London’s Burning: Blog by Bernadette Russell


2016 is the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, and this gave me the opportunity to work with the wonderful Vanessa Wolf Hoyle (London Dreamtime) and George Hoyle (Cunning Folk) on a storytelling music extravaganza. (Vanessa and George are fabulous storytellers/musicians and they do loads of amazing walks and story/music events all over London so do check them out). Our show “London’s Burning” (presented as part of Hothouse) sold out immediately, so we hope to repeat it soon.

There is loads of interesting stuff happening all over the city to mark this anniversary: I went to see Stan’s Cafes beautiful installation Of All The People in All The World, and joined the thousands on Blackfriars Bridge to watch a replica of 17th century London go up in flames. As I was watching the group of kids behind me started singing London’s Burning, and then loads of people joined in, it was a great night.

I did lots of my own research, and tried to find a way to connect to the story in a personal way. (It turns out that Samuel Pepys buried his parmesan somewhere near Lower Thames Street, but never went back for it, and also that the oft repeated “only 6 or 8 people died in the fire” is a load of clobbers. For more facts check out the exhibition at the Museum of London. )

One of my first jobs in London (there have been many) was working in kitchens in pubs in Covent Garden and Islington, which is how I learnt to cook, next to chefs who could conjure an amazing dinner out of a packet of frozen peas, a bit of rice, a few spices and a pinch of optimism. There were a few occasions, for example when I stood on a rickety ladder in a baking hot kitchen to put the finishing touches to a French wedding cake by sprinkling it with sugared rose petals, when it truly seemed magical. (I also burnt my arm with caramel that day, I still have the scar, and I’ve not made caramel since.)

I’m fascinated by the fact that a baker started the fire. I read about the ingredients that “made the switch from spell to recipe, from cauldron to mixing bowl” about the superstitions and fears of those times, the songs and nursery rhymes, and who got the blame for the plague of 1665 that killed 100 000 people and the fire of 1666 that reduced ¼ of London to ashes.

We decided to take the audience on a journey to the top of the library and that we really ought to have an actual fire. Having a real fire on the roof of a public library is a bit of health and safety nightmare, so Annette Butler (operations manager) and I tested it, and all seemed well. No worries…

I’d got my story written, complete with bells and nursery rhymes and old plague songs and recipes that were sort of spells and a big bottle of rum. It also concluded with a nod to the future, and to what is constant about being human, and our enduring fascination with flames.

Vanessa told a wonderful Mayan story about fire and George sang some beautiful songs about trees and memories and South East London. The fire was going ok. I was listening to Vanessa telling her tale, when I saw Annette creeping around the edge of the chimera, BECAUSE THE ROOF WAS ON FIRE! Oops. She put it out, so we managed not to start the next Fire of London. Which would have been ironic. And dangerous.

As well as telling and listening to stories and songs, we all wrote what we would like to be rid of in our lives on bit of paper and burnt them, and we shared a bottle of rum, and we wrote our wishes in sparklers outside the front of the library.

© Photos by Andrew Mohammed

For those who are curious: here is the recipe from my story, which was handed to the audience on a piece of parchment (if you want to read or hear the whole story do get in touch):

This recipe from Thomas Farriner, via Ursula Southeil (Mother Shipton), soothsayer and prophetess, who predicted the Great Fire. It is said these cakes led indirectly to the near destruction of London, 2nd September 1666.

Firekins (or London’s Burnings)

Take one pound of very fine flour, and put to it half a pound of sugar. Turn widdershins* thrice.

Then, add one pound of currants well washed in moon-water. (for moon-water leave a bowl of water in your window for one whole month from full month, through wane and wax, to fulsome once more. This will make you moon water)

When your flower is well mixed with the sugar and currants, put in it a half a pound of melted butter, three spoonful’s of milk, with the yolks of three new-laid eggs beat with it, some nutmeg; and if you please, three spoonful’s of sack**

When you have mixed your paste well, you must put it in a dish by the fire, till it be warm. (If you do not have a fire, stare at the pot with unbridled rage for long enough, imagining those who have wronged you)

Then make them up in little cakes, and prick them full of holes. With each prick make a wish aloud, for everything you would be rid of. Do not be afeared.

Bake them in a quick oven (for 15 minutes at 200C) with the door shut. Be sure there is no cat in the room.

Afterwards sprinkle them with sugar.

The Cakes should be about the bigness of a handbreadth and thin.

Share them, or else eat them all yourself in one sitting, till you are cake-drunk and sleepy. Dream.

*widdershins- anti clockwise

** sack- sherry

Ingredients

1 pound self-raising flour.

Half pound caster sugar

1 pound currants washed in moon-water

Half pound butter

3 tablespoons milk

3 egg yolks

Pinch of nutmeg

3 tablespoons Sack

Icing sugar (to sprinkle on top)

 Bake with caution. Many ingredients make the leap from spell to recipe, from cauldron to mixing bowl. Never doubt the every day magic of cooking. Blessed Be.

The next Hothouse event from us will be looking to the future again, and will include a cosmologist, a physicist,  time travelling storytellers, a bit of a mystery tour of the library, some futuristic poetry from the good folk of Meet Me At The Albany-and a futuristic Santa,  but if you would like to get involved – please do get in touch! There’s more info about the show here and loads of other fantastic events going on at Deptford Lounge so check it out and support your library!

Thanks for reading x

Check out Bernadette Russell’s “Deptford Diary” for more.