Transience

I have reached that stage in life when the last of the famous faces from my childhood are shuffling off their mortal coils.  At some level, this does feel somewhat as though my childhood itself is dying – though, in other ways, my inner child remains strong and vital.  Perhaps surprisingly given my current incarnation, it is not the loss of the musicians of my youth that affects me but people from the television and radio.  In my quondam days, music was little more than background (so far as I can recall), the main elements of my life were books (mostly speculative fiction), radio comedy and the television – mostly watching shows that will not have stood the test of time (and which I shall be careful not to re-watch to preserve the pleasures of my youth unsullied by the greater discernment of my middle age).

It was a few weeks ago that we lost Peter Firman, the last of the founders of Smallfilms, whose animated treasures were such a highlight of my early years.  This drove me to YouTube to seek out the first episode of Noggin the Nog and the Tales of the Northlands in which he starred.  This pre-dated even me – I must have seen rather later repeats – but even after more than 40 years it was so familiar and I had never forgotten Graculus.  I’m sure everyone has fond feelings for the television of their early years but I feel there was something particularly special and charming about the work of Smallfilms that later generations were denied.

Of course, with YouTube in front of me and my brain soused in nostalgia, I couldn’t leave it at just watching Noggin.  Eventually, I found myself watching one of the weirdest cartoons of my youth: Ludwig.  Adult me was unsurprised to discover that it was the brainchild of a Czech animator but I did find it much more luridly coloured than I remembered (probably because we only had a black and white television).  For those too young to recall this odd treat, Ludwig was some sort of admixture of an alien, Inspector Gadget, Loki and a classical music-loving egg who arrives unannounced in a forest and disrupts the life of its inhabitants.

It was only last week that we lost Jacqueline Pearce who played Servalan and Blake’s 7 and made such an impression on my pre-teen years.  Looking back, she was an extraordinarily strong female character for late 70s science fiction and rocked a rather unconventional look for the BBC of that era.  I can’t help wondering if she bears some (perhaps quite a lot of) responsibility for whatever feminist credentials I actually possess as she was an early example of a powerful woman (Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation, no less) with her own style – and it would be a very brave (and probably short-lived) character who would criticise her for it.

The deaths of these famous folk, many of whom are forever young in my memories, has helped to highlight the temporal distance from my childhood.  The feeling of having lived too long (in some ways only – no-one needs to stage an intervention or keep me away from sharp objects) has also been occurring more frequently of late.  I often find myself in front of the bathroom mirror of a morning thinking, “What, again?!”.  I think this is mostly down to the repetitions of life, and especially the need to constantly service the meat puppet which I have still failed to transcend.  I mean you feed it or shave it or wash it (or whatever) for the nth time (for large n) knowing full well that you’ll just have to do it again in a few hours/days.  By 52, there are certain activities that one has done too often to the same fleshy envelope and I find myself wanting some novelty.  Sadly, the technology does not exist for a full body transplant and I think I’m too old – and lack the inclination (and the wardrobe) – to transition to another gender.  I suppose I could get a tattoo or a piercing – but I am as inconstant as the wind and don’t really trust myself to want to keep the same image/text/hole into the medium (let alone the longer) term: I suppose I could have it somewhere I can’t see but that might rather defeat the purpose.

As well as the “What, again?!” moments during my brief, daily, dalliance with a reflecting surface there are also the “Not you again!” moments.  When I was young, I was more than happy with my own company – I guess my novelty value had yet to wear off – and while I had friends at school never really interacted with them outside the school grounds.  In many ways, this broad approach to life continued to my mid twenties and the introduction of alcohol into my life and, more significantly, my bloodstream.  I would then go to the pub with friends, have people over for dinner and occasionally cultural activities would be introduced.  This was broadly how my life continued into my forties, enjoying having a social life with friends but otherwise living a solitary life with cultural activities generally enjoyed alone.  If I spent a whole weekend with other people, I would have fun but be glad to return to my own space and company: though for a brief period would miss the stimulation other people provided.

At some stage, while living in Cambridge, I started going much more regularly to events (mostly classical music concerts and comedy gigs) at a small number of venues – something which started by accident when I went to see a friend of my parents whose orchestra was playing in town.  I enjoyed myself and the West Road concert hall became a regular haunt.  This meant that I tended to encounter the same people on multiple occasions and so got to know them.  However, it is since being in Southampton that this process has really taken off.  I can now have dozens of friends I see regularly around the city and can rarely leave the house without bumping into someone I know.  It is a lovely thing to be able to go out and expect (without planning anything) to meet friends: though it does rather eat into my reading time.

I think that my friends are becoming a much more important part of my life.  It is not entirely clear why, perhaps I am finally maturing emotionally?  It is not impossible as, relatively recently, after reading still falling by Sara Hirsch, I started to understand why people might want to enter into a relationship with another human: better late than never, eh?  I think I may have said this before, but think carefully before you read poetry: you never know how it might change you!

However, my preferred theory is that I am now bored of myself – I have lived with, what is conventionally thought of as, the same person for more than 52 years and the honeymoon period is definitely over.  I now find myself dreading having to spend a whole day – or worse evening – with only myself for company.  It’s fine if I have work or something else constructive (or which I deem constructive – which is not the same thing at all!) to do, but if I am free of responsibilities the prospect of being stuck with myself is not as appealling as once it was (more appalling).  Could this be an explanation for GofaDM?  Is it all a terrible attempt to escape my own company by inflicting it on the unsuspecting internet?  Does the fact that in recent months I have had loads of human contact, including more hugs on some days than the preceding four decades had delivered in total (I assume my childhood was hug-rich, but sadly cannot remember whether this is the case at all), mean that I had less need for this blog and explain my recent neglect?

Having said that I fill myself with a feeling of ennui, current me is way more interesting and entertaining company than past mes.  I really wouldn’t want to be stuck in a room with teenage or early twenties me – in fact, in many ways I’m not convinced that we are the same person at all.  Just because I share some faded and distorted versions of his memories, his genotype and a decayed version of his phenotype does not mean we are the same person.  This does lead to the thought that “future me” will disavow “current me”: though will be stuck with a lot of written proof of his existence.  I suppose everything is transient (though no-one has yet seen a proton or electron fall apart – so far as I know) and we should try and enjoy it, and the self doing the enjoying, while it lasts – and not worry overly much about the judgments that will be made by our future selves (they will always lack a certain perspective).

Sliding Doors

This may not be the post that any of us were expecting to mark my return to the blog after a 3 month absence.  I’ve had lots of ideas for posts, and many experiences that were probably more worthy of recording, but it was this afternoon that has finally made me return to the keyboard.  Some of this missing summer may later be immortalised in GofaDM or my future hagiographers may view summer 2018 in a similar light to Agatha Christie’s mysterious disappearance in 1926.  Then again, this post may be viewed as an odd postscript to my blogging career before darkness once more descends on this record of my life – only time will tell…

I have been feeling a trifle delicate today after having enjoyed myself to an immoderate degree yesterday – of which, perhaps, more later. So, following a rather extensive brunch catching up with a friend, I acquired some necessary victuals: aduki beans, rogan josh curry paste and a handful of bananas.  Should I choose to combine these in a single dish, I feel confident of making culinary history though perhaps not anything that would pass as edible.  After this pre-planned excursion, I would not have blamed myself (though others may) had I chosen to camp out under my duvet with some of the trashier charms of Netflix for company for the rest of the day.

As it transpires, I am a better man than this and so – pausing only to re-inflate my front tyre – I set off on my bicycle to the Highfield campus of the University of Southampton.  This weekend, that institution has been holding open days for the enlightenment of potential (or possibly actual) future students – or should I call them customers in this age where the market is in despotic command?  I could theoretically pass myself off as a possible mature student (in physical age at least) but I was noticeably older than most of either the proto-students or their parents and or guardians.  (By-the-by, who would want to be a mere ‘parent’ when the much more exciting title of ‘guardian’ is on offer?).  Luckily, my presence on campus went entirely unchallenged.

My reason for going to the campus was on the off-chance of seeing some musical friends performing as part of the weekend’s rich calendar of events.  With my not infrequent gift for timing, I arrived just in time to hear the dying notes of the final musical performance of the weekend.  However, from this apparent failure was salvaged a crumb of hope in terms of the suggestion that the friend of a friend – a student of acoustics – was manning an exhibit relating to 3D sound in a car and was bored and might welcome visitors.  As I make it a principle of life to leave no straw unclutched, I wandered round the Hartley Library to a black Toyota estate and three young acoustics tyros.  What a splendid decision this turned out to be!

On entering the car, I found myself in an environment not unlike a sauna and facing a small box – roughly the size of a shoe box – covering the passenger’s sunshade, with six small speakers of various shapes facing me.  Not the most pre-possessing of objects but it was a thing of marvels (and has probably led to some useful weight-loss).  From these six speakers – all visibly in front of me – emerged the most incredible, immersive surround sound experience.  It knocked the highest spec, 5.1 hifi home cinema sound system into a cocked-hat – and without any trailing wires!  Sound was clearly coming from behind me – so much so that it was impossible not to look round.  In a piece of nostaglia, one of the pieces of music chosen was the theme from the Money Programme of my youth.  I also heard tell of a truly amazing cinema at Bower and Wilkins with probably the greatest sound system in the world which needs a medium-sized room full of amplifiers just to make it work.  Now, how can a blag myself a visit…?

Way back in 1990, I had the opportunity to do a PhD in acoustics at MIRA (the Motor Industry Research Association) and I found myself wondering about the path my life might have taken had I taken up that option rather than joining the electricity industry.  Perhaps somewhere in the multi-verse, another me is a giant in the field of acoustics – though, in those days, the technology I was viewing probably wasn’t even a distant dream and I would probably have spend more time trying to reduce rattle and hum in 90s hatchbacks.  Less exciting perhaps but still a laudable aim which may have reduced later U2-based suffering…

However, this was only one of the technical, acoustic marvels the afternoon held.  The lads at the car pointed me to an even more amazing demonstration in a nearby building.  This used twenty nine speakers in a unit that would sit at the top of a car’s windscreen and would allow the driver and passenger to listen to entirely different music (or radio or podcasts) without disturbing each other – another cause of vehicular arguments could end within my lifetime!  It isn’t quite perfect, there was a little bit of bleed-through – but it was astoundingly close.  Moving a mere 18 inches delivered a total different sonic feed: almost like magic.  The system also offered an even more immersive 3D soundscape than the six speaker system in the Toyota.  The future of acoustics and sound reproduction looks to be incredibly exciting and in very good hands!

As interesting as the sound system was its manufacture using a mixture of 3D printing and CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling was as exciting.  The latter has moved on massively since the later 1980s when one of my first jobs was writing an algorithm to schedule jobs on a Makino MC65 milling machine.  The student demonstrating his amazing speaker system had a little cubic bauble which had been milled from a block of aluminium that very day using a 5-axis milling machine.  It had been milled out in an almost fractal geometric design and it was rather beautiful and sparkled in the light.  I did, mostly in jest, consider attempting to over-power the poor lad and leg it with his jewel-like piece of engineering – but managed to restrain my more larcenous tendencies.

It was a truly eye-opening afternoon seeing what a mere handful of young people in one department were achieving.  It was also fascinating hearing them talk about the co-operation with other universities and organisations and the really open-minded problem-solving between departments within Southampton University which was making their work possible.  It really brought home to me the amazing work our universities are capable of and how interconnected modern scientific, technological and engineering development has to be.  It was one of the best examples of a university engaging with the public (viz me) I’ve ever had the good fortune to be a part of.  Perhaps unfortunately, the weekend wasn’t entirely intended to work in this way – but it was a first class demonstration of how a university can enthuse the public with how they are spending our money.  The work these young people were engaged in – on, I suspect, fairly minimal salaries – will be the foundation of the technological marvels that we will take for granted in a few years time.  We will also probably credit the Apple’s of tomorrow for the miracles, rather than the young people of today and the current public investment in their work.

The University of Southampton (along with many others) has not had entirely good press of late – but it seems important to remember that along with their issues they do important and fascinating work.  I also feel that there are a lot more opportunities for deeper engagement with the public than they are currently using – though, I will admit that this afternoon could have been tailor-made to charm me, given my slightly strange past, and might not have had universal appeal…

Partnership Disobedience

It is often said that the devil makes work for idle hands.  On the whole, with the clear exception of my attempts to play a musical instrument, I like to imagine my hands are under my own executive control (assuming that idea has any meaning) and the infernal realms have an indirect influence, at best.  My mind, when idling – whether it is supposed to be or not – is a very different matter and generally appears all too able to slip off the yoke of local management and wander off on its own (or at the whim of any, or all, available supernatural agencies).  These digressions take a wide range of forms, but this post will only tackle one of the common themes: projects I could only consider tackling if I had significantly more time and money to devote to such foolishness than is, in fact, the case.  As those who know the author will attest, I am already possessed of substantially more money than sense, but this is more a comment on my shortfall of sense than on my fabulous wealth.  I suppose I could re-define projects of this type as conceptual art, rather than mild lunacy in search of a weak joke, and see if this would attract grant-giving agencies or a wealthy sponsor – but I’m not hopeful.  Let’s see how the world at large responds to the modest proposal which I shall now set out…

A number of professional bodies corporate have a tendency to exist as partnerships – I am thinking of accountants, lawyers and the like – which tend to be named as a list of the partners involved (or originally involved). Despite the fact that When We Were Very Young was published in 1924, no-one seems to have formed the obvious partnership suggested by the poem Disobedience contained therein.  I view this as a sad indictment of the level of ambition in the English-speaking world and would rather like to rectify this.  When the lottery millions come rolling in (only very slightly inhibited by my failure to participate in the lottery), I shall be seeking a set of solicitors with the following surnames to form a new partnership:

  • James:          2 off
  • Morrison:    2 off
  • Weatherby: 1 off
  • George:        1 off
  • Dupree:       1 off

Their names will be used in the order listed in the formal name of the firm and on the associated brass plaque and letterheads.  The firm should probably specialise in family law.

I am keen to arrange a series of events to mark the third year of my new partnership: perhaps a move to the end of the town as a prelude to dissolution.  I’m certainly keen to hold an event with golden gowns in the dress code: if possible, involving a trip to the palace (ideally with an Alice) – perhaps at breakfast time (butter would, of course, be provided).  Should the firm somehow survive to reach its sixth year, I will insist that they take on a silent partner with the name of Binker.

I did consider an alternative partnership honouring the brave men of the Trumptonshire Fire Service but decided that inspiration from A A Milne would have a broader reach.

Before signing off, I feel we should all take a moment to admire the (relative) brevity of today’s exposition: it came within a gnat’s crochet of fitting into a Tweet!

Voices

The regular visitor will have noticed – and probably appreciated – the recent reduction in the rate of production of new content here.  This is not down to the lack of new subject matter gold for me to spin into textual straw, like an anti-Rumplestiltskin, but rather to a shortfall in the particular form of energy needed to perform that transmutation: some sort of motivational band gap, as it were.  However, I am back in the writer’s saddle for now – and with a backlog of ideas to throw against the wall of the internet to see if any stick.

Talking of long absences, with the exception of a single trip to see King Lear – made possible by my renewed possession of a car – it had been a couple of years since I last visited Chichester.  The good burghers of that city might wonder what they have done to offend me: I can reassure them that they are blameless, the lacuna can be explained by the terrible unreliability of Southern Railways for the past several years.  Brighton has also suffered (or enjoyed) a general lack of my presence in the same period and for the same reason and as a city does not welcome the car.  Still, other south coast cities’ loss has been Southampton’s gain!

The weekend before last I did voyage to Chichester, once again prompted by a visit to the theatre.  A friend was involved in a production at the Minerva and so I decided to risk Southern – knowing that I could always fallback on my car – and attend the Saturday matinée.  Travelling by train, I arrived very early – better than late or not at all – and so had my first visit to the Pallant House Gallery for the first time in a good while.  As ever, it contained a multitude of visual delights: I think my highlight was the glorious designs of Sheila Bownas.  However, more important (at least to this post) was the conversation I had with a member of staff as I was negotiating my (free!) entry to the gallery.  Through this dialogue, I discovered the existence of a hitherto unknown devised theatre piece taking place in Southampton this past weekend.  The city I call home likes to protect its cultural gems behind a thick veil of secrecy: sometimes this purdah can only be penetrated from a distance.

The plays I went to see in Chichester, the double bill random/generations by debbie green tucker (her choice of capitalisation) were very good: each a study of love and loss.  Without the personal connection I would probably not have noticed the plays, let alone travelled to see them: which would have been my loss.  It was such a joy to hear different voices from the stage and voices still carrying a very topical message: though both plays were around a decade old.  Not only were the plays both funny and moving, but generations was accompanied by a small ensemble from the South African Cultural Choir who were in fabulous voice.  I think the plays had the youngest audience (on average) that I have ever seen in Chichester and it was certainly the most ethnically diverse (in that it was ethnically diverse).  It was not a huge audience – the theatre was competing with bright sunshine, some nuptials near Slough and a kickabout in north London – but I’m told we were responsive and those I could see really enjoyed the experience.  I believe there are a few days left to catch random/generations should you find yourself near Noviomagus Reginorum…

Inspired by my discovery at Pallant House, this past Saturday I once again retreated from the heat of the afternoon sun to see some theatre.  My Life Closed Twice by Gauntlet Theatre was staged under the Arches, which I last visited to see a Playlist gig, and was a devised piece based on the experience of living with schizophrenia.  It was one of the most thought-provoking pieces of theatre (or anything else) I’ve ever seen and did an amazing job of creating a little understanding of some of the issues facing people with schizophrenia.  I was the audience member selected to try and read a short paragraph will listening on headphones to a simulation of the more benign of the “voices” that might be constant background to the life of a schizophrenic.  Whilst I could still read out the text – perhaps thanks to a life spent working in open plan offices – it was more difficult and required a lot of concentration.  If this were a permanent state, it would be exhausting and exceedingly ego depleting – and this was without having to cope with the more strident and negative voices that can also be a feature of the illness.  The play made me realise the strong similarities between a normal brain (or at least mine – which I am, controversially, going to use as an example of normality) and that of a schizophrenic: I think we all have the same basic underlying symptoms but in the more typical brain the unwanted voices are very quickly damped into silence (sometimes even before they can begin) almost all of the time.  It has also made me think rather differently about some aspects of my insomnia: the racing or circling thoughts that keep me awake seemed eerily similar to some of the voices I saw acted out on stage.

As I was watching the play and finding it fascinating, I did wonder how realistic it was.  What I discovered talking to the cast afterwards was that it was an autobiographical piece: the chap playing the protagonist was portraying himself and his own experiences.  He was a lovely chap and great fun to talk to, though it may have been slightly tactless of me to suggest that his brain had rather typecast the “voices” in his head.  The life and experiences I saw played out on stage bore no relationship to any version of schizophrenia I have ever seen on screen.  However, they did remind me of some of the issues experienced by those with Autism discussed in Steve Silberman’s book Neurotribes and his own experience of OCD which David Adam described in his book The Man Who Couldn’t Stop.  I can’t help feeling that not only are those with mental illness poorly served (at least at times) by the health and caring services but even more so by the media and, as a result, society at large.  The voices that dominate the media seem to be from a very narrow segment of the lived experience of humanity: there is no shortage of extreme political views on offer but these almost all seem to come from the same very slender slice of society.  These people fill the compulsory current affairs slots in our media with thought- and empathy-free argument: I presume current affairs is mandatory as the laws that make it so are created by the guests who get to spout their views in these slots.  Far more useful might be a requirement for a broader range of voices to be heard on the media, free of pressure from ratings, creating content on matters that interest them (and not this is not a pitch for GofaDM to get its own Netflix special).  We could easily live without the endless speculation, pointless argument and failure to answer questions that characterises so much current affairs and re-purpose that time and budget for something more useful.

My Mind Closed Twice has finished its home-town run in Southampton but I believe those near Reading or Gothenberg do still have a chance to catch it.

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Telling a compelling story doesn’t need a huge budget!

Theatre and other fringe culture does seem to offer a route for more voices to take part in the dialogue but it is not easy even there and money is always problematic.  Fringe culture, by its very nature, can only reach modest audiences, whereas an idiot demagogue can reach millions instantly (feel free to pick your own idiot demagogue: there are plenty to go around).  I’m not sure I have a solution, other than being an audience for the sort of things I want to see and feel should be supported and hoping to encourage others to join me.  Going out to culture is my primary form of economic activity, if we exclude eating and drinking, but I’m not sure I can produce societal change on my own – well, not without violent revolution and its been a bit to warm for that of late and there is only the one of me (for which we are all grateful)!

I would seem to have returned from my hiatus in a preaching mood: this will probably wear off…  It must be the effect of two Saturday afternoons hiding from the sun with truly great theatrical experiences which, like all the best experiences, live with you long after they have finished. I found myself wondering why are such gems so rarely (if ever) made available to those who’d rather sit at home watching the flickering of polarised light twisted this way and that to create colourful, apparently moving images?

The Explore/Exploit Dilemma

I am currently reading a particularly excellent book entitled Algorithms to Live By (by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths) which attempts to take some of the insights learned by producing algorithms in mathematics, and especially for computers, and applying them to real life.  Expect me to be using the principles of “interrupt coalescence” and the “tail drop” in my everyday life from now on!  The book also provided a simple explanation of a technique I have been using (albeit within a “black box”) at work for almost twenty years without (as it now transpires) understanding it at all.

Like all the best books, be they fiction or non-fiction (which is a terrible name for the written form of  a huge swathe of human knowledge), this book has introduced me to new ideas and forced adjustment (or abandonment) of existing ones.  The title – and the content – of this post refers to one of these.  For a human, the dilemma might be whether to re-visit a tried and tested restaurant (“exploit”) or to try somewhere new (“explore”).  For humans, we tend towards greater exploitation and less exploration as we grow older: if for no other reason that that there is less time to exploit any new discoveries found while exploring.  In my general raging against the dying of the light (which is, frankly, a tad too bright at the moment and could usefully die a little), I am trying to resist this tendency, though my innate laziness does – all too often – favour exploitation.

For this post, I will be exploring the dilemma in terms of my musical gig going using three examples from recent weeks.  In these antics, my decision-making is also influenced by a desire to support (as well as exploit) favourite artists – some of whom also count as friends – and to support the local music scene and its unusually large number and range of venues: something that, my travels have taught me, we would be unwise to take for granted.

A few weeks back, I found myself in local basement bar Belgium and Blues to watch Bad Cat.  This trip falls firmly into the exploitation camp, as I have been to the bar several times before as its wide range of, often alarming strong, ales and handy location on my way home from several other venues making it a tempting location for a nightcap whilst continuing a conversation (or several).  On this occasion, for the first time, I delved slightly deeper into Belgian culture and partook of one of their excellent sweet waffles – a Thursday evening activity which threatens to become a habit (but I do associate Belgian bars with monks, so this may be entirely proper).  In fact, this waffle acted as a dessert to the main course of another Thursday tradition, the splendid Thai curry on offer at The Guide Dog earlier on that evening.  The Thursday curries at The Guide Dog seem leagues ahead of those I put up with in London back in the 90s: as so often in my life, a twenty year gap in an activity pays off!  Bad Cat are a local swing band, containing several friends, who have graced these pages before.  Their music is perfectly suited to the basement vibe and the evening was an absolute hoot with all the elements of a perfect night-out coming together: good beer, food, company and a nonpareil conjunction of music and venue.

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Sassy fun incarnate!

As an aside. every time I see Bad Cat perform I want to take up the trumpet: mostly to use the mutes.  So far the cheek-by-jowl (I provide the cheeks) presence of neighbours to my tiny dwelling has enabled me to resist but I can’t help feeling that time is running out for my embouchure…  In the interests of full disclosure, I have just searched for “electric trumpet” on-line and I’m finding the results rather exciting: you can obtain a silencer for your trumpet!

The following night was much more of an exploration: the venue – Turner Sims – is an old favourite – but it was my first time with a Gambian singer and kora player.  Turner Sims can be quite an austere space for music, hosting as it often does chamber music, but Sona Jaborteh was having no truck with that: I have never been so heavily involved in a gig at Turner Sims before!  She had the whole audience joining in with many of the songs, both new and traditional, so I briefly new several words in at least one Gambian tongue (i believe I can still remember “musow” means “mother”).  Sona and her band were clearly having so much fun with the music and audience members would have needed a heart of particularly icy stone not to be transported by the joyous atmosphere in the hall.  It is amazing how an artist can transform even a well-known space so that you see and feel it anew.  I can’t help pondering whether there is something classical music needs to learn here: so many classical music gigs contain glorious music and musicianship but a very one-way, pedagogic, relationship twist performer(s) and audience.  I can’t help wondering if the young are used to a more involving relationship twixt stage and stalls…

Still, shallow reflection aside, over a pair of consecutive days I navigated a glorious path between the Scylla and Charybdis of exploitation and exploration: beating even cunning Odysseus by losing no seamen at all!  However, it was this last Saturday evening that my delicate balancing act may have reached its apotheosis.  I have for a year or so, been exposing myself, through the good offices of Playlist and the Out-take Ensemble, to an extraordinary range of contemporary and experimental music.  I finally decided to take my interest and curiosity by travelling all the way to London for a whole evening of experimental music – my only safety nets was that one of the percussionists was Sam Wilson who I’d heard performing a piece by Anna Meredith (who was also the composer of the one of the pieces on the bill) at a recent Playlist gig.  Making my decision easier was the fact that it was held in King’s Place and that the cost of the ticket was only £9.50, though there was still the cost of getting to, and eating, in the capital.  I  think King’s Place has become my favourite place for music in London: it is a lovely space and it has such an interesting programme.  If I lived closer, I suspect that I would be there a lot more often.

The gig was performed by Icebreaker who are an unusual ensemble of instruments – a range of saxes (from bass to soprano), flutes, pan pipes, guitar, bass, violin, cello and a whole bunch of keyboards and percussion – played with amplification and tackling a diverse range of contemporary repertoire.  The stage was packed with gear, even before the players arrived, which created a keen sense of anticipation in me: what had I let myself in for?  I needn’t have worried, this was exploration at its very best: the gig had the most entrancing, exciting and unexpected range of musical offerings.  It was entitled Velocity and was part of the same Time Unwrapped series I visited earlier in the year, to enjoy Manu Delago and Friends from my beanbag throne, and so also unpacked time (though didn’t stray into the depths of quantum loop gravity).  The temporal exploration varied from a piece almost without time, to a hypnotic piece that moved almost glacially slowly to the final piece which kept doubling in speed long after I thought it was impossible for Sam to strike the wood blocks any faster.  The whole programme was a tour de force on so many instruments and I suspect required a specialist ensemble like Icebreaker to do it justice.  I found that the different pieces required different ways of listening which was also fascinating.  The gig was being recorded, and as we left Recomposed (who I think are a duo of composers) had recomposed elements of it into a new piece which served as aide-memoire, highlights reel and a way to deepen and expand the whole musical experience. I hing around for a while to enjoy their work before having to head for a train back home.

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Travelling in time without a TARDIS

I think I can say that Icebreaker: Velocity was my favourite of all the gigs I have ever been to: it was a programme full of wonder that I would never have attended or, probably, enjoyed at any earlier stage in my life.  While it didn’t take place in Southampton, it was only my local exposure to new music that brought me to go and have that amazing experience.  Thanks to that gig, building on earlier local work, I now want to see more contemporary music: I just need to find out when and where it happens!  I also discovered a hitherto unsuspected love for at least some EDM (electronic dance music), at least when performed live by such an outstanding ensemble: I have so far resisted purchasing any glow sticks…

When worlds collide

In common with most people (or so I assume), my life is divided into separate spheres of activity.  Whilst I am common to all of these spheres – crouching spider-like at the centre of the multi-dimensional Venn diagram of my life – the other people who populate its many spheres have little reason (or opportunity) to meet or interact with each other. My work colleagues are on the other side of the Irish Sea and so would never (knowingly) meet my family and they, in turn, live at some remove from Southampton and so are unlikely to meet my local friends.  Even within Southampton, there is relatively little contact between my exercise, musical and theatrical friends.  This is not as a result of some sort of strict cordon sanitaire I enforce between these groups to enable me to live a range of totally inconsistent lives – as frankly, I’m not willing to put that much effort into maintaining a collection of separate vizards behind which I hide my true nature (no, I put all my skill at concealment into sustaining a single mask that none should ever discover the horrors that lie beneath) – but just the nature of engaging with somewhat separate communities of people.  There is some leakage of information between these communities via my tireless work attempting to make social media a fun place to be, but this has been limited.

On the Saturday just gone (or has it…?  Perhaps I should leave a philosophical discussion of block time for another occasion: I used to think of it is comforting, but now feel it is more horrifying) two of my many local worlds came together at a glorious celebration of the city’s extraordinary musical strength.  For the first time, the new NST City theatre staged a music gig – and hosted it in style!  This meant that friends from the city’s music, spoken word, gallery and theatre scenes were all present in the same building at the same time: the risk of them sharing stories about the author was worryingly high.  I could attempt some damage control, but mostly had to rely on the consistency of the image of myself I share with the world.  I think I got away with it… though I have come realise that the presence of my name on the donor wall is noticed rather more often than I’d anticipated.

I had not originally planned to attend the gig.  The headliners, Band of Skulls, while locally sourced were unknown to me and I had concerns about the theatre parking its metaphorical tank on the lawns of the existing local music venues: many of which are in a financially delicate situation (in common with most arts venues).  I do still have some worries on this account but hope NST staging gigs (which will always be somewhat infrequent events) can help to bring new audiences to other music venues in the city while also bringing new audiences to the theatre.  However, the main driver of my ticket purchase was the joint discovery that my friend’s band was opening for the Band of Skulls – who are much less frightening that their name might suggest – and people I know via Playlist, the Tuba Libres and the local music scene more generally were all involved in the orchestra who would be accompanying the headliners.  Who could I refuse?  (That question will be explored in a later post about earlier events: real life has left me with quite a backlog of content for GofaDM, you have been warned!).  As it transpired, I also knew the people in charge of the sound, recording and filming – and quite a sizeable chunk of the audience.

The gig was amazing: I feel it will be seen as a seminal event in the city’s musical history.  NST City makes for a very comfy space for a music gig and the sound and acoustic were really good.  The folks at the theatre also did a really good job of hosting their first gig.

It was a source of real joy to me that the first musicians to take to the stage in this new venue were all friends.  Kitty O’Neal and her band offered the space a glorious baptism of sound with familiar favourites and new tunes from their forthcoming album.  It feels like a long wait until its release in June, but I suspect the time will flash by…

After a short break, Band of Skulls and their orchestral accompaniment in the form of the Space Between Collective – all drawn from local musical talent – took to the stage: behind them historic film of Southampton and its liners played.  Unlike many of the audience, I didn’t know the band but really enjoyed their music which built from a relatively stripped-back start to a seriously rocking finish.  The orchestral accompaniment – unique to this one gig – gave their music a sense of scale and grandeur quite different from that granted by mere amplification.  As well as their own music, the set also included settings of locally relevant hymns and folk tunes.  All of this gave the gig I wonderfully site-specific feel – it literally couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.  By the time the bass player returned to the stage for the encore, wrapped in an enormous white sousaphone playing the opening bars of When the Saints Come Marching In, the whole audience was on its feet and joining in.  I was reminded of the opening celebration of Studio 144 (which includes NST City) when one felt that a significant chunk of the city was coming together in celebration of the city and what a great place it can be.  Chatting and eavesdropping in the bar after the concert, I certainly had the impression that everyone had a really good time and I over-heard several suggestions that this should be an annual event: a sentiment with which I would heartily agree!

I’d arrived at the gig at 19:30 just as it started to rain and the sky was first riven by lightning.  I started to think about leaving at 23:00, at which stage it was still hammering down with rain and the city was illuminated by almost continuous lightning.  According to the lad manning the front desk it had been doing this the whole time, which I could believe given that Above Bar Street was less street and more surging river by this stage.  This did cause the romantic in me to imagine we audience members as the circle of the light defending something precious as the massed forces of the dark assailed our last redoubt: or that might be because I’m currently re-reading the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper.    Luckily, the assault finally weakened around 23:30 and I could walk home in the relative dry, leading to me believe the Old Ones were victorious on this occasion!

NST City has its next gig on 11 May: I can’t imagine this can quite reach the emotional intensity of its first but I have high hopes for it and shall be there.  Hopefully, I will not need any of the four things of power crafted for the light – though I do rather fancy a trip to Cadair Idris and could fetch the “tomb of every hope” while I’m there…

Abandoning my post

Probably the worst (work-related) crime any front line mail worker can commit, but as the Royal Mail has never offered me employment I do not anticipate being required to deliver my own P45 any time soon.  I do, however, feel a certain degree of guilt at leaving Southampton for two whole evenings to pursue my own pleasure in distant Edinburgh.  There were very few gigs on over the latter half of the Easter weekend, but I fear those few that were staged may have felt my absence all the more keenly.

Still, a chap does have to visit the more distant members of his friendship circle from time-to-time and it is always a joy to be in Edinburgh during its annual Science Festival.  So many opportunities to learn new and unexpected facts about our universe: fresh knowledge which will decay as the half-life of my engrammatic storage takes its inevitable toll.

Due to an absence of sensibly priced student accommodation, I was forced to stay in the rather swankier surrounds of Edinburgh Sixteen (though for the same basic price).  This was in Newington, an area previously unknown to me, which has excellent bus links into the city proper and some rather fine buildings and side streets.  My room was far nicer than I am used to (or deserve), though the pod-based coffee/maker-cum-kettle did prove almost entirely beyond my abilities to use.  I was not helped by the instruction sheet which was entirely diagrammatic and far more cryptic than the most complex symbolic reasoning test I have ever seen or taken.  I did manage to make two somewhat tepid cups of tea but with the Bosch Tassimo I seem to have encountered an alien technology beyond my ken.  My digs also offered a quite excellent breakfast: the best I have had in a hotel (or equivalent) for many years and at a very sensible price (cheaper than the inferior offerings of Travelodge or Premier Inn).  Following my return, I rather miss fresh pancakes and slices of warmed baguette before I face the horrors of the day: sadly, the resident chef is unwilling to put in the effort and so I shall stick with the porridge.

Arriving on Easter Sunday to glorious sunshine, I was a little worried as to the availability of locations to dine in the evening.  The influence of John Knox might still have been strong – and, indeed, many of my usual haunts were closed.  One of the few places open was the Café de la Poste which was also conveniently close to Summerhall where my Science Festival gigs were taking place (allowing a quickish dinner to be grabbed between lectures).  If more places had been open, I would never have thought to visit the Café (or realise it was there, hiding next to a Sainsbury’s Local) – I’d probably have grabbed a snack in the Summerhall Cafe – but how I lucky I was that my options were much reduced by the bank holiday.  The place feels like a perfect Parisien Bistro – but without the hassle of going to Paris – and furnished me with my best meal of 2018 to-date and a stunning glass of red (OK, there were two): in fact, my best meal fort a long time and I am lucky enough to eat well (both in and out) on a regular basis.  I even had a chance to show off a little (OK most) of my remaining skill with la langue Française: even better, it actually worked!  I plan to return to Auld Reekie in July for the Jazz and Blues Festival and the Café de la Poste will definitely be on my itinerary.  I wonder if I could sneak Bad Cat up in my hand luggage to complete the perfect left-bank vibe?

The Science Festival provided some excellent talks, but there were two stand-out sessions.  The first was entitled the Seduction of Curves and very much lived up to its title.  It was one of those talks that changes the way you look at things forever – I am now constantly on the look-out for the various forms of catastrophe: the cusp, fold, swallowtail and butterfly.  Give me a wine glass and I you will find me holding it up the light to look for an astroid.  The speaker – Alan MacRobie – was very entertaining, if probably slightly mad and (I suspect) somewhat of trial for his long-suffering wife.  I now find myself in need of an acetate sheet with a moiré pattern, though will try to resist laying it onto people to better understand their curves.  His anecdote about asking a bunch of his Cambridge engineering students about (a) whether their oil rig would float and (b) which way up it would do so will stick with me for a very long time.  As it turns out (a) is pretty easy to answer but (b) is rather harder – even for something as simple as a chair leg.  Sometimes very basic physical processes are surprisingly hard to predict or properly model: and it is always a joy when an apparently simple question leads to unexpected complexity.  So much fun was the talk, that afterwards I bought his book – despite it being a hardback and costing significantly more than my usual book-buying budget.  I am saving it for later and may have to read it at home given its racy mix of mathematics and nudity!

I was lucky enough – due to the unexpected swiftness of Lothian Buses – to be the first visitor to enter the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art (One) on Easter Monday morning and had a ball trying to apply my half-remembered knowledge of catastrophes to its various three dimensional artworks.  Did I truly find a hyperbolic umbilic?  It is always lovely to be the first into an art gallery, for a long time I had all the works more-or-less to myself.  I went to see works by Ed Ruscha and an exhibition of Modern Scottish Art – both of which were very good and thanks to Ed, I shall never look at car parks in quite the same way again: his photographs from the air elevated some (while empty) to artworks, with hints of the Nazca lines or even Bridget Riley.  The gallery does have a couple of stunning Rileys, which I could – given the chance and a comfy chair – stare at for hours.  However, the stand-out for me was a several series of photographs by the South African artist Robin Rhode which depicted a performance artist interacting with a series of wall paintings.  These were incredible having elements of dance and circus as well as abstract painting and even stop-frame animation.  The creativity and imagination of some people leaves me slack-jawed in amazement.

My second stand-out science talk was all about brewing, given by beer writer Pete Brown: which does suggest a possible future career for the author.  This was a really enjoyable talk about the contribution from each of the barley, yeast, hops and water to the flavour of one’s pint.  The talk was illustrated with three very fine canned beers from Brewdog: I’m usually slightly ambivalent about Brewdog, I like some of their ethos but do find their ABV rather high for a man of my age with a desire to enjoy several pints and remain awake/conscious/in control of his limbs.  However, Jet Black Heart and King Pin were both delicious and sensible session ales; Native Son was also lovely but a tad strong for everyday consumption: probably safest to consume it when already in bed as a night cap.  I’ll just share a single fact from the talk which is the importance of the Burton snatch to the brewing of the finest India Pale Ales: I shall leave the reader the joy of discovering why that might be the case (you may wish to engage Safe Search before satisfying your curiosity).

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Despite the Easter Monday weather veering randomly between heavy rain and blizzard for much of the day (often within a single minute), I had a splendid time in Edinburgh.  Regular readers will be pleased to know that within a minimum number of hours of my flight heating Southampton (or Eastleigh) tarmac (in a controlled fashion) I had hied myself to a local gig: for (and by) local people.  Nevertheless, I should perhaps leave my Southampton security blanket behind a little more often: I’m sure the city will cope fine without me!