Storytelling in Stepney

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Any visitor to Stepney Green might scuttle past 109 Mile End Road and pay not the slightest attention to a surprisingly curious abode, concealed behind an unremarkable town house exterior. However, it was my destination venue; any doubts I may have had on spotting the location evaporated as my eyes homed in on a queue of nightwear-clad beauties filing one by one through the grand front door of 109.

When my turn came to step over the threshold, I was immediately greeted by David Carter, the host, designer and owner of the monthly ‘40 Winks’ event, which takes its name from its venue, this boutique 18th-century hotel.

David, a true gentleman, with his polite introductions and elegant dress, asked my friend and me to kindly remove our shoes as we entered the dark narrow hallway. We were then led up two flights of carefully constructed stairway by some ladies who appeared to be David’s own personal geishas. We slightly dragged our complimentary slippered feet as we gazed at the bespoke artwork littering the walls.

David’s eccentricity and ardour for fine quality was perceptible in every room into which we were able to subtly poke our prying nostrils during the ascension to his powder rooms. Antiques clashing with modern designer collectables were something of the norm in this house and exhibited a bold yet personal, effortless elegance.

A nervous anticipation of the evening’s forthcoming events had taken hold of me as I rather bashfully changed out of my 9-6 work clobber and into my satin pyjamas. Pretty twenty-somethings around me were also changing into their nightwear, somewhat more confidently and displaying a lot more flesh. I was later informed about a Benefit Cosmetics prize which would be awarded to the wearer of the most glamorous nighty at the end of the evening. This dispelled any confusion over why the audience would glam up to snuggle down for a bedtime story – for that was indeed the real reason we were actually here.

As we hastily joined the naughty nighties and chequered pyjamas in the reception room on the lower ground level, my friend and I were greeted by further encouraging smiles and handed welcoming Hendrick’s-based cocktails, interestingly served in delicate little china teacups. We were then heartily advised to pay a visit to the nibbles table before the events proceeded.

David’s entrance to the basement reception was met with familiar conversation from regular attendees and intrigued questions from first timers, including my accomplice and me. David explained that we would be led to his opium den, before quickly correcting himself to clarify the joke, and then guided us up to his living room.

As the guest list was at capacity, David’s ‘geishas’ split the group in half and we sat comfortably in the lounge on a deep, furry sinker of a sofa. The walls were adorned with trinkets from travels; spears staring dangerously down from great heights, alongside antiques of which your grandmother would be proud. There was a comfortable, settling ambience in the room, all of which I felt summed up David’s unusual yet soothing personality. Très chic, one might say.

Miss Rachel Rose Reid was our first storyteller, introduced as ‘the curator of tales’ and brought in at short notice as the intended had fallen ill. She read her Victorian fairytale beautifully, telling us in emotive words of a professor who came across an alarming turn of events while taking a short vacation to the coast.

The story was told in the dark with just a simple table lamp outlining Rachel’s main features. I had got myself ready to be truly spooked from the brief suggestion that her tales would “tease, tantalise and terrify”, yet I felt great warmth in the setting and the company.

Following a brief interval in which teacups were refilled and delectable treats shared around, we were taken up two flights to the music room, where an authentic Beatles drum captivated my attention on arrival. Within a minute Sef Townsend had reclaimed it fully; a short, white haired man, dressed head-to-toe in traditional Korean attire. We gathered around him like school children and he began his story time by teaching us a traditional Korean nursery rhyme. Absolutely bizarre but entirely captivating. This then led into his first ghoulish tale, a lot more haunting than the previous, thanks to the supreme detail in his every expression and movement.

Although Sef’s repertoire was made up of rural Korean folk tales, the explicit detail in his depiction left me open-mouthed and my skin frosty within the warm atmosphere. I shot a look, mid-story, to my friend whose facial expression and body language seemed to perfectly mirror mine. We were so engrossed in the tales that the time flew by and before we knew it we were whisked back down to the lounge for the nightwear competition, which was won by a feisty leopard print ensemble exhibited on a pretty Swede.

This enchanted evening was put to rest with a London folk musician of Polish roots called Katy Carr, playing a vintage, Wurlitzer electronic piano, ukulele and banjolele. She explained the story behind each song performed, prior to a spontaneous flex of musical talent, the majority inspired by themes, stories and characters from 1940s Britain, France and Poland. A song she wrote about Mr Carter’s house provided a perfect finale, and then we grudgingly changed back into our corporates and slipped out into the autumnal evening, slightly bewildered yet charmed by our evening at 40 winks.

40 Winks, 109 Mile End Road, London E1 4UJ. Website.

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2 Comments

  1. Utterly wonderful! Tell me, was the story read by Miss Reid ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ by M.R. James, by any chance?

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