Vision On

Each time I complete a post, WordPress makes a series of automated suggestions for the subject matter for my next post.  Previously, I have ignored this advice and ploughed my own lonely furrow – but it’s not easy to come up with entertaining subjects for a post (as I’m sure has become obvious to any regular reader) so I have decided to use one of the proffered suggestions.  Today, these included “Who has most influenced your view of the world?” – or something similar, I may be paraphrasing – among others, and so I have decided to build a post using this question (and the fecund possibilities contained therein) as my source material.  Perhaps we will all come away from this experience a little wiser…

So, who is it?  How has influenced my unique vision?  Could they be tried for crimes against humanity?  Calm down, dear!  If you’re all sitting comfortably, I’ll tell you:

My optician.

Yes, let’s have a shout-out (I could have been a DJ, you know) for Vision Express in the Grand Arcade in Cambridge and their friendly and helpful staff.  With their assistance, the world has been brought into sharp focus and parallel lines are truly parallel – well, these things are true when I’m wearing my glasses, otherwise, we are in a soft-focus world of non-Euclidean geometry.

Now, I think we have all learned a valuable lesson – let’s never mention it again.

It’s official

Earlier in the week, as I was wandering Budgens trying to remember what I was supposed to be buying – in a manner which is all too frequent when I have not compiled a formal list – I meandered (in a manner only slightly reminiscent of a mature river) past the wine department.  Here I found my eye drawn to a bottle of cheap North American plonk which proudly boasted that it came to the mean streets of Sawston from the official wine provider to Wimbledon.

I did wonder if the London Borough of Wimbledon had an official wine – perhaps to go with its official flower and bird?  However, subsequent research has shown that Wimbledon was annexed by Merton (the Borough, rather than the Paul) several years ago – and I doubt a vassal state is permitted its own official beverages (but presumably does have to provide troops if Merton ever goes to war).

No, it would seem to be the tennis tournament which has an official wine provider.  Now, if someone had asked me to guess as to the official beverage of Wimbledon, I would have plumped for some sort of citrus-flavoured squash rendered cloudy by the infusion of rather heavily processed pearl barley – accompanied by the banana as the official fruit. Surely imbibing a glass or two of vino every 6 games would cause some degree of deterioration in the quality of the tennis on display?  It would certainly favour those players with a higher tolerance for alcohol.

Now, obviously I am being disingenuous here for very mild comic effect.  In this market obsessed age, every sporting event has to have a list of sponsors as long as your arm (assuming your arms are quite long, or the font and/or line spacing are pretty small) covering everything conceivable (and many things which are not).  I assume Wimbledon will also have an official whiskey, stout and elderflower pressé within the sphere of beverages alone.  There may be official providers of cymbals, wetsuits and cummerbunds too – for all I know.

As a result of this official sponsorship, many sports seem to have slowly taken over the world – and their practitioners are paid the kind of salaries previously reserved for high-ranking feudal overlords.  Perhaps the arts could learn a trick or two in these difficult times?  Why does the Wigmore Hall have no official wine?  Doesn’t the London Symphony Orchestra need an official timekeeper? (Or would this rather tread on the conductor’s toes?)

Actually, thinking about the typical audience at a classical music concert, organisations staging such events should be pursuing those companies that advertise during Countdown for sponsorship.  Official funeral insurance provider to the Queen’s Hall, anyone?  (Don’t worry – no salesman will call).  Or, official walk-in bath provider to the Barbican? Perhaps the performers (or the larger instruments) could be delivered to the stage on the official stair lift?

Given my own interests, I feel many venues could do with an official ice cream and cushion provider (not necessarily the same company).  Many years ago, I used to rather enjoy a bottle of Mackeson in the theatrical intervals at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle (a stout that goes rather well with an ice cream) .  Could theatrical sponsorship revive the brand and provide much needed support for regional theatre?  Or, was it just me with that particular interval habit?

Yes, I am targeting a new career in Arts Management – so Nicholas Serota should beware!

Pulse Pugilism

It’s about time I completed my in-depth coverage of the Edinburgh festivals, before it becomes entirely moot.  I’m not sure the Culture Show has much to fear yet, though the small portion of their coverage I have glimpsed was rather lighter on weak puns than this blog – so it depends what you prioritise in your arts coverage: cultural insight or dodgy jokes.

After being thrilled by Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photography, I made my way to the Pleasance Grand – sounds exciting doesn’t it?  No chandeliers here, it’s an indoor basketball court for the other 11 months of the year – a sport which tends to use strip or flood lighting (in my very limited experience).  I came to the Grand to see Paul Merton and chums (including wife – his, rather than mine) improvise short sketches or playlets based on suggestions from the audience (both written and shouted-out).  Fresh from the gallery, I proposed “capturing lightening” as the basis for a skit and, to an admixture of my delight and horror, it was pulled from the basket and performed.  Yes, in a very small way, I am now a successful playwright – my legs may not be short or fat, but they are fairly hairy (despite cycling, I refuse to shave them – that way lies madness, blood and stubble) and it would seem that 1 out of 3 is enough.  I really must get on with my panto… the West End is in desperate need of an injection of new writing blood! (AB+ obviously).

After a pitstop at Bonsai, I headed to my next gig which also required a modest amount of audience participation – providing the bones of a very brief musical.  My suggestion garnered the biggest laugh of the entire gig – and, indeed, of my entire comedy career to-date.  However, it is hard to see the words “ten past three” ever going down quite that well with an audience again (I should perhaps make clear at this stage that I was going for the laugh).  Still, it has given me a taste for the sound of an audience laughing with (rather than at) me.  I did have some vague plan that this blog could form the basis for my stand-up act – however, I now realise that it would require a very specific and well briefed audience.  Or I suppose I could provide York Notes or access to Google (other search engines are available) for my gigs, so that the audience can look up the jokes and thus understand why they are so funny.  Perhaps I need to start working on some more commercial material…

I then headed still deeper into the lowest caves of the Underbelly – a venue whose use for the rest of the year is a mystery to me – for one of my highlights of the festival.  This blog may have given the impression that the range of my musical tastes is somewhat limited – quite broad within the classical world, but not straying very far from there – so you may be surprised that a beatboxer was such a highlight (I certainly was).  I had heard Shlomo beatboxing (hence the title: why have a thesaurus unless you’re willing to use it?  I’ve also been reading about Anglo-Saxon poetry, where alliteration is big.  Go hemistich!) very briefly on the Shaun Keaveny breakfast show and thought it could be quite interesting, but doubted it would fill an entire hour.  Boy (or girl), was I wrong!  The range of sounds he could produce using only the human vocal apparatus (his, in this case) – augmented only occasionally by use of a mouth harp – was quite extraordinary.  His performance was extended by use of a loop station, nothing to do with the railways, but a device which enables a single performer to accompany themselves (by recording and looping the voice) – ideal for the lonely child with a huge vocal range and a desire to stage major choral works.  The mix of musical genres he could cover in an hour using only his own voice was incredible – and very entertaining.   If Mouthtronica comes to a village hall near you, I thoroughly recommend giving it a go – if nothing else, it will do wonders for your street cred (just look at mine!).

My final Edinburgh highlight was seeing Neil Gaiman whilst I was queueing outside a carousel (well, it looked like a carousel – but inside it was more like a round tent).  You will be pleased to know that he was shorter than expected – natch!  I was very excited – my first author-spotting for the blog (my view is spotting an author at a Book signing doesn’t count – any celeb-spotting has to rely on serendipity) – but sadly, and shockingly, the young chap I was with had no idea who Neil Gaiman was.  This was even more shocking as the youth in question had, in years gone by, dragged me to Games Workshop. A chap could despair about the national curriculum.  Maybe its time for me to start a free school: obviously the curriculum would be based on this blog – certainly, its use would teach the students a lesson.  Get your kids names down early (conception?) as I expect places to go fast…

Ghost story?

My recent journeys, to and from the land to our immediate north, brought to mind a ghost story I once heard (OK, just made up following a malapropism).

They do say that a phantom passenger train haunts the east coast main line.  It is doomed to traverse the line for all eternity, never able to reach the final station stop for its service.  The curse has been active for some time, so it is a steam-hauled service – and unaffected by signal aspect or overhead line damage it makes very good time.

This ghostly train is known as The Flying Scotsman.  I feel it needs the Richard Wagner de nos jour to take the story and use it as the basis for an overlong opera – though preferably one without the dodgy politics that mar Herr W’s work for so many.  If there are any budding composers (yes, composers reproduce asexually) of heavy opera (opera with an extra neutron or two), might I suggest the wind section could contribute a ghostly whistle as a leitmotif for the train itself?

In related news, if you ever get a chance to hear Paul Hindemith’s “Overture on ‘The Flying Dutchman'” then please do so – it’s a hoot!  In my view, the Comedy Prom missed rather an open goal by not including it, but there’s always next year… (or so I aver, with absolutely no proof).

A new superhero is born

Yes, it’s me!

A superhero very much in the Batman mould: made through a combination of serious gym-time plus cool, but expensive, gadgets.  I have not, to the best of my knowledge, been bitten by a radioactive animal or exposed to a hefty dose of gamma radiation.  Though, come to think about it, this shirt is feeling a little tight – but I’m sure that’s down to my recent Scottish diet and there is little physical risk if you were to make me angry (though I cannot guarantee an absence of withering sarcasm).

As reference to my shirt helps to attest, my acquisition of superpowers (well, a superpower) has not been accompanied by the desire to wear lycra, bright colours, a mask or any of the other standard accoutrements of the modern superhero.  This post will also completely destroy any chance of a secret identity – though, given the likely readership, I suspect the secret will still hold for over 6 billion people.

For years, the ivy and hawthorn which lie just beyond the eastern boundary of the extensive parklands which surround Fish Towers have mocked me (and I don’t even have a ha-ha).  They have been able to keep light and precipitation from my currants and berries, secure in the knowledge that my secateurs are unable either to reach them or to sever such thick branches.  They’ve stopped laughing now!  It’s hard to laugh when you are reduced to 6″ lengths and languishing in a green bin.

How has this desirable state of affairs come to pass?  Well, my gym-built body has now been augmented with an anvil tree lopper supplied by Wolf Garten – as you will all be aware, the wolf is the most horticulturallly-inclined of all God’s creatures.  This attaches to a handle which I have previously used for raking and hoeing.  In combination, my reach is significantly extended and major mechanical advantage can be applied to the cutting blades.  No mere branch can now withstand me – and the resultant feeling of power is quite intoxicating!

I suppose I should remember that with great power comes great responsibility – but to be honest, all I want to do is lop things (any potential visitors beware!).  Sadly, further lopping will have to wait as I now find myself in need of a second superpower.  The exercise of my first has filled my green bin to the brim in well under an hour and sadly, I can’t think of any of Stan Lee’s creations able to change the date of rubbish collection on a bank holiday week (perhaps this was considered a superpower too far – just too unbelievable).

I suppose I ought to think of a new superpower name to go with my new status.  The Tree Anvillain perhaps?

It’s a poor sort of memory

and does, indeed, only work backwards – though I suspect that any other form would be worse.  Still, it’s always a joy to quote the Red Queen: a woman of rare insight.

I have been thinking about memory of late, which does rather bring the god Odin to mind.  He kept quite the menagerie (rather more than à trois): in addition to two wolves and an eight-legged horse (surely a riding accident waiting to happen) he also kept two ravens named Huginn and Muninn (and mayhap other creatures as well).  The ravens’ names are normally translated into English as Thought and Memory, and I sometimes imagine myself as little more than a pair of corvids trapped in a box – with Muninn probably in the ascendant.

I have always (so far as I can recall – ha ha) had a pretty decent memory.  I am often asked how I remember so much (useless) stuff to which I have no real answer other than “how do you not?”  I certainly do not sit (or stand or lie) around trying to memorise useless facts, somehow it just happens when I’m busy doing other things.

It can be quite a useful skill as, all too often, a good memory can be mistaken for intelligence.  It also saves a lot of mental arithmetic if you can just remember what the answer was last time: one of the many beauties of mathematics is the consistency of arithmetic over time.  It has also served me quite well in both examinations and pub quizes (other quiz venues are available, but rather less fun).  However, it’s not all good news – I do frighten myself at times, for example, when I instantly know an answer with no understanding as to why.  It can also lead people to believe me when I say something about the past, even if I have (literally) just made it up – a power that can be used for both good and evil (mostly the latter).

Whilst my memory is pretty good, it is far from perfect.  I think part of the problem is the sheer volume of junk stored means that memories can become somewhat muddled – for example, when seeing people my brain tends to perform some sort of internal identikit operation enabling me to confidently ‘recognise’ complete strangers (well, he had A’s nose, B’s hair, C’s chin etc).  Repeated actions are also poorly recalled: I can remember locking the front door, but is the memory I’m accessing from today or November 2009?

I believe my visual memory is particularly poor, it seems that my brain stores visual information in a very compressed manner – like a rather extreme form of JPEG.  This can cause trouble: I nearly missed my stop travelling on the bus in Edinburgh as the bus shelter on the opposite side of the road had been changed and this was enough to confuse me.  Yes, of all the permanent landmarks around the stop that I could have chosen – stone buildings, geomorphology etc – the key one I relied upon was a temporary structure. I really need to let Huginn out of his box a little more often.

However, the real tragedy of my poor visual memory is that it impoverishes my recall of great visual art.  Storing it in a highly compressed conceptual form really does not capture the essence of great art.  Strong affect is supposed to improve memory – an important defence mechanism from our evolutionary past – but somehow this doesn’t work for me in a gallery: I just start aching.

Whilst in Edinburgh, I went to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art: Two – quite a hike on my swollen foot, so I didn’t go the few extra yards to One (I’ll save that for another time). I went there to see an exhibition of photography by Hiroshi Sugimoto which came in two parts: Lightening Fields and Photogenic Drawings.  The first were photographs of electrical discharges (400kV) and were truly extraordinary – I have never seen their like. The second were re-prints of negatives created by William Henry Fox Talbot in the very early years of Victoria’s reign – some of which were truly haunting.  I think it may have been the finest art exhibition I have ever visited – and as a member of the Art Fund, really quite cheap.  As a bonus, they also had some wonderful woodcuts by Ian Cheyne – perhaps trying to keep the Japanese vibe going?

The tragedy is that with my lousy memory for pictures, my recall of the exhibition is already fading and there were no postcards for sale and an original is likely to be beyond my budget.  But, there is some good news: in researching this blog I have found that Google images comes (slightly) to my rescue with a few actual JPEGs of both the photographs and the woodcuts.  Whilst no match for the real thing, they are significantly more faithful to the originals than my ageing neurons.

Surely, there must be a way to train your memory to be better with pictures?  Or perhaps not, as normally you are taught to remember ‘boring’ facts using pictures – a method I find utterly useless.  I can only remember the picture by first remembering the original facts, and then using them to try and re-construct the picture by adding in some recollection of how I might have converted the facts into a visual form.  This does both rather defeat the purpose and make me wonder if I am entirely normal.  Yes, I know you’ve wondered this for some time – or more likely, gone beyond wondering and drawn some pretty firm conclusions (and not just in pencil, but have mentally inked them in).

I have no great desire to be normal – always strikes me as over-rated – but I would like to remember the visual with greater fidelity.  Then again, perhaps a photographic memory is only a desirable thing if it comes with the ability to Photoshop the contents?

And did those feet?

In case any readers were worried about my turgid ankles and left foot (as if), I can re-assure them that, after a mere 18 hours back home, they have deflated and returned to normal (or at least, normal for me – a bit like NFN, I suppose).  It seems my potential new career as a gymnast is over before it has even begun.

However, even without things swelling ‘down below’, feet have been much on my mind of late.  How so? I fondly imagine that I hear you cry, well let me explain…

Whilst ‘festing’ up north, I had with me my trusty FiveFingers shoes – though only wore them on relatively dry days given the rather feeble resistance they mount to the ingress of water.  Let me tell you, they attracted a number of admiring comments from both locals and visitors, young and not-so-young alike.  At one of my final gigs, when I – fearing rain – was wearing a more traditional shoe (along with its fraternal sibling), a young chap entered and sat almost next to me wearing a pair of FiveFingers.  Not just any old FiveFingers, but the exact same model (Bikila) and colour-scheme (light grey and red) as mine.  This chap laughed in the face of wet feet (I know, I asked him), and so wore his even more often than I wear mine.  I am no longer alone!  I suppose I need to seek out some even more obscure footwear now to regain my evanescent sense of individuality in this homogenised, corporate world.

Feet have also been on my mind as I am reading “The Ode Less Travelled” by Stephen Fry.  This is designed to help the reader unleash their inner poet – so be afraid, be very afraid!  This blog has heretofore lacked prosody, but that (relatively) golden age could soon be at an end.  In the all too near future, I could be giving you all the big iamb.  There are so many feet to choose from: iambic, anapaestic, trochee, spondee or pyrrhic to name but a few (and wouldn’t these all be great names for shoes?).  What metrical scheme to pick?

One of my last gigs was to see Luke Wright, a relatively local (Colchester) poet perform – further cementing my middle-class credentials.  He really is very good – with some seriously fine balladry.  His set also contained a short introduction to the meter of the ballad, use of the iambic foot and the fact that pentameter and anapaests are only for showing off (which does make them very tempting – but perhaps I should walk before I try running).  This was also the very same gig in which I met the chap wearing Bikilas. This goes beyond coincidence (reminding me of “Elastic Planet”, the splendid radio series by Ben Moor, and one of the inspirations for this blog): the universe has spoken – and I think it is telling me to blog in verse (or worse).  (Well, I suppose it could be telling me to visit a chiropodist – but that seems rather prosaic, which is – of course – the complete antithesis of poetry.)

You have been warned – prepare for the versed!