How to cook like a chef

We went to speak to Lance Fink, 69, Cordon Bleu-trained executive chef at Fink’s Salt and Sweet. He has been outrageously generous in imparting wisdom learnt over a lifetime of experimentation. It’s one thing following recipes to the letter, but these are tips you probably won’t find in a cookery book. 

From this day forward, follow these simple rules to instantly upgrade your cooking skills from mediocre to Michelin-starred. You’ll thank us in years to come


Photo taken by Helena Blackstone. All rights reserved.
(Photo: Jess Blackstone. All rights reserved.)

Continue reading “How to cook like a chef”


“I was stabbed 25 times.”

Please note: this is not the speaker in the article. This is just a picture of a sad woman. Photo by Sylvain Courant
Please note: this is not the speaker in the article. This is just a picture of a sad woman. Photo by Sylvain Courant

By Anna Montague*

It was the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. I was studying for my history PhD at home, in my basement flat in Hackney, London, and my partner was at work. After lunch I sat down at my desk and was reading a survivor’s account of 9/11 in The Times, when I heard a clattering coming from the front of my building. Somebody had pinched our garden pots a few days earlier. “Maybe it’s the same person,” I thought. I closed my two black Cocker Spaniels, Jessie and Hal, into my study, so that they wouldn’t bark, and went into the hall to find out what was happening outside.

A man’s face appeared through the windows of my front door. He was peering in. I felt a surge of outrage and thought “how dare you look in my home?” I opened the door to tell this person to eff off, but at first I couldn’t see anyone. Then he appeared from behind the door. He was in his late twenties, hair shaved close to his head, scruffy and wild-eyed, with scabby pale skin like a crackhead. Before I had time to react, he started through the door.

“What the f*** do you think you’re doing?” I shouted.

That’s when he punched me in the chest. So I grabbed him. I knew it wasn’t wise to fight, but I thought he was coming in to steal my stuff, and I absolutely couldn’t just let him. We fought in the narrow hallway, locked in a kind of embrace, me trying to push him out of the door and him trying to push his way in. He was reigning blows on me.

Then I saw the knife and realised that I wasn’t being punched, I was being stabbed – over and over again. I didn’t feel pain, just a tremendous pressure with each blow to my thigh, my back, my chest, my neck, my skull. It seemed to go on for a very long time. I thought, “I wonder when I will die.”

He left me lying on the ground, stepped over my body and had a look around my flat. Then he went, leaving the front door open behind him. I was able to close it and stagger to the phone, which was in the hallway, and dial 999. I was gurgling from the blood in my lungs. After I spoke to someone, I called again, unable to remember what I had just done. I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t put the moments together. When I was convinced someone was on their way, I crawled to the kitchen and lay there on my back. I felt no pain, but it was so hard to breathe that I assumed I wasn’t going to make it.

I am told that the ambulance arrived in a few minutes, though it felt like hours. I thought about what it would be like to die, and cried, not for me but for the people who loved me. I was able to open the door for the paramedics, and then I let go of everything that was happening and they bundled me up and drove me away.

Later, when they were stapling up each of my knife wounds, I found out that I had been stabbed 25 times. One of the wounds had narrowly missed my heart. I was very lucky to be alive and in hospital for only two weeks with a punctured lung. Once it was drained, the function returned, and today I have only short scars on my chest and back.

They found him in the end: a few weeks later, somebody on a train from London to Bristol overheard two men talking about a series of robberies one of them had committed. This person phoned the police straight away, so that when the train arrived at Bristol Temple Meads station, they were waiting to arrest him. One of the things this man had stolen was a decorative, Turkish knife with a short blade which about matched my wounds. I must have inflicted some damage in the fight, because the forensics were able to prove he was my attacker from a spot of his blood on my trousers.

There was also a lot of blood in the study which wasn’t mine or his; it turned out to be from one of my dogs. I didn’t realise at the time, but he stabbed her too. It’s funny, that’s the bit that triggers me getting upset, when I think about my dog Jessie being stabbed.

When I finally saw him again at the Old Bailey, over two years after the attack, he looked much younger than I remembered, and vulnerable. At first it was upsetting to be where he could look at me; that felt like a new violation. But it was better to realise he wasn’t the threatening figure that loomed large in my hallway. It helped me learn to let it go.

He was cleared of attempted murder but convicted of causing grievous bodily harm with intent, a string of other burglaries and handling stolen goods. He was sentenced to eight years, which, if he behaved himself meant he was probably going to serve half of that – four years. I thought to myself, “that’s not very much, but at least he’s been convicted”. I wasn’t going to let myself go through the pain of being angry about it.

These days I’m embarrassed when it comes up in conversation. I’m a university lecturer now and my students often Google me and ask about “the horrible thing”. I tend to giggle and joke that I’m a have-a-go-hero. That’s the only way I can deal with it. Maybe I did the wrong thing, standing up to him, but the alternative was too awful.

As told to Helena Blackstone.

*name changed to disguise identity

Darling of Westminster dies

The death of Sheila Gunn, a much-loved political journalism lecturer for 14 years at City, has prompted handwritten letters from Sir John Major and David Cameron.

Gunn was previously John Major’s press secretary from 1995 until his defeat in the 1997 general election. Before that she was a political correspondent with The Times for 15 years.

In a letter to Gunn’s son, Ben Beardall, Sir Major wrote: “I greatly valued all she did – and the slightly shy, but charming way she did it.

“She was an attractive and able personality whom I will always remember with affection and respect.”

Cameron wrote to Beardall in a letter passed on to XCIty, saying: “Sheila was so loved and admired across the Conservative Party, and indeed, the whole political spectrum.”

Joy Johnson, whose former career as a political journalist and head of communications for the Labour party mirrored Gunn’s taught alongside her on City’s Public Administration module.

She said: “We became a bit of a double act – when we delivered levtures together we would interrupt each other – we had that kind of repartee.”

Colin Brown, the political journalist who wrote a chapter in Gunn’s book So You Want to be a Political Journalist?, remembered how she kept a sunny attitude despite being on “mission impossible” during Sir Major’s ailing 1997 election campaign.

Pictures emerged of the then Prime Minister in a McLaren Formula One car, accompanied by stories about the wheels coming off his campaign wagon and claims that a cameraman tried to position Sir Major under a shop sign that read “S.Lease”.

Brown was part of the media pack following the campaign, and remembers how she coped throughout. “She sailed through it smiling, and telling us [journalists] we were ‘very naughty’,” he said.

Sam Macrory, a student of Gunn’s in 2011 who also contributed a chapter to her book, said: “She could tell us what it was like on the front line as a lobby journalist in Westminster and at the heart of a general election.

“She was wonderfully indiscreet with her tales of her time in politics. She couldn’t help but tell us bits and pieces that we’d never have known otherwise.

She brought people into her confidence and they enjoyed her company. That’s probably how she got her stories.”

Barely two months after the memorial, her ex-husband Mike Beardall, a former regional editor who helped launch the Mail on Sunday, died aged 62. They were married for 14 years.

Sheila Gunn, MBE, journalist, press adviser and university lecturer, was born on August 29, 1948. She died of a brain haemorrhage on October 17, 2014, aged 66.

Originally published by XCity magazine.

Journalists’ most embarrassing mistakes

Reputation is key to a journalist’s career – mess up and you’ll have to run away to the circus… or so you might think. These four journalists have survived to confess their worst mistakes.

Tweet your most embarrassing journalistic mistake @XCityplus with the hashtag #journogaffe or share in the comments below.

Ian Katz – editor of Newsnight and former deputy editor of The Guardian


In the mid-Noughties, The Sun had been exposing security weaknesses by planting a series of fake bombs – in theCommons, on an airplane and at Sandhurst Military Academywhere Prince Harry was training

Ian Katz, then editor of G2, had the idea of giving The Sun a taste of their own medicine. His assistant made a “bomb” our of blue tack and paperclips, and a young fashion journalist (who was in fact Hadley Freeman) was dispatched to try to get the bomb into the News International boardroom. After three failed attempts to get into the building, Katz said to her, “Don’t worry about it, you’ve done valiantly”, and thought no more about it.

Some time later, Katz was returning from lunch and found hundreds of people streaming out of The Guardian offices. On asking what had happened, he was told “a bomb has been found in the fashion cupboard.

Dan Cairns –music critic for The Sunday Times

martini-154548_1280“I was at the 2006 Mercury Prize ceremony five days before our new music section was launching. I was due to interview the Arctic Monkeys – but only if they won. Having refreshed myself at the bar more than was advisable, I began seriously hoping they wouldn’t win, but of course they did. The 20-minute ‘exclusive’ interview that then occurred wasn’t my finest moment.

Following the ceremony, I went on with a group of n’er-do-wells to a watering hole, where, for God knows what reason, I left my two Dictaphones – two for safety, you see (oh, the irony) – on the bar, while I went to the loo. On my return, they’d gone.

I called my editor at 4am from a cab, and confessed. She was furious, and told me to write a general overview on the prize instead, the Arctic Monkeysexclusive having vanished into thin air, with a deadline of 11am. After four hours’ sleep, I stretched the deadline to breaking point, having taken three hours to write 300 words. Not because I couldn’t think, but because I couldn’t physically type.

It was a shaming episode, and one that still causes me to break into a cold sweat when the memory of it hits me. But I can’t help feeling the shame would have been even deeper had I actually had to transcribe the interview. I mentioned it toAlex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys one time, and he told me that none of them had been able to understand me. So perhaps I owe that Dictaphone thief a drink. Well, maybe not a drink, actually…”

Ned Temko – former chief political correspondent for The Observer and former editor of The Jewish Chronicle

Image Credit: Wikipedia

“I’d barely begun working as a foreign correspondent in the Lisbon Associated Press bureau, about 18 months after the toppling of the dictatorship in April 1974. By early 1976, the veteran Socialist Party politician Mário Soares was about to emerge as prime minister in the country’s first democratic election since the revolution. I had managed to set up a pre-election interview with him in his home.

One of the pieces I’d written a few days earlier had ended up on the front page of Brazil’s largest daily newspaper. I can’t remember what it was about, but it had not left Soares very happy.

As soon as I took my seat in his study, he started berating me, shouting and gesticulating. I saw my accomplishments in journalism flash before my eyes, figuring that getting on the wrong side of the man who was likely to be running Portugal for at least the next few years was probably not a great career move. I ended up bursting into tears in his office.”

Terry Dignan – BBC producer

“I was starting out as a TV reporter for a BBC regional news programme. One morning I turn up at 8am for my daily briefing, and I’m told to get in the van with the cameraman and drive off to a Tesco car park in Maidstone, where an extremely rare species of bird has flown all the way from South America. So off I go.

It turns out the bird has moved on to a residential housing estate next door. The estate is deserted because most people are at work. Then we turn a corner. There must be hundreds, possibly thousands of men, and the odd woman, dressed in anoraks, all pointing their cameras and binoculars in the same direction. The ‘twitchers’ have descended from all over the country to see this very rare creature that’s arrived in Kent by mistake.

My cameraman warns me: ‘I can’t get an absolute close-up because the camera is not equipped for wildlife.’ This guy overhears and says: ‘I’ve been taking professional photographs of this bird that I can give you to bung in your news report.’ And I think: ‘Fantastic!’A yellow bird

After lunch we head back to London and I’m feeling quite pleased with myself. I hand the photographs over to my producer and put together my report. Within seconds of its broadcast, the phones start ringing everywhere. It turns out another not quite as rare yellow bird, from North Africa, has been in the area at the same time, which he’s also photographed. I don’t know the difference between one yellow bird and another. My editor walks out of his office, and he says: ‘Mr Reporter, I need to talk to you.’”

Originally published by XCity+

XCity Award 2015 shortlist revealed: Adam Barr and Ryan Ramgobin

Two online video journalists who captured uniquely honest footage of the fierce moods on the streets on the streets of Glasgow ahead of the 2014 Scottish Referendum, have been shortlisted for the XCity Award.

Adam Barr and Ryan Ramgobin (Broadcast, 2014), also known as the “Referendum Boys”, got over 185,000 Youtube hits for their 16 videos that captured the fierce moods on the streets of Glasgow, ahead of the 2014 Scottish Referendum. With this footage they were the first ever entrants to win the Hugh Cudlipp award with video journalism.

Ramgobin told XCity+ why viewers reacted so strongly to their videos, giving the example of an interview with a no voter: “This man was part of a group of EDL supporters, being provocateurs amid the yes campaigners. There was some bias in the mainstream media towards the no campaign, and they probably didn’t want to show this person who was letting the side down. You didn’t see those people on TV – not on Channel 4, ITV or the BBC.”

Ramgobin explained that while Barr and he were at City they produced a cultural podcast together: “We both realised what we wanted to do, and that’s telling stories which are not in the news, and going out and speaking directly to the source.”

This sentiment is reflected in the next online video project for Ramgobin and Barr. The pair will give a “zoomed-in view” on five constituencies for a month before the general election, following candidates and speaking to local people.

Ramgobin and Barr are one of five nominations to be shortlisted for the XCity Award, and the £500 prize, which recognises an outstanding contribution to journalism in the past year by a City alumnus or alumni.

Here one of the pair’s Scottish Referendum videos, of a yes-voting Glaswegian’s “defiant and passionate message to Westminster”:

“Win-win”: Investigative Bureau moves closer to home

New location strengthens ties and opens up intern opportunities

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) has strengthened its ties with City after moving into a new office only a corridor away from the journalism department.

Until February, the Bureau was situated several streets away from the student body in City’s Myddelton Building.

As a not-for-profit organisation, part of the bureau’s remit is to foster investigative journalism. Since its founding in 2010 it has given City students priority for internships and sent senior staff to guest lecture.

However, from its new vantage point in the College Building the bureau hopes to play an even larger role in students’ work.

Rachel Oldroyd, managing editor, said: “If we manage to encourage two or three more people who’ve gone through the journalism school to move into investigative journalism, that’s a job well done.

Geoge Brock, a trustee of the bureau and the former head of City’s journalism department, said: “It’s a win-win situation. The bureau has access to bright, inquisitive, enthusiastic young journalists, and City students get real-world experience in a challenging but ultimately very rewarding area of journalism.”

Suzanne Franks, who heads the undergraduate programme, said: “We are hoping that the BIJ will provide meaningful and interesting workplace opportunities for our students, and give them a taste of what serious investigative journalism involves.”
The bureau currently has three recent City graduates in their team of 11. Vic Parsons and Jack Serle did the Science MA, while XCity Award nominee Tom Warren came from the Investigative MA.

Vic Parsons, who interned one day a week at the bureau while she was a student, said: “I came with a project that I wanted to work on and found it’s a very supportive, nourishing environment.”
In the past, the bureau has acted as a stepping stone for City alumni to gain jobs in larger organisations. James Ball worked there after graduating from the Magazine MA, before becoming special projects editor of The Guardian.

The bureau has been talking to not-for-profit investigative journalism organisations in the US, where they are more common, to learn about how they operate.

Joaquin Alvarado, CEO at the Center for Investigative Reporting in California, which works with the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley and the Knight Fellowship at Stanford, said: We have a really special dynamic that is only possible if you work closely with universities. Having an intergenerational newsroom allows new ideas to circulate.”

The bureau is especially keen to mentor students in specific areas, such as video, podcast, data journalism, animation and infographics, to find new ways to tell stories.

Begging to write

Crowdfunding rides to the rescue of original journalism

Peter Jukes, a blogger and experienced freelance reporter, was delighted when he managed to secure the last of 12 press places in the courtroom at the Old Bailey for the News of the World phone-hacking trial in October 2013. Jukes had intended to produce a weekly article on the trial for The Daily Beast, but began instead to live-tweet the proceedings. He quickly attracted a large and loyal following, which included Rebekah Brooks and her defence lawyers.

But, having recently missed a mortgage payment Jukes told his readers he could only afford to cover the opening days. His readers thought otherwise. “Someone sent me £10 on Paypal, just by typing in my email address,” Jukes recalls. “I received dozens of tweets telling me to crowdfund the money I needed.”
From there, Jukes set up an Indiegogo page asking for $4,000 to keep him at the trial until Christmas. Within a day he had £6,000. At a second push, he received another £14,000.

As a result Jukes was able to live-tweet the entire seven-month trial. It was an exhausting and full-time task, which saw him wear out a keyboard and eventually publish his book Beyond Contempt: The Inside Story of the Phone Hacking Trial.

Jukes is one of a new breed of journalists to benefit from crowdfunding, a way of amassing many small payments from individuals to fund a single project or article, which has become a way for writers to circumvent publishers.

This new payment model has emerged over the last couple of years and has been heralded as a way to democratise journalism, giving a voice to individuals rather than large media organisations. So far it has been used to shine light on issues that might otherwise escape the mass market. But is it really as easy as putting out an appeal and waiting for the cash pledges to roll in?

Inevitably, it can be tricky to convince people to pay. Crowdfunding runs on goodwill and faith in the outcome of a story or investigation. In return, donators are often offered rewards such as a first look at the piece, merchandise, or simply the opportunity to become part of a community.

It can also be risky. During the phone hacking trial Jukes was vulnerable to being tried as an individual for contempt of court: “Practically every morning a defence lawyer would stand up and say: ‘My Lord, there’s been a tweet.’” On the other hand, his coverage was groundbreaking, precisely because crowdfunding set him free. “My audience really appreciated having a journalist there who was independent.”

Not everyone has a public profile like Jukes’ to help pull in donations. Danielle Batist is less well known, but has been a freelancer for 20 years. Two years ago, she was one of the first in the UK to tap into the crowdfunding trend. Batist calls herself a “journopreneur” who is interested in “finding ways to directly engage with the audience rather than relying on the old system of distribution”.

She uses the journalism community website Contributoria to fund articles, including her monthly column, ‘Someone I Met’, which details her encounters with individuals around the world.

Batist now trains other freelance journalists in how to crowdfun their projects. “You have to be very disciplined and driven to run a campaign,” she says. “There are never going to be enough strangers to fund your work every month. You need a strong network of a couple of hundred superfans. I don’t think every journalist is ready for it – you have to be a marketing person at the same time.”

Batist has also noticed that crowdfunding can act as a barometer to gauge the public’s appetite for a story. “I’ve found it hard to get positive, solution-based journalism placed in newspapers, but it has been very popular through crowdfunding,” she explains.

“Jukes’ reporting represented the most significant press innovation since colour newspapers”

Another area of journalism that has embraced crowdfunding is investigative reporting. More so than other types of journalism, investigations are facing budget cuts as newspapers and TV channels struggle to find ways to sell material that, for all its benefits, is expensive and time-consuming to produce.

In 2013 the Bureau of Investigative Journalism crowdfunded over $27,000 (£18,000) in three months for its ‘Naming the Dead’ project, which sought to name all those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. Rachel Oldroyd, the Bureau’s managing editor, explains that having clearly defined results was the key to the success of the project: “You absolutely have to have a deliverable. We could promise exactly what we would achieve: finding the names.”

Freelance Irish journalist Lyra McKee has used US crowdfunding platform Beacon to raise over $6,000 (£4,000) for her investigation into the murder of Belfast political Robert Bradford in 1981.

McKee believes that more can be made of the reader-writer relationship, both financially and by sharing information. “We tend to look at readers as a commodity instead of as a community,” she says. “Don’t treat your readers like they’re a source of money. Treat them like co-conspirators who are helping you uncover the story, because they are, whether they’re contributing cash or giving you leads.”

Jess McCabe, the features editor at Inside Housing, raised £2,100 towards a six-month investigative series published by eNews. The series, called ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’, looked at the economic reasons behind women remaining in abusive relationships in the UK. McCabe points out that the intensive publicity behind her crowdfunding call enhanced the path of her investigation. “Lots of my interviewees got in touch with me after hearing about the project during the fundraising process,” she says.

“In order to take on power you have to actually have some”

McCabe also had to grapple with the expectations of her donors. She heard stories of women who had more financial means than their abusive partners, and had to ask herself: “Did that fit with the original brief? What would donors think of me including that story in a series that was meant to be about austerity?” In the end, she decided to include the story, which she called ‘In these cases of abuse, her money was no defense’. “Ultimately,” she says, “as a journalist you have to go where the story takes you.”

Some are sceptical about the scope of crowdfunded journalism. Every single one of the journalists featured here stressed how exhaustingly difficult it is to convince enough people that a project is worthy of their money, and then to sustain interest. Heather Brooke, known for her freedom of information investigation into MPs’ expenses, warns that crowdfunding would not work for every kind of journalism. “In order to take on power in an effective way, you have to actually have some. You have to have institutional power and lawyers behind you. That costs a lot of money.”

Crowdfunding may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to funding journalism, but it has undoubtedly enabled a lot of important work that may never have happened without it. Referring to Jukes’ hacking trial crowdfunding project, the BBC news presenter Jeremy Vine said: “If Peter Jukes is the future of journalism, our trade is safe. His reporting […] represented the most significant press innovation since newspapers started printing in colour.”

Four-step guide to crowdfunding

  1. Ask yourself: “Is my project suitable?” Is it something you can explain to your readers ahead of time? If not, maybe crowdfunding is not for you. It helps if the project is already underway and your public can see the results so far, as a promise of what’s to come

  2. Plan your publicity campaign. Some have started weeks, even months, in advance. Tweet, blog and email everyone you can. Can you offer your donors anything special? Ask them to help – if readers feel like it’s their story too, they are more inclined to chip in.

  3. Tell potential donors what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, why it’s important, and that with their money you can achieve it. Quantify how much time and money your project will take. Be realistic about your outcome – you don’t want disappointed customers.

  4. Momentum is not enough. Once you have started publicising, don’t stop – ever. Keep your sponsors constantly informed and engage new donors. Keep an open notebook – with updates, books your reading and interview transcripts.

What do razors, edible sugar flowers and kangaroo meat have in common?

What do razors, edible sugar flowers and kangaroo meat have in common? They are all taxed as essential products. Tampons and sanitary pads, on the other hand, are classed as “non-essential, luxury” items.

“Non-essential”. So what would happen if women did without? One of two things: they could stay at home and bleed unobtrusively into their toilet bowls, or continue about their daily lives, staining clothes and carpets and disturbing any olfactory systems in range.

When the tennis player Heather Watson said last month that she lost at the Australian Open partly due to dizziness and nausea from “girl things”, the furore that followed showed that by mentioning her period she was doing something very unusual or even shocking. Yet periods often cause excruciating stomach cramps, aching legs and back, mood swings and headaches; periods can be a major pain.

The topic of tampon tax is beginning to reach national consciousness after Laura Coryton, a 21-year-old student at Goldsmith’s University, started a petition to scrap tampon tax, which has had nearly 140,000 signatures. Cameron was asked last week if he would remove the tax, to which he responded that it was very difficult to change the tax within the framework of European Union laws: “I’ll have to go away and have a look and come back to you.” This doesn’t sound promising.

Designating tampons as luxury taxable products implies an institutionalised misogyny in which women’s needs are routinely dismissed. Tampons form a keystone of female independence: they allow us the freedom to gain an education and earn a living, instead of staying at home – which is what many women did in the past and still do in some cultures.

In India, girls stay at home for an average of 50 days of school a year because of their periods. Some 88 per cent of menstruating women do not use sanitary protection. Many of these women use unsanitary alternatives such as newspapers, ashes and dried leaves, and have a 70% higher incidence of reproductive tract infections. But we are not in India and the vast majority of British girls are not missing school because of about 11p extra in tax per pack.

Campaigners got the tax lowered from 17.5% to 5% in 2000, to align with the EU minimum for non-essential products. It is not that we should be arguing to avoid paying taxes while the government is cutting disability and child benefits. It is the principle that matters. Sanitary products are health care, and should be designated as such.

I had mixed feelings about writing this article, it not being a subject everyone would air in public. To do so risks attracting the attention of marauding misogynists. But to avoid the subject would be to remain complicit in maintaining the taboo.

American feminist Gloria Steinem said in 1986 that if men had periods instead of women, a period would be the “envied beginning of manhood” and that there would be “gifts, religious ceremonies”. But men don’t. They have never been sent out of the kitchen for fear of tainting the cutlery; had to sleep in a separate bed; been spurned from their homes; made others impure by their touch; been banned from the tops of mountains; polluted the sacredness of temples; been hung upside down; lain writhing in pain while sucking a lemon; sat out of swimming lessons; ruined dozens of knickers; leaked through their clothes when there’s nowhere to hide; or spent unexplained hours in someone else’s bathroom secretly washing their underwear. If they had, they would realise that having a convenient sanitary product to keep themselves clean is not a luxury, it’s essential.

Review: Elephants, The Hampstead Theatre

A year and a day after the murder of her son, Sally attempts to have a happy Christmas.

Rose Heiney’s first play “Elephants” unpacks a family’s sometimes unsavoury struggle to find a way to be around each other in the wake of this death, which wrenches them from their comfortable middle-class lives.

The audience enters through a low-ceilinged wooden shed, with the evocative bric-a-brac of family – boxes of kids books, failed arts and craft attempts, a skateboard – and treads across the living room carpet on the stage to take our seats. It’s disorientating to be sitting in Polly Sullivan’s incredibly detailed set, with Ikea lampshades and bowls of crisps for the audience to nibble, which blurs the distinction between audience and the action of the play.

Sally (Imogen Stubbs) tries to pave over her family’s grief with Buck’s Fizz and enforced jollity, but only succeeds in pressurising everyone around her into emotional disintegration [nicely summed up]. It is only when she reaches crisis point and abandons pretence, joining her daughter in a childlike disregard for propriety, that the family can begin to process their tragedy.

Daughter Daisy (Bel Powley) acts as a barometer of the family’s insanity. Her recent return from a private psychiatric clinic (“She wasn’t mad enough for the NHS”, snipes her father) is another elephant in the room that cannot be allowed to puncture the façade. However, while in therapy she has learnt that painful thoughts should not be left unsaid. Her dangerous words threaten everyone on stage. Powley’s performance captivates, with her gawky physicality, which belies her ceaseless drive to butcher her family’s relationships.

Husband Richard (Richard Lintern) has opted out. Deep in the throes of a bout of alcoholism, he has disappeared into himself and remains there as a mere placeholder figure in Sally’s Christmas production for much of the play. That is , until a stunning breakthrough monologue delivered from “his shed”, where he has retreated emotionally and physically since long before the action of the play. In a particularly beautifully written section of script, he finally removes his mask and shares his recurrent nightmares.

The production is cleverly cast, each character a fully fleshed picture of concerns, flaws and saving graces. If the first half seems an ever so slightly staid family drama, it sets up a second half of imaginative reversals and weighty character breakthroughs. Witty, at times difficult, and always intelligent, this is a full production deserving of a much larger audience.

“Elephants” by Rose Heiney, Hampstead Downstairs 11 December – 17 January. £5-12

History of Horst P. Horst

Horst P. Horst (born Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann in Germany, 1906-1999) rivalled the great fashion and portrait photographers of the 20th century, such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. His career spanned 60 years, from his first photo credit in 1931, and included 94 Vogue covers. Horst was described in Vogue as “photography’s alchemist,” so adept was he at transmuting light into dramatic atmosphere. He was a master of chiaroscuro, the art of strong contrast between light and dark, which he harnessed with such severe precision that it sometimes took him two days to construct his set.

Trained in architecture and design, Horst’s early pieces feature women given import by a fantasy of neoclassical arches and pillars. He had an eye for exquisitely expressive hands, which he eventually isolated in a 1941 surrealist portrait of four hands, two real and two of mannequins. Later, he became one of the first photographers to perfect the newly available colour techniques. In the 1960s, working for Vogue’s “Fashions in Living” pages, he photographed the interiors and gardens of the stars, from Andy Warhol to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Horst was adored by his models, evidenced by their effusive words of affection. One of his muses, Lisa Fonssagrives, said: “I became a model because he made me one.” He was so much a part of the fashion family that when he fought in WWII his identification tags gave the contact details of Edna Chase, editor of US Vogue.

Obfuscation of the inner world of the woman is a theme in Horst’s portraits. His models stare into the distance, their eyes often bewilderingly sad and far away, evoking unanswerable questions. The viewer becomes desperate to know the woman who is withheld. This invitation and frustration of the gaze are what holds the onlooker in such thrall of Horst’s images.

Composite photo of Susann Shaw, American Vogue Cover 1943

Composite photo of Susann Shaw
Composite photo of Susann Shaw

The picture looks at first like images of a woman reflected on shards of mirror, but on closer inspection the blue scarf from one neck flows around another’s head. A disembodied mouth and an elongated neck are reminiscent of Horst’s surrealist explorations of the 1930s. It was shot in Horst’s studio, and yet the image is banished to a dream world. The women both invite and deflect the male gaze; an image of one alone would allow the viewer to stare, but in this arrangement each figure directs the eye elsewhere, agitating the viewer who is denied a focus. The faces overhang the edge of the image, which becomes an abstract pattern; red lips become flecks of colour. The whole is both beautiful and chaotic, seductive and disconcerting.