Harvest

I always feel that harvest should be a superlative, one step beyond the comparative harver – an alternative formulation to most harve, if you like.  Well, you may like but my dictionary does not.  Mr Collins insists it comes from the old Norse word for harrow – or possibly Wealdstone (the Vikings were always a little shaky on the geography of Middlesex).  Now, I’m no farmer (shocking I know, but true) but I’m pretty sure that harrowing is a rather different operation to harvesting – certainly, I have never knowingly seen a combine harrower (which does sound like something from the imagination of one of our darker horror writers).  I imagine that getting harrowing and harvesting muddled up would quickly lead a farmer to the poor house (or worse).

But why, I hear you ask between sobs, is the old fool wittering on about harvesting?  Well, let me tell you dear readers…

When I cycle into Cambridge, I pass a number of arable fields (well, the crops are arable – the fields are just fields).  Between one evening and the next, these crops – cereals and rape – had not just been harvested but the stubble ploughed back into the soil. This struck me as very swift work – and if it weren’t for the chaff all over the cycle path (does rape produce chaff, or is that only wheat?) you’d hardly know the crop had been there at all.  This is rather sad as, along with the crop, the harvesting took out the taller, sturdier weeds that lived within it.  It was these that my frequent companions of the last few months, the buntings (reed and yellowhammer), used to perch upon to sing to attract the ladies and keep the other fellas off their ‘patch’.  Where are my bunting boys going to perch now?  I think there ought to be a subsidy for farmers to put perches into recently harvested fields so that the lads have somewhere to make a stand – or I fear anarchy may descend on bunting society.

With the recent run of festivals in Cambridge (though not, as yet, one directly linked to harvest – or even Harrow), I have been cycling to and from the city in the evening many times (many many times) over the last month or so.  As a result, it has been brought forcibly to my attention that the nights are drawing in.  Added to this, we have the recent cool, grey weather and the fact that the German word for autumn (herbist) is derived from the same source as our word harvest.  As a result, I am left with the feeling that the misty fingers of Autumn are already wrapping themselves around Fish Towers – and we’re not even out of July yet!  I fear we may be mere hours away from ‘seasonal’ displays appearing in our retailers warning us of the imminent arrival of Yuletide.   Perhaps someone has over-wound the Earth, and it’s running a couple of months fast – after all, we did have the summer in April…

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Singing Fish

But, no sign of Holy Zarquon – so, I guess it’s not the end of the universe just yet.

This very morning I had my first singing lesson – or, at least the first since my voice not so much broke as shattered back in the late 1970s.  Early days yet, but my range seems to cover a couple of octaves (few notes of which would require the use of a treble clef) and I have covered the letters M, N, NG, V, Z, R and E in vocal exercises (not a great Scrabble hand, I’ll admit – but if I could just get ‘zen’ on a triple word score…).

During the lesson, my singing teacher proffered the most accurate compliment I have ever received, viz that I have a big mouth and I’m not afraid to use it.  The big mouth is good for a singer and, unlike many new students, I was fairly uninhibited about producing some volume (at one stage, I also essayed a rather dodgy cod Irish accent as well).

It would seem that my breathing needs some work and I need to find something to do with my hands – but, to be honest, the latter issue is not limited to my career in song. Unless I have previously evacuated my lungs (women and children first, obviously), I only breathe using the top half of my aforementioned bellows.  However, we did discover that if I lean forward from the hips so that my head is between my shins and laugh, then the lower half of my oxygenation equipment is brought into play – though this is probably not a practical stance for my future concert career.

It may be that my washboard stomach (her description, not mine), whilst ideally suited to skiffle, may be restricting my breathing when trying to belt out an aria.  As a result, I have an Alexander technique exercise to do – and, let me say, this is an exercise to which I’m really looking forward.  As homework, I am to lie on the floor with my head on a couple of paperbacks for 20 minutes every day – I can listen to music, but otherwise should just lie there and not fall asleep.  The effects will be gradual, so I may have to do this for months (or even years).  It’s not that I want to do this, you understand, but I owe it to my public – I’ve denied the world my singing voice for too long!

So, am just off for a bit of a lie down (sorry, a bit of a workout).

How do you feel?

I had grown used to the conclusion of any sporting endeavour being followed by a microphone being stuffed under the nose of the winner.  The poor chap, or chapess, is then asked how they feel – usually before they have had a chance to draw breath, and often before they have actually stopped moving.  The answers are seldom revelatory: after winning, all seem to evince some degree of pleasure in the result and could probably truthfully admit to being rather knackered (though the latter is not often mentioned).  I have yet to hear anyone admit to a deep feeling of existential angst or question the relevance of their recent activity (and the years of training which led up to it).  In fact, it seems to me that we could take the answer to the question as read – and not bother asking it in the first place.

Those who do not win are allowed slightly longer to frame an answer to the same question (basically, they can think while the winner is answering), but sadly this time is rarely put to good use, with the same platitudes being trotted out time after time.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise – we do not, after all, watch (and indirectly pay) the sporting for their searing philosophical or emotional insights or, in some cases, even their ability to string together a coherent sentence.  Equally, we do not expect our great philosophers, playwrights and poets to complete the 100m dash in under 10 seconds – though I fear it may only be a matter of time before such an event is televised for our viewing pleasure.

I’m sure when I were a lad, the athletically-inclined were allowed to be good at their sport and not expected to speak in public (unless they wanted to) – so I think this must be a new ‘idea’.  However, so ‘successful’ has it been that it has not remained limited to the sporting arena – or the much older sphere of the grieving relative.

I’ve just been watching coverage of the Proms on BBC4, and have discovered that soloists and conductors are subjected to the same treatment as our athletes.  As they walk off stage, they are ‘nabbed’ to find out how they feel – and, their answers are only slightly more illuminating than those of the sporting.  Whilst the musical have probably used less energy than an athlete (though in most cases will have been performing for longer), they tend not to be in such good shape, and so they also tend to be somewhat breathless and have not generally spent their recent performance preparing answers to inane questions.

Could I suggest to interviewers that if the answer to the question is blindingly obvious (or the question is clearly inane), then don’t bother asking it!

Class Act

Having recently finished reading “Watching the English” by Kate Fox – a very entertaining, if sometimes worrying, read – I seem to have become slightly obsessed by class.  As a result, I was interested when strolling round Waitrose to see that one aisle proudly boasted that it contained napkins – very upper-middle class (or above).  I now know that only the denizens of Pardonia would use the word serviette in a futile attempt at social climbing, even though both words come to us from Old French (I’ve always felt this blog could do with a little more etymology!).

My own class indicators are somewhat confused – varying from upper middle class to deep into the working class (though I am very obviously not upper class – this blog alone would provide proof, as an earlier post used the word posh where a toff would have used smart).  I blame the parents (mostly mine, obviously, who came from different social classes), Radio 4 listening and my magpie-like tendency to gather up any particularly shiny word or pronunciation and add it to my repertoire for this rather weak class anchoring.  I suspect my factory-setting would be lower middle class – but I can often pass for rather higher up the social scale among the anthropologically ill-informed.

Last Sunday, I found myself at King’s College Chapel listening to Verdi’s Requiem (this was not as a result of blacking-out earlier, but is merely a rhetorical flourish).  I was ‘comped’ into this concert (my first comp anywhere – isn’t free stuff nice!) and was seated right at the front, only three seats from the Mayor and only one seat from the Principal ‘Cello.  Indeed, as I was led to my seat, I did worry that I would be expected to sing (luckily, for all concerned, my fears were groundless).  I have previously mentioned my reservations about the acoustics of KCC, however, these are significantly improved when one is sitting almost in the orchestra and the music packs the sonic punch of the Verdi Requiem.

Over the course of the evening (which did extend rather beyond the concert and involved quite a lot of red wine), I kept encountering the same chap who seemed very insistent that my name was Sebastian.  I kept correcting him, but to no avail – eventually, he accepted that this wasn’t my name, but felt that it should be and so continued to use it.

Now, I can understand his position as I have been known to rename people myself (and not just by the more normal substitution of a nickname for the one recorded by the State).  When I first entered the world of full-time employment, I worked with a chap whose name I can no longer (and mostly never could) recall – to me he was (and always will be) an Ian and I fail to understand how his parents could have chosen any other name for him.  As a result of this certainty, I could never remember his soi-disant real name – as it would just be over-written with Ian every time I heard it.  At around the same time, I provided mathematical support to a pair of apprentices who were named Julian and Gavin by their respective parents – though I always called the latter, Sandy.  Luckily for me, he was far too young to understand the allusion (as, of course, am I) and so I never felt the rough end of his nunchucks (he was heavily into one of the more violent martial arts at the time).

Despite my own tendency to rename others, I’ve never really thought of myself as having another name (other than various nicknames) and had certainly never seen myself as a Sebastian (should I start carrying a teddy?  For the avoidance of doubt, I refer to the cuddly toy rather than the item of lingerie).  However, the name does have rather a nice, upper class ring to it (and re-uses my existing initials) so perhaps I will adopt it to ease my way into the upper echelons of society.  If nothing else, its application shows that I continue to punch above my weight class-wise, at least on the basis of a relatively brief encounter.  I suspect my true nature would start to bleed through should I ever have to go the distance…

Festival!

The festival season is now well underway, and for many it’s not a festival unless you are standing up to your oxters in mud, surrounded by tens of thousands of other strongly odiferous, unwashed people with access to only sub-medieval plumbing facilities.

I take a rather different approach to my festival going.  Over the past week, the Cambridge Summer Music Festival has served up a concert hall, two college chapels and an art gallery as venues.  All provided a roof (often quite an impressive one), seating (though its comfort may not always have been of the very first rank), modest volumes of relatively sweet-smelling fellow festival goers and (mostly) modern plumbing.

I suspect the quantity of drugs carried per capita may have been similar at the CSMF to the more rock-based events (you know what those geologists are like!), but in Cambridge I suspect most of the drugs were both legal and on prescription (certainly, between – and sometimes during – pieces, you can feel like you’ve inadvertently stumbled into the bronchitis ward at Addenbrooke’s).

Today’s gig was in the Fitzwilliam Museum and so between the two halves of French piano music on offer, I could survey the work of Matisse, Bonnard and Spencer (among others) whilst sipping from a reviving glass of chenin blanc.  I think I also managed to find a singing teacher in the same interval: a degree of productivity which is rendered only slightly less impressive when I reveal that this was my one, and only, New Year’s resolution (surely, somewhere in the world must start its year in August?).

All of this festival going brings to mind the patron saint of ushers, St Eward, who was martyred (as I recall) at a rather poorly marshalled event in the twilight years of the western Roman Empire.  His death was not in vain, as ladies (and a few gents) d’un certain âge now proudly wear a sash bearing his name whilst ensuring that all are safely delivered to and from each event.

Diamonds are Forever

I seem to recall Shirley Bassey sang these words over the credits of one of Sean Connery’s poorer outings as Bond, Jamesh Bond.

Putting aside the thorny question as to whether any matter is truly eternal, scientists have discovered that diamonds are for rather less of forever than advertised.  It would seem that when exposed to ultraviolet light – as provided, for example, by the sun or many a nightclub  – a diamond (which is, after all, just an upmarket form of soot) starts shedding the carbon atoms of which it is comprised.  (To avoid any later compliance issues, I should make clear that as a middle-aged British man writing in the month of July, my recent experience of the sun is limited and of a nightclub, non-existent.)

Before you rush to cover any diamond jewellery, or panic that gemstones may not be the safe haven they at first appeared in these days of financial turbulence, I should stress that this loss of substance is really quite modest.  Under a UV lamp, your typical diamond might lose one microgram (or 2 hundred-thousandths of a carat) over the course of 10 billion years (assuming the bulb in your UV lamp lasted that long, and you were willing to wait).

Carbon is famous for its use in dating and, in the form of diamond, is often used if the dating proves particularly successful.  This led me to muse on relationships in the atomic world…

The proton is a free spirit: it loves the single-life and is always positive.  Despite a thorough search, physicists have yet to see a lone proton falling apart (though they seem pretty sure they must decay eventually).  The neutron on the other hand won’t last 10 minutes unless locked into a relationship.  Curiously, once hitched to a bunch of other protons and neutrons in a nucleus, our freedom loving proton is then liable to decay – gaining weight while its positivity flies off and is soon annihilated by a passing electron.

Yes, I can even use quantum theory to justify my living of la vie individuelle!  Next week, fashion tips from the theory of Special Relativity…

Wallflower

I eat quite a lot of nuts and while you are very much what you eat, I don’t think you can really use this statement to deduce anything about my mental health.  Many of these nuts come from Waitrose and they used to come in numbered packets (00-99) with each number representing a different type of nut, seed, dried fruit or combination of the above.  However, in recent weeks this has all changed with nuts (and other comestibles) in new (un-numbered) packaging and re-branded ‘lovelife’.  I am unsure whether it is we the consumer or the nuts themselves who are being encouraged to say ‘no’ to suicide – or perhaps organic walnuts are an aphrodisiac and the new brand is by way of a recommendation for victuals that will spice up a couple’s gland games.

All very well you may say, dodgy re-branding is a fact of modern life – even for the Waitrose shopper – but why do you bring this up?  Well, while I was waiting at the till earlier this week, I spied a copy of the Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine (free to Partnership cardholders!) which displayed a strap line to the effect that lovelife was “the range everyone is talking about”.

I like to think I get about a bit – only last night I was hob-nobbing (well, more cava and canapé-ing, if honest) with the fragrant Mary Archer and the Mayor of Cambridge (among other luminaries) at the launch of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival – but despite the celebrity-inflected gay social whirl that is my life, I had encountered no-one discussing a newly re-named range of edible tidbits from the John Lewis Partnership (and this despite the fact that last night’s canapés were consumed in the 3rd floor brasserie of the John Lewis store in Cambridge).  Where am I going wrong?

It is not as though this is the only example of me being left out.  I must be one of the few people left in the UK never to have been offered (or even mentioned in conjunction with) a vacant position in the Sugarbabes or the role of England football manager.  I will readily admit that my singing voice may not be the Mae West and my grasp of the off-side trap lacking – but I doubt I could do a poorer job than the current incumbents.

Worse, the News of the World has failed to make even a desultory effort to hack into my phone (either landline or mobile) – which may make me unique in this country.

What does a chap have to do to get noticed?  I had thought that after leaving school the weekly ritual of being picked last (or penultimately) for every sporting team would be at an end, but it would seem not…