Learning the Language of Honk – Four Weeks in Calcutta

The Wooden Man has spent the last four weeks in Calcutta, India, completing a journalism internship for The Daily Telegraph. The following is an account of everything I got up to, with plenty of pictures to boot. Enjoy!


The first thing is the noise. Stepping through the gate at international arrivals, my very tired, very jetlagged ears are plunged into a symphony of traffic. Taxi drivers shout and gesture to potential customers, and each other. Vehicles swerve between lanes, doors are slammed shut. And honking car horns are speaking their own language, a language we’ve never heard in the place I call home. There are short, tooting little bursts of noise saying here here here, and then there are long drawn out honks that sound almost sentient, like the cars are marking their territory.

mdeThroughout my four weeks in Calcutta, and from the passenger seat of many Uber cabs, I gradually began to understand the language of Honk. It is a language of many verbs – move, stop, look, wait. But it can also express emotion: several cab drivers, I noticed, would honk the horn when they were forced to stop at a red light as an expression of frustration, not aimed at anything or anyone in particular. And one especially mad taxi driver, who took me home from work on a Friday evening, didn’t miss a single opportunity to overtake the cars in front of him – even if it meant driving into oncoming traffic. He would honk at each one he passed, partly as a warning saying “get out of my way”, but also as a kind of boast: “Ha! I’m faster than you!”

In those first moments, though, fresh off the plane, the language of Honk meant nothing to me. I was more than a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer chaos of the roads, and the blast of heat that struck me as the doors opened. It had been a stressful flight, with several issues connecting from Mumbai to Calcutta. First I had gone through the wrong gate at immigration and then later, when going through baggage check, my boarding pass was not stamped properly. This meant that when I tried to board my connecting flight, I was told I hadn’t gone through security and almost wasn’t able to board the plane.


A New Day, A New Horizon


All of this occurred at four in the morning, and my inability to sleep on planes meant I’d been awake for close to thirty hours. I finally did manage to board the connecting flight, feeling thoroughly grumpy and very, very stressed. But once we began take off, I was treated to a spectacular sight that put it all into perspective. Out the right side plane window was the most incredible sunrise I had ever seen over Mumbai – a long band of deep orange at the very lip of the horizon, slowly fading into yellow, pale green, silver and then the black of the night sky. I decided to take it as a sign: the start of a new day, and the start of a new chapter for me personally; one which I hoped would be full of new sights, sounds and experiences.

In my first week, the sight that shocked me the most (and one that was sadly prominent throughout the entire city) was the slums. I’d never before seen poverty on the scale it exists in Calcutta, and it made me appreciate how many simple things I take for granted every day. The divide between rich and poor is more prominent here than anywhere else I’ve been in the world – brand new shopping malls and hotels are next door to crumbling buildings that look hundreds of years old. The wild animals also required some getting used to. Of course there are wild dogs and cats in the streets, but the sight of wild horses, cows and a monkey caused me to do a double take. There was even a pack of wild goats that ran across the road in Central Avenue, headbutting a surprised woman who was looking the other way.

The other thing I could never quite get used to was the staring. Calcutta is not a city home to many foreigners, and my white skin (and probably also my shaved head) constantly marked me out as different. While I know there was nothing more to it than quiet curiosity, I am generally quite a private person and often found it difficult to be stared at in this way. Calcutta was the first time I had ever lived anywhere in which I was an ethnic minority: on bad days, I would describe the experience as feeling simultaneously invisible and as if everyone was looking at me.

A large part of this was just travel nerves, which passed after the first week. It isn’t easy to pack up your whole life and move to an entirely different continent halfway across the planet, one in which you know nobody and don’t speak the language. But I told myself that if I could do this then I could do anything, and that I had to conquer my fear of the unknown. Change is scary, yes, but lack of change is scarier. You just need perspective to see it.


The Work Begins


Once I got my head down into some writing, I found I was more in my element. In the second week of my internship at The Telegraph, I was sent on a few food assignments to various places around Calcutta. I was lucky enough to visit Dum Pukht, one of the best restaurants in the city, to try some traditional Indian cuisine. Having not had a chance to experience proper Indian food up until this point, I went straight to the top for my first taste of the country’s flavours, and they didn’t disappoint. I quickly realized how important food is in Indian culture, as I explored the streets full of spice stalls and carts selling phuchkas and kachori. The syrupy sweets of KC Das, especially the famous rosogolla, were a favourite of mine.


In my third week, I did some modelling. T2 were having a photoshoot for Holi all about how people were adding colour to their wardrobes, and asked me to come along. As someone who is generally terrible at having his picture taken, I wasn’t hugely excited about the idea. But the shoot ended up being silly fun – I’d never realized before just how unnatural some of the poses in professional photoshoots are, and my awkward laughter as I tried to hold them was just about enough to pass for smiling. I certainly didn’t expect my face to end up on the front cover of Tuesday’s T2, but my copy of the day’s paper is a souvenir that I’ll take home with me, and it makes me laugh every time I see it.

It was only in my final week in Calcutta that I was able to find the time to visit the city’s main tourist attractions. The gardens of the Victoria Memorial were a nice escape from the chaos and noise of the streets, and the building itself was a grand tribute to the fallen power of the Victorian British Empire. St Paul’s Cathedral, meanwhile, was the first cathedral I’d ever seen to feature ceiling fans. Both buildings felt emblematic to me of Calcutta’s peculiar mix of old and new: these imposing historical relics tower over a city which is still full of the influence of its colonial history, even 80 years on. But at the same time, India’s rapidly rising economy is giving birth to new developments, five star hotels and shiny shopping malls all across the city, while huge billboards spread the influence of Western capitalism.


Somewhere in all these contradictions, I gradually began to understand the mad, chaotic energy of Calcutta. It truly is a different world to any other city I’ve visited, or any place I’ve called home. I won’t soon forget the noise, the sights, the smells, the people and those streets, which are more intensely alive than any I’ve seen. I just hope, when I get back to the UK to take my upcoming driving test, I don’t start speaking the language of Honk.

A Magical Mystery Tour of the United Kingdom

The Wooden Man takes you on a guided tour of the United Kingdom, one gig at a time.

 “Sorry, did you just headbutt me?”

I asked this question in the basement of a German-themed bar named Bierkeller, a venue situated in the centre of Bristol. Bristol is a British city about an hour west of London that is home to some of the best live music in the UK, and I was at Bierkeller in the middle of my first ever moshpit. The band I had come to see were one of my all time favourites – a metal group by the name of Electric Wizard. And midway through their classic tune ‘Barbarian’, the crowd – and myself – reached a fever pitch of such headbanging intensity that I felt an enormous noggin thump me right in the back of the neck.

Charged up on the music and adrenaline, I hardly even noticed at the time. But when the song ended, I turned to the greasy-haired metalhead dude behind me and asked, a bit too politely: “Sorry, did you just headbutt me?” He grinned and said, “Yeah, man. I think so.” I couldn’t even be angry – I grinned back and replied: ‘Nice one.”

Moments like these are exactly why I love live music. There’s nothing to compare to the thrill of hearing your favourite artists in the flesh, sharing in the atmosphere and the energy of a performance with like-minded people. In the UK, we’re lucky enough to have some of the best live music venues in the world, and there’s no better way to experience the culture of a city than to get off the beaten path and hear some local bands. So in this article I want to take you through some of the venues and cities throughout the United Kingdom, and recount some tales from the amazing artists I’ve seen there.


Entering the Big Jeff Zone

The city of Bristol is known for a few things. First, it’s the home of Banksy and some of the best graffiti art in the world. Second is the Clifton Suspension Bridge, an impressive feat of Victorian engineering just outside the city centre. And third is the Bristol accent, full of rolled ‘arr’s and ‘urr’s that are famously difficult for anyone outside the city to understand.

But Bristol is also one of the best cities in the UK for live music. It’s home to a floating nightclub – Thekla, an old German timber ship converted into music venue, which sits in the buzzing harbourside area. And it’s also home to The Fleece, a rock bar which plays host to rising talent from around the south west. The Fleece is perhaps as well known for its music as it is for a small square of tarmac near the stage, which has been affectionately dubbed the Big Jeff Zone.

Big Jeff is a resident of Bristol who is something of a legend in the music scene. The man is a towering seven feet tall, and his love of live music is so strong that he attends a different gig almost every single night. That’s no exaggeration: if you go to a live show in Bristol, there is a very strong chance that you might spot the blond-haired giant himself, right up front by the stage and rocking out to his hearts content. At The Fleece, the big man has his own designated standing space in front of a support beam, where his huge height doesn’t obstruct the view of the poor souls behind him.


Tales from the UK rave underground

Bristol is also a hub for electronic music, being the birthplace of the short-lived dubstep genre and containing a thriving scene of drum ‘n’ bass, house and techno. The UK has a storied history with raves, or underground parties – in the 80s, many illegal raves were shut down by police as the nation was swept by fear of the drug Ecstasy, and its effect on youth culture. In the aftermath of these illegal raves, many changes were made to laws on UK nightlife, allowing venues to stay open much later into the night.

The impact of those parties can still be felt at music venues around the UK. In Bristol the nightclub Motion, which is just a short walk from the city’s main train station, plays host to regular raves which channel the spirit of years past: huge speaker systems, loud bass and music playing into the early hours of the morning. Some nights end as late as five or six AM, and clubbers leaving to go home are likely to run into early morning commuters catching their next day trains and buses to work.

All drugs are, of course, banned from the premises, and there is tight security at the door. But there are inevitably some who smuggle illicit substances past the bouncers, and you can usually spot them a mile away. The person stood in the corner by themselves, staring intently at a strobe light and dancing like a confused jellyfish, is probably best left alone.


Music in the capital

It goes without saying that there is plenty of good music in London: the city is among the top billing for almost any international performing artist. One of the best music venues in the capital, though, is the Roundhouse in Camden. This venue, true to its name, is a circular, open space with a stage at the front, and plays host to all the best bands not quite big enough to fill an arena. It is large, but the round shape of the building and fantastic stage setup keep it feeling intimate.

I came here to watch a band named Beach House perform a handful of years ago, and had a fantastic evening all around. Beach House are a band who play a style of music known as dream pop: slow, hazy tunes with wistful vocals and steady drum beats. My enjoyment of the gig was only slightly dampened when I found out, having travelled halfway across the country to get to London, that the band were performing at a venue not fifteen minutes away from my house just days later.

Going up north

That home was in Leeds, where I studied at university for three years. Leeds is another hub for live music and is, alongside Manchester, the go-to place for artists performing outside of London. Deep in the student district of Headingley you’ll find the famous Brudenell Social Club, where bands of all shapes and sizes play to adoring student crowds. I visited the Brudenell several times, to see everything from American punk rockers Viet Cong to freaky noise-pop band Deerhoof.

But the best gig I attended in my student days was one that ended with the lead singer pouring a bottle of whiskey on top of my head. Crystal Castles are an electro-pop group with elements of house music, and their shows are a sensory overload of loud bass, flashing lights and jumping crowds. I saw them at the O2 Academy in Leeds, and the crowd were so hyperactive that at one point a girl slipped and fell, causing a domino effect that left about fifty people lying on the floor. The music was stopped to let everyone get to their feet, and then resumed at the same volume as before.


Having pushed my way to the front of the crowd as the show went on, I found myself up against the barrier for the encore. Lead singer Alice Glass pulled a bottle of whiskey from out behind the stage and took a huge swig from it, then poured the rest into the open mouths of the front row. Unfortunately, the majority of the drink landed squarely on top of my head, but I was so into the music that it didn’t bother me all too much.

That’s the power of live music: an atmosphere and energy so intense it can let you forget being headbutted, or taking an unwanted Jack Daniels shower. And the UK is second to none for gigs: whether you’re up north in Leeds and Manchester or down south in London and Bristol, the country’s cities have a huge variety of shows for all tastes. For anyone visiting the UK, seeing some artists perform is one of the best ways to get in touch with the locals and get a feel for the city, and all the venues above are highly recommended for doing exactly that. Who knows – you might even spot Big Jeff.

Eating For Free at the #1 Restaurant in Calcutta!

When the Telegraph ask if you want to go for a free meal to the #1 rated restaurant in the city to try their new seasonal menu and interview the chef, you of course say yes! This was my first assignment for my internship here, and it was some way to start. Dum Pukht was my first taste of proper Indian food, having spent a good part of last week eating plain rice while curled up sick in bed. This piece is something a bit different for me, but was fun to put together – hope you enjoy reading!

In Calcutta, the #1 and #2 rated restaurants in the city are a thirty second walk away from each other’s doors. Not far from the main entrance of the extravagant ITC Sonar hotel, which is home to six restaurants and a nightclub, you’ll find the rustic Peshawri, which offers a wide variety of Indian cuisine. But within throwing distance is Dum Pukht, the restaurant that has held the #1 spot on TripAdvisor for the last two years. Chef Zubair Qureshi tells us, with a grin, “They know we are #1. There is a lot of friendly competition”.

It is perhaps, then, in the spirit of friendly competition that Dum Pukht is offering a brand new menu throughout February – one which is built around the culinary delights of qaliya curry. From the 1st until the 28th, Dum Pukht is serving a selection of vegetarian and non-vegetarian qaliya dishes, ranging from Gosht Chaap Qaliya – lamb chops cooked with yoghurt, brown onion and almond paste – to Nadru Kofta Qaliya – marbles of minced lotus stem and hara masala finished in yellow gravy.

Dum Pukht invited T2 down to the ITC Sonar to try their new dishes, and it was certainly an incredible dining experience. From the moment we arrived, greeted by opulently dressed staff and the huge white stone curves of the front entrance, through to the moment we left – the ITC Sonar was a remarkable venue, and home to some of the best food in Calcutta.

We arrived at Dum Pukht at about half seven, when the kitchen had only just opened and the restaurant was empty. This allowed us to take in the beautiful décor of the room – moody orange and white lights illuminate a marble floor, while onyx cladding along the walls complete the ambience. The kitchen at the back is surrounded entirely by windows, allowing diners to see (and hear) the food being created, and offering a real sense of spaciousness.

It was at this point that we were given the chance to taste a few items on the menu. First up was the Gosht Chaap Qaliya, lamb chops cooked to perfection in a wonderfully rich sauce. Second, and my personal favourite, was the Mahi Dum Sarso Qaliya, a whole baby bhetki fish marinated with mustard, yellow chilli and yoghurt, finished on dum. This fish has an incredible texture: creamy and salty in the extreme, melting in the mouth like butter.

Last was the Gosht Chandi Qaliya, which chef Qureshi said was his own personal favourite, and the dish he would order from his own menu. This piece of boneless lamb is slow-cooked for four hours until it falls off the bone, and the tastes of cardamom, saffron and turmeric increase the intense flavour. The dish is topped with a garnish of silver leaves for a decadent finish.

The long preparation time of these dishes epitomises the slow-cooking style which Dum Pukht is named after. It is a style of cooking which originated in Persia, but has since become a part of Indian and Pakistani cuisine. For the qaliya dishes, chef Qureshi says he starts from a simple base of yoghurt, coriander and assorted spices before building up his recipes. Each is laboured over carefully, as evidenced by the delicious flavours on show.

Mr Qureshi is a chef with plenty of experience – he has been cooking at Calcutta’s Dum Pukht for over seven years now, and before that spent another six at Dum Pukht in Delhi, at the hotel ITC Maurya. He grew up in Agra, surrounded by a family of chefs, and his grandfather was khansama to the Raja of Mahmudabad in Uttar Pradesh. To put it simply, he knows what he is doing.

All of that experience has been poured into the new qaliya menu which Dum Pukht is providing throughout the course of February. This is an experience not to be missed for anyone who loves great food, great service and world class accommodation.

Confessions of an English Backpacker in Australia

Hello everyone. There hasn’t been a huge amount of content on the Wooden Man through January, because I’ve been busy preparing for my trip to India. I’ve now arrived in Kolkata and started my journalism internship at the Telegraph, so you can expect to start seeing regular content again. I’ll be posting most (if not all) of the pieces I write for the Telegraph on The Wooden Man, starting with a travel piece about my trip to Australia last year, which you can find below. Thanks for reading!

There are a lot of ways to swear in Australia. This was one of the first things I learned about the country, having newly arrived in Melbourne after a 26 hour flight from London, Heathrow. My friend and I were sat in a bar in the city’s north district with an Aussie bloke named Patrick, who’d had a few drinks and was now explaining, in great detail, the many ways you can swear in Aussie slang, and the different meanings behind each one.

As introductions go, it was certainly unique. We were struggling to pay attention, having spent all of the last two days on planes, trains and buses. When we arrived at our hostel (ambitiously titled The Mansion), I had slept for fourteen straight hours under the effects of jetlag and extreme tiredness. And now I was being delivered a drunken lecture in profanity by a man I could hardly understand.

My friend and I had decided, quite impulsively, to move to Australia for a year on a working holiday visa. I quit my job in Bristol and we flew out at the end of summer, arriving at the start of September. The city of Melbourne was our starting point: a fashionable and multi-cultural melting pot of Asian, European and Australian.

It might have been 10,500 miles away from London, but the second lesson I learned in Australia is that the world can sometimes be a very small place. While in Melbourne, I received a message from a friend I lived with at university, who told me he was working in Tasmania and coming to Melbourne that weekend to do some sightseeing. By complete chance, he had booked to stay in the exact same hostel we had, on the exact same floor, in a room three doors down from ours. The universe can be a crazy, mystical thing sometimes.

In our first week in Melbourne, my friend and I ended up at a hippy commune. A small group of us, based on a tip from someone at the hostel, made the long walk through the city’s Fitzroy district, in search of a restaurant that was rumoured to serve food on a pay-as-you-wish basis. When we got there, following a trail of wild lemurs through dark suburban streets, we were served Sri Lankan pancakes by dreadlocked staff wearing tie-dye t-shirts, as psychedelic New Age music played on the speakers overhead. That was an experience I won’t soon forget.

We stayed, for most of our trip, in hostels. There are plenty of horror stories about hostels, some of which I experienced first-hand. In one, there was a mysterious red stain on my bedsheets, which could have been either blood or ketchup. In another, an entire colony of ants emerged from out of the plughole at the same moment I decided to take a shower. And in another still, a backpacker on the same floor as ours consumed some illicit substances, then started screaming as he hallucinated that the hostel staff were demons with horse heads.

Generally, though, hostels are a fun and cheap way to live if you don’t mind the lack of privacy. Here are a few tips for anyone planning to stay in one: first of all, avoid that guy in every hostel who sits on the stairs and badly plays the guitar, in an attempt to impress the ladies. Second, don’t let yourself be bullied by dishonest hostel owners and landlords – the majority are very friendly, but there are some who try to take advantage of travelers who don’t speak the native language well, and don’t stand up for themselves.

And lastly, be aware of the person who sneaks into the communal kitchen and steals any food that isn’t padlocked shut. One anonymous backpacker in Brisbane became my mortal nemesis, after he/she repeatedly stole the strawberry jam (and nothing else) out of my fridge bag, forcing me to leave a very sternly worded note (that’s about as angry as the British get).

I mentioned already one stroke of fate. But there was another coincidence later in our trip, when my friend and I moved to the city of Sydney. The apartment we rented here was home to an Indian man by the name of Sheldon, who was originally from Goa but had moved to Australia to study. When we told him we were English, he said that he used to live in England, in a little town by the name of Chippenham. My friend and I stared at each other in disbelief – Chippenham is the very same small town both of us live in, and Sheldon had lived there for a year when we were in school. We’d probably walked right past him.

Sydney itself is a sight that has to be seen at least once: the grandeur of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, the hustle and bustle of George Street, the restaurants and bars shining under the coloured lights of Darling Harbour. I spent New Years Eve in the Botanical Gardens, queueing all day to get a view of the bridge and the spectacular fireworks show that brought in the New Year. That was a fantastic way to welcome 2017.

The nightlife, too, is very colourful. Sydney’s Ivy Bar is worth the cost of entry: an enormous complex spread out over two buildings, each with multiple stories where you can buy fancy cocktails, Australian beers and just about any other alcoholic beverage imaginable. The rooftop bar even features an open air swimming pool, if you fancy taking a dip while you sip.

The only downside is the cost. Everything in Sydney is very expensive, from the $15 pint of beer I spotted on a restaurant menu to the cost of a hostel, which can be as high as $60 a night. That’s about three times as much as you can expect to pay in other parts of Australia, and five times what you might pay in another country. For anyone thinking of making the trip, make sure you book accommodation far in advance: in Sydney, every hostel in the city will be booked a week ahead.

My favourite place in Australia, though, and the one I would recommend above all others, is Brisbane. Brisbane is a gorgeous city, one which seems to be in a perpetual state of tropical summer. The streets are busy but not crowded, and the views along Eagle Street Pier, which follows the river from the city center through the Botanical Gardens and beyond, are magical. If you take this path all the way down the river, the Brisbane River Walk is a hidden treasure – a running/cycle path built right on top of the river, which takes you right alongside the shining lights of Story Bridge.

Running and cycling are a huge part of Australian culture, both in Brisbane and beyond. If you make the trip, pack a pair of running shoes and experience it firsthand. At 5pm in Brisbane, the city becomes a fluorescent explosion of runners and cyclists as everyone leaves work, allowing you to witness Australia’s famous fitness culture for yourself.

And you can’t leave the country without experiencing a proper Aussie barbeque, either. Streets Beach is a must see in Brisbane: cross over the bridge from the city center into the South Bank, and there are parks, free access swimming pools, and a huge playground for the kids, all of which feature free barbeque stations. It’s the perfect way to soak up the sun and enjoy the city views.

Wherever you go in Australia there is lots to see, and backpacking is a cheap and exciting way to experience the sights and get off the beaten path. I was sad to leave, but the year I spent there was full of stories and people that I’ll remember for many years to come. If nothing else, I learned how to swear like a proper Australian.

The Wooden Man is going to India!


As I alluded to in my last post, and as many of you will already know, I’ve got some exciting news to share. I’ve been accepted to complete an internship at The Telegraph in Kolkata, India, and will be leaving a few weeks from now at the beginning of February. It’s only a month long, but afterwards I will be travelling around India for a few months more, or as long as my finances allow.

The paper have said there may be an oppurtunity for me to write a travel blog which they will publish, but even if that doesn’t come to fruition I will be writing one for The Wooden Man. I want to bring lots of new content and ideas to the blog in 2018, so expect some form of travel diary and some tales from the East. Hopefully I’ll be able to share on The Wooden Man some (if not all) of the pieces I write for the paper, as well.

Outside of this, I have lots more ideas for content to come in the rest of 2018. I’m currently in the process of writing a short story which I will be posting here chapter by chapter once complete. It’s kind of a surreal mystery/horror story which features solvable logic puzzles, and is expanding beyond my initial idea for it as I write. This was going to be my next project after finishing AOTY, but it might go on the backburner until the summer now I’ve gotten the internship. You can definitely expect it at some point in 2018, though – I’m very excited about it.

Once I’m back in the summer, too, I’d like to start writing some different kinds of articles. Maybe conducting some interviews with local bands and rising artists, rather than just turning out reviews. And I’d also like to write some more interesting editorial pieces, the kind that require proper research and planning. We may also redesign the visual layout of The Wooden Man again to be a bit more appealing, and to get back in the habit of drawing.

I have some other plans for 2018 but it wouldn’t be as fun to spoil everything here, so you’ll just have to keep checking back in to see what’s in store. Hopefully this year will be even bigger and better than the last for The Wooden Man. I might even get a tan. Alavida!