security team met you at Calais, you’d the whole second return trip to ‘balance’ your books — and you’ll no doubt have guessed that at least one time, the security team did surprise them in Calais), to the stores guys, who working with the team bringing stock on board when we were quayside were swapping out the “good” stuff for fakes right down to the crew member pouring cups of tea from a huge china tea-pot on the main deck, who’d bring in his own tea-bags and pocket all the profit from each sale.

Townsend’ couldn’t have cared less to be honest; they paid lip-service to the idea of security etc. but the existence of the duty free regime meant that the trips (the original “booze cruises” supplemented by the “non landers” and the “dance to France” trips) saw them coining in so much profits, that the large chunk of money lost through these tricks was the proverbial drop of piss in the ocean (OK, Channel then).

Yes, I was one of those employees…

And although somehow I managed to wangle my way into working the silver service in Langan’s Brasserie — a franchised operation hived off from the original Mayfair institution — this finely moustachioed gent in the ‘photo below is not me. Langan’s was fun; both the London one and the ship-board one. I made a metric fuck ton in tips and via the other scams we’d run. And everyone from the skipper on down was either half-pissed or half-stoned. Fun times.

Townsend Thoreson restaurant

We were expected to share our tips with the chefs, which meant a pooling of all of the fivers and tenners (and even twenties if you were lucky enough to get a group of high-rollers who’d happily drink multiple bottles of wine with their meal — anything left, rapidly necked behind the scenes before you disposed of the bottle — and then top it off with a cigar or two which meant the haze of alcohol also prompted them to hand over a large tip) at the end of the shift and then a divvying up. One day, a waiter (not me) was suspected of regularly holding back some of his share from the pot. So one of the chefs put a metal pan under the salamander until it almost glowed red hot, dropped a newly cooked steak onto it and, calling the suspect over, pretending it was a customer order and handed it to him, waiting until the poor bastard screamed in pain, to then shout, in a broad Glaswegian accent “don’t ever fook wi’ me tips again, ya wee gob-shite”. And as far as I know, he never did. If he ever had, that is of course. From that I took a couple of salutary lessons:

  1. don’t mess with Glaswegians
  2. don’t get caught if you’re blagging…

There’s a funny piece here by Will Self from around 2004 describing a later version of this floating restaurant although, in all honesty, almost fly in amber-like, they didn’t seem to change that much over the years.

Entrance to Kangan's Brasserie

 

This is the old Free Enterprise 2, the ship I first started in on…

Free Enterprise 2

This is the FE4. I think this was the first of their ferries that finally came with stabilisers…

Townsend Thoreson ferry

…which helped it stop wallowing like a pig as soon as it left harbour. Up until this one came along, the earlier models were real vomit comets. Anything more than a stiff breeze and they floundered up & down, port to starboard, pitching & yawing all the time until we docked on the other side of the Channel. The gangways and toilets ran ankle deep in passenger vomit. It was easy enough to move along through the middle of them as they caroomed off the walls and each other, like pinballs.  We’d also make a point of bringing huge breakfast plates full of fried food, past those unfortunates collapsed in one of the lounges and then time how long it’d take for the aroma of fried bacon and eggs and sausages to send them dashing for the nearest deck exit, there to hang their heads over the  side.

The FE4. Bright, shiny. New. Until one memorable day it was damaged when a pissed skipper misjudged the distance between jetty and ship side and gouged a huge gash out it. Was like watching a giant tin-opener running along the side. One hell of a noise as well..

“But what about the fucking trail of CHINA” I hear you ask? OK, back to that. One of my other earlier gigs on board, before I managed to blag my way into a waiter’s uniform, was in the plate/pan wash. This hell-hole was located deep in the bowels of the ship and was where an endless stream of plates, cups & saucers and other kitchen gear came to be washed. There was endless hot water from the ships’ boilers but, you know, washing up kind of loses its charms after another 12 hour shift, so, if one was bored, tired, pissed off or just plain lazy (and I was all four, my loves), then rather than actually washing all this gear, the easiest way to get it off your side of the pan-wash was simply to open a port-hole and pitch everything through it. Where it rapidly sank to the bottom of the sea…

And that explains the deposits at the bottom of the Channel. And any statute of limitations has long expired.

It’s the wurst

I love the detail that the most mass produced Volkswagen factory part is, in fact, a sausage

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen_currywurst

Although as my friend David Morton said

“It would be entirely on-brand for Volkswagen if the ingredient list was mostly lies and the sausages were made from workers killed in accidents as a way of massaging its health and safety statistics.#dieselgate”

And I just saw this for the first time, which made me smile.

Hope you’re all staying safe and well. And not too many “dark days”.

 

Mea culpa. In 5 parts.

1. Many, many moons ago, there was (and indeed, still is) a small holiday camp, set in the grounds of Kingsdown House, located in — you’ll be amazed to hear — a coastal Kent village called Kingsdown, just between Deal & Dover. They employed impecunious students & bored teenagers & ‘entertainers’ who’d been banned from appearing anywhere else (probably because they were so crap or had problems with drink, drugs and underage girls — think “Hi De Hi“, but without the talent). We were paid shit wages, but there was lots of sex & drugs & alcohol which helped make up for the slave-like conditions. Lots and lots of people chose to come there. Proximity to the sea and three (count ’em!) pubs may have had something to do with this…
Kings Head pub, Kingsdown, Kent
2. …. the chalets (ooooh, such glamorous visions that word conjures up) that people were offered weren’t anything like the ‘glamping’ properties you’d see on AirBnB nowadays.  No insulation, cold, draughty in winter, ovens in the summer. But they were always full. You can also tell how bad this company were as employers when you hear that they entrusted some of the cooking duties to me. At the time, I could burn water. We sat the punters down to leather-like fried eggs, charred bacon, food ‘recovered’ from the floor etc. etc. I didn’t hear of anyone dying there from food poisoning but, in all honesty, it wouldn’t have surprised me.
Kingsdown Holiday Camp chalets
3. The alcoholic head ‘chef’ usually didn’t appear until midday. His teeth rotting from the quantities of sugared drinks he’d drink when he couldn’t get any vodka. You get the picture? That’s why this particular idiot was enlisted to help in the cooking duties.
But, I want to — finally — apologise today to anyone who’d paid to come there, for, in particular, that one time we experimented with grinding up a couple of pairs of smelly plastic flip-flops into the mince mixture…
Kingsdown Holiday Camp
4. …that we then used for the Shepherd’s Pie fed to the poor, unsuspecting campers for lunch, later that day. This was our revenge on them, for their egregious cheating in the traditional staff v. campers water polo game held the previous day.…
Kingsdown Holiday camp park

5.  …and that they seemed to prefer this version to the normal mix — indeed were hugely enthusiastic at the heights of the culinary mountain we’d scaled with this particular item — is no excuse, I know. I know.

Greetings from Kingsdown Holiday Camp
So, there you have it. It’s weighed heavy over the years. Now I feel free of the guilt and can close the door on this one…
Kingsdown House holiday camp

The refugee chef

Where do you run to when you’ve been run out of town? Out of your country, out of your old life?

“Anywhere you want of course”, is the answer, “anywhere you choose”.

But where then do you hope to feel the prickings, that stilling around you, the realisation that this, this one place could be that new home, what are the signs that maybe you can stop running, having reached that place where you can draw breath, find a grounding, a settling, as roots sinking into a new bed of earth. 

My name’s Kenji and I’d accidentally poisoned my boss, with the blowfish that was my speciality and his regular favourite meal. And it was an accident. No cliché me, as I had no ill-will towards Miura-san. Not at all, I was his personal chef and he was a good boss, thoughtful, generous, kind even. That he was senior Yakuza however, complicated things. A lot. In the old days, legend had it, any chef who managed to kill a customer like this was obliged to disembowel himself with his own knife. I certainly wasn’t going to do that. But maybe I wouldn’t need to; his colleagues would, when they found me, have some — no doubt innovative and painful — ways to show me the errors in my work ethic.

No helpful family, no friends to speak of, so of course I ran, my tattoos an obvious flag to anyone looking. At first inside Japan, then abroad as I found nowhere that felt safe. Oh, and did I mention that I’d stolen from Miura-san as well? Only after he was dead of course. I’m not an animal. You may know already that there’s no cure for fugu poisoning, so there was really no point me calling anyone for help. And, just 35 minutes after we both — nearly simultaneously — realised how badly I’d fucked up, he was dead. 

So, what’s a man to do? Well, in this case, this man, what better than to empty Miura-san’s safe. Key from his pocket, warm thumb print still working, it opened. Enough thick, banded bundles of yen, dollars and euros to keep a frugal man alive for years. For Miura-san, it was pissant stuff, just a little ‘walking around’ money. For me, it was a fortune and my only chance that I’d still be alive in a year or so. So I ran. And kept running, for the next 5 years.  

“And that Jeff, is how I wound up here”…

Here was a little seaside town on the east coast of England. More specifically, here was the restaurant at the end of the pier where I’d been coming now to eat, week after week. I’d left a job in London, working as a key-cutter in a little shop in Acton, for here. I’d heard it described as “an oasis of calm. With great fish” by a customer chatting to a friend. The next day I’d packed my few clothes, and a short train ride later, was in Deal. For some reason, this place, so unlike the gomi on gomi density of Osaka that I’d loved, was balm for my soul. Maybe it was the sea. Maybe the ozone air. Maybe the fresh fish even… Whatever it was that had snagged my attention, I’m glad it had. For the moment, I was content. Even allowed myself to relax, feel more safe. Illusory I know but would you have been any different? I don’t think so. Even so, I continued to think it prudent to cover my arms with long sleeves, even in the hot sun.

I’d lucked into part-time work at a little fruit machine place kitty-cornered to the pier entrance, right on the sea-front. It’s funny, it was the nearest thing to a pachinko parlour that I’d found. The others working there were simple souls. Not smart but easy enough to rub along with. None of them any trouble, even little Fred who’d called me “that bloody Chink” — showing a lamentable grasp of both geography and tact — wasn’t a problem after I’d sworn, viciously, fluently and indicated that I’d also be extremely happy to throw him off the nearest cliff if he ever said anything like that again. 

It’d been a few weeks living in Deal before, one afternoon, at shift end, I’d found that I’d wandered all the way to end of the pier and stepped inside the little restaurant for the first time. The owner had been kind. He knew a few words of Japanese, bowed and welcomed me in, “irasshaimase”, which had me smiling in wry recognition of my past life. He’d asked what I might like to eat, followed by a chuckle from him as I’d said “omakase chef”. So, “chef’s choice” then. What I got was a fish finger sandwich. Three words that do scant justice to what Jeff put down in front of me, about 10 minutes later. Just pure genius. It was easily the best thing I’d ever eaten. Anywhere. Ever.

So, once a week, every week, I’d come here, have the same sandwich, seat myself at one of the large windows and look out to The East. Towards the rising sun. Waiting, I think for redemption. The wooden beams, roofing the place like leviathan ribs, made me think of old Western writings. Am I Ishmael then or a Queequeg character? Certainly the body ink I have would endear me to the latter. But I’m the refugee, the exile as well.

Slowly, I found myself doing more work there, less and less at the arcade; Jeff, one afternoon having decided he wanted to fish from the beach, on the way out, handing me a clean apron & his knife roll asking me to “cover whilst I’m out” followed by “it’s a quiet time and anyway, I trust you”. Back behind a counter, serving food. Strange. I thought that particular itch scratched, long gone but now, funayuki close-fitting my hand, it was all I wanted to do again.

That was 5 years ago. Since then, I’ve been cooking alongside him. We are twins by different mothers; he, my height but fair, comic-book handsome, with me, squat, dark browed, toad-like but from the first day we worked side by side, almost literally joined at the hip. We often don’t speak very much when busy, just a quick glance to check what the other needs, a nod toward a pot that’s close to over-topping, a smile as an ingredient arrives, fully prepped under the others’ hand, just in time for its addition to a dish.

Endless sandwiches. What he (no, we now) are known for. A road paved with them, stretching back into his past and forward into our futures. It took me some to realise that this road was also my path to a redemption — if that was needed still. My cooking, the salve, the solution. That after all was why Jeff had taken me on; it just took me, Mr Unaware, some time to realise. I’d told him my full story a year or two after we became colleagues, then a few years later, when we’d become friends, he, in turn, entrusted me with his. You’ll need to ask someone else about the details though as I won’t speak of it, at least on these pages except to say he’s The Keeper

Who can now go home, confident, reassured that I’ll never make a life rupturing mistake again. Those ingredients (my ingredients now) are in love with each other. And the world. I have a home again. I have that anchor. I am now that life-saving drogue, like him. I have his set of keys. His knives. His restaurant. And a curiously coloured shell. There’s a whole story about that shell, but that’s also for another time, for another person to tell.

Did I mention my ink? I know I have. You couldn’t miss it all, distinctive, swirling bands of colour, intricate designs, a neon spotlight for my searchers.

“But I’ll always be hiding. All these. I’ll always be visible.”

“No. No, you won’t. Look in the mirror.” Glancing sideways as he suggested, I saw my face, my arms, clearing, the shapes, the designs fading, wisps blowing away like dawn mist over the sea, until my skin was birth naked again. Then, more preternatural still, facial contours blurring, running, colours in flux, until, new-born, resurrection man, stood there, shyly smiling back at me. Kind of Jeff, but not Jeff. The new keeper. The new sandwich man. 

Some months later:

“Yes, that’s right, I’m Jeff, the owner, what can I get you?”

“The Japanese guy? Kenji wasn’t it? Looks a bit like you two, eh? Hahahaha. No offence like. Anyway, no idea though mate, sorry. He left”.