I knew an old woman

The uncharitable might suggest I am turning into one (the very uncharitable might suggest this has already occurred), but enough of this self-deprecation.

As I was cycling into Cambridge this e’en (on my way to a date with the Britten Sinfonia) I swallowed a fly.  For the avoidance of doubt, I do know why – of which more later.  I did consider going on to ingest a spider as a potential palliative or cure, however, I felt that this was an approach that could easily escalate.  There are few peer-reviewed double-blind trials of arachnid consumption as a cure for the swallowing of a fly.  There is anecdotal evidence, but the most heavily publicised case history suggests that the approach does not yield a positive outcome for the patient (or several animals of monotonically increasing size).

The fly was swallowed as I tend to cycle with my mouth open – this is not because I am talking, but because I need the use of my mouth to provide my lungs with sufficient oxygen to indulge in even moderate exercise.  Those who have seen me (an option open to you all by accessing an earlier post) will have assumed that my nose would be capacious enough to cover not only my own oxygen requirements but those of a couple of friends as well.  Loath as I am to disabuse you of this notion, I must admit that my nose is a triumph of style over function and should, mostly, be considered a decorative feature – despite the amount of facial real estate it consumes.  Of course, this may merely be a case of a bad workman blaming his tools: there may be nothing wrong with my nose, I am just unable to use it properly.  Sadly, I was offered little training in the art of breathing when younger: I think you were expected to pick it up as you went along back in the more laissez-faire days of the 1960s.

Pharos

Over this last weekend, there was a strange light in the sky over South Cambs.  Village elders claimed that this was called the “sun” and used to be a regular visitor – but I’m sceptical and suspect they were gently ribbing we younglings.  Some even claimed that the brief warming we experienced was an atavistic glimpse of something called a “summer” which apparently once lasted for many weeks, but that’s clearly fantasy.  Still, I did use the opportunity to sport both my panama hat and my fivefingers to considerable acclaim (well, the hat part anyway).  Luckily, the normal world order has now been restored and I have been zipped back into my waterproofs for the week.

As part of my efforts to keep the arts going in Cambridge going single-handed, I was out every evening last week from Monday to Saturday.  This did enable me to cover theatre, music, comedy and cinema – but also took its toll.  I’m not sure how my mind and body would have stood up to such exertions when my telomeres were rather longer – largely because I was not foolish enough to put matters to the test in my youth – but by yesterday I was really quite tired.  So, I scheduled an evening catching up on the output of BBC4 – that pharos of the mind – which I had missed during the week.

Between the cerebral delights of BBC4, my recording device chose to revert to Channel 4 for some reason and so I caught brief glimpses of one of the Twilight movies.  Young people today are often criticised for having very short attention spans, but many of them (I believe) enjoy these films despite the fact that this one, at least, was interminable.  I managed to watch an episode of the Bridge, a documentary on the Antikythera mechanism and hold a telephone conversation of reasonable length and yet still the film was continuing when I shut-up shop for the night.  The plot seemed to revolve around a miserable girl moping a lot, quite often in heavy rain.  She seemed to keep afflicting herself on some lad who initially had long hair and dressed relatively normally but later had clearly had a haircut and spent most of his time wandering around topless in shorts and heavy rain.  I presume he had been driven to this by the relentless melancholy of his female chum, perhaps in the hope that he would catch his death of cold and be spared her attentions?

Anyway, this lad (I think he may have been the J of the series’ very own Jedward) seemed to have a very healthy all-over tan for someone who spends quite so much time in the rain.  I do not seem to have been similarly blessed despite the recent precipitation – perhaps I should be cycling around topless?  If nothing else it would resolve the issues caused by my waterproofs (human skin, as recently reported, is waterproof thanks to some of the fats in the stratum corneum) and as a bonus could yield a healthy glow.  However, it was not the boy’s skin tone that caught my attention but his teeth.  Even in the screen-based “entertainments” from the land of the free, where the whiteness of one’s dentition is seen as strangely important, I have never seen such brilliantly white teeth before.  They were literally fluorescently white: positively glowing.  If his movie career doesn’t take off (and on the evidence of the clips I saw, acting may not be his strong suit), he could find work with Trinity House keeping ships safe from rocks (and other maritime hazards) around this country’s shoreline.

… and breathe

It was only as I cycled home last night that I realised how poor the recent weather has been – for, it was the first time in an age that I had seen any stars (of the long-lived celestial rather than the fleeting celebrity variety).  I found that I’d missed the twinkly balls of hot gas (see previous parentheses for any necessary disambiguation) – not that they’d been anywhere, merely occulted from my solipsistic view.

Whilst I have keenly felt the absence of amateur astronomical opportunities, the more serious day-to-day issue for the regular cyclist has been keeping dry(ish).  In the last couple of weeks, temperatures have crept towards the seasonal average – which has left it at, or above, those difficult early teenage degrees of Celsius.  At these temperatures, waterproofs are a somewhat mixed blessing – they are very successful at keeping water from outside penetrating but at the cost of retaining a lot of moisture generated by the human equivalent of evapotranspiration (cycling does cause a degree of “glowing” in the practitioner).  My waterproofs are of the modern, technical variety (eVent or Gore based materials) which claim to be able to breathe and so allow one’s perspirative output to escape: however, to the extent these claims are true, I fear they are based on the respiratory performance of a chronic asthmatic.  I find I am left with the choice of whether to become wet from externally or internally generated moisture: neither of which is entirely appealling on the way to a night at the concert hall or theatre.  Surely, modern materials science can produce a better moisture “diode” that permits free outbound flow whilst preventing its inbound counterpart?

As a sometime reader (and viewer) of science fiction, and given my earlier joy on seeing the stars once more, I found myself pondering whether any writers had tackled this issue of better clothing materials in the interstellar future.   Whilst neither the Culture nor the Polity have much time for the bicycle, they do offer excellent all-weather clothing to their citizens – indeed, the clothing also provides protection against hard vacuum and a range of other insults not normally experienced by the early 21st century cyclist.  It is, perhaps, significant to note that both of these future civilisations were devised by British writers: people used to the vagaries of the weather.  If we look at the Federation, and Star Fleet, with their US progenitors, it is a very disappointing picture.  There appears to be no change in clothing available when one goes from indoors (or at least a starship interior) to any planetary body – they seem stuck in polyester pyjamas in all climates.  They don’t even change their shoes (shoes which look less than practical for outdoor use.  Forget the risks of beaming down wearing red, sickbay must be full of twisted ankles).  Does the transporter somehow remove any mud and other detritus picked up whilst on an away mission?  Or does the Enterprise have a huge team of cleaners removing the muddy footprints leading from every transporter room and shuttle bay?  You certainly never see the 24th century equivalent of a doormat, do you?  I suppose it helps that every planet shares the relatively benign climate of southern California – but I fear this may tell us more about the locale of the production and writers than about the clothing needs of a multi-species, pan galactic alliance.

I think I prefer the British view of the future, it may be more dystopian but at least you get sensible shoes!

German trinity anxiety

Or perhaps it should be Magyar rather than German?  Either way, this post is all about three Hun dread.  Yes, GofaDM has reached its third century – though it probably feels longer.

I had considered a video post, with the author stripped to the waist and oiled for battle to generate a worldwide outbreak of swooning at his chiselled torso (though I should warn you that my woodworking skills are almost non-existent: it was a great relief to both my woodwork teacher and me when I was able to quietly drop the subject).  However, on further, immature consideration I decided against this plan: whilst the internet would no doubt furnish an audience for such a spectacle, I think there is already quite enough material in rather dubious taste available to the surfer without any augmentation at my hands.  I also remembered that the eponymous apple probably represents my closest approach to the concept of Spartan.  It is also worth noting that rather more than 300 souls faced the King of Kings at Thermopylae: what with the allied Thebans and Thespians (yes, apparently the Spartans had their own version of ENSA) and the helots (who had little choice in the matter).  Leonidas and his followers may not have survived the battle, but I’m sure he’d be thrilled to know that he has now been immortalised in Belgian chocolate.

Still, few would have thought, way back in the more innocent days of 2010, that I had quite so much foolishness in me – or quite so much commitment to the project.  Nor that it would escape the censure of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights for so long.

I had thought that my rather ordinary life would soon stop yielding new material: but apparently not.  It does so help to set the bar low in life, unless one is attempting limbo.  Despite the volume of material now produced, I fear I am little closer to a viable stand-up act, sitcom or side-splitting panel show concept.  I wonder if I may be spending too much time preparing weak jokes that require a detailed knowledge of the works of both Olivier Messaien and Douglas Adams?  The audience for which can probably be counted on the fingers of a very clumsy threshing machine operator.

Oh well, if I fire enough arrows one may eventually hit a target: or at least identify a suitable burial site for my writing career (I am from Nottingham, after all).  Until, then the punishment (and those first three letters were fully intended) will continue until morale improves.

Heat treatment

The regular reader will be aware of my desire for this blog to gradually supplant Heat magazine (and its ilk) in the affections of the British (and, indeed, global) public.

The bread-and-butter of such magazines tends to be prurient gossip and ‘papped’ snaps of the stars of soap opera (very much the lowest form of opera) and reality television (ditto, mutatis mutandis), or so I believe: I am only willing to go so far in the name of research and ‘reading’ such material would go well beyond my self-imposed boundaries.  I have chosen to eschew this approach, mostly because I am unlikely to recognise such folk even were I to see them or hear them discussed.  Instead, I have tried to bring a more cerebral slant to the genre, by making brief mention of the famous that I have encountered in my otherwise (deliberately) rather unexciting life.

These last few days have been particularly fecund, with a brace of eminent scientists spotted.  On Saturday night I saw Sir Aaron Klug at the baroque gig at Peterhouse and then, on Monday night, both Steven Hawking and I enjoyed Maureen Lipman as star and director of Barefoot in the Park.  Last night’s comedy with Alex Horne, whilst a lot of fun, did not obviously support an eminent scientist in the audience – though, I should perhaps make clear that I would not necessarily be able to recognise every pillar of the scientific community in the relative dark of an auditorium (and few, if any, wear a white coat when out on the razzle).  I have moderate hopes for tonight’s bash with the Endellion String Quartet, but I’ll keep you posted…

Prior to Mr Horne’s bathrobe-clad antics, I enjoyed an excellent performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet by the CUCO String Ensemble at lunchtime.  I had little opportunity to spot the famous, as I was surrounded by very well behaved primary school children (who were the only people in the room younger than Herr M when he penned the work).  I first heard this piece lying in the sunshine in a park in Crouch End (N8), utilising the then new miracle of a portable MP3 player: it seemed more practical (and significantly cheaper) than bringing eight string players with me.  This was also the first time I heard, and took an unfavourable view of, a work by a particular French twentieth century composer.

Last night these events led to me musing, in the manner of Deep Thought, whether a programme comprising the Quartet for the End of Time, Chronochromie and the Turangalîla Symphony would be considered “needlessly Messiaenic”?

To put your mind’s at rest, I have had somewhat of a rapprochement with Olivier’s canon since that first park encounter: I loved Visions de l’Amen and quite fancy hearing the Turangalîla Symphony (and not only because it shares the name of the feisty female lead in Futurama but as I’ve heard it is quite the experience).  Still, lest you fear I have taken all leave of my senses and will shortly be indulging in arboreal osculatory excess with M. Messaien (or his cadaver), I still think he should leave birdsong to those issued with feathers and a syrinx.

Most pitiful ambition

Due to a paucity of appealling offerings from the broadcasters available to the Freeview user, I decided to watch one of the movies sent to me be the folks at Lovefilm.

This started with the usual round of trailers, one of which was for a film entitled Redhill.  I was only paying limited attention, but it didn’t seem terribly reminiscent of the Surrey town in the Borough of Reigate and Banstead.  It seemed oddly American, with some sort of western/police/horror theme (I wasn’t listening or paying much attention, it must be admitted) and seemed to lack any distaff characters at all.  Maybe it was set in a part of Redhill you can’t see from the London-Brighton line?

Anyway, the main “attraction” was a film called Limitless.  This involved a writer, with writer’s block (or, perhaps, a complete lack of ability), who attempts to resolve his problems by pharmaceutical means – so seemed to have some potential relevance to yours truly.  Sadly, it did rely on the fallacious conceit that we only use 20% of our brains: in response I would point out that the human brain is a very expensive organ to possess.  It is life-threatening in childbirth to both participants, requires an extended childhood (mine is still continuing) and is a major energy drain throughout life (hence my constant snacking).  As a result, if 80% were unused it would have rapidly been evolved away.  While writing this, I have begun to wonder if I’m missing a link to the peacock’s tail here.  Very stupid men would be desirable to a potential mate on the grounds that they have the energy cost of maintaining a huge brain which goes almost entirely unused: i.e. the brain is a secondary sexual characteristic used purely for display and to demonstrate fitness (in the purely Darwinian sense).  I fear this might explain all too much about the modern world, but I seem to be indulging in a degree of vagation.

The film is nothing great, but does allow 104 minutes to pass somewhat divertingly.  Our hero becomes hyper-intelligent as a result of his pharmaceutical support but makes depressingly unimaginative use of this boosted intellect.  By the end of the film, he has become amazingly rich and a US senator and seems a shoo-in for the Presidency.  After the film, as I was making a cup of cocoa, I found myself musing on the hero’s paucity of ambition.  I then realised that I was unironically considering that becoming President of the US was a rather disappointing use of one’s intellect: if you can do, if you can’t teach, if you can’t teach become President of the US?  This would be a more supportable position if I had any obvious personal ambitions: so I fear I have becoming clinically pretentious or condescending (or both).

The one positive I did take from the film is that having become hyper-intelligent (in a nod to the late, great Douglas Adams, his eyes turn blue) and dealt with the worst of the consequences of his drug-dependency, the hero has a haircut and dyes his hair ginger.  Whilst the latter fact is never explained, I feel it is a positive message from a Hollywood which otherwise shows very few of the strawberry blonde in its products (Damian Lewis and la famille Weasley being honourable exceptions): perhaps the local climate is considered inimical to their alabaster flesh?  Still, given the current vogue for the vampire in film, I’m surprised we’ve not seen more auburn blood-suckers – so I suspect some degree of prejudice may be involved.

Play Away!

Before I start on the meat, or perhaps I ought to say the tofu (as a, mainly, vegetarian), of this post I thought I should provide some content for those readers that view this blog as a soap opera.  Admittedly, it is rather shorter on sex and violence than the more popular soaps of today (and I have no plans to change this position) and does tend to focus on only one character – and as it is based on the truth, perhaps it is closer to the genre of reality programming – but on the plus side, it is free!

After some major re-writes on Friday, and some more tweaking yesterday, I have finally submitted my latest assignment (TMA03) to the OU for judgement.  I can’t say that either essay makes for a particularly gripping read (a fact with which subscribers to this blog will be all too familiar) but I think I have answered the questions in the appropriately dry academic style required.  TMA04 should be m0re fun: for a start I have 1200 words to play with, and I am able to choose the topic (from a list of two) – so goodbye Augustus Welby Pugin and hello dissent in the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich (an artist whose work I very much admire).  The bad news is that I have to prepare an Essay Plan: anathema to we creatives who prefer the stream-of-consciousness approach.  I bet James Joyce didn’t have to prepare an essay plan for Ulysses (though, equally, he may not have acquired any sort of qualification from the OU).  Oh well…

My chores over with, I headed into town for my singing lesson.  It is a source of both joy and astonishment to me that I am now singing (however poorly) half of the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte by some cove called Beethoven.  It is a glorious experience and I am a very lucky chap to be enjoying it.  I do need to work on my facial expression though: I would seem to have almost no proprioception in this respect, and so have no idea what my face is doing while I sing.  I wonder if I ought to take some acting lessons, or just start spending more than the absolute minimum time in front of a mirror?  (The latter would certainly be cheaper, though probably less fun.)

Being too lazy to cycle home and then back into Cambridge later, I took my dinner in town.  As a result, I can thoroughly recommend the Oak Bistro – a slightly curious location for fine dining (though offering excellent views of one of Cambridge’s busiest road junctions) but offering excellent food and service.

However, it is time to put out more flags as I have finally reached the entry to this post’s much delayed theme.  My final activity for the day was to attend a Camerata Musica concert at the delightfully intimate (if rather too pink for my taste) theatre at Peterhouse.  This offered Arcangelo, conducted from the keyboard by Jonathan Cohen.  Now, I seem to recall that it was one Jonathan Cohen who used to act as the musical director for Play Away! – also from the keyboard.  I must say that he has aged very well, he looks younger now than he did in the seventies.  Or perhaps the title is an hereditary one, and has been handed down through the generations to reach the current incumbent.  Brian Cant was not on hand to sing, but was ably replaced (and comprehensively out-scored on the Scrabble board) by the American counter-tenor, Lawrence Zazzo.  He was also wearing a particularly fine pair of shoes (not something one sees very often on stage – or indeed, off it): I was tempted to ask at the stage door where he had obtained them, but felt this might mark me out as slightly odd.

The concert was stunning – and only the second time I’d seen a counter-tenor in action (the first had been in the Handel opera Agrippina where the head of the Roman navy was so portrayed to my significant surprise when he first opened his mouth).  As a bass, I do find the counter-tenor a truly miraculous thing – and somehow even more extraordinary now that I know a little about singing.  Among many highlights were the cantata La Gelosia by Nicola Porpora and a Lute concerto by Vivaldi (nice to hear the coolest of the Medieval stringed instruments – at least according to Hal from Being Human, and as a character he is old enough to remember the Medieval period) moving centre-stage.

Yesterday was truly a day to count my blessings: not only the joys described above, but I managed to spend significant chunks of the afternoon and evening outside without encountering more than the a couple of spots of precipitation, which might even count as a fully-fledged miracle.