A few of my favourite strings

Back in the distant past, when a (small) part of my job was to be an IT Manager, I found the movie back-catalogue of Julie Andrews to be a fruitful source of passwords.  These days, more solid passwordage is required if I am to keep the few secrets that I haven’t already revealed to a resentful public via this blog.  Nevertheless, there is a pleasant seam of nostalgia to be mined using Ms Andrews’ ouvre for a title.

When I was up in Edinburgh last week, I did manage to fit in a couple of trips to the Queen’s Hall – to listen to some music, rather than merely to do some penance by sitting in its dreadfully uncomfortable pews.   I have some bad news for you, dear reader: there was no scotch bonnet ice-cream for sale.  According to the usherette, they were rather a slow seller and so are unlikely to return.  Apparently, my marketing efforts here on GofaDM were not enough – perhaps a major drive to boost readership is in order.  As a result, GofaDM will soon be introducing a talent contest where a panel of judges will mock various disadvantaged minorities for the entertainment of a baying public (as my research indicates this to be the formula for a sure-fire ratings hit).

Anyway, back to the music.  I have already mentioned the excellent Winterreise, which I would have described as an emotional roller-coaster (we love a cliché here) but as the “ride” was almost exclusively downhill it was more like an emotional luge (though rather warmer and with a lower risk of broken limbs).  Nonetheless, it was a stunning concert and provided a level to which my singing can aspire.  Whilst 88 strings were involved in the performance (though mayhap Mr Lewis did not strike every possible key on his pianoforte), these are not in fact the strings referred to above.

No, for last Tuesday I once again found myself in the more comfy, temporary red seats of the QH to hear the Dunedin Consort play (and sing – or could I consider that playing with the voice?) some Bach: two cantatas and a couple of Brandenburgs (no yellow and pink squares were involved, you’re thinking of Battenbergs).  The Dunedin Consort play on period instruments (though the organ was electrically powered, so some compromises were made – either that, or Michael Faraday’s breakthrough was not quite as revolutionary as we have been led to believe) which meant a much greater instrumental variety in the string section than is common nowadays.  Usually, one is limited to the standard set of violin, viola (much under-rated), ‘cello and bass – but in Bach’s time, the choice was much greater.  The concert did involve the first three of the now traditional four, but also some charming instruments that have been largely forgotten.  The Violone (or large viol, a relative of the bass), the viola de gamba (an alternative to the ‘cello and something to do with legs, if my Italian is any guide) and, mostly delightfully, the viola d’amore (the love viol).  This last instrument comes with 7 strings, and another 7 sympathetic strings – which makes for a lot of tuning I’ll be bound.  Not only did we have this great diversity of stringed instruments – they were also tuned in a great variety of ways.  The A above middle-C could be 415, 440 (current concert pitch), 460, 486 or even 392Hz depending on the instrument and piece, indeed in many pieces different parts of the orchestra were differently tuned and so playing in different keys (though always to a harmonious result).  This did somewhat blow my mind, but does offer a potential excuse if I am found to be singing off key – I shall just say I was using an historic pitch (and see if anyone is fooled).

Using period instruments also meant that the brass that is sometimes heard in the Brandenburg Concertos (yes, I’m talking to you Antiques Roadshow) was replaced by that primary school favourite: the recorder.  Not the descant so beloved of those in single figures (and so feared by their parents), but the treble (or so I think based on the size and tone – though I last played a treble back in 1977, so my memories may be a little fuzzy by now).   Period instruments produce a much more mellow, neighbour-friendly tone than their more popular modern counterparts.  In these days of ever higher population density and noise pollution, perhaps it is time for a renaissance (or baroque revival?) for these old favourites.  Apparently, there are worries about the future of guitar bands in today’s hit parade: could there be an opportunity for the viol band to fill the breach?



In my new role as a pensioner, I have felt it is incumbent on me to fight for the rights of the no longer youthful.

Passing Budgens towards the end of this last week, I found my eye drawn to the headline of that day’s Morning Star.  For a start, I was quite surprised to see a copy of such obviously socialist material on sale in such a staunchly Tory area; Sawston does, after all, lie within the constituency of the health secretary, and following this week’s news that the PM is fully behind him, I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the village in the not so distant future.  But, to return to the headline: this professed astonishment that a man of 86 could be considered a ‘terrifying extremist’.

One expects better of the Morning Star than this appalling ageism – I know of several people well-past eighty who live far more full lives than I seem able to manage (though none, so far as I know, are attempting to overthrow the state).

I don’t know about you, but I like to think that extremism is something I could practise from a bath chair, clad in tartan slippers and with a blanket over my knees.  “Terrifying” may be a more challenging adjective for the over-eighties, but given that some people are afraid of butterflies, it surely cannot be impossible.  Ancient Sparta was run by a gerontocracy, but still managed to inspire quite a bit of terror and keep the Persians out of Europe.  In more recent years both the Soviet Union and China have been run by the really quite elderly, and both managed to keep the Americans nervous while doing hideous things to significant portions of their own populations.

So, let’s see less of this putting down of those in their ninth decade.  If not, the over eighties may rise up – or more likely, organise others to rise up – to teach us the error of our ways.  If nothing else, they are forecast to become an ever larger proportion of the voting public, so we are increasingly likely to be governed by those that can appeal to the grey massive: something the Socialists among us may like to consider – perhaps Dennis Skinner, 80 this year, could give them some useful advice!

Kiwi fruit

Frosts last May mean that I am now dependent on the supermarket for my dessert apple needs.  Modern storage techniques mean that I can still buy British apples, but the range is rather diminished – with most of those that remain being rather recent additions to the canon which first grew (or were first bred) in New Zealand.

This coming week I shall be sampling the offspring of a Braeburn and a Royal Gala, the Malus cultivar known as Scifresh.  Presumably fearing that this  rather industrial name might not be appealing (or apple-ing) to consumers, they are more commonly known under the apple-ation of the Jazz apple.

Jazz is usually used as a modifier to indicate something transgressive, borrowed from its original application to music.  Jazz mags are on the borders of legality, jazz cigarettes lie somewhat beyond and jazz hands are surely never acceptable.  However, the Peelers (surely the correct term for policemen who handle apple-related wrong-doing) have not yet felt my collar, so I must assume that jazz apples remain legal, for now.  If apple cultivars are to be made illegal, might I suggest that the full force of state coercion is first brought to bear on the Golden Delicious – if nothing else, surely this sorry excuse for an apple could be banned under the Trade Descriptions Act!


The folk at Google are changing their Privacy Policies and seemed keen that I read some marketing guff they had prepared to make these changes seem to be both reasonable and for my benefit (despite neither being the likely reality).  Within the Overview they made mention of their Ads Preferences Manager, of which I had been previously unaware, so I decided to check it out.

It would seem that my preferences for advertisements delivered via Google products are derived from my on-line behaviour.  Many of these are at least plausibly linked to reality, and they have correctly deduced that I am a man.  However, rather distressingly, Google has decided that my age is 65+.  65+!  Yes, to Google I am already a pensioner.

I haven’t noticed a lot of ads for walk-in baths or funeral insurance (though, on the plus side, no salesman has called) being delivered to my browser.  However, perhaps I just missed them as I tend to ignore advertisements wherever possible (or maybe I’m becoming forgetful given my advanced on-line age).

I eagerly await my free bus pass!

Not a flyer in sight

No, I am not reporting live from Heathrow but remain in Auld Reekie. For the first time in several years, I am visiting Edinburgh away from its famous Festival and Fringe.  As a result, the streets are strangely empty of tourists, performers and their provisional, marketing wing: no-one has tried to hand me a flyer all week!

Despite the apparent entertainment vacuum, there is still plenty for a chap to do.  For a start, it has been great to catch up with old friends (by which I mean long-standing, rather than antique – though at my age, the two are becoming synonymous concepts) and their new arrivals.  And what a charming new arrival… just don’t show her a hat! (I was unable to test her opinion on the fascinator issue – jumped-up alice band or mini hat?).

For the first time ever, I saw the Forth Rail (and road) Bridge: up close and personal. There is always a risk with such an iconic star of page and screen that reality will disappoint – but not in this case.  Its sheer physical presence just can’t be captured by an image (though I, in common with many before me, have attempted to do so) – and, for the first time in many years, it is not being painted at the moment and so is scaffold-free.

In the glorious afternoon weather yesterday, I ascended to the summit of Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the stunning views (and obtain a little exercise).   As a result, I would like to suggest to Arthur that his seat could do with some work in the upholstery department – even the odd scatter cushion (normally anathema to our hero) would provide a more comfortable sitting experience.

Prior to my ascent in search of a sit-down, I visited Earthy – a splendid eatery in Causewayside – where I was furnished with the finest example of the quiche-maker’s art that has ever passed my lips: aubergine, chilli and feta were the headline ingredients, but I suspect the secret was in the fluffiness of the underlying egg-based substrate.  Possibly even more excitingly, I sampled a new vegetable – new not only to me, but also to the world (having been first reported only one year ago – almost to the day!).  This was the flower sprout the bastard love-child of kale and the brussel sprout.  Apparently, this off-spring was achieved without genetic modification – so I can only assume the “process” required huge patience, subdued lighting and a Barry White CD.  Luckily, their efforts were not wasted and the child takes after its father in taste (assuming kale was the daddy) – and is delicious served  cold with chilli and sesame seeds (and probably in many other ways too!).

There has been culture too – with the visual arts being complemented by a stunning performance of Schubert’s Winterreise at the Queen’s Hall last night.  Not many laughs compared to my traditional Edinburgh cultural fare perhaps, but some of the finest live music it has ever been my pleasure to enjoy (and at a very recession-friendly price too!).

So, if you are looking to escape the depressing winter weather of the home counties, I can thoroughly recommend a mini-break to Scotland!

Tropical Paradise

I’ve made it north of the border, despite a few minor issues with rolling stock on the way up.   The heating failed on one carriage (fortunately not mine) of the DMU carrying me to Peterborough (and the boiler did not respond to a re-boot) and someone broke the door of coach D at Northallerton.  Apparently, they had put their foor in the door to stop it closing – now that’s what I call a pushy salesman (and rather a feeble door – or an unusually sturdy foot).

As hoped, it is a tropical paradise here in the southwestern ‘burbs of Edinburgh: 6°C people!  T-shirt and shorts weather!  The inside of my house hasn’t reached such a temperature for the last week, let alone the world beyond.  Even better, I am staying in a house where they run the heating for more than 10 minutes a day, so it is quite literally like summer (only warmer and drier).

My only disappointment is that home doesn’t seem to be under several feet of snow.  I can only find one webcam even slightly near Cambridge (in the Market Square) which does show snow, but no sign of woolly mammoth or sabre-toothed tiger roaming CB1.  Even the (now Dutch) trains seem to be running more-or-less normally – which is more than can be said for their new Dutch website which is rather too red (I do hope this doesn’t extend to the trains which are currently rather restfully livered in white and grey) and decidedly erratic: unless HTTP Error 500 (Wrong kind of snow on the web?  Frozen points at the server?) is the look for which they’re aiming.  I trust their inability to run a website doesn’t bode ill for the future reliability of services to (and from) Whittlesford Parkway…

GCSE Equivalent?

I have had enough of the cold weather, and so have decided to head somewhere warmer.  Unlike most people (and creatures) from the Northern Hemisphere, I am not heading south to more traditional sources of winter warmth.  Oh no.  The path less travelled is taking me to Scotland, which is basking in much warmer temperatures than are available in arctic Cambridgeshire.

In fact, I planned this a couple of weeks ago, and today find I am planning to travel by train first thing in the morning after a full night of blizzard conditions.  I suspected that this journey may not have a happy ending, so decided to change my travel plans to beat the snow (I know it is more traditional to beat eggs, or a carpet, but how else do you think it ends up so lovely and fluffy?  Perhaps we should try “gritting” with icing sugar, as I’m sure snow meringue would offer excellent traction).

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the risk of this blog being called as a hostile witness, I like to think that I am fairly intelligent.  I try and pass myself as somewhat of an expert in arranging train travel, and in particular, how to travel in comfort without first obtaining a second mortgage on Fish Towers.  With low animal cunning I am able to break journeys into multiple tickets, alter travel times and routings, bounce between single and return tickets and first and standard class options to avoid single-handedly funding the rail network.  I have even spent more than an hour delving into the darkest recesses of the ATOC website to test valid routings, and the ability to leave the rail network part-way through my journey, to enable a weekend round trip encompassing both Lewes and Battle.  So, despite my original ticket being an Advance one, I was confident in my ability to easily alter the date of travel.  How wrong I was…

East Coast do allow you to alter your ticket on line, for a fairly modest £10 fee, as I discovered from a quick call to their web support.  This process works fine, you can rebook the ticket and make your reservations.  However, you are then told that there are no possible delivery options but that you must select a delivery option.  There seemed no escape from this paradox.

A further call to web support revealed that whilst a new ticket can be picked up from the station, an amended ticket has to be sent through the post.  I didn’t have the courage to ask why, I fear the answer would have been deeply depressing.  What a man (or woman or hyper-intelligent shade of the colour blue, for that matter) has to do is to book a brand new ticket and then call web support (again) to get the old ticket refunded (which involves mailing the old ticket to Wolverhampton for its sins).  I should imagine most punters never discover this fact, and so have to just write off the cost of the old ticket: but, luckily our hero is made of sterner (or more bloody-minded) stuff and so I have high hopes of a refund winging its way to me from the West Midlands in the coming weeks.

This week the government has decided to downgrade a number of qualifications (horse care and fish husbandry stick in the mind for some reason – I blame The News Quiz) so that they are no longer equivalent to a GCSE: good to see they are tackling the key issues affecting the country with such alacrity!  To partially counteract these losses, I would like to suggest that arranging rail travel (whilst avoiding excessive cost) should be considered at least the equivalent of a Higher National (do they still exist? or is it all NVQs now?) or even a first degree (certainly, Pure Mathematics at Oxford offered a substantially less challenging syllabus).

I’d also like to offer a shout-out to the brilliant staff at Whittlesford Parkway (which I had to visit twice this morning to try and re-arrange my travel, in addition to the three phone calls and heavy web access already mentioned).  There is only ever the one, and then only in the mornings, but they are always a joy to deal with.  I do hope they are still there (and properly treated) next week when our local trains have been taken over by the Dutch…


The mercury has plummeted this week in Sawston (well, it’s probably coloured alcohol as there are Health and Safety issues with mercury, and I am sufficiently mad already), though this is as nothing to the conditions being experienced by some of our friends in Europe.  A colleague in Munich claimed the temperature there was minus twenty, which is pretty chilly in either Centiheit or Fahrengrade.  Now, a study in Nature Geoscience seems to suggests that I might be partly to blame.

“How so?”, I imagine you asking.  Well, worry not for I bring the gift of elucidation… (and no, I haven’t wrapped it and you can’t take it back if it doesn’t fit).

Fish Towers has east-facing grounds and, at this time of year, even on those rare occasions when a little sunlight breaks through the encircling gloom, the extensive lawns are still shaded by its imposing gothic façade.  This, coupled with the recent very soggy conditions, has offered a veritable nirvana to any passing haploid spores released by members of Division Bryophyta.   So, the bowling-green grass has now largely been displaced by a variety of mosses (though I have yet to spot either Kate or Stirling).

In their new study, scientists at Exeter University have proposed that the first appearance of moss (some 470 million years ago) led to a series of mini-ice ages resulting in a significant cooling of our climate.  Apparently, moss has a voracious appetite for carbon dioxide – though I prefer something more substantial myself.

So, I fear that my failure to eliminate my own bumper crop of bryophytes is contributing to the current low temperatures.  If only it weren’t so cold, I’d go out there with a rake to scarify us back to milder weather.  Still, on the plus side, I am doing my bit to keep global warming at bay for a few extra seconds, so I shall claim my arctic apathy as a principled stand for the environment!

Wheeled epiphanies

In today’s Grauniad, or at least visible on the website today – I have yet to see a physical newspaper – there is an article about the Rev. Richard Coles.  The Reverend Coles is now a Northamptonshire vicar, and sometime host of the current Home Truth’s replacement, and was once a member of the Communards.  However, he is still best known to me from the Wildbeest Years – a Radio 4 sketch show from Dan Freedman and Nick Romero – where he played Robin Wood (the very camp leader of the Merry Men) with the catchphrase “What would you have me do?  Live a lie”.  For any other gluttons for punishment out there (and surely any readers of this drivel must be) I thoroughly recommend Dan and Nick’s work which still gains the occasional repeat on 4Xtra.

But to return to the plot, in today’s article the vicar of Finedon notes that he does much of his best thinking whilst out on his bike.  Despite my more limited belief in the big guy (or gal) upstairs, I also do some of my best thinking a-wheel – and, yes, I know my best thinking may not seem that impressive in an absolute sense given my normal cognitive level.  The solution to many a knotty problem has come to me whilst cycling around South Cambs.  This effect does not seem to happen in a car or bus, though I do often achieve cognitive peaks during live chamber music concerts (for some reason, recorded music doesn’t provide the same boost to cogitation).

I think it is high time to get our political and business leaders out on a bicycle on a much more frequent basis – it can only help boost the rather low quality of the thinking (or its complete absence) that seems to characterise their activities.  Perhaps they could also usefully provide more support to both cycling and live music (who ever had any useful thoughts at an airport? Other than to never go near an airport again): let’s get this country thinking its way out of recession!

I am about to head out for a thinking session myself – and it looks decidedly chilly out there.  Yes, after a winter characterised by Joke Frost, it looks like serious frost will be nipping at my nose this morning – and, let’s face it, I have a lot of nose for it to nip at!