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…

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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!

Religious observance

The regular reader might have deduced that I am not a terribly religious chap, despite (or perhaps because of) my possession of an O Level in Religious Studies and some fading – if once more detailed – knowledge of the literary oeuvre of St Luke (though not, I hasten to add, in the original Greek). I generally ignore religious festivals and saints’ days, except to the minimum level required by their impact on the functioning of civil society or their tendency to cause unnecessary crowding or travel issues.

It must be said that, over the years, I have enjoyed a lot of music written for ostensibly religious reasons: either through real faith or the fact that the church was a major source of funding for a jobbing composer in days of yore.  Some of this tends to be available, live, on a seasonal basis and I enjoy a bit of ritual as much as the next human (possibly more) and do like to enjoy music (as well as fruit and veg) when it is “in season”.  Indeed, as I type this post I am listening to Bach’s St Matthew Passion as a mark of seasonal respect.  I’m afraid this respect will not last as tomorrow I am hopping on a plane (quite a feat on the narrow steps of a Dash 8 Q 400) to visit Edinburgh to attend its annual science festival.  I suppose religion and science are not technically antithetical, but religion does have an unfortunate tendency to park its tanks on science’s lawn and then become rather obstreperous when its sacred heavy armour is assailed by facts.

Despite my rather secular nature, this year I have performed rather more of the standard rituals that accompany religious observance than for many a long year.  This started on Shrove Tuesday when – in some freak planning accident – I made and consumed pancakes on the traditional day.  I think these were my finest ever pancakes and I can’t help wondering if this was, at least partially, due to the timing of their creation and subsequent, all too swift, destruction.  Were the heavens trying to send me a message through the medium of crêpe pan and batter?  If so, I fear I must report that this particular lost sheep has yet to return to the fold – but I certainly enjoyed their culinary input (subject to its existence).

As the Ides of March passed, and I remained unstabbed by a group of my closest friends and colleagues, for the first time ever I found myself marking St Patrick’s Day in a somewhat appropriate fashion. I think we must, largely, blame peer pressure for my actions – though I am more than willing to admit that I enjoyed them.  In fact, I also made a passing genuflection to St Gertrude (of Nivelles) who also shares the day, despite never having been formally canonized.  Based on her miracles, she would be handy if you’re caught without a torch in a power cut or need ridding of a sea monster during a tempest but for some reason she became associated with cats in the 1980s.  I suppose it is very much to her credit that she continued to find gainful employ despite having died in 659: many lesser saints would have been enjoying a well earned rest some 1320 years after their death but Gertrude was taking on new responsibilities.  Was there a recruitment process and interviews, I wonder, or was (St) G the only volunteer?

My March 17 observances were very much based around two of the primary loci of my life in Southampton: the Talking Heads and the Guide Dog.  Both can offer that seductive combination of good company, beer and music.  On the 17th, the Talking Heads also offered me a chance to show off the broad, if somewhat random and pointless, collection of knowledge I have acquired (and failed to lose) over the years.  This was in the form of a special, Irish-themed quiz (not part of the continuing quiz “league” but a “friendly” fixture), and so would also provide an indication of whether I had absorbed anything over the last 30 months of flitting back and forth across the Irish Sea.  This was jolly good fun – as all of 2018’s quizzes have been, they have been a proper highlight of the new year – with just the right level of challenge for an alcohol-imbibing afternoon crowd.  I can reveal that I had acquired some Hibernian general knowledge over the years and my team did not disgrace itself.

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How to light your pint for St Patrick’s Day!

As the image shows, I even partook of a pint of Guinness – despite being some distance from St James’s Gate and my general view that the iconic stout doesn’t travel well from its homeland – as well as some rather fine mashed potato (not shown, I like to leave some work for the reader’s imagination) that was available to the early drinker.  However, I abandoned the Heads before the crowds and mean level of drunkenness became too great and – after lining my stomach – wandered down to the Guide Dog to make obeisance to the recently appointed patron saint of cats: a tenuous link I will admit, but not mine.  I surrendered height (not something I do lightly) as I was going to enjoy some great beer and some glorious swing thanks to the excellent Bad Cat: now with expanded repertoire!  They do, however, remain a lightening-rod for snow and I believe can be booked for any Alpine resort which finds its pistes a little shy of powder.

My alignment with the rituals linked to the Passion has continued to this very day.  Yesterday, despite the weather growing confused and attempting to re-enact Noye’s Fludde (without the music) I ventured out in search of hot cross buns.  My seeking was amply rewarded by the Art House – another of my local loci – which provided a particularly excellent example.  It then provided another as the first seemed to melt into air: I may yet wander out this afternoon in search of a third (as I believe things coming in threes is spiritually relevant).  However, I have made my own buns – albeit without crosses: not due to my (non-existent) militant atheism but due to my (all too existent) militant laziness.  While waiting for these to rise (the Easter-metaphors are everywhere – but luckily they did not take three days) I wandered down to the Guide Dog for a pint of Red Cat’s Minor Swing (in preparation, I did listen to the tune of the same name by Django Reinhardt as I take my drinking seriously): a lovely pint and another stunning pump clip.  On my journey I passed an extraordinary number of people carrying small wicker (or faux wicker) baskets.  I assume this can be explained by my proximity to a Catholic church and most seemed to contain iconic Easter items: the eggs, bunnies and the like which I remember were so prominent in St Luke’s account of the Passion.  However, one clearly contained a rather exciting looking sausage and much of a cruet set.  I am assuming this must be part of a Polish tradition: either that or the sausage has been added to the role call of seasonal (and seasoned) essentials since I parted company with the education system.  Many representations of the crucifixion can be rather graphic – carpentry and a bit of parable-telling are clearly great for the abs (and yet you never see them mentioned on the cover of Men’s Fitness) – but I always assumed they’d draw the line at showing the “holy ghost”.

I feel that I probably ought to bring matters to a close before I wander even deeper into doctrinal matters: or worse, some dread admixture of heresy and blasphemy.  However, I do still feel that arranging to have an aspect of yourself nailed to a tree is a trifle passive-aggressive as a way to get the humanity to behave a bit better (and is taking a while to bear fruit): it makes angry post-it notes on the fridge look positively measured…  Suffice it to say, some level of observance of events spiritual in inspiration can be a great deal of fun if done with friends.

Curing the common cold

Frequent readers of GofaDM (for whom no reward scheme yet exists) will be aware that it likes to operate on the cutting edge of fundamental scientific research.  This post should only enhance that reputation and I am quietly confident of a call from Norway in the not too distant future.

For the past fortnight, I have been suffering from a cold, or a series of colds, or a series of infections with cold-like symptoms.  This has (or these have) been no common cold: it has followed a very odd trajectory of infection and defensive response from my body.  Twice it has vanished entirely for 12-36 hours, only to return with increased virulence once it has lulled my humoral response into a false sense of security.  The general sequence of symptoms has also not been normal: I am starting to suspect that I have been infected by a cold virus which is travelling backwards through time.  This could be massive!  We’ve always assumed that it would be people, or robot killing machines which inexplicably look like people, with a vendetta against one or more grandparents that would herald the future development of time travel.  However, I may hold living proof (assuming you are willing to admit that viruses are alive) that the humble virus has beaten us to it!  Could there be some dire warning from the future coded into the DNA (or RNA: let’s face it, time-travel sounds like the sort of thing a retrovirus would do) of my virus?  I shall attempt to preserve a sample for future scientific study.

Such an unprecedented attack on my body has led me to explore some novel techniques to defeat my assailant and return to rude good health.  I clearly needed to move beyond the basic regimen of regular hot drinks – often involving blackcurrant, lemon and/or honey – and the nightly ministrations of a nurse: in capsule form.  So, on last Saturday last, I attempted to embarrass the virus out of me with a dose of SHOCC and awe.

Saturday was my semi-regular evening of English ceilidh dancing under the auspices of the cryptically named SHOCC: I’m guessing the SH might stand for South Hampshire and one of the Cs is probably ceilidh but the remaining OC is a mystery to me (never having caught the US teen drama). Not only did my unwelcome guest have to endure a whole evening of me dancing, but it had to suffer this experience while I was wearing shorts!  This is my fifth session of English folk dancing in recent months and I think I am finally getting the hang of how to strip the willow: possibly aided by the very clear calling of Fee Lock.  Excitingly, on this occasion I had a chance to disrobe my salix to the Doctor Who theme tune thanks to Tickled Pink, who were providing the music.  They were a rockier band than on previous occasions, but enormous fun and the melodeon player took their name seriously sporting a glitter-coated, shocking pink instrument: please feel free to extemporise your own gag about squeezing the pink box.

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Tickled Pink: with box and snake!  Get thee behind me, Satan…

There is something really glorious about these dances – and, shockingly, it is not just my tripping of the light fantastic.  I would confidently say that there were people from every decade of life from teens to seventies (and could well have been some under 11s and over 80s too – but it seemed rude to ask) all having a good time together and interacting with each other.  It struck me as a shining – and all too rare – example of the civil society which de Toqueville felt was such an importance buttress to any democracy (guess who’s up-to-date with In Our Time).  I had a wonderful time, with my favourite dance being the only one to eschew the usual powers of two and daringly use triplets of people: it was both foolishly energetic and sufficiently simple to be doable.

While I could mostly forget my cold while on the dance floor, when I awoke on Sunday morning it became clear that I had not managed to shame the virus into leaving my body.  If anything, it seemed to have benefited from the exercise…

Last night, rather than sit at home nursing my nose and cough, I decided to take them to the Guide Dog and expose them to some beer, company and fine music courtesy of the monthly acoustic session in the Dog House.  The music, company and three pints of Red Cat’s Mr M’s Porter worked some magic on my diseased body but it was inspiration gained while in the Guide Dog which I shall credit with my excellent night’s sleep and much reduced symptoms this morning.  I decided that what I needed at bedtime, rather than some paracetamol based tablet, was a hot toddy.  A quick internet search revealed that I would need whisky, lemon, honey, a cinnamon stick, cloves and boiling water.  As luck would have it, I possessed all of the necessary ingredients.  The cinnamon stick was a little old, dating back to a purchase in Crouch End in the late 90s, but this was positively youthful compared to the cloves.  I have an almost full jar of cloves (I can’t have used more than a couple) which are so old that they pre-date the concept of Best Before dates.  They come from Madagascar and I think they may have been sourced before it separated from the African continent: or at least from the 1980s!  Yes, a majority of my friends may be younger than my cloves.  Nevertheless, they had not obviously gone off and so in they went.  The only whisky on hand was a rather fine Highland single malt – sourced from that nice Mr Aldi – so that added a touch of class to the act.

This was my first ever attempt to make a hot toddy and it was an absolute triumph.  I think my spices may have matured with age!   So good was my first attempt, that I immediately followed it up with another.  At this rate, I may actually manage to use up my cloves before their component hadrons succumb to inevitable decay.  Let’s just say that tonight another couple will be visiting that country from whose bourn no traveller (or spice) returns.

The scientist in me recognises that both dancing and the consumption of a rather superior hot toddy are going to be tricky to organise as part of a double-blind trial.  For a start, I feel the patient will probably know if she is dancing at a ceilidh and I’m not quite sure what a suitable placebo dance might be.  However, these are mere details which I feel can safely be left to other more plebian minds to resolve: I am an ideas man!  I think I can confidently assert that humanity’s millennia of suffering neath the yoke of the common cold are almost at an end.

No, No, Nonet

Way back in the last millennium, I lived in leafy (and luvvie) Crouch End: technically, I lived in even more exclusive Highgate with my swanky N6 postcode – but that was an uphill walk all the way and thus rarely visited.  In those quondam days of my nonage (a word which charmingly means youth, even if that might be a stretch for my mid thirties), I would regular buy flowers to introduce a little of Mother Nature’s raiment, albeit some too-soon plucked threads thereof, into my flat and city-bound life.  Somehow as the years performed their entropic dance, I fell out of this habit.  For the last half-dozen or so years, my sole (invited) living (or dying: the two are inextricably entangled) housemate has been a single moth orchid: though I am now on my second example.  I would like to claim that the first one immolated itself on an unguarded candle flame but that would be pure, romantic whimsy on my part.  Despite a regime of benign neglect, peppered with a semi-regular diet of food and water, the orchids flower but infrequently in their slow decline under my care.  They make for undemanding but mostly rather dull companions.  We can perhaps begin to see why I have remained single all these years…

For the last couple of weeks, I have felt a little depleted and find myself infused with less than my usual complement of joie de vivre.  I might point to uninvited viral visitors as the cause, or an accumulation of black bile tilting my Galenic humours or, perhaps, the stubborn failure of Spring to throw off winter’s traces.  Whatever the cause, I found myself drawn to rather unprepossessing bunches of tight-budded daffodil stems as I wandered the fruit and veg aisle of Waitrose wondering why I had, once again, failed to prepare a list or any firm meal plan to aid my shopping expedition.  Inspiration and serendipity are fine things but not always adequate to the task of restocking the larder or leaving one’s home replete with all the elements of a week of tasty meals.

Reader, I must admit that I surrendered to temptation (as I have so often before: and hope to continue doing into the future) and invested a whole Pound Sterling on a bunch of these daffodils-in-waiting.  Rather than place them on a seldom regarded shelf, I decided to place them on my brand new desk.  This desk has worked wonders for my general living arrangements, creating a much improved work (and blog) space and led to the creation of a far more practical music nook.

The stems have far surpassed their limited promise and, from their pint glass home, keep bringing splashes of sunshine and resurgent hope into my tiny home.  Such has been their impact that they have acted as a muse to my versifying and I have composed a nonet in their honour.  This fresh poem recognises that I am not the first to have found inspiration from the scions of Narcissus’ self-regard, though I like to imagine I have become slightly less over-wrought by the whole experience and have reined in the horses of hyperbole to no more than a rising trot.

Daffodils

Solitary Wordsworth found a crowd

Of infinite extent, dancing

At Cumbrian water’s edge.

On newly purchased desk

My more modest host,

From pint glass, trumpet

Late starting,

Golden

Spring!

 

IMG_20180323_123703_662

Where the magic happens!

I think my desk will be more regularly attended by floral guest stars in the months to come.  These have provided a most excellent return on my £1 investment and, despite some failures by Purchasing, have not (yet) had to fill a hole in salad or casserole.

Your mother was right…

Well, obviously I can’t guarantee the title’s sentiment.  I get around a bit, but I am still some way from having met everybody’s mother – not even the much smaller set that represents mothers of readers of GofaDM.  Even for those readers whose mother I have met, I am unable to provide supporting evidence for all of their statements: to this day, very few mothers submit their statements to me for fact-checking before sharing them with their offspring.  In fact, if I’m being honest, all I can really say is that my mother was once right: if I transfer her wisdom from one domain to another.

When I was a callow youth (as opposed to the callow, pretend adult I am today) and was feeling under the weather, my mother would tell me that I’d feel better if I went to school.  I don’t think I was really convinced about the veracity of her statement at the time, and can no longer remember if I did feel better at school.  However, the idea has stuck with me over the more than three decades since I last had any reason to go to school: sick or healthy.

I currently have a cold: on Monday it seemed to be cured but by Tuesday afternoon it had returned.  I am forced to assume that on Monday (and Tuesday morning) I was in the “eye of the cold”: an unexpected parallel twixt virus and hurricane.  By late yesterday afternoon, I was feeling like a less-than-fresh corpse and had the energy for few projects more onerous than lying very still on a cold marble slab.  Recalling my mother’s sage advice (and lacking a marble slab), I decided that I would reject the option of spending an evening of couch-based wallowing in self-pity while watching the idiot box.  This is not the sort of positive mental attitude for which the author likes to imagine he is known in his role as the Norman Vincent Peale de nos jours.  No, I would find a gig and go to it: this virus deserved some fresh lebensraum which it was not going to find trapped in my flat (and flesh).  This is, after all, the only sort of occasion when I have a real chance to “go viral”.

The range of local options was limited, but there were a couple of bands on at the Talking Heads and following a quick listen to Spotify I decided I didn’t definitely hate their output and would take a punt: it was only going to set me back £6.60.  Maybe an evening on electronic synth pop would be good for my immune system…

My decision immediately started to prove its worth, the combination of bumping into friends and the evening’s first pint of Red Runner from Long Dog Brewery seem to work marvels on my cold: my throat was rendered less sore and my nose stopped running.  I cannot guarantee that Basingstoke-brewed beer will always work as an alternative to a Vicks inhaler, but it does have the advantage of being legal in Japan!  Gigs are always good for people-watching opportunities and last night one lad had a dragon on his shoulder (a cuddly, rather than a real one) and some very impressive (if rather heavy looking) boots.  I felt slightly under dressed in my low-rent Robin Ince cosplay (OK, I was in a cardigan and hadn’t made much of an effort, dress-wise).  This impression was magnified when the support band, Curxes, took to the stake.  The lead singer’s dress had something of a bride of dracula about it and her guitarist/percussionist/laptop jockey was wearing a voluminous one-piece poncho-esque item, which looked to have been hand-made from his mum’s curtains, and a massive papier-maché dog’s head (well, I think it was a dog – might have been a bear).  His costume was, I presume, home-made but I was pleased to see that he had properly hemmed his curtains: I may have been ill, but I still like to pay attention to detail.  Their set was really enjoyable with strikingly effective lighting at the beginning of one song.

During the interval, I was able to nip to the Maple Leaf Lounge to catch up with some more friends (and sight some fresh merch in the flesh: I can see the sending of postcards making a comeback!).  I also had a chance to catch Charlie Hole for the second time in less than a week and find I have become slightly obsessed by the shape the his fingers when playing G on the guitar: two of them seem to naturally splay in way which mine really do (and can) not.  Is this a modest superpower?  Or am I very mildly disabled?  Perhaps we will never know…

I then headed back to see the headliners, Empathy Trap.  They put on a really good show, mostly in the dark with the lead singer lit from below with lights which rotated in colour.  It was incredibly atmospheric and was a really good fit with the music.  He was also very mobile – which combined with the low light, made capturing images for this blog a real challenge.  Not only did I enjoy the music and the stage show, but the band made the whole audience (~40 of us) feel part of one big family.  We were introduced to Christy on drums – and her additional gifts with lighting and van driving – and Sam on keys and electronics – and his high tolerance for alcohol.  The leader singer never introduced himself but a quick search reveals he’s called Isaac and was wise to ditch the beard.  I also learned about Adam, who doesn’t tour but has some sort of svengali-like producing role in the band.  Rather sweetly, Isaac dedicated songs to both his mum and his nan – who were in the audience.  I think that most (all, other than me?) of the audience (and not just Isaac’s family) already knew the band, but as a rube I found the evening had a really fun, inclusive vibe.

It is possible that my minimal expectations played their part, but I had a really a great evening: it might even end up being one of my top gigs of the year. For three hours, I completely forgot about my cold and I’m forced to tip my cap to my mother’s advice.  It has withstood both the test of time and the change of activity!  My dilemma tonight is:

  • do I take my virus to Romsey to see friends play, for the second time in a week, which will definitely be fun; or
  • do I take a chance on some less familiar music more locally, but limit my infective scope?

If this virus had any gumption, it would be forcing me to Romsey, but I think I still have free will (assuming it exists at all) so where will I go…