I survived

(but it was a close-run thing).

Yes, I’m back at Fish Towers after a week in Auld Reekie – and am still more-or-less intact (more about the less in due course).

In the last week, I have had more late nights than in the preceding 11 months, “enjoyed” a pretty major shift in my diet (5-a-day has still been achieved but only if we substitute the words “fried food” for “fruit and veg” in the standard dietary advice: when in Rome etc) and consumed rather more alcohol than is perhaps compatible with the life of simple purity that makes up my quotidien existence.  I have also spent a lot of time sitting on some seriously uncomfortable chairs (the rest of the country, and perhaps even much of Europe, must be stripped of dodgy temporary seating in August), mostly in rather cramped and sweaty conditions.

As a result, blogging and sleep have suffered somewhat.  However, the last week has provided much needed fresh material for future posts and the lack of sleep should be resolved by a few early nights (those Zs don’t count themselves, you know).

Perhaps more worryingly, my left foot and both ankles seem to have put on rather a lot of weight whilst away – they are looking decidedly chubby.  It may be that my body starts storing excess calories (or joules) starting at the ground and slowly working up.  If I spent a whole month in Scotland would it reach my knees, or even higher?  Do I quite literally have hollow legs (as has often been proposed)?

Talking of Scotland and deep-fried food, I fear it may be losing its pre-eminence in this field.  As East Coast was whisking me south (while plying me with food and drink), I listened, on my iPod (other MP3 players are available), to The Bugle podcast.  If you like your news discussed with somewhat silly, some meet even say puerile (which, based on my schoolboy Latin, I assume means “boyish”) humour (well, you are reading this blog!), I can thoroughly recommend the Bugle.  On last week’s edition, I learned that the folk of Iowa take a block of butter, pierce it with a stick (like a butter lolly), coat it in batter (to make battered butter – there has to be a tongue-twister in this!) and then deep-fry it.  I can feel my arteries hardening just writing about it!  By comparison, even stereotypical Scots eating is looking pretty healthy.

The only alternative explanation for my puffy pedal extremities that has come to mind is that, rather than gaining weight, perhaps they are swollen – perhaps caused by my enforced separation from my bicycle or walking on cobbled streets or over volcanic hills. Has my body become overly adapted to cycling on the relatively flat?

However, neither explanation really covers the divergent impact seen on my left and right feet.  My feet are pretty much inseparable – I have rarely caught them more than 6 feet apart (or would 2 metres be a less confusing measure?) – and so surely anything affecting the left should also affect the right?

Still, I’m not in any pain – though my left shoe is a little tighter than normal – and if my feet have put on weight, it should lower my centre of gravity and lead to a much needed improvement in balance.  Surely, it’s not too late for a career as a gymnast?  Though I will admit that most gymnasts I’ve seen are slightly younger and shorter than me – but my study of the field has been less than exhaustive.  I’m also slightly concerned that even as a (supposedly) flexible primary school child I could never manage even the lowest BAGA award – the backward roll was always beyond me.  Then again, I couldn’t manage differential calculus in those days either – so there’s always hope!

Still, despite my sub-shin tumefaction, I had a really wonderful week away.  Where else could I take in 30+ shows covering music (old and new), poetry, photography and comedy in a single week?

Critic’s Corner

As any regular reader will be all too aware, my previous outings as a critic of the arts have been desultory efforts at best.  Should my witterings ever be exposed to the critical gaze of some form of meta-critic (one who criticises the critics) I’d be lucky to garner a single star.

Despite these inauspicious portents, I feel I should provide some sort of feedback from my gig-going in Edinburgh.  So far, I have been to twelve comedy gigs and two chamber music concerts – however, there seems little point in reviewing the latter as they were one-off events and, frankly, you’ve missed them.  (In case you enjoy regret, I should tell you that you’ve missed out on a treat – and I’m not just referring to the interval ice cream or the generous legroom provided when sitting in the main stalls).

The comedy, by contrast, is repeated nightly for another week (and some may be touring to a town or city near you), so a few readers may be in a position to act on any recommendations I care to make – though please be aware that I offer no warranty, express or implied.  I tend to select the story-telling style of comedian, enjoying a range of styles and approaches within this genre.  Over the years, I have found that whilst one-liners are great over a five minute slot, they tend to be rather wearing for a whole hour.   Sketch comedy, which was a mainstay of my radio listening for many years, is known for its hit-and-miss nature which is much harder to handle when the performers are there in the room with you (rather than hiding behind the anonymity of Marconi’s invention).  We can only hope that with this concentrated dose of professional comedy, some of the skills will rub off on me leading to a modest rise in the quality of my own musings (though, I wouldn’t hold your breath – unless you enjoy that kind of thing).

So, without further ado (I’m running low on ado – and it’s a bit of a hike to the shops to get some more) here are my top recommendations (in no particular order):

James Sherwood: funny and intelligent as ever.  Do not be put off by the name of the venue – they do re-use pretty much any space in Edinburgh as a venue, but the Wee Room is not a re-purposed urinal.

Tom Rosenthal: much shorter than anticipated (I think television adds about 6 inches to your height), but anyone who provides a tutorial on basic logic as part of his set gets my vote.

Alun Cochrane: more observational than my other picks.  Includes some great life tips.

Stuart Goldsmith: as beautifully constructed as last year’s set.  He (like me) is an Uncle Stuart and did make me feel that I may be neglecting my avuncular duties (though, he does have some rather useful uncling – yes, I can create new verbs – skills that I lack).

Matt Crosby: a little obsessed by Nando’s, but has usefully tagged some more of my typical behaviours as nerd-like (so I may have to keep an eye on these in future if I wish to maintain the, non-existent, illusion that I am one of the cool dudes).

Lloyd Langford: the least story or strongly thematically based, just very funny – and the only venue (so far) to boast a chandelier.

The Comedy Zone: you get three new(ish) acts for your money (and a potty-mouthed CBBC presenter as compère).  The two acts with historic links to Asia were particularly good and the third act was quite strange, but not without a certain charm.

I’d also give honorable mentions to Jon Richardson, Elis James, Rich Hall, Gareth Richards and Pete Firman – all of whom will handsomely reward the purchaser of a ticket to their shows.

I will also heartily recommend Bonsai to satisfy the victualling needs of any Fringe-goers. It is perfectly sited near the Pleasance, and as Japanese food is quick to prepare and consume you can grab a quick bite between shows.  It is also quite a healthy option for Scotland – though I am knocking back quite a lot of vegetable and banana tempura, so am still getting my fair share of deep-fried goodness.  I have been known to visit five times in a single day in years gone by – but this year, I tried to leave rather longer meal-breaks between shows (in an abortive attempt to produce a slightly less frantic festival experience).

Fire and Ice

I have headed north in the hope of free education and prescriptions and, given my advanced years, to enjoy the free care we elderly receive in the more boreal portions of the UK.  Yes, dear reader, I am in Scotland spending a week in the Athens (or, at this time of year, Islington) of the North for the famous International and Fringe (or Bangs for our US readers) Festivals.

The weather has been mild and I have seen the sun (and quite a lot of rain – but less, I think, than home which is what matters!), but one does not generally visit Scotland to enjoy the sultry heat.  I was therefore puzzled to find at the Pleasance (one of the main Fringe venues) that all the beverages on offer were “extra cold” – the stout, cider and bitter were all branded as “extra cold” and the lager is always offered heavily chilled.

Why?

I can’t imagine that over-heating is such a huge problem in the Scottish climate that the serving of tepid, or merely cool, drinks should be so thoroughly interdicted.  I will admit that some of the venues can become quite toasty (not to say sweaty) when packed with punters, but there has been no need for salt tablets to be issued – and the offering of a few cold drinks within a wide range of beverages would be more than sufficient to cover any concerns.

Luckily, today I shall be amused at the Gilded Balloon (or that’s my plan – one I hope is shared by the comics whose work I shall be sampling) – which on past form, is willing to offer bitter that has neither been nitro-kegged nor chilled well beyond the point of potability.  So, clearly it can be done – let’s start a campaign to make drinking at the Pleasance more pleasant!

Yesterday, I also visited the Queen’s Hall (she wasn’t there) to enjoy Ravel, Chin and Schubert (or at least some of their chamber works).  This was a late morning session, but it still counted as classical music and so, as part of my plan to support the arts in these difficult times, I was required to partake of an over-priced pot of artisan ice cream in the interval.  I was offered – and tried – a flavour I had never encountered before – Scotch Bonnet ice cream.  A Scotch Bonnet – as well as a piece of millinery – is a particularly fiery strain of chilli pepper and so might be seen as an unusual partner for ice cream. However, the combination was a marvel – the wonderful admixture of fire and ice in a single mouthful was a delight (and made a baked alaska seem a very pedestrian offering).  I think chilli could usefully be added to other flavours of ice cream (not just the basic iced-cream flavour): I already like chilli-flavoured dark chocolate, so that would be an obvious option but I think it would also augment the experience when consuming strawberry, honey and ginger or vanilla ices.

I’m now also wondering if I should introduce chilli into my bakery – chilli icing (as well as a pleasing word-pairing) could definitely be a viable option.  Upon my return to Fish Towers, it will back down to the crypt for some experimentation..

The only way to fly

Is, to paraphrase Westlife (you may like to imagine me standing up from a high stool at this point), without wings.  I am not suggesting that I possess some gravity-cancelling gizmo, but would merely posit that it is far better, to quote a marketing message from years gone by, to let the train take the strain.

Earlier in the week, I made the journey from Fish Towers to the Scottish capital city and seat of government, Edinburgh.  Living close to Stansted, with a little planning I could no doubt have flown very cheaply – or at least, apparently very cheaply, before the cost of such optional extras as check-in, luggage, actually paying for the flight, engines on the plane, a pilot etc were mysteriously added to the cost of my journey.  Instead, by using a considerably greater amount of planning and a detailed knowledge of the vagaries of UK rail ticketing (a subject which could probably form the basis of a rather challenging degree course), I was able to make the journey using the railways at a fairly reasonable cost.

In fact, I was able to make the journey in the relatively sumptuous surroundings of a First Class carriage.  For most of the trip, this upgrade allowed me improved legroom and a more comfortable and reclinable chair.  However, from Peterborough there was another – to me, entirely unexpected – bonus.

The East Coast Main Line has been through a degree of upheaval in recent years, and I believe is effectively nationalised at the moment.  As part of its move back (albeit briefly) into State ownership, the exterior of the rolling stock is being re-painted in the most hideous livery yet attempted on our liberalised railways.  The new paint-job has a pale silvery-grey background with a horizontal stripe and writing in the shade of purple normally only associated with an alcoholic’s nose.  I can only hope that this paint was going very cheap, perhaps left-over from some earlier government project, rather than that we (either the taxpayers or rail users) are paying good money for it.  Or perhaps, after all these years, every pleasing colour-combination has already been used and companies are having to use increasingly outré chromatic combinations from the furthest reaches of the Dulux colour-card.

In addition, the East Cost line recently garnered publicity (of a not entirely positive nature) when it discontinued the restaurant car service on its trains.  As a result, my hopes for snacking on the train were not high – and I had even gone so far as to prepare a packed lunch before leaving home.  How wrong I was!  Within 5 minutes of sitting down, I had already been offered a glass of orange juice and a danish pastry (an offer I was all to happy to accept).  For the rest of my journey, barely 15 minutes passed where I wasn’t provided with some new comestible item, or a beverage to ease their passage through my digestive tract.  Even better, all of this nourishment was complimentary – included within the modest cost of my ticket.  Even I, a man often accused of harbouring a tapeworm, could not have asked for more food – and that is not a sentence I get to use very often! The contrast with the offerings of our soi-disant low-cost airlines was striking.

One of the other great joys of rail travel, when I can tear my attention away from my stomach and its provisioning, is to stare out of the windows and watch the British countryside roll past.  Whilst the eastern side of the UK is not, perhaps, known for its exciting scenery – there are no great mountain ranges, canyons or cataracts – you do get to see a range of UK electricity generation facilities, cross four major rivers beginning with the letter ‘T’ and to see the sea.  As a result, I can confirm that Great Britain remains a green (and gold, at this time of the year) and pleasant land – if rather well stocked with rosebay willowherb (a plant I can only assume was introduced from North America given the fact that it has four – count ’em – four first names!).

After a slight platform shortage at York station – a place I had always considered to be very generously provided with train parking – my train ran a little late and we finally arrived into Waverley (you’ll have had your tea) some 3 minutes after the timetable suggested.  The level of apology this occasioned was extraordinary – as was the assistance to ensure that no-one missed their relatively tight onward connection to Inverness. Again, the contrast with the airlines was palpable – these never mention lateness at all, but boast to the heavens if the plane lands on time (or even early).  This boasting is despite the minutes (often tens of minutes) of taxiing that follows landing before one can disembark – and the fact that you then have a serious hike to escape the airport and a further, often extended, journey into the city which is your destination.  With my train, on the other hand, the instant we ‘arrived’ we had actually arrived and I could climb down into the heart of Auld Reekie.

Why would you travel any other way?  Truly (as I may have said before), if the Good Lord had meant us to fly he wouldn’t have given us the railways!

Serendipity?

News reaches me today from the Antipodes that watching too much television can shorten your life (I assume they have controlled for living upside down and the additional tension created by vocal pitch rising at the end of each sentence).

At the same time, it seems likely that, in response to funding cuts, the BBC will be scaling back BBC4.  As BBC4 is the mainstay of my televisual viewing, it seems that I shall be watching a lot less television in future.

A threat is revealed and then resolved in but a single day.  My plans for practical immortality (as opposed for my rather different plans for practical immorality) are back on track – I had already aced this week’s earlier reported requirement for 15 minutes of exercise per day.  I’m now jolly glad I re-organised my bookcase last week as it seems I shall be increasingly reliant on the print medium for my kicks (and the intellectual underpinning of this blog) in future and will need the extra room.

Still, for now BBC4 is still with us and last night saw the eagerly awaited return of “Only Connect” – the sole TV quiz I’m willing to watch: both for the challenge presented by its questions and the presence of Victoria Coren in the chair.  She’s enough to make a chap go quite weak at the knees (and in the morals)…

The Phantom Raspberry Grower…

of olde Sawston town (or, more accurately, village).  An homage to the Two Ronnies certainly, but more an excuse for me to boast about my green-fingered prowess (though I’ll admit I’m a tad more corporeal than your standard phantom).

Yes, today I harvested my first ever raspberry from the grounds of Fish Towers – and I can tell you it was seriously delicious.  Tomorrow, raspberry number two may be ready for my delectation.  Alright, it’s not quite commercial agriculture yet, but I would refer you to the common paraphrase of Lao-Tzu’s most famous aphorism (think steps – and not the late 90s purveyors of cheesy pop).

The Right Tool

Not a description of the author (or, not intended as such – though you may wish to draw your own conclusions) though there will be a rather limited autobiographical element to the post.  My journey into Cambridge this morning led me to muse on the importance of having the apposite tool for each occasion.

In the first incident, one of my unvoiced prayers seems to have been answered – or, perhaps this blog has a rather wider mustelid readership than I had hitherto supposed. As I was cycling towards the area in which, during the hours of darkness, I am plagued by suicidal bunnies I saw a curious moving shape.  At first I thought it was a blackbird hopping about, but then it seemed more mammalian.  As I got closer, I could weaselly see that it was a stoat – behaving as an archetypal stoat should, i.e. leaping around like a complete eejit without an apparent care in the world.  I have occasionally seen stoats before – but only at night and running rapidly across the path some distance away from me. However, this time, even as I drew along side, it did not flee into the undergrowth nor did it try and hurl itself under my wheels, like a suffragette faced with the King’s horse, but continued to play in its own little world – offering me Springwatch-quality views (though in glorious 3D) of its antics.  Given the idiocy of the local rabbit population, I think it will become a very fat stoat in very short order: for foolish as they may sometimes look and dwarfed as they may be by their prey, stoats are the perfect tool for managing an overly populous warren.  I do hope it brings along some friends (or family) to partake in the plentiful local food supply as I fear it would find leaping much harder when morbidly obese after bunny-based over-indulgence.  With my new friend in residence, I am anticipating much safer night-time cycle rides in future. Truly, nature is a wonderful thing – and I like to think that GofaDM has done its small part in enabling the exploitation of this ecological niche.

After passing the stoat I was soon able to continue my journey into town on the new guided busway – or, more accurately, on the cycle path which runs adjacent to it.  The busway is the subject of much controversy in Cambridge (but, I suspect news may not have reached the world beyond) and is very late and over-budget (though unlike the virtual trams of Edinburgh, I think most of the cost over-runs have fallen to the contractors).  I cannot comment on its use as a busway – as I have never used it as such, and only once seen a bus doing so – but the cycle path is a marvel.  Beautifully smooth tar macadam with no motorised transport (and its associated paraphernalia: junctions, traffic lights, motorists et al) getting in the way.  (The absence of heavy motorised vehicular transport should also mean that the surface remains undamaged for a good few years to come.)  The busway makes for a much swifter and more pleasant journey as far as Cambridge station for the Sawston-based cyclist.  Only two minor niggles: some of the on/off-ramps haven’t quite been finished yet and the bridge to cross the railway as you join the busway has awfully steep ramps which offer the sort of gradient with which we Cambridgeshire cyclists are far from familiar (I have had to use previously neglected gears on my bike when the wind has been against me!).  Nonetheless, the busway is an excellent tool for the cyclist – one day I shall have to try its extent beyond Cambridge to the west and sample some of the excellent pubs that lie in that direction.

Eventually, the southern portion of the busway expires as you reach Cambridge station and I was forced onto the backstreets around Mill Road.  Here I found myself stuck behind a very slow moving Ferrari – eventually, I was forced to overtake it (I did try not to smile too broadly as I did so – though I fear I may have failed abjectly).  Whilst the Ferrari may be an excellent tool on the track, it is really not at home in the crowded back streets of Cambridge.  In that domain, my velocipede, at less than a fiftieth of the upfront cost and with vastly lower running costs, is the right tool.  Not only was my mode of transport quicker, but in the morning sunshine I could work on my tan whilst the stiff nor-westerly I’d been battling against on my journey provided free air conditioning, plus I was obtaining a free cardiovascular workout (or as I like to view it, a free pass to eat as much as I want come lunch-time).

A triumvirate of appropriate apparatus anecdotes.  What more could a chap ask for?  I fear it can only be downhill from here (or, as a cyclist, should that be uphill?).