Closer to the music

I’m just returned from an evening spent in seat A12 at the West Road Concert Hall.  I’m not sure whether my seat was named in honour of a really tiny piece of paper or a really massive German automobile (or I suppose it could conceivably relate to the road to Great Yarmouth: one of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s less successful movies.  Did Mr Crosby have an estranged brother called Google by any chance?).

I am now wondering for what x would Ax be either a piece of paper as small as an atom or an Audi as big as the world?  I suppose I could work out the answer to the former, but it’s late and the force of apathy is strong.

Anyhow, I seem to have become distracted.  Seat A12 was so close to the Endellion String Quartet that I could have page turned for the cellist.  One of the joys of concert-going in Cambridge is that one can often be very much closer to the action than in London.  It is very much like HD television, in that you can see every wrinkle on the performers (or, given the youth of many, the lack thereof) and every scuff on their instruments (and, indeed, their shoes).

Last night, I got to be “up close and personal” with the soloist in Arutunian’s Trumpet Concerto (C6, since you ask – a modest envelope or large Citroen).  This was quite interesting as you can normally barely see the brass section, hidden as they are behind an ocean of strings.  (Is ocean the right group noun for strings?  Perhaps a pluck or bow of strings?  A cheese?).  Matt Letts, for it was he, was really very impressive (not something I’d expected to say about a trumpeter – well, unless they were an elephant).  Being close also illustrated what a physical process playing the trumpet is – I’m sure all that back pressure in the head can’t be good for you!

Talking of elephants and the trumpet reminds me of a very old joke. I used to play Bridge with an elephant (it’s a joke, so you needn’t be concerned that a pachyderm would probably struggle with the finer points of Acol or Blackwood), but every time I played an ace she used to trumpet!

Look, I never said it was good – just old – and I suppose it does rather ignore the option of No Trumps.  But hey, this is free – if you want quality, you may have to start paying!


Frugal Decadence

Whilst this blog may have given the impression that I have a taste for the finer things in life, in truth, my tastes are relatively modest.  Whilst I enjoy the occasional meal of the standard oft associated with a tyre manufacturer from the Auvergne, I wouldn’t want it everyday – and, when indulging, I operate within quite a strict budget.  Truth be told, a significant part of me still thinks of cherry pie filling as the height of luxury – yes, life was hard in the 1970s!  Now, I could probably afford to eat cherry pie filling every day, but haven’t even tried it since becoming an adult – I fear eating it now would somehow adversely affect my childhood memories, and that it would certainly be a disappointment.  However, in many areas my tastes remain pretty cheap to satisfy.

Last night I took myself to Ely to attend a concert at the cathedral.  Whilst I go to quite a lot of concerts, most are really very cheap – one of the advantages of child (well, student) labour! – and this one came as part of a season ticket making it even cheaper.  As I don’t really enjoy driving, and like it even less in the dark and still less when I’m going to an unfamiliar location and have to find somewhere to park, I let the train take the strain.  This does involve a change of train in Cambridge – but takes only marginally longer than driving would (at least according to Google, though I wasn’t convinced they had taken account of crossing Cambridge on a Saturday evening in the run-up to Christmas).

On arriving at Ely station, I discovered that the location of the cathedral seemed to be a secret.  Signposts indicated many of the delights that Ely can offer the visitor – but no mention at all of its most famous landmark, unless it was included under the rather vague description of “Visitor Attractions”.  How the mighty have fallen!  Perhaps this cryptic signposting was an attempt to encourage visitors to the City to try some of its other attractions?  If so, it failed for me as the cathedral is quite large – and so can at times be seen from a distance – and I knew it was uphill (and in this part of the Fens, there is only the one hill!).

At the cathedral I saw my second Verdi Requiem of the year (and, indeed, my life) – in an even larger, more impressive venue than the last! (I’m not sure where I’ll have to go for my third…)  The cathedral seemed rather warmer than the streets of Ely, and was packed with warm bodies, so I decided to remove my coat for the concert: otherwise I’d not feel the benefit on my departure.  This turned out to be a bit of a mistake – Ely cathedral has physically very impressive heaters, but sadly they are rather less impressive when their heat output is taken into account (though if you are less than a foot away, you can feel some warmth).  The Requiem lacks an interval, so there was no chance to correct my clothing error – so by the end, I was really quite chilly.  Luckily, I had been to Ely once before in winter – so I had a plan!  But a brief stroll from the cathedral – on a route back towards the station – lies the Fountain Inn.  This offered me a reviving pint of Woodforde’s Wherry, a packet of rather superior salt and cracked black pepper crisps – and even more important: a roaring open fire.  I do wonder if the Good Lord gave us cold weather purely for the joy that an open fire and a pint of bitter can then bring – and all for less than a fiver.  It had been too long since my last pint of Wherry – which might even have become my favourite bitter since the sad demise of Butterknowle Conciliation – certainly, it slipped down very nicely.  Sadly, no time for a second (I like Wherry, but not enough to miss the last train) – but as the winter approaches, perhaps I need to find excuses to visit Ely of an evening (or find a local source of flames and Wherry).

As on the way out, my home journey was broken at Cambridge station – and another chance to check out work on our exciting new platform!  (Not long to wait now).  This gave me time for a steaming hot, waxed paper cup of hot chocolate – yet more decadence!  Another inexpensive, guilt-free pleasure afforded to the traveller on these cold evenings.  Thus fortified, I was delivered back to Whittlesford Parkway and my velocipede for a bracing – and wind-assisted – ride back to Fish Towers.

A thoroughly enjoyable, slightly decadent and extremely economical night out.  It also illustrated the joys of slow travel: had I driven, I’d have missed out on beer, fire and cocoa – much to the evening’s detriment.  If only there were a local source of glühwein and pâtisserie somewhere on my travels, I could fully embrace slow travel and make the most of my waiting times.

What’s in a name?

A rose, famously, would smell as sweet even with a different moniker – though I am uncertain whether Shakespeare’s hypothesis has ever been put to the test.  I do have some friends with very young children, so perhaps one would be amenable to always referring to roses as “thargs” in their offspring’s presence and see whether this affects their later olfactory enjoyment of the bloom.  However, I suppose that would only produce a single piece of anecdotal evidence – I’d really need to recruit an entire cohort of the very young and even then double-blinding the study would be near impossible.  OK, let’s just take Will’s word for it.

You should, by now, be aware that, among many other things, I am referred to as The Spicy Fish (if not, you really should be paying more attention to these musings).  An anodyne enough appellation I would have thought – surely there is nothing offensive about spice, fish or the definite article – but Microsoft would beg to differ.

De temps en temps, when registering for some on-line service or another, I eschew the name which my parents bestowed on me all those years ago – and by which I am known to the machinery of the British State – in favour of a more “fun” identity.  I tried doing this with Microsoft’s Zune music service – but apparently The Spicy Fish breaches some policy on taste or decency relating to user names.  I recognise that I may be slow to take offence (or offense or, indeed, a fence) but I’ve been racking my brain for some time and can still see nothing problematic in The Spicy Fish.  Even grouping the letters in an unusual way or searching for embedded words (à la Scunthorpe) has yielded nothing.  I can create a mild swear word via anagram – but this would be true of any words including both “S” and “I” that follow a definite article, so it surely can’t be this.

So, as a result of this mysterious intransigence by Microsoft, I have been forced to come up with a new (though homophonous) “secret” identity.  So, from now on I will be known as “The Spy C Fish”.  Not sure yet for what the “C” will stand: I could use the Welsh form of my middle name, Cennydd – but does that have the right feel for a man steeped in the murky world of espionage?  Whilst Courtney would clearly be funny, it is entirely unsuitable for the secret service’s finest.  I think the search goes on…

Nevertheless, the scene with Goldfinger and a laser does work quite nicely for my new alias (NB: Please read with the appropriate accents to heighten your reading pleasure):

The Spy C Fish:  Do you expect me to talk?

Auric Goldfinger:  No, Mr Fish.  I expect you to fry!


I talk not of any candidates for the substance of dark matter – though I have been reading about them recently – but of your electronic interlocutor.  Whilst I may be weakly interacting, that is down to my limited social skills rather than any inability to affect electromagnetic radiation – I am, in fact, reflecting, absorbing and scattering it even as I type (and they say men can’t multi-task!).  Nor am I a particle (and so have no fear of the triangle – and there may be a small prize for anyone who – without the aid of internet search – (a) understands that allusion and (b) is willing to admit it) and I do not consider myself especially massive – though I realise the later is very much a matter of your point of view.

No, I refer to my rather limited panoply of the more traditional manly attributes.  I have previously alluded to my need to dash away a less than manly tear at the cinema or theatre – and now admit that this weakness extends to the opera (only once, and La Traviata is quite sad) and the radio, television and books.

However, I don’t, in general, consider myself to be especially squeamish – to be honest, I don’t even know what a squeam is.  I tend not to watch the myriad of hospital dramas that infest our screen not out of any fear of the sight of blood – I’ve seen my own often enough, gushing out of my arm into a small plastic bag – but due to a lack of interest in the genre.  So, when I sat down on Sunday night to watch Michael Mosley’s new 2-part series “Frontline Medicine” I had no reason to fear.  I’ve watched his medical series before – and even made it through his excellent “History of Surgery” with barely a qualm.

Truly, pride cometh before a fall.  Within five minutes I was forced to the adult equivalent of hiding behind the couch – in my case, standing behind the bookcase concentrating on the ironing (the couch is too low, and it backs directly onto the wall).  Even “watching” thus insulated from any sight of the screen, the sound track alone was sufficient to make me decidedly queasy on more than one occasion.  In fact, I seemed decidedly more queasy than a lad whose foot had been mostly blown off by an IED.  Despite my rather eccentric mode of viewing the programme was fascinating and horrifying, depressing and uplifting in equal measure.  Some of the injured required 150 units of blood – nearly 50 years of normal donation for a chap like me – which does make me wonder where they obtain so much blood?  For the interested, O neg is the most useful as it can be given to anyone – my own A pos satisfies only a rather more limited market.

The physical injuries that the quality of medical care rendered survivable was truly extraordinary.  The injured (and, as yet, uninjured) did seem to be uniformly young: the sort of age I normally see wandering around the university or wowing me with their musical prowess – and I suspect the same is true for the enemy combatants as well, though I doubt they are offered much in the way of medical care by their “sponsors”.  I fear it is all too easy for the idealism of the young to be used by their elders – and not always for very laudable ends.  Sadly, it remains far easier – and oft seems more popular – to injure and maim than it does to heal.

Still, as I said the programme was far from unremittingly depressing, in many ways it was a story of heroism, quiet determination and great skill – and as so often with war, lessons are learned that will benefit “normal” life.  It would just be so much better if we could learn these lessons via less pain and suffering.  Next week, will be looking at rehabilitation – so I hope I may be able to return from behind the bookcase to a more typical viewing position (for a start, I’ve not got an hour of ironing – and, before you ask, I’m not offering to take any in!).


Saturday night offered me music fit for an Elector – specifically the Elector of Saxony in 1610: one Christian II – the one time owner of rather a fine rapier, which now finds itself in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (they are a little coy as to how).  As a neophyte singer myself, I attempted to pay more than usual attention to the Esterhazy Chamber Choir as they delivered the works of Hans Leo Hassler and his contemporaries, in the hope of picking up tips should I have to sing in German or Latin.  Certainly, I will be careful not to fudge my choice of definite article in the lingua franca of Dresden – it is very much a case of der or die (or, I suppose, das).

Tuesday also provided a veritable smorgasbord of musical offerings.  The weakest came first with my weekly singing lesson (or, as my diary has it, sining lesson – Freud and his slips are alive and well, chez Poisson).  I still struggle to control my body’s natural rigidity (it tends to resemble two short planks, assembled one on top of the other to resemble one long plank) – but my rendition of “Where’er you walk” from Semele is now starting to vaguely resemble the work written by Herr Handel.  With a bit of luck, I will be ready for the centenary of its first Cambridge stage performance in 1925.  Apparently, the opera caused a bit of a scandal when first performed with its secular theme (at least considered from the Christian viewpoint) and explicit content of a sexual nature.  Yes, I am studying X-rated opera (or at least X-rated in 1744 – probably considered safe for CBeebies by now).

Next came the regular Tuesday lunchtime concert – but this week it was with the Britten Sinfonia rather than the traditional student performers.  This meant that at least some of the musicians were my senior (or perhaps my contemporary, but having endured a particularly long paper round in their youth) and all had finished full-time education.  The programme began with a Till Eulenspiegel for our times – very much einmal anders (another way).  Strauss’ piece normally requires an orchestra of over 100 and takes 15 minutes – but this “budget” version took only 5 players and a mere 8 minutes (1500 person-minutes reduced to a mere 40!).  If only Franz Hasenöhrl were still counted among the living, he could apply his talents to similar cost-cutting in other spheres.  Recession would be but a distant memory with such massive productivity gains.

The second piece by Charlie Piper, a composer substantially my junior, was based on impressions of the hypnogogic state – or so I deduce from the composer’s own notes.  It was very successful as it did lead me to the Borderlands of sleep (in a good way, I hasten to add).  The concert will be broadcast at some later date on Radio 3, and I must acquire a recording as I think this piece could well be the answer to my insomnia (or at least an answer).

However, it is the final piece which returns me fully to our title.  This was Max Bruch’s septet – lost for many years (132 in fact) – but well worth re-discovering.  This was written by Bruch when he was 11 (eleven!).  I fear if any of my work from 1977 is found in 2109, it will not make for a comfortable comparison.  I thought I was used to being eclipsed by the local students and by many a classical composer (let’s face it, quite a number had been dead for several years by the time they reached my age) – but to be so comprehensively out-matched by an 11 year old and not even Mozart but, the decidedly less-famed for his precocity, Bruch.  A chap could start to feel terribly inadequate – I really need to start some achieving smartish.

More music in the evening with Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski.  Not only some splendid piano playing but also, and a first for me at a piano recital, some Macedonian folk singing from the pianist as well.  Quite complex rhythmically, and linguistically, so I’ll probably stick to the English classics for now…

Still, after my recent gorging on culture, I think I’ll restrict my intake to that provided by the yoghurts of the Yeo Valley for the next few days: I don’t want to take any risks with addiction or overdose.

Christmas is coming

“So what!”, I hear you ask, “Christmas is always coming (and going): it is just a feature of having a repeating calendar.”

Have I perhaps been observing a goose and am growing concerned about its incipient obesity?  No – nothing so traditional.

Have I seen Easter goods or the start of the summer sales in our retail outlets?  Probably, but have fortunately blanked them from my mind.

No, it was the weekend before last when I cycled into Cambridge, and even towards the end of Sunday afternoon found it was still rather challenging to access my preferred cycle park as the queue of traffic into the nearby car park was blocking the surrounding roads for some hundreds of yards.  This is a clear indicator that the important commercial message of Christmas has not been forgotten – even in these difficult times.  Surely, a source of comfort to those who support a traditional festive season.

Yesterday, I was in central London and so saw the Christmas lights in both Regent and Oxford Streets (all I needed was Bond Street and I could start thinking about houses or a hotel).  I think Regent Street was going with a spider’s web motif – the spider being an animal traditionally associated with Yuletide.  (I had thought this was sarcasm on my part, but apparently it really is traditional in Germany – the source of many of our Christmas traditions).  Oxford Street seems to have accepted that a white Christmas is very unlikely in London, and that a wet Christmas is much more probable.  The street is thus decorated with a combinations of Xmas presents and umbrellas!

Subject matter aside, both sets of lights were quite tastefully done – I’ve seen far worse in the same streets in years gone by.

I fear I must face up to the impending Winterval (a rather lovely word, much maligned by hysterical polemics in some of our press, who tend to view facts as being something best avoided when preparing a story) rather than hoping that ignoring it will cause it to go away.  My attempts to starve it of the oxygen of publicity have proven totally ineffective.  So tomorrow, I shall grab an umbrella, garnish it with spiders’ webs, and head to East Sussex to enjoy a Christmas Mass as it might have been in 1610.  Never let it be said that I’m living in the past!  Au contraire, I have to travel!


Possibly the finest meal between the 10 o’clock, post-breakfast snack and the cook’s “perks” consumed while lunch is being prepared around noon.

Today is sponsored by the number eleven – well, it is for those of us using the Gregorian calendar and base ten – with many becoming rather over-excited by its prevalence within today’s date.  However, given that the base year for our dating system, the start of the year and the start of each month are all effectively arbitrary choices, it is hard to see how the date can have any real significance.

Curiously, the number eleven seems a popular choice of team size for sports developed (or so we like to claim) in these fair isles.  I am at a loss to explain why this particular prime number has been so favoured – nor why the heirs to William Webb-Ellis found it to provide insufficient players once you were permitted to handle the ball.

M-Theory suggests that eleven is the total number of dimensions required to make a universe – though this remains far from proven today (seven are currently missing, assumed to be folded up very small – or perhaps down the back of a sofa somewhere).  So, it seems unlikely that cosmology can have acted as an inspiration to those who first codified our more popular team sports in the 19th century.

I can only assume that the use of eleven players was another arbitrary choice – maybe the committee writing the rules were feeling a little peckish and were subconsciously influenced by the need for some cake (or biscuits) and a cuppa in the longueur between breakfast and lunch.  I think Freud may have rather under-estimated the influence of cake on human behaviour (he seemed rather obsessed with our baser instincts), or am I over-generalising from my own motivations?

Ooh. Aah.

If anyone is expecting a post relating to a French footballer most noted for kung-fu and elliptical musings about seabirds following trawlers, they should go to the back of the class now.  If I didn’t strongly suspect it had been outlawed, I would be preparing conical headwear emblazoned with the letter associated with (Walter) Mitty for their use (D for Mitty?).

They would have made two mistakes, the second being the metronome setting they imagined as they read the title.  They would have been thinking allegro (and staccato) whereas I was thinking largo (and legato).  However, despite the lapse into Italian this post does not relate to my illustrious singing career – though my vocal exercises do involve attempts to produce these two pure vowel sounds.

Quick reference to a calendar will reveal the true context for today’s title.  On Saturday evening last, I tramped up the hill to the north of Fish Towers in the fog – no, not to fetch a pail of water – to celebrate a failed attempt to violently overthrow the (admittedly repressive) government of these isles.  More recent attempts to remove the UK government by explosion have yet to attain a similar celebration – perhaps more time is needed?

Despite the damp, a roaring bonfire was in evidence (equally the match of the Great Fire of Sawston) – though no sign of anyone being burnt in effigy by the time I arrived.  We were also provided with a very full 30 minutes of fireworks – which is not bad for a free village display in these dire economic times.  The light from the higher flying fireworks was somewhat diminished by the fog, but the display still offered a large scale demonstration of the quantised nature of electron energy levels in the atom.  Very much the flame test of O-level chemistry writ large!  I do wonder if I was the only person at the display thinking this…

A small group, standing beside me, did say “Ooh” and indeed “Aah” as tradition dictates, though seemed worried that they were the only ones doing so.  They had also brought glasses and a bottle of rosé to the event – which showed excellent planning skills, though I would have thought a full-bodied red (or something mulled?) might have been more appropriate.  Is there a recommended wine to consume with fireworks?  The web seems to offer little guidance to those in search of such etiquette advice – perhaps I’ve found a niche?

The following day, I happened to catch the weather forecast on BBC Television.  This was given by a chap called Chris Fawkes – and, indeed, he was much in evidence on the following days.  Was his selection related to the events of November the 5th?  Did he have to be kept hidden in a secure location until 6/11 to avoid any “incidents”?  Or was he brought out in celebration of his infamous forebear’s failed insurrection?  Does the Met Office keep a range of “seasonal” weather presenters?  Was Michael Fish used on Fridays for any Catholic viewers?  I, for one, would have loved to hear the late, great Valentine Dyall offering his view of the weather to come in mid-February.  It might not have been romantic, but boy would it have had gravitas!

Berkshire Baking

The Berkshire town of Eton (once of Buckinghamshire, but I believe they were outbid by Berks in a notorious transfer deal back in the 70s) is best known for its school, the eponymous college.  However, it should also be known for its bakery which produces a loaf of unsurpassed quality.

Over the years, many have sampled the local bread and been amazed by its excellence – but, due to a quirk of fate, have later been unable to recall this fact.  So, the secret of the Eton bakery remains inviolate and the town continues to be most famous for its public school.

Perhaps, the Thames holds some distant kinship with the Lethe and the water used in the baking delivers a superlative flavour coupled with a strange amnesia – but that may just be idle speculation on my part.  I suspect we will never know the true reason for this curious phenomenon.  All I can say for certain is that “Eton bread is soon forgotten”.

Raw work

Such is my apathy that this blog has never strayed from the default font which forms a part of the Twenty Ten theme (slightly outdated perhaps, but I like to imagine it creates feelings of nostalgia).  I don’t even know its name – though I have occasionally been emboldened to use its italic form (or emitaliced to use its bold one).

In fact, to be honest, I have no idea how to change the font – but that does not prevent me from speculating about the possibilities.

Were I to use saltier language, or if I were to try and reproduce the speech of Gordon Ramsay, I feel I should switch to a cursive font.  If writing about delivery, then I would choose Courier. For a piece about operatic solos, my first choice would be Arial whilst a discussion of neutrality would call for Helvetica.

I’m not quite sure what a style of print has to do with the washing away of sin, but I assume that a 14th century church would use a Gothic font.  And surely, someone must have named a typeface Baptismal?  If not, I wish to claim the name now – I’ll work on the graphical element later.  It would be the ideal font to use for the work of P G Wodehouse, if nothing else (though my copy of the Jeeves Omnibus is set in the rather Germanic sounding “Ehrhardt”).