Lockdown Jottings – 10

Are we still dressing for dinner?

As someone who regularly works from home but who keeps irregular hours, the time I actual shower and dress varies from day to day.

I might get up with good intentions, but then I find myself engrossed in my emails or reading articles on-line or the phone will ring and suddenly it’s lunchtime and I’m still in a state of déshabillé and looking, let’s say, somewhat less than kempt. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve opened the door in my dressing gown (*) to take delivery of parcels too big to go through the letterbox or to unexpected visitors who have a habit of turning up, well, unexpectedly.

(*) – I don’t actually have a door in my dressing gown, in case you were wondering.

Obviously, if I have a meeting to go to, then I’m up, dressed and ready to go, smart as a button and with a noticeable spring in my step at whatever time is required but, since lockdown, with all meetings cancelled, things have definitely changed! Let’s just say standards have slipped. Or they had, until video conferencing became the new normal and suddenly people expect you to be in front of your screen where they can see you – and often at a moment’s notice (an email arrives – “Are you free for a Zoom conference, now?”). Decency and professionalism mean that I have to retain a certain sense of decorum, even to sit at home, but, to don a shirt and tie, let alone a suit, seems a tad de trop when everyone can see I’m sitting on my sofa.  

To be honest, I actually miss dressing in a more business-like manner. Keeping up appearances is still important to me: manners may well maketh the man, but his apparel oft proclaims him (as Polonius advises his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – see, I’ve done my homework here!).

I know a lot of men hate wearing a tie, but I was brought up to wear one and, although I don’t wear them as often as I did when I was in full-time employment, when I donned one every day, I still like to look the part when I’m going out, whether it’s for a business meeting or for the smarter social outings such as dinners, theatre trips and so on. Putting on a jacket and tie adds to the sense of occasion and that’s before we start talking about wearing the full rig of black tie and tux for those formal nights when medals, if you have them, can be worn. Ties can add a splash of colour to the otherwise rather limited colour palette of men’s suiting.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t dress for dinner every night! I only do ‘black tie’ for the ‘gala nights’ at the theatre, some charity dinners and, of course, when I go cruising (although even there, the requirement for black tie has been relaxed in recent years, much to my chagrin), but it’s the comparative rarity of these opportunities in my engagement diary that make them all the more special. There’s nothing quite like seeing a restaurant or theatre brimful with ladies and gents in their finery, especially when you’re on a glamourous ocean liner heading across the Atlantic to New York! (And it’s so much easier for men on cruises: one tuxedo covers every formal evening whereas women tend to pack a different cocktail dress for each formal evening – and matching accessories to boot, of course.)  

But in thinking of cruising, I’m getting carried away, lost in my reveries, and I digress. Although dressing up of any kind, whether in casual or smart attire, is something most of us enjoy doing, the fact that we are not going out is taking its toll on the manufacturers and retailers of clothing. Without the excuse to dress up, people don’t need to buy new clothes (even if they still have an income to go shopping on-line with). This season’s fashion is definitely going to be dressing gown and slippers.

Right now, getting dressed for dinner, whether it’s putting on one’s finery or just a clean t-shirt, is entirely optional. Who’s going to see you (unless you’re having one of those Zoom dinner parties)?

Chic or shabby? It doesn’t really matter. Tonight’s dress code is very much ‘come as you are’.

But I think I might just swap out of my dressing gown first.

All’s Fine at Fino!

The article below was the last restaurant review that I was able to write for TopicUK magazine before the coronavirus lockdown was implemented. It was published in the March 2020 edition of the magazine, available on-line only at the moment. Let’s hope that once the lockdown ends, Fino, as with all the other restaurants in Wakefield and elsewhere, can re-open.

The sense of history is palpable when you walk in through the door of Wakefield’s new Fino Italian restaurant in Northgate. The restaurant may be new, but the building, today accessed via the entrance in Gill’s Yard, and boasting medieval timbers, stone walls and leaded windows, is around 500 years old!

Readers with long memories may recall the property when it was a shop selling greetings cards. Back then, the building was flat-fronted and faced in what appeared to be rendered stonework. When the building was sold on in 1990, the new owners discovered that they had something much more interesting. As they started stripping walls and ceilings back to their original timbers, stone and brickwork, it became clear that the building was in fact one of Wakefield’s oldest surviving timber-framed properties, part of a larger house that had once occupied the site (now divided into 3 units, 53-57 Northgate). The owners decided to create a replica of the original gable-end frontage while revealing many of the original features, including the finely worked Elizabethan plaster ceiling and oak-panelled frieze on the first floor, the former bearing the date 1596, thought to be the year in which the building was re-modelled. That the building is now listed Grade II*, making it a building of national significance, should be a surprise to no one.

The upstairs ceiling panel bearing the date 1596

There has been a restaurant here, of course, for some years. Many will know it as the Cow Shed but, following the closure of that enterprise in the summer of 2019 and a period when the building stood empty, it is now under new management and opening as Fino on 24th November, just in time for the Christmas rush.

The project is the work of Jenny Thompson and Matthew Burton, owners of Qubana in Wood Street and Robatary in Northgate (just a few doors along from Fino). Indeed, the new manager at Fino is Murat Akyuz who was brought over from Robatary to set things up. Jenny, Matthew and their team are helping to revitalise the restaurant trade in the city: each of their restaurants has a distinctive style and great attention is paid the décor, food quality and service. That is very true of the Fino, which I visited twice (just to make sure!) within a few days.

My first visit to the establishment was with fellow members of Wakefield Civic Society’s monthly Dining Club in January 2020. Each month, the Club visits a different restaurant and at the end of the meal, members get to score their experience. Once all the scores in the year have been totted up, the Society awards its coveted ‘Restaurant of the Year’ award to the restaurant (or sometimes, restaurants) receiving the highest scores.

Given that this was the first Dining Club outing of the year and we were visiting a brand-new restaurant to boot, members turned out in good number and there were some 29 of us who sat down to dine. We more or less took over the whole of the downstairs part of the building (which meant we were handily close to the bar): there was just one other table occupied by a couple who must have wondered what was happening as we all trooped in, but they didn’t seem to mind (our members are very well behaved!).

Sandra Elliott, who organises our Dining Club outings, had liaised with members and the restaurant to transmit our menu choices in advance which certainly helped speed the service and most meals arrived in front of the right person although there were one or two side dishes that took a bit of calling out to locate their rightful owner. But an impressive result given that there was also a party dining in the upstairs restaurant as well.

Overall, the food quality was excellent, and people seemed to enjoy their evening very much (good company and good food!). However, I abandoned any attempt to take notes for this review – I was having too much fun chatting to fellow diners and the staff were a little preoccupied serving up the dishes.

Instead, I arranged with Murat to return to Fino a few days later for my second bite of the pomodoro and to make sure I did the job properly. On this occasion, my partner and I dined as guests of the restaurant.

You’ll have noticed that the restaurant is styled as a pizzeria and cicchetti. I think everyone will understand the pizzeria bit but may be less familiar with the concept of ‘cicchetti’. (OK, I’ll admit it – even I had to look it up.) Cicchetti are small-medium sized snacks or side dishes, typically served in bars in Venice. They could be described as the Italian equivalent of tapas. You can combine them to make a meal, mix and match while sharing with others or treat them as a starter dish.

We chose an Insalata Caprese and a Goat’s Cheese and Fresh Fig Insalata (priced at £6.45 and £6.95 respectively), followed by a Vegetarian Lasagne al Forno and a Portofino Maltagliati (thin strips of pasta with green pesto, green beans and potato). These were priced at £8.45 and £12.95. We finished with an Italian Crème Brûlée and a Lemon Cheesecake (£5.95 each). All were excellent. Nicely filling without being over-facing, and, of course, delicious, perhaps not surprising given that everything in the kitchen is masterminded by Italian head chef Vito (who hails from Bari).

After the meal, Murat sat down with us for a chat. He has worked for Jenny and Matthew for 10 years and clearly loves the job. He helped to set up Robatary, which I reviewed back in 2016, so this was more of a catch up really. As well as the à la carte menus (available to view on line), there is a specials menu, new every week, and you can also take advantage of a lunchtime special of a classic pizza, pasta or Stromboli (a wrapped pizza) and a small glass of house wine (or half pint of draught beer or soft drink) for just £6.95, which has to be terrific value in anybody’s book.

The restaurant has seats for 35 downstairs and 25 on the upper floor. There’s also a seating area outside on Gill’s Yard, but we didn’t try that! Given that we were there in January, we much preferred the warm welcome on offer indoors! I guess we’ll just need to go back when the sun comes out….

Outside seating area in Gill’s Yard

Need to know:

Fino Pizzeria and Cicchetti, 53 Northgate, Wakefield, WF1 3BP

Tel: 01924 369641

Email: enquiries@finowakefield.co.uk

Website: https://www.finowakefield.co.uk/

Opening times: Sun – Thu, 12pm – 10pm, Fri – Sat, 12pm – 11pm

Fixing the roof – how civic societies can keep it together

Don’t lose your slates!

When’s the best time to fix the roof? In the summer, when the sun is shining, or in the winter, when it’s pouring with rain?

Now, you might argue that the winter is the best time – after all, if it’s raining, you can see where the problems are while in the summer, when there’s no indication of any problems, you just want to relax and enjoy the good times.

In some ways, this analogy is akin to the coronavirus epidemic. Before it hit, we were all getting on with our lives and not really thinking about storm clouds on the horizon. But then the virus emerged and life, as we knew it, changed for everyone, and suddenly we had to start fixing the roof.

My point here is that events can overtake any of us, unexpected and unbidden at any time. Some events will be relatively minor – no more than a slipped slate or roof tile – but others will be much more serious and have huge consequences – more akin to the whole roof coming off. Coronavirus definitely falls into the latter category.

So, how prepared were you for the calamity that has beset us? I’m talking here about how equipped your civic society was to manage its way through the situation. How agile and resilient is your society to keep going through the current emergency?

As some readers will know, I’ve been ‘involved’ in the civic society movement for over 30 years and I’ve seen a lot of changes over that time. Some societies have been on the front foot (and I’d like to count my own society among that number) while others have been much more hesitant and, indeed, resistant to change.

I became a member of Wakefield Civic Society in 1989 having already enjoyed some of their outings and events prior to taking out membership. In April 1990, I agreed to join the Society’s Executive Committee and then, in 2002, I became its president. When I first joined the committee, minutes and newsletters were printed using a typewriter and copied using an old-fashioned duplicator. They were then assembled, put in envelopes and hand delivered or posted to members, a time-consuming and costly process. Electric typewriters and eventually computers were introduced but ‘modern technology’ was still a minority sport.

When I became president, I decided to ‘modernise’ by getting everyone on the committee to use email. It took some effort to convince people that this was the future and some people never made it on-line; they either retired or passed away without ever using a computer. But we pushed forward, extending email distribution of our newsletters and other information to our wider membership. Over the years, we have moved from having just a handful of members on email to the position we are in today, where we have over 95% of our membership now receiving their news from us by email. On top of that, we have a website and make full use of social media – yes, we are on Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram.

These channels allow us to communicate not just with our members, but with a much wider audience – stakeholders, partners and the general public. We do, of course, still keep in touch with members who are not on email. This is usually by post (and sometimes telephone) but occurs less frequently than for those on email.

The coronavirus epidemic changed everything. We have had to cancel all our events for the time being which is a considerable blow and will affect our ability to fundraise and attract new members. However, we have not stopped working. We continue to talk to our members, mostly by email of course, but we are using social media too. Oh, and we have just opened a Zoom video conferencing account which has enabled the committee to see and speak to each other at our monthly committee meetings. Once you get used to the technology, it’s actually good fun to ‘see’ people in this way. On 23rd April, we even held the Society’s Annual General Meeting using Zoom. It was a much-slimmed down version of our usual AGM and we asked for volunteers from the membership to take part. The important thing is that we did it and that enabled us to do the legal stuff we have to do to comply with the requirements of our constitution and also the Charity Commission.

One benefit from the experiment is that it has given us confidence to start experimenting with more on-line communication, possibly even putting short videos on-line. It’s early days yet, so we are not sure exactly what we are going to be doing, but it clearly won’t be business as usual. We need to be innovative if we are going to stay relevant.  We certainly don’t want people to forget we are here!

So, by fixing the roof while the sun shone – by which I mean moving on-line early on and then, over the years, building up communication lines with members and others through a variety of channels, we were reasonably well-placed for when the weather turned bad. Who knows, even after lockdown ends and the need for social distancing is reduced, we may continue to apply some of the new methods we are adopting now.

Video conferencing might not always be the way we would prefer to work, but it’s a really useful facility. In fact, so many people are using it that I now find myself taking part in meetings with people across the country to the point where my diary is once again filling up – and the real beauty of it is the convenience and low cost. I no longer need to do a two-to-three-hour commute to get to a meeting in London, say, and then repeat the journey to get home, taking a whole day out of my calendar and a wodge of cash out of my wallet.

I’d like to think that the civic society movement has cottoned on to the benefits of technology and that civic societies are firing on all cylinders still. Sadly, though, I know that’s not always true and I have heard from a few people who don’t know how they will keep things going over the next few months. Well, now is the time to start experimenting. Open that Twitter account, think about video conferencing and try to get email addresses for as many of your members as you can.

Don’t worry too much about getting things wrong to begin with; we all make mistakes in the early days, and you can always ask others for help if you get stuck. One useful tip is that you can often find on-line tutorials on YouTube for almost anything you need help with (some better than others!). They have certainly helped me on a number of occasions!

Now, I know that some of you will say ‘most of our members aren’t on-line, so there’s no point’ and you’ll shrug your shoulders and do nothing. I’ve encountered that reaction so many times over the years! But you have to start at some point and now is as good a time as any – it’s not as if you’ll be going anywhere, is it? Take the plunge – start a tweeting, ask your committee to join you in a video conference, start broadcasting to the world about what you are doing!

And while I am not advocating that you abandon your members who are not on-line, think about the future of your society. Is the future of the civic society movement going to be based on an outdated model of printing and posting newsletters to a predominantly older membership group, or is it going to be based on attracting lots of new members who are geared up and wired for both sound – and video?

Lockdown Jottings – 09

No cause for alarm

Tick tock

So, what chronotype are you? Are you a morning lark who gets up with the dawn, full of vim and vigour and a smile on your face, or a night owl who is just coming into your own as the sun sets over the horizon and who views early-risers with suspicion? Or are you someone in between, happy to rise and go to bed at what might be considered ‘reasonable’ times of the day?

One of the advantages of lockdown is that, for many of us forced to stay at home, it no longer matters which type we are. For the duration of lockdown at least, we are all free to follow our own natural circadian rhythms. We can get up and go to bed whenever we please. Even if you’re working from home, you don’t have to be up and dressed to tap away at a laptop. No one can see you when you’re sitting on the sofa unless, of course, you’re invited to one of these new-fangled video conferences that everyone is using now – but even then, you only need to dress the bits that show up on screen – just take care not to stand up while on-line…..

I don’t think anyone would describe me as a morning person. It’s not that I hate mornings – I actually quite like them and I’ve seen the sun come up many a time, even in the summer months when it comes up very early. But I’m almost as likely to welcome the dawn while on my way to bed as greeting it as I wake up. Yes, I’m one of those people who stays up late, cracking on with things while others sleep, and who then goes to bed just as the sun’s coming up. I am what you might call a creature of the night.

Being nocturnal has implications of course. I’ve been subjected to the tyranny of the early start for most of my life. The world is organised for larks, not owls, and it’s the owls who have to make the compromises.

In my school days, I found it hard, particularly as a teenager, to get up, get dressed and get off to school on time. To arrive late at the grammar school I attended (with an 8.45am start), meant being sent to see the headmaster to explain one’s tardiness. I avoided such encounters by not being late, but I owe that much more to my parents’ constant nagging than to my own willpower. If it hadn’t been for their persistent urging to get up, I suspect the headmaster and I would have been on very familiar terms.

The early starts continued into my working life. Being someone who worked in an office, I had to be at my desk by 8.30am. As people arrived, they had to sign a register. At 8.30, a red line was drawn across the page just beneath the last person who had signed in. The manager would inspect the register mid-morning and anyone whose name was signed in below the line was called into his office for a reprimand and one of his ‘motivational chats.’ Again, being a good boy, I am pleased to say that I was never called in.

Flexible working hours, introduced in the late 1970s, and then homeworking which really became possible around 15 years ago for me, changed everything. The demands of the early start was still there when working from home but at least, when I didn’t need to go into the office, I was spared the daily commute – heck, I didn’t even need to get dressed! (I feel I must now offer apologies to any colleagues from back then who are now picturing me sitting in my pjs while taking part in those telephone conferences! Yet more apologies may be due when I tell you I don’t wear pyjamas….)

Today, video conferencing has necessitated a re-think to what to wear. I do think one has to make an effort: the implications of ‘Come as you are’ really don’t bear thinking about when you can see and be seen from the comfort of your sofa. I might be talking to you from my lounge but this is no time to be seen in what I think stores call ‘lounge wear’.

Since I retired from full-time work, my alarm clock gets very little use. I can’t quite relegate it to the back of the cupboard as I still have to get up occasionally to go to meetings. Most days, though, I can sleep in if I want to and I often do. I can, at last, deal with the world on my terms. Now, I don’t even answer the telephone before 11am.

One of my pet hates is people who ring me up at 9am (or even earlier) and begin their remarks with “Did I get you up?”. Some of them even sound faintly surprised to hear my voice, fully expecting to go through to the answering service (so why not just phone me later?). I try not to signal my irritation but give me strength! Sometimes I tell a downright lie. “No, I’ve been up ages”, I’ll say, stifling a yawn, or “No I’ve been out and just come back” and so on. It’s a bit harder to come up with an excuse for not answering the phone under lockdown without giving the game away: I can hardly say I’ve been out, can I?

Occasionally, I think I might try scheduling a meeting for 2am, just to see who’s up for it, or giving one of my morning lark friends a call at, say, 3am? “Did I get you up?” I would ask, in all innocence.

Lockdown Jottings – 08

Raising Spirits

I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!

Usually, the arrival of better weather and lighter evenings heralds the launch of Wakefield Civic Society’s programme of guided walks. These are usually led by me. They are a great way to show off my home city and the walks attract both people who live locally – who always learn something new – and people who are visitors to the city. This year, for the first time, I was planning to embark on a series of new guided walks in my own name, rather than under the banner of the civic society: you should see the plans I had for my ‘Carnival of the Animals’ walks!

Sadly, though, the coronavirus has kicked all such plans into touch, at least for the foreseeable future. This a great shame, not least because we were all set to resurrect our very successful ‘Historic Ghost Walks’ in the coming weeks.

At the end of 2018, I was contacted by Wakefield BID to explore the possibility of my doing some ghost walks around the city centre. It was pointed out that many cities have them and that they can be a big draw: ghost walks, I was told, are an increasingly popular way of finding out something of the history of a place while also having a bit of fun. Having been on one myself in York a few years back, I understood what was meant and I said I’d give the idea some thought.

The first problem was that I don’t personally ‘believe’ in ghosts! I also had the credibility and reputation of the civic society to consider so I couldn’t just make things up. What I eventually came up with was more a ‘Murder and Misery’ tour, telling the rather sad stories of the malcontents and miscreants, the misfortunates and the miserabilists, who inhabited Victorian Wakefield. And if ever there was a time to take off the rose-tinted glasses about the ‘good old days’ my stories certainly had that effect!

Although the walks were advertised as ‘Historic Ghost Walks’, the historic part was really that these were the first ghost walks to ever be offered in Wakefield (as far as we know!). We were also very clear in our promotions that there were no actual ghosts on the walks – well, none we expected anyway – and the ‘Ghosts not included’ strapline was prominently displayed. Despite this, the first batch of four ghost walks booked up solidly in a matter of days. We didn’t charge for the walks (thanks to a grant from Wakefield BID) and we had the usual problem of people booking and then not turning up (but these were compensated for in part by some people turning up who hadn’t booked!) but nonetheless over 100 people took part over the four walks.

So popular were the walks (and the demand expressed on social media was palpable) that I asked Wakefield BID to sponsor more walks, which they agreed to do. So, another four walks were offered in the autumn and they too were solidly booked, with bookings coming in within minutes of the walks being promoted on social media. A further 100+ people took part in the second set of walks.

The walks looked at some actual cases reported in the local press in the Victorian era and some original court records. Although we hadn’t heard of the coronavirus in the summer of 2019, Wakefield’s cholera outbreaks of the 19th century did get a mention on my walks, and we looked at the original location of the mass burial ground in the city centre (the remains were later removed to allow development to go ahead).

I didn’t have to do much original research of my own as the late Kate Taylor, a local historian and writer, had written a book (Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Wakefield) which contained many of the stories I needed (there are similar books in the series for other towns and cities written by different authors). All I had to do was to identify suitable stories, plot a route which took me past the crime scenes or where the stories had unfolded and then, on the night of each walk, help to set the scene by explaining some of the history of the buildings and the streets we were walking, adding some overarching social history about living conditions at the time, and tell the sometimes gory stories that made up the walks. A little embellishment and improvisation here and there, not to mention some occasional extemporisation, all helped to add colour.

Well, guess what? People loved it! They laughed a lot (yes, I know, people will laugh at anything!) and were very complimentary in their feedback. Hence our plans to bring them back in 2020.

Time will tell if it’s going to be possible to do that this year; I do that we can, but even if we don’t, I’m sure the walks will return when conditions allow. We all need something to look forward to and the walks were great fun, both for those taking part and for me to do. We may not have seen any actual ghosts last year, but I’d like to think that I raised a few spirits.