Planning a massacre

Precise definitions can be very important in many walks of life, indeed, I have just finished watching Marcus Du Sautoy’s BBC4 documentary on metrology.  My own concerns about definitions may stem from having spent too much time with lawyers at an important time in my young(ish) adult life, or may perhaps be better explained by some degree of innate pedantry.  Let’s face it, choosing a degree in pure mathematics may suggest an interest in detail – or, as in my case, the cunning identification of the subject least likely to require essay writing.

The genesis for this post started last week when I once again found myself gigging in front of an unfortunate audience.  I happened to compare one of the REMIT prohibitions (flowing from the EU’s Third Energy Package) to attempted murder, and went on to suggest that failure in one’s chosen activity should not necessarily attract more sympathetic sentencing.  After this gig, I was asked by a colleague whether I wrote my “jokes” in advance.  I tried to suggest to him that the quality would be significantly higher were this the case, though you, dear reader, will know that I was fibbing.

Later, during a massage, I was discussing this attempted murder (almost) quip and found myself drawn into extemporising further.  I pondered whether sentencing should be made more severe for attempted murder as a part of a wider package of measures to discourage incompetence.  However, I shelved this idea as it would naturally lead to competent murderers being more swiftly returned to our streets, while their failed brethren would continue to be a financial burden on the state.

I then found myself musing out loud on the possibility of attempted manslaughter, but was swiftly told that this was impossible.  Never one to shirk a challenge, I have come up with two possible routes to achieve attempted manslaughter – though sadly a clarinet-playing ex-lawyer I met subsequently has cast serious doubts on at least one flying in court.

Option 1:  Assume that I am very clumsy (not much of a stretch).  I invite my victim on a cliff top walk, relying on my clumsiness to make it probably (but by no means certain) that I will trip.  Should I trip, I may well accidentally (and it would be an accident, albeit one that I had made quite likely) bump against my victim pitching him off the cliff to his likely (but not certain) demise.  Should this plan fail and the victim completes the walk unharmed, I like to think that I could be arrested and charged with attempted manslaughter: QED.

Option 2: In many a film or TV show, some chap is miraculously saved from certain death by gunshot through the intervention of a handily placed Bible or cigarette case in his jacket.  I encourage my victim to take part in an experiment to test whether this would work in reality – but would not reveal to my victim (sorry, assistant) that I have almost never handled a gun and am a lousy shot.  Should I, by some miracle, manage to hit the Bible/cigarette case and it acts as Hollywood would have us believe then I should still be guilt of attempted manslaughter: QED.  Interestingly, if any other outcome arises (well, other than most likely one of me missing the victim and his protection entirely), then my defence in the case of his injury or death would be to explain that while I had been operating to the highest ideals of scientific inquiry that perhaps on this occasion I had fallen short of my usual high commitment to  Health and Safety.

As you can see, I am wasted in my current role and should either become a lawyer – just think of the opportunities to overact! – or a serial killer (I refer you to my previous remarks).  It was perhaps this latter thought that led me to wonder how many victims one would need for a massacre and whether it needed to be completed within any fixed timescale?  My dictionary is of little help – they suggest a large number of victims, but this is scarcely very specific.  A St Valentine’s day of yore suggests that a mere seven may be enough – but it seems dangerous to generalise from a single anecdote.  I doubt that killing one person a week for fifty years would be considered a massacre despite the high body count, though it would clearly call into question the effectiveness of local law enforcement agencies.  However, it would be terribly disappointing if, after years of planning, one were to fall short of a massacre by a single victim or because you had taken 10 minutes too long – rather like a just failed Guinness world record attempt.  Perhaps Mr Collins is concerned that a more detailed definition might encourage attempts?  Perhaps I have too much time and too many spare neurons on my metaphorical hands?

Just to be on the safe side, I shall try and spend more time thinking about raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens in future.  So, please don’t have nightmares – I’m not really planning to kill anyone: yet…

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Egocentric? Moi?

As a single, white, middle-aged man living in the West I am probably at quite a high risk of coming to believe myself to be the centre of the universe. Despite the risk factors involved, I fondly like to imagine that I mostly avoid the worst excesses of the egocentric (but then, perhaps this is true of all egomaniacs?).  At least I have been spared the horrors of fame which seems to substantially raise the risks.

Usually, if my ego threatens to break loose of its bonds, my habit of travelling by public transport quickly disabuses me of any notions of being the centre of the universe.  When travelling by Greater Anglia, it is usually pretty clear that no passenger (sorry, customer) is even remotely near the centre of their corporate universe.  Last week, even a stray swan was further up the pecking order then we mere customers – I know that urban myth suggests swans can break your arm, but I’d never previously heard anyone suggest they can break a train.  Other than some of our larger waterfowl, I’m not entirely clear for whose benefit Greater Anglia is run.  I suspect one objective is just to be marginally better than First Capital Connect and so stay off the bottom of the rail satisfaction league tables.

In my more paranoid moments, I do wonder if the fact that Greater Anglia is owned by the Dutch may be relevant (let’s face it, much of our critical infrastructure is owned by Johnny foreigner).  By keeping a significant portion of the UK’s working population regularly heavily delayed and so tired and frustrated, they are helping to keep the country from economic recovery to the benefit of our competitors in the Netherlands (and elsewhere).  However, my more rational mind tends to remind me that the people of Holland really don’t need to exert themselves to delay our recovery when our own government is doing such an excellent job on its own.

Whilst Greater Anglia is doing its best to keep my feet firmly on the ground (well, it’s often cleaner than the seats), my life a-wheel oft has the opposite effect.  On Friday, I headed into Cambridge to visit the flicks and then go on to a soirée to celebrate mid-summer.  The weather forecast said “dry” – so I took some precautions – but nevertheless headed out into dry sunshine.  Within 100 yards of leaving home, the sun departed and the rain arrived.  I put up with this for a mile or so, but it became more insistent so I removed by shades and put on my jacket before continuing onwards.  Within 100 yards of this wardrobe change, the rain stopped and the sun re-appeared and so I found myself squinting and sweating.  After a couple of miles of this, I changed back out of my jacket and replaced my sunnies.  Again, within 100 yards of me re-starting my journey the sun once again disappeared and it started spitting.  This spitting grow stronger and after a mile or so had become torrential rain, and so I was once again forced to change my attire.  This time it took some 200 yards before the rain vanished and the sun returned – but I’d had enough and so sweated and squinted the remaining three miles into town.

It would seem that the rain and sun were following me with an explicit plan to be as irritating as possible – a plan they delivered on with admirable thoroughness.  It reminds me of a story from childhood where the sun and wind have a competition to make a passer-by remove his coat.  Perhaps I am the centre of the universe?  Or of someone else’s nursery story?  Or at least a VIP in the world of earth-based weather phenomena?  Lest we forget, when I last visited Florida it snowed – for the first time in 80 years!  Coincidence?  Well, quite possibly yes.

Yesterday, I headed down to Lewes for a concert – and so had to cycle to the station to catch a specific train.  The day was dry except for one (relatively brief) period.  From the earliest time I could sensibly leave for my train until just after the last time I could leave and hope to catch my train it rained.  Well, more than rained, it hammered down with Biblical intensity.  As with the previous day, the extraordinarily tight focus on my own outdoor movement plans is highly suspicious.  This time, the plan failed – I made it to the train with nearly 30 seconds to spare.  However, I did have to ride like the very wind and endure significant initial moistening on departure.  I think this failure did rather knock the wind out of the weather’s sails, and for the rest of the day it only made very lacklustre attempts to drench me.

The way things are going, I fear I may be entirely lost to solipsism after a couple more times out on the old velocipede.  Then again, as a philosophy it doesn’t sound much fun at all given how much fun the world outside the self can offer!

On Friday, my slightly damp body was delivered to the quite excellent Before Midnight at the Arts Picturehouse before I then went on to a truly marvellous party (one I feel Noel Coward himself may have approved of).  Fine company and conversation were accompanied by a little gentle music provided by some of the guests.  Added to this, I managed to eat a truly prodigious amount of cheese washed down with more than a little white wine.

Yesterday, good company and fine music were once again on the cards as soon as I reached East Sussex (by now having dried off), this time thanks to the Esterházy Chamber Choir and their summer concert.  The concert had a strangely appropriate first act closer (as I believe they say in the business known as show): a setting by George Shearing of “Hey, ho, the wind and the rain” (by old Bill Shakespeare, but placed into the mouth of Feste).  Does someone if the choir have the second sight?

So, I shall try to resist the rise of my ego and maintain myself at a suitable distance from the centre of the universe – something which I’m sure any decent cosmologist would tell me doesn’t even exist.  Whilst I’m pretty sure I’m not the centre of the universe, I do sometimes wonder if I am (in fact) a minor character in a very long running sitcom.  As a result, I do always have half an eye out for the studio audience…

Six parts gin to one part vermouth

In fact, I did manage to resist the lure of the martini – I strolled past the planned cocktail bar, but it was in a significantly more modern building than anticipated and rather full of young people (neither of which is a bad thing in or of itself) and I was rather tired and so headed directly up the wooden hill (ah, age is a terrible thing) to the sleepiest of the home counties.

Nevertheless, the reference to Bright College Days is entirely appropriate as last weekend I returned to my alma mater for the first time in a quarter of a century.  My old college had invited me back for an unusually early evensong (at the dentist’s favourite time? In mid June?) followed by a garden party.  It seemed clear that the sub-text to this invitation was that they wanted to pump me for money, but I figured it was time to return and take my chances.  The pumping for money was very subtle – barely detectable, in fact – one was forced to deduce it from coded references to generosity, memory and legacy in the surprisingly enjoyable sermon and choice of readings at the evensong.  This being England in June, the garden party took place in doors – in hall, where I used to eat as a student – but was perfectly pleasant and once again lacked any clear purpose from the college’s perspective.  I do wonder about the future funding of education if this is their approach to acquiring new donors.

As it was my first time back in Oxford in a couple of decades, I made a weekend of it.  As a result, by late afternoon on the Saturday I had already cycled further (2.3 miles to Whittlesford Parkway station) and consumed more alcohol (2 pints of bitter) than I did in my entire university career.  The city had changed, but not beyond recognition and I could still find my away around based on ancient memories – though a few of these memories did prove to be less than 100% accurate.  I engaged in a little personal pilgrimage visiting a whole range of sites of significance from my university days – and so found myself walking both in the present and the past at the same time.  I was very much living in the here and then.  It was good to see some things had survived since my day – particularly pleasing that Walter’s in the Turl was still trading and still offering gentlemen a haircut (a service it provided for me on several occasions).

The odd thing about re-visiting Oxford was that the city, and its contents, seemed smaller than I remembered.  However, this can’t be because I was smaller then as I was already fully grown – though admittedly I’m probably a tad heavier now (perhaps, I should make clear that this extra mass is all toned muscle).  I can only assume that back in the mid-80s, Oxford was by some distance the largest place I had ever lived – but subsequently I have lived and worked in rather larger metropoleis and so Oxford has shrunk in comparison (well, it was either that or someone has washed it in overly hot water).

Despite appearances, I didn’t spend the entire weekend wallowing in nostalgia – though I did find myself musing whether “then me” and “now me” would get on at all.  No, I took in some of the cultural delights of the city – delights I had largely managed to ignore when I was living there.  I can thoroughly recommend the Master Drawings exhibition at the Ashmolean museum.  I was particularly affected by a self-portrait by one Samuel Palmer – a portrait which haunts me still as I have a copy in postcard form.  So haunted was I, that later in the day I tried one of his very fine pints at the Lamb and Flag (a venue which I had walked past many times, many many times as a student but never previously ventured inside) – well, OK, I’ll admit I cannot prove it was brewed by the same family Palmer but a chap can imagine.  I also managed to sneak in a trip to the Pitt Rivers museum to look at their fine collection of Benin bronzes – which are unusually honest about their theft-based sourcing in the descriptive labelling.  I also finally made it to the Holywell Music room – which is a lovely chamber music venue – and heard an excellent performance of Dvořák’s string quintet.

One of my favourite moments came with lunch on Sunday. I sat enjoying the splendid (and very reasonably priced) victuals at the Missing Bean Café and conversation at the table next to me turned to topology.  On leaving, I happened to peer into the window of the second hand (Oxfam) bookshop next door and what a prospect met my eyes:

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So many tempting titles – only iron self control kept me walking past.  The cafés and second-hand bookshops of Cambridge have never offered such mathematical subject matter – or am I just not going to the right places?

I think it may be worth returning to Oxford before I reach my seventies in another 25 years, but in the meantime I think it is time I returned to sliding down the razor blade of life while you go your sordid sep’rate ways (and I think that’s probably enough quotation from the excellent Tom Lehrer – who I first encountered whilst at college –  for one post).

Homebody

The Roma lifestyle (though without a caravan or Channel 4 film crew in sight) that dominated May has now come to an end and I am able to spend a little more time at home.  Whilst my peripatetic life was great fun, it does play havoc with provisioning and the laundry and left quite a backlog of radio to listen to and BBC4 documentaries to watch.  It did also leave me waking in the morning and finding that my first coherent thought was “where am I?”.

Back in South Cambs, and with winter finally in abeyance, I am reminded how much fun it is to be at home.  A couple of weeks back, in that time I fondly like to remember as Summer 2013, the sun shone and it was even warm (well, as long as you could find some protection from the north wind).  By luck or skill, this coincided with not one, but both Harrises visiting Cambridge: as an event, very much on a par with a State visit, though – perhaps surprisingly – not accompanied by quite the same frenzy of attention from our sadly diminished Fourth Estate.

The plan was to have a pub crawl, though given damage to Harris’ foot (Harris, was fine) a suitably short route was needed.  Despite the constraints, Cambridge can offer a very fine collection of hostelries located in pretty Victorian back streets.  The Free Press and Elm Tree offered some very fine pints, enjoyed amid the sunny peace and quiet of a Cambridge afternoon.    We ended the afternoon at the more touristy (and famous) Eagle in the city centre.  I’m afraid that despite the venue, and the inspiration previously consumed, no major breakthroughs in genetics or biochemistry were forthcoming.  Harris did expound a number of theories to make hat-wearing more compatible with the positioning of the human ear and these may later be recognised as scientifically significant (though perhaps not up there with the double-helix).

As befitting men of our advanced years, there was no descent into public drunkenness and festivities were done by late afternoon with no-one breaching their RDA of ethanol.  The Harrises purchased the elements of a picnic to be consumed on the train home while I headed to the Indigo Café to enjoy its excellent bagels, cake and hot chocolate.  It really is a wonderful institution and I’d missed its victuals and friendly staff while I’d been gallavanting around these Isles.

It’s not just cafes and beer: on my first night back, Cambridge offered me an excellent concert by the Britten Sinfonia.  The return home has also allowed cooking, singing lessons, cycling , gym-going and sleeping in my own bed to resume.  So after a month of enforced dissipation (well, perhaps I may have contributed a little) I am now returning to that most desirable condition of “mens sana in corpore sano“.  All-in-all, Cambridge and environs conspire to remind of the splendid place I live – or maybe just to highlight that I’m not cut-out to be an international playboy, but do make a half-decent, if somewhat prosaic, homebody.

Get me an agent!

I have learned today that Matt Damon and George Clooney are making a film set during the War (presumably the Second World one) in the nearby village of Duxford.  Actually, they are probably filming at the Duxford wing of the Imperial War Museum rather than the village itself which doesn’t shout wartime at the visiting film crew (or didn’t on my last visit which had a more late Medieval/early Renaissance vibe).

I can’t say I’ve seen either of the chaps in Budgens  or Fish’n’Chicken – but perhaps they have people to fetch them lunch (or make their own sandwiches before going out of a morn – something I have often intended but almost never succeeded in actually doing).  Apparently, they have even been spotted using a Cambridge municipal gym (not by me I should stress) – well, weight training without a “spot” can be a tad dangerous.

However, this lack of celebrity action is not my main problem with this news.  Why I haven’t I been offered a part?  As this blog has recently  revealed, I am quite the frustrated actor and I could be in Duxford in less than 15 minutes on my bike.  I can only assume that being away for most of May meant that I have missed out on my Hollywood debut.  Clearly, I need an agent to look after my interests when I’m otherwise engaged (or, for that matter, vacant).  So, who fancies representing me in my meteoric rise to the dizzy heights of A-list celebrity?  (Always an odd phrase that, surely meteorites are more famous for falling than rising?  Does the phrase pre-date Newton?  Or just represent a basic failure to understand the gravity of the situation?)

In praise of sunk cost

Living on my tod, most things that happen in my life have been arranged be me.  I buy and cook all the food and plan all the nights out.  This can lead to a certain lack of surprise in life, which on the whole I view as a good thing.  Nonetheless, it is good to allow a little spontaneity into one’s world from time to time.

I am a member of a number of organisations – nothing too subversive (though in the current political climate, perhaps I’m being more subversive than I realise) – which support nature, heritage and a range of the Arts.  Membership has its privileges and in particular offers me free (or much reduced price) entry to a range of attractions (for want of a better word).  This makes it quite tempting to just try things which otherwise, if I had to pay, I might not bother with – but thanks to the costs being safely sunk, I have a free option.

I put my options to good use whilst out West, visiting a wide range of National Trust properties.  All of these had items of interest (and I’m not just talking about the cake, though that is, of course, always interesting) – and in some cases provided an opportunity to escape from torrential rain – and pleasingly none of the antiques on show were obviously from my own life time.  I’d particularly recommend Cotehele and also Lydford Gorge, which made for a much more exciting walk than anticipated and which had benefitted from the aforementioned heavy rain.

Last week, I had a free hour in London before dinner and some comedy (a very boutique live edition of the Comedian’s Comedian podcast), and so I nipped over to the Royal Academy to see what they had on offer.  The main galleries were closed while the Summer Exhibition is installed, but on the top floor there was an exhibition by an American chap by the name of George Bellows.  I’d never heard of him (and I believe he also speaks quite highly of me) but the exhibition blew me away (mild pun fully intended).  The paintings of Penn Station under construction and views of New York, particularly under snow, were incredible – as were some of his early pen-and-ink drawings of the less affluent areas of the city.  I had good reason to be glad of my sunk cost, as without my membership I would never have gone and my life would have been the poorer.

I wonder if I should be sinking some more costs? This both supports areas considered less than vital in these rather mercenary times and helps to broaden my own horizons.  Well, its either that or more to Lincolnshire or a bigger planet…

Over-actor

The regular reader will have observed a number of recent opportunities for the author to perform in front of a more-or-less willing public.  As a best men (or 20% thereof) in Edinburgh and in his more official capacity to unfortunate business folk in both Cork and Dublin.  However, this was only the beginning.

Whilst in Cornwall, I found myself assisting an (unrelated) older couple with the interpretation of some wood carving in an National Trust property.  For some reason, rather than just reading out the explanatory card provided, I managed to turn the whole thing into a performance.  Still, the audience seemed to appreciate it.

Upon my return from Cornwall, I spent a scant few hours at Fish Towers before heading off to Glasgow for “the man”.  Here I gave of myself and my voice to a largely unresisting audience for the vast majority of eight hours – with only some rather grey software to leaven the whole experience.  Admittedly, only one chap (plus two colleagues who, frankly, had no choice) stuck it out for the full eight hours – no-one else could stomach more than six – but I’m still surprised no-one arrived in blue hats to enforce the Geneva convention.  Perhaps Stockholm Syndrome sets in much quicker when Powerpoint is involved?

Eight hours is more than even a chap’s mother should have to endure, and is certainly a far longer period than is required to make even me bored of the sound of my own voice.  In an attempt to maintain my own flagging interest, even if not that of the unfortunate audience, I attempt to throw in a range of “jokes”, vague witticisms and even small attempts at physical humour.  I should also make clear that I work without script, rehearsal or safety net: it’s bad enough hearing it once and I like to leave room for spontaneity (that doesn’t mean there will be any, but there will always be room for it).  This means that I find myself saying some quite unexpected things (well, unexpected to me) during my presentations.  Very occasionally these are useful, even insightful, and I hope to be able to remember them later (or that someone in the audience is still awake to take notes).  On this occasion, I found myself stating that “there were so many Chinese Walls in my head that it could be seen from space”.  This was supposed (I think) to be an allusion to the urban myth that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space (with, I presume, the naked eye) rather than an indication of the size of my ego – but nonetheless, probably wasn’t my finest hour.

On my return from Glasgow (sadly leaving behind the glorious sunshine and warm summer weather), I strolled a short distance from Euston to talk to another group of unfortunates in my (allegedly) professional capacity.

Whilst I tend to worry about them in advance, I do rather enjoy these speaking engagements once I am in full flow.  My grandmother took an interest in amateur dramatics in later life, and I wonder if these genes are being expressed slightly earlier in me – or perhaps, more likely, I am just a dreadful, attention-seeking show-off (which might explain this blog).  This latter condition will not have been helped by the rather positive reviews I have received for all my recent talking engagements.  So bad has this become that I have been accused of upstaging the products I am supposed to be demonstrating and whose sales I am supposed to be supporting.

I’m wondering if it is time to leave my current employment behind and seek a new career where my showbiz genes can find full expression.  I have considered the after dinner speaking circuit: this strikes me as requiring a lot of eating and drinking (good) but is associated with late nights (bad).  In an earlier phase of the project I like to call my “career”, I spent quite a lot of time in Spain.  This had many positives, the weather and the language being but two, but I never learned to cope with eating so late in the evening: it interfered terribly with my sleep (and at my age the remaining vestiges of my beauty need all the help they can get).  Is there an after lunch speaking circuit?

Or maybe its time for this blog to go (straight) to video?  I think this would have to be YouTube based as Vine, with its 6 second time limit, is never going to be compatible with my tendency to loquacity.  My last PTC (piece to camera) wasn’t 100% successful (my work with the “autocue” – OK, piece of paper – was less than professional), so it may be time to practise in front of the mirror.