Rodent athletics: revisited

As those that know the way my mind works will already have realised, I am back from my sojourn in Edinburgh and am back to the rat race.

It was great living the life of the flâneur for a whole week, albeit one with rather limited exposure to green vegetables coupled with not insubstantial consumption of fried food and alcohol.  When in Rome as they say…    Normal service has very much had to resume, since my return I have completed my tax return for 2011/2 and finished my latest assignment for the Open University.  This was the dreaded “reflective essay” where I have to talk about myself as a student and despite what you may have inferred from this blog, I really don’t like writing about myself in any serious way.  I realise that I should in theory know far more about the Fish than I do about the art of Benin or the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich – but somehow it never feels that way.  Still, it’s done now – so my navel can go back to accumulating fluff unobserved by its owner.

My return has also meant the need to return to the day job.  As if this were not horrifying enough, I shall have to spend two days (and the night they encompass) in Woking.  I have another thrill unpacked day in Surrey next week as well.  Woe, woe and thrice woe king, to paraphrase the soothsayer of Up Pompeii!  Truly, I am the monarch of dolor.

I also find myself missing the heady mix of comedy, poetry and theatre that filled my time among the Picts.  The combination of Luke Wright and Dirty Great Love Story – which had significant chunks in verse – reminded me of how little use I have made of my rhyming dictionary.  Before I doze off of at night, I have been trying to construct poetry to fill this void but with little success.  For some reason my wind wanders either to work – be it paid, voluntary or OU – or to construct poor quality jokes.  As an example of this latter, I present “Exhibit A”:

Q: Why do Balladeers make very poor surveyors.

A: Because they constantly vacillate between three and four feet to their meter.  (The correct value is 3.28 feet).

I did warn you it was poor and should probably have mentioned that it requires knowledge of the metrical form of the ballad.  It would work better with a verse form entirely in trimeter, but I was unable to find any in English and I thought Greek verse would be needlessly obscure (even for GofaDM).

My yearning for the theatre was partially satisfied by BBC2 on Sunday night with Murder: Joint Endeavour.  Not a cheery piece this, definite hints of Scandi-noir (not too surprising as it was directed by a chap who cut his teeth on The Killing), but an absolutely brilliant piece of television and really quite theatrical (I could see it working as a play without too much difficulty)- if none too kind to my birthplace. I think all this theatre-going is expanding my taste in drama: to continue the good work, I wonder if I can sneak in a  visit to the stalls on one of my journeys back from Woking?  Must be worth a try…

Back to the flat

After a week of unaccustomed hills and even more unaccustomed walking I’m about to leave Edinburgh.  Perhaps I need a skateboard to use when I’m away from my bike?  Or just skates? I feel the need for wheels of some sort, and a cool one would be nice – as long as I can manage the associated issues of balance.

I saw my last gig this morning, watching a bass-baritone sing a whole lot better than I can manage to the delight of a rather elderly crowd at the Queen’s Hall and, I believe, the live(ish) listening millions (OK, hundreds) on Radio 3.  As a result the programme had strict instructions as to when we were allowed to applaud – presumably to avoid us crashing the pips (or some similar radio disaster).

Yesterday, I saw Dirty Great Love Story which counts as the best rom-com I have ever seen, bar none.  Probably the cheapest too – it involved only two actors (who had also written it) and two chairs.  No set, no scenario and no costume changes.  Truly romance for these economic times.  It made me both laugh and cry quite a lot: I think there may be a romantic trapped deep within me somewhere though fortunately he usually only makes a break for freedom in the safe anonymity of the dark.  This time though he made his escape only 3 feet from the actors in a rather too well lit venue (I’m putting it down to a sudden attach of hayfever – not the play by Noel Coward – if anyone asks).  This release of emotion also took place within touching distance of Michael Mosley: maker of excellent TV documentaries on medicine.  Not quite the way I’d planned to add another celebrity to my growing list of “spottings”, but still rather better than when I invited Simon Amstell to go ahead of me in a sandwich shop using French a little earlier in the week (in my defence, I hadn’t recognised him at this stage – but I can’t really claim he looked particularly French either.  Still, I like to imagine the Auld Alliance remains strong and so most of the locals will understand the language of Proust and Voltaire).

The other highlight of yesterday was Luke Wright – if not actually my favourite poet, then definitely top of the list of those I’ve seen perform live.  Weekday Dad brought another errant tear to my eye, but luckily far fewer lux were in attendance.  This performance did also make me wonder why theatrical lighting still produces so much waste heat: surely, there are more efficient and, more importantly for the small venues of the Fringe, cooler options available in this modern age?  Is there a business opportunity here?

Still, now our hero must away to catch a bus into Waverley, before seeing how much of the cost of his First Class ticket home he can manage to munch his way through on the train south.  I’m keen to give it 110%, at least!

Yawn free?

My Fringe binge is drawing towards its close and I have this morning “off”, except for a modicum of IT support (which is the currency that I exchange for my accommodation), so I felt it was time to bring my readership up to date with my “doings”.

Booking later and to a less rigid plan, coupled with fewer late night gigs, has definitely been a success – though, perhaps oddly, has failed to result in my aged limbs finding the duvet’s embrace any earlier.  My gig choices have generally been sufficiently obscure (or, indeed, unpopular) that I have failed to obtain tickets to very few of my original selections – and the resulting need to explore more interesting alternatives has resulted in some excellent choices.

This is the first year I have tried Fringe theatre and my two examples so far have been excellent – with my third to come just after lunch.  I can thoroughly recommend Blink! at the Traverse and Oh the humanity… at St Stephen’s: both combined small casts and minimal sets but still provoked real laughs and some serious thinking, as already established it is much easier to sneak a “message” past my defences if it is accompanied by a good sprinkling of jokes (though whether I’m thinking the “intended” thoughts I’m never wholly convinced).

With the exception of the theatre, none of my Fringe choices have cost more than a tenner (obscurity is your friend), and even those have been some of my cheapest theatre going experiences of the past year.  As treasurer of an arts charity, I now found myself counting seats and worrying about the financial viability of the artists who have been entertaining me over the course of this last week.  Even if the venues are very cheap to hire (which I suspect may not be the case, despite their rather ad-hoc nature), the costs of a month in the Athens of the North (which given the collapse of the RBS and Bank of Scotland may be a more appropriate choice of alias than in days of yore) are going to make break-even little more than a dream for most.  Laundry costs alone must be substantial given the small and very sweaty nature of most of the performance spaces.  If I were ever to perform at the Fringe, the music played while the audience are waiting for my (not-so-grand) entry would be a recording of me playing a piece of 100+ year-old music on the piano or recorder to save on PRS costs, though oddly no-one has gone this route, yet…

Most stand-up is just the one person, but I’ve been to see a couple of sketch groups – which must have higher accommodation costs or else be very close.  Both Jigsaw and the Three Englishmen (Spoiler Alert: ** contains four men **) were very good (and extremely silly) and far more hit than miss (unless you count Nat Luurtsema as a miss).  Both shows may provide fodder for future nightmares: in the case of Jigsaw relating to fellation of Tom Craine (one of the risks of sitting in the front row) and for the “beef” Englishmen (ask Tom Goodliffe) I shall never be able to watch Nigella again.  I think sketch comedy, which was a mainstay of my late night Radio 4 listening when a lad (for some reason it seemed to be banished to the post 23:00 slot), may be having a bit of resurgence.

Perhaps my biggest insight from this year has been the joys of the Free Fringe.  These events have no tickets or entry cost, you make a donation on exit, and the artists don’t pay for the venue – which I think is funded through bar sales (as they seem to take place in pub basements, usually of establishments offering a rather better range of beer than the paid Fringe).  I am wondering if this can be a funding model for classical music?  I’ve been to three FF (and now I abbreviate it, it is obviously my natural home) events so far: all have been excellent and include my two top Fringe shows of 2012.  Domestic Science was good fun, and properly educational: I shall never look at turmeric in quite the same way again and now want a stick dulcimer.  Thom Tuck Goes Straight to DVD was hysterical and I’ve now booked to see his new show this evening.  However, this year’s winner of the comedy Fringe is Nick Doody and his soi-disant Massive Face.  Most shows have been good for 50-55 minutes – a few with material for only around 40 – but have reached a conclusion after an hour and I’m happy to leave. I reckon Nick did a good 70 minutes and I would have been happy to stay all night.  I’ve only really seen him once before, also in Edinburgh, and he was brilliant then as well (a show I still remember bits of years later) – this man ought to be properly famous and not just to those of us who haunt late night Radio 4 and listen to the full list of writers at the end of the show to pick their choices for next year’s Fringe.

I know readers worry about the level of my calorific intake, so let me put your minds at rest.  I am now so well-known in Bonsai, that they know my usual – not bad in a bar-bistro more than 300 miles from my home.  Yesterday I also discovered the Edinburgh Larder – which provided quite the finest takeaway sandwich I can ever remember consuming and the accompanying brownie was pretty special too.  I may have to return in around 90 minutes time… (assuming I can hold out that long).

I have also learned some stuff about myself – and not just that I am now obsessed about the financing of the arts.  I have now reached an age where I am no longer afraid to sit in the front row – it usually has the best leg room, and that is way more important than the risk of being “picked on”.  I have also let go of yet another element of my masculinity.  I used to find the individual rooms at some of the larger venues using my own skill (or an exhaustive search): now I just ask some child employee (there seems to be almost no-one employed who would have had their own door key in my youth) or, at a pinch, anyone wearing a lanyard.  It is so liberating – and quick – I think the rest of my masculinity may not be long for this world (if only I had a feminine side to fall back on).  Or is this just the last of my shame finally departing for a less challenging assignment?

Edinburgh delights

There are many joys to being in Edinburgh – and not just the various arts related festivals at this time of the year.

Friday night, as I was waiting for my bus on Princes Street, the city staged a firework display to keep me entertained.  You don’t see that in Cambridge!  The buses, once they arrive, are also substantially cheaper than their Cambridge counterparts (and more frequent).  OK, I’ll admit that the fireworks might have been related to the Tattoo – but in my solipsistic world they seemed timed for my personal pleasure.

Whilst the south-east of England has been roasting in unpleasantly high temperatures (in my opinion), Edinburgh has been much more temperate – and surprisingly dry.  Yesterday afternoon, it did rain for a while but I managed to miss most of it filling my face with a truly prodigious volume of vegetarian fare at Henderson’s Bistro.  I seriously approve of their portion sizes: a starter for two which lives up to its name, rather than being a disappointingly small snack for one.  I also hope this single incident will cover two concerns for readers relating to previous coverage of this year’s Festival which apparently lacked sufficient references to food and rain.  No-one should fear that I am suffering any lack of sustenance.

But the best thing about Edinburgh is the drinking policy.  Down south, pubs throw you out at around 23:00 – but here they throw you in at 22:00.  It doesn’t seem to be that important if you were already drinking and are just choosing to enjoy the cool evening air, or are merely passing by.  I think the policy is that it is now 10pm and you are in Scotland, so you should be drinking.

I have also been introduced, for the first time, to the work of Messers Innis and Gunn – Edinburgh brewers to toffs and gentry (and me).  In those venues where the draft drinking options are limited to over-chilled, fizzy yellow muck, the work of I&G is available in bottles and very potable it is too.  Quite strong though – and I haven’t been brave enough to try the “Rum Finish” yet (though it does look a lovely colour and the tasting notes are tempting.  Actually, the whole Innis and Gunn website is rather fine, I particularly recommend their spider graphs!).  In conjunction with a rewed acquaintance with the fine folk of Brewdog, I fear my alcohol consumption might best be measured not so much in units but tens (assuming we are working in decimal).

Football crazy

I’m staying in a house with some real men – well, realler than me in terms of many masculine stereotypes (not hard, if I’m honest) – and so upon my return from a day of theatre, art and comedy I caught up with Match of the Day for the first time in many years.  I must admit that it came as somewhat of a surprise that the football season had started already – though that be part of a more general feeling that we cannot possibly be in the second half of August.

What a strange world football is!

One manager, after his team lost 5-0, made a solid attempt at suggesting that this was good news and even planned.  He seemed to be arguing that the pasting would act as some sort of inoculation against further defeats as the season progresses.  I am no expert on association football, but I’m pretty sure that losing is neither like a vaccination nor like catching chicken pox – exposure to a weakened form of the experience confers no protection.  If it did, the England football team – not known for its winning ways despite an incongruously high FIFA ranking, one which makes me suspect that money has changed hands – would have little to fear from any opposition or the dreaded penalty shoot-out.

During another game, a player was praised for staying on his feet.  I’ve managed to stay on my feet – except when an at least partially recumbent posture was appropriate – for many years now.   No-one has come up to me to offer their congratulations or a multi-million pound contract.  What am I doing wrong?

The most extraordinary spectacle, and the one where I realised that football has “jumped the shark” came towards the end of the programme.  As the Reading game (cf the Berkshire town rather than anything more cerebral) developed it became clear that the team were sponsored by Waitrose.  The soi disant beautiful game is now truly a middle-class affair.  It guess it was inevitable with all the money flowing into the sport, but soccer has finally been gentrified.  Or is this an attempt by Waitrose to broaden its appeal to the more affluent of the working classes?  If they can afford Sky Sports and the cost of a ticket to a football match (which seem to have prices only marginally lower than the opera) then they are clearly in a position to take a step up from Tesburys and Sainscos.  Let’s face it, since Sky invented football back in the early 1990s it has never been knowingly undersold, so it’s a natural partner for the John Lewis Partnership.  I eagerly await shirts bearing the names of Harvey Nichols or Farrow and Ball!

Traditions

For those of a certain vintage, tradition becomes increasingly important – if only as a bulwark against the ever-increasing rate of change.  I also find that I start to develop a growing number of traditions of my own – and the last couple of days has scored quite highly in the I-Spy Book of Fish Traditions (a book with a rather limited potential market I’ll admit – but that’s the joy of e-publishing, or so I’m told).

On Thursday I made my annual August pilgrimage to Edinburgh and, as is my wont, spent most of the journey stuffing my face with the nourishing largesse provide by East Coast to its first class passengers.  Unusually, my journey was routed via Kings Cross – as this offered the cheapest Advance fare at the time of booking (I may be first class, but I am still cheap and do manage to consume most of my fare in free food and drink, further boosting its value for money credentials) – so I was able to check out the newly revamped station.  This is a significant improvement on the old rather tatty concourse, and has even gained a platform – though those travelling with an owl will be disappointed to learn that it is numbered 0 (zero) rather than 9.75.  As part of the revamp, there has been a major boost to increase standards of customer care, evidenced by the announcements advising us to take care as we wandered around the terminal because of the “inclement weather”; this on one of this year’s all-too-rare warm, dry and sunny mornings.  If only other sections of our rail network aspired to – and better still delivered – such high standards.

Auld Reekie was bathed in glorious sunshine and in my first 24 hours in the city I managed to cover pretty much all of the traditional activities I have accreted over the last few years.

  • Seriously good classical music: Tick.  The Arcangelo consort and Iestyn Davies doing the honours at Greyfriars Kirk (no relation to James T, so far as I know).
  • Quirky comedy: double Tick.  Both Matthew Crosby and Stuart Goldsmith were huge fun.  I’m always puzzled where Mr G is not better known: I caught him as part of a triple bill of folk trying out their Edinburgh acts in Cambridge a few years ago (3 for £5) and discovered he was brilliant.  Yet another example of why it is important to try things you don;t yet know you like.  Push that envelope!  Lick that stamp!
  • Serious cake: Tick.  The Falko konditorei in Bruntsfield does provide some serious cake (or more accurately torte) action for the true connoisseur – and the hike across the Meadows from the Pleasance does significantly ameliorate any feelings of guilt that might otherwise be involved.
  • Bonsai: Tick.  On my first ever visit to the Fringe, I needed to find a decent eatery near the Pleasance – and the miracle of the interweb brought me to Bonsai.  This could be the best bit of browsing I’ve ever done as it is now my regular haunt whenever I’m in Edinburgh.  Japanese food is genuinely fast and sustaining, and so I can grab a quick “course” between gigs.  I have been known to visit five times in a single day – so often have I been, that the staff recognise me even though I’m only a customer for a single week each year.

The second 24 hours was pretty good too.  I can add Michael Legge and Lloyd Langford to my comedy recommendations – though I’d see the former sooner rather than later, as I’m not sure his heart will hold out much longer.  My plan to try and do a little bit less is working nicely – though doesn’t seem to be generating much in the way of earlier nights yet.  Yesterday, it meant that I escaped from the rather limited (for which read, non-existent) cask ale offerings at the Fringe venues to visit the Regency splendour of the Cafe Royal.  Not a cafe, but a very fine pub which provided your truly with a brace of pints of Deuchars IPA at a significantly lower price than the nitro-kegged horrors on offer at the Assembly Rooms (though still at a price level that shocks those who fondly remember Joey Holt’s at 99p/pint in the Bluebell in Moston).  My visit also scored me another minor celebrity spotting to add to my list: the long-haired TV archeologist Neil Oliver.

Yesterday also yielded another traditional (and for the reader, tedious) trope with news reaching me of the official opinion on my latest OU essay.  It once again yielded 95 of your English marks (somehow I can never quite make it to 96): given the amount of blowing this particular trumpet is receiving at my hands, my embrasure must be coming along nicely.

Today I shall be breaking new ground, with my first visit to the theatre in Scotland – but first, back to tradition: the full Scottish breakfast.  So for the next hour or so, black pudding, bacon and sausages will be deemed to be vegetables (mostly).

Bizarre crime

Yesterday evening, while British athletes were showing the world how it’s done, I was in a recreation of a Paris bar of yesteryear.  The final concert of this year’s particular fine Cambridge Summer Music Festival was an homage to Edith Piaf: there was even a glass of pernod on offer in the interval.  The concert was surprisingly good fun – but once again, I found myself missing Paris: it really is time I returned.  As result, I had to shed my tears at last night’s sporting drama this morning – but then, I blub at (almost) anything.

As the rain had largely dispersed, I took my bicycle into town and parked it under cover near the West Road Concert Hall.  When I returned to it after the concert (and post-concert bar and chat), I did sense something was awry – but couldn’t initially work it was.  As I was putting the lights on I finally realised what had happened: some wretch had stolen my front tyre.  Not easy to do, and probably the lowest value part of the bike. Why?  I haven’t a clue but it did make the bike impossible to use – perhaps foolishly, I don’t carry a spare tyre (not even around my waist as so many of my age seem to) – so, my velocipede and I were forced to endure the ignominy of a cab ride home (though I think I’ve given the taxi driver a story to use for many months to come).

So, tomorrow I shall have to take my wheel to the bike shop to have it re-tyred and seek a method to secure my tyres in future (I’m thinking I need some more lockable skewers) – I really hadn’t seen them as potential swag before…