No sugar on my almonds

A degree of self-awareness is generally considered a “good thing”.  So much so, in fact, that at the temple in Delphi were carved the words “Know thyself, nothing in excess” – or at least a loose translation thereof into Greek (since, let’s face it, few visitors to the oracle would have understood the modern English version I have rendered here).  Phrase-making which has stood the test of time and, indeed, translation.

I am currently reading “Mystery Man” which I have borrowed from Sawston library.  Whilst a lot of my library-based borrowing relies on the very sizeable collection held at Cambridge Central library, I do feel guilty about using my local library as little more than a glorified book drop.  As a result, I feel some obligation to find something to borrow from its rather limited shelves every so often: the whole library is not a lot larger than my drawing room and only contains marginally more books!  Luckily, whilst it has very limited stock, there is a degree of rotation and new books appear de temps en temps (or at least they are new to Sawston).   Despite this rotation, I have to be rather more adventurous with my book selections when choosing locally – which in many ways is no bad thing.  Sometimes excessive choice is not our friend as there is a tendency to choose stuff too cognate with existing taste; the same issue arises when automated filtering attempts to show us only those things which it thinks will meet with our approval (or at least it would be if the filtering processes were even remotely effective).  I have read some quite splendid books which I might otherwise never have encountered as a result of my strange moral crusade to use my local library, perhaps the cream of these was “The City and the City” by China Miéville.  The other big advantage of regular visits to Sawston library is that they sell off old stock at the very recession-friendly price of 10p per book (not something I’ve seen at the ‘Central’) – and I’ve picked up some excellent bargains over the years.

Anyway, some might consider that I have digressed a little and may be wondering when almonds will make an appearance, so I shall return to Mystery Man forthwith (never let it be said that this blog fails to respond to constructive criticism – it may be true, but there’s no need to say it).  Many years ago, I read a few books (which might be as few as two) by Colin Bateman which were fine –  but they didn’t set my imagination afire and so I hadn’t rushed to read more (and move from ‘a few’ to the dizzy heights of ‘several’).  In the intervening years, Mr Bateman seems to have discarded his forename(s) and to have joined the ranks of those who use but a single name in their professional life – not a grouping which I would wish to join myself (frankly, I struggle to think of any current members with whom I would want to be associated), but each to their own (and I suppose it would make form-filling slightly easier and provide a marginal reduction in printing costs).  Still, my library-guilt needed assuaging and options were limited, so I took a chance on “Mystery Man” by, the now somewhat nominally reduced, Bateman.

Over the period of our estrangement, it would seem that Bateman’s writing and my taste have had somewhat of rapprochement – though I wouldn’t like to say which made the first move and whether the loss of forenames is anything more than a coincidence.  I am loving the book and its extremely flawed and (thus far) anonymous hero and narrator (though I may be leaving myself something of a hostage to fortune as I’m only halfway through the book and he could yet turn out to be a serial killer, or worse).  Our (for now) hero has some splendidly trenchant views and while he appears to suffer from a wide range of mental and physical issues (can’t imagine why I like him), he does not lack self-awareness.  It is he who makes clear that there is no sugar on his almonds – a metaphor for self-awareness so fine that I have constructed this entire post around it.  Yes, we have a whole new strand (queue virtual fanfare): GofaDM now offers a metaphor sharing service to its subscribers (and these are not any metaphors, they are specially selected, GofaDM approved metaphors).

The Great Globe itself

Readers may have noticed the lack of verse which has followed my earlier threats – and may, indeed, be thanking their lucky stars for this (though, my knowledge of astronomy is insufficient to suggest which particular stars should be in line for your thanks).  Thus far, my verse had remained entirely blank – not in the sense of iambic pentameter, but rather as a description both of the paper on which it is it be written and of the mind that is to write it.

In an attempt to remedy this lamentable situation, I decided to turn to the master of blank verse: Will.iamb Shakespeare himself (who so generously provided our title).  While there are always those who will dispute whether the Bard actually penned the plays wot he wrote, with one C Marlowe coming to a premature end in Deptford in 1593 and with my chosen play not being written until 1598 I think I can be reasonably confident.  So, yesterday I hied me back to Shakespeare’s Globe to catch their production of “Much Ado about Nothing”.

I had never previously seen Much Ado in the theatre, but I had seen the acclaimed Kenneth Branagh film at the Manors in Newcastle in the early 90s.  I arrived very late for the film and so had to sit in the front row and, as a result, my main memory of the film is the frankly disturbing sight of a 20 foot-wide projection of Emma Thompson’s bosom viewed at point blank range.  Still, time is a great healer (and, as previously established, I have a mercifully poor visual memory).

The Globe production of the play blows the film (good though it is) right out of the water – it was possibly the finest theatrical production I’ve ever seen and it is hard to imagine how Much Ado could be done better.  The cast and production were brilliant and, unlike some productions of Shakespearean comedies, it was really funny.  On the basis of my very limited Global sample (2) of late 16th century theatre, I would say that Bill is very much Chris’s superior in the play-writing stakes (which I believe are run over 7 furlongs).  The three hours flew by – though the interval sped past even faster: I barely had time to scarf the obligatory tub of ice cream!

To descend into cliché (to be honest, it wasn’t far out of my way): I laughed (a lot); I cried (a bit).  All a bit embarrassing the latter, as it was in broad daylight and I usually restrict my more lachrymose moments to the privacy of Fish Towers or the encircling gloom of the cinema.  Still, mild asthma can be used to cover a multitude of sins (well, perhaps ‘a multitude’ is over-playing my hand, but red eyes and a running nose are certainly covered).

There are a handful of performances still to go and readers should make every effort to grab a ticket – though I should point out that GofaDM cannot condone the breaking of any laws in your ticket procurement process.  Well, one can’t be too careful in these post-riot days – magistrates are handing down some pretty stiff sentences, in contrast to my own rather limp offerings.

W(h)ither journalism?

I inadvertently caught a small amount of the 10 o’clock news last night – I know, I really shouldn’t be ramping my blood pressure at that time of night.  At the risk of returning to a furrow which has already seen more than its fair share of the plough (or possibly a bear, we astronomers find them so hard to tell apart), I feel a polemic coming on…

Those following the UK news may be aware that the government is intending to make changes to the planning system.  We will pause here to briefly note the irony of the words ‘government’ and ‘planning’ sharing a sentence without an odd number of negatives being involved.  I think it would be uncontroversial to say that this intention is not universally popular, with some fairly big guns lining up to oppose it.  In such circumstances, this government displays one of two responses: (A) completely ditch the policy and do something else (probably even less well thought-out, assuming that is possible) or (B) ignore the criticisms (however valid) and carry on regardless.  It would appear that on this occasion option B is to be the favoured one (or, perhaps, not to be – by the time you read this © Hamlet).

I am no expert on the planning system – one of rather few things I have in common with the current government (I did not, for example, go to Eton – I’ve never come closer than Slough – and nor am I a millionaire) – and so cannot say for sure whether the government or its critics are correct.  However, I am somewhat of an expert on the UK electricity sector and the government is also planning to make changes here.  These changes seem singularly poorly thought-out (and I may be overly generous to include the verb ‘to think’ here) and have been very well critiqued by the Energy Select Committee.  Despite this, the government has also gone with option B in this case – its fingers have been inserted very firmly into its metaphorical ears and it is saying la-la-la as loudly as possible.  As a result, I think it would be wise to start turning the heating and the lights down now, so that we will have acclimatised to sitting in the cold and dark ahead of the electricity running out (it will also be a good way to save some cash).  Now, it may be that whilst the government struggles to distinguish the mid-arm joint from the gluteus maximus in the world of energy, it is fully competent elsewhere – however, I suspect that its incompetence is relatively equally distributed across the entire range of its activities (perhaps with some local maxima – certainly, this would be an accurate description of my own incompetence).  Whilst I may seem to be picking on the current government, I am not convinced it is any more incompetent that its predecessors – just more topical.  Be that as it may, given my suspicions about the distribution of incompetence in policy making, I am forced to rely on the fourth estate to explain the potential changes to the planning system, their likely impact and any issues or unintended consequences which may arise.  As the regular reader may have guessed, last night’s news served up only the bitter gruel of disappointment to those hoping for the sweet nourishment of such enlightenment.

The full extent of the journalism related to the planning system – as displayed on the news – seemed to comprise the following:

  • skimming a government press release,
  • finding the most virulently opposed organisation and garnering a quote from them (likely also from a press release) – this provides ‘balance’ apparently,
  • writing a short ‘piece to camera’ based on these two documents,
  • hiring a helicopter, and
  • giving the piece to camera whilst flying over some fields in the aforementioned paraffin budgie.

Now, I know some people don’t get out much, but surely almost everyone has seen a field – if not, the BBC must have many acres of stock footage (can you have an acre of footage?  Or is something awry with the dimensionality?) of fields: perhaps more such acreage then the country has fields!  Surely Countryfile must have something?  Using such footage would have saved the time and cost involved in hiring a helicopter – and then this time and money could perhaps have been used to actually understand the changes proposed to the planning system and then explain the key features (along with any potential issues) to the great unwashed (within which camp I include myself).  This process used to be called journalism and was quite popular back in the day – but now seems to have fallen into disuse.  To be honest, I am quite capable of reading two press releases for myself (and, if pushed, cutting-and-pasting them together) – and, given the budget, could probably hire a helicopter (I do have very modest form in the field) – and so really don’t need someone else to do it for me.  In fact, having written the odd press release in my time, I really wouldn’t advise anyone to use them as their primary source of information about the world: they are written to a rather specific brief, which is rarely to spread enlightenment.

In this time of belt tightening – of the type traditionally associated with the magical bifurcation of a glamorous assistant, but without the subsequent re-assembly associated with the conjuror – would this not be an excellent opportunity to cut back on pointless but expensive travel and helicopter hire and return to the much cheaper virtues of actual journalism?  We might even produce a better informed and more engaged electorate as a consequence and, in the very long term, some rather better thought-out legislation.  But, I suspect this is never going to happen: I rather fear the last things to be cut from the news budget will be the pointless live pictures of a ‘journalist’ standing in a vaguely relevant location and overblown computer graphics which will still be standing long after the last vestiges of ‘news’ have fled.

Three rounds blank

I am an intermittent user of Twitter – I have managed to produce 18 tweets (as I believe the idiom goes) since starting an account back in May (well, there were no nuts to gather – not in this hemisphere anyway).  This shows significantly more commitment than I have to Facebook, which I contrive to visit annually (but not much more than that).

I don’t really understand Twitter: I have heard of, but never used, a ‘hash tag’ (I am assuming that it’s a label to identify a dish traditionally made with corned beef).  I have had one ‘mention’ and have managed to construct a vaguely cogent reply (in my opinion at least).  Retweeting, searches and lists remain a foreign country.  However, in a rare feat of technical mastery on my part, I have managed to link my Twitter ‘feed’ to this blog, where it appears as Condensity, thus sparing any Twitter-phobic readers the need to actually use Twitter whilst still receiving my sub-142 character attempts at humour.  The Bard of Avon put the words “brevity is the soul of wit” into the mouth of Polonius, a man who, like myself, was not given to shortness of expression – let’s just say, I steer well clear of arrases.  This may be a necessary condition for wit, but as I think Condensity ably demonstrates it is not a sufficient one.  True wit requires more than an isolated soul to be effective – some sort of flesh-based veil is also needed as an absolute minimum.

I follow a handful of folk, and am in turn followed by the contents of an even smaller hand (and one of those seems to be a clothing company: then again, I am a style icon to many – no sniggering at the back!).  Whenever I use it, Twitter offers me a triumvirate of people it suggests I add to those I already follow – yet another example of cyber-bullying, and one which I have largely resisted.  Those suggested tend to be professional comedians which may well be an attempt by the Twitter authorities to improve the quality of my input (passive-aggression is not limited to glove puppets!).  However, today it has suggested that I follow Cheryl Cole.  Oh, the shame of it!

I can’t help wondering where I have gone wrong in life to cause Twitter to think that this suggestion would meet with any measure of positive approbation.  I have looked back through my tweets, but they do not appear to show even the slightest interest in celebrity culture, WAGs or musically-limited female singing ensembles of recent years (or, even, come to that, cloakroom-based assault).  I can but hope it was some sort of software-glitch – or I may have to do a Reggie (Perrin that is, not Kray – I have no real taste for violence or the East End).

The title?  Obvious surely.  A brief extract from Rudyard Kipling’s “Follow me ‘ome” which seemed somewhat apposite to today’s symposium, marking in this case the death of my self-respect (though in the original, the death of a soldier).

Letter spray

Letters – in the form of the elements of the alphabet, rather than those items delivered in ever diminishing quantities by the Royal Mail – have been much on my mind lately.

This might be explained by the increased emphasis placed on my vocal production of letters during my singing lessons.  I previously liked to imagine that, as  a child partly raised by Radio 4 in the 70s, my diction was pretty good when I make the effort – obviously, in normal speech it is rather poorer as quality is sacrificed on the altar of quantity.  There is also a strange temptation when singing to produce some very odd pronunciations: well, there is for me.  How else could one explain my attempt to rhyme ‘mountain’ with ‘rain’ (especially given that the relevant rhyming word, in the song that was suffering my extraordinary rendition at the time, was ‘fountain’)?  However, even when avoiding this particular group of pitfalls (I blame an inate tendency to over-act), there are definite issues with my diphthongs.  The letter ‘O’ seems most problematic – in its ‘əʊ’ phoneme (as in Hove, actually) my mouth tends to the wrong shape and when joined to other vowels an unwanted ‘W’ joins the party.  I also have a problem when a word ends with a final voiced consonant when, unless assiduously monitored, my voice tends to reduce pitch – though this is perfectly acceptable in normal speech.  Assuming this tendency is common in the general population, would requiring all sentences by an Australian speaker to end in a voiced consonant compensate for the rising pitch which otherwise transforms their every utterance into a question?  I feel this is crying out for an experiment –  I just need to find someone (or better somemany) from Oz willing to participate…

Thinking about letters and singing (in its broadest possible context) led me to ponder the spellings used by many of our current popular music performers in their stage names or the titles of their compositions…

It has been long established that the letter ‘K’ is funny, though to my shame I am unable to name the scientist whose pioneering work led to this discovery.  In addition to its contribution to the world of comedy, it seems to have almost entirely replaced the letter ‘C’ in the monikers used by artists in the genres of hip-hop and R&B (and probably many others with which I am even less familiar).  In a similar fashion, the always voiced letter ‘Z’ has replaced the only sometimes voiced ‘S’.  The letter ‘X’ is also popular: sometimes replacing ‘KS’ or ‘CKS’ or appearing in its own right, but without the usual bodyguard provided by ‘E’ or ‘E’ and ‘C’.  Perhaps this is a further manifestation of the very low regard in which the letter ‘C’ is held by this particular ‘musical’ community.

So, K(5), X(8) and Z(10): good; C(3), E(1), and S(1): bad.  I think there is only one conclusion we can draw: viz, that these modern artists are Scrabble addicts always striving for a higher word score.  I would also anticipate high usage of Q(10) and J(8) (and perhaps use of pink and pale blue squares?) – but sadly my knowledge of the relevant musical genres is too limited to know if this is the case (and, frankly, I am unwilling to suffer in the name of research to fully confirm my hypothesis).  Can any of the legions of MOBO fans who read GofaDM help?

And the title?  A gratuitous pun – though I do like to think of you as my flock and this blog as a form of preaching.  Sadly for you, unlike a traditional sermon, my posts are not normally limited to one a week.