Winterval

I rather like this neologism, but it is actively disliked be our more reactionary press and their readers.  I believe this is because they are upset that it has supplanted the “original” word of Christmas, rather rich given that the early church purloined the earlier festivals of Saturnalia and Yule for its own nefarious ends.  Even these festivals were derived from even earlier mid-winter celebrations, so the original meaning of December 25th and the New Year is hidden in the mists of prehistory.

I decided against erecting a circle of massive stone menhirs this year – well, I had a bit of a cold and it seemed a lot of work (added to which my garden is really quite small and water-logged) and so returned to the bosom of my family as has become traditional.  This pilgrimage entails my longest drive of the year as I head from South Cambs to a supergrid point on the south coast (in fact, the journey represents some 20-25% of my annual driven miles).  I drive down on Christmas morning when the roads are pleasingly quiet – and lorries stay at home (or at least off the roads) – which makes driving an almost pleasant experience.  This year my journey south was accompanied by the dulcet tones of Shaun Keaveny and PBC OBE thanks to a portable DAB radio and the AUX port on the car stereo.  As I crossed the Thames at Dartford, the river was spanned by a rainbow – which I felt must be at least slightly auspicious – though the toll booths of the crossing were still manned even on Christmas Day (given the low traffic flows, I do wonder how cost effective this is at £2 a go).

Christmas and Boxing Day were great fun, and I am able to eat to excess without having to cook any of it – though the period does emphasise the “mostly” in my mostly vegetarian lifestyle.  Having an (almost) six year old with you does remind you of the true meaning of Christmas – which I think is Lego, crackers and Mario on the Wii (recalling the gifts bought by the wise men to the Ickle Baby Jesus – rather mis-translated from the original Greek and Hebrew in the KJB).  I returned home on the evening of Boxing Day – waiting until the hordes have finished their desperate purchases of reduced sofas on long-term credit – when the roads are still pretty quiet, though the lorries are starting to return.  Given the rather poor radio on offer, I created a playlist on my iPhone for the first time (I have had the capability to create playlists for 7 or more years, but had not taken the plunge before).  This was rather a success: I may have to try it again.

Returning home has the advantage, and disadvantage, that there are no Christmas leftovers to consume – so no turkey jalfrezi for me!  This means that the festive season comes to a rather abrupt stop, though this year I resisted returning to work until almost 2013.  This didn’t mean I could loaf around too much as I had friends coming over to see in the New Year.  No visitor comes to my house and leaves hungry, or even well fed – no, no-one leaves unless completely stuffed with grub (I blame genetics and my paternal grandmother’s bloodline).  Such hefty food consumption does also seem to eliminate the hangover that might otherwise arise from having wine (or other suitable alcoholic accompaniment) with every course.

To avoid boring my guests with a medley of my greatest culinary hits, I decided to try some new dishes this year.  New Year’s Eve-squared (0r 30 December as it is more commonly known) was a relatively modest repast with a mere three – albeit sizeable – courses.  I once again attempted chocolate cookery – and even made pastry (a very rare occurrence) – to provide a suitable accompaniment to a glass or two of marsala.  This was a slightly worrying build, as the tart’s contents looked vastly bigger than the available space – but miraculously just fit.  Even more importantly, it tasted great – but I suspect won’t be made that often as it is quite a laboured process and creates an awful lot of washing up.

New Year’s Eve was an altogether more challenging affair with six courses to be consumed across the evening.  These included a very fine starter based on roasted squash, stilton and mushrooms; two years ago I had never eaten a squash, now I am almost addicted to the things – ah, the dangers of the mostly vegetarian diet (why does no-one warn you of the risks?).  However, the star of the night was the trifle course – based on a recipe by Nigel Slater (but in only half the quantity).  This was a huge rigmarole to make and rather worrying as it includes making a mincemeat sponge with no raising agent – but it is one of the finest things I have ever eaten.  If you are very good and come to visit, I may make another – if you are really, really good I may even let you eat a bit (though I wouldn’t want to raise your hopes too high).

In recent years, my NYE tradition has been to hold the turn of year celebration at a time of my choosing, rather than waiting for midnight as “the man” wants.  By use of YouTube, one can now have Big Ben, Auld Lang Syne and fireworks whenever you want – this year it was around 23:30, though it has been as early as 22:30 and as late as 00:30.

Unlike Christmas, I was able to live off left-overs from New Year for several days – despite sterling efforts from my guests to consume the excessive quantities of food provided.  I must also admit that at least one pig, one deer and three fish died to provide our end of year provender – but their sacrifice was much appreciated and only members of the plant kingdom have had to give up their lives to feed me since.

Many Winterval cards are covered in snow – but the country (or the parts I crossed) were covered in water, which should perhaps become a theme for future Christmas Cards – but now the country does look much more festive (I blame Charles Dickens).  This seems to happen whenever I try to leave the country by plane on business – I think the government should be paying me a decent stipend not to fly to Europe, it would save the country a small fortune in gritting and snow ploughing.  Still, until I’m paid off I shall continue to visit our European cousins – this week Berlin, where the maximum temperature on offer is a balmy -2ºC so I’m rather hoping there may be some glühwein on offer to stave off the chill!

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Geography vs Topology

As a pure mathematician with two (count them, two) O levels in Geography, I should be reasonably strong in both areas, but this has not always seemed to be the case. I think my brain stores information about places in a very topological fashion. As a result, when I was living in the north a few years back, when I had occasion to visit the south, I would arrive (almost) everywhere late. At some level, my brain had clearly decided that everywhere in the south-east was very close together and so I constantly under-estimated transit times between locations.

Of late, I have realised I still suffer from a similar disability with respect to London. Some places I assume to be central and easy to access, and others I assume to be very distant and too time consuming to ever visit. Into this category, fell most of east London – but then I visited the Arcola Theatre in Dalston and discovered this was less than 30 minutes by bus from 10 Greek Street and even closer to Liverpool Street station for my train home. Recent use of the London Overground (someone really has to build an interchange with the underground at Wimbledon Common) and a trip to Haggeston has shown that even more of the east is within easy walking distance of places I view as pretty central.

In the run up to Christmas, and as part of my plan to visit theatres outside the west end (usually cheaper, more intimate and with quirkier fare on offer), I decided to bite the bullet and go to the Bush Theatre. This lies in bosky Shepherd’s Bush which I have always considered to be a huge trek out of town. I soon discovered it was barely 20 minutes by Central Line from Liverpool Street (and only 15 from 10 Greek Street) – and so substantially easier to reach than many places I consider central and which I have been visiting for years. The Bush is very nice – with mulled wine and minced pies on offer in the interval (for the longer visit, the bar/café looked rather good and you get to sit in a library of plays to enjoy the victuals). The play, Straight, was extremely good – definitely in my top 5 of the year and the second play I saw in 2012 directed by Richard Wilson. The first, Lungs, was at Shoreditch Town Hall – another location much less remote than imagined – where I bumped into the great man himself (almost literally). I also found myself milling around before the play with the rest of the audience and standing next to Alan Rickman (and his wife) – so quite a day for celebrity spotting (though I do worry that I only recognise the more mature celebrity). Lungs was also pretty good, so I may have to keep an eye out for where Mr Wilson’s directorial hand falls next and I shall definitely try and engineer another visit out to the Bush!

Topology is sometimes called “rubber sheet geometry”, in which case I think my rubber sheet could so with some serious starching so that it more accurately represents the real world (rather than the one in my head). Maybe it’s time to risk a visit to a venue in South London?

Put out more flags!

On Friday I had cause to go into town (and by town I mean London, rather than any of the other myriad towns situated on the surface of this planet alone) on the train.  As I arrived at Whittlesford Parkway station I beheld a miracle – forget visions of the Virgin Mary or bleeding statues, I saw (and even used) a working ticket machine.

To many readers this may not seem all that miraculous, you are probably used to train operating companies that recognise the need to sell tickets to potential customers – perhaps they even man stations.  Not so Greater Anglia: they only man Whittlesford until lunchtime, Monday to Saturday.  The rest of the time there is a single, solitary ticket machine – or at least there was until early September when it was vandalised.  After this unfortunate incident – who would have thought a metal box full of money on a deserted station would attract the criminal element? – the machine had to be taken away for repair.  And on Friday, a mere four months later it had returned!  They repaired the Large Hadron Collider in less time – actually, when I say “they” I’m pretty sure Greater Anglia were not involved in that particular repair or we’d be lucky to have found Switzerland with it let alone a new boson.

In the interim, the poor afternoon and evening travellers of Whittlesford and its environs have had to buy tickets at their destination or from ticket inspectors (on the rare sightings of one of this breed).  This can take a little while – and have rather random results in terms of price and ticket validity as very few members of Greater Anglia staff seem to understand the ticketing regime (can’t really blame them for this, it is needlessly complicated and they are more used to issuing tickets in and around the capital) – and so at times I have had to catch an earlier train to be sure of reaching my destination on time (after queuing for and then negotiating to buy a roughly appropriate ticket).  Still, those days are over for now: a cause for celebration.

The reason for my trip into town was also a cause for celebration.  One of the best (possibly the best) things I saw in Edinburgh last summer was Dirty Great Love Story – a cross between theatre and poetry.   Richard Marsh, one of the writers/performers (for they were the same), had produced an earlier piece called Skittles – but I had assumed I was never to see this.  The tragedy of theatre is that if you miss something, you have missed it forever (short of a revival) – there will not (usually) be a later DVD for you to enjoy at your leisure.  On this occasion, the BBC proved to be my knight in shining armour by commissioning the piece for radio – requiring it to be performed and recorded.  The BBC has taken a lot of stick lately – largely from its competitors (and indeed from itself) – which mostly comes down to it being a large, somewhat bureaucratic organisation surprisingly poor at PR (though to be honest, I prefer that to overly good at PR).  It sill brings an awful lot of pleasure into my life – much of it delivered by people who (like me) were children in the 70s and early 80s – and long may it continue to do so.  The “market” is all very well – and great for cheap fruit and veg – but large companies are just as bureaucratic as their public sector equivalents (and from personal experience, sometimes even worse), though do tend to spend more money on PR (though I’m far from convinced this is a benefit to the country at large).

I follow the auteur of DGLS and Skittles on Twitter (largely to discover if he is performing material old or new – so it has its uses) and so learned of the recording, and managed to obtain a priority ticket (and being a BBC recording, a free ticket!).  Thus it was that I headed down to RADA on Friday – oh yes, I’ve been to RADA (just for the evening, but I don’t necessarily have to divulge that fact in casual conversation).  The Jerwood Vanburgh theatre is a very nice venue and I was able to snag a seat with particularly good legroom – handy as whilst my legs may not be “particularly good”, they (like this post) do go on a bit.

Skittles was brilliant – funny and moving with some seriously impressive rhymes – and I heartily recommend you catch it on the radio: I think it will be called Love and Sweets to avoid advertising and delivered in four 15 minute chunks (though, the astute listener may detect that it is the same audience every time).  At a time when evidence shows policemen are getting older, I can assure you that radio producers are getting younger.  The show’s producer looked to be about 12 and wearing his dad’s suit – still he seemed to know what he was doing and we had the usual rounds of re-recording for lines fluffed, missed or interrupted by “noises off”.  In the longeurs in recording, we were kept entertained by additional poems from Mr Marsh and he handed round the surplus props (Skittles) for the audience to enjoy.  It all brought back happy memories of trips to the Paris Studio in Lower Regents Street (now sadly gone) for The News Quiz or to Ronnie Scott’s to see It’s a Been a Bad Week recorded. In 2013, I need to make more of an effort to see radio in action (it also makes for an austerity-friendly night out as the tickets tend to be free) – and this as close to a resolution as you’ll be seeing on GofaDM.

All-in-all, a day to celebrate!  If I’d had any champagne on me (I know, foolish to travel without it – but the bottles are rather heavy), I’d have quaffed a glass or two.