Heat another pan quickly…

I have a feeling this blog has previously referred to my traditional celebration of the end of the year, largely (assuming it has indeed occurred) as an excuse to shoe-horn in a reference to a Dorset Knob.  There was never a plan to start a new tradition, it grew out of the older – date independent – practice of the Fish Supper where I (as Fish – see a very old blog post for an explanation) would prepare a dinner for some friends.  One year, which must be at least a decade ago, a Fish Supper for a couple of friends coincided with New Year’s Eve and inadvertently a new tradition was kindled with the Flame Imperishable. From that day, we have alternated the hosting of New Year’s Eve and offering a 6(ish) course menu of food with appropriate wine (and other alcoholic beverages as appropriate) starting at 6(ish – GofaDM loves a theme) with a vague aim of finishing around midnight.  These have definitely represented the best endings to years of my life – and the driving of a mistletoe stake through the heart of 2018 was one of the very finest.

Last night, it was my turn to host and I like to use these occasions to experiment with new recipes or at least add a new twist to an old favourite: it feels appropriate to celebrate the ending of one year and birthing of the next with something new (well, that or a killing).  In consequence, ever since returning home on Boxing Day, some portion of my brain and body have been devoted to planning and preparing the bill of fare for yestere’en and this morning’s fast breaking.  For me, these modest pains were repaid handsomely with as convivial an evening and morning as a chap could ask for – the food even came out pretty well!  I am definitely getting better at not massively over-catering the evening and, I think as we age, we are growing better at moderating our alcoholic indulgence.  I shall now attempt to make the menu entertaining (but am prepared for abject failure), lest any readers wish to recreate the experience of seeing in the New Year with their favourite author and, that option being unavailable, willing to accept me as an exceeding inferior substitute…

We started with a salad of comice pear, two types of cress (“water” and “mustard and” but no “ip”), chopped nuts and fried halloumi cuboids.  This was rather a fine combination of flavours and textures (though I shall be finding strands of cress of days!) and may have to become part of my quotidien, guest-free dining life (though it does make a bit of a mass of the frying pan).  There is also something about the smell of mustard-and-cress which takes me back to my childhood (unlike Marcel Proust, madeleines formed no part of my youth and have only rarely appeared in my soi-disant adult life).  The salad was tossed, and the halloumi glazed, in a rather fine dressing which caused me to purchase a new – and rather beautiful – bottle of sherry vinegar which I like to think William Morris would approve as being both beautiful and useful.

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A certain Moorish influence?

I then prepared “open” spinach and ricotta ravioli – made by cutting a sheet of lasagna in half and propping one half rather vaguely atop the “filling”-covered base.  I feel this aspect needs some work presentationally as the cooked half  sheets of lasagna had very firm ideas about how they would perch that did not coincide with my own.  I also feel that adding the ricotta cold to the creation didn’t quite work with the other warm ingredients, though I have yet to come up with a plan to pre-warm it.  This recipe gives us our title as while the “chef” was busy preparing several other components of the dish, he is suddenly commanded to “quickly heat another pan”.  Whilst I followed this direction, I can’t help feeling that an earlier request to start slowly heating the pan in readiness for later deployment would have been a solid basis for a less stressful algorithm.

We then moved to halibut with an orange and courgette salad.  This had no issues, though it is worth noting that the author of the recipe that formed the basis for this course rather over-estimated the appeal of its courgette element.  On the plus side, it did provide an opportunity to showcase my legendary courgette slicing skills (achieved without the use of a mandolin and while retaining my full complement of fingers).

Three courses in, seemed a good opportunity for a break to allow a little time for digestion.  My friends (among many who have the misfortune of being my friends on Facebook – though in my defense, the vast majority will have requested this dubious privilege and have had to pass the test of surviving a real-life conversation with me) have seen many an image of the Guide Dog and having travelled from out of town wished to see this beacon (icon, even) of beer, good company and (often) excellent music making.  So, we toddled down the hill into Bevois Valley for some well-kept beer, good company and, as luck would have it, some very fine music making from a session marking the sashaying of 2018 into the history books (probably into one of its more lurid chapters).  I believe my friends left suitably convinced both of the Guide Dog‘s credentials and that I have not been mis-representing its charms on-line.

Returning, it was time for the desserts and the cheeseboard.  Having learned the importance of cooking later courses before the chef becomes too inebriated to follow a recipe, these had been prepared the day before and only needed to be served.  For the first time, I made individual summer puddings for the first dessert.  Given my inability to source (or indeed, say) dariole moulds in Southampton on Sunday they were created in ramekins (for the avoidance of doubt, not my pet name for one – or more – male sheep).  I was a little concerned about their structural integrity lacking the buttressing bread walls of a full-scale summer pudding – however, they did not instantly collapse but retained their shape rather successfully.  The current working theory is that pectin worked its polysaccharide structural magic during the weighting and chilling phase of their creation.  I cannot speak to its utility in larger scale construction projects…

The second desert marked my first attempt at a semi freddo, which was flavoured with fragmented chocolate torrone (and added hazelnuts) and so, by chance, seasonally appropriate.  The creation of this substance made very heavy use of my available mixing bowls and whisks: it used all of my bowls (including one that is lucky to see even an annual outing normally) and really required at least one more whisk than I own.  Still, I muddled through and poured the thick, creamy liquid produced from all this beating and broader wrist-based action into a tray and thence the freezer in the hope that something at least semi-edible would emerge.  I can report that what emerged was exceedingly edible – though would probably not be considered the healthiest of dishes for everyday consumption and should not form part of a calorie-controlled diet.  Given just how fine it was, I shall probably want to make it again and may invest in another whisk (the bootless extravagance!).  It did have the unexpected side-effect of inducing significant torpor in all that consumed it – which did add a little challenge to our subsequent assault on the cheeseboard.   I am thinking of marketing my semi freddo as an alternative to Xanax for those who (like myself) regularly manage to elude the arms of Morpheus.

Troopers that we are, we did manage to make modest inroads into the 2/3π radians of Bigod Brie brought by my friends and the unexpectedly toothsome Cote Hill Lindum that was my randomly-selected contribution to the board.  The accompanying knäckebröd (less filthy than it sounds) from Peter’s Yard was also a new signing and will definitely see some more caps in 2019!

By this point, midnight was almost upon us so we listened to the obligatory scaffolding-obscured chimes of one of this country’s larger grandfather clocks and made disparaging remarks about the modern evil of “too many fireworks” (one of the many joys of being middle-aged) before turning in.  This was my first use of the new sofabed acquired during the summer and I can report that (a) I recalled sufficient of the instructions provided at the time of its delivery to erect it and (b) it provided a very comfy resting place.

For breakfast, I “prepared” a cheese loaf which kneaded, proved and baked itself while we slumbered (well, in my case except during the kneading as we were sharing the same room, my garret is pretty tiny).  When I did properly awake and cracked open my eyelids, I was presented with a glorious view of the crescent moon with bright Lucifer camped just to her left: not a bad start to the day/month/year.

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Lucifer (bottom left) welcomes a terrible human being to 2019

When the still-warm loaf was first sliced, I was slightly concerned to discover that the significant quantity of input cheese was entirely invisible in the output loaf.  Fortunately, while there was no sight of the cheddar, its flavour had suffused the bread very successfully: a thoroughly decadent way to start January.

After a constitutional around the Common, dodging the Park Runners, breakfast concluded with US-style (i.e. fluffy rather than overly keen to carry firearms) blueberry pancakes which offered a further work-out for whisk, wrist and mixing bowls.

2019 now safely begun, more normal culinary service – except for a rather modest haul of left-overs – will be resumed.

Mightier than the sword…

By which I clearly do not mean that anything is more conditional than a potential ploughshare, which foolishness leads me nicely into today’s opening apology.  I’m not entirely sure where this post will take us (but let’s all hope it doesn’t involve a ‘journey’!) but as its genesis was in a pun of such appalling weakness that it is virtually homeopathic, I fear it may be an uncomfortable experience.  So, I shall not be offended if those of weaker moral fibre (or greater common sense) turn back now and spare themselves the horrors that may be about to unfold.

As the final Thursday to form part of November’s boxset ebbed away, I returned home having (perhaps) lived not wisely but too well.  I happened to glance at Twitter before interring myself beneath my continental quilt and chanced upon a link to Things by Dan, shared by someone I follow, and clicked upon’t.  Who, at this temporal remove, can explain the causes that led to me going further? Was ethanol implicated?  Was it a desire to drag myself away from the angler fish like lure of the glowing screen?  A retro urge to return to the world of pen and ink in the hope of discovering my inner calligrapher or artist?  We can never be certain, but I have a feeling that the causal root of my decision comes down to one of two possibilities:

  • either the slightly ninja vibe of a blade nib pen: it might not prove mightier than a sword but could, in extremis, double as one; or
  • the irresistible draw of nearly 6 inches of some rather fine wood, especially when shod in brass, and not forgetting its glorious feel in the hand.

Whatever the proximal cause and its potential to suggest filth, I went ahead and ordered myself a blade nib fountain pen and yesterday the postman delivered it into my waiting hands (saving him the climb to my first floor eyrie).  What a gorgeous thing it is!

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Ready to write a suitably cutting response…

I have not yet been able to do anything other than admire its visual and tactile appeal (I have, so far, resisted the urge to run my tongue along it) as my house lacks any suitable ink.  Given the date, I am reluctant to brave the city centre and its desperate hordes to seek supplies.  This seems to leave me with but two real options:

My first would be to attempt to startle a squid and capture its response in some suitable vessel.  However, my knowledge of marine biology is – I fear – inadequate to (a) find a squid and (b) approach it unawares so that I may deliver it a mild shock, allowing me to fill my pen while it makes good its escape.

My other option would be to seek out the discarded home of an oak gall wasp and grind it with the iron (II) sulphate (a staple in every household, I’m sure) to make my own ink.  My biological knowledge is sufficient to this task but it has been many years since I last saw an oak apple.  They used to be everywhere when I was a lad, but despite living a stone’s throw from several oak trees there is not a sign of the work of Andricus kollari.  Admittedly, it is probably the wrong time of year though I would note that this has not stopped a couple of local azaleas from bursting into full bloom this week: a decision they may come to regret…

I find myself wishing that my new acquisition had made a pact with the forces of darkness for the grant of life eternal.  Had it entered into such a devilish pact, it would be able to feed on the ink of other (probably bustier) pens to remain eternally youthful and capable of writing, using its nib as a single vampiric fang.  I suppose the downside would be the need to move to a drafty castle, though this would have the benefit of a creepy butler and fully-featured organ with which to accompany the children of the night (not to mention the extra storage space).  Given that this putative vampire would be undead stationery, I suppose this castle would be sited in the Appalachian mountains, rather than the Carpathians. “Why?“, I don’t hear you ask for fear of me delivering the answer and, if I’m honest, the whole purpose of this post.  Well, in the situation that the undead would more normally be seen residing on the shelves of W H Smiths than stacking them, their natural home would not be Transylvania but Pennsylvania!  (Or even, Pencil-vania!)

I thank you!  Please consider this my Christmas gift to you, the GofaDM readership: you are very welcome…

 

Home is where the art is

When the Talking Heads closed, one of my homes in the city was lost to me and I wondered where, if anywhere, would take its place: a pressing issue given the very diminutive dimensions of my actual home.  In fact a number of places have taken up some of the slack, I’ve followed some of the surviving regular events at the Heads to their new homes and have taken advantage of the expanded programme at NST (the Nuffield Theatre, as was) – though NST was already a home, it has just become a more regular one (albeit now in two places).  No, the Southampton cultural space which has taken the place of the Heads as a second home is the John Hansard Gallery.  Rare indeed is the week where I do not pass through its welcoming doors at least once.

I do not remember being dragged reluctantly round art galleries as a child in an attempt to ‘improve’ me.  This may be because it didn’t happen or just that my brain has repurposed that storage space for even less useful trivia.  This absence may explain my lack of antipathy towards art galleries, though does less to explain why I started going: it was probably originally to get out of the rain and then got out of hand.  It may certainly go some way to explaining my enduring unimproved condition.

Over the years, I have been to see an ever wider range of art – generally dating from the second half of the 19th Century or later – and have often found something to enjoy in at least some modern art.  However, the realm of the truly modern and the conceptual – which is the métier of the JHG – had always passed me by.  I’d visited the gallery only once in its old home on the university campus and was largely baffled by what I saw.  But then, earlier this year, it moved to Studio 144 in the heart of town and on my way to (or from, given the commutative nature of translations in space) almost anywhere in or near the city centre.  After a brief taster session, it opened properly in late Spring and it was from then that my engagement with a whole multidimensional hypersphere of new art began.

Of the eleven main artists whose work has been shown in the gallery since its opening proper, I had heard of only two, and one of those I knew no more than the name.  Had the gallery still been at the campus, I probably wouldn’t have been to see any of the exhibitions and my life would have been so much poorer as a result. Given that the gallery is free to enter and, in its new location is so often on my way to or form some other errand, it is just so easy to pop in: so I do.  It is a lovely excuse for a little time out from the stresses of quotidien life and to escape into a whole different realm.  In the midst of a shopping expedition, or when stuck on something at work, I can lose myself in a picture, sculpture or film (or something even more strange) for a few precious minutes.  I cannot claim to have loved everything I’ve seen, but most have prompted new thoughts to bubble up in what remains of my brain and many of the artworks have become friends.  That’s the joy of being able to visit the same visiting exhibition multiple times, which I’ve never really had a chance to do before: the familiarity builds deeper links with the works and some that you might initially overlook become firm favourites.  It is always a wrench when a exhibition leaves, though my feelings of loss are tempered by the excitement of thinking about what will be next to fill the gallery…

The JHG does not just rely on the art itself and its location to draw people in, it also has a very solid programme of public engagement.  From the start, it has organised free talks and workshops reacting to, inspired by, or explaining the art or artists on display.  As often as I can, I have attended these – initially, as the token member of the public but now as part of a wider community.  The talks are always interesting and having been to a number, I have started – occasionally – understanding something of what is said!  I exaggerate (slightly), but I do still get quite excited when I understand one of the references to another artist or artwork.  I also now run a book (currently only with myself) for how far into a talk the first reference to Roland Barthes will come: I really must read the chap one of these days…  As well as these more intellectual talks, it seems that most weekends there is some activity for children to get involved in art: last weekend it was making camerae obscurae, which did rather struggle with the dim December light.

It is not just a home for visual art: the gallery had a Writer-in-Residence as it transitioned and I was somewhat startled to see myself in the video which accompanied his piece (1:01:01 long) when I came to hear it performed.  The gallery also acted as the host to the recent So: to Speak Festival Small Presses Poetry Showcase – which was an amazing afternoon: three presses, ten poets and 200 minutes of poetry in one afternoon.  I’ll admit that my brain was somewhat frazzled after so many words and ideas were forced into it in a such a short time: who needs mind-altering drugs with stimulus like that!

One of the key aspects of the JHG that have made it a second home is the staff, they are friendly and welcoming in way which I didn’t really expect from an art gallery.  There is a beautiful neon sign in the foyer, in the pink and blue of the transgender flag, which bears the legend “You Belong Here” and the gallery assistants veil this glowing message in the flesh that makes it a living reality.  Given the regularity of his visits, these poor souls are now all too familiar with the author.

I think it was one of the gallery assistants who, as November drew to its apotheosis, organised the first Gallery Session: where live musicians took over the gallery foyer for the evening.  This was not the first music in the gallery, as they had a short series of works responding to their Gerhard Richter exhibition of which I only managed to catch one (even I have to work from time-to-time: probably more often than is suggested by these pages), but the first time music was ‘exhibited’ independently of the visual art.  This was such an enjoyable evening, always helped by programming three of my favourite local bands in a familiar space.  From a JHG perspective, this was their first time in the gallery for several members of the audience: so it worked as a real way to bring new audience into the building and showing that it’s not at all scary.  I believe a second session is already on the cards…

Last night, I was at the gallery once again for the preview of their latest exhibition of sculpture by Siobhán Hapanska.  These are four extraordinary pieces, each one large but completely different from its fellows and really benefiting from the breathing space they are given in Gallery 1.  They look gloriously tactile but cannot (sadly) be enjoyed haptically: perhaps appropriate, as one has a theme of temptation.  It was so exciting experiencing them for the first time and it is good to know that I can keep returning to them, each time seeing something new.  To avoid excessive spoilers, I shall show you a mere teaser fragment of Love, which may also act a metaphor for the story of my life and its lack of emotional maturity?

I also wandered upstairs to check out how the indigo is moving through the great curtain of Anya Gallaccio‘s All the rest is silence – what a marvel to have an artwork which has changed each time you go back to see it.

The final current exhibition is a retrospective of the photography of Edward Woodman (who has never, so far I know, played Callan or the Equalizer – a missed opportunity?).  Some of these photos are quite extraordinary, while others do nothing for me at all: which is entirely as it should be!  He has inspired me to look at the world around me in different ways – and to attempt to photograph it.  Not for me the laborious set up, thought and preparation of the view camera: I am more of the school of the slightly inebriated quick snap with my phone, just now (sometimes) with an additional nod in the direction of art.

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Making tracks (after Woodman, but little threat to him)

For those with a desire to see more of my attempts at ‘artistic’ snaps (don’t worry, I have yet to tackle the nude and rarely use myself as a subject), my Instagram feed is available (other, better feeds are also available and the work of real photographers should also be recommended at this time).  My feed is also available to those with no such desire and for them this paragraph can act as an early warning and an opportunity to dodge a potentially painful visual encounter.

Spending time with contemporary art has enriched my life so much, and it’s not just the art.  In recent weeks, I have used the gallery as a respite from the rain and during the long hot summer I became an habitué of the deliciously cool environs of Gallery 2.  When I visit, I’m almost certain to bump into at least one friend: as was the case with the Heads.  The location is also very handy and a talk or preview at the gallery can act as the first of act of a whole evening of cultural fun.  Last night, after enjoying the art, free wine and conversation available at the preview I ambled a few doors up Above Bar Street for some wonderful folk tunes from Alex and Hannah Cumming at the Art House.  They delivered a marvelous mix of traditional tunes, including a smattering of carols, but it was their rendition of the Grey Funnel Line that I found particularly affecting.

With most of my second home needs now catered for, I just need to find a tame space with a grand piano…

I am but a fool

My last post gained some unexpected traction, which made slightly galling a scattering of rather obvious uses of words which, despite some similarities with the desired word, were clearly typos.  I believe these have now been fixed but as the author and proof-reader share a brain (or what remains of one) this cannot be guaranteed.

Given the above, you may chose to believe that the title represents a charming bit of self-deprecation by the author or, perhaps, some long awaited self-awareness on his part.  If you wish to retain either of these beliefs, I strongly recommend that you stop reading now.

With a scant fortnight to go until the most heavily-freighted bank holiday in the local calendar, I find myself forced to face up to its imminence (it has been immanent, at least in the retail sense, since September).  This post could be considered a form of displacement activity particularly coming, as it does, after the completion of a number of domestic chores.  Nevertheless, I insist that it is thematically relevant as it will cover a couple of Christmas themed gigs I have been to over the past extended weekend.

The first concert was a celebration of the Oxford Book of Carols, originally published in 1928 (the Oxford Book of Catherines is yet to see the light of day and anyone hoping to see the Oxford Book of Zadies must be planning to live well into the next millenium).  Our guide was the gloriously enthusiastic, even eccentric, David Owen Norris who really made the book, and unusually its preface and notes, come to life.  Among many lessons, we learned that carols are not just for Christmas but there are examples for many times of the year: especially harvest-time and May.  The audience were encouraged to join in with several of the carols – all of them new to me (while simultaneously being very old) – with surprisingly pleasing musical results.  In fact, the book appeared to contain very few carols with which I have any familiarity (perhaps none) though the older members of the audience seemed to remember more than me.  Nevertheless, it was a wonderfully enjoyable way to spend the early part of my evening, rendered even better by the provision of free mulled wine and mince pies to the singers after the show: tackling unknown carols can be very draining and current medical advice strongly advocates that participants should seek warming sustenance as soon as possible after any such undertaking.  I left the event filled with seasonal spirit and festive cheer, not bad for an outlay of a fiver! I am rather tempted to acquire a copy of the book and to try and bring a few of its gems back into more frequent circulation (at least chez moi): though I am slightly daunted by the authors’ expectation that the user should be able to transpose a complex piano part from C to E in their head while playing! (I shall have to rely on the use of tighter kecks to keep singer and accompaniment in a common key.)

Last night, I ventured by bike and train to darkest Netley (and boy was it dark!) to the recently restored Royal Victoria Hospital Chapel.  Despite it dominating the country park in which it now sits, it was remarkably hard to find by bike from Netley station.  As it transpires, my route was pretty direct despite being based on a combination of dead-reckoning and guesswork having briefly checked a map on leaving the station.  Even more surprisingly, I managed to find my way back to the much less obvious station in the pitch black relying on vague memories of trees and fencing with only one minor mis-pedal.

The chapel was once part of the world’s largest hospital but is now the only element that survives: but what a survival!  It is a very impressive building – with a lovely little cafe – and the new interior decor sounds a huge improvement on the previous brown (which I never saw).  I was there to attend the Christmas-timed (if not themed) Sofar Sounds gig.  I’ve been to a few Sofar Sounds gigs now and rather enjoy them, though recognise that they are not for everyone.  You have to book without knowing either where they will be held or which musicians you will be seeing (though I do sometimes have some insider information, though for legal reasons I never trade on this).  They are often held away from traditional venues and are designed to put the music and its purveyors at the heart of the experience: which is not always the case at music gigs.  Usually, most of the audience have to sit on a cushion on the floor, which I tend to do as part of my more general raging against the dying of the light despite the protestations of various of my joints.  I am always pleasantly surprised by the ability of Sofar to sell tickets for these gigs, given the general reluctance of people to go out and even more to go out and see something new.  I assume the international brand name must count for a lot of this success: visitors to a city (and more than 400 of them take part world-wide) might be more willing to try the relatively known quantity of a Sofar Sounds gig than to experiment with an unknown local venue.  Interestingly, the guy who started the whole thing was there last night and got introduced to me for his pains (an unexpected downside of his otherwise successful project).  I wonder if his examples offers any lessons here for more traditional venues…

Last night’s bill of fare offered four local bands – at least one of which I had, disgracefully, never seen before (I’ve almost seen them several times but that really doesn’t count).  They covered a diverse range of musical styles but happily the audience seemed to be there to enjoy themselves and there was a really great atmosphere.  A ‘good’ audience can really help to make a gig a night to remember, it’s a real boost if they are an active part of the experience rather merely being physically present (in which role they could be replaced by a similar number of cardboard cut-outs or a single matte painting).  I had an absolute ball and even, egged on by Route2Roots (the last band), ‘danced’ to the last of the songs (and not just as an excuse to stretch my legs – though I’ll admit that did act as a spur).  Only one of the bands played a Christmas song and Wild Front‘s rendition of We Three Kings was one of the best, and most haunting, I have heard in many years.  It also marked the third time I’d seen their lead singer perform in the last ten days: though I wish to make clear that I am not stalking the poor chap, it is purely a coincidence.

There will likely be more music with at least a nod to the season over the next couple of weeks and there will definitely be more dancing as I am at a ceilidh on Saturday.  However, for now I really ought to return to putting some festive preparation into my own life or Tuesday week will find me playing the role of a woeful, modern-day Æthelred.  As I wave adieu this wordy procrastination, I shall leave the explanation of my choice of title as an exercise for the reader: it is not just at gigs that the audience should be an active participant!

Not flying tonight

I had originally planned to be spending this time at a workshop learning about things rhythmical and folk-related with the splendid people of Folk Active but instead find myself in front of the keyboard, full of cold.   Having a cold was not, of itself, enough to keep me from learning the arcane secrets of the spoons and the jig-doll but this morning, while my body’s doughty defenders attempted to fight off their undead (and unalive) viral assailants, I slumbered on.  By the time I awoke, it was too late – lacking both breakfast and a working teleport – to make it to the workshop in time.

Having fixed one of these lacks – and starting at the bottom of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs (so, I remain without a working teleport) – I have decided to work on the principle that ‘misery loves company’ and share a new post with the uncaring world.  I should point out, lest any of you are worried, that I am not miserable.  The sun is actually shining outside and whilst I may have missed one rendezvous with the spoons, the battlefield of my body has delivered a full night of unbroken sleep – something it is generally incapable of achieving during peacetime.  This sleep may also owe something to a couple of glasses of mulled cider and some Night Nurse taken just before bedtime to provide a little +1 Armour for the home team.

As the regular reader will know, I am a frequent commuter across the Irish Sea for work and so am intimate with the passenger experience on a FlyBe Dash 8 Q 400.  I can sing-a-long with the flight safety demonstration and perform the relevant actions better than most of the cabin crew.  I also know Southampton, Belfast City and Dublin (Terminal 1) Airports far better than would be considered to form part of the ideal life.  Despite this familiarity, I remain bemused by the exhortation – issued by the captain or first officer – to ‘sit back and enjoy the flight’.  I am basically in a glorified bus: though it lacks the free wifi, charging point or anything like the legroom or seat width of the local buses.  I suppose it does have wings and is capable of flight which is certainly helpful when crossing an open body of water and beyond the compass of most buses.

Given that the plane’s seats are not placed adjacent to the aircraft windows (if anything they seem to have a window-phobia – perhaps Microsoft related?), added to which the pod holding the engines and landing gear obscures the view from most of the windows, passengers can only obtain rather limited entertainment (usually involving some degree of neck-strain) from observing the ground and clouds unfurl beneath us.  Food is limited, not great and rather over-priced.  The ears are assailed by the constant drone of the engines.  On only a tiny fraction of the FlyBe fleet do the seats recline – enabling one to ‘sit back’ – and given the rather cramped quarters I have never felt it fair to use this functionality and further squash the poor soul travelling behind me.  My feeling is that the only enjoyment to be had on the flight will either come from conversation with the passenger sitting next to you or, more likely, you will have to bring it yourself.  Modern technology makes this straightforward but I feel I am less ‘enjoying the flight’ and more enjoying myself, as best I can, while the flight continues in the background.  All of the enjoyment I have obtained on these flights could easily have been accomplished in greater comfort without the flight!

Is there some flight-related fun to be had on a Dash 8 that I remain unaware of?  Could the low-level vibrations be used to some pleasurable (and legal in public) end?  Should we, the passengers, be playing a high-altitude version of sardines on the flight?  And if so, how would this interact with the allocated seating and the severely nose-heavy nature of the Dash 8?

This last Wednesday, I ‘sat back’ (bolt upright) and ‘enjoyed’ (endured) my last two flights of 2018.  The first was somewhat delayed by the entire check-in systems at Southampton airport crashing and the staff having to return to a hand-written, paper-based system to ensure the right passengers and luggage ended up on each aircraft.  The return took place in the 21st century and it was with a feeling of release (and relief) that I climbed down the ricketty steps for the last time until mid-January.

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My final sky-chariot of 2018 (not pulled by goats, disappointingly)

It is somehow sad that an activity which would have been miraculous for most of human history and until recently would have been the reserve of a wealthy elite has been rendered so mundane and even tedious.  There is slightly more ceremony involved than catching the bus or train – but only because of security and the relative infrequency of flights and their inability to take standing passengers (though I’m sure Michael O’Leary is working on the latter) – but short-haul flying is very short of romance (unless that is what I should be doing in the air while sitting back?).

On Thursday evening, I once again found myself in ‘a space’ arts‘ Arch 04 for the latest instalment of Playlist.  This started with Karla Powell playing Luciano Berio’s Sequenza vii – the most extraordinarily virtuosic piece for the oboe I have ever seen: it must have been an exhausting 7 minutes and the sheet music looked terrifying!

The concert finished with Tom Moore and Archie Churchill-Moss giving us a modern twist on folk tunes on the violin/viola and the accordion.  As it transpires, this was almost exactly a year since I last saw the boys at the launch of their first album – Laguna – at the Harrison in London.  I rather hope they will continue to name their albums after Renaults and look forward to their sophomore effort: Megane or 19, perhaps.  It is becoming a regular event for Facebook to provide a memory of what I was doing exactly 12 months ago and for me to discover that I had done (almost) exactly the same thing last night.  It sometimes feels like I’m stuck in a time loop – destined to repeat myself until the merciful release of death – or is that just being middle-aged?

However, it is the middle piece of the concert – by Seán Clancy – that is relevant to my thesis.  He is a composer based in Dublin but working at the Birmingham Conservatoire.  As a result, he too spends a lot of time in the air over the Irish Sea – though he has the further disadvantage of using Ryanair, who I suspect make FlyBe appear the very paragon of customer service.  Rather than chanelling this experience into rather too many words, he took the main events of each flight, their typical timings and the engine noise to produce an amazing 35(ish) minute drone piece called Ireland-England.  This he played on some astonishingly compact synths (ideal for the regular commuter to or from Hibernia and quite tempting future purchases for more than one member of the audience!) with a slideshow with various facts about what brings people from the island of Ireland to England (some of which were new to me).  It was an amazing piece and I’d love to have an extended version (which I think is doable) – Southampton to Belfast/Dublin by turboprop takes rather longer than Dublin to Birmingham by jet –  to listen to on my next flight.  I think that this, coupled with some noise-cancelling headphones to ensure that the only drones were Seán’s, would allow me to sit back and enjoy myself (though, I would – once again – be the one bringing the source of my enjoyment).

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Tuning the synths… (who knew?)

It is events like these that could send me into a downward solipsistic spiral, but I think I shall continue to treasure my insignificance (even within the human realm) and put it down to coincidence.  Well, that plus the fact that if I go out often enough some things are bound to be linked eventually (and so appear in these pages)…

 

PS: For any readers pondering the goat reference, Odin’s chariot is pulled by two goats: Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr .  These are then eaten by the gods, before being resurrected by Mjölnir to allow the process to be repeated.  The Norse gods were surprisingly sustainable!

Stepping in the same river

It’s always nice to start with a classical allusion, it sets a level of intellectual rigour that the rest of the post will entirely fail to sustain.  Today’s title is “borrowed” from Heraclitus though I don’t think he was specifically referencing the River Cam…

My allusion is very much to the river that flows through Cambridge and provides the root of its name as, for this past weekend, I returned to my old stomping ground for 36 hours of fun.  I feel that I either do leisure really well or very badly: depending on how you view leisure.  As this post will go on to demonstrate – at tedious length – I fitted a frankly ridiculous number of activities into my brief sojourn.  This meant I had a great time but did leave me a tad drained on Monday and my weekend could not really be classed as relaxing: not for me lying insensate by pool or shore for a week or two under a blazing sun.  If I have travelled, then I will attempt to maximise the “benefit” obtained from the cost of my journeying and night(s) away from home by doing as much as physically possible (and sometimes more).

It has been rather more than a year since I was last in Cambridge and I had been searching for a weekend when I was not otherwise committed to activities in Southampton.  As a bonus, this last weekend also played host to the city’s Jazz and Literary Festivals – which may have acted as something of a metaphorical china shop to my cultural bull.

The journey north seemed rather long.  A rail strike for the segment to London meant my train was attempting (and failing) to carry the passengers of three normal services – but with no additional coaches.  I then discovered that since leaving Cambridge the rail service from Kings Cross has effectively halved in frequency, so there is now only one fast train an hour (and the two slow trains are cunningly timed to be entirely useless).  So, a fair wait for a train and once again passengers were standing all the way.  It was like living in the north, albeit with much newer rolling stock!  As the train drew into Cambridge, I noted that Addenbrooke’s has continued to grow since my last visit and the fields I used to cycle across – home to buntings, yellowhammers and stoats – have almost completely vanished under new buildings.  Around the station itself, the city is unrecognisable – swamped in new “development” – but once you escape its immediate vicinity, and nostalgia for the relative beauty of the old Focus DIY store, more familiar sights return.

My first stop, it being lunchtime, was at Dulcedo: a new Patisserie which had been recommended to me.  A dangerous first stop in many ways and I was only saved from blowing the whole year’s patisserie budget by my limited carrying capacity.  They provide one of the finest sandwiches I have ever consumed – the toasted sourdough bread was particularly heavenly – and a very fine hot chocolate (in addition to more traditional patisserie).  Thus fortified, I snuck round the Backs to avoid the city centre en route to check out the refurbished Kettle’s Yard Gallery.  This housed an interesting exhibition of very varied works by Richard Poussette-Dart and was a lovely calming interlude in the helter-skelter of my day.

However, soon I needed to nip the short distance to my digs for the weekend.  In an unexpected development, I was spending the night with (and indeed at) Jesus: and what an excellent host he was!  I was staying at the newly revamped West Court of Jesus College which was, by a country mile, the finest student accommodation it has ever been my pleasure to stay in.  I could quite happily move in and just stay, though sadly while it was an economic option for staying in Cambridge for the night my budget would not permit more permanent residency.

Sadly, there wasn’t time to linger as I had a gig looming on the horizon.  Jesus is much more handily positioned than I had expected and I made it to my gig in plenty of time, despite an unplanned excursion on the way.  Taking a back route (the joys of local knowledge) I spotted an unexpected dome through a narrow window.  Investigating a little further, I found this was the ceiling of the banking hall of the city centre Lloyd’s Bank.  I must have walked and cycled past this building hundreds of times but had never noticed what a stunning interior it has (and the outside isn’t too shabby): inherited from its earlier life as Fosters Bank.  It is the work of the same architects who created the Natural History Museum in London and while on a smaller scale is very much the equal of its bigger brother.

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After gawping at this temple of mammon, I was back to matters more sacred with a pair of jazz gigs in St Andrew’s Baptist Church: one of the few city centre churches in which I had never previously seen live music.  Two very good and different jazz acts in the form of the Daphna Sadeh Quartet and Bahla meant the rest of my afternoon flew by in fine style: the one common theme being a vague hint of the middle-east.  By the time the music finished, I had less than an hour to get across time to my next gig and try and fit in some dinner.  Pre-visit research had thrown up Calverley’s Brewery as an option that was – more-or-less – on my way.  It is not the easiest place to find even when you know the street it is on really well and have very good directions – but it was well worth it.  An excellent pint of home brewed beer consumed in the brewery and a truly excellent pizza from the Pizza Mondo van parked nearby (the providers of the food van do rotate from week-to-week).  I’m not sure if it was the location or the occasion but despite being slightly hurried it was one of my best ever suppers. I am a man of simple tastes in many ways and a fairly cheap date: should any reader wish to chance their arm.

I made it to the Mumford Theatre for my next gig with almost 4 minutes in hand, though a part of me can’t help feeling that I could gave fitted something else into those wasted minutes…  This was to see Phronesis who had provided the spur to visit Cambridge last weekend after I spotted their name in the Jazz Festival Programme.  I have seen them before as part of Marius Neset’s band but never on their own.  They are an odd looking trio: Ivo (piano) always seems to be wearing a very fine shirt but rendering it dishevelled, Jesper (bass) could easily find a part (probably as a killer) in any Scandi-Noir drama and has the look of an etiolated Willem Dafoe while Anton (drums) had the look of a psychotic mid-ranking SS Officer which his extraordinary facial expressions while playing and chosen wardrobe did little to dispel (bar his rather exciting socks).  Despite appearances they are all lovely, and I can speak personally to the charm of Anton as, at the Mumford, the talent are forced to queue up with the audience and pay if they want an interval drink – the queue took pity on the chap and bought him a beer.  Clearly being a musician is not all huge riders, blue M&Ms and baskets of fresh kittens!  Phronesis were everything I might have hoped for musically, including a lovely line in dry wit from Jesper.  I’m looking forward to seeing them again next spring when they visit Turner Sims with the Southampton Youth Jazz Orchestra.

I fancied a pint as part of my comedown from such an exciting day and so stopped off at the St Radegund on my way back to my room.  This is technically a sports bar, but the sport is rowing and it has never had the vibe of a sports bar when I’ve visited.  For the first time in many years (many many years, many many many years), I was able to enjoy a pint of local cask ale in a decent pub for the princely sum of £2.

After a splendid night’s sleep in my double-bed (a first in student digs), Jesus offered me a truly first rate breakfast (loaves were on offer but no fishes) to prepare myself from the day ahead.  As a resident, I was able to wander the grounds of the college and found myself loitering for quite a while outside the chapel listening to the choir practising for the service to come: this is a very fine way to ease into a Sunday, though quite hard to replicate at home…

I had a proper wander along the Cam, catching it just before the punts start to convey convoys of Chinese in their ongoing attempt to film Cambridge from every conceivable angle and at every possible time of day and year.  I think they may be building a replica at home: though surely they must have the footage to support such a project by now.  I then made my way to Fitzbillies for the obligatory Chelsea bun and to meet a friend to catch up on gossip from the local music scene.  We then wandered to the Fitzwilliam Museum to see an exhibition of works inspired (some quite loosely I would suggest) by the work of Virginia Woolf as well as to catch up with some old favourites.  It was then a matter of nipping over the road to the Old Library at Pembroke College to catch a little Shostakovich and Beethoven thanks to the university’s instrumental award holders.  The library may not have the visual amenity on offer in Gallery 3 of the Museum, where these gigs are normally held, but the seating is so much more comfortable: I didn’t leave crippled!

It was then a quick stroll up Downing Street to my one visit to the Literary Festival to see Dan Snow talk about history: both his own and that in his new book.  This was in the Babbage Lecture theatre – which I remember as a rather shabby affair in quite the shabbiest quad in Cambridge.  Things had changed since my last visit: the quad is now much tidier and home to the new David Attenborough Building and the new Zoology Museum – including glass pavilion housing a whale skeleton – and the lecture theatre is really rather swanky.

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Only a flying visit, but I had a whale of a time!

It was then but a short stroll back to the river to visit The Mill, a pub I never visited while a local, to meet up with a friend from Southampton who has moved to Cambridge to take up the noble profession of an artisanal baker (perhaps other friends could consider career changes that would benefit me: does anyone fancy becoming a cheesemaker, brewer or patissier(e)?).  While baker is a fine career choice – the previous days’ sourdough toast came from his bakery (if not hands) – it does involve rather early mornings which I fear would put me off.  He brought a gift of a freshly baked loaf, made with 50% khorasan flour (so hints of the classical world), which I can report is delicious both fresh and toasted.  I now feel I need to be more adventurous with my own baking (and toasting) …

It was such a joy catching up with a friend over a number of good pints and, after a while, we repaired next door for my final jazz gig of the weekend at the University Centre Wine Bar.  This venue was much nicer than I’d imagined and the beer continued to flow: the Sam Smith’s Apricot Ale proved particularly moreish.  Music was provided the the Lydian Collective who were very good indeed – and like all the very diverse range of acts I’d seen at the Jazz Festival, basically new to me.   All the gigs were good value, but this final two hour gig for only £5 was perhaps the highlight of the weekend (against a very strong field).  I had wondered why I’d never made it to the Jazz Festival when I lived locally, but discovered at the Phronesis gig that it had only been going four years: they literally waited for me to leave town before launching.

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The Lydian Collective in a surprisingly good venue for jazz

With a bit of a wait for my train back to London, there was time to fit in a final Cambridge pint at the Flying Pig.  However, this was not to be my final pint of the evening as I discovered some friends playing a folk session at a pub right next to Waterloo station (thank you social media, sometimes you help a chap be properly social) which helped fill the wait for my very slow train home (but who wouldn’t want to visit Staines in the dark).

I had as much fun as I believe any middle-aged man could possibly have in a weekend (and without breaking any laws!) while re-acquainting myself with the city which was my home for several years.  I was reminded why I love Cambridge and am determined to return more regularly in future: the Jazz Festival is definitely going in my calendar for 2019.  However, it did take a day or two to recover from quite so many activities and then to commit the weekend to quite so much print to bore the wider public, so I may need to ration my visits a little…

Harried

Last week, I attended a sort of interview which I have to admit I rather enjoyed.  This was partly down to the very fine (and free!) glass of Portuguese red wine on offer – a Brigando – but mostly down to meeting and interacting with my fellow interviewees.  Whatever the outcome of the process and my uncertain desires related thereto, I am already a winner.

One of the only three formal questions I was asked was “What community(ies) did I belong to?”.  I am always puzzled when people are introduced – generally in the current affairs output of the media – as a representative of a particular community.  I barely (and usually poorly) represent the community of one that is myself, let alone any wider grouping of humanity.  Today’s world seems, so often, to actively work to prevent the formation of communities other than the weird caricatures that find the darkest and most extreme elements of their participants and amplify them, like a Gerald Scarfe cartoon of the psyche. You will never – well, hardly ever – find such attempts to appeal to the baser side of human nature on GofaDM given that it rarely interacts directly with normal human experience at all but merely indulges its author’s rampant egomania.

It struck me that, given that I knew no-one in the city when I moved here a little more than five years ago, the communities to which I belong are those I have met when I left the comparatively safe space of my flat and with the exception of work (which lies on the far side of the Irish Sea) and the general errands of life, these have all been broadly cultural in nature.  My communities are the musical, theatrical and related scenes in the city – plus a decent pub or two (and if a decent pub isn’t culture and worth preserving, I don’t know what is!).

This post will use the title (interpreted very broadly) to draw together two musical offerings from very different vertices of whichever highly irregular polygon (or polyhedron) forms the current envelope of my Aoidean¹ life and which I have had the good fortune to enjoy in the last few days.

Generally, I don’t think of myself as a fan of musical theatre – though, as established above, I am not a good representative of my own views or tastes.  So, it was with a degree of trepidation that I went to see Six on Friday – still, it was very well reviewed and at only 75 minutes long my suffering would be mercifully brief.  My worries were entirely unfounded as it provided some of the best and most entertaining minutes I have ever spent in a theatre.  It was a veritable explosion of light, song, dance and music and some actual history: trying to unearth something of the real woman entombed beneath the ‘divorced, beheaded, died’ rhyme. It was wildly entertaining and was incredibly cleverly constructed: each wife partly fashioned through her voice, dance moves and musical style as well as her story.  And the lyrics, oh the lyrics!  There was some truly glorious use (and abuse) of the English language in their construction: phrases and rhymes I wish I had come up with (or had even the slightest chance of coming up with).  I was struck, watching the action, that old Harry 8 did seem to have something for girls called Kate (as you can see, little hope for me as a lyricist).

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The Standing O was never in real doubt!

It was also a joy to see an all female production, with a live band, and where – at least in this fictional setting – real women were able to show they had a life which was not just as adjunct to their common husband and even allowed them to reclaim some sisterhood.   Given the huge part of our historical education (both formal and otherwise), in the space not consumed by the Nazis, that is taken by the Tudors it is sad how little I knew about any of the six after Anne Boleyn: and I have an interest in history.  So, my evening of fun was even educational!  I wonder if there are wider lessons for the teaching of history: out with David Starkey and in with empowered women singing and dancing their way through the 16th century…

If you thought the previous night out was somewhat tangentially linked to the title, buckle up for my tales of Wednesday night! This had been programmed into my diary the instant I found out about it, as the Out-take Ensemble are one of the best things about living in Southampton (even if several of them now commute from Bristol – and beyond – and one of them seems to have “gone native”).  They have introduced me to whole new and strange wings to the palace of music that I had never previously imagined might exist.  They bear a heavy weight of responsibility for my heading to Leith during this year’s Edinburgh Festival to see something from the proper (adult) festival’s contemporary music strand – the first time in my 15ish years of going to the festival that this has happened.  I had a ball watching and listening to Anna Meredith’s Varmints in the Leith Theatre.  It is always a good night when the composer is on stage dressed in a silver cape (though there could be public health issues were J S Bach were to attempt it: I’ve seen his work re-composed but decomposed might be step too far) and the orchestra joined her in unusual metallically-garbed splendour: such a pleasant change from the usual monochrome formality of an orchestra.  Perhaps the wider classical music world should try it?  I will admit that the rather strong aroma of canine excrement that pervaded the streets of Leith as I waited for my bus home was not what the Proclaimers had led me to expect, but was only a very tiny fly and the vast ocean of ointment that was my evening out.

Wednesday night’s wide range of experimental offerings did not disappoint. The evening started with Carolyn Chen’s Adagio – where the audience do not get to hear any music at all, though the performers can hear excerpt(s) from Bruckner’s 7th.  The emotional heft of this is delivered through the facial expressions of the three players who somehow managed to do this without corpsing (a feat not achieved by many in the audience).  Oh to have been a fly-on-the-wall during rehearsals!  This piece must count as performance art as much as (or more than) music and I highly recommend image-searching the “score” (as I just have).

Appropriately, the second piece was Alex Glyde-BatesTropography which begins as a multi-sensory diptych between spliced-together close-ups of an actress playing Jean d’Arc in a silent movie (and who I feel could have done good work with Adagio) and a virtuoso violin player.  Later the piece becomes a triptych as human non-verbal vocalisations are played in: ranging from a singe baby to a whole crowd, perhaps at a sporting event.  The emotion from Jean, the violin and the vocalisations sometimes came together in synaesthetic harmony and at other times their conflict produced feelings of full or partial disc(h)ord.  I find myself wondering if a third sense could have been brought into play but recognise this would be tricky: perhaps a sequence of timed snacks (there was a large tin of Quality Street available) or a cunningly constructed multi-flavoured gob-stopper?

Ben Oliver’s BmB – I will reveal that the ‘m’ stands for ‘means’ and the two B’s refer to the same neologism, one with which I will not sully this blog (there should remain at least one refuge) – would count as a more conventional piece (but only relatively speaking) scored for the whole ensemble and electronics.  It was written in response to the work of Thomas Tallis and, in particular, his 21 year monopoly on the publishing of polyphonic music in England by Harry 8’s daughter, Liz (1).

Embarrassingly, I have forgotten both the name and composer of the next piece for tuba and electronics.  I recall that it was an unusually long, effectively-solo piece for the tuba and involved a lot of aspiration and some notes of startling depth: certainly any risk of shipping striking the venue were significantly reduced though any passing cetaceans might have been tempted to join the audience.

Harry Matthewsactively listening to me brought out – not for the first time in experimental music I’ve seen – the element of “play” in the word “player”.  While there is a score, the players working/competing in pairs can take the piece in many possible directions.  I’m assuming that no two performances will ever be the same but that each is always a conversation between each instrument pairing.  I love that music can bring this element of play into performance but in such a different way to jazz improvisation.  I’ll admit that I’m not sure who the “winner” was in each pair and we did not get to see the final itself (or perhaps they play both home and away legs?).

As a contrarian, I’ve chosen images where the only Harry is on the score…

The final piece was commissioned by the Ensemble from a female Australian composer (once again the name of both the composer and piece – which was something like fade to hum – is lost beyond ready recall in the grey mush between my ears) and scored for keyboard, electric guitar, rocks – so I guess it counts as rock music – and voice: both humming and, briefly, speaking.  The unfolding of the piece clearly depended on the players’ heart rates at times and at others felt conversational.  I wonder if the spoken word elements – which provided added appeal for both dog-lovers and plumbers – were part of the score or were brought by the players from their own lives.

As always with the Out-take Ensemble, the barrage of ideas for what music can or could be just fills the brain with exciting possibilities and ways to think: while, as it transpires, entirely erasing important details about what was actually performed!  I may need to take notes, in at least one more sense than was the case.  I want to hear/see it all again as I now have a feel for the whole shape of each piece, I will experience the elements and details of each piece differently.  This is the annoying thing about so much new and experimental music: there tend to be few (if any) recordings available to indulge my inner Teletubby, “Again! Again!”.  I have found that YouTube is sometimes our friend (if we have managed to retain a few key facts about the piece) though the small screen of my laptop is not the ideal medium from which to digest such big ideas.

For those of you lucky enough to be in London on Tuesday night, rather than languishing, like the author, in the cultural desert of Terminal 1 of Dublin Airport, there is a chance to catch many of the pieces – and some others – at the Harrison near Kings Cross.  This is going to be a rather intimate space in which to fit the ensemble, their instruments, varied electronica and an audience – so it should be worth going just to see if they can manage it!

Two nights out, less than 48 hours apart, both involving a Harry (one physically present and with, I presume, a less problematic romantic history) showing that even after all the long millenia of human music making there is still new and fun territory to explore: long may it continue!

¹  It is possible that I have invented this word, but it follows all the rules of the language in which I am operating and I’m leaving it in!