Al the clown

(continued from “Meet the clowns”)

And then there is me (Clown name: A Hat)…

This is my first time I have been to Greece, my first time performing with Clowns Without Borders, my first time properly performing to children, and my first time I have ever been to a refugee camp.

Greece has been an easy adjustment. I am loving the food; the people are incredibly polite and friendly; the women are elegantly dressed; however, when it comes to the roads, the drivers seem to work out the rules anew each time they get into their cars, the cars themselves are often battered by life, and when they are left on the pavement, they often look less parked than abandoned. Again, I am grateful that Doukeni is a good and slow driver!

Clowns Without Borders is run by an amazing lady called Sam who I met at a Philipe Gaulier clown training week in St Albans. It is proving an easy charity to work with, organised, and very much aimed at front end activities. There are processes in place to help things run smoothly, and while not every interaction with the press has been as sympathetic as it might have been, frankly some articles are just clickbait aimed at selling advertising – and the upshot of it is that CWB is maturing into a highly effective vehicle for good.

Europe will receive these children whether Europe likes it or not. They are traumatised, have missed out on a childhood, have often experienced trauma and been on the receiving end of violent human interaction. We can either receive children who are developmentally stunted from their experiences, or we can do our best to show them moments of childhood normality, moments when it is safe to laugh and love your fellow man, moments when it is safe to give of yourself in the spirit of generosity.

I believe that is what we are doing, and I hope that this effort can continue and increase, for all of our sakes. And truly, when we perform to them, when we dance around their camps, all they are is little children, getting the same joy as if they were in a primary school in Aberdeen or Yanworth (I can’t think of a UK location beginning with Z, and I’m not even sure if Yanworth is large enough to have a primary school, but you get the idea!).

My first time performing to children was terrifying to start with, but after 30 seconds, it was already easy. My beautiful nephew and niece have prepared me well. And anyway, as my wife would happily attest, there is a large part of the child in me as a day to day person. I’m not convinced that makes me the easiest to live with, but she has the patience of a saint… Suffice to say, they shows are going well.

But my first time into a refugee camp…

Clowns Without Borders’ website

and if you want to join in too, the CWB Virgin Money Giving page, click here

Meet the clowns


The four of us clowns are Greek language free zones. A smattering of words might emerge with the prominence of blocks of ancient hewn stone that were once part of some grand building. The grand sentences we might say could be constructed, but it is not as if we have the rest of the city context… Translate that to an environment where there are a myriad of ancient languages spoken and our smatterings are a token, an offering, but like museum visitors, the interaction requires a guide.

Now here is where I should be saying that the Clown is our guide, and it is true, clown is a universal language and silly is silly, is asparagus with chocolate. But we also have a local, Greek driver, and very grateful we are for her. Doukeni has made all the arrangements for the visits, and smooths our way into the camps, because, frankly, these entities are no longer free-for-alls, volunteering is now more formalised. Everything requires a piece of paper with the right names and stamps and that isn’t a scribble on the back of a soggy cornered ex bag of fruit.

And what that means for us is that we have a fairly strictly timed itinerary. Two camps per day for seven days. Several hours drive between camps, leave the house early, return to it late. The occasional glimpse​ of a monument from a steamy window. A filter on a photograph may be romantic, and a filter on life, a balm for the soul, but a filter on the view of the temple of Poseidon is less impressive – and apart from the filter of my own experiences, there is no filter on the view of a camp of people displaced by war.

We arrive without costumes on, yet are no more surreptitious for it. The four of us are a fairly diverse bunch.

We are led by Jo (Clown name: Dezjazja), a sign language interpreter by trade, trained by Lecoq in Paris, and so an expert in the physical, be it theatre or concept expression. This is her third tour, so she has seen a lot of change in the situation. Many of the camps Jo saw before have now shut down and the people dispersed, and some were simply huge.

One camp, Idomeni, which received a certain amount of media coverage when it closed, was simply an informal gathering place next to the border with Macedonia, 8000 people waiting to cross. 8000 people needing food, needing shelter. 8000 people with no piped running water, so babies being washed communally in tupperware, limited lavatories, and queues for everything that mattered. 8000 people with the most minimal of medical access, or activities or teaching for their children. What can a clown do there?

It turns out that the worse the situation, the more some form of respite, particularly for the children – and no matter how minor the offering – can make an impact; it has been gratifying to hear people continue to comment at the appreciation of the continual stream of performers – because from my own perspective, I certainly had feelings of impotence regarding my own contribution.

Jo keeps us on track, fed, enthused and energised. And fed. Good nibbles. And provided with coffee. The children love her to win and her falling out of the taxi is probably my own favourite moment in our show.

Inda is a professional clown from Barcelona (Clown name: Popov). Like most of us, he more normally performs and creates for adults, and his infectious smile is regularly punctuated by laughter of pure joy. There really is nothing happier than the philosophy of the clown. As you look at this screen, there may be nothing to laugh at, and yet, anything might be silly. Ridiculous, literally. And instantaneous of this moment, don’t try to explain it to me because “you had to be there”. So right now I have joy at the touch of my fingers on the keyboard. Have you understood? If yes, I’m thrilled. If no, find out when Inda is performing and go to his show!

Inda, as Jo, has been out here three times before; with Clowns Without Borders twice, and once with Emergency Circus. Spanish clowns appear to have more of the acrobatic skills. Inda is amazing at finger ventriloquism. Ah, but the children love this inexplicably simple game!

Amy (Clown name: Kazoo), a gentle, delicate and beautiful clown who all the children immediately gravitate to, went to Kosovo with the Spanish branch of CWB, again, another experience of deprivation, and a little further along the trail of humanity that is man escaping man. At home, she runs many theatrical projects, including a satirical film she is creating. Our art is ideally suited to poking more fun than many other​ forms of comedy, simply for its innocence. Its freedom from judgement allows people to see a truth that they might otherwise rather not see. We clowns don’t judge and we are too “simple” to be judged for imitating these things; we leave the judgement and analysis to our audience. The clown is beautiful because the clown is pure and innocent, and is specifically right her and in the moment as a child. The clown always dances as if no one is watching.

And then there is me (Clown name: A Hat)…

Clowns Without Borders’ website

and if you want to join in too, the CWB Virgin Money Giving page, click here

Athens with the clowns: The arrival

The trip to the airport, an uneventful affair, pre-empted by my persistent habit of leaving my packing to the last minute, but with the joy on my wife and dog beside me, half an hour in the car and we arrived at Terminal 5.

My first time there, my maiden voyage out of the terminal if you would. So I was overjoyed when, with ice on the ground outside, the music in the airport was from the film Titanic and gate announcer’s accent was clearly from Belfast. I bid farewell to friends over Facebook…

An easy enough journey, the only item lost overboard was my tablet; it disappeared into that pocket of kneeheight literature, forgotten for some future passenger, taking advantage of turbulence to return their overpriced M&S airline sandwich to a provided paper recepticle, to instead find and marvel at the ancient technology of 2015.

Our apartment is comfortable, fairly central Athens, warm enough against the Greek winter, and with the essentials of being unfindable by the taxi driver. And then to supper, a short walk toward the Acrópolis, the first place we could find with people, food, and indoor cigarette smoke. One forgets what a wonderful condiment to food is that taste of other people’s barbecued tobacco…

That was Saturday. Sunday, we spent the day creating and rehearsing our show. A day of silliness and laughter amongst each other. A day to be children ourselves and laugh at things that make no sense or sense only in the most oblique ways. And faces masked by noses of red.

I was chuffed with my outfit, a bright yellow, PVC, scaffolder’s boilersuit. PVC. That most breathable of materials. I mean, it says it’s breathable. But, unless you count the zip or holes for my hands feet and head as breathable, that is a lie. I am sure I resemble an unsafe safety kettle, easy to avoid on a dark night, and with steam emerging from all extremities.

The pink, flowery scarf around my middle adds no further heat, but my conical, multicoloured, Morocan hat of thick felt makes this an outfit perfect for very specific weather only. And what that weather might be is anyone’s guess. (I inherited the hat from my mother when she discovered the moths had chosen it as their first assault on the house. The holes are good for sticking flowers in I am discovering.)

Ten hours later (with a break for an outdoor lunch – the sun was shining, we can handle the cold), and our show looked shapely. We are getting there.

Yesterday was then our first day, our first shows, and my own first experience of a refugee camp. The first camp we went to was still in relatively central Athens, but before we even reached it, it felt like we were in a down and out area, with warehouses filled with scrap metal, dirt roads, and even more grafitti than you see in the nicer parts of the city…

We parked up, went into the camp, got the lie of the land.

To be continued…

Clowns Without Borders’ website

and if you want to join in too, the CWB Virgin Money Giving page, click here

A clown without borders 

This first post is quite serious, I will aim to inject more fun into further ones – after all, I am going in order to bring joy!

I am immensely privileged to have been selected by the charity, Clowns Without Borders, to go with them to Greece at the end of the month. There we will perform to children in a number of refugee camps around Athens. I can hardly imagine what things the adult residents who make up this morass of desperate humanity has gone through to get to Europe; the children among them will not only have also gone through that, but will also have foregone – and continue to forego – a childhood even in concept form. 

Impotence is being only able to offer a balm of an hour or two, where we might bring a little lightness and play back into their lives, but I hope that that, as small a thing as it may be, will help. I suppose we can each only do our part, and my part is to bring joy where I can.

In that endeavour, there will be four of us clowns, three flying in from London, one from Barcelona, meeting our Greek driver, for ten days of doing what we can. 

On Sunday, I travelled to North London and met the UK team, Jo and Amy, who have both done trips with CWB before. We discussed what we would need, what outfits, what normal clothes (it’s snowing in Athens at the moment), whether we’ll be performing indoors or outside (again, it’s snowing in Athens at the moment!), and what other logistics there are. Stripes, warm kit and wellies, hopefully indoors, and we have accommodation. We also worked out what games we would play with the children during our workshops, and what sort of things we might do in our show. The fun ones and the things that will raise spirits and make everyone laugh. And then we had a delicious supper of chorizo stew and Spanish/Welsh omelette.
Tuesday night was a Skype session, for which Inda, our Spanish member, joined us; four faces on a phone screen discussing the serious business of laughter. And a few more bits of putting stuff together and we are there – it’s only a week away!

This post has felt very sombre, but the subject matter is the childhood experience of refugees. However, as a clown, my aim is to bring the fun and laughter, and in my next posts I will try to  bring it to you also. This is a story aboutfour funny people doing a thing for little people who need a little laughter. There will be stories, there will be hilarity, there will no doubt be heartwrench.  But above all, there will be a thing happening. I hope you enjoy reading about it, and if you are maybe even a little inspired, that’s wonderful too.

In the meantime, here is a short film of what a CWB team was recently up to in Greece. I suspect I will be doing something  similar.

Clowns Without Borders’ website

and if you want to join in too, the CWB Virgin Money Giving page, click here

Experiments in bread. Ginger, Hazlenut and Vanilla Savoury

Bread, glorious bread! I have a fine breadmaker, and I like to put different things into it to see what it will taste like. It turns out, quite a lot of it tastes excellent, and my overnight concoction was no exception.

I have seen recipes for ginger and hazlenut sweet breads, but in general I don’t add sugar to my loaves – so I can eat more without getting diabetes! As for vanilla, I have some essence that is nearly out of date, so thought it might be a nice addition. 

1 tsp of yeast

500gms brown flour

80gms hazlenuts, crushed / chopped (I used a blender)

70gms fresh ginger root, grated

3 tsp vanilla essence

1 tsp salt

10-20gms extra virgen olive oil (I never measure it, just tip it in. Roughly the same amount as a nob of butter, which is so not helpful as a measurement. How about the end of your thumb’s worth? Ah, just tip it in and experiment, the bread seems to be fine with it!)

400gms water (I’ve started putting in more water than the recipes have suggested and it makes great bread)

Set breadmaker to wholewheat, large (I’ve a Panasonic 252, but they all seem to work in a similar way)


On the look out for

The main things I was worried about is one, whether the ginger might inhibit the rising action of the yeast, and two if I was putting in too much – the amount I put in would be a lot in a normal cooked dish. However, the bread rose nicely; it is quite compact, but still light enough. And the quantity was also fine.


It was plenty moist, and altough quite compact, surprisingly light. The nuts gave a bit more resistence to the teeth than plain flour, but a crunch in a softer way, unlike with whole grains. The bread holds together well – better than if you add nuts by themselves, so I am assuming that there was quite a lot of fibre in the ginger root that has helped this. For an idea of how well it holds together, I was happily cutting slices that were maybe only 7mm wide. As for the ginger, you can’t detect the texture at all. 

So, for texture, I would say it is good, but being as compact as it is, it’s quite filling, thin slices are best.


Ah, the all important! When I came downstairs this morning, the kitchen was filled with the smells, the ginger was really powerful, and in fact, it smelt worryingly strong. I needn’t have worried.

The first thing about this is that you can really taste the hazlenuts. Normally, when adding hazlenuts to bread, I have found that you lose the flavour entirely, but in this case, it comes though very nicely. 

Secondly, if you smell the bread, it has a lovely, strong and very pleasant smell of ginger. However, and despite the quantity I put in, the flavour is really quite subtle. You can definitely taste it, but will hardly notice it if you are not looking for it. You can smell it in your nose as you eat it but flavourwise, it more manifests itself in only a very slight ginger bite on the tongue, really delicious. 

The vanilla on the other hand, I can really almost not taste, the hint is so low as to be almost nonexistent. However, that does not negate adding it, as I feel that the vanilla maybe smoothing the sharper gradients of the ginger.

All in all, a good experiment. Now, what to eat this bread with? I think this would be delicious with something not too strong, you want the nut flavours to come though. So, maybe pate, or sliced pork would be good. Funnily enough, I can imagine this being very tasty with a bed of rocket leaves and olive oil on top of it; a sandwich where the filling is in the bread itself.

Junker. Not a boat, but a sinking feeling.

Who is Jean-Claude Junker? You don’t know? Don’t worry, most people in Europe don’t know… that he’s the President of the European Commission! Yes, JCJ is the most senior and powerful Eurocrat, the man in charge of the whole EU, and yet practically no one knows who he is.

Well, no one did. But that is changing, because, while here in Britain Brexit is being blamed on David Cameron, in Europe the blame is increasingly being laid at the door of this faceless Britain hater, whose intransigence made the Remain campaign so difficult and whose pronouncements were so extreme, they were widely disseminated by those urging Leave.

There are many people to blame for Brexit, but one of the main ones is a man who failed his own country (Luxemberg), whose stated mission is to make the EU less accountable and who has never hidden his hatred for the UK and her people.

As such, I think it is time for this man to get a wider audience, let people know who he is. And how to do that? Through jokes of course. Below is my contribution, feel free to spread widely!

The first ditty, to the tune of “There was an old man called Michael Finnegan”:

There was an old man called Jean-Claude Junker
Who hated Britain from his EU bunker
And even if Brexit’s Britain’s second Dunkirk
Everyone now knows that Junker’s a wunker

(click for my beautiful rendition of it!)

Knock knock
Who’s there?
Jean-Claude Junker
Jean-Claude Junker who?
I am president of the European Commission, how can you not know who I am, I’m important, I’m important, I’m important!

Why did Jean-Claude Junker cross the road?
Because everyone in Europe blames him for Brexit

What’s the difference between Jean-Claude Junker and Nigel Farage?
One is an unaccountable Eurocrate, supping from the EU gravy train who is responsible for Britain leaving the EU, while the other is only Nigel Farage.

An Englishman, an Irishman and Jean-Claude Junker walk into a bar.
The Englishman walks out. The Irishman turns to Junker and says “I think you might be the butt of this particular joke”.

Jean-Claude Junker, a man who hates Britain so much, he even let Nigel Farage win.

Junker has only got one ball
The other’s in Angela Merkel
He’s tedious, and rather pompous,
And Brexit will be his downfall.

(click for my beautiful rendition of it!)

Beer Day Britain at the old Ram Brewery!

Barry the lovely doorman


Through the door


Through the door to the left


Round the corner


Round the next corner


Looking back


Beer Day Britain party!


The (Grade 2 listed) stable block


Nice logo


What a smart … loo


Safety equipment. A ladder covering a ladder


Barrier to (weed) entry


Not posh, but definitely fun


Because we’ve got beer


You think tack room. We think bar


Definitely bar


Ok, maybe tack room


Beer, beer, beer


A yard guards the stable stalls


There’s another loo through there


But it’s still a set of stable stalls. With a pool table.
As you do


Who puts carpet on the side of a bar?!


Bar into courtyard. I can’t see any weeds – honesty no weeds, none…


Warm up

Cheers to the beer!!!



John and Lucinda – the only people who matter!



For R of the W S's, take Oil of Cajuput: Al Cowie's musings on the world