Is he a psychopath?

This blog, now into its eighth glorious(?) year, is entitled Glimpses of a Disturbed Mind.  Over the weekend, as I sat surrounded by organ keyboards and related assemblies and parts, it was pointed out to me that we have moved well beyond glimpses of the author’s mind: we are after all fast approaching the 800th post.  What passes for the author’s mind has surely been laid bare for all to see – or at least all with access to a sufficiently uncensored version of the internet and possessed of an interest in the author and with the considerable patience (and time) needed to wade through the 778 (at time of writing) back numbers.  I would maintain that there are whole areas of my psyche – and most of my hidden darkness – that have been kept successfully obscured from prying eyes: though a competent mental health professional may be less convinced by this line of reasoning.  However, I would have to accept the further criticism that whilst the eponymous mind may (or may not) be disturbed it is undeniably self-obsessed.

This combined with other recent bouts of self-reflection about my emotional responses to life have led me to ponder whether the author is a psychopath (in addition to having the disturbing habit of referring to himself in the third person).  At the risk of immediately diffusing any form of dramatic tension at this early stage in the post, I have assessed the author using a number of on-line tests for psychopathic tendencies and can be reasonable confident that he (and so I) am not a psychopath.  I have not had the time (or inclination) to read through the whole of DSM-5 in an attempt to characterise my mental pathology with any specific diagnosis, largely because I feel that way lies madness – probably all forms of madness and other psychological and neural disorders in that hefty tome (with the possible exception of housemaid’s knee).

Normally, I do not worry too much about my psychological make-up as I seem to smile and laugh far more than is reported as typical, so figure it can’t be too bad.  I have slight concerns about my psychological resilience given the oddly charmed life that has been my lot to date – though some of that may be down to me taking my life as lived and choosing to label it as ‘oddly charmed’; others may have taken the same life and feel themselves to have been cursed.  I am hoping that heavy caveat is sufficient to placate Fate and not draw her attention tither: unless she is using an alias, she does not appear to be a follower of GofaDM.

This recent pondering of my possible psychopathy arose after going to see the play Things I Know to be True last Friday.  This has received very good reviews and produced a very substantial emotional response in the audience sharing the Nuffield Theatre with me on Friday evening.  I found myself left oddly unmoved – which is odd, as I usually find myself weeping (or at least tearing-up) at the most trivial and banal of narrative elements on stage, screen or page.  The play was perfectly alright and there were many laugh-out loud moments, but the key emotional moments seemed too obviously telegraphed from rather early on.  Part of me was waiting for each predicted emotional maximum to arise which somehow robbed them of any real affect (and effect, for that matter).  Since many of life’s great tragedies or emotional peaks can also be forecast ahead of time (and often with more than the 60 minutes notice one might obtain from a play), I found myself wondering if I had become some sort of pitiless monster (or was ever thus).  I have often joked that I have ‘all the empathy of a well-aimed half-brick’ (a phrase I believe I borrowed from early Terry Pratchett) but had I been showing unwitting insight all these years?

These thoughts consumed me for a while, but were unable to survive exposure to the Bobonboboffs set at the Cricketer’s Arms a little later that same evening  There is something about vigorous ska – eventually delivered by a lead singer minus his slacks and a lead guitarist on a table (despite the limited headroom) that renders such maudlin self-regard difficult to sustain.  I’m not sure if they’ve ever explored the therapeutic element of their work, but it is always an option…

I was reminded of the childlike delight I had taken in elements of my first stumbling attempts at playing Cruella de Vil (by one Melville A level) on the piano earlier that week.  My first time doing some jazz-style things using my fingers was an incredible high and makes me determined to master the piece, despite its difficulty: and not just as a suitable theme to accompany my personality.  I was also forced to recall that my eyes have had to take an early bath during almost all of the other recent plays I have seen – with particular reference to The Busy World is Hushed and Quaint Honour at the Finborough Theatre – and the last time I went to the flicks – to see Call Me by Your Name.  Though this did lead me to wonder if I can only generate an emotional response where some form of romance exists: even if this existence is purely in my own head.  I think I’m using romance here with a relatively broad definition and not just as it relates to gland games.  Then again, given that I have not really competed in any gland games – even at an amateur level – it may be that my response reflects a lack of emotional maturity.  Perhaps, emotions that I have not had need to use in own life are spilling out given any remotely viable outlet to avoid some sort of over-pressure shut-down or, if left unvented, explosion.  Though, frankly that reads like cod psychology even to me – and who can guess the mental state of a demersal fish?

So, to sum up Your Honour, there is no psychological impediment to prevent my client acquiring that set of meat cleavers and I trust you will allow him to exit this courtroom without a stain on his character!

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Expect the unexpected…

I have it on no less an authority than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that the advice given in the title is (a) glib and (b) a contradiction in terms.  I fear it will be difficult to speak to (a) without risk of appearing glib myself, however, I feel on safer ground with (b).  It is quite possible – and probably wise – to expect that something unexpected will occur without needing to have any idea what this might be or when it might happen.

Being single, my life is very self-directed – if we ignore the demands of work – and yet is full of unexpected moments (and even longer events).  I suspect the incidence of the unexpected has risen since I started to spend ever more time away from the orderly tedium of my home life – all this interaction with other people and the world at large must be having an effect.  This post started as an idea earlier in the week following a couple of encounters with the unexpected, but I fear may rather have grown over the following days.  I shall try and manage its length by sticking to short vignettes (and relying on the power of the image) from my week, but my logorrhoea may get the better of my good(ish) intentions.

During the interval of a gig…

…watching (but not listening to) a very low budget promo by Lost or Stolen for their upcoming single release.  The live video had something in the nature of a shrine about it, with tealights surrounding a plectrum raised upon a dais made of a pencil eraser.  From time to time, divine revelation would enter the frame in the form of words written on post-it notes – very much the clay tablets of today’s busy deity!  I was expecting some sort of blood sacrifice to propitiate the holy plectrum, with the precious fluid being absorbed by the eraser but, sadly(?), they stopped short of this level of commitment.

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An historic re-enactment!

During my piano lesson…

…lying underneath the grand piano while it was played by my teacher.  It was certainly a new experience, but I’m finding it hard to put the insights I gained into words.  It was, I suppose, a logical(?) continuation of the tour of the grand piano I’d enjoyed at my previous lesson – and my first hands-on experience with a grand piano.  I have now used all the pedals in purposive manner – and realised late last night that my own piano-substitute has a sustenuto pedal (which I shall be attempting to use later).

…smashing my head, with some force, into the lid of the same grand piano.  I had to say Messrs Kawai and Sons need to rethink the design of their pianos – the lid, which is black against a black background – projects some significant distance out from the rest of the case when the keyboard is in use.  A chap innocently laughing it some pianistic solecism just committed could (and did) easily injure himself!  My piano teacher found himself in the difficult-to-pull-off superposition of laughter and concern: I feel he acquitted himself well given the challenges of macroscopic existence.

At Playlist in the Butcher’s Hook…

…the glorious conjunction of diverse but wonderful music was entirely expected.  The unethereal vocals of Stanlæy accompanied by two fae from the Winter Court, extraordinary guitar sounds from Ben Jameson and the first public performance by Somerset folk-collective Zaffir were a reminder of why Playlist is one of the cultural jewels of the city.  My unexpected discovery was the existence of microtones in the amazing new piece composed by Ben and commissioned by Playlist.  I have tried re-creating these on my acoustic guitar at home, but I may need to get some more tips from Ben for better results.

…the delicious Cambrian Root by Vibrant Forest: a salt liquorice porter.  So many of my loves brought together in one tiny space!

Strolling home from the Butcher’s Hook…

…talking to a friend on my phone (I know, shockingly used to speak to another human!) to discover that he had found wholly unanticipated love.  The heavy irony of finding, halfway through our conversation about love, that as I strolled twixt the Aldi car park and an industrial diary (well, I don’t reckon it had ever seen a cow) I was unwittingly in the (or of one of the) city’s red-light district(s).  So little do I know of gland games, that it was only when the third young (from my perspective) lady said hello and then went slightly further in her salutation did the penny finally drop.  Until that point, I had merely thought that people were slightly friendlier than usual and that the lateness of the hour (and our friend Johnny Ethanol) had helped ease their traditional British reserve.  Is it any wonder I remain single when even those with a financial incentive in raising my interest in matters of the loins struggle so badly to achieve their goal?

At the launch party of the new NST City theatre…

…being asked if I had a job other than writing my cultural blog.  This left me somewhat taken aback, as I hadn’t realised this was a cultural blog (unless the culture in question be me).  I was also pleasantly surprised that someone though this farrago might be sufficient to finance my continued existence.  I fear it is far too short on insight and far too long on weak jokes, niche references and attempts to demonstrate my (largely illusory) erudition.

…chatting with a chap in want of silver hair.  I offered him mine (I have an ever increasing abundance), but in a major failure of the supposed perfection of markets this transaction was impossible to carry through despite two willing parties.

…chatting about going vegan not for the sake of the planet or the animals, but as an economic choice to reduce costs.  A fine idea – very much in line with the teachings of Katherine Whitehorn in my youth – but I felt slightly weakened by the need to buy almond milk at much greater cost that its dairy equivalent.

…finding myself thinking, while in the stunning new theatre, that it didn’t feel like I was in Southampton: and then worrying why.  Even my photo of the entrance has an air of unreality about it.  I feel my thought was not disloyal to my adopted city but a reflection of the fact that I’m used to the city’s older and/or re-purposed venues, few of them much younger than me.  There look to be exciting times ahead: I hope their insanely(?) ambitious plans to strengthen and develop a sustainable cultural scene in Southampton, across the full range of culture, bear a bumper harvest of fruit.  Roll on (or up/down) the nano winches!

At a Film Week showing of short films…

…being surprised by the nature of the Jane Austen lecture theatre: not a hint of wood panelling or even one over-stuffed leather armchair.  Very much a modern university lecture theatre: so, much like a cinema, but with more USB charging points and less comfortable seats.  It also lay, rather unexpectedly, in a basement below a spaceship which had become inexplicably trapped in an atrium (or was the atrium built around it?).

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No sign of the extra-terrestrial Postman Pat (or any black and white companion)

…finding myself enjoying a piece by Skepta (it arose in my favourite of the short films).  I suspect I may not be his primary target audience, more some unanticipated bycatch: he should probably throw me back to avoid harming the wider ecosystem.

I feel this conceit could be re-used in future to link other disparate observations which the author is too lazy, or unskilled, to draw together into a coherent whole.  I think the only lesson we might take from these 1300 odd words is that if you go out and also talk to people, unplanned things happen – and many of these are delightful!

The rhythm of life

I have a feeling that, along with music, all human cultures have some form of dance – well, all human cultures except me…  Until now?

This blog has documented a few encounters between my body (and the passenger mind) and the general concept of dance, with various attempts at vaguely rhythmic movement while music is occurring in close proximity.  These are generally sabotaged by my tendency to over-think things coupled with my status as a klutz.  Nevertheless, one should not be put off by the first few (or indeed, many) failures – if all else fails, one must merely redefine the parameters of the whole concept of dance and then attempt to enforce these on the wider population (by brutal military conquest, if necessary).

I had a tango lesson about a decade ago, so on my typical form another lesson is due in the mid 2020s.  Sometime around the turn of the millennium (the most recent one), I went to one (maybe two) ceilidh(s) (I strongly suspect this is not how a Gael would form a plural) in that hotbed of Celtish culture: Camden Town.  I remember these as being enormous fun and I clearly remember winning a box of porage oats which I carried proudly home on the bus (134 or 43): what I don’t recall is how I won these oats, but I like to imagine it was for my prowess on the dance floor.

If you now turn your mental clocks forward to the start of this summer, a friend and I went to a ceilidh in Winchester – in the rather grand surroundings of its Guildhall with the excellent Threepenny Bit providing the tunes.  Despite being ‘called’, i.e. someone with a mike telling you what to do, this was not an unmitigated triumph.  There seemed to be quite a bit of jargon and I feel things went badly wrong when multiple willows were being stripped in at least two directions at the same time.  At this event, a number of flyers were available (I suspect pushed on unsuspecting attendees) one of which was for an organisation named FASH (less sinister than it sounds) which seemed to promise potential learning experiences for the novice dancer in the autumn (and beyond).  My friend and I resolved to attend the first of these and try and become less embarrassing (and embarrassed) participants in future ceilidhs.  This was quite the commitment as it promised 5 hours of dancing with only an hour off for lunch – an exhausting prospect – but fortune favours the brave (allegedly)!

The summer whirled by and all too soon 8 October arrived.  My friend and I headed to Twyford and its Parish Hall, wearing loose clothing and comfy shoes, in the hopes of becoming the skilled (or at least marginally less useless) dancers that I felt was what destiny intended for us.

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The Crucible!

As at Winchester, I knew some of the band – Mrs Savage’s Whim on this occasion (the precise nature of her whim remains unknown, but it is commemorated in dance) – but this did not entirely compensate for two minor problems with our plan.  Firstly, the session related to English folk dance which has some importance differences to the form of dance that the Scots (and wannabee Scots) practice at a ceilidh.  Secondly, whilst the day did have an educational element it was to teach different interpretations of a number of dances – not to handle the needs of a pair of complete rubes!

It would seem that much of the canon of English folk dance comes from The English Dancing Master written (or at least assembled or claimed) by one John Playford in the 17th century.  This is a splendid resource, but was written for an audience well-versed in the dance of the day.  As a result, it is (to put it kindly) exceedingly unclear to the modern reader, lacking access to a TARDIS, how the dances worked.  Various people have attempted to put some clarifying flesh on Mr Playford’s terpsichorean bones, meaning that there are several competing forms of each dance.  Our day in Twyford was designed to explore these variations by means both scholarly and physical.  This had some advantages for the novice as we had a chance to try each dance several times, but also the disadvantage that on each run through the dance had changed from the previous iteration in subtle (or rather substantial) ways.

This description might make the day seem like a write-off, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The good folk of FASH could not have been more welcoming to the two incompetent cuckoos they found, unexpectedly, in their nest.  I do have the feeling we may have been the first new blood seen since the end of the Peninsular War!  They were so patient and helpful with us, that in almost all cases we found ourselves reaching at least modest mastery of each dance and its allotropes.  I think we might also have provided a useful ‘excuse’ for the regulars to ask the caller to explain a particularly abstruse element of his dance plan again.  Still, by the end of the day, despite exertions both mental and physical, neither my friend nor I needed a stretcher.  We both left invigorated, feeling like we understood far more of the basics of English folk dance (and by extension more of ceilidh) and having had a great time and keen to return to the (folk) dance floor.

My opportunity may come this Sunday, when I have been invited to a Morris Dancing Taster Workshop.  I think I have been promised sticks (or at least stick!) which is a major incentive: who could say no to dance with a weapon!  There is a certain degree of challenge returning from Lewes (where I will awaken on Sunday morn) in time, as there is a replacement bus service operating between Angmar and Barad-dûr: something about Nazgûl on the line. (OK, the engineering work is between Angmering and Barnham – but how often does a chap get to reference the Witch King of Angmering?).  Not sure I will ever go ‘full’ Morris – it does seem to come with rather significant laundry obligations – but it should be an entertaining afternoon and some useful exercise and offer further grist to my dance-mill.

So, if in future should you hear the sound of bells, be prepared to duck as a big stick may not be far behind!

 

A mighty organ

People might wonder to what extent this post will be autobiographical, but as the author I do feel that I need to retain both some secrets and a certain becoming modesty: dips demurely behind opened fan…  Let’s face it, I am not a celebrity and this is not Snapchat, the only exposure going on here will be of the dark shallows of my soul (subject to their availability and/or existence).

If we’re honest, this is a clickbait title to hook a few extra eyes as I expound (yet again) about the cultural riches on offer to the residents of a south coast city more famous for its departures than arrivals.  It has also grown from thoughts too long even for me to attempt to shoe-horn into a Facebook status.

This last week has provided a particularly rich and varied seam of cultural coal and, in the interest of narrative drama I shall leave delivery against the title until towards the end (or will I?  Now, you’ll have to read the whole tedious diatribe in hope of salacious content).

Monday started well with a concert of less-commonly seen brass instruments, including a tuba which looked like it had been knocked up by a plumber from bits and pieces found in her van: and was all the better for it.  It also marked my introduction to the althorn, the rotary trumpet (less exciting looking that its name might suggest) and a horn with pipework that would not look out of place in some Celtic knot work.  I was left wondering if concert brass had taken a wrong turn, towards the bland, at some point in its history…

Talking of brass, last night’s jazz included a trumpet that looked to have lived a life of debauchery and excess.  It led me to realise that at some level I don’t really trust a shiny brass instrument: if I can’t read too many late nights and a life lived not wisely by too well in its patina I can’t help feeling there is something lacking.  Then again, I do have a friend with a saxophone to sell, and while it is probably shiny I am seriously tempted (and I’m not really going to fool anyone that I have lived a dissipated existence, however battered my horn might be).

Wednesday afternoon delivered a talk on pulsars by (Dame) Jocelyn Bell Burnell: the person who discovered them in the most analogue (and often uncomfortable) way possible.  She did this as a graduate student in 1967 and she is an excellent advertisement for radio-astronomy as an alternative to a painting in the attic. It was a talk in turns amazing and inspiring with a fascinating Q&A after: Richard Rodgers was right, there is nothing like a dame!

On Thursday night, it was world music – a description I usually despise, but with a trio of musicians hailing from Cuba, Senegal and Venezuela it is probably the least clunky description available.  What an amazing gig it was!  Incredible musicians – Omar Sosa on piano and keyboard, Seckou Keita on the extraordinary double-necked kora and Gustavo Ovalles on a huge range of percussion – and they were having so much fun doing it!  It was feast for eyes, ears and the soul.

Saturday afternoon I saw the powerful and amazingly well written, directly and staged People, Places and Things at the Nuffield Theatre: yet another strand in an incredible strong autumn season they are having.  I’m very glad I do not tend toward addiction as I think I’d seriously struggle with any form of 12-step programme – much as the play’s protagonist does.

OK, I’ve made you wait long enough: it is time to talk about a massive organ (fear not, there will be pictures too and, like me, you’ll probably want to get your hands all over it!).  Yesterday afternoon, as part of Southampton Film Week there was a showing of the silent Buster Keaton film The Cameraman.  However, for the fortunate audience, the film was far from silent.  Southampton Guildhall is home to a Compton organ – the largest they ever built – and has been since 1937.  This engineering marvel has 4000+ pipes plus sundry items of percussion and sound effects somehow hidden above the main stage (frankly, there doesn’t seem to be room and I strongly suspect the organ also consumes a significant tract of hyperspace).  It is also the proud possessor of two consoles: one for traditional (classical and ecclesiastical) organ recitals and one for a theatre/cinema organ performance.  Sadly, they no longer rise from beneath the stage, but are otherwise a remarkable survival.

Frankly, I can’t help thinking NASA’s recruiters should have looked to organists rather than test pilots!

So many keyboards, pedals and buttons: especially for a chap struggling to come to terms with one keyboard and a single pedal (though I have had a brief dalliance with an una corda pedal!).  Then again, I may be sleeping in a room with even more organ keyboards within the week (though those will not be functional at the time).

This musical behemoth was played by Donald MacKenzie the resident organist at the Odeon, Leicester Square,  Who knew it still had a resident organist?  Not I!  It is almost worth taking out a second mortgage and going, just to see and hear the organist in action!  In the first half he showed off the amazing range of the Compton organ – an instrument pleasingly maintained by a man with the fine organ-linked name of Peter Hammond!  In the second half he accompanied the film, live as it happened.  After the first few minutes, you completely forget that the music is not part of the film and is being produced by a man at an incredibly complex console – so perfect was the integration of image and music, even the punches landed correctly in the ‘soundtrack’.  The film is surprisingly good with some ‘jokes’ I’d not seen before (though for a modern audience, and even me, could probably do with a little judicious editing), despite it having been made in 1928!  However, what made it was the organ – how lucky I am to have this possibility less than 10 minutes stroll from my door.  Once again, I would never have known about this gig (or the organ) – let alone thought of going – but for a friend suggesting it to me.  In an overly self-direct life, ideas hailing from outside my own skull are such a boon!

A perfect blendship

You might ask why I have titled a post with this absolutely howler of a rhyme by the usually reliable Cole Porter.  Perhaps it will give succour to any struggling songwriter to know that even the greats have off-days and, if in doubt, just invent a word to get that all-important rhyme! Mr P later goes on to include the line “a lottle-dottle-dottle-dig-dig-dig” – frankly gibberish – which leads me to believe he was trying to see just how little effort he could get away with in a song: and he would seem to have won that particular bet in some style.

This post will relate to the topic which is the title of the song about whose lyrics I have just been so scathing (and trust me, this while post could have been about how dreadful they are): Friendship.

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Never one to dodge a cliché

Traditionally, I have maintained a pretty small circle of friends – well, I say “maintained” but this does suggest I’ve been checking their tappets and greasing their nipples to ensure they remain in good running order and I’d like to be clear that I do not (routinely) offer this service.  This circle of (ungreased) trust was primarily made up of people I’d met at work (both past and present, paid and voluntary – the work, not the friends) and would not require me to remove my shoes (or anything more revealing) in order to count using a basic enumeration.

Even the advent of social media did little to increase my friend count, with my total Facebook friends struggling to exceed the basic dozen for many years.  This blog does (according to WordPress) have either ~140 or ~200 “people” following it, but I don’t think I can count most of these as friends and, in some cases, I am far from convinced they would even count as people.  Still, it’s good to know I have some fans among our future masters when the AIs take over!

But over the last year or so, all of this has changed!  It would seem that if you go out for a bit of local culture on a regular basis you meet other people, in a way which simply doesn’t happen if you set at home curled up with a good book or boxset (or not unless you have a very expansive take on the concept of an open-door policy).  Who’d have guessed?  The cultural scene in the city of Southampton is not so vast, in terms of audience, that one doesn’t start bumping into familiar faces after a while.  At some stage, even the most introverted of folk feel some pressure to move beyond an acknowledging nod into exchanging the odd word and this can quickly snowball into actual conversation (unless one is very careful – or creepy).  My tendency to sit in the front row (for the legroom and to spare my hyperopic eyes from undue exertion) and inability to remain stony-faced when being entertained has also meant that not only did some of the audience start to recognise me but so did those on the stage.  My further habit of talking to people – whether they want it or not – may have added unnecessary accelerant to the friend-boom.

I now find myself in the situation where I have lots of friends and it has become almost impossible to go out to anything cultural (or certain pubs – but I feel a good pub counts as culture) without bumping into at least one (and often several) friends.  Over the last couple of weeks, I have even found the circle of friendship impossible to escape in nearby Eastleigh or Winchester.  I’m almost afraid to look around when in London, just in case I see a familiar face.  Bumping into people I know is lovely and great for a good chat, but it is having an impact on the economics of the publishing industry as these conversations are consuming time that I would otherwise spend reading.

Having a group of friends with a somewhat common frame of reference (me!) has changed my use of Facebook rather dramatically.  Rather than only posting very occasionally, usually when bored on a long train journey, I have now started using it to diarise my life with pictures and (IMNVHO) witty observations or remarks.  I rather enjoy this, as it provides an outlet for vaguely amusing thoughts that occur to me as I wander through this veil of tears and which had previously never made it out of the prison of my skull.  Apparently, this is not how soi-disant “normal” people use Facebook and people claim to have befriended me solely to gain access to my exclusive “content”.  Of course, regular readers of GofaDM know that these displays of superficial learning, excessive use of polysyllabic words and increasingly obscure references held together with weak jokes and my o’erweening self-regard are available without ever having to meet or, worse, converse with their author.

Many of my new friends are quite a lot younger than me (chronologically) and this does lead to the situation where partway through recounting a “recent” anecdote, I realise it occurred before any of my rapt(?) audience were born.  Still, on the plus side it does (perhaps) mean that I am moulding (and, in at least one case, breaking) young minds.  This is, of course, a great responsibility which I am failing to treat with even the slightest hint of gravitas.  All of this time spent with the young does feed into my belief that I am still young myself (in fact, I suspect the default internal view of age I hold is currently falling – though sadly my chronological age continues to rise) and does mean I keep trying new things.  Just last night, I found myself in the 6th floor bar of Southampton’s swankiest new hotel – and as regular readers will know, I am a bit of a swanker – to see some friends playing tunes to the 1%.  Whilst I scrub up somewhat successfully, I really don’t feel at home among the wealthy and their foibles and struggle not to laugh out loud in such environments.  Last night I nearly lost it when the straw was introduced to my massively over-priced (and over-iced) beverage using a pair of tweezers – is this really what people insist upon?

Still, this whole friendship malarkey is not all fun and games (and freelance corruption of the young): it does come with some responsibilities.  Several friends and groups thereof have now requested that I provide some sort of gig guide – in the mis-guided belief that as I go out a lot, I must know what I’m doing.  Initially, I am going to try and provide some idea of cultural options for going out in the Southampton area (and occasionally) beyond as a brand new page of this august organ.  This will start fairly basic – it will be a slightly tarted-up copy of the OneNote document I use in an attempt to avoid diary clashes – and I will attempt not to allow it to act as an irresistible incitement to local burglars to divest my rude hovel of its few meagre possessions.  It will start based on my interests – which are broad, but not universal – but may expand to cover as much of the local music, theatre, spoken word and dance scene as I can find the time and inclination to assemble.  I may be amenable to feedback on the format or content, but the author’s opinion is final: however wrong it may be (and it will be very wrong!).

The Darker Half

As I write, we still lie within the Gaelic festival of Samhain- and are once again reminded that whoever transliterated the language of the Gaels to English deserves to go down in infamy.  Should any form of afterlife exist, I trust some special form of linguistic hell has been laid on for him (or her) in which to spend their endless days reflecting on their crime.

Samhain traditionally marked the start of winter and the beginning of the “darker half” of the year.  While I’m sure some neopagans still celebrate in this spirit – though I suspect in a manner which would be entirely alien to any time-travelling ancient Celt – it has mostly been subsumed in popular culture by Halloween.

When I was a lad, I don’t recall any special marking of Halloween, beyond perhaps some of the then three TV channels scheduling a scary film safely after the watershed (and I was tucked up in bed).  However, in recent years its importance had gown in this country so that it now almost outshines the important local festival of arson and resistance to knavish Popery (which will be the name of my latest business venture: providing bowls of dried petals and spices for even the most staunchly Protestant of homes).  Am I alone in fearing that an important warning to the masses not to contemplate the violent overthrow of the State is being lost?

No, today, Halloween offers an opportunity for young people dressed in scary (or merely atypical?) costumes to patrol the streets of our conurbations, great and small, seeking sweets with menaces.  This is very much not my bag – though Andrew Hunter Murray’s admission via Twitter that the only sweets he had available were high-cocoa dark chocolate was tempting, but I fear not widely practiced outside of his small corner of South London.  You might expect me as a curmudgeon of a certain age (spirit animal: Ed Reardon) to rail against this imported custom.  However, until the kids’ costumes include a functional flying broomstick, I can remain safely aloof from the hurly burly until it’s done (and any battles, lost and won) in my tiny first floor flat.  In fact, I was out on the streets while the local children were performing a parodic reenactment of their hunter-gatherer roots and it seemed that the whole process was surprisingly ecumenical.  I saw what appeared to be children from at least three of the world’s major faiths participating enthusiastically under the watchful eyes of their elders – which I feel must be good for social cohesion.

I celebrated the start of the darker half in the musical embrace of the ICP Orchestra: a curious Dutch chimera of chamber orchestra and jazz band.  ICP stands for Instant Composers Pool, but this knowledge did little to prepare me for the evening ahead.  Their music is very hard to describe but there were certainly elements of modern classical music – the odd hint of late Shostakovich perhaps – and of jazz.  I’d also throw in some Dada, manouche and mariachi and no doubt a whole lot more I didn’t recognise.  There was so much to take in, it was hard to believe there were only ten musicians – though about half played two instruments and there were occasional words(?) sung.  The concert also boasted the tattiest looking cello I have ever seen – it looked like it had been rescued from a skip moments before the gig started – but boy could it sing!  There was even an element of physical theatre – dare I say, dance – when the cellist (long past even the second flush of youth and perhaps retrieved from the same skip) conducted the band in a very unconventional manner for one of the pieces.  In the second half, when the band and audience had grown used to each other, there were even proper laughs.  Even when using a score, the music felt gloriously improvisational with order and chaos swirling around each other in a fertile maelstrom.  The ICP Orchestra have been going almost as long as I have – this year is their 50th anniversary – and some of them are clearly original members but there has been no slowing down in their musical creativity or physicality.  Even for a chap who goes to a lot of gigs, it was a unique night of incredible musical invention and fun.

As so often, I am forced to reflect on the musical riches on offer within 15 minutes of my door: if only a few more folk had taken a chance and swelled the rather modest audience.  Nonetheless, I shall continue my blog and Facebook proselytising in the hope of drawing a few more lost souls onto the right path: I can promise nothing for the next life, but plenty of enjoyable experiences in this one and a chance to get out of the house and meet some of your fellow hikers through this veil of tears!

123

Sorry spreadsheet fans, but this will not be about Lotus 123 – a tool which played such a major role in my early working life.  I still remember those heady days of the mid 80s with an original (monochrome) IBM PC: loading MS-DOS from 5.25″ floppies before I could load 123 from another floppy disk and then finally start work.  There was more time for contemplation of the human condition in those days, while you waited for stuff to happen…

No, this post will be about my latest, waltz-based obsession (a mere couple of centuries after a similar craze swept through Europe) – so should should have been reading the title with the stress on the 1 (an effect I was unable to accomplish with WordPress).

Until recently, I don’t think I have ever believed I am possessed of any particular musical ability.  I have recognised that I can, through diligent application, achieve a basic level of competence and occasional even move beyond ‘banging the f**king notes’ to achieving something almost musical.  These rare moments of ‘flow’ – in the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a name which, for some reason, I struggle to remember) – have been particularly precious as a result.  This is broadly the same view I have on my skill with other languages: I don’t have any particular gift in this area, but am willing to put in some effort to try to slightly subvert the all-too-accurate stereotype of the Anglophone abroad.

However, recently I have began to accept that I may have some musical ability.  I think this blog has already laid the groundwork for the fact that I am not tone deaf and that, despite my protestations, I do have some rudimentary sense of rhythm (though a forthcoming post on dance will place an upper bound on that particular skill!).  This week has been more of shock to my long-established self-image.

As previously noted, I had piano lessons for a period in the mid 90s and I have the belief that at my peak I was a weak Grade 4 practical pianist with little or no theory.  Given my rather desultory approach to practice in the couple of decades which have allegedly passed since the mid 90s (for my money, the jury is firmly out on that much time have elapsed) I assumed my ability would have deteriorated.  It was a bit of a surprise when my new piano teacher suggested that in his opinion I was playing somewhere around the Grade 6 level: even more of a surprise given that, while my playing in front of an audience has definitely improved, he has not seen anything like the best of my abilities in action.  He seemed insistent and so acquired, on my behalf, the ABRSM Grade 6 Piano Exam Pieces book for 2017 and 2018.  I believe, on one metric, this is the most expensive book I own at just over 80p per page – however, it is worth every penny!

ABRSM6

I could almost be looking in a mirror!

My current obsession is piece B:2 the Valse Lente by Oskar Merikanto: a Finn I had never heard of until Wednesday.  It is such a divine piece of music, that while we are only on day 3 of my time with it and it is Grade 6, my playing of it brings tears of joy to my eyes (which frankly disrupts my ability to sight-read).  My right foot even seems to (somehow) naturally make use of the pedal: without the usual panic and mental collapse that adding the use of my foot (to the two hands already committed to the musical project) traditionally engenders. Some of the chords are so heart-achingly beautiful and the way the music moves so glorious that I am constantly amazed that I am allowed to play it.  Sometimes life delivers experiences literally beyond one’s wildest dreams: though this may be more of an indictment on the quality of my dreams (or ability to later recall them) than anything to do with the quality of my performance.

Also in the same book, with which I have had a brief dalliance, when I could tear myself away from the Valse Lente, is Cruella De Vil (from the Disney version of 101 Dalmations) which has the wonderful instruction that it should be played “with swagger”.  Swagger is a little way off, but I’m convinced it lies within my grasp!

There also continues to be progress with the guitar.  I have had to acquire a new tutor, as my old teacher has fled to the Midlands to pursue his musical dreams – which are more extensive than just being spared my ham-fisted attempts on the guitar (or so I like to imagine!).  Whilst attempting a little finger-picking pattern yesterday, we discovered that I could actually inject a little swing into my performance!  (I think we should subtitle this post ‘swagger and swing’).  I even showed a little promise on the subject of knowing when to change chord when accompanying a melody.

I have found myself wondering about this mid-life musical flowering and what might be its cause.  Malcolm Gladwell had made a reasonable living from the idea that 10,000 hours of practice at a skill will deliver mastery: though I vaguely recall this derives from an original study of rather a modest number of Japanese viola players and so may not generalise quite as far as its penetration of the popular zeitgeist would suggest.  I am thinking of writing my own book about the importance of letting any skill lie fallow for a good couple of decades as the key to mastery.  The importance of benign neglect and procrastination I think is under-recognised in today’s always-on, instant-gratification society!

Being more serious, I think having two instruments on the go (three if we count the recorder) may help as insights gained on one feed into the other.  Acquiring a little musical theory has also been helpful as it has provided a framework into which new knowledge can fit.  But, I suspect the sheer amount of time I have spent at gigs across a huge range of genres watching, listening to and even talking with musicians may have provided the largest fillip to my musical abilities.

The way things are going, there is a growing risk that 2017 may see me compelled to play an instrument in public in front of an audience that are not actively engaged in teaching me at the time!  I think a paying audience remains a long way off, so I shan’t be giving up the day job just yet…