Red hammer, yellow hammer

OK, I should come clean, the red hammer is a herring of the same hue – it was merely added to the title to permit the allusion to the lorry-based tongue-twister.

Over the past few days, whilst cycling across the fields south of Addenbrooke’s, I have both seen and heard the yellowhammer in action.  As usual, it is probably the more garish, garrulous guys that I have sensed – with their plaintive song, famously to the pattern of ‘little bit of bread and no cheese” (which would be enough to make me fairly plaintive).

Despite its name, the yellowhammer is not a true hammer – and so unrelated to the claw or ball-pein – but is, in fact, a bunting – and so related to the snow, cirl and reed.

With the upcoming marriage between two alumni of St Andrew’s University and the expected, associated street parties, I do worry for the future of all such relatives of the American sparrow.  With such a huge demand for bunting how will the poor yellowhammer (and its ilk) survive?  I think we should start a campaign for cruelty-free street decorations. Perhaps a sponsored event in my local city could provide much needed funds for the campaign, Go Punting to Save the Bunting?


Little Miss Marple?

There are many indicators of one’s advancing years – the youthful appearance of the (few remaining) policemen is oft cited, as is walking upstairs and wondering why you have done so.

These I am used to, but today brings far more alarming news.  Apparently, I am now older than Miss Marple!  As a fan of Joan Hickson’s seminal portrayal of the elderly sleuth, I felt secure in the knowledge that this day was some decades in the future.  Not so…  Disney have just cast Jennifer Garner (38) as the spinster of St Mary Mead.

Or so I assume, unless Miss Marple is one of Roger Hargreaves’ less well know Little Misses?  A female counterpart to Mr Nosey perhaps?

Holy Navigation Lights?

Not, as you might think, a quotation from Batman’s youthful sidekick – though such phraseology probably only occurred in the camp 1960s take on the caped crusader (I struggle to imagine such frivolity in Christopher Nolan’s recent re-boot of the franchise).

No, on Saturday night I found myself in a church dedicated to St Michael to enjoy a particularly fine choral concert from the Esterhazy Chamber Choir.  This concert compared very favourably with my listening the previous Saturday at the (probably) more famous King’s College Chapel – and I think some of this is down to the much better acoustics of the more modest Lewes venue.  Impressive architecture is all well and good – nice to look at and to inspire the unwashed masses to behave, but it isn’t always the musician’s friend.

The concert was also striking for providing positive support for the title of the long-running Radio 2 show “The Organist Entertains”.   I had always assumed this title was an oxymoron, heavy irony or a joke in very poor taste – but on Saturday night I found myself being entertained by an organist (another shibboleth shattered!).

The Lewes St Michael’s does not refer to him in his role as the patron saint of underwear but rather, I think, in his role as Chief of Staff of the Armies of God.  I may be wrong, but he was shown in statue form poking some sort of reptilian ne’er-do-well with a long spear (it wasn’t just St George who went in for dragon-baiting!).  Tradition seems to keep the chap pretty busy: he taught Adam farming and acted as his tour guide to the blessed realm, he defeated an Assyrian army and is also seen as a healer (very much a one-stop-shop on the battlefield) – so perhaps he might have had a hand in curing my lesion (though my money remains on the Harvey’s).

In the church in Lewes, a candle was placed in front of his little statue – at the front of the nave (just before the chancel – or perhaps the transept) on the left hand side.  This candle was in a red glass, and so shone red.  On the other side of the nave, was the Virgin Mary (or at least a lady dressed in blue – and clearly not Mrs T).  She too had a candle, but in a blue glass.  These two lights did remind me rather of the navigation lights on a ship or plane – with the red correctly on the port side (from my vantage) and the blue on the starboard (which really ought to have been green).

I did wonder if St Michael was linked to the colour red, and if so whether any other arch-angels were linked with green.  Sadly, I could find no clear theological colour code for archangels – so no obvious saint to use for starboard.

This led me to ponder what might need to use navigation lights within a church – and whether they suffered from blue-green colour-blindness.  Does it help confused congregants to orient themselves?  Or have their been problems with shipping on the river Ouse, or low flying aircraft, crashing into St Michael’s in thick fog?

Foreign Lesion

The attentive reader will be aware that I have spent some quality time with members of the medical profession – I am, in fact, working, my way through the full range on offer at my local medical centre (I figured I should get some use out of the NHS while it’s still with us).

These visits have not been entirely frivolous in nature, but have been to tackle the rather unsightly, and intermittently itchy, lesion just above my right ankle.  I have been rubbing the aforementioned Daktarin into this for more than a week now – and until the weekend, the only positive effect of this regime was to beautifully moisturise one small part of my right leg (which now looks significantly younger than the rest of that particular limb – yes, I have just been listening to Just a Minute).

On Saturday morning I checked my lesion and it was unchanged, and I then went away for the weekend to the rather incendiary Sussex town of Lewes.  I returned on Sunday night and to my surprise found the lesion was much improved.  What could explain this sudden change?

Doctor No. 3 this morning wished to claim credit for the medical profession and their salves and ointments, but I am sceptical (and not just about this).  The salve had been used for more than a week with no effect (beyond the above mentioned rejuvenation). Something novel in the life of my lesion did occur over the weekend – I had the pleasure of consuming three pints of Harvey’s Best Bitter for the first time in some months (I am normally confined to Greene King country, even during winter so he must be an Evergreene King).  I would wish to claim that it was the Harvey’s which led to my miracle cure – and not the quackery of the cavalcade of MDs.  The normal course of medicaments prescribed by a traditional doctor is for 7 or even 28 days of treatment – even on the more modest period, this would represent 21 pints of Sussex finest beer and a snip at only £7.20.  I urge my readers to write to their MPs and to lobby NICE to ensure that Harvey’s is available on prescription throughout the country.  Forget Lily the Pink and her medicinal compound, it is to John Harvey and his cask ales that we should “drink a drink”.

In related news, scientists at Wake Forest School of Medicine (in North Carolina and, perhaps, twinned with Sleepy Hollow?) have discovered that itching is contagious.  If you see someone scratching you are more likely to feel an itch yourself.  If we can publicise the curative effect Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter had on my itching lesion, then the general public will come to associate an itch with the need for a swift pint.  The cunning marketing folks from Harvey’s could then wander the country scratching (themselves) as an effective tool to boost sales.  Perhaps they could sponsor Lottery Scratchcards and offer their wares at Scratchwood Services?

I’m no marketing (or, many would say, any other kind of) professional, but I humbly proffer these efforts to the Directors of Harvey and Son (Lewes) Ltd to boost their sterling efforts to turn back the tide of alcopops and fizzy yellow muck that fills so many of our (sadly diminishing) fleet of public houses.

Airborne Dairy Products

Unaccustomed warmth has returned to South Cambridgeshire these last few days – and with the hours of daylight finally exceeding those of darkness, even an old curmudgeon is forced to admit that Spring has arrived (while its dogs now chew contentedly on winter’s traces after a long chase).

Evidence of the new season abounds – and regular readers will be pleased to know that the cycle shorts are back (and still remain lycra-free).  My magnolia stellata is in bloom – though curiously, its flowers are white rather than the beige colour that paint manufacturers seem to market under the name.  In fact, I am very fond of the magnolia – but have never seen one with beige flowers.

Butterflies, on the whole seem to be rather more sensibly named – blues are blue, whites are white.  I raise the butterfly as the Brimstones are fluttering around once again (well, the lads are – apparently the gals are rather paler and can be mistaken for a white and so may be in with a chance for a part in Midsomer) after their long hibernation.  Brimstone is, of course, another name for the element sulphur many of whose allotropic forms are yellow.  The only other chemical element with its own butterfly would seem to be the copper – and the butterfly is somewhat copper coloured.  The nobility are widely represented with Dukes, Emperors, Queens and Monarchs galore, the navy get a look in (in the military sense, rather than the shade of blue) and even punctuation gets a mention (though only the comma, so far).  It would be quite nice to discover a new butterfly so that I could name it after one of the other elements or punctuation marks – the Apostrophe would be such a lovely name for a new member of the Papilionoidea.

The most intriguing of our lepidopteran visitors is the Camberwell Beauty – rather a smart number which is only an infrequent migrant from Scandinavia (though, thinking back to the Vikings – you can never be too careful, today fluttering around South London, tomorrow pillaging monasteries).  I’ve been to Camberwell – well, to be perfectly honest I’ve been through it many times on the bus but never disembarked – and beauty is not a word I would tend to attach to it (except in an extremely heavy-handed attempt at irony). It does have a green – though, in other respects it very little resembles its fictional near namesake, Camberwick Green – but apparently, it was not here but in Coldharbour Lane (so it was nearly named the more alliterative Brixton Beauty) that a couple of Beauties were seen in August 1748, and where its discoverer named it (he also named it the Grand Surprise, which suggests that my somewhat disparaging views on Camberwell were shared as early as the 18th century).

The Grand Surprise is reportedly a strong flier and seems to exist on both sides of the Atlantic – which suggests it’s a very strong flier indeed or a hitch-hiker – possibly with the aforementioned Vikings, though they weren’t mentioned in the Vinland Sagas…

Too many bows to their strings?

Young Matt Smith, in his role as the Doctor – rather than his more risqué work as one C Isherwood – has done much to try and convince us that bow-ties are cool. I’m not sure how successful his proselytising has been with the general public – I suspect he may have had more success with tweed or even the fez – but one field in which the bow-tie always seems to have been “in vogue” is that of classical music.

I am writing fresh from a concert by the Endellion Quartet – resplendent in their bow-ties and cummerbunds (and the more usual shirt, trousers, tails et al – we are not returning to the 1930s Berlin theme). I was struck, and not for the first time, by how very impractical the bow-tie is as performance-wear for the player of the violin or viola. It is inevitably in the way, and as a result is crushed and/or pushed to one side – thereby compromising any smartness it was trying to impart to proceedings.

For a quartet, only two pieces of neck-wear are affected – but in a full orchestra the higher-pitched stringed instruments are the most numerous and a small flock of these cravats discomode their wearers.

Whilst recognising the essentially conservative (not to say Cretaceous) outlook of much of the classical music audience, I think ties could be jettisoned with only a minor perturbation in the earth’s orbit.  In time I think people could learn to endure a glimpse of exposed musician’s neck – even of the trombone section who, let’s face it, probably have the brass neck to get away with it!

Cloth Ears?

The more perspicacious and attentive reader will have noticed that I seem to spend quite a lot of my time at musical entertainments of one form or another.  I like to think I have an interest in music coupled with a decent attention span, though not (normally) enough to get through a Handel opera (I can only take about two hours of the Baroque master in one sitting – and not just as a result of my somewhat poorly padded derrière).

In my skimming of various on-line broadsheets (broadscreens?) seeking grist for my blogging mill (which I think makes me the quern) I have read reviews of several pieces of televisual entertainment that I had previously enjoyed (or at least viewed and am thus in a position to critique the work of the critic).  A couple of these have commented unfavourably on the background music:

  • First up was Friday Night Dinner, a new sitcom on C4, the music for which was considered inappropriate to the content.  I must admit I have no recollection of any background music in the show at all.
  • Secondly we have Wonders of the Universe.  Apparently, some have complained about the volume of the background music drowning out Coxy’s flat Lancashire vowels.  Now, I will admit to vaguely noticing some music – but I was still quite capable of hearing the narration and failed to notice any issues with the musical decibels.

Do my ears need a good syringing?  Is it something to do with the male inability to multi-task?  I can either listen to the speech or pay attention to the music – but apparently not both.  Or am I just too easy going and am failing to turn on the TV with the sole hope of being offended?

And, it’s not just the idiot box that raises this issue.  Over the weekend I saw the current cinematic treat, “Submarine”, which I very much enjoyed (despite the complete absence of the phrase “Dive! Dive! Dive!”).  I did notice a few songs by Alex Turner (as already established, a fan of Jake Thackeray) but sadly missed the fact that the rest of the background music was a “pastiche of Georges Delerue’s scores for Godard and Truffaut” (according to the Independent’s review).

I now found myself becoming paranoid, trying to concentrate on the musical substrate of TV and film so that I will later be able to discuss its merits (or failings) around the water-cooler.  Well, just as soon as I can find a suitable water-cooler (or perhaps a tea-urn would be a more appropriate beverage temperature altering device for these shores) around which to loiter – and some fellow sufferers (assuming I am not alone in this inability to focus on the sonic backdrop to a scene).


A number of materials, if they get about as chilly is it is possible to be, lose all resistance when it comes to conducting electricity (or zero ohms, and indeed, palones).  Some rather funky compounds have the same property when it is merely seriously cold – and I mean seriously, not “bitterly” which these days seems to mean anything much below room temperature (I guess that’s what you get when all the weather “forecasters” are too young to remember the days before central heating – I reckon Jack Scott would have had a more rigorous definition of “bitterly” back in my youth).

These high temperature superconductors work in such balmy conditions that they can work even when the air has not turned to liquid and pooled on the floor (which does suggests that condensed matter physicists may have a rather different “take” on high temperatures to that of the general public).  These superconductors are divided (somewhat hubristically) into two groups: conventional (where we think we understand how they work) and unconventional (where we don’t).  I rather like this division and would like to apply it more widely – people, lifestyles and activities that I can understand would be considered conventional and those I can’t would be branded as unconventional. In this brave new world (© A Huxley), some things now wrongly considered as “normal”, e.g. fishing, owning fewer than 100 books, possessing more than a fleeting interest in celebrity and the watching of “reality” TV, would all be considered markers of an unconventional lifestyle (and as a result would attract disapproval – and perhaps be driven underground).

Ah, but I am letting my desire for world domination get the better of me.  I was planning to talk about super conductors in the orchestral sense – rather than something with the ability to eject magnetic fields.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure to see many of the world’s great conductors in action.  I have seen enough to know that if you sit in the front row and Valery Gergiev is conducting, then you should bring a kagoule (other waterproof clothing is available).  I do like a conductor who puts their whole body into it; minimalism is all well and good – but it doesn’t provide much of a spectacle for the audience.

If we were to get the Artistic Director of the West Virginia Symphony and Gary Cooper (not that one, though I do rather like the idea of a world-class harpsichord player and conductor in a Western – a properly tuned keyboard instrument would be an innovation in the Wild West if nothing else) to share the podium then we would have a link back to the conventional superconductor (as I’m sure you all know, the Cooper Pair is the key concept to understanding their properties).  On the downside, they may find themselves conducting a carthorse – or, if you prefer, a very confused orchestra.

But I seem to have digressed (again).  More recently, as I have mentioned before, I have enjoyed a number of terribly young people conducting orchestras of a roughly similar age.  I saw my favourite example of this new breed of conductor earlier in the week – and aren’t we all glad that classical music has not gone the way of the buses and dispensed with the conductor (I suppose OMO is only really possible for a sonata – and not always then) – I do find myself wondering if unemployed bus conductors could not find gainful orchestral  employ with the triangle – ting ting (I think the “hold very tight please” would have to be implied).

Anyway, back to Tuesday night and CUMS II – I think rather the Championship of university orchestras if I have correctly understood Association Football – and my third (pleasurable) experience with Sibelius in as many months.   The evening was conducted by a chap named Craigen who is one of those splendid folk who has merely to look at an item of clothing for it to crease (and who is also a very fine horn player as he had demonstrated earlier that same day) – I do like a conductor to be sightly dishevelled (I think maybe overly smart just looks too clinical to me).  But, better even than this, he really conducts with his whole body – he used the whole podium, his entire upper body with vigour and all of his face including, I would swear, his teeth.  With this degree of involvement from the conductor in Jean’s second symphony, how could I fail to be totally swept up by the music?  I do hope his conducting teachers don’t knock all this youthful exuberance out of him – I, for one, would miss it.

Not only did he provide a full programme of entertainment with the planned musical component of the evening, but he also managed to provide a comedic conclusion during the applause by cunningly eluding the poor lass trying to bring him his reward in the form of a bottle of wine (well, I assume the shiny bag contains a bottle of wine – but I’ve never seen the contents and university budgets are tight, so it could be anything in there). Certainly,  such total commitment to entertaining the crowd should not go unrewarded – and, if nothing else, he has now been immortalised in this blog.

Te Salute!

I’m a fun guy – maybe…

Well, it would seem that my pets were not friendly (or even hostile) bacteria.  They survived the full week of flucloxacillin without a scratch (and, I more-or-less managed to work my mealtimes around the rather strict tablet-taking regime – to be honest, it might have been easier if I’d had to collect them, one-by-one, from the top of Mount Sinai), which means they aren’t bacteria.

The new theory is that it is a fungal infection, and so I now have some nice cream (called Daktarin, which does make me wonder if some of its ingredients came from a cross-eyed lion) which I can apply whenever I want – without the slightest consideration of when I last, or will next, consume nutriment.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that fungi have started growing on my body given the enormous quantity of mushrooms I consume – plus, my ankles (at least over the winter months) are generally kept in a state of permanent darkness (though I have yet to cover them in manure, well not deliberately).  If the darn things would just produce an edible fruiting body, I might be willing to let them stay.  It would be the ultimate grow/pick your own experience – just reach down to your ankle and there is the basis for lunch!  All of which makes me wonder if I could infect my other ankle with forced rhubarb?  Though I suppose it would mean having to keep my left sock permanently damp…

Moving Up

I am just returned from a programme of Beethoven violin sonatas at Peterhouse. Curiously, the violinist was the mother of the horn player from Thursday night’s Mass in B Minor – I don’t knowingly know any relatives of the man at the fortepiano (though I was rather impressed by the knee “pedals” on his instrument – not sure what a knee-operated device should be called).  The concert was truly stunning – but was almost eclipsed (and I choose this word deliberately) by an incident during the interval.

When returning to my seat after a glass of wine in the interval, I almost knocked over the Astronomer Royal (a real celebrity, unlike so many non-entities who would wish to claim that appellation).  I rather fear that had I sent Martin Rees flying, I may have found myself spending some time at Her Majesty’s displeasure – it’s not quite arson in the dockyards, but I still don’t think it would have gone down too well.  I’d never seen the Master of Trinity standing up before – I’ve either seen him seated or only heard his voice, and had, as a result, gained the impression that he was rather taller than was in fact the case.  Still, I’m now hanging out with a Baron (and a fellow mathematician – though he did rather beat my 2.1) – so my social climbing continues.

Talking of the out-going President of the Royal Society, I feel that his great contribution to science should be commemorated – and I feel this should be in the form of a great arch. I just think a Rees Arch would be an appropriate memorial.

In related news, I might try and link this with Radio 1’s early breakfast DJ running away to Gretna Green to be joined in wedlock.  As Dev elopement and Rees Arch seem to make natural bedfellows.

You can’t imagine how long I’ve been waiting for a hook for that arch “joke” – and then I literally trip over one (it could almost make one believe in some sort of supreme being – or at the very least, Fate).