Fetch my tartan blanket

and some German toffees to offer to the kiddies in a slightly sinister fashion (well, that ad always makes me think of The Boys from Brazil).  Yes I am now officially well into middle-age and heading for OAP-status (though that is moving away from me quite rapidly under the current government: so it may be quite a wait for my pension book and bus pass).

I must come clean and admit that this morning I bought a hanging basket.  No-one forced me, and it didn’t even strike me that a Rubicon had been crossed until I was filling the basket with compost this afternoon.  It was only then that my lost youth briefly awoke to express its horror at what had become of me.  In my defense, I would like to stress that this basket will not contain gaudily coloured annuals: I remain firm against the siren voices of the petunia and French marigold (for now, at least).  No, I like to think that its purchase was an entirely practical response to possession of only a small garden: when you run out of space in the first two dimensions, it’s time to move into the third!  I did consider using the past as a location to plant my strawberries (an excellent choice if you don’t want to wait for a crop) but my experiments in temporal mechanics have yet to bear much fruit (nor, yet, have my recently planted strawberries, despite their abundance of gravitational potential energy).  If string theorists could exhibit even one of the seven extra dimensions they claim to need (I’m all for simplifying the maths, but seven seems like an extravagance to me), I could have planted them there – but, as to date they seem to have achieved the same degree of practical success as I have with my time rotor, my only option was to exploit the z-axis.

Talking of the onset of old age, I think I may have had my first funny turn yesterday (about time, I hear you comedy starved readers of GofaDM crying).  I was bending down (never a wise thing at my age) dead-heading the clematis (oh yes, it’s like the last days of the Roman Empire at Fish Towers) and then stood up: with modest alacrity, but not that quickly (I don’t – and never have – done anything that quickly, except talk).  This left me quite light-headed for several seconds – so much so, that I was unable to see properly and as a result my secateurs were quite unable to make contact with the head I wished to render dead.  Fortunately this passed rapidly and before I removed one (or more) of my fingers, but it was a very curious experience: nothing was quite where my brain claimed it was.  I can only assume that my blood was unavoidably detained elsewhere (Frozen points at East Croydon perhaps?  Possession of a beard and tan in a built-up area?) and so unable to fully service my head’s exorbitant demands for oxygen.  Or maybe it was just a response to the unfamiliar heat, sunshine or a dearth of recent snacks making their way by slow peristalsis to their place of digestion?  I chose to believe the last of these and that this was my body’s way of saying that the time had just passed cake o’clock (though, in the interests of full disclosure, I should make clear that this is my first interpretation of pretty much any omen I encounter).

The Joy of Ambiguity

One of the most enjoyable elements of my last (and first) OU Day School was the Philosophy session. As well as covering modus ponens and modus tollens deduction (which became trivial as soon as I converted them to mathematical logic) it also involved analysing a number of short pieces of text taken from the real world.  Each of these were, at least partly, ambiguous and could yield two or more interpretations, e.g. “Trousers only cleaned on Saturdays”.  Often the absence of punctuation was to blame, though English as a language does lend itself rather nicely to ambiguity. This may help explain both the distinctive humour of the English and the prevalence of lawyers in the Anglo-Saxon world (all the less surprising given their hostility to the humble comma – and the profitable use to which that profession is able to put even the slightest ambiguity.  Just ask Jarndyce, or indeed, Jarndyce).

The joy of ambiguity was brought home to me as I wandered, slightly aimlessly, around a Marks and Spencer’s Simply Food in search of sustenance.  I always feel these stores are slightly mis-named as it is far from simple to find anything given the use of a singularly obscure filing system for their stock.

I was rather pleased with the spinach when I eventually rooted it out from its place of concealment.  It was described on the packet as “young large spinach” which makes a nice change from the usual “baby spinach” or just plain “spinach”.  I guess even the giants of the spinach world must have a childhood and it is then that Mr Marks (or Mr Spencer) harvest them before they reach spinach puberty and become surly and uncommunicative.

However, it was an offer I spied whilst queuing for the till that really caught my eye.  A product entitled “60% Peruvian Chocolate” was being sold at a discount.  I don’t know if Peruvian chocolate is particularly good, the Swiss and Belgians seem to garner most of the press coverage, though I believe cocoa does hail from their neck of the woods which might be a good sign.  Sadly my knowledge of Peru extends little further than the llama, serious masonry and marmalade sandwiches (an interest in pre-Columbian civilisations and Paddington bear will only take you so far).  Putting aside the 60% for a moment, it was the other 40% that most concerned me.  My interest in this cocoa-based treat is going to be very strongly predicated on the composition of these mysterious two-fifths.  If they were stem ginger or dried cherries, then I might be tempted; but on the other hand were they comprised of breeze block or polonium 210 (the isotope with a hole in the middle) then it’s hard to imagine any level of discount which would attract my cash.  Or should I have assumed that the other 40% was also chocolate, but from a source less worthy of mention than Peru?

As a result of this disquietude, I declined the free chocolate offered to me as I paid for my goods: there was no suggestion of a Latin American origin but you can never be too careful, even in M&S.  Still, ambiguity is usually a source of fun allowing as it does the more playful reader to deliberately choose the wrong interpretation for (allegedly) comic effect, as on Wednesday night when passing a pub advertising “FISH SPECIALS” my mind conjured an image of an aquatic Two-Tone tribute band.

Electronic era etiquette

New electronic ways to communicate and share one’s life with the world at large seem to be created every day.  I largely fail to keep up with most of these: let’s face it I still think Pinterest is a degree of fascination with a transcendental number derived from the geometry of the circle.

The vast majority of my engagement with the world of social media (I’m still waiting for a ring) rests with this very blog.  I suspect I am drawn to its more pedagogic format: you may like to imagine me in gown and mortar-board speaking from behind a desk on a raised dais.   I do occasionally dabble in Twitter and Facebook, but mostly as an outlet for material too brief, too transient or of such poor quality than even I’d be embarrassed to make it into a post.  This dabbling has been exacerbated by ownership of a mobile ‘phone which permits me to share such material when out-and-about: the ‘phone may be smart, but the operator is as limited as ever.

Twitter seems to me like a one-to-many version of the old SMS text, though does not seem to have acquired the same degree of vowel elision.  Of course, trying to fit your message into a minimum number of characters is nothing new.  The telegram, and I assume the telegraph before it, encouraged brevity – though, I’m not aware of a 19th Century version of txt-spk (however, I am extrapolating from the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so am willing to be proven wrong.  STOP).

Even in the more recent past when I started work, email (if it existed at all) was only available to members of CERN or DARPA.  Fax had been invented, but was thought of as fearfully expensive, so any need for rapid, text communication in the office was handled by Telex.  Telex only allowed capital letters and almost no special characters (so, for example, the £-symbol was rendered as GBP or BPS) and you were charged by the letter, so the incentive was to keep ones natural loquacity in check .  Once again, little use was made of abbreviations back in my telex days – text-speak would definitely have saved money, though may have confused the foreign distributors who were the normal recipients of my terse communiqués.  Hard to believe I know, but when I first started work – after three years of pure mathematics – my writing was extremely short and to-the-point, verging on the career-limiting when used in memo form.  I do wonder if my subsequent writing “career” (including GofaDM) is some sort of overcompensation?

Be that as it may, this post was supposed to be about Twitter – and my less than competent use thereof.  Readers who have glimpsed Condensity will have seen my occasional use of the Tweet – these are cast out into an uncaring world and I think nothing more about them (certainly, there is not even the briefest pause to consider the suffering they may cause).  Earlier in the week, my clumsy fingers working in conjunction with a soi-disant smartphone brought up a previously unfamiliar part of the Twitter “app”.  This revealed that two people, neither followers of my Twitter “feed” (though, there is little nourishment available at that particular electronic teat) nor known to the author, had replied – and both to the same Tweet!  I have, inadvertently, ignored this response from the world beyond Fish Towers for several weeks – and feel this probably represents appalling Twitter etiquette.  Where is the DeBrett’s for the modern social media whore?  In the world of near-instantaneous communication, I am operating like the mail before Thomas Telford (or worse).  Can the situation be salvaged?

Both response were positive reactions to my idea for an android private detective, A.I.P.I. – though I can no longer remember what prompted this particular thought – and can only guess as to how they stumbled across it given my tendency to eschew the hashtag.  Also, in Twitter-space, I have a stalled Twitter novel to complete and this too involves a gumshoe.  Could there be an opportunity here to weld these two ideas together into a winning format?  Let’s face it, if there is one format the world needs more of it’s detective fiction (well, that and talent, cookery, property and antiques-based TV programming) and I owe it to the fans to reveal what that delivery contains… (oh yes, I do know – though what happens thereafter is a little nebulous).

Writing of distinction

I return to the theme of big heads previously explored in Stalking, though many of you may not have made it far enough through that particular magnum opus to know this: never mind the quality, just feel that quantity!  And, do remember that 1200 is the new 500 (well, it is when it comes to word count).  On this occasion, the over-sized cranium in question will be mine.  Yes, roughly a month has passed since the last use of this particular shoe-horn, so it is once again time for me to try and slip in a reference to my essay prowess.

Yesterday evening, TMA03 was returned to me by the electronic magic of the Open University: marked and commented on in the by now traditional manner.  To my significant surprise, my marks had risen once again to reach a level that would gain a Distinction, though you should not expect this quality of writing to make an appearance on GofaDM any time soon (I do only produce one post a month for the OU, and puns are frowned upon).  Plato scored rather better than the Dalai Lama (yes, I am thinking of developing AA100 Top Trumps as a way of garnering extra credit), so perhaps I did pay a price for my lunchtime spurning of the latter’s element of the Open Day back in April.  Or perhaps I’m just a natural at philosophy and it’s time to start inviting young ladies to come back to my place to see my stone?

However, this ever upward ladder of achievement is doing nothing for my performance anxiety.  I’m going to have to pull something pretty spectacular out of the hat for TMA04 (and thinking about TMA07 just brings me out in a cold sweat).  Still, I did have a small epiphany this morning as my bowl of porridge slowly rotated in the microwave, which will help to fit the Jewish element into my 1200 words.  This post is, in a very real way, a form of procrastination before I start my essay plan.  A plan!?  What have I come to?  Next, it’ll be running my life based on PRINCE, and I worry it will be the project management methodology rather than the self-help manual penned by Niccolò Machiavelli.

In other news, Spring is finally busting out all over Sawston and so my swollen cranium has had a chance to gain a little colour and my body some much needed vitamin D.  In response, I’m heading off to the seaside tomorrow: bucket and spade in hand and hankie knotted to protect the top of my head from the sun’s ultraviolet rays (it may also help to connect me to my virtual Jewish grandmother – of which more in another post).  OK, I may be exaggerating a little, but I am off to Brighton, “a town which looks like it is helping the police with their enquiries” in the immoral words of Keith Waterhouse.  I shall be visiting that city’s famous Dome to take in a performance of Shostakovich’ 13th Symphony Babi Yar (in which at least one regular reader of GOfaDM will be performing) which is (a) about as Jewish as his output gets and (b) demonstrates that symphonic composers are rather less triskaidekaphobic than hotel and airline operators appear to believe that we, the great unwashed, are.  So, my visit counts as both homework and one-in-the-eye for superstition.

Now, I really must start that essay plan…

Strange dreams

As established at some length in the previous post, I had a day full of incident and moment yesterday.

I could also mention the fact that I am currently studying Dmitri Shostakovich and reading the Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. We can therefore add a range of Russian and Jewish influences into the contents of my subconscious.

With all these elements percolating around my noggin, I might have anticipated some stimulating dreams last night. I suppose such dreams may have occurred, but the only dream I could remember this morning was about jam making.  Jam making!?  We’re not talking music here, we are talking fruit conserves and, in particular, plum jam.

I hadn’t eaten jam in at least 48 hours, made any in 20 years and plums aren’t even in season for another two months. What is my subconscious playing at? My life may not be that exciting, but you’d think my subconscious could try a bit harder – especially given all the material I’d been plying it with. I can only hope that jam making has some deep Freudian meaning of which I am unaware (though I fear jam is more Clement than Sigmund).

Or maybe I should just face up to the fact that I am now so unutterably dull that even my dreams are boring.

Stalking

Or should that be buttering?  It’s so hard to tell the difference.  NB: Anyone under the age of around 35, should ask a parent or grandparent to explain that last quip.  Perhaps I should try to write more material which could be understood (if not actually enjoyed) by a slightly younger demographic?

Anyway, I’m probably exaggerating to say I spent yesterday stalking the cast of Being Human (or at least two of them), it was more a case of a themed (or high-concept) day out – rather like the themed evenings so popular with the controllers of even-numbered TV channels in these Isles.  Whilst the day was constructed backwards to achieve its thematic ends, for the sake of narrative clarity I shall describe the day using the arrow of time pointing in its traditional direction: i.e. you should expect to see overall entropy increasing as this account progresses.

The meat of the day started at the National, with my second viewing of Travelling Light.  This was an experiment as I have never seen the same play (or more accurately, production) twice before – though have often re-read a book or seen a film or TV programme more than once – an experiment made more than possible by lastminute.com (other discount theatre ticket sites are available, and may well be better).  I don’t use this very often, but occasionally it offers a serious bargain – and as I was going to be in London anyway, the cost of my experiment was very low (only 20% of the cost of the first attendance and in an even better seat).  The production certainly rewards a second viewing, and I did catch things that I missed the first time – curiously, I also found it a rather sadder story this time: it would seem that familiarity breeds melancholia (in me at least).

Despite the excellent prune and almond slice in the interval (a fine recommendation by a member of NT staff), after play #1 it was time for an early dinner before play #2.  Working with the day’s leitmotif, I went with a restaurant recommendation tweeted by the star of both TL and BH the previous week (lest you think I am letting adherence to the theme overcome my critical faculties, I did check his view against more established critics of fine dining first).  I may have to buy Damien Molony a pint (or several): not only has he provided me entertainment through his acting, he has introduced me to what is now my favourite place to eat in London.  10 Greek Street offers excellent food, friendly staff and unexpectedly low prices for central London – it is even conveniently sited in Soho (so easy to go to before, after or between cultural activities).  The only potential downside is that it seems pretty popular (even before being introduced to the massive worldwide audience of GofaDM) and does not allow reservations – but, I prefer (and usually need) to eat early and, even on a Saturday, arrival at 17:30 means that obtaining a seat is no problem.

From Soho, I had to make my way to Dalston for my second play of the day – in fact, East London (I place I have rarely visited before) was a secondary theme for the day, as my trains into town were diverted offering me a magical, mystery (and rather slow) tour of Stratford.  The journey to E8 involved the #38 bus, and this was an early example of Boris’ exciting new take on the Routemaster concept.  Whilst these do look to have involved a “designer” and do have the trademark open platform at the back – with a sort of conductor to ensure people dismount safely – I fear they do rather betray the fact that the Mayor has never actually used a bus (and probably isn’t too sure what they are for).  The bus has three sets of double doors – one at the front, one in the middle and the open platform at the back – and two staircases – on at the front and one at the back.  All these features which allow easy passenger flow both on and off the vehicle do come at rather a high price: the bus has an only slightly higher passenger carrying capacity than my Toyota IQ.  Still, I was lucky enough to rest my weary limbs on one of the few seats ‘up top’ (a space with very low ceilings).  I also noticed a complete absence of opening windows; there was the sound of a fan, so the bus may have had aircon (not terribly wise for a space constantly open to the outside) but it was not very successful, leading to a rather warm and humid trip east.  Still, a brave attempt at design by someone who had obviously never seen or used a bus – and, he can only improve with his subsequent efforts (fortunately, as a citizen of Sawston, I am not paying for his training through my Council Tax).

I was in Dalston to visit the Arcola theatre – which seemed to be in a once industrial space (you can still see the joists and girders) and offered an even more intimate experience than a small Elizabethan theatre.  I must admit I rather like this fact as I’m not a fan of huge performance spaces to the extent that I generally refuse to see stuff in the relatively modest environs of the Cambridge Corn Exchange as it is too large and impersonal.  The play was from East Germany (though, fortunately translated into English as my German is largely limited to words relating to power stations): The Conquest of the South Pole by Manfred Karge.  Despite my broadening theatrical horizons, this was quite unlike anything I’d seen before, for example, it contained poetry and characters talking about what they were saying to each other, rather than saying it.  It had an amazing energy to it and was very entertaining and funny at times (laying to rest at least one rather tired stereotype), though I wouldn’t like to claim I fully understood it (the line between reality and fantasy did become rather blurred to me: so, much like real life in that respect).  So, if anyone could explain who Frankieboy was, I’d be terribly grateful.  I’m not sure what the 11 year old lass sitting a couple of seats from me made of it, but she didn’t seem to be unduly traumatised.  I’m seeing another German play in a few weeks, so I think I better start training my intellectual muscles now – perhaps its time to tackle some Brecht?

As is now well established, my attention can wander at the best of times.  Towards the end of the play, I did find myself worrying about Andrew Gower’s cholesterol level – he is required to eat rather a lot of less than healthy fare during the production and over a month’s run this is going to take its toll on his figure.  However, the largest source of potential  distraction, in every way, was the back of the man’s head in front and to the left of me.  It wasn’t in the way much at all, but it was absolutely massive: I have never seen such a vast head.  His body seemed fairly normally proportioned, so  I’m still amazed that he was able to hold all that weight upright for the full 90 minutes.  He must have some serious neck muscles or a very light brain.

I think I shall return to the Arcola: East London is not as remote as I’ve always believed, tickets are cheap, the demographic was a lot younger than most of my cultural activities and the place had a lovely feel to it.  I shall also have to try more, randomly themed days-out: it seems to encourage the trying of new things, which is always good for the middle-aged stick-in-the-mud!

Praising podcasts

Don’t worry, I’m not planning to start a podcast any time soon – so you will be spared my dulcet tones.

Through this blog I like to give the impression that I am a renaissance man, known for his erudition and learning.  I’ll admit that this impression is rather ameliorated by my continued difficulty in effectively proof-reading my own ramblings. Yesterday, my poor pretentions at learning were brought home to me even more forcibly – two fictional characters that I had always assumed to be of the stronger sex were both revealed to be men.

These revelations were brought about by the medium of the podcast, or as the BBC seems to have renamed them downloads (an overly generic term, but one which presumably removes any risk of the product being mistaken for a commercial endorsement – other groupings of cetaceans are available).

In an attempt to reduce the sheer number of books I seem to consume each year, I have taken to downloading podcasts onto my generic MP3 player and listening to them while travelling on public transport. The podcast also comes into its own on a packed Central line train (a pleasure that was I granted yesterday evening) when there is no room to open a book (I didn’t even attempt cat swinging) and also while cooking (when you need both hands free – or at least I do).

Yesterday’s offerings were all both educational and from the BBC – though I do sample less serious examples and those from other organisations as well.  A particularly enjoyable More or Less ensured that I shall now always know the difference between the “deficit” and the “debt” with which we are all saddled during these trying times of austerity: sadly it was unable to explain how the measures our masters are enacting will help either (though there may be a very good reason for this lack).  In particular, I do wonder how punishing the Banks that we taxpayers now own is going to help us obtain a decent return on our investment as a nation: surely we should let them make money until we can sell them at a profit, then nail the blackguards.

An especially good and spirited edition of In Our Time revealed that the eponymous heroine of Voltaire’s Candide was a hero and that the book is a surprisingly short read (though usually in large print, as publishers like to make it look longer than it is) among many pearls of new wisdom.  As a result, I now feel obliged to move its reading up my “to-do” list.  The edition did also make me laugh out loud several times, which did attract a number of looks askance from fellow passengers (sorry, customers) waiting on the concourse at Liverpool Street station (I’d probably have been taken off by men in white coats if they’d known what I was listening to at the time and if those parts of the NHS catering to the mentally ill were not so chronically underfunded.  Yes, it may be keeping your taxes down – but it is leaving me free to pun again!).  Still, I’m used to pitying looks from the general public after all these years of mild eccentricity: long ago, I did wonder if I should make the effort to be more “normal”, but apathy rather ixnayed that idea and I suspect it is now much too late.

The Life Scientific interviewed the redoubtable James Lovelace – if I’m as sparky when I’m 92 I shall be more than pleased: to be honest, at only half his age I’d still be grateful to be as doubly dubious.

My finally delight was Shakespeare’s Restless World with Neil McGregor. Like Sam West, I could listen to Neil McGregor read the ‘phone book – probably even the Da Vinci Code – and still enjoy the experience for the voice alone.  However, this episode also provided background to the Union flag and the revelation that Cymbeline was a British King – and not a female sidhe as I’d previously assumed.

Talking of the Bard, on Tuesday night I saw my first of his history plays – Henry V (the French, as it transpired.  1-0 to the boy Hal in a tricky away fixture) in the English Touring/Globe Theatre production at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.  This was a particularly fine night out, and I now feel the need to cover the remaining Henrys and perhaps take in a Richard or two.  Neil McGregor’s earlier attempts to educate me also paid off, as I knew why Falstaff dies off-stage: a row with the actor who previously played the part caused him to be written out. Sometimes it feels as though surprisingly little has changed in the last 400 years – we may have whizzy new technology, but people are much the same as are their issues.

So, if you are not already doing so, I thoroughly recommend investigating the world of dolphin theatre (“pod cast” – see, I told you I’d pun again) as I suspect there is something out there for everyone.  I use something called Downcast which is mildly ironic as its use leaves me uplifted, but there are a whole host of free products available to capture these pearls for your delectation.  Go on, give it punt!